“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a song written in 1984 by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in reaction to television reports of the 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia.
It was first recorded in a single day on 25 November 1984 by Band Aid, a supergroup put together by Geldof and Ure and consisting mainly of the biggest British and Irish musical acts at the time. The single was released in the United Kingdom on 3 December 1984 and aided by considerable publicity it entered the UK Singles Chart at number one and stayed there for five weeks, becoming the Christmas number one of 1984. The record became the fastest selling single in UK chart history, selling a million copies in the first week alone and passing 3 million on the last day of 1984, on the way to displacing Wings’s “Mull of Kintyre” as the biggest-selling single of all time in the UK. It held this title until 1997 when it was overtaken by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997”, released in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales following her death. The original version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has sold 3.8 million copies in the UK to date.
The song was also a major success around the world, reaching number one in thirteen other countries outside the UK. In the US, the single fell short of the top ten in the Billboard Hot 100 due to a lack of airplay, but it had sold an estimated 2.5 million copies in the US by January 1985. Worldwide the single had sold 11.7 million copies by 1989. Geldof’s cautious hope was that the single would raise £70,000 for Ethiopia, but “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” raised £8 million within twelve months of release. The single’s worldwide success in raising awareness and financial relief for the victims of the Ethiopian famine led the recording of several other charity singles in the UK and in other countries, such as “We Are the World” by USA for Africa. The song also led to various spin-off charity events, such as Comic Relief, and the Live Aid concert which would take place seven months later in July 1985.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was re-recorded three times: in 1989, 2004, and 2014. All the re-recordings were also charity records; the 1989 and 2004 versions also provide money for famine relief, while the 2014 version was used to raise funds for the Ebola crisis in West Africa. All three of these versions also reached number one in the UK, and the 2004 version of the song was also a UK million seller, with 1.8 million copies sold.
In the United States, the video was played on MTV frequently throughout the Christmas season. Released in the US on 10 December 1984 on Columbia Records, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” sold 1.9 million copies in its first eleven days on release but did not reach number 1 there, due to the more complex nature of the chart system, which counted airplay as well as sales. Despite outselling the official number 1 by four to one, it did not make the top ten due to a lack of airplay, ultimately peaking at number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The charity received a further boost during Band Aid’s five week tenure at the top of the UK charts with Wham! at number 2 with their double A-side “Last Christmas”/”Everything She Wants”. Wham! singer George Michael had appeared on the Band Aid single and he and fellow band member Andrew Ridgeley donated all the royalties from their single to the Band Aid Trust. “Last Christmas”/”Everything She Wants” also ended up selling over a million copies and became the biggest-selling single never to reach number 1 in the UK.
This is a charity single organized by Bob Geldof, who was the lead singer of The Boomtown Rats. He got the idea after watching a BBC documentary on famine in Ethiopia. Geldof wrote the lyrics and Midge Ure from the band Ultravox wrote the music and produced the track, which was no easy task since so many voices were involved.
In England, and much of the Northern Hemisphere, snow and numerous displays leave no doubt that Christmas is near. In most of Africa, however, it’s quite warm on December 25, since it’s summer there. This song asks us to think of those who are living in poverty and hunger in Africa during the Christmas season, reminding us that they might not even know it’s Christmas. While the sentiment and melody are full of good tidings, the lyrics are quite bleak: “The Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.”
Bob Geldof explained in the book I Want My MTV: “To me, the ’80s were characterized by overwhelming generosity and kindness. Prior to Live Aid, People had been participating in this phenomenon for months. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was sold in butcher shops all during Christmas. For whatever reason, this song – not a particularly good song – tapped into a groundswell of compassion. We never said we’d eliminate world hunger, but we could draw attention to a monstrous human crime, a moral and intellectual absurdity. It worked.”