18 July 2015

Live Aid was a political earthquake with massive cultural consequences


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Thirty years ago this week, the transatlantic Live Aid televised concert for Africa took place in London and Philadelphia. This is not a review of said concert, although I did spend a few hours this week going through the box set to locate highlights. There are so many high points, whether you approach it from a serious point of view or as an entertaining time capsule containing numerous amusing moments and fashion disasters.

On the serious side, David Bowie was outstanding and the by then rackety Beach Boys put on a performance that managed to be simultaneously melancholy and uplifting. Alongside that, there were some acts it must have seemed like a good idea at the time to invite. Looking back now it seems obvious that they were duds. Quite a few of those artists would not be having hits by the end of the 1980s, although that Madonna person did terribly well for a while.

Of course, the concert was primarily about raising money to tackle the famine that had gripped Ethiopia, and the original news report by the BBC that opens the Live Aid DVD box set is as powerful and moving as it was when it was first aired in 1984, sparking the Band Aid movement and then Live Aid on July 13th 1985. But the emergence of that movement and the concert which marked its culmination stands as one of the most important developments since the Second World War and the cultural consequences that flowed were enormous.

At the time, with Margaret Thatcher in Number 10 and Ronald Reagan in the White House, the centre right had control of the economic levers of power in the UK and the US, although the Left still had immense cultural clout and it was starting to work out how to regroup politically. An electoral revival was some way off.

Live Aid was critical in establishing the idea in the popular imagination that the Establishment generally, or Thatcher (part radical, part constitutional traditionalist), were cruel and uncaring. The old argument against conservatives and pro-market types, about knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, was refashioned and amplified.

The message from the global juke box of Live Aid was: just do something; don’t you care? It was transmitted live by television, which was changing fast thanks to satellite technology, giving news coverage and harrowing pictures ever more immediacy.

At Live Aid, here were many of the most famous names on the planet joining together to assert a new, globalised mantra slickly marketed. Princess Diana was in the audience that day and she went on to turn the Live Aid approach – emoting on demand, emphasising caring as though opponents who take a different view do not care – into a powerful media weapon.

This was the wave that was ridden by Bill Clinton and the Democrats in the US and Tony Blair and Labour in the UK. And it flowed from Live Aid. When Blair condemned opponents as hard-hearted he was attempting, successfully, to discredit their intentions and to portray them as being out of tune with the sentimental mood of the moment. The clever trick that Clinton pioneered and Blair copied was to fuse all this with the talk of prudence and fiscal responsibility.

In the US, conservative forces are perhaps more resilient, although we’ll see next year. In the UK, conservatives or pro-market types were flattened from 1994 by the Blairite juggernaut. He was young; he played the guitar; he cared so much it almost hurt. You could imagine him coming on stage with his guitar to do a guest spot with Dire Straits. Incidentally, dire straits is what his colleague Gordon Brown left the UK in eventually.

None of these consequences were intended by the organisers of Live Aid, who were busking it, of course. The pitch for their concert sounded pleasingly simple. These spoilt artists, hustled brilliantly by Bob Geldof and marshalled expertly by the promoter Harvey Goldsmith, were doing something selfless for once.

But there was a complication. Rock’n’roll and rock/pop music, despite all the bleeding heart declarations by artists, is one of the most brutally capitalist businesses on earth. There is masses of competition. You are only as good as your last hit. There is a lot of rubbish. Rip-off merchants abound and the money made by the winners is immense. In return, when it works, the audience gets sublime work that at its best rivals anything produced by classical or jazz musicians. That is the deal. But it is a business that is about money and fame and fame as a route to money.

The artists who said yes to Live Aid knew this and they knew it could be good for their careers. It saved and revived the band Queen. Personally, I wish it hadn’t. It made U2. Again, I wish it had not. But it did and the Live Aid artists did wonderfully well out of the association with famine relief.

This presents no fundamental problem for me, but then I am a capitalist, as is the highly successful businessman Bob Geldof. I think it is perfectly possible for someone to undertake a piece of work which is in their own rational self-interest and for that to produce benefits for others. The people who made the glass of wine I will consume tonight did not make it purely out of the goodness of their heart and they probably want to make a living. I pay for their wine and buy more of it if it is good. Business is done; pleasure is given; and we’re all winners.

But there were those – from the independent music scene – who saw Live Aid and regarded it as a cynical act of exploitation by fading rock stars on the make. Many of the most important bands of the period did not perform, including The Smiths, whose work has aged well and outlasted most of what was on offer at Live Aid. The critics were right in one respect. For several years after the Live Aid gang dominated and a homogenised blokey soft-rock achieved dismal cultural hegemony. Luckily, as I said, rock’n’roll is a capitalist business and within a few years Manchester in the UK had produced bands such as the Stone Roses that made the old guard look ridiculous. Rap music, not my thing, completed its journey from the ghetto to the mainstream. Nirvana, from the US, then unleashed their own transformation, making a grungy fortune along the way. It was capitalism in action.

Still, thirty years later, the idea persists that capitalists are simply the “bread heads” who don’t care about their fellow citizens and mankind more widely. It is nonsense, of course, and the figures, of course, do not bear it out. The spread of markets, competition and open trade, in tandem with some aid, is what has lifted tens of millions out of poverty in the developing world and will continue to do so. Capitalists have not been good enough at explaining this and will have to do better.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX