The clocks ring out 1984 at Popular.
This was another number four for the band in Oz, where the tailor-made Christmas pop song has never been as big a tradition as in Britain (no procession of ghastly Cliff singles for us, thank you). It’s always been hopelessly muddled in my mind with its 1985 namesake, so I’ve come to it reasonably cold. It’s the first Frankie number one that doesn’t feel ground-breaking, and the first that stretches Holly Johnson’s vocal powers beyond their limits; he doesn’t sound weighty enough or angelic enough for the song’s aspirations, and his previous strengths of dirty enough and shouty enough sure won’t cut it here. This being Frankie, you have to wonder whether “make love your goal” has an implied comma or dash in the middle. With the heavy emphasis in Johnson’s delivery on make love, I rather suspect that it does. 5.
Nearly 25 years ago I held this 7” single in my hands, forked over A$2.99 (if I remember their 1984 price correctly) and took it home to wrap up and give to my brother for Christmas. It represented a passing of the torch: he was the one interested in pop singles now, and he was the one excited to hear a full-throated Simon Le Bon jockeying for space with the two Georges. The only bits that held my attention were Bono’s contribution and the greeting on the b-side from Stuart Adamson of Big Country, which along with U2 was now one of my favourite bands. It also helped that I was quite partial to the sound of bells.
I strongly remember the air of spontaneity surrounding the single at the time, which made buying it feel like a spontaneous act too, even if it was no more so than most of my single purchases. I’m still prepared to forgive the lyrics and music their infelicities for being such a rush job, but actually, I don’t feel there’s that much to forgive; this stands up as far more listenable than its sibling to come, and as charity songs go is only rivalled for me by 1985’s “Sun City”. Those first ten seconds and the “Feed the World” finale still get me, whether they’re accompanied by the video or not. (I’d forgotten that the video cut to Sting for the “bitter sting of tears” line. Ha! You guys.)
I can’t remember which came first, my awareness as a teenager of the Ethiopian famine or my awareness of this song, but it doesn’t really matter: Geldof raised awareness of the wider issues among my generation even if he didn’t create it, and gave us something to focus on other than nuclear brinkmanship and our own personal dramas. All credit to him for giving it a go without over-obsessing about the potential ramifications.
This isn’t a song that can be considered in isolation; it isn’t even a song that can be considered only alongside its video. It has to be considered in relation to its moment, to the much bigger moment it led to six months later (and I don’t mean its sister single), and to the attitudes and lives that were changed along the way. Did all of those changes stick? Undoubtedly not, but that’s no reason to downplay the effort.
It certainly isn’t perfect; I still don’t like half the singers on it, and that synth sound in the middle still sounds thin and weedy. If I were considering it just as a song, I might give it 6 or 7. But “The sort of singles that justify the existence of pop music by themselves. Impossible to imagine ever not enjoying it. Difficult to imagine anyone else not enjoying it.”? For very different reasons than “I Feel Love”, “Heart of Glass” and “Stand and Deliver”: yes, yes and yes. 10.
P.S.: Ethiopians use a different calendar, so who knows when it’s their Christmas?
Seven of this year’s UK number ones went on to reach the top in Australia (counting Nena’s “99 Red Balloons/Luftballons” as the same song), which was only the second time that that had happened. (The first was 1967. I’ve made a spreadsheet. Sad, eh.) Australia only saw five of them in 1984 itself, so some of the impact was felt the following year for us, but whichever way you slice it, the international chart impact of the UK at this moment was huge. From 1981 through 1984, 70-80% of UK number ones each year were by UK acts, and most of them went on to chart success elsewhere, reaching if not number one then close to it in Australia, New Zealand, and often the U.S. and Canada as well. It was a second British Invasion, with Band Aid its crowning moment; and, in hindsight, its endpoint. UK chart dominance diminishes noticeably from here on, and although there will be other years when the Australian and UK charts have as many number ones in common, they won’t often be British exports.
This also marks a reasonable endpoint for my own obsession with the charts, and its softening to mere interest. Throughout 1984 I had been exposed to many other musical influences than Countdown and AM radio, and late in the year a friend gave me a C90 that took me off in a whole new direction: one labelled “White Album”. I still watched Countdown, though, and followed the charts for several years yet, so our relationship wasn’t over. We were just seeing other people...
On the mark for Band Aid, I considered backing off to 9 or 8 because 10 seemed so over-the-top for a less-than-perfect song, but it’s such a landmark single that giving it less would have felt like saying that Everest is only two miles high. Criticisms of Geldof for careerist opportunism always seem to me to assume remarkable prescience, because how could he have known that it was going to be that big? And if this was to bolster his career, which career are we talking about? His post-Rats musical career sure hasn’t been the envy of millions.
There’s also another Popular commenter’s important point about the song inspiring who knows how many people working in international development. NASA is full of scientists and engineers who grew up reading science fiction, and TV shows and movies set in unusual places often lead to increased tourism, so it’s hardly a stretch to imagine a huge single like this having a conscious or unconscious impact on people’s work and study choices. I don’t know if it affected my own choice to study the politics of developing countries for the best part of a decade, but who knows—the debates that it prompted were recent enough to potentially have been a factor.
Added by Rory on 7 September 2009.