Earlier this year, Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, announced its plans for a new TV series that is currently being broadcast on its main channel. In an effort to find out who Irish people consider the greatest ever Irish person, the station conducted a poll back in March that would whittle down their shortlist of forty to a more manageable five. The quite unusual list of forty was composed of politicians, historical figures, sports stars, writers and a rather large number of entertainment figures. These entertainers included such internationally known figures as Liam Neeson, Phil Lynott and Saint Bob Geldof, but also such bizarre choices as Daniel O’Donnell, Joe Dolan and Ronan bloody Keating. Eyebrows were raised when a preliminary list of ten featured the late Boyzone singer Stephen Gately and bloody Bono. The madness continued when the U2 singer made it into the top five along with four other Irish men and women whose claims to greatness are far more deserving. Those four include two men who were actually born in the United Kingdom and only one woman, but I think it’s fair to say that any one of James Connolly, Michael Collins, John Hume or Mary Robinson would be worthy winners of this dubious award. It’s the general public who’ll be choosing the victor, however, so there’s every chance that the man born Paul Hewson could yet emerge as the winner
Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair on my fellow Irishman. After all, hasn’t he led one of the world’s most successful music groups for over three decades and haven’t they brought a great deal of international recognition and respect to such a small nation? And hasn’t he aided the plights of the underprivileged around the world as a result of his humanitarian and charity work? Yes, I must admit that I’m still a fan of a lot of the stuff that U2 put out during the first decade of their career. The quality of the music and songwriting on their early albums progressed with each release and culminated in the album that I consider their best, The Joshua Tree from 1987. I also like Achtung Baby and even have a soft spot for Zooropa and Pop. Unfortunately, I feel that their musical output since then has gradually decreased with each subsequent release, culminating in the banality of No Line on the Horizon. This fall in musical quality has been matched by a rise in Bono’s public profile and involvement in a variety of worthy causes. Certainly, it is refreshing that such a famous celebrity devotes his time to raising awareness about those whose lives have been affected by poverty and AIDS. Or does this excessive involvement in political matters by a musical celebrity say more about the prominence of the mass media in contemporary culture?
The relationship between music and charity is not a new one. Over two hundred years ago, a benefit was held for the family of the recently-deceased composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, while one of the earliest examples in popular music was George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. In 1985, Bob Geldof’s Live Aid helped raise awareness and donations for victims of the famine in Ethiopia, though there were questions raised about where the money actually went. Even though the musicians gave their services for free, the massive media exposure generated by the event had a significant effect on the sales and future careers of many of the acts involved. U2 were one of the biggest winners and their career certainly benefitted from the coverage of their performance. The band’s success and bank balances grew along with Bono’s social and political activism. This has led to him co-founding a number of charities and one of these has been in the news recently. ONE is the name of a non-profit organisation whose main goals can be read here. Last week, The New York Post revealed that ONE received nearly $15 million in charitable donations in 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available. Amazingly, less than $200,000 of that sum was given to charity while $8 million of it was used to pay wages. ONE has recently distributed an expensive set of treats to media outlets in New York city that arrives in four shoe-box sized containers. Amongst their goodies, these packages contain a $20 water bottle, a $15 bag of Starbucks coffee as well as a similarly priced leather notebook. Apparently, the purpose of these gifts is to grab reporter’s attention and thus raise awareness about poverty in Africa
Bono is also the founder of an ethical fashion house named Edun that brought jobs to Africa. However, he has recently pulled production out of Africa and moved it to China! Of course, it’s well known that U2 moved their tax affairs from Ireland to Holland a number of years ago even though Bono still had the cheek to get the Irish government to increase its funding of international aid. So, it’s the contradiction between this guy who’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars yet claims to be the voice of the disenfranchised that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. He may think he’s doing it for noble intentions, but he’s also a self-publicist who relishes every opportunity to get his image and words splashed across the mass media. Tonight’s hour-long documentary on RTE One will continue Bono’s relentless march towards sainthood and will surely ignore the many misgivings I have mentioned. It certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world if Bono becomes Ireland’s Greatest Person and I’m confident that one of the other contenders will be victorious. Still, if Barack Obama can win the Nobel Prize for Peace then I guess anything’s possible. Hopefully, Bono will be remembered as a guy who wrote and sang a few good songs and not the tosspot he has become. I’ve included versions of some of these below, beginning with a countrified version of an Achtung Baby single by an irreverent U2 tribute band from Dublin named The Joshua Trio. Radiohead have much in common with U2 and their take on the track from War replaces the militaristic drumming and prominent guitar of the original with a more plaintive, piano-led live version. Finally, Running to Stand Still was a standout album track amongst the singles on The Joshua Tree and Elbow‘s version is taken from a recent charity album named War Child: Heroes. Let’s hope the title of the song is prophetic when the votes are counted for Ireland’s Greatest
Images taken from Graph Jam
UPDATE A reader in the comments below has kindly pointed out that it is not, in fact, Radiohead and Thom Yorke singing on the above version of Sunday Bloody Sunday, but U2’s guitarist. My apologies to The Edge