Do they know Band Aid was 25 years ago?
The epoch-defining charity single drew a line under the fragmented UK music scene, and brought us into the modern era – for good or for ill.
Next time you watch the video for Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas – and given that the single reached No 1 25 years ago this month, it’s a fair bet that you’ll get the chance to do so this holiday season – take a good, close look at the state of everybody’s hair. Hauled out of bed at next to no notice on a Sunday morning, and summoned to the studios for a brisk 11am start, the pop royalty of 1984 (and Marilyn) evidently had no time to attend to the niceties of styling. And judging by the state that some of them arrived in – Phil Collins in a nasty Argyle tank-top, Sting looking like a mangy scarecrow, Simon Le Bon in woefully mismatched vertical and horizontal stripes – you have to wonder whether they even knew that cameras would be present.
Whether by accident or design, this utilitarian lack of vanity (from a generation that was better known for hailing the virtues of a well-sculpted bouffant, or proclaiming that one’s clothes were a window on one’s very soul) marked the first sign that British pop was heading for a massive change. The overriding seriousness of the Band Aid mission effectively signalled that the age of stylised froth and arch, postmodernist frolic was over, rendered redundant by more pressing, pragmatic concerns. If lives were now at stake, then who could give two hoots about the hairdos?
The events of December 1984 also marked the closing of a generation gap that had first opened up with punk, eight years earlier – for by welcoming “good old Phil” and “good old Quo” back to the party, Band Aid in effect extinguished any last flickers of a culture of opposition within mainstream pop. United by a common cause, the new breed was no longer required to chafe against the old school. Biggest once again equalled best, and as the stadium-sized spectacle of Live Aid was soon to affirm, the primacy of a superstar elite was re-established. Good old Freddie! Good old Macca! Good old Elton!
Those of a weekly music-press mindset might well have recoiled in horror at the scene, drawing disquieting parallels with the closing pages of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Had the punk wars been fought in vain? The NME dismissed the project with withering snootiness, grudgingly conceding that a rubbish record had at least been made for the right reasons. But by failing to offer any meaningful critique of the power structures that had allowed the Ethiopian disaster to happen, Geldof and Ure lay themselves open to self-righteous charges of naivety at best, or collusion at worst. Wasn’t it every rocker’s duty to stick it to the man, rather than pat him on the back for agreeing to waive the VAT?
Then again, you could argue that the Band Aid generation was simply making good on the promises of its predecessors. As romantic as it might have been to sing about wanting to change the world in the 1960s, surely the opportunity to make a significant, tangible, measurable difference to it was worth a certain measure of ideological compromise? The argument must have played well with the former firebrands of the baby-boom generation, by then in their 30s and starting to populate the corridors of power. But for anyone with an abiding faith in the power of the mass-market protest song, Do They Know It’s Christmas all but ended a tradition that had stretched from Bob Dylan (soon to be a participant in We Are the World) to Paul Weller (a scowling, incongruous and largely inaudible presence at the Band Aid sessions).
Within the UK charts, the fall-out was swift and sudden. As 1985 progressed, we saw a marked swing towards renewed notions of “authenticity” (Springsteen’s time had come at last, while Collins and Knopfler cleaned up with No Jacket Required and Brothers in Arms), and a hurried distancing from “artificiality” (plastic poseur cocktail crap with stupid haircuts, if you will). Over the next couple of years, pop became grown-up, respectable, civic-minded, feebly acquiescent – and really rather dull. It was a poor cultural legacy for a bold, unprecedented, well-intentioned (and in strict material terms, staggeringly successful) project which – for a few heady weeks at least – had appeared to expand the possibilities of what pop music could achieve.