Archive for November, 2014

Thirty years ago today, the single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was released. For a child of the eighties, and a British new wave music fan, it was an amazing moment in history. The biggest names on the UK music scene coming together to record one song, on one day, for Ethiopian famine relief. I recall the buzz around the release of the song and, of course, the video. I waited patiently for MTV to finally play the world premiere of the video and it didn’t disappoint. Besides being made for a good cause, the song was also catchy and embodied the spirit of new wave music at the time – plenty of drum machines and synth. Written by Bob Geldof with Midge Ure of Ultravox providing the music, it was also unlike any charity single before with intentionally dark lyrics made to grab attention.

Originally inspired by a BBC documentary on the famine plight in Ethiopia, Geldof felt compelled to do something to combat what he was witnessing. With the help of Ure, he quickly put together a plan for a charity single. (Although Geldof received most of the credit for the undertaking, it was Ure that recorded, mixed, and ensured that the actual session went smoothly). The song was recorded in one day at Sarm West Studios and released four days later. It was the biggest selling single in UK at the time and reached #1 and stayed there for five weeks. The song didn’t reach #1 in the US, only peaking at #13 on the Billboard charts.

With media in place, the artists began arriving at 9am that morning – Duran Duran, George Michael, Paul Young, Phil Collins, Spandau Ballet, members of U2, Status Quo, Ultravox, Culture Club, Heaven 17, Marilyn (although not having been invited), among several others. After noticing that Boy George was absent, Geldof had to quickly arrange for a Concorde transatlantic flight to get him from New York. In order to get all members involved, the chorus was recorded first and then Ure had to have someone volunteer to sing the body of the song. Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet bravely took the challenge and was followed by singers that had already been assigned lyrics.

Although appearing cheery in disposition, many of the musicians arrived with hangovers and many a drug and alcohol were consumed to keep the musicians going through the all-day session. There were small feuds that were put aside – Boy George continually trying to out George Michael and rivalries amongst some of the bands. There were also some who questioned the lyrics. Bono had some concerns over the line “Tonight thank god it’s them instead of you” and was convinced by Geldof that the lyrics had to be brutal in order to be effective.

Other musicians who were not able to make it to the session but contributed to the b-side were David Bowie, Paul McCartney, members of Big Country and Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The opening lines of the song sung by Paul Young were originally intended for Bowie. Since the original recording, the song has been rerecorded several times with different musicians and for different causes, the latest the fight against Ebola, but in my opinion nothing comes close to the original.

 

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I’ve been a fan of the Pretenders since I saw the video for the song “Message of Love” back in the very early days of MTV (it was the 19th song played on the channel’s debut). Their videos were in heavy rotation back then, and I looked forward to seeing every one of them. Though they would go on to greater fame later in the decade, my favorite period from the band is the early eighties (before the drug-related deaths of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon). There was something quite magical about the original line-up of Chrissie Hynde, Martin Chambers, Honeyman-Scott, and Farndon that the mid-eighties lineup lacked.

My favorite album from the group is their self-titled debut, released in 1980. The album is a mix of hard rock, punk, and pop, and the songs move seamlessly from raw rock to lyrical beauty. Although “Brass in Pocket” was the most successful single, I preferred other songs such as “Kid,” “Stop Your Sobbing,”and “Tattooed Love Boys.” The album debuted at #1 on UK album charts and made the top 10 on the US charts. Rolling Stone ranked the album as the 155th best album of all time, and 20th best album of the ‘80s (Slate Magazine has it at #64 of the ‘80s).

One of the best songs off the album is “Tattooed Love Boys.” It’s three minutes of pure energetic rock, and has a great guitar riff by Honeyman-Scott. The video is smoky and sweaty and fits perfectly with the song.

 

“Kid,” the second single from the album, shows Hynde’s emotional range as a singer. It reached #33 on the UK charts and music critic Stewart Mason stated that it was “probably the Pretenders’ masterpiece.”