35 Years Ago Today

To diverge a bit from the subject matter that has been consuming my attention lately, I feel like I have to mark an important anniversary today. Admittedly, this impulse came about when a younger work friend said, in all innocence, “what’s Live Aid,” when I brought it up in conversation.

Children.

After I turned into ancient dust and blew away on a gust of 80’s wind, I revisited some of the performances of that day through the myriad posts I was seeing that presented the individual memories of other oldsters like me.

Once upon a time Bob Geldof was a songwriter 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

or

(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 (interesting that those things are still major concerns – backlash from the gun lobby and the religious right – and still dictate too many things in that country).

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 (again, the fact that this is still a thing should be concerning).

‘Banana Republic’ is a fantastic example of how social commentary can be voiced in an articulate yet 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, way.

“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.’

There’s something entirely Irish about the lyrics.

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. Even when Americans and Canadians came up with their own songs, in response.

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 is palpable.

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 egos at the door’).

The recordings from that day demonstrate just how far we’ve come – technology- and communications-wise, anyway.  These days 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 purpose so that people would get off  their butts and DO something to help.

It was a day of spectacle and excess (Phil Collins hopping the Concorde to play both Wembley and Philadelphia, comes to mind) – and, in addition to the incredible performances (check out Queen. Freddie held that crowd in his hands and revivified Queen in the hearts of many. The DVD highlights the contributions from other countries – INXS’s concert from Australia is still one of my favourites among their live performances), musicians found that their voices – raised together – could impact world events in a positive way.

Over the course of that day, the way we thought about popular music and its ability to affect social change was forever altered and a new standard was set.

A lot of people have done similar things since then.  They have used their celebrity in ways that benefit others (Bono started on his path to real political involvement after Live Aid) and raised money and petitioned governments on behalf of many people in need of aid and intervention.  But Bob 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.

That said, 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.

The Rats’ new album is really good (although its exposure has been hampered, as has the great output of so many artists, in the times as they are, right now) – and is reflective of that same drive, even after the passage of the ensuing decades.

On this, the 35th anniversary of the day that changed me – as I learned that those things I love best can help to change those things that needs changing – please remember that there are many contemporary artists who are doing their part to make manifest the lesson I learned 35 years ago today. Art, when wielded well, can do more than bring pleasure and comfort – it can change the world. Listen to what they have to say – and support them however you can.

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. 

30 Years Ago (give or take a couple of days)

On November 25th, 1984, a bunch of pop stars got together and recorded a song. There was a famine happening in Ethiopia, and this guy, the lead singer and songwriter of a band out of Ireland, was more than a little staggered that very little seemed to be happening to address what was going on.

He got in touch with a mate, the lead singer and songwriter of a band out of Scotland, and the two of them threw together- not overnight, but close- a tune and some lyrics.

Were the lyrics, perhaps, a little Western-centric and culturally-condescending? Arguably, yes. Was the song catchy and well-intentioned? Definitely. In my opinion, such as it is, anyway.

The two musicians then set about gathering up the biggest names in the British music business of the day and bringing them all together to record the song. All this, like the composition of the song, happened pretty damn quickly- as said musicians set aside other commitments and headed into the studio to record a song that changed things pretty spectacularly.

Leaving egos (and who can claim bigger egos than the pop stars of the 80s? Durans, I’m looking at you, in particular) at the door, they contributed to a little ditty that arose out of one man’s driving need to do something about a situation that he felt was going ignored as the rest of the world geared up for the holiday season.

The single set in motion an entire movement that promoted awareness and participation and involvement on a worldwide scale.

That there’s a pretty hefty statement. But I stand by it. Totally.

Maybe you have to have been a young, idealistic music fan, as I was (and remain- okay, maybe not so much the ‘young’ part) at the time, to really appreciate the impact that the impulse of one guy‘s need to help had on the world, as we saw it then.

Band Aid- and the international iterations that followed- was a big deal. A really big deal. It’s hard, today, for those who take for granted the instantaneous nature of communication and our ability to speak face-to-face across continents through the wonders of the interworld age, to understand the work involved in getting humanity to come together with the technology that was available thirty years ago.

The movement became a juggernaut that over-took Geldof’s life. Admittedly, it did him some fair amount of personal good as well. I’m certainly not going to dispute that. He may well be as big a jerk as some claim with a vast fortune and an inclination to dodge taxes. Never met him. Don’t know.

But the initial act that he set in motion became the jumping-off point for the shaping of any number of similar projects in the following years.

I’m not going to cite statistics (not sure I trust them)- how much money has been raised over the years, where that money went, how many lives may or may not have been saved. What, thirty years later, still gets me, is just how many people were, maybe, shaken out of their self-centred complacency and who stopped, if even for a moment, to think about something larger than themselves.

Those people who, however temporarily, shifted focus away from what they planned to stand in lines to buy on Black Friday and came to some level of awareness that there are others sharing this here planet, and that their concerns are about things other than whether or not they’ll score the latest iPhone (or whatever the kids are clamouring for in any particular holiday season).

At best, our connectedness and access to the media is a mixed-blessing. When it is used in an attempt to shake up- or wake up- people, to roust them out of self-indulgence- without resorting to soundbites designed to terrify- it can be a truly beautiful thing.

Do I like the new version? Not so much. Beyond the fact that I can recognize maybe three of the contributors (the less said about Bono here the better- I have a bit of a defence of him in the works, but it’s for something completely different) and the reality that changing up the lyrics to suit the Ebola outbreak messes with my nostalgic fondness for the song (and seems more than a little forced), I haven’t paid all that much attention to any of the previous attempts to re-work the song to make it appropriate to its return.

I’m, generally, pretty aware of what goes on around me- and elsewhere in the world, and I’ve always made an effort to address crises in my own way- through the donation of time or, sometimes, money. I’m not suggesting that I’m a paragon of involvement- but I’d say I’m at least a little more engaged than a lot of people. And I’m no longer 14, so the purchase of a 45 (yes, I have the original on 45) isn’t my only option for attempting to make a difference in situations that matter.

I’ve seen a lot of nay-saying, and charges that the return of Do They Know it’s Christmas is all about Geldof, rather than Ebola relief and awareness.  The Current, for example, spoke with a bunch of people who know a whole lot about programs in Africa and the things that are being done to change the course of this outbreak.

Cool. I’m glad they are getting the forum to challenge this particular approach to raising awareness. Criticisms of Bob and Midge aside, if experts and people on the ground have the opportunity to actually speak about the realities of the situation to larger audiences of people, that, in itself, marks a fairly significant sea-change for the better.

Which speaks very much for the validity of the re-release of the song, in my mind.

If we start to hear less fear-mongering from pundits on major news channels and more actual, evidence-based information about this virus and its transmission, this is all to the good.

Understanding, however it comes, has to be lauded. As does awareness. And if they raise a few million quid in the process, how is this bad?

Seriously. I’m looking for an answer, here.

No one, to my knowledge anyway, has suggested that throwing money at the problem (either now, or in 1984) is going to be the only thing that might make it go away.

Our seemingly-intrinsic and ever-nutured selfishness has led us to a state of affairs in which we need something– pop stars, reality ‘celebrities’, whatever- to massively jar us out of the constant focus on the microcosm and engage us in acknowledging that it’s not all about us.

I tend, as a matter of course and function of personality, to look for best intentions before leaping to criticize. And I can’t see that the intentions behind this whole thing are anything but positive.

Naive? Maybe. I’ve been called worse.

But people are talking- and buying the thing.

There may have been ulterior motives. I don’t know either of the dudes, personally. I love their music, so I’m somewhat biased in that respect (full disclosure- the two of them have written some of my very favourite songs, and Midge has a set of pipes on him that is incomparable, as far as I’m concerned).

But I’m also well aware of the whole feet of clay thing, and the dangers of setting anyone on too-high a pedestal. (this Bill Cosby thing is killing me a little. Talk about a blow to my childhood idylls/idols).

I’m not doing that here. Truly.

But.

Until you can say that you have affected world-wide change on a level that Bob Geldof and Midge Ure have done, with the composition of a little song thirty years ago, I really think you need to be holding your tongue. Somewhat.

Pop stars, and the rest of us, inhabit our own little worlds of relative privilege and concerns (and relative to those who were dying of famine in Ethiopia, I’d say that privilege is pretty substantial, whether you’re a multimillionaire pop star or a 14-year-old from Toronto). 30 years ago a couple of those pop stars spurred a number more to acknowledge that privilege and contribute in the way they were best equipped to do so.

They made no claims to be experts in African politics, culture or economics. They saw something happening to their fellow humans and came together to do something, anything, about it. They make music. Some of them get paid ridiculous sums of money to play that music (and we, who buy their records and pay exorbitant prices for concert tickets, are complicit in the achievement of this wealth).

They are using the tools at their disposal, their voices and their fame, to draw attention to a situation that needs some light.

I can’t see that doing something is, in any way, worse than doing nothing. This is true in most things. And in this case, most certainly.

A number of years after the first go-round of the single and all the events that followed, Bob wrote another song. He called it The Great Song of Indifference. It was a response, a counter-point, if you will, to the criticisms being leveled, even then, against his continued involvement.

I don’t care if you live or die
Couldn’t care less if you laugh or cry
I don’t mind if you crash or fly
I don’t mind at all

I don’t mind if you come or go
I don’t mind if you say no
Couldn’t care less baby let it flow
‘Cause I don’t care at all

I don’t care if you sink or swim
Lock me out or let me in
Where I’m going or where I’ve been
I don’t mind at all

I don’t mind if the government falls
Implements more futile laws
I don’t care if the nation stalls
And I don’t care at all

I don’t care if they tear down trees
I don’t feel the hotter breeze
Sink in dust in dying sees
And I don’t care at all

I don’t mind if culture crumbles
I don’t mind if religion stumbles
I can’t hear the speakers mumble
And I don’t mind at all

I don’t care if the Third World fries
It’s hotter there I’m not surprised
Baby I can watch whole nations die
And I don’t care at all

I don’t mind I don’t mind I don’t mind I don’t mind
I don’t mind I don’t mind
I don’t mind at all

I don’t mind about people’s fears
Authority no longer hears
Send a social engineer
And I don’t mind at all

Cynicism and right-minded criticism have their place. We need to be questioning motivations and strategy when we face problems that impact us humans and the planet we call home. But I have a real problem with knee-jerk disapproval without suggestions for alternative solutions.

If every couple of dollars raised by this effort is representative of a person who stopped, if only for the space of time it takes to listen to the song, then that’s a sign of forward momentum, as far as I’m concerned. And if it gets us thinking and talking about what we’ve, personally, contributed to make a difference in the world… And how we might go about upping that ante…

Hallelujah. It’s about freakin time.

I know it did for me. My nostalgic reminiscences have me contemplating what I need to be doing next to manifest all this change I keep talking about here- and in the real world.

I wonder if those who are looking to condemn- based in perceived intentions or actual execution- gave that any thought as they were writing tweets or articles about the misguidance or abuse of charitable impulses in attempts to affect change. I kinda doubt it.

Buy the song, don’t buy the song.

But do something that demonstrates that indifference is not the prevailing impulse to which you’d like to cling. It’s the least you can do before taking those who do otherwise to task.

‘There’s a world outside your window.’

Put up or shut up.

 

Bob

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

or

(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.