Sir Bob Geldof has won.
The proof is not that the governments of rich countries are making real moves toward debt relief for the poorest African nations, the purpose for which the 1984 Band Aid single, the star-studded Live Aid event and, decades later, the worldwide Live 8 concerts were put into motion. The proof that Geldof has won is that, over two decades later, Montreal musicians Adam Gollner and Nick Diamonds got off their asses and responded to the Irish rocker/political activist’s cry for help.
Naturally, that response was tongue-in-cheek.
In an gleefully ironic twist, the kind we counterculturalists love, Diamonds and Gollner were cranked by the patronizing lyrics of the 1984 Band Aid song co-written by Geldof, "Do They Know it's Christmas?" and were sufficiently inspired to do their own indie-rock star-studded send-up. In stores as of October 11, "Do They Know It's Hallowe’en?" uses the Celebrity + Commodity = Money formula to raise funds for UNICEF, specifically to help build and rebuild schools in Rwanda.
Even before the Live 8 hype set fire to a new rush of celebrity cynicism, Diamonds (formerly of the Unicorns and currently of the band Islands) and Gollner (a journalist and musician) were working on the song. The idea was born last winter when Diamonds visited Gollner in LA for New Year's Eve.
"Adam was trying to break into the film industry," said Diamonds. He plants his tongue in his cheek and continues. "We were trying to do the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck thing, but it didn't really work."
Diamonds's two-week trip lasted three months, during which time the pair got the thumbs-up for the “Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en?” project from Montreal's Arcade Fire, comedian David Cross, Thurston Moore and Rilo Kiley and—after visiting Vice Magazine co-founder Suroosh Alvi in New York—they also had the weight of Vice Records behind them.
With Hallowe’en fast approaching, Diamonds and Gollner started leaning more heavily on their wish list of participants: Beck, Buck 65, Sloan, Feist, Peaches, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sum 41, Wolf Parade and Postal Service were all successfully summoned. In fact, Gollner and Diamonds got every single person they wanted onboard. Submissions were transported every which way—by phone, via Internet, by car or in person.
After Vice Records's parent company, Warner, got scared off by the logistics involved in having that many musicians on one song, Sony Connect, an online download company, stepped up and funded the production of 10,000 CDs, all of which have been shipped to stores. (Vice records has since shelled out to make another 2,000 copies.)
Although the organization isn't directly involved, all profits are going to UNICEF, which was a natural choice, as Diamonds and Gollner remember carrying around the orange-and-black UNICEF boxes as kids for Hallowe’en.
“There’s a lot of layers. It’s confusing because we’re talking about how we want to stop Hallowe’en. You know, the message isn’t ‘Bring out your UNICEF boxes!’—that’s the media message. The theme of the song is that Hallowe’en is scary and should be stopped,” said Diamonds, who is known for being psychologically incapable of giving a straight answer.
“There’s definitely wormholes of meaning in this song and, yes, it’s a political weapon—it’s satire. It’s whatever you want to call it, it’s a song," said Gollner, adding balance. "We had all kinds of ideas when we wrote it and those ideas are open to interpretation. The end goal is political—we’re raising money for UNICEF who will be using the funds to build and rebuild schools—and it’s having fun while helping people, just like those kids that carry the little boxes with them.”
The song itself is treated with a touch of “Thriller.” Bubbling cauldrons, sinister laughter, echoing voices and screams decorate a basic indie-rock arrangement of minor chords and jogging drums. The voices change from line to line, and all involved play their parts well. It’s an impressive accomplishment of layering, cohesion and musicality considering the number of voices and parts involved.
The charity song phenomenon blew up with "Do They Know It's Christmas?" spearheaded by Geldof and performed by Bono, Sade, George Michael, Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, Boy George and Paul McCartney, among others. The project took off after Geldof watched a Michael Buerk BBC documentary on the famine in Ethiopia in late 1984. The resulting single immediately shot to No. 1, stayed there for five weeks, sold more than 3 million copies, was remade in 1989 and remade again in 2004 for the twentieth anniversary. Combined with the Live Aid concert and the release of the DVD in November 2004, the Band Aid Trust says it has been able to spend more than $144 million on famine relief in a handful of African countries.
Diamonds and Gollner's story is less about the charity than it is about the power of skepticism to fuel grassroots activism.
During this past summer's glut of press stories on the Live 8 concerts, many writers and bloggers raised a healthy eyebrow at the lackadaisical commitment of the stars. Céline Dion, for example, couldn't be bothered to get her toothpick ass up to Barrie for a live gig—she performed via satellite from a cloud in Las Vegas.
The point of the original Live Aid was that stars, essentially people with way more social and financial capital than most of the rest of the world will ever have, were seen as having a moral obligation to set a good example for the rest of us non-celebs.
Although Gollner and Diamonds say their single is just a response to the original song and its less-than-couth lyrics, the project can be seen as a potshot at the present climate of celebrity charity events and the ensuing merchandise. The “North American Hallowe’en Prevention Initiative,” as their super-group is called, is made up of artists who are considered counter to the mainstream pop phenomenon and whose celebrity platform is little more than "This is what I do—I couldn’t give a fuck if you don't like it," but who still wield a hearty following. In collaborating in such a quick and dirty way, and by not being seen to be swaying to the beat of starving Africans’ tears hitting parched ground, the group has turned their disbelief at celebrity culture and western arrogance into a productive force.
Ultimately, "Do They Know It's Hallowe’en?" is no different than the thing it's parodying. Diamonds and Gollner have no plans to track the money once it has been given to UNICEF; and the celebrity lineup is what will move units.
But hey, who cares what the motivation is when the result is good? Actions speak louder than lyrics, and the single is done. The roster is impressive. Kids in Rwanda will get new schools. If this is the kind of productive backlash vapid celebrity culture incurs, bring on the glittery crocodile tears of the stars, for they have shown us the power of satire.
Melissa Wheeler is getting to know Montreal's culture creators. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Melissa Wheeler.