Band Aid: Do they know how much they changed the world?
Nov 25 2009 by David Williamson, Western Mail
Twenty-five years ago today, a group of musicians answered Bob Geldof’s call to record a single in support of Africans hit by famine. They wanted to change the world and they did – but perhaps not in the way they expected, as David Williamson reports...
LIKE a mountain exploding and transforming the landscape in an instant, music which will never leave the radio or escape our memory can erupt into our world without warning.
One of the great moments in rock and roll took place a quarter of a century ago when a gaggle of some of the British Isle’s most zeitgeist-sparkling musicians crammed into a studio borrowed from producer Trevor Horn and recorded Do They Know It’s Christmas?
Days later, this charity single was number one in the UK charts and soon, more than 3.5 million copies had been sold.
The most recent accounts of the Band Aid trust established to distribute proceeds to Ethiopia and the surrounding countries show an annual income of £2.06m; both the song and the vision behind it will live on.
In one sense, the Band Aid project was a revolutionary act. Pop stars, people whose job descriptions involved engaging in acts of public hedonism for the pleasure of the masses, were suddenly doing the work of monks and nuns.
They were imploring Thatcher’s Britain to fund urgently needed aid for starving people in East Africa.
Bob Geldof, the Irish singer at the forefront of this mobilisation, looked like precisely the type of character who inspires the parents of teenagers to impose curfews.
But this ultra-articulate Boomtown Rat brought the passion of public performance to the charity appeal.
At first glance, the members of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Bananarama, Ultravox and U2 seemed unlikely heirs to William Booth and the Salvation Army band-members who appeal to our conscience with the blow of a trombone and the shake of a collecting tin each Christmas.
But the song Do They Know it’s Christmas? is precisely in this tradition with its appeal to the ancient instinct for compassion.
The musicians were engaged in a thoroughly unmodern enterprise by appealing to their fanbase in a frantic effort to sort out a catastrophe which rich and poor governments alike had allowed to spiral beyond the point of disaster.
Many on the political Left in the 1960s and 1970s had glowed with hope that socialist policies based on international justice would take root and that the days of dependency upon the charity would be banished.
But hopes of social democratic solidarity in Britain had withered, a post-Falklands Prime Minister was leading a neo-liberal revolution, and international politics remained locked in the Mexican standoff known as the Cold War.
And just as Victorian philanthropists came together to address the scandal of poverty in Britain’s inner-cities in a previous century, men and women who lived at the junction of capitalism and showbusiness banded together to record a song and change the world.
Like a rolling stone which actually did gather moss, this first single would be imitated by American celebrities and be followed with the transatlantic concert spectaculars of Live Aid.
Welsh language musicians made their own contribution when they were brought together by Huw Chiswell to record Dwylo Dros y Môr (Hands Across the Ocean).
Geldof, with his long hair and piercing gift for a soundbite, appeared a messianic figure.
His pugnacious personality came to the fore when he persuaded the UK Government to forego its VAT on the single, and he herded the ego-rich performers with the skill of a particularly tenacious sheepdog.
The cultural commentator Clive James marvelled at this ardent spirit who had set up giant amplifiers in the public square.
He remarked: “Plenty of bright, rebellious, style-setting, charismatic young men have swilled and fornicated, but not many of them have had the urge to kiss the wounded.”
Cynics regarded the fundraising antics as shameless exercises in self-congratulatory limelight-grabbing.
But the phenomenon of Band Aid was neither an anachronistic moment of do-gooding nor a publicity stunt by fading/aspiring pop stars.
What could be more rock and roll than striding into a studio with epoch-defining bohemians and recording a hit single in a matter of hours which would raise millions of pounds, save lives, and expose the prevaricating impotence of the political elite?
Authentic lions of the counterculture had already blazed a trail into the terrain of the political when Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Joan Baez staged concerts in support of imprisoned black boxer Rubin Carter.
There is audacity at work when any 19-year-old plugs in a guitar and expects an audience to cheer every time he hits it. This Bastille-storming, bass-heavy fire burned in the belly of Geldof & Co when they refused to respond to images of starving Ethiopians with blithe indifference and instead led a call to action.
The spirit of PT Barnum and Andy Warhol would fuse in the next year when the power of Concorde and satellite technology was harnessed to stage concert spectaculars on either side of the Atlantic (both featuring ocean-crossing drummer Phil Collins).
Serious-minded commentators still shake their heads at the inherently gauche theatrics of the performers whose zealous rhetoric contrasted with nuanced social critiques about the root causes of poverty.
Africa does not need our spare change or condescension, the argument runs, but a just trade settlement. Charitable donations are but the band-aids applied to wounds which require major surgery. There have also been repeated concerns about how effectively the funds were distributed.
And the presentation of Africa in the song as somewhere “Where nothing ever grows, No rain nor rivers flow” is geographically inaccurate and arguably encourages us to think of a resource-rich continent as a disaster zone dependent on Western benevolence.
However, it is wrong to attack a group of musicians for failing to respond to the crisis with the sensitivity of cultural historians, the efficiency of aid agencies and the shrewdness of diplomats when such groups failed to halt the disaster.
Geldof and U2’s Bono, two Dubliners, went on to tackle some of the most torturous structural problems which lock millions in poverty when they championed debt relief with the Jubilee 2000 movement.
They marshalled the entertainment industry’s full firepower in 2005 when the leaders of the G8 industrialised countries gathered in Gleneagles, Scotland.
Concerts were staged in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, Moscow, Toronto, Johannesburg and Philadelphia, but the aim was not to raise funds for charity but force the politicians to commit to a programme for change.
The concerts were attended by the equivalent of half the population of Wales and 30 million people signed the campaign’s petition. Among the trophies won was a pledge for £28.8bn in aid.
Bono has since founded the One campaign which focuses on the unglamorous business of influencing public policy, albeit with the occasional help of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz and Julia Roberts.
There is no doubt that celebrity campaigning has grown smarter since the scruffy but heady days of 1984. The engagement of pop stars in the fight against poverty was not a flash in the proverbial pan.
But even though their goals and tactics have developed in sophistication, have we witnessed an overall dumbing down of international discourse? There is a world of difference between travelling to a conference of global activists and buying a T-shirt at a U2 conference.
But Alun Davies, a former campaigner for WWF and Oxfam who is now a Labour Assembly Member, welcomes the arrival of the rich and famous in the political arena.
He said: “I’m all in favour of celebrities using their profile and personality to communicate sometimes very difficult messages to the general public.”
He added: “I think the more people involved in politics the better. I think many politicians tend to be too pompous and self-important. Politicians quite often aren’t the best people to involve people in politics.
“You’ve got to reach out to people and that means doing it in different and creative ways.”
This is a sentiment shared by Swansea-based historian Peter Stead. He watched with astonishment earlier this year when the actress Joanna Lumley forced the UK Government to welcome Gurkha veterans to Britain.
“That was an absolutely spectacular thing,” he said. “The big issues of the world are too important to be left to politicians and it’s a mistake for politicians to think they have a world nobody else can go in.”
He believes youth culture and a quest for a better world are in no way antithetical, noting: “The gap year is a year off but it’s interesting how many people [have a] social conscience and go to places of the world where there are problems.”
And when a cultural icon such as a Bono or George Clooney – someone with a proven ability to enchant millions – sits in front of a committee of politicians to plead a case, they may be part of an ancient tradition.
Prof Stead suggested that just as the citizens of Rome chose tribunes who would speak on their behalf to the politicians, perhaps the princes of pop culture have a role in challenging the empires of today?
If so, when a young man or woman makes a crowd roar for change we should not despair that society is puddle-shallow. Instead, we should rejoice that the fire of compassion burns bright.