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"I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history," Bob Geldof said eight years ago in a moment of remarkable clarity. "One is 'Do They Know It’s Christmas?' and the other one is 'We Are The World.' Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and ["Do They Know It's Christmas?"] will be playing. Every fucking Christmas."
Geldof was, of course, correct. Lyrically, Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?," a 1984 charity single that featured a rash of English pop heavyweights, is a mealy-mouthed disaster. It's an oblivious mess of smug, paternalistic bullshit. It's a cringe-inducing belch of a song that could only have been performed by the chronically self-satisfied and cocaine-addled. It hurries from one patronizing nonsense line to the next without pausing or catching a glimpse of itself in the mirror. For fuck's sake, Bono is on it! Listen to this shit!
The lyrics turn an entire continent into a cartoon, a wasteland, a source of nothing but pity. In "Do They Know It's Christmas," Africa is a place "Where the only water flowing / Is the bitter sting of tears / And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom." It sincerely asks whether or not a continent populated by roughly 380 million Christians knows about the most important Christian holiday of the year. "There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime," the chorus sings, turning a continent that spans 11 million miles into one vast desert. They are hungry, we're told. All of them. All of the Africans. "Thank God it's them instead of you," Bono barfs.
To describe the song as tone-deaf would be an understatement. To say that it has aged poorly would be to gloss over the fact that it was recorded in 1984, not 1894, and sounded comically awkward from the get-go. But to ignore the fact that it was a charity single would be a callous oversight, so here we are: "Do They Know It's Christmas?" raised £8 million for famine-relief charities within a year of its release. Though I have neither the energy nor the inclination to convert that into US dollars or adjust the figure for inflation, I can promise that £8 million was, and is, A Lot of Money. The gaggle of pop stars who participated in the session might not have participated for purely altruistic reasons—Status Quo were only there because the police weren't likely to turn up to the studio, knock down the toilet doors, and confiscate their pharmacy's worth of narcotics—but their star power did a lot of good that year. That shouldn't be understated. It counts for a lot.
Still, it doesn't rescue "Do They Know It's Christmas?" as an aesthetic achievement. The lyrics are bad. The arrangement is packed with globby synths and cheaply computerized bells. The video features more performative headphone-touching than your worst friend's living-room DJ set. Nobody but George Michael turns in a strong vocal performance on the original. Until recently, I thought that it was beyond repair, destined to annoy me as much as it seemingly annoys Geldof every year. But then I remembered this:
It was put together by Canadian punk-operatists Fucked Up in 2009, with the money they received for winning that year's Polaris Prize. Ezra Koenig, Bob Mould, Tegan & Sara, Andrew W.K., Kyp Malone, David Cross, and Kevin Drew all appear on the track, and they all add something uniquely chaotic, shouty, and absurd. They leave most of the song untouched, turning its weaknesses into strengths. There's only line that's been altered, and it comes via Cross, doing his best Bono impression: "Well tonight, thank God it's them / Instead of Jews." Aside from that the cadre of indie artists present seem intent on pointing at the lyrics and laughing at its missteps. And by some miracle, in the middle of it all, they bring out the song's triumphant melody, a chiming guitar bursting through in place of those tinny synths, Damien Abraham's gruff vocals underpinning the shout-along outro.
All proceeds from the release went (and still go) to three charities focused on the violence towards, and disappearance of, indigenous women in Canada: Justice for the Missing and Murdered, Downtown Eastside Power of Women, and Sisters in Spirit. "There’s a kind of cavalier colonialism to the original, like the West has to go in and help this poor Third World country," Abraham told Vulture at the time. "But the charities that we’re trying to help are exactly a product of this colonial history. People who have been subjugated and oppressed for so many years are going missing. So there’s an irony to using the song."
As a piece of music on its own, the Fucked Up version is enough to rehabilitate the original "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Sure, there will never be any way around its just God-awful lyrics, but there will always be space to laugh at all that mid-80s pomposity while buying into the melody. Plus, if you listen to the new version for long enough, your brain might replace Bono with David Cross altogether. That's a gift in itself.
Alex Robert Ross lets in light and banishes shade on Twitter.