/ 2 March 2005

Boring charity singles

This column would probably not exist if its author did not believe that music has the power to uplift, inspire, occasionally tilt the world off its axis and — even during its most inauspicious periods — pull off small but thrilling miracles.

All this week, for example, I have been lucky enough to find myself driving around this snow-caked island in a regrettably small hire car; and it is Doves’ new single Black and White Town — a sparkling collision of Talk Talk, Tamla Motown and suburban ennui — that has played the largest role in keeping me just about sane.

That’s the nice part over with. Of late, however, I have also been wondering whether Oliver Cromwell, Chairman Mao and the Taliban might have had a point, and (if only for a short period) most music ought to be outlawed.

This may sound extreme, but I suspect anyone who watched the TV coverage of the recent Grammys ceremony might at least understand where I’m coming from.

Awards had been handed out for best contemporary urban film soundtrack and breakthrough Arizona-based new country act (or something), when a representative of the American record industry trotted on to the stage and gave a brief oration about 2004’s Asian tsunami disaster. And then it happened. Even to begin to describe the following horrors using mere words is something of a nonsense, but here goes …

Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, the allegedly macho country singer Tim McGraw (rocking his customary ”confused cowboy goes to Brighton” look), Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Steven Tyler from Aerosmith and Norah Jones shuffled on stage to join the band who used to form most of Guns’n’Roses, but these days have adopted the more sensible name of Velvet Revolver.

By way of decisively setting an adult tone, they were also accompanied by Bono.

Someone had decided to cajole this rum collection of musicians into an all-hands-to-the-pump version of John Lennon’s Across the Universe. It’s not my favourite Beatles song, by any means, but in its defence, it sums up the quiet wonder of realising that one is a mere grain of sand on the existential beach, and features a couple of fairly wondrous collisions of the cosmic and mundane (”Words are flying out like endless rain into a paper cup”; ”Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box”).

That its author wrote it just as his prodigious LSD habit was tailing off may not be a coincidence. Fittingly, the song even has a philanthropic pedigree, having first appeared on the 1968 World Wildlife Fund album No One’s Gonna Change Our World.

In the hands of the Grammy superchoir, unfortunately, all of that was mislaid. This was, like almost all fusions of musical effort and charitable endeavour, a veritable car wreck. Alicia Keys, just to prove she can really sing, decided that Lennon had only sung one-eighth of the notes the song needed, and adopted the technique that may or not be known as the ”Pop Idol audition” or ”Joss Stone packing a whole galaxy into the phrase ‘Feed the world”’ approach.

Brian Wilson looked slightly confused but just about got through. And, although it was most amusing to watch that punk-rock monarch Billie Joe sing ”Jai Guru Deva” followed by the ancient hippy incantation ”Om”, I couldn’t blame him for looking as if he would have preferred an hour or two in the stocks.

Because none of this was quite enough, the geniuses in charge had also decided to give the song a new climactic coda.

”Nothing’s gonna change my world” was replaced by the unspeakably can-do, proactive, post-Geldof chorus ”Something’s gonna change my world”. By rights, the lower half of the TV screen should then have been filled by a caption reading: ”CHEERS! CLEVER WORDING.”

The same night, the organisers of the ceremony were supposedly honouring Jerry Lee Lewis, a man whose borderline insanity, innate charisma and talent for delivering songs about the elemental pleasures of living for nothing but the moment hardly need mentioning.

Exactly what he made of this display of icky piety and musical cluelessness is unclear; I would rather hope he wondered what on earth had happened to the spirit that so defined Whole Lotta Shakin’ and Great Balls of Fire.

If you want to feel my pain, listen to the aforementioned performance and give some money to tsunami relief. The Grammys’ version of Across the Universe is available at www.itunes.com; if you only fancy the latter option, you can visit www.dec.org.uk.

In addition, we should all bear in mind that there are reportedly more tsunami records on the way, another 200-odd Beatles songs to get to grips with, and a seemingly solid belief among most pop stars that glamour and irresponsibility never got the world anywhere, and bleeding-heart gushiness is the way to go.

So yes, in order to restore everyone to their senses, I hereby advocate a period of silence, with special dispensations for Jerry Lee, the Fabs’ original versions, Jerusalem and Onward Christian Soldiers and — just to keep things modern — that Doves single. About a year should do it. — Â