The Song: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Recorded by: Band Aid
Story: In November 1984, Irish rock musician Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats saw a TV news report about the millions of people suffering from a famine in Ethiopia. He wanted to do something about it—fast. With Midge Ure of the band Ultravox, Geldof wrote “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” depicting the stark contrast between the “first world” and the “third world.” Then he recruited more than 30 British pop stars (including members of U2, Culture Club, and Duran Duran), and recorded and released the song before the end of November, just in time for Christmas. In just a month, the song (credited to “Band Aid”) raised over $3 million.
The Song: “Happy Birthday”
Recorded by: Stevie Wonder
Story: After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Michigan congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to make King’s birthday a national holiday. It failed. Labor unions continued to promote the idea throughout the 1970s, but it didn’t gain mainstream support until Stevie Wonder released “Happy Birthday” in 1980. Wonder dedicated the song to King, with lyrics explicitly advocating a formal holiday in his honor. The hit record generated new interest, which led to a petition signed by six million Americans, which in turn led to new legislation. On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill, making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday.
The Song: “We Are the World”
Recorded by: USA for Africa
Story: Like Bob Geldof, Harry Belafonte wanted to do something for Ethiopia. He started organizing a charity concert, but his manager, Ken Kragen, believed a charity record would generate more money. So Kragen persuaded Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson to write “We Are the World,” a song about how America, as the wealthiest country on Earth, has both the power and the responsibility to effect change. Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, and 40 other stars participated in the recording session. Columbia Records distributed the record for free. Released in March 1985, it became the #1 song in the United States and England within two weeks. It ultimately sold over 10 million copies and raised $50 million for famine relief.
The Song: “Helter Skelter”
Recorded by: The Beatles
Story: This song changed the world for the worse. Paul McCartney wrote “Helter Skelter” in 1967 after challenging himself to write something louder and noisier than the Who’s “I Can See for Miles.” According to McCartney, the song is about an amusement park ride. But mass murderer Charles Manson believed it contained secret messages about an upcoming race war, in the aftermath of which Manson would become the ruler of the world because he’d be the only white man left. Led by this delusion, Manson sent his followers on a killing spree in 1969. They brutally murdered seven people in Los Angeles and left the words “healter skelter” crudely scrawled (and misspelled) on one of the victims’ refrigerators.
The Song: “Strange Fruit”
Recorded by: Billie Holiday
Story: “Strange Fruit” is a stark condemnation of lynching written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a Bronx schoolteacher and social activist. Lyrics include “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Meeropol played the song at a 1939 union rally where it was heard by Barney Josephson, owner of Café Society, a New York night club, who gave the song to rising star Billie Holiday. “Strange Fruit” became her signature show-closing number, raising public awareness of the anti-lynching movement. According to many historians, “Strange Fruit” was a seed for what would evolve into the civil rights movement of the 1960s.