Geldof in Africa: The Road to Live Aid

I returned to England, my mind reeling with visions of intolerable destruction, political ineptitude and mass death.  As I landed I felt I understood the impulse which sometimes prompted people to kiss the ground. It was good to be home, but I now knew that we had not yet done enough. Bob Geldof

Band Aid was a huge success, £5 million were generated from sales just on Christmas Eve 1984.  The money was turned over to representatives from several accounting firms for distribution.  Little did Bob Geldof realize that trouble had just begun – the purchase of grain and food and its transportation was bogged down in a maze of red tape.

And so after the staggering success of Band Aid, Bob Geldof had to address the issue of distributing the funds.  He was not keen to involve any charitable organizations as they would keep a portion of the money to cover their overheads.  He had given his word that every penny donated would go to Africa for the famine victims.  After some amount of hesitation – because he had no money of his own and he did not want the trip to be perceived as a self-promotion tour – he decided to go to sub-Saharan Africa to appraise the situation himself.  His ticket was paid for by the Daily Star newspaper that wanted to get exclusive rights to his story but relented when he refused to give them exclusive rights.

Beb Geldof in Western Sudan, 1985.

He made trip after trip to Africa, never using any part of the funds for his expenses.  The conditions in Africa were heart breaking.  On one such trip he walked so much to reach the villages that his shoes fell apart and he completed the trip in carpet slippers.  In Africa he met numerous heads of states and dignitaries, but to this day the highlight of his life was meeting Mother Teresa in Africa.

Bob Geldof with Mother Teresa, 1985. Geldof considers meeting Mother Teresa the highlight of his life.

With his trips to Africa, Bob realized that the money generated by Band Aid would not be nearly enough, he knew he had to do so much more.  The answer came to him in the spring of 1985. 

Band Aid: Making, Impact & Legacy

We watched the 6 o’clock news.., the scenes were absolutely riveting and this from the get go did not look like television, it looked like Spartacus, something vast and it was gray, these grey waves moving in this grey moonscape.  And the camera was pitiless, it was like a cyclops, just there it would not let you off the hook. Bob Geldof.

Bob Geldof was among the millions that saw the BBC documentary on the evening of October 23, 1984.  He could not get the images out of his mind.  He knew he had to do something.  He woke the next morning, and had an idea of doing a song with other singers.  He wanted to record and release the song for the Christmas season. He called Midge Ure, a popular artist at that time, who agreed to work with him on the song. Within a week he wrote the lyrics to the song “Do they know its’ Christmas time?” and he and Midge Ure put the music together.

 Bob Geldof had access to a studio for one day and so the song was recorded by this group of 45 in a single day on November 25, 1984.  Every single person who worked on the song did so for free. 

With his feverish, almost manic, desire to do something and the looming Christmas deadline, Bob Geldof recruited the top British and Irish singers of the time, and created a mega-group from 45 of the biggest superstars of British music including George Michael, Sting, Phil Collins, Boy George, U2, Duran Duran, Culture Club to sing the song.  The superstars united under the name “Band-Aid’’ in a bold act of charity that was unprecedented at the time

The song was released on November 29, 1984 and was an incredible success right from the start – it sold 1 million copies in the first week and stayed number one on the charts for more than a month.  The song became the biggest-selling single in the UK and held that title for 13 years. 

The song provided immediate relief for Famine Victims. Bob Geldof had hoped to raise £72,000 – instead he raised £8 million ($11 million) to benefit famine victims of Ethiopia.  He started an organization called “Bad-Aid Trust” which was used to collect and disburse the funds.  Instead of using charitable organizations, he decided to use the Trust to disburse the money as he had pledged that every penny would help famine victims.  This took him to Africa where he realized he had just dipped his toe in the pool – he knew this would not be enough. 

The money raised from Band Aid helped buy, among other things, 150 tons of high-energy biscuits, 1335 tons of milk powder, 560 tons of cooking oil, 470 tons of sugar and 1000 tons of grain.

The song became the conscience of the rock and roll world. In the height of the 1980s, Band Aid reconnected rock stars with their consciences – forever linking celebrity to charity.  Bob Geldof had harnessed the power of celebrity singers and the consumer – and brought them together for the first time.

The enormous success of Band Aid and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” paved the way for using the powerful force of celebrities for charitable causes. It inspired USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” for famine relief which was released on March 3, 1985, and went on to sell 20 million copies and raised $75 million.  Others records inspired by Band Aid for famine relief included Austria for Africa, Chanteurs Sans Frontieres, among others.  Additionally records such as Steven Van Zandt’s “Sun City” in protest of South African apartheid; and a Dionne Warwick remake of the Burt Bacharach ballad, “That’s What Friends Are For,” for Aids research were inspired by the siccess of Band Aid.

Band Aid forever connected celebrities with philanthropy.

The success changed Bob Geldof’s life, it made history.  In the middle of Thatcherism, Band Aid came along and made people aware.  It also made charities incredibly cool.  Young people were getting more and more involved in charitable causes. Something had changed. Midge Ure.

This is the way I feel I pay for my citizenship – by using my fame whenever I can to transmit an idea.” Sting.

Bono, the lead singer of U2 and one the world’s biggest philanthropists credits his philanthropic roots to Band Aid. 

George Michael gave the entire profits from his single “Last Christmas” to Band Aid. 

Do They Know It’s Christmas Time? BBC Report

Every year at around this time, the radio stations start to play Christmas music.  This also gives me an excuse to listen to “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time?” one of my favorite songs – it’s one of my favorite songs, not just a favorite Christmas song. A few years ago, for a National History Day project, I had written about the Irish singer Bob Geldof, and the work he did in the 1980s for famine relief in Africa. Writing about Geldof, discovering the 80s music, the involvement of the music industry in charity, the famine in Africa, the BBC reporting of the famine, Band Aid, Live Aid, and their legacy  – I learnt more from this project than I ever expected to.  As I was hearing the song, I decided to write about it some more as I really enjoyed that project. 

The BBC Documentary: A Watershed Moment for News Reporting

“Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plains outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine – now, in the 20th Century.” Michael Burke, BBC Correspondent, Korem, Ethiopia, 1984

The Ethiopian famine came to international attention when BBC correspondent Michael Buerk started reporting on the extent of this disaster.  On October 23, 1984, during the evening news BBC aired his report. According to The Guardian, Michael Buerk’s broadcast of a “biblical famine,” was filmed in a remote part of northern Ethiopia. The images shot by Kenyan cameraman Mohammed Amin, together with Buerk’s powerful words, produced one of the most famous television reports of the late 20th century. Though there were news reports prior to this, the haunting images from the documentary triggered an avalanche of support from all who viewed it.

Mohamed Amin & Michael Buerk. Korem, Ethiopia, 1984

The New York Times said of this report, “The plight of starving Africans had been recounted previously in newspapers and on television but it was not until a film report by a British journalist appeared on NBC late last month that governments and individuals were galvanized to help” (NY Times, Nov 22, 1984).

The report shook the world from its stupor.  Suzanne Frank of The Guardian wrote, “Long before satellite, social media and YouTube, the BBC news item from Ethiopia went viral – transmitted by 425 television stations worldwide. It was even broadcast on a major US news channel, without revoicing Buerk’s original English commentary – something that was almost unheard of. Bob Geldof viewed the news that day.”

Michael Buerk’s BBC Report on Ethiopia that shook the world from its stupor.

“We watched the 6 o’clock news.., the scenes were absolutely riveting and this from the get go did not look like television, it looked like Spartacus, something vast and it was gray, these grey waves moving in this grey moonscape.  And the camera was pitiless, it was like a cyclops, just there it would not let you off the hook” (Bob Geldof)

It was this incredible report by Michael Buerk, and its serendipitous watching on the BBC evening news by an Irish rock band Boomtown Rats group member that led to Band Aid and Live Aid. Its legacy is massive, not only for the aid it generated at that time but for the line it drew connecting rock music and charity that lasts to this day. (Bob Geldof featured image: Rolling Stones magazine).