The Help album 25 years on: an oral history


Twenty-five years ago today, the Help album was recorded in a single day. Earlier this year, I spoke to several of the organisers and artists involved in putting it together for an oral history in Q magazine. Sadly it was the penultimate issue of Q, which became a casualty of Covid-19, so I’m posting the feature here in honour of both the album and the magazine.

On Monday 4 September, 1995, many of the most important artists in Britain went into 20 different studios to make an album for War Child, to raise money for the children of wartorn Bosnia. Recorded in one day and released less than a week later, The Help Album became the best charity album ever made and an unbeatable time capsule of British music at the apex of the 1990s. Twenty-five years on, Q spoke to the people who made it happen.


The plan

Tony Crean (Go! Discs): I had some weird flu in mid-July and it laid me up for a week. I watched the news properly for the first time in ages. It suddenly struck me how close to the rest of Europe this was happening. I thought, Shit, I’ve spent the last couple of years of my life thinking about pop music and not realising what was going on under my nose.

James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers): It was a brutal aspect of the ‘90s. It had been going on for three years but Srebrenica [the massacre of more than 8000 Bosniaks by Serb militias] was actual genocide. You couldn’t avoid that on the news.

Ed O’Brien (Radiohead): It’s weird: you can be having an amazing summer and people 1000 miles away are living through a nightmare.

Paul Hartnoll (Orbital): I remember one of my housemates saying, “Jesus, if I’d known this would go on so long, I would have paid more attention.”

Andy Macdonald (Go! Discs): Tony came into the office like a man possessed. He said, “Boss, I’ve been watching what’s happening in Bosnia. It’s fucking outrageous. We’ve got to do something.” Tony’s a real force of nature when he gets something on his mind. We met Bill [Leeson] and David [Wilson] from War Child in a pub in Notting Hill.

James Topham (Brian Eno’s office, later War Child): Brian and his wife Anthea had got involved in War Child at the end of ‘93. It wasn’t your average charity because it was set up by two film-makers.

Brian Eno: I’d never been actively involved with any charity before, and I’ve been quite critical of such involvements on the part of others. But Yugoslavia (and Anthea) changed my mind.

Mark Chadwick (The Levellers): It was a very complicated conflict but you put “child” in it and everyone suddenly goes, “Yeah, the innocent.”

James Topham: We’d done two events: Little Pieces from Big Stars, which was musicians’ art, and Pagan Fun Wear, which was musicians’ fashion. I’d been in contact with Tony because I was trying to get [Paul] Weller to do something. At the beginning of August, he rang me and said, “I’ve had this idea.” So we had a meeting at Brian’s office.

Tony Crean: I wanted to show that things could be done really quickly. I remembered years ago Toots and the Maytals recorded a concert on Saturday and had it in the shops on Monday but I had no idea how you do that. And the guy sat next to me said, “I know how you do that. I worked on that record.” And that was Rob Partridge [legendary PR who died in 2008]. Rob was like a magician. If you asked him anything, he knew somebody who could make it happen.

James Topham: Tony said, “I want to do an album, record it in a day and release it in a week.” I remember going to the pub and saying, “This is just nonsense. No one’s going be able to pull this together.” Then Tony came back a week later and said, “I’ve got Oasis, Weller, Portishead, Massive Attack…” It was like, OK, this is real.

Malcolm Gerrie (Initial Pictures): Andy said to Tony, “You need TV as a crucial part of the mix.” Initial shared a building with Go! Discs. I’d made The Tube for Channel 4 and we’d shot the Band Aid film. That got me involved in the power of putting music together with charity.

Ed O’Brien: We were all hugely affected by Live Aid as teenagers. Help was the first thing that really captured the imagination of our generation of musicians.

Tony Crean: There was a war going on and all the music papers were writing about was Blur vs Oasis. I thought if we could get those two bands on the same record people might attention.

James Topham: It had to be a really cool record, because charity records were terrible. We weren’t getting to get Blur and Oasis if we had a bunch of dinosaurs.

Ben Knowles (The Daily Mirror, later War Child): In the early 1990s music and charity had become the uncoolest of bedfellows but there was something rock’n’roll in War Child’s DNA. The logo was sketched on a beermat in a Camden pub by a designer from MTV. This wasn’t another hoary old benefit concert. A record that had Blur and Oasis on it was newsworthy.

Noel Gallagher (1995): We’ll put aside our differences for the cause — and it’s the only time you’ll see the two of us agreeing on anything.

Terri Hall (Hall or Nothing PR): A lot of it was Tony, myself, Anton Brookes [Nirvana’s PR] and Rob Partridge. Anton got Krist Novoselic to write the sleevenotes.

Malcolm Gerrie: Terri knew where to place things to get the message out. When I pitched the documentary to Channel 4 I opened up my backpack, covered the commissioning editor’s desk with press and said, “Are you going to miss this one?”

Tony Crean: I put the radio on and [the Beatles’] Come Together came on. I thought that might make a good title for the album. I spoke to Mr Weller and said, “What do you reckon about doing a cover version?” He said, “If you can get us Abbey Road.”

Paul Weller: Tony said, “Maybe we’ll ask Macca if he’s up for it.” And I was just like, Fucking yes! Obviously. Did I actually think it would happen? Not in my wildest dreams.

Andy Macdonald: We were bouncing around a few Beatles-related ideas: Help, A Day in the Life…

Tony Crean: I was in Go! Discs one day and the writer Paolo Hewitt said, “That was Lennon’s idea. That’s Instant Karma! He said records should be like newspapers.” What a blessing! In the days of Britpop Lennon was a god-like figure. As soon as you said John Lennon people couldn’t turn it down.

Terri Hall: It wasn’t a case of people not wanting to do it. It was a case of we only had 70 minutes of music. That’s why it continued with the EPs.

Tim Burgess (The Charlatans): Everyone was sold on the idea that Instant Karma! was done in 24 hours. I suppose it was everyone in popular British music at the time, wasn’t it?

James Topham: It’s a very good snapshot of British music’s last great hurrah before the internet smashed the industry.

Tony Wright (Terrorvision): It’s like Now That’s What I Call 1995, but for charity.


The recording

Brian Eno’s diary (4 September 1995): Today is the day of the Help sessions. Apparently everyone who said they would did.

Andy Macdonald: Oasis got their gear set up the night before and as soon as the second hand hit midnight, they started playing. They finished in about seven hours. Johnny Depp played guitar.

Tony Crean: Noel rang me up at eight in the morning to say, “We’ve finished already. We wanted to be the first.”

Paul Hartnoll: I got up in the morning and recorded the news. There was a father crying over the death of his son, a 12-year-old boy called Adnan, so I sampled that and made the song about my reaction to that news. When I saw people recording a track that they’d already written I smacked my forehead: Oh! It was only record a track in one day! I wished I’d done a cover of Two Little Boys. But obviously, with Rolf Harris turning out like he did, I’m glad we didn’t.

Geoff Barrow: We actually wrote Mourning Air for a film, Strange Days, without knowing they’d been talking to Skunk Anansie at the same time, and they ended up using Skunk Anansie. We were never a band that was going to write anything in one day but it went from a possible demo to something we had to finish that day.

Terri Hall: When the Stone Roses had just taken five years to make a record, the chances of them doing it in a day [were slim] but that came in quite early. I got John Squire to do the album sleeve.

Mark Chadwick: You could spend a whole day doing snare drums, so to take a song from nothing to something in one day was quite liberating actually.

Graham Coxon: Eine Kleine Lift Musik was something we were playing with at the time. There were a few lyrics thrown at that song that didn’t stick but we used elsewhere. It was meant to be a soothing tune but a little bit jarring and strange.

Ed Simons (The Chemical Brothers): We did have the internet but nobody used it. We had to physically be together. We drove up to Nottingham early in the morning to find an excitable Charlatans. Tim was a big part of the Heavenly Social. We were in each other’s pockets so it seemed like a natural thing to do.

Tim Burgess: I’d appeared on their album and they’d remixed Charlatans songs. We didn’t have any songs so we decided on a Sly and the Family Stone song that we’d heard covered by the Beastie Boys. I started the day drinking Hooch. From then on, I don’t remember that much! The next day, our album debuted at number one.

Marijne van der Vlugt (Salad): Terry Hall asked whether I would like to sing with him. So we sat in this little office afterhours listening to some vinyl and one of them was the Mamas and the Papas, Dream a Little Dream of Me. I said, “This is the one.” We recorded it at Metropolis. There was a string section, two dogs roaming around, babies, press and a video crew. It seemed like the whole world was listening to me improvising some harmonies. I always say it was the highlight of our career. It meant the world to us.

Simon “Sice” Rowbottom (The Boo Radleys): The Wake Up! album had come out so our stock was quite high. We were at The Church in Crouch End. There were lots of TV people around so it was a bit of a circus. It was filmed by Keith Allen. Halfway through the day everybody went to the pub to have a pint with Keith.

Martin Carr (The Boo Radleys): I’ve got a twin brother and we never got on that well. I’d met him at Glastonbury that year and we talked for the first time in years, so I decided to write a song [Oh Brother] about that. I knew we could do it because when you did B-sides you had to record two or three songs in one day.

Graham Coxon: You had to come up with an insane amount of stuff: the 12-inch, the 7-inch, CD1, CD2… Whenever we had a day off from gigs we’d have to record a B-side so we never really got any rest. It’s a confusing time to think about because it was just chaos and drinking. I was a right mess. I did need some help.

James Dean Bradfield: We were travelling to Domfront in France to record Everything Must Go with Mike Hedges. We were on the Eurostar talking about what we should do: “We can’t give A Design for Life away, Kevin Carter’s too brutal lyrically… It’s got to be a cover.” I’d been performing Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head on the Holy Bible tour.

Tony Crean: To have the first track from the Manics since Richey [Edwards] disappeared was a really poignant moment.

James Dean Bradfield: We had no idea how that might be interpreted. The bottom line is it was convenience. It was a really dicey time for us: emotionally, commercially, everything.

Tony Crean: The only person who didn’t make it was Robbie Williams. Robbie had left Take That and he’d been around all summer. You’d go to a gig or aftershow and bump into him. I sent Bill Drummond [The KLF] a fax and said, “I know you’re not doing anything but how about doing a track with Robbie?” Then, after being around every bloody week, Robbie went on holiday with his mum. In the end they had to do it without him [as the One World Orchestra]. One of the great lost moments of pop music.

Terri Hall: Robbie called up Tony and said, “Sorry mate, me ‘ead’s been in a shed.”

Tony Crean: I had a very surreal experience being in Abbey Road with Paul McCartney. Stella [McCartney] was out and about at gigs so someone managed to get a letter to Paul. We kept our fingers crossed.

Steve Cradock (Paul Weller’s band): Paul [Weller] seemed incredibly nervous, which he isn’t normally, so he must have known that Macca would be coming down.

Paul Weller: I had to self-medicate because I was so nervous, so I was a fucking mess by the end of it. But Macca was great, man. He was really fucking cool.

Steve Cradock: We laid down the song, then as we were listening to the playback Macca walked in and it was like, oh fuck! It was beautiful because Mary and Stella and Linda were there. Paul played some Wurlitzer, then he got his 1966 Epiphone and started playing guitar. Then Noel came by and overdubbed a guitar track.

Noel Gallagher: Weller handed me a guitar and said, “Do you want to put a bit on?” As the tape started, it suddenly dawned on me that I’d never played Come Together before. I looked at Steve Cradock and said, “What key’s it in?” I was fucking winging it.

Terri Hall: To get McCartney and Oasis happening with Johnny Depp and Kate Moss, that’s the zeitgeist right there in one room, isn’t it?

Steve Cradock: We all got royally smashed in the studio. I remember Mr McCartney got his weed out, which was very fine. It was one of the most amazing, beautiful days I’ve had in music.

Paul Weller: For the little kid in me, the Beatles fan, it was like a fucking dream. I could have died and gone to heaven quite happily.

Terri Hall: We spent most of the day running around London in our car, collecting tapes. We were getting calls close to midnight saying, “It’s done. Where does it go?”

James Dean Bradfield: Domfront was very rural so to get a courier service took hours. It was a bit dicey whether we could actually make the cut.

Malcolm Gerrie: Outside the office were more bikes than you’d ever seen in your life. It was like a scene from Easy Rider.

Andy Macdonald: Lucky by Radiohead turned up and we listened to it three times. Jesus Christ, it’s such a powerful piece of music.

Ed O’Brien: We wanted to give The Help Album the best song we had at the time. We didn’t have any fear about holding songs back. We’d been touring The Bends and played Lucky for the first time in a soundcheck in Japan. It was probably the best song that we’d done to that date. It was like oh, OK, this is what the next phase could be.

Geoff Barrow: I remember listening to [Lucky] and thinking that’s just an unbelievably good song.

Ed O’Brien: The cameras didn’t leave till six o’clock and we hadn’t recorded anything. We were done by eleven. We knew exactly what we were doing. When you’re in that purple patch there’s an ease and excitement to it.

James Topham: We put Lucky out as a single and Radio 1 refused to playlist it. I think they thought it was too depressing.

Andy Macdonald: When they made OK Computer they asked us, “Can we use that version?” We said, “Of course you can, it’s your song!”

Ed O’Brien: Once we’d made the album, we realised how important Lucky was. We scratched our chins a bit: Can we do this? But we decided it was the right move. At Glastonbury in ’97 we opened with Lucky.

Brian Eno’s diary (5 September 1995): All day (9-7) working on finishing the Help album at the Townhouse. Tapes appearing from everywhere, me trying to keep some mental track of it… Enjoyable panic, but I went into Hitler mode in the last few minutes.

Andy Macdonald: Myself and Brian Eno sequenced it. We were trying to master 20 tracks by the end of the day.

Terri Hall: We had to make the physical sleeve without even knowing what the tracklisting would be.

Tony Crean: I remember handing the tapes to a courier to bike it to RAF Northolt to get it onto a private plane that we’d blagged off the head of Polygram to get it to the pressing plant in Holland. Obviously now you can record a track and stick it up overnight but to get a physical CD manufactured and in the shops in five days was just incredible really.

Terri Hall: Malcom Gerrie and [TV producer] Helen Terry were putting together the documentary based on studio footage and newsreels. It was quite harrowing being in the edit suite.

Malcolm Gerrie: Channel 4 were a little concerned because there are Ofcom rules about what you can and can’t show, especially in an entertainment show. But it seemed that we shouldn’t pull our punches.

Geoff Barrow: I wrote two pieces of music and added footage of Sarajevo before and during the war. Perhaps it was a naïve statement but I wanted something that was a bit fucking heavier than this celebratory Britpop London thing, to make people realise what was going on.

Andy Macdonald: Manufacturing started on Wednesday. We got everything back Thursday afternoon and had a launch party at Metropolis. The record was in stores on Friday.

Paul Hartnoll: It felt very can-do. It was like, oh yeah, got to do that, of course.

Mark Chadwick: So much gets talked about and so little gets done, especially in this business.

Terri Hall: I remember Anton saying, “Good on the slacker generation.” Who’d have thought that a bunch of bands could act so quickly and so brilliantly?


The legacy


James Topham: It raised £1.25m. It sold over 70,000 on day one. It should have been number one.

Andy Macdonald: It didn’t qualify for the artist chart because it was multiple artists. We had a tilt at making the artist War Child — War Child featuring Oasis, etcetera — but that didn’t work. The studios gave their time for nothing, the publishers waived income, the record shops forewent their normal margin, we didn’t make a penny. The government, who wouldn’t budge on VAT, were the only naysayers. What a fucking surprise.

Marijne van der Vugt: The Mercury Music Prize was literally a week after that and the organisers asked Terry and myself to perform the song. It was the year Portishead won.

Ben Knowles: At the Q Awards Tony Blair presented a special award to War Child.

James Topham: He said, “You’ve brought the focus back to Bosnia when MPs are looking the other way.” I thought, “It really shouldn’t take a pop record to make you lot notice the Srebrenica massacre.” We got a Brit award on the night Jarvis [Cocker] did his Michael Jackson thing.

Thom Yorke (Brit Awards, 19 February 1996): For one day last year we all stopped fighting and actually did something decent for once.

James Dean Bradfield: The indie world is so fucking bitchy. To get that generation of musicians to agree on anything was really hard because they were always arguing about who was better.

Ed O’Brien: There was a very healthy competitiveness between bands. There’s nothing like other people making great music to make you get your shit together.

Ben Knowles: You had a charity record nominated [in 1996] for the Mercury Prize! Pulp won but Jarvis handed over the trophy and the cheque.

Tony Crean: I think Island Records gave a donation to War Child to get it back.

Paul Hartnoll: I remember Brian Eno coming back from his speech and saying, “Was that all right? Should I not have mentioned dismembered bodies?” And I said, “No, it was absolutely fine.”

Ben Knowles: The legacy of The Help Album had incredible power to persuade artists to do things that otherwise they might have been reluctant to do. It proved that something credible and relevant could really demand attention and drive change. Artists who appeared on Help – Thom Yorke, Damon Albarn, 3D, the Manics – put politics squarely back on the agenda.

James Topham: We shouldn’t have been able to pull it off, should we? Even at the time it seemed a little ambitious but looking back it seems crazy.

Tony Crean: Because we did something with real quality, it’s had an impact that’s lasted. If you chuck a big enough stone in the pond, some ripple will hit something and make a difference.

Additional sources: Don’t Look Back in Anger by Daniel Rachel; A Year with Swollen Appendices by Brian Eno; The Observer; NME; YouTube.