"[I]n the early '80s . . . there was this rather ridiculous idea . . . that if it was big, it was bad. Which of course rules out Elvis."
Like A Song: Do They Know It's Christmas?
December 11, 2013
[Ed. note: This is the 81st in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
The day was Nov. 25, 1984. A young girl in Portland, Ore. had just opened a lavender bathrobe and a solar-powered calculator for her 9th birthday. All she wanted that year was a Cabbage Patch Kid, but she didn't figure she'd get one because her family wasn't rich.
Determined not to make her parents feel bad, she reacted with fake enthusiasm over the other gifts, putting the bathrobe on and beginning to test the calculator under the kitchen lights, not noticing that her mother and sister had left the room.
When they returned, they were carrying a huge box, and she could tell by the distinctive shape that it was holding a Cabbage Patch Kid. Trembling with joy, she opened it, learned it was a "preemie" girl (just what she wanted) and promptly renamed it Marlena, after one of her favorite characters on Days of Our Lives.
That little girl was me, and it was the best birthday ever.
Meanwhile, across the pond in Notting Hill, the majority of my favorite musicians, including Bono and Adam Clayton from U2, were gathered together inside Sarm West Studios to record a song for African famine relief. Organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, the group called themselves Band Aid and spent the day laughing, bickering, singing and waiting on Boy George, who had to fly on the Concorde to get there in time from New York City when they discovered he was missing.
The producers had the artists take turns singing the solos and then made notes about which would end up on the track. They reassembled them to sing those respective solos, and clips from those sessions would become part of the song's video. By 8:00 a.m. the next day "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was finished and sent off to pressing plants to be manufactured (yes kids, we were still rocking the vinyl back then).
By Nov. 29, just four days later, the single hit the stores. Within a week the song was No. 1 on the U.K. charts, and soon after the video was in constant rotation on America's MTV.
I can't tell you how exciting it was to hear that song for the first time, and see the video featuring all of those stars. Back then, in addition to U2, I loved Duran Duran, Wham!, and Culture Club. Waiting for each respective lead singer's part of the song to come up was like opening five more epic birthday presents. I remember debating with my friends over which part was the best. The "pray for the other ones" bit sung by George Michael; Sting's portion where he sings his own name?
These were great, sure, but for me there was only one line that gave me goosebumps: "Well, tonight thank God it's them, instead of you," belted out by Bono. His delivery was so raw, the pain of the guilt in the lyric bleeding from his soul like a deep cut. Even at that young age, I felt it.
In the documentary Do They Know It's Christmas? The Story of the Official Band Aid Video, you can see him building up to it, shoulders moving as if they're trying to contain a volcanic eruption. Simon Le Bon, standing to Bono's left, physically reacts to the moment, turning to watch him, then smiling wide at the conclusion of the line. The musical earthquake of his peer cleary shook him.
What's even more remarkable is that when this song was recorded, U2 were the underdogs. The Police were well established; Duran Duran owned the video landscape and Wham! was enjoying chart-topping success with their sophomore album, Make It Big. U2 were on the map because of War and The Unforgettable Fire but their world domination wouldn't happen for another three years. Looking back, it's almost surprising Bono got to sing the most powerful line.
I probably listened to that record more than a hundred times that Christmas season. Unlike other holiday songs, I never tired of it, and this many years later, I still haven't. Each year when I pull it off the shelf, it instantly takes me back to that time when a bunch of my heroes got together -- without being paid -- to feed the hungry. The project that sparked "We Are the World" the following spring and Live Aid a few months after that. And Bono's line? Yeah, it still gives me goosebumps.
What's even more remarkable is that it's a great song. There have been benefit songs since the early days of rock 'n' roll, but even if the intent is pure, the creative output can sometimes be disappointing. Artists are naturally going to "give" more when they're on the clock, calcluating ways to sell more albums and/or elevate their brand. Plus, the more cooks that enter the kitchen ... well, you get my drift.
"Do They Know It's Christmas?" for me represents one of those rare moments in time when hope was tangible and the world seemed to be headed in a brighter direction. It reminds me each year that the holidays are about more than material things. I'm so thankful that nearly three decades later it still has the power to illuminate the holiday season.
© @U2/Kokkoris, 2013.