“The 2000s remakes all got a bit too clever”, sniffed SAW’s Mike Stock years later. A touch of bitterness there perhaps – the people involved with this were as likely to rep for Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records as Band Aid II – but the man had a point. The Band Aid 20 remake is an overstuffed mess, groaning as it tries to cram everything it can think of about British music and Band Aid itself into five tedious, pompous minutes.

This bloating is one of its two big differences from the 1984 and 1989 versions. Those records were vocal lucky dips but the sound of each kept closely to a then-dominant style: moody synth rock or tinny drum machine pop. On this version producer Nigel Godrich makes the record suit its BPI highlights reel cast, a song which opens with sad pianos and Coldplay’s Chris Martin detours via rock, pop, grime and metal and winds up in an extended Jools Holland’s Hootenanny style jam.

Some of this is correction for previous neglect – whatever its merits as a record, back in 1985 “We Are The World” put Band Aid to shame in terms of integration. A record about Africa by an almost entirely white British cast raised questions (and eyebrows) even then, and by 2004 they couldn’t be brushed away by an angry Geldof. But when people commented that there were almost no Black musicians on the original “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” the point was that the UK pop establishment of the mid-80s was unthinkingly, reflexively racist, not that the song itself required Travis’ producer to find room for a rap and a gospel finish.

But the scale of this version is also a tacit acknowledgement that there isn’t a centre to UK music any more, no dominant pop sound to celebrate. This single sold a million at a moment when most number 1s barely shifted a tenth of that. You could certainly look at the Band Aid 20 line up and argue that there’s a shared sensibility to Dido, Coldplay, Travis, Lemar, Will Young, the Bedingfields and others, and if you were mean you might suggest that sensibility is one of unproblematic, export-ready mediocrity. But to its credit the line-up finds room for some trickier characters – the guys from Radiohead are genuinely unexpected additions, The Darkness’ cartoonish bonhomie doesn’t fit the coffee-table vibe either, and then there’s Dizzee Rascal.

At the time this charted I assumed most of this entry would be about Dizzee – it seemed impossible he’d ever be at No.1 again, Mercury Prize or no. After years – decades! – of the British music industry neglecting homegrown Black talent, the speed with which they embraced Dizzee Rascal seems astonishing. “I Luv U” was a bomb-burst of noise, invention, attitude and spite – people who’d been following the underground evolution of grime for years were shocked by how new, how hard, how fully realised it sounded. And for once the sclerotic biz actually recognised a major talent, and within 18 months he’d won the top award and was fast-tracked into a studio with Paul McCartney and Bono? Impossible. But here he is.

Dizzee treated Band Aid as a half hour’s work – they called him up, told him what they needed, he wrote some bars, wrote a few more on request, job done. And while he wasn’t a household name, his presence on the record, the way he was allowed to update its hallowed text, was vital as proof this wasn’t just a nostalgia exercise. The truth was, Band Aid 20 needed Dizzee Rascal a great deal more than Dizzee Rascal needed Band Aid 20.

It helps that his simple contribution is the best thing about the record by a distance. His spot is crassly inserted – everything pauses for a Representative Of The Youth to have his say – but his casual London squawk cuts through the rest of the swaying and mic-hugging anyway. And there’s a harsh clarity to the question he asks – “if the tables were turned, would you survive?” that gets straight to one of the reasons humans are drawn to help one another. It has a similar weight to the famous Bono line but it’s better, managing to not imply this is a zero-sum game.

Who got to sing the Bono line was a minor, but illuminating subplot. The two men slated to do it were Robbie Williams and Justin Hawkins, the participants keenest on tongue-in-cheek, performative rock-star-ness. To me this say Team Band Aid knew that “tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” was a bit of a liability, and planned to lean into that notoriety (Band Aid II had palmed it off on a Goss). Either singer would surely have been taken by Bono as a deliberate insult – in any case, he insisted on doing it himself, got his way, and oversang it anyway.

This miniature brouhaha does point up the second major difference between Band Aid and Band Aid 20. In 1984 the motley group were recording a song. Now they’re covering a classic, making Band Aid 20 as much like the charity run-throughs of “Let It Be” and “Ferry Cross The Mersey” as its own original. But more than that – as is clear watching the video, Band Aid 20 is a cover version not just of a song but of an event. Everything about it feels rehearsed – the sombre faces of pop musicians as they’re shown videos of famine victims; the in-performance mugging for the camera; the laughs and smiles of friends made and remade; even Justin Hawkins’ pelvic-thrusting his guitar.

It’s pop as historical re-enactment, stars doing the kind of things stars do in a Band Aid video and hoping for some of the original enchantment to rub off. But just as in 1989, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is too gothically strange a song – and Band Aid too tied to its hubristic, passionate moment – for that to work. As a one-off, it was remarkable. As a tradition, it feels increasingly hollow.

Score: 3

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