‘God Only Knows’ what they’ve done to the charity single

‘God Only Knows’ what they’ve done to the charity single

Image: Mike Fleming CC-BY-2.0

Lucy Robinson (University of Sussex)


Charity singles were the perfect cultural form for Mrs Thatcher’s Eighties.  They were packaged and sold within the Victorian values of philanthropy but in a form that fitted well with new media opportunities, new media technology and new ‘yoof’ orientated broadcasting space.  Charity singles facilitated a set of donations; the primary donation was the time of musicians and celebrities, (and sometimes technicians and distributers) which may have included additional donations of royalties, rights and/or all profits.  The secondary donation was by the consumer who bought the single regardless of their motivation; for the cause, for their favourite pop star, for the song, or for a combination thereof.

Whatever Mrs Thatcher said about there being no such thing as society, and however many clips of champagne quaffing Yuppies we see on retro documentaries, in the Eighties people turned to charity to fill the gaps they saw opening up in social provision.  Charitable donation increased, as did the number of charities and the number of ways of making a donation (See, Charity Commissioners Report for England and Wales, 1985, and Atkinson et al 2008).  Charity singles, like all parts of a charity campaign, were not just about raising money.  Charitable donation raises funds, but it also raises awareness about particular issues and builds a sense of community.  It builds a sense of the community for the donors, as well as an imagined community of worthy recipients.

By the end of the Eighties these three functions produced a recognisable charity single formula; collective choruses, recognisable voices on individual lines, and ego-free co-operation between different generations of musicians. I’m not going to argue that charity, let alone a motley crew of pop singers, was a revolutionary act in Thatcher’s Britain, but for some communities it afforded a way of being seen and heard in the face of constant assault.  The charity singles around AIDS for example, (George Michael and Elton John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me and a re-release of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody both following the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991) or in memorial of the Hillsborough disaster (Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden, Holly Johnson and The Christians, Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey in 1989), built a political community of self-defence in the face of dehumanising onslaught.

There were always business decisions involved in charity singles, whether royalties or all labour involved was donated, or whether VAT should be paid on the proceeds. But they were a world away from the slick video for the Beach Boys cover God Only Knows produced by the BBC that will raise money for this year’s Children in Need. The current rhetoric of austerity may feel resonant of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain to many of us, but this time around the charity singles in response feel very different.

The Eighties charity singles had a particular style that emphasised the labour donated by musicians, and producers and technicians on their own time.  This was made clear in wilfully unprofessional looking videos, thrown together in a hurry.  Viewers got to see the nuts and bolts of the recording process, headphones and microphones would be in shot, lyric sheets would be in hand.  Everyone would be portrayed mucking in together – in fact the more uncomfortable the style pairings, the less likely the performers to work together normally, the clearer their own charitable donation was.  ‘Look; the videos seemed to say, ‘this issue is so urgent that musicians have laid down their rivalries and left their egos at the door’.  It also helped to market a charity single widely as possible if the performers were eclectic.

A classic example of this was the The Wishing Well charity single released in November 1987, for Great Ormond Street Children Hospital’s regeneration appeal. It was an archetypal charity single for a traditional philanthropic cause – after all hospitals had been relying on the exchange of tokens in return for charitable donations to support hospitals and healthcare on Flag Days and Hospital Sundays in the 1870s.  The single brought together respected established artists (The Sweet, Showaddywaddy, Noddy Holder), with newly established pop stars (Boy George) and a few left field surprises (Shriekback) and non-musical celebrities (Roland Rat and cast members from East Enders and Grange Hill).   This was a standard cast, although the left-field surprises more usually came in the shape of an old punk.  Towards the end of the charity singles’ heyday whole casts of popular non-music based television shows would be brought in to belt out the chorus, often alongside a children’s puppet.

I have analysed 65 charity singles released between December 1984 and the end of 1995.  Although I surprised myself by growing attached to a number of them, there is one thing that is clear.  They are bad.  In fact the ones that were any good were usually unsuccessful.  Starvation/Tam Tam Pour L’Ethiopie for example was performed by a collective known as the 2-Tone Allstars.  It was a credible Ska cover in aid of War and Want and Médecins Sans Frontières.  It was the only 80s charity singles to include African artists performing  in aid of Africa.  It was produced in reaction to exactly the same piece of news footage that prompted Bob Geldof to call together Band Aid.  The two singles even shared chart time at one point in 1985.  Band Aid was the fastest selling single in British history. Starvation peaked at number 33 in the charts and struggled to get airplay because it was ‘too ethnic’ for the radio.  But the point here is not just that Starvation was too black to be a charity single. It was also just too good.  In order to show that a single was thrown together to confront an emergency, that artists have dropped their usual standards, and that no money has been wasted on fripperies or overheads, charity singles had to be pretty bad.

The only significant charity single releases in the calendar now are corporate events for corporate style charities. This is about more than the death of the 7” as an object. More recently charity singles have been linked to major reality TV show brands rather than to particular pop tribes.  The X Factor finalists used to produce a charity single and music video before the final winner of the show was anointed. Getting far enough through the live rounds to perform on the video was a badge of honour in itself.  In 2009 X Factor finalists recorded You Are Not Alone for Great Ormond Street Hospital. Unlike Wishing Well in 1987 the X factor performers demonstrated their professionalism, smartly dressed in matching black outfits they performed to camera interspersed with visits to GOSH itself.

The message was clear; these competition singers are now so good they are like pop stars in a real video.  For X-Factor, the charity single was a bridge into a professional music career.  Rather than a way of publically donating an artists’ professional time, the video proved that the amateur singer’s journeys had earned them a profession.  In 2012 the process changed whereby the ensemble recording was dropped and replaced with the triumphant individual winner’s single as a charity single, a move assumed to guarantee the prestigious Christmas number one spot.

The current BBC video for Children in Need builds on this newer, slicker, explicitly professional style.  Children in Need have always had a more professional air about their charity singles.  Apart from the Hillsborough tribute the only charity singles to make it onto the Now That’s What I can Music  compilations until 1997 were all in aid of Children in Need, or its partner, Comic Relief. The 7” single as an object of charitable exchange has been replaced with a media event: God Only Knows was released in a video simulcast on every BBCTV and radio channel.  The musical formula isn’t from Live Aid, it is from the video for Perfect Day. Twenty-Seven different artists from reggae, country, blues, classical and pop took a line each from Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. It was an advert that became a charity single raising hundreds of thousands of pounds. Like the BBC’s surprise hit Perfect Day in 1997, the God Only Knows doubles as promotion for the BBC’s new music programming. For practical reasons, to fit into hectic schedules of the globalised music market, Perfect Day and God Only Knows were cut together from recordings of individual performers who were only brought together in the editing suite.

Admittedly, this wasn’t that unusual for charity singles in the 80s either; Boy George, for example, was edited into the Band Aid video having missed the original video recording. But at least those videos tried to make people look as though they might have met, identified as a community, or heard of each other.   God Only Knows is full of big names, but they have been styled into characterisations of their individual selves. There are some familiar charity single elements in the God Only Knows video underneath all the special effects added in post-production: the ageing punk with credibility role is covered by Chrissie Hynde. Popular current boy band is handled by One Direction complete with their trademark homoerotic looks to each other. It certainly has recruited some impressive big players from across musical genres, not least Brian Wilson himself, and for once the round up includes DJs and British Asian stars music in the mix too.

God Only Knows filters millennial nostalgia with reverence for the BBC’s own heritage.  The styling is a riff on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge.  Although the artists were filmed in front of green screens, the video is composed around Alexandra Palace Theatre as a setting, which is where the BBC first broadcast 90 years ago. The video is much more interested in looking backwards than it is at looking forwards and solving society’s problems. I suppose what is so depressing about God Only Knows, is that, however artificial and formulaic the ‘authenticity’ and urgency of the 80s charity singles was, at least they made an effort.

What message does it give about the function of charity when you’ve got time to train up a whole choir to actually sing well, to pop Kylie into a floating bubble post-production or to electronically assist Brian Wilson’s ageing voice?  This is pop royalty resting on some classical music for legitimacy rather than roughing it with the cast of a dodgy soap-opera and a puppet or two. There is no sense of urgency in this video because there is no real sense that something can be done.  There is no awareness to be raised.  There is no community to be built.  There is a television event to be marketed.


Lucy Robinson is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Sussex. She jointly co-ordinates the Interdisciplinary Network for Subcultures, Popular Music and Social Change and is academic lead on the Observing the 80s digital project.  The original research which this article was based on can be found in the journal Contemporary British History, 26, 3, 2012  She is currently writing a book about pop, politics and time in Thatcher’s Britain.