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From Band Aid to X-Factor: a history of the charity single

The charity single season gets under way in earnest this week with the release of the BBC charity Children In Need's song Teardrop, followed by TV talent show The X-Factor's Christmas single, Wishing On A Star.

The pop charity single has now become a British institution - and with that status comes media controversy. A recent spat saw X-Factor boss and charity single promoter Simon Cowell at loggerheads with an actual music charity - Brighton-based charity Rhythmix - over rights to the name shared by one of Cowell's X-Factor acts and Mr Davyd's charity.

But how has the charity single evolved from Band Aid's idealistic Feed the World in the 1980s to being part of a fought-over brand in 2011? Are such songs still effective in raising funds and awareness to various causes, or are they simply a cynical celebrity vehicle?

University of Sussex historian Dr Lucy Robinson, an expert on music and sub-culture in modern Britain, is currently researching the history of the charity single as part of a wider study of the politics and cultural heritage of the 1980s.

Here, Dr Robinson draws on her current research to review the story of the charity single and what it tells us about contemporary society.

Q Why the academic interest in charity singles?

Dr Robinson: Charity singles tell us as much about attitudes to society - and need - as they do about musicians and music industry.  I am interested in the relationship between popular culture and politics.  Charity singles are a part of this story.  At certain points in the past few decades charity singles have dominated the charts, often vying with each other for top positions. 

The singles serve as a way of gauging changing concerns more widely.  In the wake of Thatcher's support of 'traditional family values' and in the context of Clause 28, for example, British artists and organisers had found it difficult to launch campaigns around AIDS research and education, until the death of Freddie Mercury in November 1991. 

After that point you can see a run of releases raising money for AIDS charities (George Michael and Elton John's  Don't Let the Sun go Down on Me among them), suggesting a shift in the level of public discussion around AIDS. 

Yet the rise of the charity single also seemed to have a particular resonance with the Victorian values of Thatcher's Britain.  Victorian philanthropy viewed charitable donation as a means of raising awareness of issues - identifying the deserving and the undeserving and building a sense of identity, importance or community in the donor - as much as a way of raising funds for a cause.

Charity singles serve this dual function, by raising both money and awareness.  

Q What research have you conducted so far?

Dr Robinson: I've tracked the chart history of 65 singles released in the UK between December 1984 and1995, as well as a number of protest and benefit singles, charity albums and some local releases that either failed to chart or were sold only on an independent basis. 

I've analysed their lyrics, videos and marketing as well as the ways in which they solicited donations to charities.  There is a big difference for example, between a regular single release, where the performers' royalties are donated to charities, (Last Christmas/All That She Wants by Wham! in1985) and a 'Charity Single' that is written or re-recorded and marketed within all of the expectations of the genre.  

I've tracked musical and lyrical motifs across the singles and built a model of the ultimate charity single video: collective choruses, recognisable voices on individual lines, and ego-free cooperation between different generations and genres of music. 

Some charity singles were very much embedded within a campaign, such as those for Comic Relief or Children in Need.  This group are an enduring and successful form.  Other singles were set up as more or less spontaneous responses to an event or perceived need. 

I've also carried out a number of email and telephone interviews with people involved in recording and marketing the singles.  What is most telling about this is that on the whole few people really remember being in a particular charity single. 

Q What findings have you made in your research?

Dr Robinson: Both levels of charitable donation, and the number of charities to donate to, grew in the 1980s.  But this brought with it an increasing awareness of the downside of professional fund-raising and the bureaucratic nature of charities.  Responses to a Mass Observation directive on charitable donation in the mid-1980s make this clear.  People were happiest to donate to charity when solicited by street collectors, but were much more suspicious of professional fund-raisers and overly slick charity campaigns.  Charity singles negotiated the two tensions well, by making the musicians, celebrities and production workers volunteers in a fund-raising effort.

However, this meant that once the formula was easily recognisable, it  appeared less spontaneous and authentic.

Meantime, my research has shown that smaller charity singles are the perfect cultural form for studying Thatcher's Britain.  They created moral communities, focused on self-help, divided the deserving from the undeserving and decentralised the state from social welfare.

Q How does a charity single of 2012 differ from one in the 1980s?

Dr Robinson: The music industry has changed.  Falling  single record sales have undermined the charity single's currency as an object.  In the 1990s the charity single was often replaced with the charity album. But even these albums maintained some of the key elements of the single, emphasising the speed and urgency of the recording processes, as in the case of the War Child  album, or bringing together surprising combinations of artist, for example Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop on Red Hot and Blue.

At a more fundamental level the expansion of the popular music market post 1989 meant that it would be much harder to pull a Band Aid-style single together in a weekend. As one charity employee who liaises with musicians told me, musician's schedules no longer make it viable to get that many big names in one place any more.

Current charity singles tend to be more like straight covers of old tunes with a bit of a twist.  The Comic Relief singles, for example, have paired contemporary popular musicians with established comedians, (for example Bananarama and French and Saunders in 1989, or the Pet Shop Boys and French and Lumley in 1994). Increasingly, Comic Relief has been doing straight singles performed by current musicians.

Q How did Live Aid change the face of popular music and politics? Or was it simply an expression of other forces at work?

Dr Robinson:  I think that Live Aid has certainly been seen to be incredibly important.  It heralded the rise of what we might call celebrity activism and exemplified the global impact of new broadcast technologies.

In many ways though, I would read the influence of Band Aid within the traditions of Victorian philanthropy, with Geldof, Bono and Sting as the Great Men of Manchester, rather than as the rock and roll descendents of free festivals and Rock against Racism.

In some ways Live Aid solicited a cynicism around music and charitable donation -as noted by the band Chumbawamba with its album entitled Pictures of  Starving Babies Sell Records.

Q What are the most successful charity singles - and give examples of those that fell by the wayside.

Dr Robinson:  There is more to success than record sales alone.  Having a recognisable musical brand and a recognisable group of charities involved sustains awareness around issues, which is as important as the specific funds raised.  So the clusters of singles around child abuse, counselling and medical treatment didn't necessarily all sell large numbers individually but they were a sporadic presence over a longer period in the charts.   

I got interested in two charity singles that didn't really work in terms of raising funds and awareness, partly because of their community base.

Starvation, a cover of a Pioneers track from 1971, was recorded by members of UB40, The Specials, Madness, General Public, and Afrodiziak amongst others, alongside the original artists. 

They became colloquially described at the 2-Tone Allstars, although not all the artists were signed to that label. The single was released on Madness's Zarjazz label. Released in aid of the more radical charity War on Want and Medecins Sans Frontieres, it was the first, and only, charity single in aid of famine relief in Africa to feature African artists. 

What is notable about the single was that the idea predated Band Aid, although it was released after Geldof's recording.  Starvation was, like Band Aid, inspired by news footage of Ethiopian refugee camps broadcast on the BBC in October 1984.  

The descriptions of the recording process of Starvation fulfil the charity single formula; collective choruses, recognisable voices on individual lines, and ego-free cooperation between different generations of musicians. Starvation shared chart time with Band Aid and the USA for Africa's We are the World, but was comparatively unsuccessful: it was in the top forty for three weeks and peaked at number 33.  The combination of musical style, the predominance of British Black and African artists on the track, and the nature of the independent music scene mitigated against its success.

The second single that I looked at which didn't work was also related to George Galloway's charity War on Want.  Geordie Aid was the idea of Mike Whaller, who had already written the song Try Giving Everything and was put together with Lindisfarne's drummer Ray Laidlaw.  It was put together in a week, and recorded in six hours, involving 35 local musicians, along with celebrities and sports players.  Regional identity was central to the organisation of the single, and the charity for which it raised funds.  

However, despite the international status of some of the performers such as Brian Johnson (lead singer of AC/DC), the regional nature of the song's community was too specific to gain national air play.  Laidlaw estimated the record raised about £4,000.

Q Has the rise of internet music - and the consequent demise of the music chart - changed the fortunes of the charity single?

Dr Robinson:  The structures of the music industry can no longer be utilised in the same way to raise awareness through charity singles.  I think this is largely why we would now associate charity singles with music as mediated through television broadcasting, rather than the charts.  Recent successes that are closest to the original aesthetic of the charity single all centre on the donated time and performances of television characters, not musicians - for example, Comic Relief's Islands in the Stream cover performed by Ruth Jones and Rob Bryde, which was first performed on the comedy series Gavin and Stacey.

Q What do you think of the X-Factor charity single? How much is it to do with charity?

Dr Robinson: The X-Factor charity singles could be seen at the more cynical end of the market  -  the awareness ultimately raised is for the X-Factor brand as much as for the recipients of the donations.

The songs are always cover versions that fulfil the sentimental/inspirational end of the charity brief and are designed to showcase the individual voices within the X-Factor collective.  They look and sound very much like the ensemble performances on the results shows.  Furthermore, the X-Factor charity single is a compulsory right of passage for the show's finalists.  In fact, it is this enforced donation of their time and talent to the official X-Factor charity single that signals their emergence as professional artists. 

In the past X-Factor singles have raised money for relatively neutral choices - earthquake relief for Haiti last year or Great Ormond Street in 2009, which is a traditional recipient of charity single funds, for example.   

This year, the X-Factor single raises money for ACT & Children's Hospices UK. In fact, you could order the single, Wishing on a Star before knowing which contestants were going to be in the top 16 to perform it. Presumably, this encourages viewers to then vote for their favourite performers in the competition thereby increasinge the likelihood of them appearing on the charity recording.

The choice of Help for Heroes in 1998 was a more interesting choice.  The welfare of veterans has increasingly become a way in which we can talk about the impact of war, without having to necessarily talk about the causes of war itself, or indeed about civilian casualties. 

As a charitable cause however, it is also an implicit criticism of the government, perhaps not of the government's role in embarking on wars, but in terms of its seeming failure to maintain the military covenant. 

Rage Against the Machine's challenge to Simon Cowell's monopoly of the Christmas Number 1 with a rival song promoted via the internet and social media is the latest chapter in the story of the charity single. It will be interesting to see if Cowell can maintain his ownership of the charity single format.

Notes for Editors


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Last updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2011