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Band Aid's Gift of Song

How Band Aid fought African famine -- Bob Geldof's supergroup raised millions of dollars for the drought stricken

In a holiday season haunted by a tragic famine in Africa, Band Aid was a miracle. Catalyzed by grave images of the starving millions and the dogged prodding of Bob Geldof, 38 of the biggest names in British pop gathered at the unglamorous hour of 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 25, 1984, to help. The stars, including Sting, Bono, Phil Collins, and Boy George, assembled in Trevor Horn's dingy London studio to record ''Do They Know It's Christmas?,'' a song that Geldof and Midge Ure of Ultravox had hastily written on a Casio mini-keyboard. The group chimed in on the hopeful chorus, ''Feed the world,'' with an uncharacteristic dearth of attitude and ego. And while the synth-driven song may have been a bit thin, and the lyrics a tad pat, the session endures as a proud moment in pop-music history.

It all began modestly when Geldof, then 32 and best known as the Boomtown Rats' lead singer, saw a BBC documentary on the Ethiopian famine. By the next day, he'd garnered promises from a few friends to participate in a benefit single. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, Geldof pursued other musicians and began the even trickier task of persuading record manufacturers, sleeve artists, and distributors to work pro bono. His appeals worked, luring artists back from tours in other countries and attracting a B side's worth of taped holiday greetings from the likes of David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and others.

Four weeks of planning culminated in a recording-and-mixing blitz that lasted almost 24 hours. The single aired the next day and sold 600,000 copies in a week. Tales circulated of people buying 50 records and donating 49 to be resold or sending singles in lieu of Christmas cards. The song passed Wings' ''Mull of Kintyre'' to become the U.K.'s biggest-selling single of all time and racked up $11 million worldwide.

The impromptu charm and rare air of populism that Band Aid engendered were unmatched by the wealth of successors it inspired-USA for Africa, Live Aid, Fashion Aid. Though ''Saint Bob,'' as Geldof was dubbed, was nominated for a Nobel Prize and received an honorary knighthood, his career (like those of many Band Aid members)faded. And while much of the money did go to various African countries in the form of food, medicine, and agricultural aid, some of the supplies were destroyed in political turmoil. Nonetheless, the song defied the belief that post-Woodstock music was devoid of relevance. As Geldof said, ''We raised the issue, and it worked beyond my wildest dreams.''


TIME CAPSULE

Nov. 25, 1984
Wham!'s ''Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go'' hit No. 1; Murder, She Wrote intrigued TV viewers; Iacocca: An Autobiography led the nonfiction charts; and moviegoers really, really liked Sally Field in Places in the Heart.

Originally posted Nov 25, 1994 Published in issue #250 Nov 25, 1994 Order article reprints