- 03 Dec 21
37 years ago today, the supergroup Band Aid released 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' – which went on to become the fastest selling single in UK chart history, selling one million copies in the first week alone. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting an excerpt from a classic interview with Bob Geldof, originally published in Hot Press in 2010...
You were describing the genesis of the Band Aid single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ How did you start putting the cast together?
Bob: Paula had gone up to Newcastle ‘cause she was a host on that rock ‘n’ roll show The Tube, and I rang her and I said “Who’s on?” and she said “Midge (Ure) is here”. I knew Midge Ure. We used to go around Phil Lynott’s place and do things. Midge came on and I said, “Did you see that thing last night?”, and he said, “Yeah”, which wasn’t unusual in those days of monolithic broadcasting: everyone saw the news. And I said, “I wanna do something”, and he said, “Well have you got a song?” and I said, “No, but we can do a cover” and he said, “No, fuck off and write a song!” and I said “Nah…”, and he said “Look I’ll do a bit and you’ll do a bit and let’s see”. So that instant reaction, that this guy who was having a lot of hits – I think he’d just come off ‘Vienna’ at that point – just saw me as a peer and an equal, that gave me quite a lot of confidence. So I had to go visit a friend who was sick in Camden Town and in the taxi over I wrote ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ but it was to the tune of a song the Rats hadn’t liked I’d played them, called ‘It’s My World’. “It’s My World/There’s no need to be afraid” was the opening line. So I just said “It’s Christmas time/There’s no need to be afraid”.
And so I went up to Midge after, and I played it really badly ‘cause I was nervous. Well, I play badly anyway, but every time I played it I did a different tune and he said “What is the melody?” and I said (singing the song) “It’s Christmas Time…” and he said, “That sounds fucking awful”. So he had sent me this thing which was like (hums indistinctly) and he said, “What do you think?” and I said, “I think it sounds like ‘Z-Cars’, which was a police series on BBC. And he said, “Well, it’s better than the shite you have!” So then he just said, “Look, leave it with me”.
So I left it a day or two and came back and he’d put this brilliant backing track even with the ‘Dong’, the doomy bell, in there ‘cause he had to copy my words. We didn’t have the middle bit, “Here’s to them…” and we didn’t have “Feed the world”. I wanted one of John Lennon’s declamatory ‘Happy Christmas’, ‘War is Over’, ‘Give Peace a Chance’ things – they were very effective and again I went back to Woody Guthrie and this was to be overtly clear. It could be corny but it had to be clear.
So literally we sat down like I’d read about, sort-of across from one another, and played it and he sang a line and he came up with “Here’s to you, raise a glass to everyone” – it’s Scotland isn’t it? Definitely. “Do they know it’s Christmas?” I had that. And then “Feed the world…” might’ve been me. “Let them know it’s Christmas time” was probably him. And so that was that.
What about getting all those egos into the one room?
I called up everyone. Got the studio which was where Bob Marley recorded all his albums, Island Studios. I didn’t expect anyone to come, but very unexpected people did. Paul Weller, who I couldn’t stand, showed up at Midge’s, and I was like, “Fucking Weller, he’s one of these boring, old-style politics of pathetic…” But fair play to him, he showed up at the recording even though he couldn’t stand me either. And Billy Bragg and those sort of people that wouldn’t usually go along with my thing.
Paul McGuinness has said he didn’t want U2 to do it...
No, he didn’t. I mean the boys are very careful. You don’t stay at the top without really thinking about it. I mean, being with the same people for so many years, you get fed up, so you really have to discipline yourself. It’s like the Stones, Mick and Keith. Fuck, you know. But they have to discipline themselves, that it works better as a collective. I mean Mick’s solo albums – crap. Bono’s solo album, Edge’s solo album, who gives a fuck? So they really discipline themselves and they sit down and they work out, but particularly when they were kids.
I rang McGuiness and he was very, very reluctant, they hadn’t seen it and they basically thought it was uncool. You must remember, the names sound very uncool now, but they were the ‘topper most and popper most’ back in those days. LeBon and Boy George and the boys from Spandau and Sting and Phil Collins and what’s that guy’s name? Marilyn – not Marilyn Manson unfortunately but Marilyn. And I think they were trying to position themselves outside of that, but they had only just supported The Police, so eventually Bono came along and did that great famous line which he sort of now owns. When The Sun suggested we did Band Aid 20 and one of the acts at that time said there was a fight over who’d do the Bono line and Bono suddenly arrives at the studio and muscles them out of the way so he can make sure he can do his line again! We had a fight ‘cause I’m an atheist and he’s not and he goes, “Awh, man you’ve just written another hymn”, and I said, “No I fucking haven’t”. And so the line was “Tonight thank god it’s them instead of you” – he thought that was very hard and was I sure I meant that? And I said, “Yeah, I sat beside my little baby girl and I watched those mothers and fathers, and I think that’s the way to go here y’know”.
These aren’t romantic, primitive peoples, these are people who are dying of hunger a few miles away from the richest continent in the world that’s paying taxes to burn their surplus food. And I said, “Imagine if it was you” and that’s what I was thinking when I looked at Paula weeping and I looked at my little sprog. And fuck me, man. When it comes to it, thank god it’s not here. And Sting… when his line was the “bitter sting of tears” – I hadn’t divied it up, fucking Ure had divied it up – and he goes, “For fuck’s sake, do I have to sing that?” and I said “Yes!”. So then I get Bono going “(does accurate Bono impression) Oh man, I don’t know…” and so then of course they go 1-2-3, LeBon, Sting, Bono, and I mean that’s a fantastic performance, whatever you think about the song – and I’m dubious – that was a fantastic scale up. Sting sings it with such depth, and then yer’ man just fucking nails it.
It became, for a period, the best selling single of all time in the UK.
About 2 to 3 months later, I knew: it’s a phenomenon. I’m in Africa for the first time and I’m standing on this hill in Lalibela (city in Ethiopia) and it’s evening. And there’s dust for miles and it’s these thousands of people, snakelines coming in and out of the desert. And there’s army everywhere, it’s the epicentre of the longest running civil war of the 20th century and they’re fairly thuggish, they’ve got their shades on, helmets, tanks. And watching this, and these people and their togas and coming in, and somebody puts on the radio and it’s the BBC World Service. And fuck me, out comes the Christmas song. And y’know cos it was there, all the journalists are delighted and turn it up. And they turned it up just as Bono sings that line and it just rang out and it was (becomes emotional)… it was good.
Live Aid followed. And in musical terms, that proved to be a very important event. But of course it was about the money that could be generated, and Africa became a huge part of your life after that?
Well, yeah it was never a cultural event, it’s become that but it was never that. It was a political lobby. And I’d sort-of twigged that it had probably always happened that there were famines and millions died – but I now twigged that we all saw it instantly and responded instantly through the media, that there was something new happening here. So I thought we must be able to link up the world, everyone who had heard this song. I’d gone to America to persuade Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones to do it ‘cause Harry Belafonte, that great old Marxist had rung me and said, “(does deep weezing American accent) Are you that Bob Geldorf(sic)?”, I said, “Yeah”. He said, “I’m Harry Belafonte”. Fuck me! I’m a Woody Guthrie freak and Harry Belafonte was Martin Luther King’s great friend – he persuaded him almost to go on his crusade – and a brilliant folk singer. Bob Dylan’s first recording was Harry Belafonte’s record where he just plays harmonica. And he says, “I’m fucking ashamed that a Brit kid would do this”, and I said, “I’m Irish, Harry” and he said, “Same fucking thing”.
And I said, “Well why don’t you call Quincy?” “He’s a fucking dick…” or whatever, and he said, “Why don’t you call him?” and I said, “I don’t know Quincy Jones” so he said, “I’ll call him, you speak to him”. So Quincy Jones called me and I said, “Can you get Michael to do it?” So they did it the night of the Grammys and I went there and I spoke to… everyone. I mean you’re all into music but remember who was in that room. Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, fuck, it was endless. And Quincy said, “Bob Geldorf (sic) is gonna talk to ya, tell you what it’s all about before we start”, and so I thought, “Fuck me”, you know? They’re all sitting on the bleachers, sitting there like schoolchildren, and so I had come from Ethiopia straight there and so I told them, “I might need to get in touch with you again, maybe we need to do something more”, and they were all like, “Ok”.
And so obviously no photographers were allowed in the studio but I just took pictures. They can fuck off, you know this was it for me. And then I got the sheet music and asked them all to sign it. And what was cute was that they all started getting their sheet music and getting others to sign – like Bob wanted Ray Charles to sign his thing, which is cool. But the thing I remember was that Stevie Wonder was at the piano (does Stevie Wonder impression playing piano) and Dylan goes over and says, “Hey Steve, it’s Bob”, and he goes “Hey Bob, how’s it goin’? Have you done your bit yet?” and Bob goes, “Yeah, I don’t know how to sing it” and Steve said, “What do you mean?” and he goes, “Yeah, I don’t know how to sing my bit” and he said, “Sing it like Bob Dylan!” and he said, “Yeah, but I don’t know how to do that”. And Michael Jackson is standing beside him, and Stevie goes (impression of a swaying, playing Stevie) “We are the world, We are the people” and Dylan goes, “Yeah I can do that!” And Michael starts pissing himself laughing and I just took a picture of that: it’s a really good photo.
And so the idea was put Band Aid together with them but they didn’t really wanna do that, there was great reluctance because it was a Brit thing. The French had done Chanteurs Sans Frontiere which was kind of like a Eurovision-y shit thing, the Germans had done something, the Norwegians, the Australians, everyone had done something so I thought, “Let’s link them together”. The minute I was there, I really understood that famine, corruption, ill-health, lack of education, conflict, were simply symptoms of an empirical economic condition, and that was poverty. And that poverty was soluble because it’s political. And so I thought: we’ll create this fucking huge lobby that they must answer to. And while it worked in terms of money, and raising £150 million, which we’re still spending, it really worked in terms of the lobby, ‘cause the G8 was invented the next year and it was never off that (agenda) then because the lobby kept insisting that this would be a global agenda. So from there until Live 8 was the long road taking people from this thing they’d done, up to the political reality of it.
Can you point to things that you think have been affected directly as a result of the work you’ve put in – and how do you think that Africa is a better place for the people that live there?
Don’t forget that Oxfam, Save The Children, Concern, Goal, they all increased their income by at least 300% that year and ongoing. So the cumulative money was huge. The political effect had far greater ramifications. As for Band Aid – I don’t even know how many thousands of schools or hospitals we built. I mean, just at Christmas I was in this valley that I saw as a moonscape, I mean really a moonscape. I called it desertification, not understanding there was a new phenomenon called Climate Change. And the desert is a self-fulfilling animal, it moves south, heats up the air, vegetation collapses in the heat and it allows itself to move forward, it’s really a rampant thing. Since Band Aid, the desert has advanced South more than the entire island of Britain. So that’s what was happening.
But at Christmas last year, I mean this huge enormous valley was now entirely verdant. And there was something, I don’t know how many farmers were making a living there but some of them now employ 12 people – so the model kind of worked. But you can name the endless number of animals or medicines or blankets that went out in the emergency years. We had 650 trucks, which kept getting bombed and stuff like that. And so it was a vast thing.
But subsequent to that, if I compare 150 million for Band Aid to Live 8 which confused people because the thing was, “We don’t want your money, we want your voice”. What confused people was, “What could you do with that?” And what I was pushing for, I had just done The Commission for Africa with Tony Blair, which was the African leaders and the G8 – and I persuaded him to adopt that as the UK agenda for their G8 and none of the other 7 wanted to do it so I had to do Live 8, which was a million kids on the streets of all these capital cities. But now we had this thing called the internet. And so you could do it, and you could make it powerful.
And so the consequence of G8, of Live 8… it was Live Aid, 150 million, Live 8, 50 billion every year. And that’s the difference between charity and politics. And we also did achieve the 100% cancellation of debt, so within a year 42 million children had gone to school for the first time. You have to take that on board: 42 million children. So you have to imagine all those human brains switched on. That dynamism, creativity, intellectualism, productivity plugged into the world’s circuit. And who was it that said, “Only the educated are free”? It’s true. And so you also had before Live 8, and this is at the epicentre of AIDS, 50,000 people in the poorest continent in the world had to pay for their Antiretrovirals every day. Today, four million get them free. That came out of the debt cancellation. So it goes on and on, tangible things.
What’s your assessment of the political changes?
Well, the real juice is that when we did ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ there were three democracies in Africa, now there are 21. When we first did Band Aid most of those countries were in a state of civil war, there’s now only two remaining conflicts in Africa. There’s less corruption in Africa than Asia, there’s less conflict now in Africa than Asia. There’s more discretionary income in Africa now than in Russia or India. There’s 52 cities with more than a million people, the same as Europe, more than India. It’s a population of a billion people, 50% of them under 16, and the fastest urbanising continent, the largest mobile telephony market in the world. It will have in 10 years the largest workforce on the planet, larger than China or India. It’s kicking off.
You must have had, in dealing with all the various Presidents, Heads of State and Dignitaries, a few mad, “Am I really here?” kind-of moments.
Going with Bush on Airforce One, holding his hand through Africa. That was wild. I mean it’s a cool plane, that’s the first thing. I mean… I just think what happened to me, in general was a bit odd. But I’m much more freaked out when I’m around Ray Charles, much more than I am than around The Pope, who I couldn’t give a fuck about. And so that’s the reality of it. Not to namedrop, I should have a t-shirt,‘I Knew Mother Teresa’, but I did, so we just argued. And you know, Mandela obviously is a massive historic giant so when I meet him I’m just thrilled and nervous. But the truth is: I’m much more nervous and thrilled around Bob Dylan or Jagger, even though I know Mick now.
Bono has been criticised for being a rich rockstar preaching to people about poverty in Africa. What do you make of that?
The first thing is that he is a great guy. He is a really great guy. And I’d turn around and tell you if I didn’t think so. He’s a fucking cool guy. He’s really clever. He’s got a great heart. And he’s got a superb head. You have to understand this. And he gets to be a super-rich rock star. Dude, well done. We don’t criticise Jagger. We don’t criticise fucking Kings Of Leon for getting there ok? And he uses that to talk, I mean this is the thing: the Irish aren’t very good at being rock stars. I was in Seville two nights ago and I went to see U2, fantastic show. And, whatever you think about their music, I came out thinking, what other band gives 20 minutes of their show to talk about stuff that isn’t rock ‘n’roll? I don’t mean Bono preaches, but if you’ve seen the Claw thing, you’ll know that they give something like 10 minutes to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi and Amnesty International. Now you don’t have to go along with that and you’ve paid your money to watch U2 – well, you’re still watching U2 and they’re still doing rock ‘n’ roll but they’re showing you something that is beyond values other than making money.
It’s about something that seems to be much more important to them because the others wouldn’t let Bono do it if it was just him, there’s just no way. Larry would go off on him. And then (Desmond) Tutu comes on this 360 thing and addresses the crowd and they tell them what they have done with Africa with the ONE campaign. It would be inappropriate for The Rolling Stones to do it. It wouldn’t work if Bob Dylan did it, although he does it in another way. Why can’t these very clever men, this mega band, who produce this god-given music with this unbelievable voice, why can’t they address their audience about other stuff simultaneously and say, “This is also what we’re about”? I think it’s an extraordinary achievement. Extraordinary. And those fuckers who go on about their circumstances in life that turned out to be better and still he keeps on with this thing. And I know exactly how much time he dedicates to it and I just won’t have it. And it’s the same as Britney Spears – I’ve got four girls and when Britney started her breast cancer thing, they all went and got checked. Thanks Britney! Seriously. Otherwise the government would say it with some gloopy ad, and fucking pink ribbons. And Britney gets up and is all perky, like, (adopts Britney accent) “C’mon let’s all get our tit checked!”… and they do. And like good, good. That’s ok. Fine.
As one of the great Irish songwriters, is it frustrating for you that the other work that you’ve done has, in some ways, overshadowed your work as a musician?
I really do view this with equanimity. Of course stuff like Live Aid overwhelms it, there’s just no possible way that it wouldn’t and the problem is that, in no way am I comparing myself let’s say to The Beatles, but what happened with The Beatles was that they were the great band and what they represented moved outside of them being a band, into society and so they became, y’know, emblematic of something else. And of course being geniuses and only doing music, their lives revolved around music, but that eventually joined up with the societal view of them, so they were enshrined forever. In my case the diversions of the political stuff and the music is so great, the rest of the world knew so much about that and so very little about the other thing, of course it’s normal. Should I feel a sense of frustration? No I don’t. Maybe because I make a living doing business things and other things. If I was living off this, I’d be fucked. (laughs)
This isn’t me trying to get a plug in here at all. I’ve just finished a record. Pete Briquette did it again. He’s a fucking great producer, really you should listen to his work. I called it 58 1/2 ‘cause of my age. But then I saw a book in L.A, made in the 1930s and I took a picture with my camera and that’s now the cover. So now it says How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell. And it’s a profound pleasure. If you do it well and it sounds good to you, it doesn’t – no, it does matter if people hear, of course it does! Of course it does! Imagine being Picasso and nobody else saw your pictures! It’s sort of like the same musical question. You’re in your bedroom, you’ve got your guitar, you write the greatest song, you go “Fuck me, do it again, this is the greatest song I’ve written, Jesus!” and you put the guitar away in the cupboard and no one hears it. Is the song even written? So you need to record it. So would I like people to hear it? Absolutely. Do I think it’s good? I think it’s another work of musical genius.
In the current issue of Hot Press, Bob Geldof pens a powerful think piece, as part of the 100 Voices: #AllAgainstRacism project: