Revisiting Band Aid’s Cringe-Inducing 1984 Single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

We all know, don’t we, that the 1984 charity hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” qualifies as possibly the worst Christmas song ever recorded? Does that go too far? The song’s writer, Bob Geldof, went even further, once saying, “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and the other one is ‘We Are the World.’”

There’s no objective measure for such a thing, but I’m not inclined to disagree, with due respect for the millions Geldof, co-organizer and co-producer Midge Ure, and British celebrity supergroup Band Aid raised to feed victims of famine in Ethiopia in the mid-80s. Revisiting the lyrics now, I’m shocked to find they're even more ridiculous and cringe-inducing than I remembered.




We can quickly dispense with the absurdity of the title. As an exasperated Spotify employee helpfully pointed out recently in a series of annotations, “the people of Ethiopia probably did know it was Christmas—it’s one of the oldest Christian nations in the world” with a majority Christian population.

The song’s aid recipients are referred to as “the other ones” who live in "a world of dread and fear." Listeners are enjoined to "thank God it's them instead of you." And two years after Toto’s “Africa,” Band Aid manages to deliver the clumsiest, most ill-informed stanza perhaps ever written about the continent:

And there won’t be snow in Africa
This Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Troublingly, the song “peddles myths about the cause of the famine,” writes Greg Evans at The Independent, “suggesting it was down to a drought, rather than the corrupt government misusing international aid.”

But it’s Christmas, as you probably know, so let’s not be too hard on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The artists who participated, including George Michael, Bono, Boy George, Sting, and many others had a significant impact on the entertainment industry’s role in international aid, for good and ill. The song was re-recorded three times, in 1989, 2004, and 2014, and it has become, believe it or not, “the second bestselling single in Britain’s history,” Laura June points out at The Outline.

Evans notes that “a reported £200m was raised via sales of the single which went towards the relief fund and it later went on to inspire the iconic Live Aid concert in July 1985, which raised a further £150m.” (Some of that money, it was later discovered, inadvertently made it into the hands of Ethiopia’s corrupt government.) Other benefit events, like Farm Aid in the U.S., would follow Geldof and Urge’s lead, and the model proved to be an enduring way for artists to support causes they cared about.

See the unbearably earnest original video at the top of the post and, just above, a thirty-minute making of film with a who’s who of mid-1980s British pop royalty learning to sing “let them know it’s Christmas time again” together.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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Comments (18)
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  • Brent says:

    But that’s what you needed to sell to raise charity back then. Nobody was into wokeness to get out their credit cards then.

    Historical revisionism…

  • Scott says:

    You cringe that the writer didn’t know as much as you do 35 years after the song was produced? How smug we are churning our our criticisms.

    Since our knowledge is so superior, perhaps you should know the cause of the famine in Ethiopia wasn’t just corruption, as you suggest. There was, in fact, a drought in that year, particularly through Gojjam, Tigray, Wollongong and Hararghe. Other factors were conflict and civil war, the persecution of non-Amharic population, the agricultural system and policies, and even locusts and disease. Might be hard to fit all that into a pop song though.

    Further, Ethiopia is Christian but the lyrics are written to those in the wealthier countries, admonishing them for the slow response. “Do they know it’s Christmas” doesn’t mean THEY don’t know it’s christmas. It’s written as a criticism of the lack of Christian response and “thank god it’s them instead of you” attitude in the west.

    The fact is, the famine killed somewhere between 400,000 to 1.2 million, displaced 2.5 million, and left 200,000 orphans. Sorry the song that raised a couple hundred million dollars for those people had lyrics you dont approve of.

  • Scott says:

    Personally, being of a certain age, I love seeing how young and beautiful everyone looks in that video.

  • Indigo says:

    Way off mark article.
    Try the same on We Are The World.
    Makes you want to puke in your soup, for performers and song.

    Brent got it “Historical revisionism…”.

  • rob preuss says:

    “unbearably earnest”?

    for such an interesting
    website, every once
    in awhile you reveal
    your strangely cynical
    generational dysfunction!

    merry christmas!

  • Ralph says:

    Not even close. Worst Christmas song: The Fairytale of New York. I don’t care what you believe, the word “faggot” disqualifies it!

  • Tom says:

    Oh please.
    “Dominic The Donkey” is the worst Christmas song ever recorded.

  • David says:

    I find most critics of this song have never donated to charity, or done anything to benefit anyone other than themselves. This song raised hundreds of millions of dollars to provide aid. What have the critics done to help end world hunger?

  • Joe says:

    The music was secondary to Geldof’s actual accomplishment with Live Aid. In spite of the feel-good back patting the official story told, the reality was horrifically, unimaginably, the exact opposite. The Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu, until then deadlocked in the war, was using the money the west gave him to buy sophisticated weapons from the Russians, and was now able to efficiently and viciously crush the opposition. Ethiopia, then the third poorest country in the world, suddenly had the largest, best equipped army on the African continent.
    Live Aid allowed Mengistu to slaughter 10’s of thousands of Eritrean women and children.
    Geldof and the rest of the stupidly complicit ‘stars’ bankrolled mass killings. He was warned warned repeatedly but was too busy basking in the glow.

  • Bill Peschel says:

    Spin Magazine found a) Ethiopia has drought every year, some years worse than others, and b) a lot of the money raised through Live Aid went to the dictator who used it to buy weapons.

    Feel good now, David?

    https://www.spin.com/featured/live-aid-the-terrible-truth-ethiopia-bob-geldof-feature/

  • Marianne says:

    Spot on. I remember at the time I found it cringeworthy for many reasons, some of which are mentioned above. And I wasn’t the only one then. Having good intentions is no excuse for being ill-informed, prejudiced and smug. And, yes, I have donated to many charities throughout my life and volunteered for some.

  • Alan McBride says:

    “Urge’s”? Ffs.

  • DJRMewzique says:

    Cringe-inducing? This is one of the single best Christmas songs of all time. What a pile of bull. There are so many songs I cannot stand to listen to ever Christmas. This song? Play it ten times a day every day in December’s by all means,

  • TheMarque says:

    White People: “If only these interesting native people I like to read about had snow and Christmas Trees like we do! They must terribly regret not having real culture like we do, the poor dears!”

  • H. Dotson says:

    I still love both songs.

  • Linda says:

    Well, they meant well.

  • Kaz says:

    The Bandaid song is my favourite modern Christmas song because it embodies the very essence of what Christmas is truly about although I wish there was an updated version that is inclusive of all who do not know that the kingdom of God is at hand.

  • Karl Reitmann says:

    Wollongong is in Australia not Ethiopia..

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