Brief Disclaimer: This post is not really about myth and symbol, but it is very much about the best of humanity. I wrote about heroes here and described them as people who establish something new and better- after leaving behind the old, tried and less-than-true ways of being. Such people identify an issue or something lacking in society and work to amend the injustice, lack of knowledge or evident inequality, with their actions and example. Contemporary heroes affect change in an attempt to leave the world a better place. It’s a hot, humid Saturday here in TO which gets me thinking about summers past- and the music that was the soundtrack of those long-ago summer days. Which lead to memories of July 13th, 1985- “The Day the Music Changed the World”- and the man who started it all.
I feel like I’ve known him from waaaaay back, so I’m hoping he wouldn’t mind me leaving the ‘Sir’ off of his name.
Once upon a time Bob Geldof was a musician and singer in a band from Dublin. The Boomtown Rats spent a fair chunk of a couple of decades in the ‘all time favourite’ spot on my personal list, and even today I get a little overwhelmed when I hear songs like
(likely their best known song- and one of the first popular songs I learned to play on the piano). ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ was about school violence in the US, specifically a school shooting in California. The song hit number 1 in the UK, but was denied airplay in the US as radio stations feared lawsuits and negative reaction from the religious right.
They appeared in a fantastic ‘To Sir With Love’ spoof on SCTV:
I can remember madly searching for a blank VHS tape when it popped up on my television. I still have the tape.
Their songs were largely ‘story songs’- telling tales of people and places, slices of life in particular environments at particular times. It’s interesting that they hardly seem dated or out of comprehensible context, despite the fact that they were mainly referring to characters in places like Dublin or London in the 1970’s and 19080’s.
The songs had elements of social criticism wrapped up in the lyrics- often about the lousy lot of the working class in the ‘Banana Republic’ that was Ireland at the time. A ‘septic isle’ under the thumb of politicians, police and priests. A place that was rapidly losing its young people to emigration- or the ongoing conflicts in the North. It was a place that had banned the band from performances due to their outspoken critique of the nationalism, influence of the church and corrupt politicians that they felt were destroying their native land.
‘Banana Republic’ is a fantastic example of how social commentary can be voiced in an articulate yet still entertaining manner. Bob’s lyrics were often biting, but they demonstrated an incredibly clever mastery of language and turn of phrase. The songs of the Rats always said something, and they said it in a tuneful, and often playful, manner.
“The purple and the pinstripe mutely shake their heads
A silence shrieking volumes, a violence worse than they condemn
Stab you in the back yeah, laughing in your face
Glad to see the place again- it’s a pity nothing’s changed.’
In 1984 Bob saw a BBC news report about the drought and famine in Ethiopia. Out of his horror at the images he saw came this:
He and Midge Ure wrote a song and started a movement to raise money as a response to perceived inaction on the part of world leaders to intervene in the tragedy that was unfolding in Africa. It was the impetus for other musicians to take up the battle cry, and it brought extensive coverage to the issue.
Bob visited Ethiopia to see the extent of the tragedy for himself and realized that a large part of the reason that African nations were in such states of emergency was due to the repayments of loans to Western banks. The song wasn’t going to be enough to even scratch the surface.
So he and Midge got back to work and planned and executed an unprecedented stage show that would join the world together for one day in a desperate and despairing plea for action in the face of incredible need. By July 13, Bob was exhausted and in pain with a back injury, but his intensity over the course of the day and through the entirety of the live broadcast can be seen in this clip:
He continually reminded the audience why we were all there. It wasn’t just the greatest rock show ever staged, there was an underlying purpose that made the trappings and egos of popular music irrelevant and ridiculous (the day that ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’ was recorded he famously admonished all the participants to ‘leave ego at the door.”).
The clip also demonstrates just how far we’ve come- technology- and communications-wise, anyway. Today a simple electronic money transfer in support of hurricane victims can be completed in a matter of seconds. In 1985 there was more involved, and Bob knew that he had to drive the message home and maintain the intensity of the day so that people would get off their butts and DO something to help.
The way we thought about popular music and its ability to affect social change was forever altered.
A lot of people have done similar things since then. They have used celebrity in positive ways and raised money and petitioned governments on behalf of many people in need of aid and intervention. But he was the first to see the worldwide possibilities that could come with the exploitation of love of music. No one has used music and story as a means of communication as earth-shatteringly as did Sir Bob Geldof.
He has continued his charitable movements for Africa and global peace, achieving success- and his share of critics- over the subsequent decades. His caustic straightforwardness has earned him derision and some enemies. He can be an insufferable jerk. He has amassed a fairly vast personal fortune- and may or may not have paid taxes on some of it. His personal life has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs and negative publicity. He is an unlikely hero in many ways.
Bob used the tools that he had to hand- his background as a songwriter/musician, his connections in the music and music journalism industries, and a seemingly endless supply of energy and passion- to start a worldwide movement that is still resonating in our popular culture. He was recognized, at 34, with an honorary knighthood by the Queen, yet refused to sit on his laurels. He continues to fight for social justice and reform in a number of spheres.
Joseph Campbell defined a Hero as someone who gives his/her life to something larger than oneself. Someone who performs physical or spiritual deeds leading to the discovery- or rediscovery- of something otherwise lacking in society. Sir Bob most definitely qualifies. And he also writes some pretty wicked tunes.
P.S. If you didn’t get to experience it when it happened, definitely take the time to watch Live Aid in its entirety. Over and above the significance of the day, it featured some incredible- and some never-to-be-repeated- performances. It was truly a day of wonder.