The Ministers of Sound

From the Beatles and Wilson to Bono and Blair, the rise of rock stars to power and influence has tempted leaders all over the world to cultivate them – even at the risk of ridicule

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The great cultural change of the modern world has been the meteoric rise of music to pole position among both the creative and performing arts, in terms of status, influence and material reward. One of the clearest indicators has been the response of politicians. As New Labour starts to look rather old, one of the most poignant images of its palmy days is the much much-reproduced photograph of Tony Blair greeting Noel Gallagher of the rock group at 10 Downing Street shortly after the 1997 general election. Also at the party was Alan McGee, owner o the Creation Records who was appointed by Blair to the Creative Task Force.

Invited to dinner at Chequers later that year, McGee wrote a revealing account of the evening: “We didn’t know what to expect. I was wearing a suit, Kate [McGee’s wife] was dressed up. When we drove up to the house, there were SWAT teams everywhere: guys crawling around on the grass, with guns. He [Blair] answered the door wearing jeans, with a pint in his hand. We went in, and that was when it got totally fucking psychedelic. Judi Dench was there, a guy from Psion computers, that author, John O’Farrell… and Jimmy Savile. I introduced him to Kate, and he started kind of sucking her fingers. It was all totally weird.”

Predictably, this alliance between New Labour and Britpop was of short duration. Soon, the Minister of Culture, Chris Smith, began to have second thoughts, lamenting later: “Judging by our critics, we are a platoon of philistines that have had to boogie to Oasis.” He blamed this mistaken image on “the famous photograph of the Prime Minister with Noel”, adding ruefully: “I think that with hindsight, allowing an iconic image of that kind to become common currency was a mistake.” But it was Smith, whose own tastes were for high culture, who proved to be out of step with the régime, and he was dismissed in 2001.

This determination on the part of politicians to associate themselves with popular music dates back to the early 1960s and the first eruption of youth culture. Surprisingly, it was the Conservatives who were quickest off the mark. Perhaps because he had been a journalist (and was later to be editor of the Daily Telegraph), Bill Deedes, a cabinet minister at the time, sensed that the Beatles’ triumphant tour of the US in early 1964 marked a cultural watershed. He told the City of London Young Conservatives that the Beatles heralded “a cultural movement among the young, which may become part of the history of our time. For those with eyes to see it, something important and heartening is happening here.” Although vilified by the more reactionary members of his party, Deedes’s views were adopted by the leaders. -Conservative parliamentary candidates were advised to mention the Beatles (favourably) as often as possible in their speeches, and the Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, hailed them as “our best -exports”, making “a useful contribution to the balance of payments”.

With a general election on the horizon, the Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson, moved decisively to prevent the Conservatives making the Beatles their “secret weapon”, as he put it. When he learned that the group had been named Showbusiness Personalities of 1963 by the Variety Club of Great Britain, he approached the chairman of EMI, the Beatles’ record company, to propose himself as the ideal person to make the award at the prize-giving luncheon in March, 1964.

It was probably of no concern to Wilson that the Beatles displayed all their trademark irreverence by jostling and baiting him, for the episode allowed him to position himself literally and symbolically as the politician most in touch with youth culture. The Tory Prime Minister he was trying to oust was Douglas-Home, Old Etonian Scottish laird and, until he renounced his peerage, 14th Earl of Home, so this was hardly a difficult task. After informing the Variety Club audience that this was not an occasion to make a party-political speech, Wilson, of course, did just that, trading on the happy coincidence that he was MP for a Liverpool constituency.

It is impossible to assess how much Wilson’s seizure of this photo opportunity helped him to win the October 1964 general election, although John Lennon reputedly claimed credit for the Labour victory. In any event, Wilson showed his gratitude the following year by making the Beatles MBEs. He continued the association throughout his term in office, for example, by officiating at the re-opening of the Cavern Club in Liverpool, a Beatles shrine, in July, 1966.

Wilson was the first British politician to woo popular musicians, but he was by no means the last. As the long Tory hegemony began to crumble in the mid-1990s, both sides looked for support from the musical world. It was symptomatic that the then Prime Minister, John Major, should look to the more senior end of the business, giving knighthoods to Cliff Richard (born 1940) and Paul McCartney (born 1942), while Blair targeted a younger constituency. An early sign of his strategy was the visit in 1995 by Damon Albarn of Blur to the Houses of Parliament at the invitation of the Labour Party. There Albarn conferred with John Prescott, Alistair Campbell and Blair on how the Labour Party’s appeal to the young might be enhanced.

Blair’s credentials as a patron of pop were much more impressive than Wilson’s a generation earlier. This had less to do with age — Blair was 41 in 1995, Wilson was 48 in 1964 — than with style. Blair did not smoke a pipe or go on holiday in the Scilly Isles. Moreover, as his publicists were keen to emphasise, Blair had been a rock musician while a student at Oxford, playing guitar and singing in a group called Ugly Rumours. One of his fellow musicians recalled: “He had a kind of Mick Jagger-esque delivery. Quite high, not enormous volume. But it was coupled with this very entertaining act. He definitely modelled himself on Jagger. There was a lot of ‘Well, alright!

As with Wilson’s victory over Douglas-Home in 1964, it is impossible to assess how much Blair was helped by his identification with youth culture in achieving his landslide victory in May, 1997. He certainly continued to cultivate the popular-music scene, never missing an opportunity to be photographed holding a guitar or to broadcast his musical enthusiasms (U2, the Foo Fighters, the Darkness), and letting it be known that he plays his guitar every day.

And it seemed to work. However hard the much younger Tory leader, David Cameron, tried to keep up — attending rock concerts, advertising his enthusiasm for Radiohead, choosing a suitably cool selection of records on Desert Island Discs (including Pink Floyd, Radiohead, R.E.M., the Smiths and the Killers) — Blair managed to stay one step ahead. A revealing difference between Blair and his successor was the derision that greeted Gordon Brown’s claim to like the Arctic Monkeys.

Not only have politicians sought the help of musicians — musicians have entered the world of politics. The personification of this development has been Bob Geldof, who began quite modestly, in December, 1984, with a single entitled Do They Know It’s Christmas? to raise money for the Ethiopian famine victims. He demonstrated his formidable powers of persuasion by assembling 45 of the most celebrated singers of the day, including Paul McCartney, Boy George, -David Bowie, Phil Collins, Bono, George Michael and Sting. The -result was both the fastest- and biggest-selling single of all time in the UK. Suitably encouraged, Geldof moved on to organise the world’s biggest-ever concert, Live Aid. On July 13, 1985, concerts were held simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London, where 72,000 attended, and at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, where 90,000 attended. Two billion people in 50 countries watched the event on television. Initial hopes that $1 million would be raised were exceeded by 150 times.

In 2005, Geldof struck again, this time with the assistance of a number of other rock stars, most notably Bono of U2. On July 2, 10 -concerts known collectively as Live 8 were held across the world, from Japan to Philadelphia, and were broadcast to a global audience via 100 television stations and 2,000 radio networks. It was claimed subsequently that 3.8 billion people — more than half the population of the world — had tuned in to a concert at some point. The organisers showed that they had learned from their mistakes — this time the -intention was not to raise money, which might well find its way into the wrong hands, but to bring pressure to bear on the G8 organisation of the world’s most advanced countries, whose leaders were meeting at Gleneagles in Scotland. As Geldof put it, “We don’t want your money; we want your voice.” Brown, Chancellor at the time, agreed to waive the VAT on the British concert’s proceeds, thus saving the organisers around £500,000, and the G8 finance ministers agreed to cancel the debts of the 18 poorest countries, as well as to double their aid globally, half of which was to go to Africa, and to reform restrictive trade régimes.

Geldof’s compatriot, Bono, now behaves like the world leader he has undoubtedly become, visiting Pope John Paul II, to whom he gave his trademark sunglasses in exchange for a rosary, taking the then US Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, on a fact-finding and opinion-changing tour of Africa, and telling presidents and prime ministers what to do. At Gleneagles in 2005, he was able to persuade the reluctant German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to fall into line by making him an offer he could not refuse: to endorse Schröder and his Social Democratic Party at every concert during U2’s impending tour of Germany. Schröder was facing a very difficult general election campaign, and he capitulated. In 2003, Bono was admitted to the -Légion d’Honneur by France’s President at the time, Jacques Chirac; in 2005, Time magazine named him Person of the Year; then in January last year, he was given an honorary knighthood by Blair, “in recognition of his services to the music industry and for his humanitarian work,” said the statement from the British Embassy in Dublin.

When the William J Clinton Presidential Center and Park was opened at Little Rock, Arkansas, in November 2004, in attendance were President George W. Bush and three former Presidents — George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton himself. The audience reaction showed, however, that the real star of the occasion was Bono, who not only played and sang, but made a speech in which he addressed each President individually and commented on their contributions to Africa. As an illustration of the triumph of music in the modern world, this is hard to beat.