Just occasionally, artists can change the way we look at the world. What some of them would like to do instead is actually to change the world. That’s a more difficult business. In a documentary to be screened later this month by the BBC, the story is told of two befuddled rock stars, high on charisma and good intentions, who found themselves engaged in a mission to eliminate world poverty. They have not, as yet, succeeded. Indeed they may well be asking themselves how they became entangled in the venture in the first place.
Give Us the Money is the best account yet given of the movement famously started by Bob Geldof and Bono in the wake of a heart-rending news report on the famine in Ethiopia in 1984. The details of the mission are well-enough known. First came the single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, big-haired contributors singing hastily written lines in assault of the seasonal charts. Then came the 1985 concert, Live Aid, featuring some good music, some bad music and torrents of televisual fury from the righteous and unstoppable Geldof.
The public duly bought the single and whipped out its credit cards. But the organisers of Live Aid were at the bottom of a steep learning curve. They soon realised, in Bono’s words, that there was “more to extreme poverty than unfortunate circumstances”. They had picked a battle against a drought; what they faced now was a war against the global economic order.
It was pointed out to Geldof and Bono that the amount they had raised, tens of millions of pounds – far beyond their initial ambitions – paled in comparison with the debt payments faced by African countries. If they were serious about famine and starvation, they needed to raise their sights. It was no longer enough to be concerned artists. They needed to make some new buddies. They had to become properly political.
Both men were brought up in the era of pop superstardom and understood that celebrity had become a new form of currency. So they spent it, attracting the most improbable of allies. “Unexpected bedfellows, that’s what we do!” says Bono, recalling the early days of his mission. He met the Pope and handed him his strange eyewear. “Get the Pope wearing your sunglasses – that’s action!”
Except that it wasn’t, of course. Action was making friends and influencing people. It was photo opportunities. Geldof and Bono were on an upwardly mobile journey. The leaders of the most powerful countries in the world were next. There were tortured debates, before a meeting with Tony Blair, on whether the two rock evangelists should smile as they posed for the cameras with the prime minister. “But they hadn’t given us anything yet,” recalls Geldof, uncompromising and in the po-faced camp.
Artists are traditionally weak on long-term strategic thinking. That is why we know the names of Colonel Tom Parker and Brian Epstein. But they know how to work their popularity, they are happy to use their fame, and they are resolutely unafraid to imagine and express ideals. This makes them different from many politicians, who are socially clumsy, narrow-minded and timorous, preferring to work the dark corridors, jangling the loose change of their small ambitions rather than wager on something more lasting.
When they are dragged out of the twilight and into the luminous world of art and entertainment, however, anything can happen. Bono took another unexpected bedfellow, the super-conservative senator Jesse Helms, to a U2 concert. The senator was wide-eyed in his report of the evening. “Everyone had their hands in the air, [they were] blowing like a field of corn!” he told Bono with unlikely lyricism. Helms opened up a line of communication to George W Bush. Bono handed the US president an Irish Bible – which was an even smarter move than the sunglasses.
The eventual result was the Make Poverty History campaign, meaningful moves by G8 countries towards cancellation of African countries’ debt and another London concert, Live 8. Cynics noted that the profiles of Bono and Geldof were doing very nicely indeed as a result of the love-in. Some respected aid organisations criticised their lack of attention to grass-roots activities.
But some very important people remained impressed. Bill Gates, the mightiest of givers, says that he was “amazed, blown away” by Bono’s grasp of the issues. American philanthropist Ed Scott was similarly admiring. “You have to start with the belief that a big thing can happen,” he says of the campaign’s over-arching ambition.
And that is where artists can make a difference. A whole generation ago, I was among those who listened to the music of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and all the rest, who wrote so movingly, and occasionally scabrously, of the need to change the world, and fill it with love. But those troubadours were never terribly interested in transmitting their message beyond the folk clubs of lower Manhattan and the verdant gardens of Laurel Canyon. They had their own dark corridors, which lay deep in their psyches. They resisted engagement with the real, grown-up world.
The songs of Geldof and Bono were never so eloquent. But their authors knew that they had to learn the alien languages of compromise and shuttle diplomacy to help them resonate. They have, to this day, often been accused of megalomania. But you have to be big – megalos in the original Greek – to think big. In truth, the life paths of Geldof and Bono were drawn the minute that weedy single began to climb the charts. “When we saw we could be effective, it was very hard to go back and live a normal life,” says Bono. He says he looks forward to the day when his part in the story of poverty is done, when, finally, “a rock-and-roller in his fifties is told to f*** off” because he no longer has a role to play.
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden
‘Give Us the Money’, part of the BBC’s ‘Why Poverty?’ series, is screened on November 25