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Band Aid II

Band Aid II - Do They Know It's Christmas?

Produced by: Stock Aitken Waterman

Written by: Ure/Geldof

Mixed by: Phil Harding

Engineer: Karen Hewitt/Yoyo

Location: The Vineyard

Date: 23/12/89

Chart: 1
Weeks at #1: 3
Weeks on chart: 6

The 1984 Christmas number one was a ground-breaking record that has not only achieved legendary status, but has also done so much good for a worthwhile cause. Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?, masterminded by Boomtown Rats vocalist Bob Geldof and Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, brought together a star-studded line-up of contemporary music artists to raise much-needed funds for the Ethiopian famine crisis.

The track would be re-issued – to a more muted reception – in subsequent years, so when Geldof was asked in 1989 if the original 1984 version could be re-issued once more, he felt that it was time for a new recording.

According to the timeline published in Number One magazine, Pete Waterman took a call from Bob Geldof on Friday 1 December 1989, asking if SAW would produce a new version? Apparently Waterman accepted with little hesitation, but he had to move quickly.

Aside from the time needed for recording and production, the lead-in time for vinyl, cassette and CD production and distribution at that time meant that recording would have to take place that weekend.

As PWL was a small but independent organisation, Waterman was not only in a position to make a decision to take the project on, but was also able to turn the whole operation around in the tight timescales required. That said, PWL would link up with Polydor Records (part of the PolyGram group, who released the original 1984 version) for the eventual release and distribution of the record.

Gearing the staff and studios up for recording and production of the track was one thing, but it was quite another for Waterman to cancel his wedding to Denise Gyngell, which had been scheduled for that weekend!

Waterman appears to have spent Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd December collating a list of artists to invite to participate; his initial approach was to consult the chart and identify potential contributors. Artists who were available and agreed to participate included Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Bros, Wet Wet Wet, Lisa Stansfield, Chris Rea, Cliff Richard, Sonia and Bananarama (the latter the only artists to return from the original version).

The recording day was set for Sunday 3rd December. Mike Stock and Matt Aitken arrived at PWL Studios at 5am to commence work on the backing track; whilst this arrangement and production work would continue well into Monday 4th December, the initial requirement was to have a backing track for the performers to sing to, and this needed to be ready for midday.

Whilst Chris Rea was the first artist to arrive (at 11.30am), most of the other artists arrived around 2pm to start recording their parts. Whilst Lisa Stansfield & Wet Wet Wet were delayed by fog (but would ultimately arrive), other acts were forced to send apologies – such as Grace Jones (who missed her flight in the US), the London Boys (who were unable to travel from Hamburg) and Soul II Soul (who were actually holding a party for the children who sang on their recent Get A Life single). Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney were unable to attend the recording session but all three pledged their support, with McCartney offering to pay for the catering.

Whilst the keyboards, guitars and other instrumentation was in the main played and programmed by Stock and Aitken, Chris Rea contributed additional guitars, whilst a drum kit was set up to allow Luke Goss to play drums and percussion; Goss’ contribution would be combined with the standard Linn drum programming, but the inclusion of real snare sounds gave the track an organic feel.

Recording would continue throughout the afternoon and into the evening, when at 8pm the final group chorus would be recorded. Vocal recording was completed by 9pm, with the artists finally vacating the studios by 11pm. Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, Pete Waterman and the studio staff would continue working on the track until 3am Monday morning.

Stock Aitken Waterman recommenced work on the track at 10am on Monday 4th December 1989, with work mainly focused on assembling the vocals and finalising the arrangement. Smash Hits reported that Stock and Aitken tried different variations of the arrangement; at one point, the track opened with a Soul II Soul-style drum pattern, but that was removed, whilst various guitar elements were tried out. The team carried on through the whole of that Monday, and finally handed a completed multi-track to Phil Harding at midnight; Harding would work through the night on the final mix.

This final mix was approved on Tuesday 5th December, with Capital Radio getting the first exclusive play of the track that same day.

The track is well-produced, especially considering the quick turnaround involved – the track took 2 long days from pre-production to final mix – and is arguably more polished than Ure's production of the 1984 version (a clear sign of how much technology and recording techniques had developed in 5 years – and don’t forget that Ure was a highly-talented and experienced producer by that point).

The arrangement is relatively restrained for a SAW track of that era; whilst there is the use of synth pads and chimes, the track has a reliance on rhythm guitar and real drums, rather than synth brass and rattling percussion. The instrumental version is worth a listen, and highlights the playing from Stock and Aitken, plus the contributions Rea and Luke Goss.

Tonally, the arrangement and production is upbeat, in comparison to the dour and serious atmosphere of the original Band Aid version. This move was the cause of most of the criticism of this version, but one could argue that the SAW arrangement reflects the hope in the song’s lyrics. I think is fair to say that the original version delivers the message more effectively, but I would argue that the Band Aid II version is stronger from a sonic perspective.

Another clear difference was the structure of the song. The original 1984 version built up verse by verse to a final grand chorus at the end, but SAW changed this structure so that the chorus recurred throughout the song (as per a standard pop song structure) as well as the final grand chorus. Some would argue this affected the narrative flow of the song and perhaps weakened the impact of the final chorus, but again, it emphasised that this was a different take on the song.

Vocally, the track is well-performed in the main; true, like many multi-artist records like this, some performers are perhaps not as effective as others, but there are many good performances on show here.

The combination of Minogue and Donovan’s vocals on the “Where the only water flowing / Is the bitter sting of tears” line is especially effective, whilst The Pasadenas section is really nicely arranged and performed. Strong performances also from both Lisa Stansfield and Sonia, whilst Chris Rea, Jimmy Somerville and Cliff Richard are also typically solid.

Marti Pellow and Matt Goss both make impressive contributions, even if the latter’s take on the “well tonight thank god it’s them/instead of you” line was quickly dismissed as inferior to Bono’s take on the same line in the 1984 version. In fairness to Matt Goss, he performs the line well but, given the power of Bono’s delivery and the emotive force of that lyric, any vocalist would have found it almost impossible to follow Bono’s performance.

As with the original, the record closes with a grand group performance of the “Feed the World” chorus, with the arrangement dropping out at one point to leave the vocals accompanied by drums only.

The track was released on Monday 11 December 1989, in 7”, CD single and cassette format. All formats carried two mixes – a 7” vocal version and a 7” instrumental; no extended or remixed versions were issued.

As expected, the single went straight to number one the following week, thus becoming Christmas number one. This left Jason Donovan’s When You Come Back To Me at number 2, but given that SAW produced Do They Know It’s Christmas? and that Donovan sang on it, one could argue that both SAW and Donovan actually did reach number one that Christmas – though perhaps not in the manner original envisaged.

Band Aid II would hold the number one position for 3 weeks, and would sell over 600,000 copies, but despite this success, there has been much dismissive criticism of this version.

It goes without saying that, irrespective of whether you like the record or not, the original Band Aid version of Do They Know It’s Christmas? is the definitive version. This is widely accepted, and there won’t be many arguments to the contrary.

However, that does not justify the attempts made over the years to eradicate the Band Aid II version from history. It is little played, was unavailable for many years and rarely mentioned, to the point that those of us around at the time must sometimes wonder if it actually happened at all!

(In fairness, the CD single for the Band Aid 30 version did carry the Band Aid II version (along with all other versions) so at least the Band Aid organisation appears to have softened its view).

There is a whole separate article to be written on the treatment Band Aid II has received over the years (and I’ll write that at some point) but briefly, the main criticisms appear to be that:

a) the calibre of artists was poor compared to the original version, and
b) the SAW production was too upbeat for such a serious subject matter

These are effectively subjective arguments, but my responses would be:

a) SAW picked artists who were popular at that time, just as Geldof did in 1984 – the key difference is that the original record was THE first big collaboration of huge musical artists; sure, there had been supergroups before, but nothing on this scale, and in many ways, this in itself made the original Band Aid record a significant cultural event. In addition, it appears that Geldof had a lead-in time of at least 10 days to recruit artists; Waterman had a day and a half.

b) The Band Aid II version may be a radically different take on the original, but surely, that instantly makes it more interesting than a carbon copy of the original (which SAW could have easily done, and in fact, that was the thing Geldof didn’t want).

My position on Band Aid II is: yes, you can’t beat the original version, but that doesn’t make the Band Aid II version (or for that matter, the Band Aid 20 and Band Aid 30 versions) worthless. If anything, it was the right record for that time. Band Aid II simply had the disadvantage of following the original version, a problem that the Band Aid 20 and 30 versions did not have to deal with.

For my money, SAW and the participating artists made a really good record, and this version is actually my favourite. A contrarian view perhaps, but then this entire site, dedicated to putting a positive spin on Mike, Matt & Pete's work, is a contrarian exercise in itself!

So, that was 1989 and Stock Aitken Waterman had finally achieved a Christmas number one. Whilst 1990 would be a year of mixed fortunes for the hitmaking trio, they would team up with an established soul singer to make a further attempt at Christmas number one…
Written by Stephen O Brien and taken from his SAW blog Kean Canter Mattowski
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