Thursday 14 December 2017

Did it make a difference?

Paul Whitington

In the 1980s, Bob Geldof set out on a battle against famine in Africa with some of his friends. Paul Whitington on the aftermath

I've no doubt that Robert Frederick Zenon Geldof would rather be remembered as a marauding rock god than anything else, but that's not how posterity is likely to honour him.

Because with all due respect to his musical achievements, it's Geldof's campaigns against famine in Africa that have made him one of the planet's most influential people.

It was 30 years ago that Geldof first became exercised by the plight of Africa's starving millions – and this Sunday night, a new BBC4 documentary called 'Give Us the Money' will ask whether his extraordinary efforts have made any difference.

It's a vexing question, and one that has caused several unseemly public spats.

In 2010, Geldof went to war against the BBC World Service, and a documentary in the 'Assignment' series that broadcast claims that only 5pc of the $100m of Live Aid money destined for African famine relief was used for that purpose.

The show also alleged the rest of the money was diverted to rebels engaged in a civil war, a claim hotly denied by the singer.

He and Bono have been widely ridiculed as pompous and self-regarding in spite of their vocal efforts on behalf of the ONE campaign. As long ago as 1985, former Smiths frontman Morrissey was questioning Geldof's motives, calling the Band Aid song "unmentionable" and dismissing the whole exercise as "the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music".

This, though, seems a little excessive. Because Geldof and Bono have been more successful than anyone else at raising awareness about poverty and famine in Africa.

And whatever his shortcomings as a rock star, Geldof is a born showman who, in 1985, pulled off perhaps the most ambitious and extravagant live TV broadcast ever staged.

That controversial Band Aid Christmas song came first.

Geldof was famously moved to action while watching a harrowing 1984 news report from Ethiopia by the BBC's Michael Buerk.

Feeling that something had to be done, Geldof began cajoling the cream of 1980s British rock royalty into recording a single.

U2, George Michael, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Sting, Paul Weller, Simple Minds and Paul McCartney were just some of the names who showed up at the Sarm Studios in Notting Hill, London, in November 1984 to record 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' and an informal accompanying video.

Only Geldof could have cowed so many massive egos into relative coherence, and the song, co-written by Geldof and Midge Ure, went on to sell three million copies and become the bestselling British single of all time.

Admittedly, the tune was nothing to write home about, and now the lyrics seem in questionable taste. Suggesting that a nation with a sizeable population of Coptic Christians wouldn't be aware of Christmas seemed rather patronising, and Geldof and Ure should perhaps have checked their geographical facts before announcing that Ethiopa was a country where "no rain or rivers flow".

But it certainly caught the public imagination, and Band Aid was only the beginning. Band Aid raised £8m, but afterwards Geldof realised this would merely be a drop in the ocean for countries such as Ethiopia, which were crippled by extortionate repayments on loans taken out with western banks.

Something on a grander scale would be required to achieve any kind of impact on Ethiopia's famine, and thinking big came easy for Geldof.

Conceived by Geldof and facilitated by hardnosed music promoter Harvey Goldsmith, the Live Aid event was staggered across 10 hours and two continents, and pulled in a global audience of 1.9 billion.

Only the lucky few were among the 72,000 who got to watch the Wembley leg of the concert live on July 13, 1985, and most of us ended up watching on TV.

The Cars, Neil Young, Run DMC, Brian Adams and Bob Dylan were among the highlight acts at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, while, in London, fine turns by George Michael, Sting, Elton John and Bryan Ferry were upstaged by the greatest showman of them all – Freddie Mercury.

The star of the show, though, was not Bono, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury or The Who. It was Geldof himself, though not perhaps in the manner he might have liked.

He did perform with the Boomtown Rats early in the day, but they were ring-rusty and seemed out of place on Live Aid's star-studded line up, because by 1985 the Dublin band's time had come and gone.

It was when he appeared on air with presenter David Hepworth that Bob really came into his own. Unshaven, dressed in denim and looking as if he hadn't slept in a month, Geldof turned what should have been a standard interview into unforgettable television.

When Hepworth began listing addresses to which donations might be sent, Geldof interrupted him with, "F*** the address – let's get the numbers", and shouted at the camera, "Give us your money!"

Donations soared, and the event went on to make an estimated £150m.

Geldof, of course, didn't stop there. He subsequently teamed up with Bono to form a formidable double act, buttonholing the world's leaders about Africa's problems and co-founding the ONE Campaign.

He's also set up a private equity company called 8 Miles, which invests in African businesses, and in 2005 he orchestrated Live 8 concerts at 11 venues across the world.

He was attacked for that, too. He was too pally with Tony Blair, his critics insisted, there were too few African acts on the bill, and he'd piggybacked on the Make Poverty History movement, which had a massive march organised on the same day.

Geldof reacted to these and other accusations with his usual vigour. But his sincerity can never be questioned, and he has helped push Africa to the top of the agenda in his way – and done his best to keep it there.

And curmudgeon though he can be, he never quite loses his sense of humour. When asked about the phenomenon of 'Geldof fatigue', he smiled and said, "Well, imagine what it's like being him".

'Give Us The Money' screens this Sunday, November 25 at 9pm on BBC 4

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