"Do They Know It's Christmas?" gets a makeover to fight Ebola

Watch the evolution of a song over three decades

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published November 17, 2014 3:32PM (EST)
Bono leaves the recording of the Band Aid 30 charity single in west London,  November 15, 2014.         (Reuters/Neil Hall)
Bono leaves the recording of the Band Aid 30 charity single in west London, November 15, 2014. (Reuters/Neil Hall)

In 1984, when the main form of celebrity charity took the form of telethons and idea of putting musicians from disparate genres together was still relatively untried (It'd be another two years before Run-DMC told us to "Walk This Way"), the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats had an idea. Bob Geldof had been watching the news reports of famine in Ethiopia, and feeling frustrated at the situation, called up Ultravox's Midge Ure, and they wrote a song. Then they got some more musicians they knew to record it. What followed was a worldwide fundraising event to fight famine – and one of the most durable holiday hits ever written. Now, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" been rebooted yet again for a new generation. This time, the new fight is against Ebola, and though the song is the same, the message is different. And after thirty years and in its fourth incarnation, who'd have thought a project involving One Direction would prove the most direct and touching version of the song yet?

There have been different recordings of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" over the years, and each version stands as a family portrait of the state of pop music from the era in which it occurred. 1984's is a shiny, Thatcher-era piece, with Spandau Ballet hamming it up and Simon Le Bon, Bono and Sting standing next to each other singing of "dread and fear" and looking like they dread and fear each other – or at least Sting does. Watching it now, you can see of mix of those who've gone on to durable careers, and those who've all but faded from memory. You would probably have to be the kind of person who owned a vinyl copy of "No Parlez," who discovered Joy Division through its heretical cover of "Love Will Tear Us Apart," to even remember that the first voice on the original belongs to Paul Young. (cough) And though Bananarama and Shalimar's Jody Watley are part of the chorus, the song is notable for not having a single female soloist.

For the fifth anniversary version, the video comes preceded with images of starving, crying families, kicks off with Kylie Minogue, and leaps right into a weirdly dancey Stock, Aiken and Waterman version of the song, filled with mostly forgotten late eighties acts. Sorry, Bros fans.

For its twentieth birthday, the song was remade again as a more restrained affair, with Chris Martin taking the opening and Bono reprising his classic "Thank God it's them instead of you" line. This time, it's both more gender and ethnically diverse, Dizzee Rascal throws in a short rap, and you can tell it's 2004 because Dido is in it.

The newest version, which was recorded in the Sarm studio where the original was laid down in 1984 – debuted Sunday night on Britain's "The X Factor." Like its predecessors, it already feels very much of its moment, with appearances by Rita Ora and Sam Smith, as well as old hands like Bono and Chris Martin. But it's also a testament to the evolution of the message. It starts this time with a haunting image of an emaciated young woman being carried out of her bed by two aid workers in full protective gear. And the lyrics have now been tweaked to reflect sickness instead of hunger. Yeah, it's still a bunch of celebrities singing about Christmas, a concept not necessarily of prime importance in West Africa, but damned if Sinead O'Connor's passionate new line asking, "Why is to comfort to be feared, Why is to touch is to be scared?" won't give you chills.

When he gathered the new crew to record the song, Bob Geldof says he told the group, "OK, this is what it's about. When you sing this, be aware that the rest of the world will be singing it with you." And that's the difference. It's a song that no longer says, "Here's to them." It says, "Here's to you." It's about not just raising money but curing ignorance. And when Bono sings this time, he finally doesn't ask us to thank God it's them instead of us. Instead, at last, he says, "Tonight we're reaching out, and touching you."

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Band Aid Bob Geldof Bono Do They Know It's Christmas Ebola Video