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. 

“If I was young it didn’t stop you coming through…”

If you’ve been kind enough to follow along with me as I reminisce, ramble and (sometimes) rant in my little corner of the blogosphere, you likely have come to realize that I love music.  I love the way it tells our stories and marks moments in time that illustrate aspects of specific cultures and of humanity in general.  I love the way it can change a mood with a few chords or a well-turned lyric.  I love how it connects us to the people we love AND to those we will never meet.

Music is Powerful.  Capital ‘P’ full o’ Power.

I have friends that have nurtured and educated me in this love, and our sharing of music is one of the wonders of my life.  From records to cassettes to CDs and then the digital MP3s/MP4s and formats I haven’t even heard of yet… each new package mattered little to me.  I wanted the access to the music- as much of it as I could get my hands on.  (I never did have an 8-track player though.  Somehow missed that classic piece of 70s technology).

Then, on August 1, 1981, something extra-wonderful happened.

I was on holiday in the States that weekend (MTV wasn’t allowed in Canada due to CRTC restrictions having to do with Canadian Content) and made sure that the hotel had cable in anticipation of the launch of this new music television.  I watched in nervous anticipation as it made its debut.  The first video played- historic and apropos- was also one of my favourites.

Video Killed the Radio Star.

I was in awe.  It was cooler than mere words could describe.  That little film was worth many thousands of words, as far as I was concerned.

Music videos- and programmes that featured them- had been around for a while.  Michael Nesmith (my favourite Monkee, media mentor and mastermind), as mentioned here, pioneered the format in the US in the late 70s, and bands like the Boomtown Rats had been making videos for some time, as a means of marketing their music to fans in areas that they couldn’t reach by touring performances.

The short clips illustrated the songs, either with a (sometimes) clever narrative background or through seeing the band in performance.  Suddenly, the faces behind the tunes were everywhere.  There was an element of the feeling that attendance of a live performance could give (if only an element- there’s nothing like seeing a great live show) and the videos helped to foster a connection with bands that I would never have the opportunity to see in concert.

MTV.  Wow.

In addition to the videos that showed us glossy images in four minute clips (perfect for the Sesame Street Soundbite generation), those paragons of journalistic innovation, the VJs, asked compelling questions that further illuminated the private lives of our musical heroes.  (Admittedly, the onset of the ridiculous adherence to current fashions in voyeuristic ‘infotainment’ can be, at least in part, placed at the door of such forums.  But more on that later…)

I have the cassette version of Billy Idol’s first solo outing- Don’t Stop.  In addition to Mony Mony, Dancing With Myself and a solo version of Generation X’s Untouchables, the flip side of the tape featured an interview with MTV VJ, Martha Quinn.  Among other cheeky facts, Martha gets Billy to tell us why he recorded a cover of Mony Mony in an entertaining and Idol-esque description of him losing his virginity to the tune.  So much was explained in that 12 or so minutes.

Back home, there were a few early iterations of the video show format.  My fave by far was City Limits on City TV, hosted by the inimitable Christopher Ward.  Every Friday and Saturday night between midnight and 6am, Christopher would greet his Limitoids and play cool tunes and talk to cool people.  Memorable nights spent on the couch well into the wee hours included interviews with Robbie Grey of Modern English- that scored me a pair of tickets to their show that week, and a dude from Scarborough named Mike Myers who showed up pretending to be some guy named Wayne Campbell- and would, shortly thereafter, become quite well known indeed.

(Wayne would also appear as himself in Chris’ video for his song ‘Boys and Girls’.  Chris returned the favour by playing in Austin Powers’ band, Ming Tea.  That’s him on guitar and backing vocals.)

MTV and City Limits were prototypes for the birth of MuchMusic- ‘the Nation’s Music Station’- which started its broadcast life in August 1984.  Those same CRTC regulations that prohibited MTV north of the 49th parallel meant that MuchMusic did a great deal to help foster an incredibly vibrant Canadian music scene (Barenaked Ladies gained all kinds of exposure by cramming themselves into the Much/City Speakers Corner to play Be My Yoko Ono) and made Toronto a popular destination for recording artists from all over the globe (Crowded House spent so much time in the MuchMusic studio it became like a second home to them).

Through spotlights, interviews and concert presentations, MTV and Much enhanced the stories being told through the songs that some pretty great musicians and artists were putting out there into our collective consciousness and culture.  We heard the stories behind the stories, and the videos provided a new medium of communication while promoting awareness of various causes and world issues.  Music television was a harbinger of how small the world would become, communications-wise, with the rise of the Interworld and instant- and video- messaging.

We shared our myths in these colourful sound bites, and marked the trends and mores of changing times and generations.  It was storytelling lived large and glossy.

MTV and MuchMusic (when they actually had something to do with music) made me want to be VJ.

Seriously.

I applied to the Radio-TV program at Ryerson in a moment of passing fancy because of the influence that music television had on my life in that moment.

Roads not travelled and all that.  Not that I have regrets per se, but the nostalgia of that period in television and music history brings remains visceral in its impact and import.

I watched with dismay as the programming format was superseded by reality and scripted shows and the videos- especially those by independent and alternative artists- gradually all but disappeared from the airwaves of MTV and MuchMusic.  Other outlets popped up (pun intended, in the case of VH1s Pop Up Video) that tried to carry the flag, but the days of getting behind the stories in the songs (VH1s Behind the Music notwithstanding) and seeing the artists as both SuperStars and real people, not so different from the rest of us, who liked to hang out and have fun while sharing their stories with the world were, sadly, ending.

I couldn’t (still can’t) find a purpose in shows about ‘cribs’, ostentatious ‘Sweet 16’ parties, teen mothers, or those that follow mediocre ‘celebutantes’ as they participated in ridiculous scenarios and staged settings.  It may be slightly hyperbolic to assert that such programmes are representative of the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization and indicative of governments’ attempts to stupefy their citizens into complacency, but only slightly.  Video might’ve killed that radio star, but the subsequent video stars were massacred by the vulgar charismatic leaders of the newer cults of celebrity.

Arguably, and as demonstrated in that other anthem of early MTV, Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing, the criticism of those who chose to entertain the rest of us is a staple of our society.  Each generation tends to be contemptuous of the music and popular culture that comes after.  I suppose I’m as guilty of that as the old geezer(s) who described Elvis Presley as a ‘definite danger to the security of the United States’ (Seriously.  The Catholic diocese of a town in Wisconsin sent such a warning to the FBI.  Google it).  Except that I do enjoy many of our current pop cultural offerings- movies, music, novels and on and on.

I just miss the music channels actually being about music is all.

‘We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.’

Sigh.

Still, some of my favourite moments are preserved on video tapes held in safe-keeping for those moments when a little reminiscence is required.  As long as the tapes (and my VCR) hold up, the stories and the storytellers will still be there- in a microcosmic universe invoking their 80s and early-90s heyday.

I shoulda learned to play the guitar.  I shoulda learned to play them drums…

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.