Do They 'Still' Know It’s Christmas?: The Complete Guide to ’80s All-Star Charity Singles

Everyone remembers Band Aid and USA for Africa—but how about Hear N’ Aid or Northern Lights?

“It's Christmas time; there's no need to be afraid/At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade…”

We all know those opening lines. They're from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” And for the next few weeks of the holiday season, we’ll be reminded just how well we know the entire song.

“And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy/Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time!”

Since its 1984 release, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by one-off celebrity mega-group Band Aid has become a standard seasonal carol. It remains in constant December rotation right alongside “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and, in certain pockets of Brooklyn and Staten Island, “Dominick the Donkey.”

What has not carried on through the decades, however, is the immediate Band-Aid-spawned explosion of fundraising singles recorded in studios packed with superstars.

Sporadic efforts to revive this trend have occurred, but the multi-celebrity charity sing-along remains a quintessentially ’80s phenomenon. Here’s our chronological guide to relief records of the Band Aid Era.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – Band Aid (1984)

Top Stars: Bono, Sting, Duran Duran, Boy George, Phil Collins, Bob Geldof, Paul Weller, Bananarama

The Cause: African Famine Relief

Moved by the dignity and quest to survive of famine victims in Ethiopia, Boomtown Rats frontman (and Pink Floyd: The Wall star) Bob Geldof created Band Aid and co-wrote “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with Midge Ure.

Lyrically, the song is barbed and slyly biting—and, as such, supremely British—while its structure and instrumentation is warm and uplifting, building to the irresistible crescendo of “Feed the word/Let them know it’s Christmastime!”

Geldof summoned dozens of UK rock stars to record the song on November 25, 1984. The assembled throng provides quite the snapshot of mid-decade English new wave (e.g.—four separate members of Spandau Ballet made the first-string lineup).

The single dropped on December 3, and has been a holiday perennial ever since. Live Aid, the multi-continent, generational touchstone fundraising concert held on July 14, 1984, emerged directly from the success of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

“We Are the World” – USA for Africa (1985)

Top Stars: Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis, Al Jarreau, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins, Kim Carnes, Dan Aykroyd

The Cause: African Famine Relief

Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, and producer Quincy Jones responded to the gauntlet of giving thrown down by Band Aid by assembling a stateside equivalent and mounting the zeitgeist-defining “We Are the World.”

A sign hung in Kenny Rogers’ L.A. recording studio famously instructed the onslaught of superstars, “Check your ego at the door.” The resulting ultra-hit “We Are the World” conveyed this shared moment of openhearted humility—and, today, can provide an instant answer to any youngster who inquires, “What did the ’80s sound like?”

“Dancing in the Street” – David Bowie and Mick Jagger (1985)

Top Stars: Mick Jagger and David Bowie

The Cause: African Famine Relief

David Bowie and Mick Jagger covered this 1964 Martha and the Vandellas chestnut on conjunction with Live Aid, injecting the zesty, vital Motown original with perhaps the absolute height of über-’80s cheeseball production and performances that mortifyingly embody the decade’s catchphrase, “Are we having fun yet?” It is neither icon’s coolest moment.

The garish, grossly of-its-horrible-fashion moment Bowie-Jagger “Dancing in the Street” music video debuted during Live Aid concert and has been delightfully appalling every human who lays eyes (and ears) on it ever since. As cartoon voice-of-conscience Peter Griffin says after the entire clip runs on an episode of Family Guy: “That happened, and we all let it happen!”

“Sun City” – Artists United Against Apartheid (1985)

Top Stars: Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Bono, Run-D.M.C., Little Steven, Ringo Starr, Keith Richards, Fat Boys, Hall and Oates, Lou Reed, Pat Benatar, many originators of NYC hip-hop, Jackson Browne, Daryl Hannah

The Cause: Ending Apartheid in South Africa

Founded by E Street Band guitarist and future Sopranos star and Underground Garage kingpin Little Steven Van Zandt, “Sun City” gathered a unique array of rock and rap stars to protest South Africa’s race-segregating Apartheid government.

The song calls for an artists’ boycott of the Sun City entertainment in South Africa. It effectively moved musicians to turn down such gigs, and added palpable momentum to the worldwide movement that ultimately aided South Africans in coming to govern themselves.

“Hands Across America” – Voices of America (1986)

Top Stars: Toto, session musicians

The Cause: Homelessness and Hunger

“Hands Across America” served as the theme song for a one-day fundraising event of the same name in which it’s claimed “6.5 million” people joined hands from one coast of the U.S. to the other.

The song was not a hit, but the happening itself, albeit almost entirely forgotten now, definitely had its moment. Ultimately, Hands Across America raised $34 million to benefit the homeless and the hungry.

Celebrity participants in Hands Across America included Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, Jerry Lewis, Howard Stern, Michael J. Fox, Liza Minnelli, Bob Seger, Kenny Rogers, Don Johnson, Scott Baio, Tony Danza, R2D2, and 54 Elvis impersonators.

“We’ve Got the Love” – J.A.M. (Jersey Artists for Mankind) (1986)

Top Stars: Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Clarence Clemons, Max Weinberg

The Cause: Hunger

New Jersey rockers came together to create their own Garden State giving single. Bruce Springsteen only contributes a guitar solo, allowing his old pal Southside Johnny to shine.

“Let It Be” – Ferry Aid (1987)

Top Stars: Paul McCartney, Boy George, Mark Knopfler;

The Cause: UK Ferry Capsize Victims

After a public boating disaster in England, Paul McCartney quickly organized and covered his own Beatles’ classic, with—as the saying goes—a little help from his friends.

“Tears Are Not Enough” – Northern Lights (1985)

Top Stars: Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Geddy Lee, Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Mike Reno, Burton Cummings, Paul Anka, Corey Hart, Paul Shaffer, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara

The Cause: African Famine Relief

Canadian artists united for charity on a single that, musically and production-wise, sounds very much in keeping with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World”—only politer, of course. Eh?

“Stars” – Hear N’ Aid (1986)

Top Stars: Ronnie James Dio, Rob Halford, Vince Neil, Don Dokken, Yngwie Malmsteen, Ted Nugent, Blackie Lawless, Geoff Tate, George Lynch, Neal Schon, Vivian Campbell, Carlos Cavazo, Vinny Appice Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma, Spinal Tap

The Cause: African Famine Relief

Perturbed by the lack of hard rock and heavy metal representatives on the top-tier charity singles, metal god Ronnie James Dio teamed with Dio guitarist Vivian Campbell and bassist Jimmy Bain to compose “Stars.”

They then put out the call to fellow headbangers to come create metal’s own sonic relief fund. Horns went up everywhere to helping out fellow humans in need.

“That’s What Friends Are For” – Dionne Warwick and Friends (1986)

Top Stars: Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Gladys Knight

The Cause: AIDS Research

Accompanied by high-profile pals, Dionne Warwick remade Rod Stewart’s closing theme from the 1982 morgue-run prostitution-ring comedy Night Shift and scored an enduring hit.

The single also raised multiple millions of dollars for the fight against AIDS, as well as gently raising the subject as a point of discussion at a time when fear and panic still surrounded the growing pandemic.

“Self-Destruction” – The Stop the Violence Movement (1989)

Top Stars: Boogie Down Productions Public Enemy, Heavy D, Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh, Stetsasonic

The Cause: Peace in the Urban Communities

Under the banner of the Stop the Violence Movement, KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions masterminded one of the earliest gatherings of heavy-hitting hip-hop stars to rap for peace in the streets from where their music was coming.

“We’re All in the Same Gang” – West Coast Rap All-Stars (1990)

Top Stars: N.W.A., Ice-T, MC Hammer, Young MC, Digital Underground, Tone-Loc, Michel’le, J.J. Fad, Def Jef

The Cause: Ending Gang Violence

Come the end of the ’80s, the horrific gang wars between L.A. outlaw outfits the Crips and the Bloods made regular headlines. N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre rallied local allies in the hip-hop community to create a hardcore argument for peace, “We’re All in the Same Gang.”


“Voices That Care” – Voices That Care (1991) vs. “Give Peace a Chance” by The Peace Choir (1991)

“Voices That Care”

Top Stars: Will Smith, Garth Brooks, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Tiffany, William Shatner, Luther Vandross, Kenny G

The Cause: U.S. Troops in Desert Storm

“Voices That Care” features a genuinely bizarre mix of actors and super-glossy musicians. The cause was to boost the morale of military personnel sent into the first Gulf War. And if that job couldn’t be accomplished by a choir that includes (among many others) Mike Tyson, Jimmy Buffett, Cindy Crawford, Micky Dolenz, Whoopi Goldberg, Donny Osmond, Don King, Alan Thicke, Billy Dee Williams, Clarence Clemons, Chevy Chase, and Jean-Claude Van Damme—well, than what was all the fighting for in the first place?

“Give Peace a Chance”

Top Stars: Yoko Ono, Lenny Kravitz, Cyndi Lauper, Peter Gabriel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, LL Cool J, Sebastian Bach, Duff McKagan, Iggy Pop, Bruce Hornsby, Frank Zappa’s kids, MC Hammer

The Cause: Stopping the Gulf War (although, really, You Name It)

With Yoko Ono’s blessing, Lenny Kravitz masterminded a lyrically updated cover of John Lennon classic “Give Peace a Chance.” The eclectic hodgepodge of celebrities singing and rapping about seemingly every issue of the day took billing as The Peace Choir.

This take on “Give Peace a Chance” came out as a direct protest against the Gulf War, although its words might have proved confusing. Check out a sample stanza: “Everybody’s talkin’ bout/acid house/gay spouse/greenhouse/heavy metal/hip hop/censorship, has to stop/HIV/AZT/New Kids dance on MTV/with toxic dumps in the sea.”


“Something to Believe In” – Ramones (1986)

Top Stars: The Ramones, “Weird” Al Yankovic, X, Sparks, Toni Basil, Rodney Bingenheimer

The Cause: Ramones Aid, “Hands Across Your Face”

The Ramones’ music video for the single “Something to Believe In” is an all-out, very funny parody of ’80s charity singles in general, and both “We Are the World” and “Hands Across America.” It provides a killer opportunity to rock with the Ramones and enjoy celebrity lookalikes commingling with Sparks and “Weird” Al Yankovic.