Sunday 22 July 2018

Stars and Strypes take to the stage for homelessness

Charity concerts like next week's Rock Against Homelessness are one of music's long-standing institutions

Rocking: Cavan band The Strypes will play the charity gig a week on Sunday.
Rocking: Cavan band The Strypes will play the charity gig a week on Sunday.
Ed Power

Ed Power

Stars from across Irish music will gather at Dublin's Olympia Theatre tomorrow week for a charity bash with a difference. Chanteuse Camille O'Sullivan, retro rockers The Strypes, cult indie band HamsandwicH and electro pioneers Le Galaxie are among the acts lined up for Rock Against Homelessness, which will raise money for young people living on the street.

"There are currently over 1,700 homeless children in Ireland today," say Max Doyle of the Irish Youth Foundation, which is partnering with gig organisers Independent News and Media.

"If you are young and in state care, you are 70pc more likely to become homeless in your lifetime. People leaving state care are coming out without any facilities or education. We are talking about children who don't know what it's like to live in a home. To put it bluntly, you are creating a generation of future homeless. We want to ease the transition from care to fully integrated independent living."

The charity concert is one of rock's longest-standing institutions. Its roots go back to the early 1970s when a generation of suddenly wealthy stars began to develop a social conscience.

The earliest charity gig of note was George Harrison's 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, which would prove both an inspiration and a warning for future munificent rockers.

On the plus side, the gig demonstrated well-meaning musicians could raise awareness of under-the-radar causes. War and natural disaster had left 500,000 dead and thousands more displaced in the newly independent Bangladesh. Yet the first many in the West learned of the unfolding humanitarian crisis was when Harrison roped in Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and others for a charity gig at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Alas, the ex-Beatle displayed considerable naivety in arranging the show and it took years for the cash raised to actually find its way to Bangladesh (by which time the crisis that had prompted Harrison to put on the performance in the first place had abated).

His biggest error was failing to register Concert for Bangladesh as a charity, meaning tax authorities went to court for their share of the $243,000 generated (€1.33m in today's money).

"It was uncharted territory, the scale of it," Jonathan Clyde of the Beatles' Apple music corporation later told the Guardian.

"The money did eventually reach Bangladesh, although perhaps not in time to help the refugees at that point. The big mistake was that Unicef wasn't chosen beforehand, and so the IRS [the US tax service] took the view that because the charity wasn't involved in the mounting of the concert, they'd take their cut. This distressed George hugely, it really angered him. There was an ongoing tussle for years, but I'm afraid, even now, the IRS still take their slice."

This was a misstep charity-concert patron saint Bob Geldof was careful to avoid when he built on Concert For Bangladesh with July 1985's Live Aid, the alpha and omega of fundraiser shows. And 31 years after the fact, it can be difficult to convey just how big a deal Live Aid was. In an age before social media, the internet, and hundreds of channels at our finger-tips, here was a rare event that appeared to bring the entire world together.

But while it raised in excess of $100m, Live Aid created controversy, too. Smiths singer Morrissey, one of the artists who declined to participate, branded the globe-straddling broadcast "the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of music".

Questions were also raised about the distribution of the funds and whether the cash may have in fact had the unintended consequence of bolstering the dictatorial regime that had allowed famine to sweep through Ethiopia in the first place.

Setting such arguments to one side, there is no doubt that Live Aid was a triumph on two fronts.

Firstly, it generated millions for people who were literally starving to death. It also raised awareness among Western audiences and arguably led to greater geopolitical engagement by governments and citizens alike. All charity events since have unfolded in its shadow.

Indeed, it is testament to the power of the charity gig that the public is willing to buy into the concept, even when the music is at odds with personal tastes. Consider the Simon Cowell-backed Helping Haiti single, for which Cheryl Cole, Miley Cyrus, James Blunt, Susan Boyle, Westlife and Robbie Williams squeezed into a recording booth for an excruciating cover of REM's 'Everybody Hurts'. As art, the song was indefensible. Yet, with sales of 450,000 in its first week, it contributed in excess of £250,000 (€315,000) to relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake that ­devastated the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation.

The lesson is that charity concerts function best when addressing a specific issue (as Rock Against Homeless will on April 24). Problems arise where the intention is to communicate something fuzzier, as the organisers of 2007's Live Earth discovered. The goal of the concert, which featured Black Eyed Peas, Metallica, Madonna and Foo Fighters, was to increase awareness of global warming. However, that proved a challenging cause to rally around, especially with the message delivered by rock stars who often spent their days zooming about in private jets.

"With Live Earth, it was purely about awareness," promoter Harvey Goldsmith later rued. "Did it have specific objectives? Well, it wasn't a problem solver."

"We're bringing together all the main homeless charities… it's a community coming together and that is mirrored in the concert," says Irish Youth Foundation chief executive Niall McLoughlin of Rock Against Homelessness.

"It's lots of bands and individuals uniting to show their support. We want to ensure those 1,700 homeless children don't become 1,700 homeless adults. By going to the concert, people are helping achieve that."

Rock Against Homelessness is at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin on Sunday, April 24. Tickets are on sale now. The concert is part of the Irish Youth Foundation's One For Ireland campaign.

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