A newspaper is a version of the world, and a successful newspaper builds a world that not only reflects the real one, it infects it. In its 80s heyday The Sun was not only the highest circulation daily paper in Britain, it had a cultural weight that went well beyond that: it comforted its readers and haunted its enemies in the way the Mail does now. The Sun’s mix of tub-thumping, scandal, sex, games and coupons might have simply been a variation on a winning tabloid formula that stretched back to the Boer War, but editor Kelvin McKenzie pitched the paper exactly right for its brash, greedy times.
“Let It Be” is The Sun’s number one record, its logo proudly on the label and the sleeve. The disaster which sparked the single – a car ferry capsized due to crew negligence, killing 193 people – might not ordinarily have led to a charity record, but several of the dead were Sun readers, on board the Herald Of Free Enterprise because the paper had run a special offer on ferry tickets, away-day breaks to Europe being a reliable sales booster. So the Sun owned the event from start to finish, acting as chief mourner. After the disaster it hit on Stock Aitken and Waterman to produce the record and started working its, and their pop contacts book. Within a week this is what they’d come up with.
“Let It Be” itself is – like “Everybody Hurts” – one of those songs which was doomed to be a charity record sooner or later. I’ve never really enjoyed it – for all its obvious sincerity it feels too generalised and woolly for me to find it a source of comfort, and without that sentimental connection the hymnal pace is a chore. But simplicity and honesty have always suited McCartney well and it’s certainly not a song I’d sneer at. Also, its very solidity makes it – on paper – a good frame for a record that’s going to use a lot of voices.
Even so the Ferry Aid “Let It Be” is a discombobulating listen. For a start, in commercial and stylistic terms the talent is more than usually mismatched. But charity records always have their lesser contributors, and things like Paul King’s inability to sing the word “be” are all part of the experience. A bigger problem is that the music won’t get out of the way – the kind of stateliness “Let It Be” needs is completely alien to SAW, who garnish the record with bibbling keyboards, horrid synth tones, a chuntering mid-paced beat, and that’s even before you get to the Knopfler and Gary Moore guitar solos: the ‘something for everyone’ ethos of the charity record line up taken to an extreme. The uncomfortable thought that comes to mind hearing SAW’s backing, though, is that this is pretty much the type of thing those ill-fated passengers would have heard had the ferry sailed and they’d wandered into the cocktail lounge to hear the on-board entertainment.
At least until the ending, anyway. Kate Bush does her line, in the deep register she’d just used on “Don’t Give Up”, and it’s a revelation: her warm, sad, cocooning voice suits the song and the occasion absolutely. There are a few seconds near-silence after that, as if everybody else is suddenly thinking “Oh shit, this could actually have been good.” And then the moment passes and it’s time for the mass chant, and for the single to finish on a note of laughter, high-fiving and applause. Because that’s what charity records and newspaper campaigns are all about: happy endings. It’s The Sun wot Number One it.