We will, we will rock you

Observations on anthems

Live 8 on 2 July will be the biggest event in the history of rock, with a million people watching five all-star concerts in Europe and America and a billion more tuning in on television, radio and the internet. The event in Hyde Park will start with a Beatles song (U2 and Paul McCartney joining forces for "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", with its opening line: "It was 20 years ago today . . .") and end with McCartney returning to sing "The Long and Winding Road", over a Richard Curtis film that will ensure there is not a dry eye in the house, nor an unlit cigarette lighter.

But what does it say about the state of the rock anthem that the greatest show on earth gives pride of place to two songs written before most of today's stars were born? In an era of collapsing singles sales, when a ringtone can keep Coldplay and U2 off the number-one spot, are the days of the rock anthem over?

An anthem isn't just a hit ("Crazy Frog" will never get a stadium full of people punching the air) and it isn't just a great song (Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello write great songs, but their work is too individual to stir listeners across the spectrum of taste and experience). Anthems are for sharing; they are "our songs".

Musically, they are built on major rather than minor chords, with soaring choruses, and while they may be ballads or pumping rockers they usually stick with a meaty four-bar beat. Lyrically they capture a simple idea, from the idealistic ("Imagine") to the crass ("We Are the Champions"). Some bands are routinely described as anthemic, but for every Oasis (enough character to transcend the form) there is a Bon Jovi (nothing interesting to say, but they can say it with power chords). And then there are those (U2, The Who, Bruce Springsteen) in whose hands anthems become universal.

Anthems come into their own when live, shared by a crowd of strangers, as if the collective unconsciousness were being made manifest. At Live Aid in 1985 they carried the day: David Bowie's "Heroes", Elton John and George Michael belting out "I Won't Let the Sun Go Down On Me", McCartney's "Let It Be". And anyone who was there will tell you the greatest performances came from two of rock's most anthemic bands: Queen and U2.

Twenty years on at Live 8, U2 will follow "Sergeant Pepper" with their own "Beautiful Day", a song so broadly appealing it has been the theme tune both to TV football and a Labour election campaign. Not as triumphalist as it first sounds, it is about being lost and disillusioned but realising there is still hope.

That this is a song of our times serves notice that the anthem still has life in it. The slow death of the single was never likely to presage the end of the communal song because, in truth, singles were never more than a method of delivery. These are songs that rise up through all available media, over and over, until (like it or not) you know every chord change and harmony. Before singles ever existed there were singalongs, and long after they have gone songs will continue to find ways to make themselves part of the fabric of popular culture. Sometimes it's "Crazy Frog", but every so often it is a song that finds a role in our lives, that we sing at weddings and funerals, at private affairs and social gatherings. Songs that unite us.

There will be a song at Live 8 that will do that. Probably more than one. Any-one who thinks the days of the great rock anthem are over should listen out for Coldplay's "Fix You", a 21st-century gospel epic with just the right air of hope and compassion to carry the message of the moment: something is wrong in the world but this generation believes it can repair it. All together now: "Lights will guide you home/and ignite your bones/ and I will try to fix you . . ."

Neil McCormick is rock critic for the Daily Telegraph and the author of I Was Bono's Doppelganger (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Smokescreen