24 Hours To Tuzla: the War Child Help album

Written for breakfast, recorded for lunch, released for dinner.

Britain, August, 1995.

It was the second summer of Britpop, the high water mark of a glorious period of optimism and hedonism based around — as the name suggests — British pop music. Through a mixture of nostalgia and futurism, cocaine and cigarettes, knees-up oompah and string-soaked epics, the world was changed forever — and the authoritative historical document of this glorious epoch is the War Child Help album: a compilation of the best Britpop bands coming together to save the planet.

Except that wasn’t how it happened at all. Perhaps. Viewed through the reductive prisms of history, sobriety and celebratory documentary, defining an era becomes as difficult as nailing down its bookends. Facts are absolute but misleading; dates are immutable but the memory cheats.

If Britpop began in 1994, how come Select’s ill-advised Union Jack/‘Yanks Go Home’ cover was published as early as April 1993? If the advent of Cool Britannia killed Britpop, how come the edition of Vanity Fair with Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit on the cover was on the newsstands even before Be Here Now was released? And why does everyone remember Jarvis mooning Jacko at the Brits, yet only a handful recall Noel Gallagher bigging up Tony Blair as a great hope for British youth at the same ceremony? Where does reality end and the myths — blurry, boozy and bloated — begin?

Twenty years on, it’s impossible to say for certain. The people who lived and ingested their way through the Britpop age can’t remember and those who weren’t there end up bunching incongruous events together like a display stand at a budget shoe store. When memory fails, music is all we have left to remind us of what did and didn’t happen. Help might not be the defining record of the period — but how can any album ever have hoped to capture the zeitgeist of something so unzeitgeistable?

Bosnia, August 1995.

Hell on fucking Earth. The former Yugoslavia had crumbled and mass slaughter had followed. A war that few in Western Europe fully understood had turned a once popular holiday destination into a bloodbath fragmented along racial and religious lines. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ was a sanitised media code for genocide. New countries wanted to develop their own identities, but those loyal to the old federative republic were trying to stamp out any trace of them. Politicians in the West tutted and held ‘peace talks’ with the perpetrators. Radovan Karadžić and Slobodan Milošević laughed in their faces.

The War Child charity was established in 1993 by British filmmakers who had seen at first hand the brutal violence in Croatia and Bosnia. A number of fundraising events were held, with the proceeds aimed at helping the survivors — particularly the countless thousands of orphaned children — and while they were important they were small scale. To raise a substantial amount of money, something bigger was required. Various ideas were discussed but it wasn’t until Tony Crean, head of international marketing at Go! Discs, became involved that the first seeds of the Help project were sown.

Crean had been considering ways to raise money for children in Bosnia since learning of the ghastly massacre of in Srebrenica earlier in the summer, when 8000 men and boys were killed. He happened upon a quote from John Lennon regarding his ‘Instant Karma!’ single.

‘I wrote it for breakfast,’ Lennon said, ‘recorded it for lunch and we’re putting it out for dinner.’ He later expounded that records should be as direct as newspapers: ‘The best record you can make is recorded on Monday, cut on Tuesday, pressed up on Wednesday, packaged on Thursday, distributed on Friday, in the shops on Saturday.’

Inspiration hit like a heavyweight. When Crean met War Child, he explained his vision was to put together an album featuring the biggest British bands of the day and release it within a week. All the money would go to victims of the war.

You’re off your rocker, the charity thought. Aloud, they wondered politely if such a thing was feasible and which artists might be willing to contribute. It’s possible — and forgivable — that they were envisaging something quite low rent, featuring obscure Go! Discs groups that would sell a few hundred copies at most.

But they were underestimating the power of Crean’s little black book of phone numbers. He came back a few days later with a potential line-up of unprecedented quality and diversity. Although not every genre was covered, the proposed album came closer to representing the musical landscape of the UK in the mid-1990s than history might give credence. It wasn’t representative of Britpop; it was representative of Britain.

Europe, September 1995.

Studios across Britain and beyond were booked for Monday 4th September with the album due to hit record stores the following Saturday. Appropriately, it was 24 years to the day since the release of John Lennon’s Imagine.

But that was still to come. The Help album did not yet exist, and the process of conception was fraught with difficulties.

Attempts to coerce Goldie into the studio to lay down a track were in vain. Paul McCartney fared slightly better, managing to actually make it to Abbey Road to join Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher’s atrociously-named supergroup the Smokin’ Mojo Filters — but by the time they were ready to record the song he had specially written for the occasion, the midnight deadline had elapsed. Similar time constraints meant that Suede’s contribution was left without a guitar part.

The master tape of the Manic Street Preachers’ song missed the last cross-channel ferry from Calais while Neneh Cherry’s barely made the final flight out of Malaga. Somehow, both reached the mixing desk of executive producer Brian Eno for mastering — as did a recording from Sinead O’Connor, who hadn’t even been asked to participate. Tricky had been asked, but his song went AWOL.

Most mind-boggling of all, the KLF were intending to add a Robbie Williams vocal to their version of the theme from The Magnificent Seven. Sadly — or fortunately — the ex-Take That singer was away on holiday with his mother and could not be contacted. We can only wonder at what might have been.

While Eno put the album together, Cally on Art Island put together the sleeve with artwork from the Stone Roses’ John Squire and 3D from Massive Attack and notes from Krist Novoselic, whose parents were Croatian immigrants. With the track listing still to be finalised as the sleeve went to the printers, it was produced without one.

After being pressed on Wednesday and distributed on Thursday and Friday, cassettes and CDs of the Help album were in record shops across Britain for opening time on Saturday morning. It sold more than enough to make it the number one compilation album in the UK (despite the best attempts of Go! Discs, who vainly tried to persuade Gallup that it was the work of a single supergroup named War Child in order to get it into the main album chart) and was helping children in Bosnia even before the first copy was sold: Go! Discs had presented a £300k advance to War Child on the day of recording.

Help revisited, 2015.

Oasis and Friends — Fade Away

‘Fade Away’ initially appeared as an extra track on the ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ single — a downbeat, uptempo assault on the eardrums propelled by the heavy-handed percussion of Tony McCarroll with an audibly distressed Liam Gallagher howling over the top. Replacing punky angst with a gentler resignation, this acoustic rerecording strips away the clamour of Oasis Mk 1 to reveal a fundamental truth about the band: their best songs betray the vulnerability behind the swagger. Whether this Noel-led version is superior to the original is a matter of opinion, but it’s a rare treat to hear Liam singing backing vocals for his brother rather than the other way around.

The ‘Is that the vibe?’ chatter at the end, however, is the kind of pseudo-stoned speak that sounds cool and arty to everyone off their chobblers and deeply embarrassing to everyone who isn’t.

Boo Radleys — Oh Brother

Continuing the mood of laidback introspection, Martin Carr’s lament for a lost sibling is the sweet, sad sound of summer ending. With a mini guitar solo as squallingly powerful as the rest of the song is pensively sedate, this wist drive is unquestionably one of the highlights of the album.

The Stone Roses — Love Spreads

With due respect to Robbie J Maddix, this atrocious version of the Roses’ 1994 comeback single proves that the band became immediately irrelevant the day Reni quit. Awkward, uptight and with about as much swing as a derelict playground, this incarnation of ‘Love Spreads’ was clearly dashed off in as little time as possible — ironic, really, given the band had taken five years to deliver an album — and reeks of the same arrogant, this’ll-do attitude that characterised their final demise at Reading the following year. One thing the reformed Roses seem to have learned is a little humility.

Radiohead — Lucky

The missing link between The Bends and OK Computer, this time traveller from two years in the future is thankfully bereft of the pretention that overwhelms it on its eventual home. Even the most ardent Radiohead naysayer can’t argue with a tune as monstrously, miserably good as this.

‘Lucky’ was released as the lead track of a Help EP in October of 1995, backed by a live version of PJ Harvey’s ’50 Ft Queenie’, an untitled Portishead song and ‘Momentum’ by Guru featuring Big Shug. It reached number 51.

Orbital — Adnan

Help’s first step outside the indie guitar ghetto is this pulsing ambient dub gem, a reflective post-Dance Tent campfire spliff at 5am, warming and wistful at the same time. Later expanded and revised for the In Sides album, ‘Adnan’ is one of the few songs on the album to directly reference the Bosnian War: Orbital named it for a 16 year old evacuee who returned to the country to stay with his father, only to be killed a few days later. While the mood doesn’t match the solemnity of the subject matter, it’s a welcome change of pace and style.

Portishead — Mourning Air

Later to appear on Portishead’s self-titled second album, ‘Mourning Air’ drifts along in a morbid, meandering haze that might be an intentional evocation of the desolation wrought by war. Then again, it could be about putting the washing out.

Massive Attack — Fake the Aroma

A reworking of ‘Karmacoma’ from Protection, ‘Fake the Aroma’ is oppressive and vaguely ominous, like arriving at a party and finding only strangers and clouds of dope smoke. It’s not quite as terrifying as the later ‘Angel’ (which is as scary as the scene in Training Day when Ethan Hawke realises he’s been left alone in the company of Cliff Curtis and the other Sureño gangbangers) but there’s a similar air of skunky bass paranoia.

Suede — Shipbuilding

Although Elvis Costello wrote ‘Shipbuilding’ during the Falklands War, a decade before violence exploded across the Balkans, something about the song transcends its specific subject matter — the contradiction between war bringing prosperity to the same areas that are sending young soldiers to their death — to resonate with the brutal hopelessness of all such conflicts.

It was a brave choice of cover for Suede, given the popularity of the Robert Wyatt hit single, but it made sense in the wider context of Help and also provided a suitable epilogue to the epic Dog Man Star — albeit with a lightness of touch that bridged the gap between the heaviness of the album and its poppier successor, Coming Up. Brett’s vocal is impassioned and indignant, almost cracking under the emotional strain, while the effects-laden freeform trumpet solo by Guy Barker is worthy of comparison with Chet Baker’s on Costello’s own recording. In fact, the whole song is good enough to stand up with its two illustrious predecessors.

The Charlatans vs. The Chemical Brothers — Time For Livin’

The soon-to-be-Chemicalised Dust Brothers had remixed a couple of b-sides on the Charlatans’ recent single ‘Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over’, so it was no surprise that the band handed over their ramshackle blast through a 1974 Sly and the Family Stone single to Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons for some additional sparkles and sirens. The result is enjoyable enough — not least for the moment Tim Burgess sings the expletive censored on the original with venomous relish: Pretty soon you might not give a fuck … yeah …’

Stereo MCs — Sweetest Truth

Despite it being their only new release between 1993 and 2001 — or perhaps because of this — the Stereo MCs’ contribution is the surprise highpoint of the Help album. Sounding a little like a sibling of ‘Adnan’ played on live instruments (and very little like anything the band had recorded since Supernatural), ‘Sweetest Truth’ is an absolute banger: defiant, inclusive, slightly melancholy yet uplifting at the same time. If any song could ever be considered the equivalent of watching the sun set on a late summer evening, with the wind starting to get up as the light slowly dies, it’s this.

Sinéad O’Connor — Ode to Billie Joe

Another unexpected highlight is this stark, menacing version of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’. With a backing track as ominous as breaking down on a lonely road at midnight and a vocal as forsaken as sorrow, no one at Go! Discs was even expecting a contribution from O’Connor — let alone anything as impressive as this.

The Levellers — Search Lights

The Levellers were at the pinnacle of their popularity in 1995, on a run of consecutive Top 20 singles and preparing to release what would prove to be their only chart-topping album, Zeitgeist. It was a half-ironic title, as the band was defiantly counterculture to a man, but there was undoubtedly a lot of their DIY ethos in the conception and creation of Help. ‘Search Lights’ was written by English folk singer and Levellers alumni Rev Hammer, who had toured refugee camps in Slovenia and Croatia during the winter of 1994 and 1995. While this opaque, distortion pedal ballad is not necessarily about his experiences there, it carries a weight and gravitas that many of the other songs on this album struggle to match.

Manic Street Preachers — Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head

Having lost guitarist Richey Edwards six months earlier, the Manics were in Normandy, taking tentative steps towards a future as a three-piece. The first fruits of the recording sessions that would later produce the Everything Must Go album was this blithe, spartan sonic anomaly that reflects neither the grinding doom of The Holy Bible nor the euphoric orchestral melancholy of its successor. Plaintive and intransigent, bluff and tender, looking forwards and back at the same time like a pop pushmi-pullyu, ‘Raindrops …’ is a snapshot of the band in the brief instant of fresh air and freedom between their first and second lives. It also features the Help album’s second sublime trumpet solo (played, of course, by Sean Moore).

Terrorvision — Tom Petty Loves Veruca Salt

Another band whose popularity — Mint Royale remix notwithstanding — peaked in the middle of the 1990s, Terrorvision’s contribution to Help is one of the weakest. With inspiration so threadbare you couldn’t wear it in public without being arrested for indecency, this combination of facile, say-nothing lyrics and kindergarten hard rock can only dream of reaching the standards set by the artists named in its title. Even the third trumpet solo on the album can’t save it.

The One World Orchestra featuring The Massed Pipes and Drums of the Children’s Free Revolutionary Volunteer Guard (aka The KLF) — The Magnificent

In a twist of irony that Bill Drummond probably savours to this day, ‘The Magnificent’ — a throwaway drum and bass reworking of the theme tune to The Magnificent Seven — was to unwittingly become the most important song on Help.

Having failed to secure the services of Robbie Williams, Drummond and KLF-cohort Jimmy Cauty turned instead to a subversive Serbian DJ named Miomir Grujić to provide vocals for their instrumental track. Fleka, as he was better known, worked for B92, an independent radio station in Belgrade, and was well-known for his antipathy towards President Slobodan Milošević.

Having recorded Fleka’s contribution down the phone and passed the finished master tape to Go! Discs, the KLF then travelled to Serbia to appear on Radio Bat, Fleka’s show on B92. They donated ‘The Magnificent’ for him to use as a jingle but it ultimately became not only the signature tune for the entire station but also an anthem for Serbians protesting against Milošević’s government. Not a bad achievement for a song that Drummond dismissed as ‘crap … pathetic … a pile of shit’.

Planet 4 Folk Quartet — Message to Crommie

Given its tonal similarities to the lazy dub majesty of the Sabres of Paradise, it’s no surprise to find Andrew Wetherall (along with Dave Harrow of the On-U Sound collective) lurking behind the Planet 4 Folk Quartet. This monstrously-bassed ambient toe-tapper doesn’t really go anywhere, but why would anyone want to leave a place that sounds this good?

Terry Hall and Salad — Dream a Little Dream of Me

First laid down in 1931 by Ozzie Nelson, ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’ was already a standard by the time ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot sang it with the Mamas and the Papas in 1968. This latter version was a heavy influence on the Help recording, from the distant studio chatter and talkback introduction by the producer (Stephen Street reprises Lou Adler’s ‘And now to sing this lovely ballad …’) to the vocal stylings of Marijne van der Vlugt, who mimics Mama Cass with spooky accuracy. It’s one of the most like-for-like remakes in pop, even factoring in the winsome weariness of Terry Hall’s co-lead vocals, and yet … it works. This gentle singalong is the most charming song on the album.

Neneh Cherry and Trout — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

‘Scrub away now what is cleaned the ethnic cleansing way / Repatriate now, there’s no place to take the ache away’

Explicitly referencing the war in the Balkans and its fallout is this unexpectedly raucous, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink nursery rhyme from Neneh Cherry and short-lived, Willie Rogan-fronted Scottish punk outfit Trout. Taking a 200+ year old counting song and turning it into a noisy, intimidating, outraged assault on injustice is one thing; making it so listenable is quite another. This may be the most unusual track on the album, but it’s a long way from being the weakest. Speaking of which….

Seymour (aka Blur) — Eine Kleine Lift Musik

Given that their enmity with Oasis was at its height, one might be forgiven for thinking that Blur would take the Help project seriously. Instead, they tossed off something that wasn’t even lift music — elevator-car-slipping-free-from-its-cable-and-plummeting-down-the-shaft music, perhaps. Attempts at humour were nothing new to Blur during this period (‘Intermission’, ‘Supa Shopper’, ‘Lot 105’, even ‘Parklife’) but this execrable studio jam fuckery is about as funny as a dessicated cat turd.

The Smokin’ Mojo Filters — Come Together

Paul Weller was one of the first performers to be asked to participate in Help project, having contributed artwork to a previous War Child charity event.

Booking into Abbey Road studios with long term collaborators Steve White (formerly of the Style Council and brother of Oasis drummer Alan), Steve Craddock and Damon Minchella (both members of Ocean Colour Scene), Weller’s plan was to record a version of ‘Come Together’ — a celebration not only of the Beatle who had inspired Tony Crean to conceive Help but of Weller’s own love of the Fab Four.

The former Jam frontman had also written to Paul McCartney — more in hope than in expectation — asking him if he wanted to join the session. To Weller’s delight, McCartney agreed, and as soon as Noel Gallagher learned that two of his idols were collaborating, he wanted in. With the former Young Disciples singer Carleen Anderson joining for backing vocals, the Smokin’ Mojo Filters were born. It was a poor name for the super group and what they produced was not much better. ‘Come Together’ was a lumpen Dadrock dirge, all the finesse and menace of the original sacrificed for blunt, emotionless pounding. Not even the presence of McCartney could lift it from the mire of mediocrity.

Despite its tedious plodding, there was too much Britpop glitter sprinkled over ‘Come Together’ for it to fail. Released as a single in December 1995 (backed with songs by Black Grape, the Beautiful South and Dodgy) it reached a modest number 19 but it has lingered longer in the public consciousness than many of its peers — if nothing else, it’s supremely evocative of the time.

But this is now and that was then. Help was more than Weller, Gallagher and McCartney rehashing an old Beatles song — just as it was more than merely a Britpop thing. Almost by accident, Tony Crean’s worthy idea captured the imagination of the public and the spirit of the age. Perhaps that makes it the defining musical document of the 1990s after all.

Perhaps.

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