Live Aid and the rise of ‘charity rock’ in the 80s

If you care to watch the 1984 Band Aid video, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (I advise you think carefully before doing so), you will see some of the worst haircuts ever sported by humankind – or rather, by mankind, as all the worst offenders are men. Simon Le Bon, Bono, Paul Young, George Michael: it’s a roll-call of hirsute horror. Only three women – the ladies of Bananarama – featured in the original Band Aid ensemble, and none of them get a prominent vocal spot. In their rush to feed Africa, songwriters Bob Geldof and Midge Ure left gender equity by the wayside.

Blow-dried mullets are not the only aspect of Band Aid, and the attendant rise in rock n’ roll charity fundraising that it spawned, which retrospectively appear in bad taste. Band Aid is at once overblown as a spectacle and, as a response to the famines ravaging Ethiopia during the 1980s, manifestly inadequate. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ brought together a bunch of wealthy rock stars, and the British public bought the song in droves, making it the highest-selling UK single of all time until Elton John’s similarly mawkish ‘Candle In The Wind’ (in memory of Princess Diana) eclipsed that sales record. No doubt everyone’s desire to help was genuine. But lyrically, the song creates an insurmountable barrier between the rich (participating musicians, the listening public) and the poor (those other people, over in Africa), whose suffering becomes an object of pitiable contemplation. Bono even sings at one point ‘Well tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of you’. Someone’s gotta starve, eh? Glad it’s not me!

So how did a severe famine in an impoverished African country, created by a complex array of political, environmental, and economic factors, become a cause celebré in affluent Western countries? In one word: television. The horrific conditions of the 1984-5 Ethiopian famine were brought home to British audiences via news broadcast – the BBC were the first foreign television network to report on the famine, in October 1984 – much in the way that the Vietnam War had been, for American audiences in the 1970s, their first televised glimpse of a battlefield. The response, naturally, was more television. The video clip for ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was put together, like the song, in little more than 24 hours and rushed into high rotation, while Band Aid’s accompanying 1985 concert Live Aid was watched globally by an estimated 2 billion people.

Bob Geldof was one, very well connected viewer prompted to action by the news reports. His Irish band The Boomtown Rats, who rode the crest of New Wave into number one with ‘Rat Trap’ in 1978 and ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ in 1979, had pushed him into the milieu of jet-setting rock stars, and he called upon all of them (using a Rolodex, perhaps?) for his hastily-conceived Band Aid plan. The song was co-written with Midge Ure, of Ultravox, and utilised the combined talents of – well, if you really need to know, watch the video. David Bowie was drafted to contribute but couldn’t make it. Boy George was flown by Concorde from New York to London in order to record his lines, at which point the unintended irony metre had to be sent away for repairs.

Celebrity was Geldof’s main criteria for Band Aid: he wanted huge stars to ensure huge sales. On that level, no one can deny the success of his formula, which was swiftly repeated in the US with ‘We Are The World’ (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, et al). The air of 19th century philanthropy that clung to Band Aid – See these generous rich people! Doing things for free! – showed up the fact that by the mid-1980s, popular music was not just big business, it was respectable business. Rock stars were no longer a tacit threat to the social order: bigger than Jesus they might have been, to use John Lennon’s phrase, but that was just fine. Celebrity musicians became substitute politicians, which says as much about the reduction of politics to populism as it does about the fuzzy ‘inclusiveness’ of stadium rock. At political rallies and arena concerts, the idea was the same: raise your hands in the air and sing along.

Live Aid certainly managed that: held on 13th July, 1985, it brought over 70,000 people to London’s Wembley Stadium and close to 100,000 at the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. An Australian version, Oz for Africa, was held at the Sydney Entertainment Centre on the same day. In the UK, the concert cemented U2’s live reputation and gave glam rock titans Queen the opportunity to lead the crowd in fervent self-congratulation with ‘We Are The Champions’. INXS, then at the height of their fame, headlined Oz for Africa with Countdown’s Molly Meldrum as host.

Live Aid has been used as a template ever since for large-scale charity concerts that combine live music, television and radio broadcasts, and an element of home-viewer fundraising, generally a telethon. The most recent local examples have been Australia Unites, held on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House in early 2005 to raise money for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and Sound Relief, in March 2009, for those affected by the Victorian bushfires and the Queensland floods that year. Like Live Aid, Sound Relief was held at two venues simultaneously – the Sydney and Melbourne Cricket Grounds – and featured a line-up of contemporary, early 00s favourites (Wolfmother, Eskimo Joe), reunited oldies (Midnight Oil, Hunters & Collectors), and Jet, who literalised their name by flying cross-country between both venues. Also, Kings of Leon had the tact not to perform ‘Sex On Fire’.

The million-dollar question – literally – pertaining to Band Aid, Live Aid, and its many subsequent imitators, is where does the money go? The BBC was forced to apologise to Bob Geldof in November 2010 after airing a series of reports which suggested that money raised by Band Aid for famine relief in Ethiopia had instead been diverted to armed rebel groups. The fact that some aid money had been used for such a purpose was not in dispute, but whether or not any of this money had originated from Band Aid. Geldof insisted no, and after initially standing by its reports, the BBC apologised without reservation.

But the difficult issue remains of how humanitarian fundraising, particularly in massive amounts, is distributed in a way that ensures it helps, rather than hinders, the people it was intended for. Aid expert David Rieff has raised detailed concerns that a good proportion of the roughly 50 million pounds raised by Geldof’s musical charity went to NGOs who colluded in the forced resettlement of more than half a million Ethiopians. “There is no necessary connection between raising money for a good cause and that money being well spent,” wrote Rieff in British newspaper The Guardian, “… there is ample reason to conclude that it [Live Aid] did harm as well as good.” (June 24, 2005). Somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 people died in the resettlements – likely as many as were saved from famine by fundraising efforts. As most rock stars know from experience, a lot of money can be a dangerous thing.

Anwyn Crawford


Sampling: the 80s

Music was transformed by digital technology in the 1980s, in ways that are still reverberating today. The compact disc promised ‘perfect sound forever’, and led to later formats such as DVD and Blu-Ray. Digital synthesizers and signal processors, and the MIDI protocol through which they communicate, made for increasingly compact, sophisticated and affordable production environments, as well as the proliferation of home studios, which can now be powered by just a laptop. And the sampler opened up radical new sonic possibilities, changing audiences’ ideas about music, and leading to new genres such as mash-up.

The sampler is a a type of electronic musical instrument that is a close relative of the synthesizer. Whereas synths typically generate particular kinds of sounds, such as square waves or sawtooth waves, a sampler can record and play back any sounds.

My first encounter with sampling was as a 13 year old boy soprano, on tour with my school’s choir and orchestra. While watching the TV in a hotel lobby, a striking music video appeared, in which a punk child and her accomplices took to orchestral instruments, including a grand piano, with a chainsaw and other power tools, with the music seemingly incorporating the sounds of those tools (it was actually a sampled car engine – a Volkswagen Golf to be precise). The artists had captured the attitude of punk’s year zero, of destroying the past to create the future, but at the same time the work was incredibly catchy. I couldn’t get the sounds or images out of my head. My musical world had changed forever.

The band was Art of Noise and the song was “Close (To the Edit)”:

Art of Noise was an initially faceless group of technicians, producers, composers and writers. The team had been assembled in 1981 by super-producer Trevor Horn, to work on ABC’s classic The Lexicon of Love album. Team members Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik specialised in programming the then new Fairlight sampler (about which more later). It was while experimenting with sampled drum out-takes from one of Horn’s previous bands, Yes, and combining them with ‘non-musical’ sounds, that the idea for Art of Noise was born. With the addition of classically trained composer Anne Dudley, and NME music journalist Paul Morley, the team was complete.

Morley named the group Art of Noise as a reference to Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noises.

Futurism was an Italian art movement of the early 20th Century that celebrated technology, speed, violence and noise. It was the punk of its era, with founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti declaring that “we want no part of it, the past”.

Marinetti was also a pioneer of sound poetry. His 1912 sound poem Zang Tumb Tumb (also the name of Art of Noise’s record label) inspired Russolo to write his Art of Noises manifesto, which proposed a new form of music: “Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound”.

Russolo invented machines, called Intonarumori, to realise his musical ideas. These devices simulated industrial sounds, and could be considered a precursor to the sampler.

Futurist ideas would have a profound influence on art and music in the 20th Century.

The Dada movement which followed on from Futurism, and was considered by some to be anti-art, brought in the use of found objects such as the urinal of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), and expanded the use of collage through the cutup poems of Tristan Tzara.

American avant-gardists picked up on these ideas, with composer John Cage predicting in 1937 that the music of the future would include “all sounds”, and suggesting the use of optical film as a medium for composition. This was before magnetic tape, which only became available after World War II.

In Paris, Pierre Schaeffer developed Musique Concrète (“real music”) using recorded sounds and the technology of the radio studio, such as turntables and later, magnetic tape. This electroacoustic approach would inspire other avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Stockhausen fans The Beatles brought sound collage to the masses with their infamous “Revolution No. 9”, and used the Mellotron, a keyboard tape loop instrument that was a precursor to the sampler, on songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

Inspired by Tzara, Beat writer William S. Burroughs and Brian Gysin did their own tape cutup experiments, concluding “when you cut into the present, the future leaks out”. These experiments went on to influence many artists, from David Bowie to industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle.

Tape became more accessible through the medium of cassettes, allowing a new generation of DIY artists, inspired by punk and industrial to experiment with cutups and found sounds. This was the background from which sampling emerged.

Sydney company Fairlight, founded by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, created the first commercially available sampler, the Fairlight CMI (Computer Music Instrument) in 1979. Way ahead of its time and featuring a light pen interface and three dimensional waveform display, it was also expensive at about £18,000, putting it out of reach of the average musician. Pop stars, however, became enthusiastic users, enabling them to feed an audience hungry for new sounds.

The musical aesthetic of sampling was largely determined by the available technology. The tiny (by today’s standards) memory meant that only short sounds could be used. This staccato approach was exemplified by the Fairlight’s ORCH5 orchestra sample – one of the defining sounds of the ‘80s. One way of overcoming this limitation was to loop sounds, creating drum loops, or atmospheric ‘pads’, often extended through the use of another great 80s sound: digital reverb.

Here’s a cute video of Peter Vogel demonstrating the Fairlight CMI on ABC TV:

Kate Bush’s Never for Ever (1980) was the first commercially released album to include the Fairlight. She had been introduced to the instrument by Peter Gabriel who was a Fairlight enthusiast and whose brother in law became the UK distributor. For artists such as Gabriel and Bush, the Fairlight provided unprecedented control over the sound of their music. As Bush said:

“I took one look at it and said, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.’ I couldn’t believe the Fairlight. It’s called a synthesizer, but many of its sounds are of natural source. To be able to play with strings, waterfalls, anything you want, it’s wonderful.”

Kate Bush with Fairlight
Kate Bush with Fairlight. Source.

The Fairlight was soon embraced by other pop stars, such as Thomas Dolby (“Hyperactive”) Jean Michel Jarre (especially the underrated masterpiece Zoolook) and Yello (“Oh Yeah”), making it one of the most important contributors to the ‘80s pop sound.

By the mid-‘80s sampling had become ubiquitous with the emergence of electro and house music, and a range of more affordable samplers being produced by companies such as Akai, Roland, E-mu, and Ensoniq.

M/A/R/R/S “Pump Up the Volume” is one of the defining tracks of that era.

Synthetic TV presenter Max Headroom represented this new aesthetic with his stuttering, glitchy approach to presentation. He even featured in the Art of Noise song and video clip, “Paranoimia”.

Meanwhile back in Australia, post-punk experimentalists such as the now legendary Severed Heads had long been incorporating found sounds into their music using DIY techniques involving turntables, tapes, and samplers.

In 1986 Severed Heads’ Tom Ellard demonstrated sampling on national television:

Pioneers of multimedia, Severed Heads went on to use another Fairlight invention, the CVI (Computer Video Instrument).

Hip hop, founded on the concept of two turntables and a microphone, was a natural home for the sampler. Instead of laboriously looping beats by juggling records, producers could create loops with the sampler, and layer multiple loops and other samples together. This explosion in creative possibilities led to the golden age of hip hop.

On albums such as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy sampled iconoclastic black artists including Thelonious Monk and Jimi Hendrix, to create a rhythmic noise that was some of the most radical pop music ever made, both politically and sonically. As well as using samples in their music, hip hop artists such as Eric B & Rakim found themselves being sampled heavily by other artists.

Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav famously rapped “you can’t copyright no beats”. Unfortunately for the golden age of hip hop, he was wrong. De La Soul got into trouble for the use of uncleared samples. At around the same time, experimental sample-based artists such as John Oswald (“Plunderphonic”) and Negativland (“U2”) also fell afoul of copyright law, driving such music underground until the eventual emergence of Napster and mash-ups.

However samples continued to be a feature of ‘90s pop. Art of Noise were themselves sampled by many others, perhaps most notably on the Prodigy’s hit “Firestarter” which included the famous ‘hey’ from “Close (To the Edit)”.

Digital audio, as pioneered by sampling, fed into the rise of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) such as ProTools, forever changing music production, along with more experimental techniques such as glitch and granular synthesis. These all paved the way for the mash-up culture in which we now live. For this we have the 80s to thank, with its visionaries such as Fairlight, who are currently bringing the 80s back with a retro-looking sampler and an iPad app based on the CMI.


Club Hordern: A retrospective

Triggered somewhat by our ’80s Are Back’ exhibition, Mark Murphy discusses his memories of the Club Hordern Parties in the 80s, with Richard Weiss, one of the ‘Sweatbox’ party organisers.

I had heard about the Hordern parties from a neighbour when I was living in The Cross in 1989. He was into rock music and I overheard him talking about the Hordern as if it was another planet – thousands of people dancing, this new drug called ecstasy, crazy music pumping out from massive wall-to-wall speakers. He had never seen anything like it.

In my mind, I was already there.

Poster, 'Meltdown' dance party presented by Sweatbox at the Hordern Pavilion, Moore Park, NSW

Poster, 'Meltdown' dance party presented by Sweatbox at the Hordern Pavilion, Moore Park, NSW

The party I decided on was called Sweatbox ‘Meltdown’. I got my ticket, and not really knowing anyone in Sydney, ventured to the venue on my own. I will never forget the entrance. It was like going through a silver vortex. They had al-foiled the entrance as a tunnel and when you came out to the dance-floor there were three cherry-pickers with lights in the tops sitting in the middle of the dance floor. Thousands of people were wildly dancing to a pounding beat. I walked out of there feeling like I had discovered a new world.

Meltdown dance party revelers

Meltdown dance party revelers

House music was starting to froth and Sydney was becoming one of the house music capitals of the world. Acid was the sound of the UK Summer and it was also swamping Sydney. The Hordern became known as ‘Club Hordern’ by the underground.

Richard Weiss was one of the people behind the ‘Sweatbox’ parties. I have gotten to know him over the past few years (we travel in the same circles) and I have fondly recalled to him how he changed my life.

With the ‘The 80s Are Back’ exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum displaying some posters and creating a space for the house music culture which was as much about the 80s in Sydney as leg warmers and fluoro, I thought I’d sit down and have a chat to Weiss to see if he remembers anything of the era and what it meant to him.

Tell us about your early days in Sydney in the 80s as a clubber? What were the clubs you frequented/the music/the drugs? What was your first promoting event and tell us how that came about? Who were the DJs and where?

I returned from a couple of years away living in London and Barcelona with a head full of ideas. ‘Stranded’, the archetypal Sydney nightclub, was on its way out and Sydney needed something fresh. My first club was ‘Adrenalin’ at the Hip Hop club in Oxford Street. It was moderately successful, but ultimately didn’t last. It did however lead me to my first successful club, ‘Meltdown’, which opened on the first night of the newly renovated ‘SITE’ in Victoria Street, Potts Point. Designed by the brilliant Ian Hartley, it was just what Sydney needed. Suddenly, I was in the right place at the right time. House music was nascent, ecstasy was novel, and I was on the ball. ‘Meltdown’, with its hard edge aesthetic, elitist door policy, and mixed crowd (sexuality was not the issue) took off. The music was a combination of house and acid beats, hip hop, go-go, early electro and funk. The original Meltdown DJs were Pee Wee Ferris and Stephen Allkins. From memory, Allkins went overseas and a young Ben Drayton took his place.

When did house music start filtering through here. Can you remember hearing it for the first time and your thoughts on it?

I was a dedicated reader of the NME (New Musical Express) and had read about this new style of dance music coming out of Chicago, in particular, called ‘house music’. But, as Elvis Costello once said, “reading about music is like dancing about architecture”. Yet one night, at the Midnight Shift in 1986 I guess, I heard ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ by Farley Jackmaster Funk and thought, “That’s house music – and I love it!!” I tracked down a ‘sampler’ album of Chicago House and David Milton (owner of the Hip Hop Club and later SITE) returned from a trip to the UK bearing gifts, including ‘Acid Beats’ – a sampler album of acid house, and a ‘Summer Of Love’ graffiti style T-shirt with a big fluoro smiley face on it (this shirt – a little worse for wear – is now in the Powerhouse Museum collection).

The smiley t-shirt

The smiley t-shirt! Now safely housed at the Powerhouse Museum

RAT parties started getting a name in the underground. Were they the first to do the big parties?

I believe so. Up until then, only Mardi Gras & Sleaze Ball had attempted parties on such a vast scale. I think RAT was the first private enterprise party group to tackle the Hordern and ultimately the Royal Hall of Industries. They had outgrown their previous venues, including the old Balmain Bijou, Bondi Pavilion and Paddington Town Hall.

The Hordern is a massive space. When did you decide on putting Sweatbox there? How did that come about?

I was standing in the Hordern at a RAT party, looking up at the vast ceiling and rigging and thought, “how does anyone even begin to know how to put something of this scale together?” My confidence was sky-high as the result of the success of Meltdown…and I was young and reckless, I guess. All I know now is that within 12 months of that moment, I had decided to take a float in the Mardi Gras parade, promoting ‘Meltdown Sweatbox’ – trusting that the Meltdown brand would springboard into this new, much larger environment. One week after the Mardi Gras Parade and Party in 1989, Meltdown Sweatbox was held at the Hordern. A crowd of 4000 (close to a sell-out) attended.

Tell us about the costs of the first one and the what you wanted from it?

I certainly didn’t have the sort of funds necessary to put on a party at the Hordern. I was backed by the owners of SITE – they took the risk, but also 50% of the profits. This remained the case for the first 3 or 4 parties, until we could afford to back the parties ourselves (by this time I had gone into partnership with Victor Li). Ultimately, Sweatbox was an opportunity to express ourselves creatively, on a vast scale. The satisfaction of seeing something grow from the seed of an idea to a huge event, enjoyed by thousands, is incomparable…for me anyhow. Sure we wanted to make money – we needed to in order to put on the next party – but we never sacrificed that creative satisfaction in order to make a few extra bucks.

How many people went to your parties? Did you always sell out?

I guess tens of thousands of people attended at least one Sweatbox party – many experienced most of them and some were at them all. Sometimes we had sell-outs and made a lot of money. Once or twice we lost money. In the end, after a couple of parties which just broke even, after so much work, we decided to call it quits.

How many Sweatboxes were there? Tell us a little about some of the best ones?

I’m not exactly sure….about ten I guess, maybe more.

‘Meltdown Sweatbox’ had an industrial theme, with three earth movers operating throughout the party, hovering over the dance floor. One had a lighting rig attached (including a massive strobe) that moved across the floor. We built a ‘mineshaft’ tunnel out of scaffolding and industrial strength aluminium foil, from the front foyer which brought you out on the dancefloor. We had swing-foggers that are sometimes used on film sets to create fog, and cement mixers spewing out dry ice. There were no coloured lights at all….only white light cutting through the blackness.

Poster, 'Let Them Eat Cake' dance party presented by Sweatbox at the Hordern Pavilion, Moore Park, Sydney, NSW

Poster, 'Let Them Eat Cake' dance party presented by Sweatbox at the Hordern Pavilion, Moore Park, Sydney, NSW

We contrasted that with our second party ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ which which was pure opulence…a rococo palace with multi-leveled chequerboard dance floor which formed a pit in the middle of the room. Above this hung a giant chandelier, with a fabric canopy creating a false ceiling. We hired in classical pillars and statues and painted everything gold. The lighting was jewel-like. It was a challenge to make this big black box of a room feel soft and elegant.

Poster, 'Royal Command' dance party presented by Sweatbox at the Hordern Pavilion, Moore Park, NSW

Poster, 'Royal Command' dance party presented by Sweatbox at the Hordern Pavilion, Moore Park, NSW

‘Royal Command’ was a performance-based surrealist event with hourly ‘happenings’ that included a bagpipe band that marched through the crowd playing along to an acid house track; a vast Chinese dragon snaking its way through the dance floor and a live ‘mix’ of Voodoo Ray where Pee Wee mixed from the record to a live percussion ensemble with vocalist and then back into the record.

These were just a few of our parties which became known for strong design elements and themes. A big shout out to Paul Hinderer, our designer for the first 3 or 4 parties, who was instrumental in taking our design ideas and realizing them so beautifully.

Tell us about the music. Did you want anything special or did you know the DJs and trust them?

We booked our favourite djs who understood what we were trying to achieve. We always held DJ meetings and briefed them thoroughly on the theme and discussed time slots, but with the exception of the occasional track (sometimes for a ‘moment’ during the night, or the last song of the night) they had full creative freedom. Back then, the music would ‘wind down’ during the last hour or so – for me, the last part of the night was invariably the best. On occasion, I would DJ the final hour of the night myself.

Why do you think the Hordern finished. Combination of media/popularity/cops?

In the exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, the actual letter (which I had in my possession…go figure), calling a halt to all-night parties, is on display.

Basically the Moore Park Residents Group, or whatever they were called, lobbied so relentlessly, that they won the battle. Once the Hordern was no longer available for all-night parties (apart from Mardi Gras, Sleaze and Pride New Year), we were forced to find other venues but none had such a great location, history, and such decadent grandeur. I also remember 2 or 3 times, paying a lawyer to be present all night (expensive!) to protect the rights of the punters once sniffer dogs arrived on the scene. I wonder if anyone does this anymore?

Did you do stuff in the 90s?

Yes the last parties we did, mostly at Alexandria Basketball Stadium, were in the early 90s. We put on some great parties and some sold out but they lacked the scale of the original Hordern parties. Victor and I were also invited to co-produce Sleaze Ball in ’91, I think the theme was ‘Fetish’ and it was amazing! I was then asked to co-produce ‘Hand in Hand’ for ACON on the June long weekend, which I did with David Wilkins, for 5 years. By the mid 90s I was getting a lot of work as a DJ – my first big gig was playing the Dome at Sleaze Ball in ’94.

It was really a special time in Sydney. Are you glad it’s all over? What are your memories

I just feel really privileged to have lived through that era and to have played a small part in a special time. Now it’s just a blur of 3-day weekends, dancing to great music, hard work, and serious fun.

Funny Sweatbox stories?

Too many… the collapse of a raised bridge full of people during ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ (not so funny at the time – amazingly no one was hurt); watching a now famous Hollywood director swallow a pill, chuck it up, swallow it again, chuck it up…over and over; having a massive projector (well it was the 80s) stolen from the the ceiling of the Hordern during a party and whilst projecting onto a vast screen on the stage (also funnier in retrospect than at the time).

How do you feel about being included in an exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum?

Like a contented dinosaur.

This article was first published on the Spank Records blog. Thanks to Mark Murphy for sharing.