Bob Geldof, to his mounting horror, realized Boy George was missing.
It was November 25, 1984, and Geldof—a musician and frontman for the Boomtown Rats—had assembled a who’s who of talent for a charity single titled “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” He had corralled Bono, Sting, Kool and the Gang, and all of Bananarama, among others, but Boy George was nowhere to be found. Making calls from the London studio where everyone had gathered, Geldof tracked him down and realized he was sound asleep in a hotel room in New York City.
“Where are you, you’re meant to be here,” Geldof said.
“Oh, is it today?” Boy George asked.
Expletives followed. Boy George jumped on the Concorde, which could make the trip between the cities in under four hours, and immediately fell in tune with Geldof’s impressive display of star power, launching what would become a mini-industry of songs and concerts intended to offer financial relief to those in need. Geldof even named his collection of singers Band Aid. And while “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” would prove to be a monster hit, it would also stand as an example of the lesson that no good deed ever goes unpunished.
Geldof got the idea for "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in October of that year, when he was watching the BBC in England and grew concerned at the plight of Ethiopians experiencing a severe famine. Geldof believed he could raise money through music. He phoned his girlfriend, Paula Yates, who was then co-hosting a show with musician Midge Ure. Geldof explained to Ure his idea of a charity single and asked Ure to help polish a song he had originally rewritten for the Boomtown Rats. If Ure would focus on the arrangement, Geldof said, he would handle the talent booking.
According to Ure, who spoke with Yahoo! about the song’s legacy in 2019, Geldof was able to assemble such an impressive laundry list of stars by refusing to go through the proper channels. “He wouldn’t speak to a manager or a record label or an agent—he would find the phone number for the artist and he’d speak to the artist himself, which was brilliant,” Ure said.
By avoiding music industry bureaucracy, Geldof was able to secure commitments from Sting, Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran, Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet, Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Bono, and Phil Collins, among others. (David Bowie and Paul McCartney were invited but had scheduling conflicts and recorded spoken word verses for the B-side single, “Feed the World,” instead.)
Because Geldof and Ure wanted to issue the record in time for the holidays to make an appeal to listeners emotionally affected by the season. So they raced into production, recording for a full 24 hours at Sarm West Studios in London, which owner Trevor Horn had opened to Geldof and his collaborators at no cost. Using guide vocals already recorded by Sting and Le Bon, the singers first sang together for media to capture footage, then recorded verses individually so the best one could be selected for the final song.
Aside from the Boy George confusion, the session went smoothly—save for Bono initially resisting recording the line “Tonight, thank God, it’s them instead of you” after finding it too pat. Some observers also noticed illicit substances being passed among the participants.
Geldof and Ure didn’t wait until the records were pressed before they shopped for airtime. On November 29, just four days after its marathon recording session, the song made its official debut. Ure drove a cassette tape over to the BBC and was appreciative when the broadcaster played it every hour. Owing to its charitable leanings, even people who stood to lose money got behind the tune. Singer Jim Diamond, who had the biggest hit in the UK at the time with "I Should Have Known Better," actually urged people not to buy his single and opt to purchase “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” instead.
The single immediately shot to the top spot on sales charts and remained there for five weeks, going on to sell 3.8 million copies in the UK and 12 million worldwide. In all, more than $28 million was raised. Given that proceeds went to a good cause, who could find fault with Geldof’s altruistic efforts? Well, as it turned out, a few people.
While the musical substance of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” can be debated, critics were not necessarily concerned with its contributions to lyricism. Instead, they took umbrage at the fact the song appeared to be pandering, portraying African residents as oblivious to Christmas. Worse was a 1986 exposé in Spin magazine that reported proceeds from the song, as well as Geldof’s follow-up projects “We Are the World” and Live Aid, may have unintentionally helped African dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam buy weapons from Russia.
Geldof refused to comment for the Spin article, but had a statement for people who found the song itself lacking when it was re-recorded in 2014 with One Direction, Sam Smith, and others to help fund the fight against the Ebola virus. (It was also revisited in 1989 and 2004.) “It’s a pop song,” Geldof said. “It’s not a doctoral thesis. They can f*** off.”
This was a change of tune for Geldof, who in 2010 declared: "I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. [One is] 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' The other one is 'We Are The World.' Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter, and it will be playing. Every f***ing Christmas."
While Ure has said it’s unlikely the song will be re-released again, it may not necessarily be the end of the story. In 2017, director James Ward Byrkit was reportedly mulling a feature film titled Do They Know It’s Murder? The movie would see Geldof attempt to pull off the charity single while trying to solve the murder of one of the musicians in the studio. As of right now, IMDb lists the project as being in development.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2021.