The sight of Rita Ora, immaculately dressed in crimson and pointing a peace sign at a caged wall of photographers, reminds you that the comet-like return of Band Aid shines its light on many things. It points up the changing but ever-present plight of some of Africa’s citizens, it takes the temperature of our level of generosity and it’s an amusing update on some contemporary hairstyles. But it also signposts how the great engines of showbusiness have evolved in the past three decades, how polished and well-oiled they’ve become.
The spruce and coiffured Class of 2014 swung into London’s Sarm West Studios on Saturday morning as if on a red carpet, pausing to deliver their perfectly tailored quotes to the hordes of waiting but excluded press, the controlling hand of the publicity giant Freud Communications upon the tiller of the whole operation. A slick, rehearsed mechanism was already in motion for the about-to-be-recorded single, encompassing gradations of exclusivity for global media, performance betting odds at William Hill and a world premiere on The X Factor scheduled for about 30 hours later.
Past the crash barriers, the participants were shepherded into the exact same recording space that producer Midge Ure had used on November 25, 1984, only this time with Olly Murs and Paloma Faith instead of George Michael and Bananarama. Back then only three journalists were invited along with two film units: David Hepworth from The Old Grey Whistle Test and — to give you an idea of just how haphazard it was — a crew from Channel 4’s The Tube led by the actor Nigel Planer in the distressed loon-pants and waistlength wig of his screen character Neil from The Young Ones, pointing a microphone at members of Shalamar and Heaven 17 and asking if he could get a mug of herbal tea.
We were allowed to wander anywhere we liked and talk to anyone; we could have probably added a backing vocal if we’d asked nicely. I can picture the Band Aid 30 date being chiselled into diaries by teams of agents, PRs and managers to ensure Ed Sheeran or One Direction didn’t miss this highly publicised fixture.
But 30 years ago Sting just bowled up in a Range Rover with his wife, new baby and dogs, Duran Duran came breezing in from Germany, hungover and wearing ski goggles, and Paul Young arrived on foot, presumably from the Tube station. Nick Rhodes was in the corridor playing on an Asteroids machine, John Taylor was eating chilli con carne, members of Status Quo and the Boomtown Rats were flooring cans of lager and Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp declared the whole escapade a plot by Island Records (which owned the studio) to get every pop act except Frankie Goes To Hollywood in one room, then blow the place up.
The Boy George acolyte and briefly chart-troubling Marilyn wasn’t invited but turned up anyway — these days he’d have been ejected by people with clipboards — and Boy George himself appeared to have simply forgotten all about it; he was woken in New York by a call from Geldof, took a cab to the airport and the Concorde to Heathrow, steamed into Sarm in the early evening calling for a glass of brandy and was recording his lines minutes later.
The versions of Band Aid that followed — there are now five of them — mirrored the times just as precisely, the names of the acts alone telegraphing a particular slice of pop history. The second Band Aid in 1989 inevitably starred Bros, Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue, Lisa Stansfield and Technotronic.
Band Aid 20 rolled by in 2004 involving The Darkness, Supergrass, Busted, Dido, Dizzee Rascal, All Saints and Feeder. And there was even a version in 2011 featuring the high-rating cast of Glee, another example of Geldof’s razor-sharp capacity for latching on to whatever might connect his noble campaign to a new generation. (This time he rang a few advisors for ideas for recruits and I was touched and flattered to be one of them.) But in the slightly shrivelled commercial market of the 21st century, acts these days tend to be one big multigenerational happy family who cheerfully accommodate each other and are grateful to have any following at all. You can’t imagine the 30-year-old Olly Murs having a problem with Bono (54) or Ellie Goulding with Coldplay’s Chris Martin.
Not so back in 1984: the massive and fiercely tribal pop boom of the mid ‘80s meant there was room for everyone, although musicians regularly rubbished their rivals in the press. The old guard thought the young guard were overdressed and workshy; the upstarts thought the patriarchs were knackered, pensionable gits in tragic denim jackets (although actually the age range was only 14 years, George Michael the youngest at 21, Status Quo’s Francis Rossi the eldest at 35).
So the atmosphere for that first recording was slightly fractious. Paul Weller had used a lot of his recent column inches to lambast Spandau Ballet and Culture Club and thus hovered sheepishly in a corner. “I’m hardly everybody’s favourite person,” he told me, whispering. “They just seem to ignore me and I don’t blame them.” The ice only really broke when Culture Club drummer Jon Moss charged across the floor to embrace Phil Collins shouting: “My hero!”
That first Band Aid single struck an almighty chord with the general public who admired its entrepreneurial spirit and the freewheeling way it was thrown together — and as Bob reminded me recently, “Every pressing plant in the country was producing it, the workers working all weekend for free. And everyone sold it.
I went into London luxury store Fortnum & Mason that Christmas — turkey, pig, duck, goose, Band Aid record...” Band Aid 30’s main obstacle is a music business no longer based on buying records, hence the charity donation options offered if you play the song on YouTube. But its main advantage is that what was once a knocked-together amateur-hour enterprise flying by the seat of its pants, is now packaged as a carefully controlled news event and powered by the highly refined promotional muscle of the modern publicity machine and the digital media. It would be hard to be unaware that the record was out. And it stars a team of musicians who all know the drill.
I can’t imagine any of this year’s line-up turning to each other with a cartoon look of mock-horror during the “feed the world” chorus, as Francis Rossi did to me 30 years ago. “Feed the Welsh?” he shrugged. And drained his beer can.
The inside stories of Band Aid and Live Aid feature in Mark Ellen’s memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life!