The history of the charity single

Comic Relief is a cornerstone of British culture and this week, Ireland is getting in on the act. The cast of Derry Girls and Normal People will be taking part, comedy will be provided by the likes of The Two Johnnies and Dara O’Briain, and superstars like Hozier and Andrew Scott will be on hand to do their bit. The only thing that’s missing: A charity single.

The charity single can be credited to Beatles guitarist George Harrison, who, after a devastating cyclone in 1970 in Bangladesh, put together a track to raise awareness of the plight in that country. After lying dormant for well over 10 years, Bob Geldof’s Band Aid rewrote the rule book on what a charity single can do. Still to this day, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ is the second biggest-selling single in UK chart history, behind another charity single – Elton John’s ‘Candle In The Wind’, which raised money for the Diana Foundation.

The success of Band Aid ushered in an era of all-star charity singles; with the USA version ‘We Are The World ‘boasting an Avengers-esque line-up of megastars.

‘We Are The World’ raised over $75 million in today’s money for famine relief in Africa, and despite being 7 minutes long, self-indulgent to the point of nauseating and Bob Dylan’s verse sounding like he didn’t want to be there, it was a smash success. Which brings us to the hallowed Comic Relief single.

The Comic Relief charity single has a long and storied history; it started when alt comedy firebrands The Young Ones teamed up with Cliff Richard in 1986 to record a new version of Richard’s old hit ‘Living Doll.’

The appeal was genius in hindsight; an old-school legend your grandparents loved, teaming up with the comedy icons of the day to put a new spin on an old classic. Besides, who can resist having Rik Mayall screaming at listeners for 20 seconds at the top of your song?

Since then everyone from Cher, Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, Sugababes vs. Girls Aloud and Sam Smith have taken part in the Comic Relief single. Even Ireland’s finest were drafted in when Boyzone were chosen for the 1999 single, with the cover of Billy Ocean’s 1985 banger ‘When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going’ landing in at number one.

Ireland has seen its fair share of charity singles for causes closer to home, too. In the wake of Band Aid, some of Ireland’s biggest stars of the moment ganged together for Ethiopian famine relief in 1985.

Charity singles are truly wonderful because of the variety of stars involved, and The Concerned’s Show Some Concerned is a great example. Where else would you get Christy Moore, Twink, Linda Martin and Mary Black on the same track?

2012 saw the release of a cover of the Elton John song ‘Tiny Dancer’ to raise funds for cancer patient Lily-Mae Morrison. The man himself had his attention drawn to it, and encouraged his followers to buy the single, sending it to number one in December 2012, with the funds raised playing a massive part in helping the Galway girl receiving the all-clear.

It’s easy to be cynical and snarky about the charity single – Bono singing “well tonight thank god it’s them instead of you” never fails to annoy people at Christmas – but when you consider the millions of euro raised for good causes they wouldn’t otherwise get, it’s hard to be a Scrooge about it.

Besides, we sometimes get some really good and really wretched music out of it. Gareth Gates’ cover of ‘Spirit In The Sky’ is a beautiful, delicious slice of early 2000’s pop and Lil Dicky’s climate change song ‘Earth’ made you wish for the speeding up of that particular process.

We’ve gotten a fair share of charity singles recently, such as the BBC Radio One cover of Foo Fighters’ ‘Times Like These’ or the Ariana Grande-Justin Bieber collab ‘Stuck With U’, which beggars the question… Where’s our charity single, RTE?!

Image credit via Wikipedia.

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