It’s two days before the VO5 NME Awards and, in a rehearsal room in London’s King’s Cross, a group of musicians are gathering to prepare a very special performance. What unites them is a belief that we’re in a time of crisis and we all need to do what we can to raise our voices.
Almost six years ago, a ferocious civil war broke out in Syria. With much of the country now controlled by so-called ISIS, there’s still no end in sight. Just like the victims of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, millions of ordinary Syrians were left with little choice but to flee for their lives. They packed a few belongings into plastic bags and set off with their children in tow. Most ended up in neighbouring countries Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but some kept going and made the precarious journey to Europe. Many of those who hoped to come to Britain ended up at a camp in Calais, France, which at its peak was a makeshift home for 15,000 refugees.
For a time, the crisis made headlines, but before long our collective gaze drifted to Brexit, Trump and Bake Off. While we looked away, a million new refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Europe last year. The camps in Calais and elsewhere were closed down, leaving many people homeless on the streets of Paris. In Britain, we’ve given refuge to just a few thousand. In the last few weeks, the Government announced that a scheme which promised to rehome 3,000 unaccompanied children in the UK will be scrapped after letting in just 350. That decision alone makes the idea of Britain as a compassionate country sound like cheap fiction – and it’s why the charity movement Help Refugees is currently in the process of suing the Home Office.
One person who wanted to help out in any way she could was Wolf Alice frontwoman Ellie Rowsell. Last year, she got in touch with Josie Naughton, one of the founders of Help Refugees. Together, they came up with the idea of Bands 4 Refugees, and Ellie pulled together a group of her mates for a series of covers nights at London venue Kamio in December, raising both money and awareness of the essential work that Help Refugees does across Europe and even within Syria itself.
We were so impressed by the cause and the music being made that we invited Bands 4 Refugees to reunite for this year’s NME Awards. With Ellie currently locked in recording sessions out in LA, the baton was passed to Peace frontman Harry Koisser. He rounded up the troops, which today include his band’s rhythm section Dom Boyce and Sam Koisser, Circa Waves guitarist Joe Falconer and Swim Deep’s Austin Williams on keys. Vocals are being divvied up between Harry, Years & Years’ Olly Alexander, Slaves’ Isaac Holman, Pixie Geldof and Black Honey’s Izzy Baxter. Charli XCX is also due to perform but is currently making the long trip back from the Grammys in LA. “Everyone we asked who was in the country said yes,” says Harry. His brother Sam adds: “It’s good to see people getting together for a good cause,” he says. “It may not be Live Aid, but we do have a Geldof.”
The group have got permission from The Rolling Stones to cover ‘Gimme Shelter’. Written almost 50 years ago in the shadow of the Vietnam war, Mick Jagger’s lyrics were originally a response to images of burning homes being broadcast around the world. Now, in the refugee crisis, the refrain: “If I don’t get some shelter / I’m gonna fade away” takes on a chilling new resonance. “It’s an amazing song to sing,” says Pixie. “Every now and then you need that jolt to remind you that every single voice is so important.”
Harry, meanwhile, is pleased by how good they’re already sounding. “Izzy and Pixie have amazing voices, which has been good for the Merry Clayton [soul singer and the Stones’ original guest vocalist] bits,” he says. “And Olly probably has one of the best male voices I’ve ever heard in the flesh.” As Harry and Joe trade guitar licks, Isaac is bounding around the room handing out lollies from a jar he bought just for the occasion. There’s an air of high spirits and mischief in the room, but nobody’s in any doubt about the importance of the cause. “There are a lot of lies about refugees perpetuated by our awful Tory government, as well as governments around the world,” says Olly. “It’s easy to think your elected leaders will sort things out, but sadly, in this instance especially, we need to make our voices heard.”
A couple of days later, the awards are in full swing at the O2 Academy Brixton. The VIP area near the stage is a chaotic cavalcade of hedonism, through which Josie is darting about handing out T-shirts bearing the slogan Choose Love. Even London Mayor Sadiq Khan is getting in on the act. The band members look on admiringly. “Josie is wicked,” says Isaac. “Her passion rubs off on everyone else.” Their performance will be introduced by M.I.A., another artist who’s been inspired by Help Refugees. Having arrived in Britain as a refugee from Sri Lanka at the age of 11, M.I.A. last year volunteered to go to see the work that Help Refugees are doing in Athens. “I got to go and see that stuff first-hand,” she says backstage. “I’m happy that that world and this world can combine together.” Josie agrees. “It shows our generation that it’s cool to care,” she says. “Donating money is obviously super-helpful, but so are things like writing to your MP. You can also come and volunteer in France, or in Greece, or you can start talking to your friends about ways you could fundraise.”
It’s finally show time, and the band gather in a back corridor of the Academy. The 1975’s Matt Healy is ushered past, fresh from collecting the Best Live Band Award with a call-to-arms speech that went: “Everything is f**ked, and if your music isn’t purposefully informative, then there’s no point to it.” He gives his love to Bands 4 Refugees, but his plan to come on and “shake a tambourine” is halted when he’s whisked away elsewhere. There’s still no sign of Charli XCX, who missed the soundcheck yesterday after her flight back from LA was late arriving. She’s still not had a chance to practise with the band at all, but minutes before they’re due on stage she arrives. “War, children, it’s just a shot away!” she belts out. “That’s all I need, right?” A stage door swings open and a man wearing a headset ushers the band out to take their places. At the podium stage right, M.I.A. is boiling the issue down to the key point: “It’s called: Help! Refugees!” she says. “It’s really f**king simple.”
“It’s also them that got Lily Allen into loads of s**t,” she adds, alluding to the visit to the Calais camp that Help Refugees organised for the singer last October. When Lily apologised to a refugee living there “on behalf of my country” she was vilified by the press. It’s a pattern that continued when Gary Lineker spoke out in support of refugees, but these attacks only prove the importance of cutting through the divisive rhetoric. When Harry and Joe start playing that electric ‘Gimme Shelter’ riff, the entirety of the venue is soon caught up in the song’s unstoppable momentum. Behind them, the screen exhorts the audience to text in donations to Help Refugees. After they tumble off stage, it’s this that Harry wants to focus on. “More, more, more!” he shouts. “Tonight wasn’t about awards, it was about donations! Text the number! I want 100,000 more texts.”
It’s easy to sneer at rock stars who throw their weight behind political causes, but we all have a part to play. “People could be doing Bands 4 Refugees anywhere in the country, whether or not they’re famous,” says Josie. “We want people to take it into their own hands.” How we choose to treat people who are in desperate need will be with us for the rest of our lives – whether you’re me, you, Theresa May, Piers Morgan, Keith Richards, Gary Lineker or your mum. This isn’t a generational thing. This is about the type of people we are and the type of country we live in. It’s a choice. We can choose to be the sort of place that turns people away when they need our help. Or we can choose love.’
You can choose love by donating a fiver to Help Refugees right now. Text REFU to 70700 to give £5. Go on!