The epoch-defining charity single drew a line under the fragmented UK music scene, and brought us into the modern era – for good or for ill.
Next time you watch the video for Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas – and given that the single reached No 1 25 years ago this month, it’s a fair bet that you’ll get the chance to do so this holiday season – take a good, close look at the state of everybody’s hair. Hauled out of bed at next to no notice on a Sunday morning, and summoned to the studios for a brisk 11am start, the pop royalty of 1984 (and Marilyn) evidently had no time to attend to the niceties of styling. And judging by the state that some of them arrived in – Phil Collins in a nasty Argyle tank-top, Sting looking like a mangy scarecrow, Simon Le Bon in woefully mismatched vertical and horizontal stripes – you have to wonder whether they even knew that cameras would be present.
Whether by accident or design, this utilitarian lack of vanity (from a generation that was better known for hailing the virtues of a well-sculpted bouffant, or proclaiming that one’s clothes were a window on one’s very soul) marked the first sign that British pop was heading for a massive change. The overriding seriousness of the Band Aid mission effectively signalled that the age of stylised froth and arch, postmodernist frolic was over, rendered redundant by more pressing, pragmatic concerns. If lives were now at stake, then who could give two hoots about the hairdos?
The events of December 1984 also marked the closing of a generation gap that had first opened up with punk, eight years earlier – for by welcoming “good old Phil” and “good old Quo” back to the party, Band Aid in effect extinguished any last flickers of a culture of opposition within mainstream pop. United by a common cause, the new breed was no longer required to chafe against the old school. Biggest once again equalled best, and as the stadium-sized spectacle of Live Aid was soon to affirm, the primacy of a superstar elite was re-established. Good old Freddie! Good old Macca! Good old Elton!
Those of a weekly music-press mindset might well have recoiled in horror at the scene, drawing disquieting parallels with the closing pages of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Had the punk wars been fought in vain? The NME dismissed the project with withering snootiness, grudgingly conceding that a rubbish record had at least been made for the right reasons. But by failing to offer any meaningful critique of the power structures that had allowed the Ethiopian disaster to happen, Geldof and Ure lay themselves open to self-righteous charges of naivety at best, or collusion at worst. Wasn’t it every rocker’s duty to stick it to the man, rather than pat him on the back for agreeing to waive the VAT?
Then again, you could argue that the Band Aid generation was simply making good on the promises of its predecessors. As romantic as it might have been to sing about wanting to change the world in the 1960s, surely the opportunity to make a significant, tangible, measurable difference to it was worth a certain measure of ideological compromise? The argument must have played well with the former firebrands of the baby-boom generation, by then in their 30s and starting to populate the corridors of power. But for anyone with an abiding faith in the power of the mass-market protest song, Do They Know It’s Christmas all but ended a tradition that had stretched from Bob Dylan (soon to be a participant in We Are the World) to Paul Weller (a scowling, incongruous and largely inaudible presence at the Band Aid sessions).
Within the UK charts, the fall-out was swift and sudden. As 1985 progressed, we saw a marked swing towards renewed notions of “authenticity” (Springsteen’s time had come at last, while Collins and Knopfler cleaned up with No Jacket Required and Brothers in Arms), and a hurried distancing from “artificiality” (plastic poseur cocktail crap with stupid haircuts, if you will). Over the next couple of years, pop became grown-up, respectable, civic-minded, feebly acquiescent – and really rather dull. It was a poor cultural legacy for a bold, unprecedented, well-intentioned (and in strict material terms, staggeringly successful) project which – for a few heady weeks at least – had appeared to expand the possibilities of what pop music could achieve.
Just over ten years ago, The Social on Pelham Street hosted its very first gig. Since then, it has played host to many of the outgoing decade’s leading acts, at formative stages of their careers: Coldplay, The Strokes, White Stripes, Scissor Sisters and Bloc Party, to name just a few. Occasionally, it has put on shows from acts that you would normally expect to see in considerably larger venues, who have opted for the very special intimacy that the tiny space provides. Last year, Duffy packed us in like sardines. This spring, Late of the Pier played a riotous homecoming gig, which nearly resulted in the collapse of the speaker system. And last night, having all but disappeared from public view over the past three years, The Magic Numbers played their penultimate date on a tour of deliberately small scale venues, which has given them the opportunity to debut material from their forthcoming album to their most loyal fans.
If the band had maintained the standard set by the opening four numbers, then this would have been one of the standout gigs of the year. They started quietly, with a pair of new songs (Restless River and Sound Of Something) which hit the spot perfectly, showcasing their exquisite playing, tender harmonies and instinctive, unforced rapport. The energy levels built during Take A Chance, then exploded into life with a joyous rendition of their debut hit, Forever Lost.
Just as you thought they had the night in the bag, things started to unravel. Although the sound quality was crystal clear for those in the centre of the room, those towards the bar weren’t feeling so lucky. “Sort it out, Romeo”, someone shouted. Already rattled by the muffled vocals coming through the stage monitors, which meant that they could barely hear their own voices, the players appeared to lose confidence. The smiles became strained. Those beautiful West Coast harmonies started to sound ragged round the edges. The playing became more distracted, and less focussed. The newer numbers began to sound interchangeable.
Goaded by one request too many for Love Me Like You (their biggest hit to date) from a well-meaning but extravagantly drunk contingent in the middle of the crowd, lead singer Romeo Stoddart finally snapped. “Shall we just play it now, to shut you lot up?”, he snarled, frustrated by his desire to focus on the new songs which he felt “so passionate” about unveiling.
Moments later, Romeo was all apologies. The mood lightened, as the marathon set built to its exultant conclusion. During the encore, a Facebook competition winner called Victoria took to the stage, for a delightfully feisty lead vocal on Mornings Eleven from the first album. Her excitement at being on stage proved instantly contagious, squeezing out the last drops of enthusiasm from an audience who had diligently stood through twenty-two songs, over the course of a whopping (and frankly excessive) two hours and ten minutes.
It had been a set of Springsteen-esque dimensions, from a band whose gentle charms had been stretched to the limits by awkward conditions, and whose understated songcraft lacked sufficient drama and variety to sustain the full course. But for all that, it was still great to have to them back.
After touring with Telekon in 2006 and Replicas in 2008, it was only logical that Gary Numan should turn his attention to 1979’s The Pleasure Principle: his third album, and the first release under his own name. On the penultimate date of their autumn tour, Numan and his band devoted the first half of their set to a complete run through of the album, in its original track sequence.
Guitars were banished from the line-up, in favour of a synth-dominated sound that remained faithful to the original. With four keyboard players on stage, including Numan himself, the album’s somewhat thin production sound received a significant boost. The only snag lay in the running order, which worked in favour of the stronger songs on Side One, and to the detriment of the weaker material on Side Two.
The set hit a high point with a glorious three-song run: Complex (dedicated to the late Paul Gardiner, Numan’s original bassist), Films (as sampled by several hip hop artists, including Nottingham’s P Brothers), and M.E. (best known for providing the killer riff on the Basement Jaxx’s Where’s Your Head At). But as for Cars – one of Numan’s unassailable classics – its impact was diminished by the two similar-sounding tracks which preceded it, resulting in a curiously muted reception.
For the second half of the set, the synths were wheeled off and the guitars were brought in, as the band reverted to the grinding industrial rock which has characterised their work over the last decade. Interestingly, it was the newer material which galvanised the crowd, who roared along with every word – proving (if proof were even needed) that artistically speaking, Numan is in no way a spent force.
A reworked version of Are ‘Friends’ Electric closed the main set, combining soft piano sequences with raucous stadium chants. (Bellowing along with the central synth riff is evidently common practice at Numan gigs.) It provided a fittingly climactic end to a truly superb show, from one of synth-pop’s great survivors.