Can Rock ‘N’ Roll Save the World?

Greenpeace Magazine, Vol. 14, Number 9 (1989-11-01)

By Andre Carothers

Red Square, Moscow, March 6 – it was the usual icy Moscow winter, and a group of the world’s most famous rock musicians were huddled for photographers beneath St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. For Peter Gabriel, Chrissie Hynde, David Byrne, the Edge, Jerry Harrison, Annie Lennox and the rest, coming to Moscow was a watershed, different in kind that the lucrative globe-trotting expeditions today’s popular musicians have taken on as part of the job.

The gathering in Red Square represented, by several orders of magnitude, the largest and most potent collection of rock’s elite ever to gather in Eastern Europe. It also serves as a sort of crescendo to rock-and-roll’s environmental chorus. Like dozens of other major rock acts, the artists who gathered in Red Square are converts to eco-activism. They were in the Soviet Union as volunteers, to promote the release of an album of songs they had donated to Greenpeace. The record, called Breakthrough, would introduce environmental issues in general, and Greenpeace in particular, to young people in the Soviet Union. Each record included a brochure that described environmental problems, Greenpeace and provided an address in the Soviet Union for more information.

By any measure, Greenpeace’s Soviet album project was a resounding success. In the first month, a million records were sold. More than 25,000 names flooded into the Moscow post box. The first pressing sold out, and while the album remained at number one on the Tass charts for five months, Melodiya had to sit out a paper shortage before producing more. “When you plug in an electrical appliance in the Soviet Union,” wrote one Moscow journalist, “You hear the Greenpeace album.”

Iceland on the line. Ian Flooks, who heads a London-based agency called Wasted Talent, which books the world tours of U2 and other megagroups, would normally not take the call. Rock promoters in Iceland have a poor reputation for paying bills, and, as Flooks says, “it’s not the biggest record market in the world.” But the agent, fresh from being tapped for the board of Greenpeace in the United Kingdom, succumbs to a flash of green zeal and answers the phone. None of Wasted Talent’s clients would be inclined to play in Iceland, he declares, as long as the country continued to kill whales. Thanks for calling, good-bye.

Two weeks later, a pile of newspaper clippings arrive in the mail. Flooks’ casual dismissal had made the Iceland papers, causing considerable concern. A cultural boycott? For whaling?

For Flooks, who donated a year and a half of his time and a third of his cramped office to the album project, the Iceland exchange was a vindication of sorts. As the agent for several of the groups that devoted their time and music to the record, Flooks wanted to feel that the effort is destined to make a difference. Now he is convinced. “Music just happens to be the universal medium,” he says. “These artists have created for themselves a real position of power.”

That popular music is a “universal language,” capable of transmitting environmental messages to a young and eager audience, is the conventional wisdom. But unequivocal demonstrations of the political power of rock and roll are rare. Few people agree on the significance of rock’s new-found environmental proclivities, and fewer still are willing to credit it with changing the political tenor of the times. But effective or not, musicians are taking to environmentalism with a passion that many had reserved in former times for chauffeured Cadillacs, cocaine and other forms of star-crossed debauchery. How serious are they? A brief survey is in order.

In July, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, long-time supporters of Greenpeace, refused to go on stage at Jones Beach in New York until state park officials let Greenpeace set up an information booth inside the arena. From the stage Petty gestured toward the muddied Atlantic behind the stage and suggested that the audience might write the governor of New York and ask why Greenpeace was not allowed onto park land. A few weeks later, when Jefferson Airplane came through, Greenpeace’s presence was no longer a problem.

U2, perhaps the band most clearly associated with political causes, turned down an invitation this year to meet with the leader of the British Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, saying that they would not talk to any British politicians until the government stopped dumping radioactive waste from the nuclear reprocessing facility at Sellafield into the Irish Sea.

Sade, whose reticence to promote her own albums is legendary, called the gray eminences at CBS’s “black rock” headquarters in New York and demanded that they release her song for Greenpeace’s album. CBS, one of the most conservative record companies, was adamantly opposed to supporting Greenpeace. But they acquiesced rather than risk offending a treasured act. Bruce Cockburn, Canada’s best-known political bard, took the helm of a Greenpeace zodiac in a demonstration against a paper mill in Ontario. Another Canadian rocker, Bryan Adams, joined a flotilla of Greenpeace boats that staged a reception for nuclear-armed warships in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Greenpeace is not a safe organization,” exulted Adams. “It’s not like joining UNICEF.”

REM’s Michael Stipe has stumped for Greenpeace’s campaign against restarting the Savannah River Plant’s plutonium and tritium-producing reactors. White Lion set an environmental song to videotape, using footage from Greenpeace actions. Pete Sears, formerly of Jefferson Starship, formed a production company to promote cause-oriented videos and has devoted a whole album to human rights and the environment. Paul McCartney is bringing Friends of the Earth along on his year-long world tour that began in September. Jackson Browne, well-known for his support of the Christic Institute, and Graham Nash have played at a host of benefits for Greenpeace and other causes. AndVH-1, the rock video cable channel, has been broadcasting what it calls “Earth Alerts,” 30-second spots hosted by everyone from Spalding Gray to Carly Simon and Pee Wee Herman. Each Earth Alert highlights an environmental problem and closes with Greenpeace’s phone number.

The most potent issue appears to be rainforests. This crisis has united Madonna, Sting, and a host of other groups. Even the Grateful Dead, until now not known for its political commitment (“We’re not real famous for taking a stand on anything,” says guitarist Bob Weir), is on board. After performing a sellout benefit at Madison Square Garden, the band testified on Capitol Hill and is now looking into sponsoring a phone-in environmental action bulletin board. Not bad for a group whose major social contribution before 1970 was an occasional tribute to a jailed member of the Hell’s Angels.

The Greenpeace album project, like many successful undertakings, was the orphan son of another plan – the concert. In 1986, Greenpeace began looking into the possibility of staging an event in Washington and Moscow, to join East and West in an afternoon of music, celebrating cooperation in defense of the environment. It seemed timely, coming on the heels of Live Aid and the Amnesty Tour, but it never came off. Perhaps it was too timely – in 1986, Moscow had yet to become just another European venue for everyone from Metallica to Billy Joel. And working in Moscow was still a bit weird. Peter Bahouth, director of Greenpeace in the United States, compares it to the plot of a Hitchcock movie. People you thought you knew one week are complete strangers the next, and hints about how to proceed or who to talk to are conveyed in cryptic metaphors. Another problem, at least in 1986 – no Yellow Pages. If you want to stage an event, where do you get folding chairs?

As Flooks, Bahouth and David McTaggart, chairman of Greenpeace International, watched the concert idea retreat into the recesses of the Kremlin, it occurred to them that perhaps they could salvage the plan, and accomplish the same goal, through a record. So they switched gears, calling a meeting with the state record company, Melodiya, and struck a deal: Greenpeace would deliver the biggest western rock acts and the album artwork, and Melodiya would press five million records, tapes or CDs, giving Greenpeace 20 percent of the gross. While McTaggart made small talk, Bahouth found an empty office with a manual typewriter and hammered out a letter of agreement. The Melodiya executives signed, and the project was off. Now all Greenpeace had to do was persuade the record executives at CBS, Island, MCA, Geffen, RCA, BMG; twenty or so major rock acts; and all the publishing companies that own their songs, to give their time, property and services for free.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups can be excused for turning to popular music to spread the message. For one thing, half of the world is under 25. And most of them, once their basic needs are taken care of, want music. Rock-and-roll fever has spread to every continent. In Swaziland, the son of the king asked for Eric Clapton, who promptly organized an African tour around the command performance. Although Clapton’s tour bus was shot at on the way to the gig in Mozambique’s war-torn capitol, more than 100,000 African fans of the British blues showed up anyway.

When Amnesty International brought the Human Rights Now! Tour to Costa Rica, they discovered that thousands of Central American teenagers had taken buses, hitchhiked or walked hundreds of miles to San Jose. With a hurricane threatening to end the show before it started, 30,000 delirious fans crowded into the stadium while another 20,000 danced outside. More than 90,000 fans turned out for Amnesty’s show in Budapest. Sting’s Brazilian rainforest tour played regularly to crowds in excess of 100,000, larger than anything his solo tour had drawn to the North. And one informal poll showed that nine of ten adults in Panama world elect salsa star Ruben Blades, a key player in the anti-apartheid benefits, to be the country’s president.

One measure of popular music’s strength is the lengths governments will go to either suppress or co-opt it. Burma’s repressive military regime did not hesitate to ban the popular music of opposition leader Sai Hti Hseng. In the ‘70s, the Nigerian government locked up Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the country’s outspoken international superstar, for half a decade. And the repressive regime in South Africa even commissioned a song, called “Together We’ll Build a Brighter Future,” in an attempt to muffle the repercussions of the concert Amnesty was putting on over the border in Zimbabwe. It was not a big success. For one thing, the houses of some of the musicians who participated were fire-bombed.

Politicians in the United States were quick to see rock’s electoral clout. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 flirtation with a national candidacy included a contribution from rapper Grandmaster Melle called “Jesse.” President Reagan grabbed the shirt tails of Bruce Springsteen with reckless abandon during his 1984 “Morning in America” ad campaign (to which the New Jersey guitarist responded, “It’s not morning above 125th Street in New York. It’s midnight, and there’s a bad moon rising”). The Bush team approached Bobby McFerrin for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (McFerrin refused). Even Washington D.C.’s embattled mayor, Marion Barry, lent his voice to an anti-drug rap song, right before being caught up in an unsavory cocaine scandal.

But perhaps the most compelling anecdote about pop and politics involves the incomparable Bob Marley. At the height of their long, bitter and sometimes violent election campaign in 1978, Jamaica’s prime ministerial hopefuls Edward Seaga and Michael Manley found themselves summoned simultaneously to the stage by the reggae superstar, in front of thousands of ecstatic fans in Montego Bay. As the crowd roared its approval, Marley grabbed their hands, joined them, and held them high in the air above his head. In the background, the Wailers played “One Love.”

A closed society in the throes of perestroika is a wildly unpredictable place. With a bit of luck, a person can arrange a multi-million dollar deal with the most impenetrable of Soviet ministries in less time than it takes to fix a parking ticket in Boston. And then have it called off, without comment, a day before closing. Or, one can arrange a publicity campaign that would make a New York ad executive faint.

Eighteen months after signing Bahouth’s makeshift letter of intent, the record project crew was back in Moscow, with the cream of the Western rock in tow, preparing for the launch. During the previous year, they had somehow persuaded the record labels and publishing companies to permit the album to go ahead (save for EMI, which adamantly refused to release any of its artists’ songs for free).

Now it was time for the launch. The press conference, scheduled for March 6, could well be a disaster. There was no way of knowing whether they would be granted unlimited access to the Soviet media (the two papers, Izvestia and Pravda, “news” and “truth,” reach more than 100 million people a day) or whether they would be shut into a closet with some bureaucrat and a few adolescent stringers from the Youth Communist League newspaper, Komsomolyetz. As for access to the country’s single television station, word had reached the team that an edict had come down – no rock-and-roll on television.

But then no one had anticipated Moscow’s rock-and-roll fever. What happened was this: David Byrne, the Edge, Chrissie Hynde, Brynsley Forde of Aswad, Karl Wallinger of World Party, and the Thompson Twins were taken directly from the airport to a Moscow television studio, where a live television talk show called “Before and After Midnight” was already in progress. Before they had even unpacked, the “team,” as they came to be called, was being beamed to 200 million Soviets through a 50s-style hand-held camera. For half an hour, the team held court for the largest single television audience in the world, talking about Greenpeace, the environment, and their concerns for the future of the planet.

As for the ban on televised pop music, the minister in charge, it seems, had dictated the memo and gone on vacation. The temptation proved more than the technicians could bear. Like truant schoolchildren, the young Soviets at the controls of the state-run television station grabbed the prerecorded tape Annie Lennox had made, complete with shots of Greenpeace’s most photogenic direct actions, and broadcast it over and over into the vastness of Soviet Europe until no one who was within earshot of an electrical appliance could not know that Greenpeace had arrived.

Compare this to the aborted effort to publicize Greenpeace in the United Kingdom. The Greenpeace album, dubbed Rainbow Warriors for release in the West, was launched at a press conference in London in June, following months of negotiations over what could and could not be said over British television. The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), which dictates what can appear on television in the United Kingdom, had issued a ruling. Any TV ad for the record, they declared, could not suggest that the musicians supported Greenpeace. It could not sue the word Greenpeace, or the word tree, or green, or whale. The artists were not even allowed to suggest that they were concerned about the environment. It was all too “political” by IBA standards. By contrast, British Nuclear Fuels, which runs the nuclear reprocessing facility in Sellafield, is encouraged to run commercials on the benefits of its controversial operations. “I began to wonder,” said Flooks, “who was living in the police state.”

As far as the record project people know, the Moscow TV technicians’ insubordination went unpunished. Few informed Muscovites of any political persuasion were not caught up in the general enthusiasm for Greenpeace. “I don’t think any of the Soviets in charge realized how important the musicians we brought over were to people in Moscow and Leningrad as well as the West,” said Flooks. The press conference turned out far better than they had hoped, with details for the Moscow expedition and the Greenpeace album picked up by television and newspapers around the world.

Certainly the excitement seemed to please the head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Yevgeny Velikhov. During the height of the post-press conference festivities at the Irish Embassy, Velikhov disappeared upstairs to make a few furtive phone calls and then, without comment, shooed the Greenpeace record project team and the musicians into a bus and directed them through the icy, dark Moscow streets. At the end of a fifteen-minute ride, Velikhov flung open the doors, and with a smile, gestured to a building blanketed in snow. “Your new headquarters,” he beamed. “Greenpeace Moscow.”

Today popular music is invested with unparalleled power. Part of this clout is simply financial. Rock has become a $7 billion a year business, with perhaps a billion more represented by bootlegging of various kinds. This enormous wealth grants a form of immunity to rock’s untouchables – musicians like U2, Madonna, Dire Straits, Paul McCartney, Talking Heads. They are untouchable because they provide a significant portion of their record label’s profits. In this way, they literally earn themselves the right to say and do anything they want in front of audience that run to hundreds of millions. The people who run CBS records, for all their clout and wealth (the heads of the corporations still have a lot more money than Madonna and Michael Jackson), are in many ways at the mercy of their most popular musicians.

Add in the credibility factor. Most people have little reason not to believe the artists. For one thing, rock isn’t subversive anymore. “In 20 years, the outlaws have become heroes,” says rock promoter Bill Graham. Unlike politics, people who write songs are under no obligation to produce massive hits every time. And they have no vested interest in taking a stand on the environment or anything else. A musical fan is a more often than not a fan for life, whereas a political supporter is gone with the next unpopular decision. “Rock-and-roll musicians have a lot more credibility than most other branches of society,” says Ian Flooks.

Of course, the rock elite’s arrival on the environmental battleground does not guarantee victory. A lot of them simply go about it wrong. The most famous example of second thoughts in rock philanthropy is the education of Bob Geldof, who through Live Aid, flung himself into feeding the hungry, only to discover that he was pouring money into the wrong hands and distorting a delicate political situation in famine-stricken Africa for the worse. To his credit, he took the opportunity to educate himself and turned Live Aid into an effective distributor of aid.

Sting’s quixotic campaign into the Amazon, complete with a foundation, a book, a world press tour, and concerts in Brazil, almost sank after the musician fell in with some poor advisers and alienated the indigenous people he wanted to help. Like Geldof, he has since made every effort to set the campaign right. Says Sting: “This is much harder than rock-and-roll.”

It is also clear that the countless fundraisers, while vital for some of the beneficiaries, are not going to move mountains. The millions raided by Live Aid will not end world hunger. Hands Across America, after paying off absurd amounts of overhead, cleared $12 million for the hungry and the homeless (the food stamp program costs the U.S. government some $130 billion a year.) Before he died in the late ‘70s, Harry Chapin liked to point out that if George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh played every night for a year, $730 million would be raised, approximately enough to provide a bagel and a cup of coffee for each hungry child.

Saving the planet is also a nitty-gritty political effort, a fact that many fans and promoters like to avoid. In 1985, indignant viewers berated the volunteers who were talking calls during the Live Aid concert after German pop star Udo Lindenberg suggested that perhaps some of the money devoted to weapons around the world could be diverted to funding human needs. In the context of the chummy, apolitical “we-are-all-one” Live Aid atmosphere, such common sense came across as blasphemy.

The artists, too, are sometimes inclined toward a more complacent view of how the world works. Bob Weir’s visit to Capitol Hill, he says, was sobering. “I saw important and immediate issues dragged into the mire of partisan politics.” More than once, musicians who have contributed to Greenpeace have accompanied their support with a tribute to the group’s “apolitical” stance. “Greenpeace is unique. It’s non-political,” says the Edge. True, to a point. In fact, ecological activism is a distinctly “political” effort, as any long-term Greenpeace campaigner will tell you.

Harry Chapin, who more than anyone else channeled his music career into his commitment to feeding the hungry, realized part way through the campaign that the real causes of world hunger – wrong-headed government economic policies that destroy local agricultural markets and misdirected aid programs – were not being addressed by his exhaustive efforts. Geldof also knew, after a while, that there were real limits to what he could accomplish. “I have no illusions as to our effect at that level,” he said, referring to the radical reforms necessary to solve world hunger. “It’s not really pop music’s job to do this.”

Still, in a period when an acute grasp of the issues appears not to be required for high office, it’s hard to dismiss musicians by arguing they are out of their depth. “This is the age of politicians as pop stars,” said U2’s Bono, “So why can’t pop stars be a new kind of politician?” Actor Richard Chamberlain, who has climbed Capitol Hill more than once in defense of wild places, says “if there’s one thing we learned from Ronald Reagan, it is that politics is partly show business.”

By March 20, the team was home, back to touring, song-writing and other assorted rock star activities. Practical considerations eventually led Greenpeace to decline Velikhov’s offer of an office. Greenpeace USSR now resides in a rented space in Moscow, but the group will eventually buy an office, taking advantage of the recently relaxed regulations on owning property. Ian Flooks says the album project got Greenpeace into the Soviet Union, and it may play the same role in Bulgaria, Chile, Indonesia, Bolivia, India, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil, and the two dozen other countries where it is being released. The album has gone gold in England, West Germany and Australia, and the proceeds from sales around the world are being funneled into Greenpeace projects in the Soviet Union.

If you are looking for concrete contributions from rock’s eco-activists, this is as good as anything. As for changing the world, it’s hard to say. The phenomenon is simply too new to comment on accurately. Popular causes come and go, a fact critics of the movement like to recite as evidence that this too will pass.

But environmental problems are different. The dilemmas facing the planet with endure in a way that other popular celebrity causes cannot. For this reason, the persistence and commitment of pop musicians is reassuring. It is not hard to imagine, to give one example, that U2’s commitment to a pollution-free Irish Sea is as unsettling to British Nuclear Fuels as a dozen Greenpeace inflatables.

Carlos Mejia Godoy, who wrote ballads for the revolutionaries before the overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, always insisted that the contras had no domestic support. Without money from the United States, he predicted (accurately, as it turned out), the contras would collapse. How did he know, he was asked. “They have no singers,” he responded.” We have singers.”

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