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Help is Coming: Pete Paphides on Crowded House's unlikely charity single in aid of refugees

When music journalist Pete Paphides saw images of Syrian refugees struggling to safety, he was inspired to act. A certain song sprung to mind, and shortly afterwards, Help is Coming was released as a charity single with some serious support...

Pete Paphides

I didn't have the idea for 'Help is Coming'. The idea had me. I had just returned from a gig and, turning on the TV to catch the last half of Newsnight, I was greeted by images of Syrian families alighting overcrowded boats in Kos, without any clear idea of what would be happening to them next. I don't think I was any more moved than you might have been if you had watched the same footage. Nothing about my reaction was unusual, save for the fact that – at some point – a song faded up in my head which uncannily evoked the howling uncertainty that these hundreds of thousands of families continue to go through in Hungarian holding pens, in Calais shanty towns and throughout immigration detention centres.

If there is a collective will to act quickly, it is amazing how many obstacles will fall away

'Help is Coming' is a Crowded House song that first appeared on a 1999 album comprised of rare and unreleased tracks. It's a song about people placing their faith in people and institutions they have yet to encounter. The following morning as ever more harrowing headlines appeared in the papers, the song was still playing in my head. I contacted Crowded House's Neil Finn to ask him: hypothetically, would he be up for waiving his royalties if I could secure a limited vinyl release for the song? I then called The Vinyl Factory, a label in London that has its own pressing plant, and asked them if they would press up 1,000 copies for free, with the money going to Save the Children. Both immediately said yes. In the next few days, everything just exploded. Director Mat Whitecross offered to work over the weekend in order to make the astonishing, heartbreaking accompanying film.

Benedict Cumberbatch is one of Help is Coming's high-profile supporters

Benedict Cumberbatch is one of Help is Coming's high-profile supporters, and raised funds on stage 

Two days later, on a Monday morning, I went to see Universal Records with a view to having them waive their cut from sales of the song. Within minutes of showing them Mat's film they threw all their departments into effecting a Friday release. With their unbelievable commitment, we were then able to coax iTunes into releasing the song at, what was for them, an unprecedented turnaround time. Somewhere along the way, thanks to an email from my wife, Times writer and author Caitlin Moran, Benedict Cumberbatch got involved and filmed a beautiful intro to Mat's film – an extract from Home by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire.

In some ways I feel I was naive to think I could march into the offices of record companies, enlist the services of respected filmmakers and cajole iTunes into releasing a song in a fraction of the lead-up time they usually demand. Thinking that the record might leap into the UK top five was also, in retrospect, naive. But naivety is also your greatest asset at times like that. If there is a collective will to act quickly, it's amazing how many obstacles fall away.

Save the Children

Save the Children delivers life-saving aid in Syria and surrounding countries, as well as along the route refugees take to Europe. The charity has received all proceeds from the Help is Coming single.

Within seven days, 'Help is Coming' went from being an abstract notion to something that received a worldwide release and, on the day it came out, made it onto every national news bulletin across Britain. And even if the single didn't chart, the dedicated text number went on to raise an estimated £200,000. The day after the record's release, Arsenal FC showed Mat's film at half time and donated £1 for every ticket sold – a total of over £60,000. Benedict went on to read Warsan Shire's poem at every performance of Hamlet until the run ended – and by doing so, raised approximately £100,000. Other West End theatres followed suit and used their leading actors to make similar appeals.

It's been incredible to see that, even now, the #helpiscoming hashtag continues to be used every few minutes. I'm proud of what the record achieved, but also frustrated that more isn't being done. There is ultimately only so much an old song by a modestly known pop group can achieve. In the days leading up to the release of 'Help is Coming', I was convinced that I would wake up to the news that a proper A-list international pop star – perhaps a Taylor Swift or an Ed Sheeran – was involved in a song or a concert that would properly draw attention to what remains the single biggest humanitarian crisis facing Europe since the Second World War. Popular culture can't solve these problems but – just as Live Aid did with the Ethiopian famine – it can create an awareness that keeps them on the news agenda and pressurises governments into shouldering their humanitarian obligations. A lot more help needs to come before we reach that point. e

Pete Paphides is a music writer for the Guardian, Q and Mojo. Download 'Help is Coming' from itunes.com. Find out more about Save the Children: savethechildren.org.uk

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