All Commentary
Friday, December 23, 2022

The Wonderful (and Tragic) Story Behind ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’

"Do They Know It's Christmas" remains a holiday favorite. But it turns out that writing a song and raising millions of dollars for food assistance in Africa was the easy part.

Image Credit: YouTube (screenshot)

The 2017 comedy Daddy’s Home 2 has become one of my family’s favorite Christmas movies.

One of the reasons the movie is such a hit is that it has not one but two hilarious scenes featuring one of the greatest Christmas Songs ever written: “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”

I was a little kid when the song came out, and as a child I wasn’t much of a fan. I didn’t really know what the song was about, but I vaguely remember thinking it had something to do with AIDS, which was new and very scary. I was more partial to Burl Ives singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” or the Peanuts characters belting out “Hark the Angels.”

At some point, however, I began to love “Do They Know It’s Christmas”—I still get chills every time Bono hits “well tonight thank god it’s them instead of you.”

As I grew older, I also learned a little bit more about it.

As most readers already know, the song had nothing to do with AIDS, but with a famine in Ethiopia. Fewer, however, know that the famine was man-made.

‘Death Is All Around’

On a chilly October night in England in 1984, Bob Geldof was alone watching TV. As the frontman of the Boomtown Rats, Geldof had tasted fame and success, but his music career was now at a crossroads. The band was in shambles, and Geldof was trying to “manage the decline” as he considered his next step.

“I couldn’t do it as a solo artist,” Geldof recalled in the documentary Band Aid: The Song That Rocked The World. “I really had very little confidence in my sort of abilities.”

Geldof received a dose of perspective that night when he turned on the BBC and saw a news report delivered by journalist Michael Buerk depicting a severe famine in Ethiopia.

“Fifteen thousand children here now. Suffering. Confused. Lost,” Buerk says, as the camera pans to emaciated bodies of starving Ethiopians. “Death is all around. A child or an adult dies every twenty minutes.”

The report shook Geldof. The record sales of the Boomtown Rats suddenly seemed less important.

He decided to write a charity song to help, but quickly rejected the idea of performing it with the Boomtown Rats. Instead, he called Midge Ure, a Scottish musician who that very night had been doing an interview with Geldof’s (then) wife Paul Yates, who hosted a music show called The Tube.

The conversation changed both of their lives forever.

‘Phil, I Need a Famous Drummer’

On November 24, 1984, the pop musician Boy George was sleeping in his New York City hotel room when the phone rang. He was touring with the Culture Club and had had a late night partying. The call woke him up. It was Geldof, who the previous day had told George to drop what he was doing and get to London stat to perform a song he had co-written with Ure.

Geldof and Ure had created a charity superband called Band Aid (get it?), and they had invited a host of popular British and Irish recording artists to perform the new song, which was written for a specific purpose: to raise money for Ethiopians suffering one of the worst famines in modern history.

George agreed to catch a flight to London.

George arrived at Sarm West Studios in Notting Hill on November 25, exactly a month before Christmas. He was late, but at least he had made it—unlike David Bowie and Paul McCartney, both of whom had been compelled to bow out because of commitments.

A motley crew of the most popular UK performers in the world gathered, including Phil Collins, who arrived with his entire drum set, as well as Sting, George Michael, and others.

The entire process of writing, recording, producing, and releasing “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was remarkably fast—less than six weeks.

A few days after the BBC news report aired, Geldof had gotten into a cab and headed to Ure’s home. While in the back seat, he started to scribble some lyrics on a piece of paper. By the time he was there he had his song outlined, but the instrumentals were rough.

“It was kind of like Bob Dylan on Librium,” Ure later said.

The songwriters decided to divvy up the work. Ure would write the music for the song, while Geldof would polish the lyrics and work the phones to drum up performers.

“Phil, I need a famous drummer,” Collins recalls Geldof telling him.

Getting artists to commit to the project wasn’t as difficult as one might expect. Geldof knew a great many performers, and they could see he was passionate about the cause. Meanwhile, Ure brought needed credibility to the project.

“Once [Bob] had Midge on board, all Bob’s friends who know his musical limitations would think ‘we know the record will get made now, so it’s not going to embarrass us,” one person familiar with the project observed.

The assembled cast of performers had 24 hours to record in the studio, which was made available to them freely by producer Trevor Horn. (Horn had initially been asked to produce the song, but told Geldof it would take him six weeks, which would make a December release impossible; so the task fell to Ure.)

The song was recorded in a matter of hours, and Ure spent the next several days producing and editing in his home studio with engineer Rik Walton.

‘Everyone Bought the Record’

“Do They Know It’s Christmas” was released on December 3. It opened with Paul Young on vocals, followed by Boy George, George Michael, Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran, Sting, and Bono. Numerous other artists also participated in the project.

The single sold a million copies in the first week, topping the UK charts. The song quickly became the fastest-selling single in UK history, a record it would hold until 1997, when it was eclipsed by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997,” released in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.

“Everyone bought the record, even if they didn’t like it,” Geldof said.

The album raised more than $24 million for relief in Ethiopia, which was desperately needed. The scale of the famine was daunting. The US government estimated it impacted nearly 8 million people—roughly a fifth of Ethiopia’s population. Of these, 2.5 million were considered “in immediate, lifethreatening jeopardy,” according to a memo from the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance.

Though the sum vastly exceeded Geldof’s expectations, he was not done. A subsequent relief effort organized with Live Aid brought in $150 million in famine relief.

By all appearances, it was a massive success. The power of art and celebrity and mass media were combined to engineer a life-saving relief effort in one of the poorest corners of the world.

‘The Iconic Poor Country’

Peter Gill was one of the few western journalists in Ethiopia in 1984. Working with Action Aid, a global humanitarian group, he spent weeks in Korem, the epicenter of the famine, and the highlands of Amhara.

Gill said perhaps the most obvious consequence of the Band Aid campaign was that Ethiopia became a sort of caricature of poverty and starvation in the minds of westerners.

“It has become the iconic poor country,” Gill wrote in his 2010 book Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid. “Instead of its glorious past and rich culture, we now associate Ethiopia with famine.”

Such perceptions should not exactly surprise us. Ethiopia’s famine claimed as many as a million lives, according to official estimates (the actual total is likely closer to 400,000); so it’s not unusual that many would associate the land with starvation.

What few realize is that the famine was not an accident. Though drought played a role, many have overlooked that the Ethiopian government’s military policies were the primary catalyst.

Mengistu Haile Mariam, the General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia and chairman of the Derg, a communist military junta that ruled Ethiopia, had adopted a simple strategy for addressing hunger: resettle Ethiopians. If people were hungry in the highlands, send them off to the lowlands where productivity was high and land was plentiful.

“[The] planned scale of the resettlement programme measured up to Colonel Mengistu’s image as the pocket African Stalin, and would be executed in a thoroughly ruthless fashion,” Gill writes. “Resettlement also served a darker political purpose, and it would be enforced at the barrel of a gun.”

The “darker political purpose” Gill alludes to is that resettlement allowed Col. Mengistu to more effectively deal with the alliance of rebel groups, including the Eritrean liberation movement and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, who opposed the communist military regime.

Dawit Wolde-Giorgis, the relief commissioner and the author of Red Tears: Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia, recalled Mengistu describing his strategy with a Maoist parable of draining the sea to capture fish.

“Without the sea there will be no fish,” Mengistu said. “We have to drain the sea, or if we cannot completely drain it, we must bring it to a level where they will lack room to move at will, and their movements will be easily restricted.”

Mengistu’s plan might have been effective as a military strategy, but it ravaged the Ethiopian economy. Among the many problems it produced was that it created a surplus of labor in some places and a dearth in others.

A 45-year-old farmer named Ibrahim who Gill spoke to decades after the famine recalled being pressed into service digging graves as a young man because there were not enough workers.

“People were very busy burying the dead,” he said. “Because the Derg [the communist military regime running Ethiopia] had taken so many people away for resettlement, there was a shortage of labour and some of us were forced to become gravediggers.”

Lessons From Band Aid

Nearly four decades later, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” holds a mixed legacy. On one hand, it remains one of the most popular Christmas songs in the world—and for good reason. The song channels the spirit of Christmas, which calls on us to love and care for our fellow man—and to freely give to those in need. Its message of hope, charity, and idealism moves us, which is part of its magic.

“There was a charming naivete about this song,” Sting said years later, while speaking to Ure. “I think a more sophisticated song wouldn’t have worked. It had to be a kind of Christmas carol, nursery rhyme, simple, idealistic vision. And that’s exactly what it was.”

That naivete is also part of its legacy, however. Naivete about Africa and Africans, socialism, economics, and the challenges of effectively administering humanitarian aid. Just how little was solved by the outpouring of wealth and compassion for the Ethiopian famine is surely part of its legacy. Few understand this better than Michael Buerk, the BBC journalist whose report so moved Geldof on that chilly October night in 1984.

“The great Ethiopian famine changed everything and nothing. It fundamentally altered the rich world’s sense of its responsibility to the hungry and the poor, but didn’t solve anything,” Buerk wrote in the forward to Gill’s book. “A quarter of a century on, we’re still arguing about the roots of the problem, let alone the solution, and—though there has been progress—Ethiopia’s food insecurity gets worse, not better.”

‘Aid Is Just a Stopgap’

It turns out that writing a song and raising millions of dollars for food assistance was the easy part. Administering aid effectively was far more difficult. Indeed, evidence suggests that tens of millions of dollars of international aid—not from Band Aid, but from other relief initiatives—were siphoned off to fund a paramilitary group of communist rebels.

This is not to suggest that aid initiatives cannot help those suffering, or that people should not give to those in need. Giving is good and can help those in need, especially when combined with prudence—but it is not an end in itself. Helping people is the ultimate goal, and this requires more than just humanitarian efforts, as some members of Band Aid now realize.

“Aid is just a stopgap,” Bono pointed out not long after Gill’s book was published. “Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid. We need Africa to become an economic powerhouse.”

This is the solution to famine and poverty. As the economist Adam Smith once pointed out, “little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Smith’s formula might sound simple, but executing it is not. Power has a way of concentrating and unleashing itself on its own. Dawit Wolde-Giorgis, the author of Red Tears, said this is perhaps the greatest scar of the Ethiopian famine.

“[The] biggest toll of the famine was psychological,” Dawit wrote. “None of the survivors would ever be the same. The famine left behind a population terrorized by the uncertainties of nature and the ruthlessness of their government.”

Many westerners are oblivious to the causes that underpinned Ethiopia’s famine, but Ethiopians are not, and they appear to have learned an important lesson.

“World poverty is a burden to be shared, but there is another principle now widely recognized,” Gill writes. “Poor countries will emerge from poverty only when they take full charge of their own destiny.”

For this reason, Ethiopia “has insisted on charting its own development course.” They expelled the communist regime in 1991. They’ve steadily expanded economic freedom (though the country still has a long way to go), and prosperity has surged as a result. In 2018, Abiy Ahmed ended the country’s 20-year war with Eritrea, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

This formula—peace and expanding economic freedom—has the power to transform Ethiopia like no amount of humanitarian aid can. The song implores us, “Feed the world.” This is precisely what economic freedom has done, sparking the biggest drop in extreme poverty in history.

This is not to diminish the work of Band Aid. If you visit Korem today, you can still see evidence of its works, including a hospital completed on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the famine with proceeds from Geldof and co.

The song’s cultural impact—both good and bad—is also hard to overstate, though many smile at the line “Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”

“As Ethiopians have pointed out ever since, they did of course know it was Christmas because the starving were mainly Christian,” Gill notes.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.