It may not have escaped your attention that this week will see the release of what is no less than the fourth version of a rather famous charity record, and one which is inevitably going to become the fourth to charge straight to the top of the charts, raise the profile of a great many people and just as an aside raise money for charity.
Given the inevitable cynicism that has also greeted the release of the 2014 version of Do They Know It’s Christmas, it seemed an interesting exercise to dig out the piece I wrote for Yahoo! Music back in December 2004, on the occasion of the arrival of Band Aid 20 at the top of the charts.
~cue wavy lines of time travel~
How many times has it been said of a particular act or genre that “if it didn’t exist then someone would have to invent it”? Well, back in 1984 the concept of an all-star charity record as a mass market product didn’t exist – so Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof invented it. Just about everyone who was anyone in British pop was invited to the famous recording session in November 1984. Duran Duran, U2, The Police, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Wham – you name it they were there, all to record together a song which Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had written in a hurry two days beforehand (and for which they spent the next decade apologising, both feeling they could do a better job). They need not have worried. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ turned out to be an instant classic, a modern day seasonal anthem which still sounds as fresh 20 years later as it did back in 1984. Upon release the single shot straight to the top of the charts, selling an unprecedented 800,000 copies in its first week on sale. It remained there for five weeks, sweeping all competition aside to become Christmas Number One and of course kicked off a veritable fundraising juggernaut which over the course of the next year led directly to the USA For Africa single ‘We Are The World’, Live Aid and the following Christmas a re-release of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ with a new b-side which documented the work that had been done over the previous 12 months to aid famine relief. There were still people willing to buy it as well as the single hit Number 3 for Christmas 1985, pushing total sales of the track to well over 3.6 million, making it far and away the biggest selling single of all time – a record it would hold for over a decade and a half. In short, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ is quite justifiably one of pop’s proudest and most famous moments ever.
Five years on from the original and the single was re-recorded in response to new reports of African famine. With the blessing of Bob Geldof, hot producers of the moment Stock, Aitken and Waterman recruited a new band of acts to perform a new version of the track. The Band Aid II version is now pretty much derided for being filled with teenybop acts such as Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Bros (these barbs overlooking the presence of the likes of Chris Rea and Cliff Richard on the track) but at the time everyone pretty much accepted that it was a good idea, sent the record to Number One and raised a few more pennies for charity.
Then last month came the news that a new Band Aid project was in the offing. Apparently the brainchild of a tabloid newspaper, Geldof and Ure were persuaded to assemble a new lineup of stars, one that by definition would be better than the 1989 version and which would hopefully be the equal of the 1984 original. As days wore on the hype increased dramatically as the likes of Coldplay, Dido and the Darkness all signed on for the project. Media interest in the recording session three weeks ago was intense and the world waited eagerly for the grand premiere of the track – now credited to Band Aid 20 as if to erase the memory of Band Aid II (now conveniently revised as an embarrassment). Yet in spite of this the response to the finish product was mixed and the debate ever since has raged over whether this is a record that lives up to the expectations we all had. We were told that the 2004 version would be every bit as good, every inch a classic as the original and the fact that in some ways it isn’t has led to a great deal of head scratching.
Here at Launch we would hate to be seen as anything but scrupulously fair, so let us try to reflect both sides of the argument. Why Band Aid 20 is so good, but first why it is such a disappointment.
– OK let’s start with the obvious. Isn’t the production naff and awful. Whereas the original version was a towering pop record in its own right, the thundering drums (stolen from a Tears For Fears track incidentally) giving way to moaning synths, bells and chimes and of course that rousing sing-along chorus which set the template for all other charity collaborations to come. In contrast the new version is the epitome of daytime radio naffness, a track with no bassline, a jarring clash of musical styles and a sing-along which descends into a second rate gospel jam during the seemingly endless two minute fade. We were asked to judge it alongside the original and as a result it has been found sadly lacking.
– Then there are the little tweaks that have been made to the song, most notably of course the rap break from Dizzee Rascal which smacks really of a desperate attempt to update the now 20 year old song. Leaving aside the fact that it sounds gratingly awful, why bother to re-record the song if it was felt it needed updating. Midge Ure has actually spent most of the last 20 years apologising for the song, claiming he could have made a better job given more time to write it. Indeed it seems strange that nobody thought to venture the idea that maybe an even greater impact would have been made by recording a brand new song with a superstar line-up. Why try (and indeed fail) to recapture lightning in a bottle when you could just cook up a whole new storm, so to speak.
– Finally there is the way the whole project seems so lacking in soul compared to 20 years ago. As I’ve said before, whereas the 84 vintage appeared to be born out of a genuine need to take immediate action to solve a crisis, in 2004 it almost seems like a publicity stunt, or at the very least a newspaper wheeze to get Justin Hawkins, Robbie Williams and Katie Melua on the same record together. If the old clichés about “everyone left their egos at the door of the studio” are true, then why was much publicity made of the spat between Bono and Hawkins over who got to sing the “tonight thank God it’s them..” line? Actually in fairness there were plenty of rows in 84, Geldof documenting with delight in his autobiography the primadonna behaviour of some of the stars, but back then we were less cynical and the concept of the ultimate supergroup had a magic to it. All anyone wants to do these days is read between the lines and look for scandal.
OK, so those are the negatives. What then of the positives.
– Needless to say there is the charity angle. Not that raising money for charity necessarily precludes the project from criticism but it has at the very least captured public imagination and given everyone an easy route to contribute money to a good cause and ease the suffering potentially of thousands thanks to just one seasonal purchase. The music business is notorious for making a lot of people astoundingly rich in a very short space of time. The fact that even its highest profile stars are prepared to spend time arranging to give something back should be enough to warm even the hardest of hearts.
– The single isn’t that awful anyway surely. Yes, you stand it side by side with the original and it doesn’t compare – but then again neither did the 89 version which didn’t even attract a fraction of the bile of Band Aid 20. Bland it may be but in an era where the likes of Coldplay, Dido and Keane are the biggest sellers of long players the production of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ can be said to be well in keeping with the spirit of the age. The Radio 2 audience just happens to be the biggest in the country so you can hardly fault a record aimed squarely at that market. Such is the polarising nature of much of pop music these days that it is probably the highest compliment possible that the Band Aid record is widely judged as “not as good as it might be”.
– Finally there is the potential the single has to give the market a bit of a shot in the arm. Regular readers will remember that earlier in the year I put forward the theory that the CD single has fallen out of favour as a mass market consumer item. People are out of the habit of buying them. All that was needed was a megahit, a track with such widespread appeal that people would go out of their way to pick it up, and maybe discover that they liked buying records again. What is so great here is that ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ has made headlines of its own thanks to a wrinkle over its availability on certain download services and the price to be charged for it. You never know this could well turn out to be the best selling download single to date – and with personal music players set to be one of the seasons must-have presents maybe the catalyst for digital downloads to become – yes, a mass market consumer product. With the singles chart set to merge with the d/l chart sometime in the new year, this could hardly have been timed better. Band Aid may have come along at just the right time.
So there you have it, an argument split right down the middle. When faced with the singles chart itself all argument becomes irrelevant really. After selling a reported 72,000 copies on its first day on sale, the record tops the singles chart with a total of 292,000 units shifted, some way short of the 800,000 copies of the original of course but enough to make it far and away the fastest selling single of the year and on course to easily be its biggest seller. Whether it hangs on to become Christmas Number One of course is another matter altogether, despite the fact that the bookmakers stopped taking bets on it a long time ago and have opened books instead on what will be Number 2 behind it.