Reminder: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and Live Aid funded a warlord
What do you think of when you hear “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” the most well-known Christmas song of the ’80s new wave boom? For most people, it probably brings them to Live Aid, the transatlantic charity mega concert organized by the same Band Aid Trust that put together the benefit single. The official narrative of that whole adventure goes something like this:
- Bob Geldof (the guy from The Boomtown Rats) is transfixed by the 1984 BBC report that made westerners aware of the famine in Ethiopia. So was his buddy, Midge Are (the second guy from Ultravox). They do a charity single for Christmas , but feel they need to do something bigger.
- So we get Live Aid, a charity concert from London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium. Queen performs the greatest set in the history of popular music. Phil Collins flies on a plane that breaks the sound barrier to play both concerts for some reason. It’s a huge successes in terms of raising money, especially once Geldof says “fuck” on the BBC.
- Geldof gets knighted (Ure doesn’t for some reason) after successfully ending famine or something.
The reality is a lot more complicated, to the point it’s usually omitted from features on Live Aid/Band Aid/”Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and their legacy. Six months after the concerts, a Bob Guccione Jr., the founder of SPIN, our parent company’s now defunct namesake magazine, was speaking to a friend who mentioned, offhandedly, that Ethiopia was in the midst of a civil war.
If there’s a civil war going on in Ethiopia, then how do you get millions upon millions of dollars of aid to famine victims in Ethiopia? It turned out that you can’t, especially when a warlord named Mengistu was the catalyst for much of the famine in the first place. Medicins Sans Frontiers (better known by its English name, Doctors Without Borders) reportedly “begged” Geldof to hold onto the money until there was some way to reasonably ensure that the right people got it. He didn’t wait, instead saying “I’ll shake hands with the Devil on my left and on my right to get to the people we are meant to help.”
It all kind of devolved from there, complete with SPIN losing sponsors over their reporting because other media was too lazy to research the story in the pre-internet era when Geldof could just get away with calling it a smear. Eventually, SPIN was vindicated, but it took time. So if this is the first time that you’ve ever heard this story, it’s probably worth your time to read SPIN’s archive of its coverage on Geldof and Ethiopia.
[SPIN | Photo: Getty]