A World Of Dreaded Fear: Revisiting Band Aid's Lyrical Crime Scene
, December 10th, 2013 03:21
Band Aid raised awareness of a disastrous famine, as well as huge sums of money to try ease it but, one year ahead of its 30th anniversary, Wyndham Wallace begs us to condemn, not celebrate, a song whose lyrics are uglier than Rupert Murdoch’s ballsack
Sunday, November 24th, 1984. It must be a cold, cold day, if not on the streets of Notting Hill, then at least in Hell below. Why else would some of the era's wealthiest pop stars be found mingling with paparazzi in front of Trevor Horn's SARM Studios? Look! That's Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet, his white shirt collar turned up, his leather jacket lapels as big as an elephant's ears. And over there - see? It's his arch-rival, Duran Duran's John Taylor, in a smart trilby and shades, pursued by a feathered, highlighted hairdo under which Nick Rhodes has taken shelter. You don't see that every day.
Meanwhile, isn't that former mod, now reborn soul boy, Paul Weller? Admittedly he's looking a little uncomfortable next to Marilyn, Bananarama and George Michael, but perhaps that's because the latter has just told him "Don't be a wanker all your life. Have a day off." Still, everyone else looks like they're friends here, even with the homeless guy in the baggy cardigan. Oh, that's Bob Geldof, explaining to the media how they all "play music and write it, so we're giving something of ourselves". Which is really rather nice of them, especially on a Sunday.
So why are they all here, these megastars who The Daily Mirror will tomorrow dub a "Billion Dollar Band"? Well, inspired by Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof and his buddy, Midge 'Ultravox' Ure, they're here to raise money. It’s something at which they're all supremely proficient. These folk may rarely hand over the cash they make to others, but this is Band Aid, and Band Aid, you see, is different.
And it's true - Band Aid was, in many ways, different. 'Do They Know It’s Christmas?' focused the world on a devastating famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea, bringing together people across the first world and helping change the face of charity fundraising for decades to come. It struck an especially tender nerve with complacent Brits, forcing them to recognise that an entire nation was starving to death while they were wringing their hands worrying about butter mountains built upon generous farming subsidies. Geldof's subsequent belief that "the '80s were characterised by overwhelming generosity and kindness" may sound a little hollow to those British citizens who were at the sharp end of the growing social divides provoked by Margaret Thatcher, but he was right when he said Band Aid's attempt to "draw attention to a monstrous human crime, a moral and intellectual absurdity" worked.
All the same, as the airwaves, printing presses and internet prepare to groan under the weight of the record’s simple but unifying sentiment upon the 30th anniversary of its release in a year's time, let us actually recollect what that sentiment was. Next, let's head it off at the pass. Because, by the time 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' was knocked off the top of the charts by 'I Want To Know What Love Is', Foreigner weren’t the only ones asking the question. For all the good it did, you see, and for all the well meaning intentions of the people behind it, Band Aid represented – and still represents – the worst of Western attitudes, clumsily summed up in a series of patronising, appallingly self-righteous lines that serve as some of the most outrageous lyrical crimes ever recorded.
Amongst them, one might even say, is a line as smug, callous and vile as any that has ever been sung. There are many contenders for worst lyric of all time, of course: Depeche Mode's "People are people so why should it be / You and I get along so awfully" and the equally clumsy "Promises me I'm as safe as houses, as long as you remember who's wearing the trousers" are two harmless but distinguished offenders, while Snap's "I’m serious as cancer / When I say rhythm is a dancer" displays a more remarkable, thoughtless insensitivity. Then there's Queen's "No time for losers / 'cos we are the champions", a painfully arrogant assertion, even more so when sung in an apartheid holiday resort like South Africa's Sun City, or before a global audience of 1.9 billion gathered to raise money on behalf of Live Aid for those less fortunate than they.
But none – not even 'Do They Know It's Christmas''s US equivalent 'We Are The World''s absurd, gory suggestion that you "Send them your heart / So they'll know that someone cares" – are as cloth-eared, cold-hearted and thick-skinned as Band Aid's crowning glory, the line that everyone remembers and few question, the line drunkenly bellowed out at closing time in dark December streets with no thought at all for its meaning, the line delivered with all the passion and compassion of Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt rutting drunkenly on a Greek island beach. Yes, it's the line delivered by activist, philanthropist and humanitarian saviour, Mr Bono Vox himself:
"Well, tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you…"
No. We must have misheard you. That can’t be right. Did you even think about those words for as long as it takes you to heave them from behind your puffed out ribs, Bono? Surely you can encourage people to do something more useful than to express relief to their God at the fact that they’re curled up in front of a roaring open fire listening to church bells peal while a nation some 3,500 miles away faces a slow and merciless demise from malnutrition and civil war? Can't you instead use that cherished breath to beg He show kindness towards those starving to death, their eyes tickled by flies, their muscles wasting away, their bellies swollen with kwashiorkor? Is this really the most we can expect people to do: to pat themselves on the back and praise the Lord for taking care of them, even if He isn't so inclined to worry about the million or so Africans that the UN will later estimate died between 1983 and 1985?
"Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you"?
Talk about the 'Me Generation'.
Still, perhaps this was a minor lapse of judgement that the sneering classes should overlook. After all, there were always – and continue to be – cynics who doubted Band Aid, whatever its extraordinary achievements. Only a year later, for instance, a typically misanthropic Morrissey dubbed it "the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music". Admittedly, he may have been no more noble: his additional comments that the song was "absolutely tuneless" and a "daily torture on the people of Great Britain" would surely have made the record's beneficiaries feel horribly guilty in the face of their own relative suffering – had they been alive to hear them. Oh, that charming man.
Whatever the likes of Mozza may argue, that winter millions dug into their pockets and handed over hard cash – around £1.25 for the 7", if memory serves – for the song that was fashioned on that chilly November day in 1984 by those three dozen or so stars. 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' stayed at number one for five weeks, setting in motion a chain of events that would climax the following summer with Live Aid, and outdid the combined sales of all other Top Forty records during its first week of release. Since the top five singles alone included Wham's 'Last Christmas', Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'The Power Of Love', Madonna's 'Like A Virgin' and – oh, yes, lest we forget – Paul McCartney And The Frog Chorus' 'We All Stand Together', this was quite a feat.
The single went on to shift almost three and a half million copies in the UK alone, raised huge sums for charity – if not quite the billion dollars that the Daily Mirror had reminded us the stars were worth – and the endeavour momentarily softened the heart of The Iron Lady herself, who was forced to back down and waive VAT on the record in the face of public criticism of her government's greed. It still sells today, in fact: in both 2011 and 2012 it re-entered the Top 40. Furthermore, it outsold even 'Mull Of Kintyre', its success unsurpassed until Princess Diana died in 1997 and Elton John commemorated her passing with a display of mawkish sentimentality that even fewer people could resist.
But, as anyone who's ever paid even the slightest attention to its lyrics can tell you, 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' was not about mawkish sentimentality. Bono's lyric of cruel, imperious, myopic disdain was in fact not unique, and instead indicative of the musical and lyrical world of denial in which 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' operated right from its start. Over a beat literally stolen from Tears For Fears' 'The Hurting' – the ‘Mad World’ duo have since openly acknowledged that songwriter Midge Ure never sought permission for the sample – Paul Young began with the words, "It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid." Days later, half a million people in Bhopal, India, would be exposed to toxic chemicals in the world's worst industrial disaster.
Still, "There’s no need to be afraid." Except that earlier that year, too, Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi – voted Woman Of The Millennium in a 1999 BBC poll – was assassinated, while the US Embassy was blown up in Beirut, and, of course, hundreds of thousands of people starved in Africa. But none of this was of concern, apparently. Young seemed to be saying, "Move along, now, there’s nothing to see here." In fact, he then added, "At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade." So that’s alright, then.
Boy George was up next, reminding one and all boastfully of how, "in our world of plenty, we can spread a smile of joy". This might indeed have been a sympathetic gesture, but perhaps not as useful as – or as easy as – spreading surplus butter. The Culture Club singer continued by instructing his audience "to throw your arms around the world at Christmas time". One had to assume that these arms he was referring to weren't the guns that had fuelled the two-decade civil war that had contributed to Ethiopia's perilous state, or the weapons that the BBC would (wrongly) allege 25 years later Band Aid's funds had helped buy. They'd obviously be of even less use to starving Africans than the damned good hug he was suggesting.
It was illusions like these – expressed within clichés of astonishing glibness – under which some of those who took part in Band Aid laboured, and which were laid bare by a typically sanctimonious comment from Bono during an interview for the official Band Aid documentary. "We were like the bastard children of The Clash," he frothed, "who actually believed that music could change the world." Of course, they weren’t like The Clash – or even their purported bastard children – at all: his optimistic conclusion might have been right, but these musicians were the most established of the musical establishment, and therein lay the true reason for the record’s success.
In the same documentary, Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon seemed similarly confused. Following a brief glimpse of Sting feeding a no doubt well-earned biscuit to a hungry Phil Collins – perhaps scoffed while "Status Quo produced their bag of cocaine and the booze started to flow" – The Wild Boy assured viewers that "it was the first time anything like that had ever happened". This overlooked, a sceptic might say, the likes of George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh in 1971. But no matter: these pop stars deserved a reputation for unparalleled generosity because they were giving something of themselves.
Back in the studio, George Michael was lined up right behind Boy George, ready with another suggestion helpful enough to rival that earlier recommendation of a hug: "But say a prayer, pray for the other ones." Yep, here was another humdinger of a solution - hand over responsibility for the plight of the needy to a most likely imaginary God who has consistently appeared to be, if not deaf, then at least guilty of selective hearing. Still, Mr Michael was soon trying to make amends by being a little more honest, conceding that, while we're busy unwrapping our presents and stuffing our faces with food, giving thought to anyone else is tough: "At Christmas time," he began to sing, squeezing the words from his tanned chest, "it’s hard."
Simon Le Bon then elbowed him out of the way, wresting the microphone from his control. "But when you’re having fun," he interrupted, "there’s a world outside your window…" And what kind of world was that, we wondered? Well, luckily Sting was present, edging in alongside Le Bon to insist – like a petulant teenager determined to prove his worldly wisdom – "it's a world of dreaded fear!"
Off mic, Paul Young presumably scratched his head, puzzled.
"Simon! Sting!" he perhaps pointed out. "I already told you! There’s no need to be afraid! And what the hell is 'dreaded fear' anyway?"
But if he did so, it was to no avail, as he was shot down moments later. The team was now joined by Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley, who was no doubt desperate to underline how this dreadful, terrifying world outside their window was as dry as a bone. "The only water flowing," the preachers proclaimed, gazing into the distance as they mangled their metaphors, "is the bitter sting of tears." Still, it could have been worse: what they might have seen, had they averted their eyes from the view outdoors, was not the bitter sting of tears, but the bitter crocodile tears of Sting, who was now joined by Bono, eager to gloat alongside The Police frontman and Mr Le Bon about how, “the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom”.
Pause now for a moment and imagine that line delivered in the kind of voice normally reserved for Hollywood disaster movies and you’ll soon realise how heartless it really was. "That's not the sound of Christmas Mass, guys!" they were warning, depriving the sizeable Christian community of Ethiopia of what little comfort they could still find in Christ. "That’s your funeral!"
And then Bono arrived, demanding the spotlight, his rabble-rousing cry for attention betraying Band Aid's true values. "And tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you…"
What should have followed was a crushing silence, an instant during which everyone realised the utterly reprehensible nature of the attitudes to which they were giving voice before tapping Midge and Bob on the shoulders and asking if perhaps they could polish up the lyrics a little. Indeed, there shouldn't be a single vinyl copy of the record in existence that isn't scarred by a deep scratch leading from that moment all the way to the run-out groove. But, if anyone was embarrassed by Bono's bizarre, even outrageous counsel, they didn't show it then, or indeed at any point afterwards.
To be fair, Bono had disagreed with Geldof about the words, something they both admit. "I'll sing any line except that one," he told his friend upon seeing the song for the first time, questioning the songwriter's intent. "Are you sure you want to do that? You want to say that?" Geldof, however, had insisted – rather sinisterly – that the text communicated exactly what he wanted it to express, and the line had been specifically chosen for the U2 singer. Bono had continued to argue, but Geldof had persevered in typical fashion: "That's the one that's going to hurt the most," he asserted menacingly. And Bono, presumably failing to understand who exactly the words might hurt, remained as true to his convictions as he would throughout the rest of his career by belting out the line as though it was his life that depended upon it, rather than the lives of millions of Africans. In fact, he was so unruffled by what he'd sung that he returned to the studio in 2004 to deliver exactly the same text for Band Aid 20.
No one, it seems, had contemplated the implications of that line. They only considered what they wanted it to say, not what it actually said. So, instead of gasping at the barbarism of its sentiment, the assembled egos simply continued, uniting to point out perceptively that, "there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time". Rubbing African noses in the scorching, dry, barren dirt even further, they went on to advise us that, "the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life". Even when you consider it for just a moment, this was an unquestionably bleak declaration that – in the light of what Bono had just howled – sounded almost sarcastic. "Ha! Imagine that! We just got our kids a new Scaletrix, and those poor black babies are going to be lucky if they make it to Boxing Day alive!" Still, life is cheaper than Scaletrix in Africa, a continent where, they now informed us, "nothing ever grows, no rain or river flows". Not even the Niger. Or the Nile. Or the Congo.
"Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?" they then asked, as though not to be aware of this fact was a sign of stupidity. Well, on reflection that question seemed just a little bit ripe given their own displays of ignorance. No wonder the World Development Movement vocally criticised Band Aid's lyrics on the twentieth anniversary of its release for being "patronising, false and out of date". Who, after all, were the foolish ones that November day? The folk with a few more things to worry about than a birthday party for a messiah they'd never met – but might be about to – whose divine father had left them to shrivel in the desert? Or the people who’d never even looked at a map of the continent they were so graciously trying to rescue?
All the same, not to worry: "Feed the world! Let them know it's Christmas time!"
Or at least where we are, anyway…
As if to celebrate their crass tactlessness even further, Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory and the lovely Marilyn then proposed a toast:
"Here’s to you!" they announced, before Paul Young tried to share his love of the common people by instructing us, "Raise a glass for everyone!"
Yeah, hoist that glass high! Never mind the fact that there are people out there who can’t even rustle up a cup of water.
Hang on a moment, though: those "other ones" for whom Boy George wanted us to pray for hadn’t been entirely forgotten. Glenn and Marilyn were still on hand to remind everyone what the purpose of this song really was.
"Here's to them," they grunted, before Paul Young – who’d now landed so many lines that people were beginning to ask who he was sleeping with: Bob or Midge – seized one last opportunity to hammer the point home as he tenderly reminded us where 'they' were: "underneath that burning sun!"
He may as well have hammered the final nails into their imaginary, sun-bleached coffins. He and his colleagues had just finished telling us how Africans were busy burying their dead as the bells tolled, how they didn’t even have rain or flowing rivers, and now they were suggesting we chuck around the booze like there was no tomorrow to salute the fact that the people we were all meant to be helping were being cooked to a crisp! Paul, Glenn and Marilyn seemed to have forgotten that, for many of them, there might not be a tomorrow. After all, as they’d just pointed out ever so gently, the greatest gift "the other ones" might get that year was life.
Still, at least they remembered to give a crap. What a shame that was all they could spare.
"Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?" "At all"?! You know what? They're probably not thinking about that much right now. But, should they ever hear this song, they’re going to be burning down churches and worshipping Nietzsche if this is what epitomises Christian compassion. All Christmas means in this song is a chance to patronise those less fortunate. "Feed the world?" With what? A slice of humble pie smothered in pity sauce? Do you even have an appetite now you’ve consumed all that cocaine? Who the hell do you think you are? Are you even listening to yourselves?
But on and on they went. "Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time, feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time, feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time, feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time, feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time, feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time, feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time…"
Never were the words ad nauseam more appropriate.
So take it away, guys. Take it away before December 2014 rolls around and we’re no doubt encouraged by the relentless, unquestioning mechanics of nostalgia to celebrate the 30th anniversary of a time when – as Michael Buerk, the man whose BBC News report kick-started Geldof's actions, put it in a documentary in 2004 – "three million iron age families were saved by the power of television" and "a foul-mouthed Irish rock singer staged the biggest spectacle on earth". Take it away, and let us instead wonder whether there are not better things we can do with our time and resources. Take it away, and let us question if there are not more fitting ways both to commemorate the tragic waste of life that took place, and also ensure it never happens again.
Seriously, isn’t there anyone out there who can look deep inside themselves and make a record that can raise millions without reducing its subjects to nothing more than victims, their fate dependent upon the superficial pity of the kind of people who take less time to write a song to encapsulate a continent's tragic plight than it requires to travel across London? Must we really rely on hurriedly scribbled lyrics to salve our consciences and, later, applaud our humanity? Have we learned nothing in thirty years? To celebrate this song is to condone its asinine, cretinous sentiments. So take it away, and let us never speak of it again.
Even the most famous man behind Band Aid agrees. At the end of November 2010, Bob Geldof (now a Knight of the British Empire) was forced to concede that 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' was one of the worst songs of all time. This belated admission wasn’t provoked by another cold day in Hell, however. Showing his true colours, Geldof shared his reasons.
"Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing. Every fucking Christmas."
Well, you know what, Bob? Tonight, thank God it’s you as well as us.
Enjoy your meal, by the way. Not everyone’s going to get one today.