Don’t worry, it’s just for charity!

by Ian aka GayAsXmas

Unlike movies, where multiplexes on this side of the Atlantic are swarmed with American film (and where attempts to claim blockbusters as British can sometimes be a tad desperate), music has stood as one of the few areas of real cultural difference. And nothing highlights this more than the British obsession with dodgy charity records.

The biggest selling single this week in the UK is the BBC Children in Need medley performed by an admittedly pretty cool line-up of children’s cartoon characters (the video is charming and well worth watching).There are three of four of these types of records every year – major releases which sell hundreds of thousands of copies. They are often proceeded by weeks of hype and saturation radio play. Given how high profile these singles are, is there any reason for most of them to be so utterly crap?

I am not trying to be some wannabe hipster-Scrooge who thinks the idea is some kind of horrible blight on music. The singles are supporting worthy causes. But if I have to take the increased self-aggrandizing from over-regarding pop stars, I would at least like a little care taken with the end result. Almost all reek of cheap, rushed production, with artists squeezing in tired re-workings of standard classics in between the more important work of making their own millions. Worse are the artists’ own album tracks, which would have received a release anyway, but get a charity logo slapped on the front in an attempt to revive flagging album sales while piggy-backing on the goodwill of others.

The current Children in Need song mentioned earlier is a good example of how to get it broadly right – it was obviously a labour of love for comedian Peter Kay and his amazing background staff, and it has the feeling of a proper ‘event’ with a lot of thought and creativity gone into its execution. A prime example of how not to do it was the 2007 Comic Relief single which managed to take two iconic British pop groups, Girls Aloud and Sugababes, and emerge with version of Walk This Way completely drained of any of its raucous energy.

The rate of charity singles seems to be increasing – we have had about 10 of them in the last two years in the UK. Meanwhile, America doesn’t seem to have this problem (We Are the World being one of the more obvious exceptions). I can’t remember the last time I saw a charity single with a significant hold on the Billboard charts. Perhaps Elton John’s lazy and incomprehensible Candle in the Wind ’97 was the last. I would hazard a guess and say that the sheer geographical size of America, the atomised media environment and few national charities with the remit of Children in Need may have something to do with it. Either way, you should count yourselves lucky you never had to hear C-List reality TV stars doing a bad Michael Jackson cover.

The problem will inevitably be consumer fatigue. Without their ‘event’ status, charity singles will chart lower, sell fewer, and it is the charity themselves who will suffer. As a taster of how to get it gloriously right however, the 1997 BBC single Perfect Day would be hard to beat. Not only is there a truly dazzling array of vocal talent (Bowie, Bono, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, Dr John, Lou Reed for starters) but by using such a melancholy song, it helps to undercut the self-congratulatory ‘aren’t we having a laugh’ tone which bedevils much of this genre. The moment where the choir kicks in with “Reap…reap…reap…what you sow….” gives the song an air of almost biblical prophecy, whilst also being particularly apt for a inviting people to give something towards a greater good. It takes a beloved song and manages to re-contextualise it without dishonouring the original.