Various Artists: Help: A Day In The Life
All your favourite bands + new tracks and inspired covers + a great cause = a must-buy album
Attempting to recreate a ‘moment’ in rock history is, even with the very best intentions, practically impossible. Bands reform and, with the recent exception of Pixies, they stink. Think carefully – do you really want to see The Stone Roses next summer with Ian Brown wearing a pink shellsuit? If that’s not evidence enough, cast your mind back to Live8. The bands were better than the 1985 original, it was about 10 times bigger, and huge promises were made about Africa. But in terms of the cultural impact, it was less. We’ve seen it before. And of course, it was always better before you were born.
So when the idea was floated to do another ‘Help’ album, eyebrows were raised. Even a decade on, the original ‘Help’ is legendary. On Monday, September 4, 1995, at the high-water mark of Britpop, the then biggest bands in Britain went into studios and each recorded a track. The album was released the same week and went to Number One the following Sunday. It raised millions for children in war zones.
And what made ‘Help’ even better was that, unlike most charity records, the music was great. After the previous month’s Battle Of Britpop, it united Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher who both donated a track. It was the first time Manic Street Preachers recorded a song without missing guitarist Richey Edwards. And by putting ‘Lucky’ on the album, it hinted of huge things to come from Radiohead, who were contemplating the follow-up to ‘The Bends’. This time around the stakes couldn’t be much higher. So it’s a good omen that 2005 is the only year this decade there’s enough British bands to do the ‘Help’ legacy justice.
‘Help: A Day In The Life’ features the best bands from the original (Radiohead, Damon Albarn as Gorillaz), plus the new wave who’ve made this year their own. Any album that has new songs from Maximo Park, Bloc Party, The Magic Numbers, Razorlight, Elbow and Babyshambles, as well as the Kaisers covering Marvin Gaye, has to be worth the cash. Especially if the cash is going to a good home.
And the good news is, most of them rise to the challenge and punch above their weight. The best moments on ‘Help: A Day In The Life’ come from those who think they’ve got most to prove. Sure, Radiohead’s morose ballad ‘I Want None Of It’ is dark and brooding, like the best moments from ‘Hail To The Thief’, and Coldplay’s last-minute contribution, ‘How You See The World No 2’, matches some of the songs on ‘X&Y’. The memorable tunes come from Razorlight, Bloc Party and Maximo Park – three groups who are pondering how to follow up successful debuts. On the evidence presented here, they’ve got nothing to worry about.
Razorlight’s ‘Kirby’s House’, recorded with a gospel choir and Blur producer Stephen Street, is a country rocker like Ryan Adams used to write before he started dabbling in rock pastiches, while Maximo Park’s three-minute pop gem ‘Waste Land’ sees Paul Smith appropriately singing about the “lost generation”. Bloc Party’s ‘The Present’ is the rawest of the three – sounding like it was done in one take and probably not quite finished when recording started. But the looseness gives it a warm feel absent on ‘Silent Alarm’.
Giving Babyshambles a tight deadline seems to have worked, too. Some might think that after spending a year on their album, Pete Doherty could never do a track in a day – but most of their songs are recorded by capturing the moment. Despite not being the highlight here by a long shot, their contribution, ‘Bollywood To Battersea’, does at least one thing – it proves that despite a year of disappointments, there’s still hope for a Babyshambles album before 2006.
For those wanting something different, ‘Help: A Day In The Life’ contains some bizarre covers. Kaiser Chiefs just about pull off Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ by essentially covering The Slits’ seminal 1979 ska version – complete with falsetto yelp – while Mercury winner Antony successfully reworks ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ with Boy George. But someone should have told them it’s September.
Elsewhere, head-to-head recording sessions in Liverpool are won by a nose by The Zutons. Their song ‘Hello Conscience’ sounds like it was recorded by a bunch of pissed-up Liverpool fans the night they won the Champions League, while The Coral’s ‘It Was Nothing’ is a far more subdued affair.
Inevitably, there are some disappointments. Avoid the Manics’ plodding ‘Leviathan’ and Keane’s milky cover of Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. But these fall away in comparison to everything else. On a musical level at the very least, ‘Help: A Day In The Life’ succeeds where Live8 and Band Aid 20 failed. In attempting to repeat history, War Child have bettered it. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Geldof.