War Child’s ‘Help’ album story

I was privileged to have worked for War Child from 2004-06 as the Editor of warchildmusic.com. In a pre-iTunes world we sold exclusive music downloads from the likes of Radiohead, Keane, Fatboy Slim, Bjork and Primal Scream with the proceeds benefiting children affected by war.

War Child has a fine musical history and has released a number of excellent albums. ‘Help’ was the charity’s first album release in 1995. To celebrate the launch of warchildmusic.com it was made available as a download for the first time. The story of the album is almost as good as the record itself and needed retelling, so I provided this serialised online version.


On September 9, 1995, War Child released an album called Help. Featuring, among others, Oasis, Radiohead, The KLF, The Charlatans, The Chemical Brothers and Paul Weller, it was a fund-raiser with a difference – you see, before Help, charity records always followed an unspoken rule… they were rubbish.

Not only did the proceeds of this particular record help children caught up in a shocking war in Yugoslavia, it was also very good. Tony Blair, car crashes, private jets, Pot Noodles, John Lennon and a pregnant bear… here then, for the first time, we tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the making of Help.

Between 1992 and 1995, a ferocious civil war raged in Yugoslavia. As is often the way with modern conflict, it’s incredibly hard to explain, or even understand, why countries tear themselves apart in this most bloody of fashion. It’s even harder to understand when it happens virtually on your doorstep.

Being a mere two-hour flight from the UK, Yugoslavia was a popular holiday destination, the people not unlike us. They had money, jobs, families. They drove nice cars and lived in nice houses. A war in Yugoslavia was kind of like the English rolling tanks into Wales – almost unthinkable. Almost.

In July 1995, Tony Crean – international marketing manager at a record label called Go! Discs, home to Gabrielle, Beats International, The Beautiful South, Paul Weller and Portishead – was laid up with a dose of the ’flu. At the same time, the fighting in and around the Bosnia capital, Sarajevo, was reaching its height… as was the global media coverage.

With little else to do, Crean got further into the newspapers than his usual dose of sport pages, he also watched more TV than usual. The inter-ethnic conflict had taken the lives of 250,000 people and displaced a further two million. Those fleeing the bloodshed – normal men, women and children – were left with nothing, not even hope.

“I realised I didn’t really understand what was going on,” admitted Crean. “When I was better, I went to Westminster Central Hall for a meeting attended by 5,000 Bosnian people. I had never been in such an emotionally charged atmosphere. I left in tears.”

TOMORROW: Black Grape, John Lennon and a plan to raise £200,000
PULL QUOTE: “… A war in Yugoslavia was kind of like the English rolling tanks into Wales – almost unthinkable. Almost…”

When he returned to work, Crean couldn’t stop thinking about what could be done to help those facing the kind of disaster he couldn’t even imagine.

“Everyone was aware of it, but no one knew what to do,” he said. “I was reading a quote from a charity worker who said, ‘We need £200,000 to feed and clothe these children, and it’s £200,000 we haven’t got’. And I thought, ‘if Melody Maker and NME readers just gave a pound each that would do the trick’,” he said. “Then I saw Black Grape at the Hanover Grand.”

At the show, Crean bumped into the band’s PR, Anton Brookes.

“With Bosnia, it felt like everyone was sitting round umming and aahing – all these people getting fucked over and everyone was just talking about things,” explained Crean. “We had to show something could be done.”

Brookes talked to the band that night about doing something. They said yes. A phone call later and The Stone Roses agreed to help out too.

“The initial idea was a big gig with The Stone Roses and Black Grape,” said Roses’ PR Terri Hall. “But the venue, Old Trafford Cricket Ground, fell through.”

Over a Chinese meal, Crean, Brookes, Hall and fellow PR Rob Partridge realised that between them they knew every British rock and dance act worth their salt. With The Grape and The Roses onboard maybe other acts would help out. Maybe they could put together an album… and out came the contacts books.

Events were becoming increasingly desperate in Bosnia. Ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter of civilians, cities under siege. Everyone knew that if they were going to do anything they had to do it fast. When John Lennon released his ‘Instant Karma’ single in February 1970, he said records should be like newspapers, reflecting events as they are happening.

“The best record you can make,” the Beatle claimed, “is recorded on Monday, cut on Tuesday, pressed up on Wednesday, packaged on Thursday, distributed on Friday, in the shops on Saturday…”

As ideas go it fitted the brief rather nicely. The record would be recorded on a Monday, mastered on a Tuesday, pressed on a Wednesday… you get the idea.
The plan involved releasing the album on a Saturday and celebrating its Number One status on Sunday, making it the fastest album ever recorded. It also solved the problem of how to raise a shedload of money almost overnight.

TOMORROW: The fund-raiser that lost money, a pregnant bear, Jarvis’ shoes and one fortunate phone call.
PULL QUOTE: “… They knew every British rock and dance act worth their salt. Maybe other acts would help out. Maybe they could put together an album…”

War Child was set up in 1993 by writer David Wilson and film-maker Bill Leeson as a response to the war raging in Yugoslavia. They had witnessed the suffering first-hand when they visited Sarajevo to make a film for BBC’s Arena about Croatian musicians.

Back home, they decided to do what they could to help. First fruit was a play, written by Wilson, called ‘War Child’. The curtain never went up on the production after they worked out that it would have to run for what seemed like an eternity to make any money. It did, however, give their fledgling charity its name.

The first fund-raiser proper turned out to be the exact opposite – what you’d probably call a fund-lowerer. The pair booked London’s Festival Hall for a three-night stand featuring a clutch of classical luminaries such as pianist Peter Donohoe and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. “It lost money,” said Wilson. “But it put War Child in the public eye.”

Their next venture, in August 1993. put War Child in London Zoo. Over 800 street entertainers, musicians and dancers busked their way to raising £25,000 despite the last-minute discovery that a rare Madagascan bear was pregnant and the stage outside her enclosure had to be dismantled and moved elsewhere for fear of jugglers and fire-eaters upsetting her.

The next two events were, crucially for a charity, of the serious raising money variety: in Sept 1994, an art auction – Little Pieces From Big Stars – raised £80,000 by selling works from the likes of David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Bono. The following June, the Pagan Funwear fashion show raised a thumping £150,000.

The catwalk featured designs by Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry and Michael Stipe and models including Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, who designed and modelled a pair of shoes, and Naomi Campbell’s mum. While putting the show together, War Child made what would turn out to be a fortuitous phone call to a record label called Go! Discs. Would Paul Weller fancy designing something or other they wondered. “Nope,” said his label. “You’d be better off asking him to do what he does best.”

It was one of many, many calls made from the War Child office while putting together the show. It wasn’t unusual for people to say no. So Weller’s name was crossed off the list and the next call was made. Little did anyone know how important that call would be.

TOMORROW: Gobsmacked.
PULL QUOTE: “… A rare Madagascan bear was pregnant and the stage outside her enclosure had to be dismantled and moved elsewhere for fear of jugglers and fire-eaters upsetting her…”

It’s all well and good raising money for a worthwhile cause, but once the job is done how do you get it where it needs to be? In this case the answer had already presented itself in the shape of a phone call earlier in the year about Weller and some charity. That’ll be the phone call from War Child then, the organisation set up to help Bosnian children caught up in the war in Yugoslavia.

War Child had firmly set out their stall with the success of their fashion and art shows. The idea of enlisting household names wasn’t a new one for a charity, but enlisting the kind of names that chimed with a younger audience certainly was. The charity was always on the look-out for new ways to raise funds, holding regular meetings to toss the salad, chew the fat, work out their next move… you know the drill.

There was a new face at one such meeting in early August 1995. He told them he wanted to record and release an album in week. He wanted the biggest British bands of the moment to take part. He wanted to put it all together in a month and give the proceeds to War Child. Great idea and all that… but, well, wasn’t recording and releasing a record in a week a bit mad?

Days after this first meeting, Crean returned to War Child with a list of artists who’d be up for contributing to the record – Oasis, Radiohead, Blur, Portishead, The Stone Roses, Paul Weller, Massive Attack, Suede.
In short, support had been drummed up from nothing less than the cream of British music. In under a week.

War Child were gobsmacked.

TOMORROW: Minor miracles, seven figure bank accounts and the inaugural cutting it fine awards.
PULL QUOTE: “… He wanted to put it all together in a month. Great idea and all that… but, well, wasn’t recording and releasing a record in a week a bit mad…”

Within days, the Help album was full steam ahead with the finest British acts of the moment lining up studios from Wales to Malaga and most points in between for the 24-hour recording window set for Monday, September 4.

The plan was ambitious to say the least – just getting the 20 or so bands recording on the same day would be a feat in itself, releasing the completed album five days later would be a minor miracle. Little did anyone know that if it came off War Child would, almost instantly, have a seven-figure bank account.

“The idea was to get some of the laziest people you could think of to do something as quickly as possible,” offered Crean. “That a band like the Stone Roses, who took five years to record one album, could actually turn round a track in a day sends out a signal that anything is possible.”

What’s more, aside from Weller and The Levellers, the record wouldn’t feature a single name associated with political pop. No one here was setting themselves up to save the world. They just wanted to do what they could to help.

The result would be a “proper” album featuring exclusive tracks from the finest Britpop had to offer. In short, it would kick the arse of every charity record that came before it.

When the clock ticked to one minute past midnight on Monday, September 4, 1995 there was no going back. It signalled the beginning of a week that those involved wouldn’t forget in hurry.

Everyone from Oasis to Portishead, from Radiohead to Terrorvision, took to the studio at various times during the day. From KLF to Suede, you name ’em, they were there… Blur, The Charlatans, Chemical Brothers… Studios buzzed into life as bands began knitting together the tracks that would change the perception of charity records forever.

Special mention must go to Noel Gallagher who didn’t stop for almost the entire 24 hours – recording two tracks, conducting interviews, attending photo sessions and even dropping off Oasis’ new version of ‘Fade Away’ at Radio One.

The Stereo MCs and Manic Street Preachers merited some sort of cutting it fine award for heading into their respective studios hours before the midnight deadline.

Hats should also be tipped in the direction of The KLF, who, operating under the name One World Orchestra, finished their track, ‘The Magnificent’, at 10am, talked the Yugoslavian embassy into issuing them with visas by 10.30am and promptly boarded a plane to Sarajevo to, among other things, debut the track on the underground B92 radio station in the very city it would be helping.

TOMORROW: Over processed nonsense, private jets, police escorts and no tracklisting.
PULL QUOTE: “… The idea was to get some of the laziest people you could think of to do something as quickly as possible…”
Tony Crean

At 9am on the morning of September 5, War Child patron, Brain Eno, began the process of mastering the album at London’s Townhouse Studios. Despite a number of “technical hitches” (Crean crashed his car while trying to tune the radio, the tapes of the Manics’ song missed the last ferry from France and Neneh Cherry’s caught the last cargo plane out of Malaga in the nick of time), the tapes were all where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there.

“You know what sounds so great about these tracks?” asked Eno as he listened to the tapes for the first time. “They’re all so fresh. I really hope it sets a precedent – that people will stop messing about in the studio for months on end, emerging with the sort of over-processed nonsense often presided over by the likes of me.”

The mastering managed to overrun, but by 9pm the tapes were winging their way to pressing plants in Blackburn, Telford, France, Germany and Holland to be turned into CDs and cassettes… Helicopters were cancelled due to bad weather, bikes were dispatched with police escorts and a private jet took a whirlwind trip round Europe’s pressing plants… just an ordinary day really.

The non-stop 32-hour production process was now six hours adrift of schedule. But, as one clever person noted, the deadline would be met because Saturday isn’t movable.

By Wednesday, finished copies of the album – with artwork by John Squire of The Stone Roses and Massive Attack’s 3-D as well as sleeve notes by Nirvana’s Krist Novaselic, whose family come from the Croatian town of Zadar – began to arrive at the distribution centre of Go! Discs’ parent company in Chadwell Heath. No strangers to the tightest of deadlines – they distributed both Band Aid singles – they cleared the decks for the occasion.

Due to the extremely tight deadline and no one really knowing who’d end up on the final cut, the sleeve was printed without a tracklisting, which, as you’ll know if you’ve heard the album, made for an interesting and somewhat surprising first listen. Various magazines later printed a full tracklisting for those who like that sort of thing.

The first finished copies of Help were unpacked at a press conference and playback at Metropolis Studios in west London on Thursday afternoon.
A box of CDs was opened in front of the media and copies sold, for review purposes, at £20 each. Cassettes of the album were also sold for £12. Fortunately, a list wasn’t kept of the publications too tight to splash out for a CD. We do however know who you are.

By Friday, a fleet of Securicor vans had delivered over 300,000 copies of the album to record stores the length and breadth of the country in preparation for the following day.

When the doors of record shops across the country opened for business on Saturday morning, War Child couldn’t have wished for more. The record sold, in one day, enough copies to become Number One at a stroll outselling it’s nearest rival by four to one.

In the beginning, the hope was that the record would make somewhere in the region of £200,000. The final total was much, much more than that.

TOMORROW: How Help helped.
PULL QUOTE: “… I really hope people will stop messing about in the studio for months on end, emerging with the sort of over-processed nonsense often presided over by the likes of me…”
Brian Eno

Help achieved what it had set out to do. And then some. That it actually happened at all was impressive in itself, the fact it also gained multi-platinum status in the same time it took to record was remarkable. The rollcall runs to a place in the Guinness Book of Records, more publicity than anyone could have dreamed, a crackingly good album and, most importantly, a mountain of cash.
As was always the point, money from the album began helping the children of Bosnia immediately. Thanks to a £300,000 advance handed over by Go! Discs’ Andy Macdonald on the day of recording, War Child was able to get to work before the album had even been pressed.

The positive affect of Help was soon felt across Bosnia – £100,000 of prosthetic materials for making artificial limbs was delivered to Tuzla and Sarajevo, a mobile bakery was given a new lease of life in Mostar, premature baby units arrived in Banja Luka, a mobile Medical Centre to Bihac, school meals were provided to children in the frontline town of Olovo, and over 320,000 condoms were delivered all across the country.
Help went on to raise a staggering £1.25 million – far more than anyone at War Child had dared to wish for – and provided funding for over 30 life-saving projects.
An early working title for Help had been ‘24 Hours To Tuzla’ – such was the speed of the aid effort that accompanied the album, that title wouldn’t have been far off.

For various reasons, some tracks recorded for the album didn’t make the final cut, so two EPs followed hot on its heals.
The first EP featured Radiohead’s ‘Lucky’ (almost a year before it appeared on ‘OK Computer’), a live version of PJ Harvey’s ‘50-Ft Queenie’, a track from Gang Starr’s Guru and an untitled track which was in fact Portishead.

The second EP contained the Gallagher/Weller/McCartney version of ‘Come Together’, Black Grape’s ‘In The Name Of The Father (Crown Of Thorns Mix)’, Beautiful South’s ‘A Minute’s Silence’ and Dodgy’s ‘Is It Me?’.

At the Q Awards in November 1995, one Tony Blair stepped up to present a specially-created award to the record. “This is a remarkable album,” he said. “At a time when there was a danger of the West turning its back on the war in Bosnia, it helped put it back in the headlines and reactivate public interest. It helped us be aware of our responsibilities to other people.”

The Brits also recognised the release by creating a new award. Pulp’s ‘Different Class’ lifted the Mercury Music Prize the following year, but Jarvis gave the award and prize money to War Child saying that ‘Help’, which was also shortlisted, would have been a better choice.

Two further fund-raising albums followed ‘Help’ – ‘One Love’ was a collection of Number One songs covered by an all-star cast including Oasis, Feeder, The Manics, Prodigy and Stereophonics. The album celebrated 50 years since the NME published the first-ever single chart. The proceeds helped children in Central Asia, the Middle East and Central Africa.

The next album, ‘Hope’, featured tracks from Travis, Paul McCartney, Basement Jaxx and Avril Lavinge, and it gave what it title suggested to the children of Iraq.

And so, in your sweaty hands you are now clutching – virtually of course – the next generation of War Child fundraising.
Each month we’ll be offering you a clutch of exclusive tunes from the biggest names in the music world to the finest up-and-coming acts all for a stupidly cheap £3.50 a month.

Just by enjoying our monthly selection of tunes from the good and the great you’ll be helping children isolated by conflict and poverty in some of the world’s most troubled regions. For each track you buy for £1, War Child will receive in the region of 70p, or if you like cover all transport, doctor’s fees and prescription medication for a child’s visit to the doctor in Iraq. Each monthly £3.50 subscription will allow a Congolese child to go to school.

Couldn’t be simpler, the rewards couldn’t be greater.
PULL QUOTE: “… a place in the Guinness Book of Records, more publicity than anyone could have dreamed, a crackingly good album and, most importantly, a mountain of cash…”

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