Influenza is not very rock'n'roll. Neither is it an obvious friend to the millions of children who each year fall unwitting victims to outbreaks of war and political violence. Yet somehow the common flu was a catalyst for fusing music and international child protection, by helping to transform a small charity, War Child, into a lasting and credible symbol for making a difference to young people suffering in the world's conflict zones.
It was 1995, and Tony Crean was off work and laid up in bed, sneezing and sniffling, as he tried to take in pictures of inter-ethnic fighting in Sarajevo. And then, when a charity worker looked into the camera and spoke of the need for £200,000 to feed and clothe the child victims of the war, Crean, an executive at the record label Go! Discs, had an inspired thought: if all the music fans who read NME and Melody Maker could be persuaded to part with £1 apiece, the money for the children of Sarajevo could be raised.
The idea caught fire within the music industry. The result was an album, titled Help, which went straight to No 1. It achieved what had seemed the impossible, bringing together such artists as Oasis, Blur, The Stone Roses, Radiohead and Massive Attack to create a project of good intention but also immense credibility, one of the definitive releases of the Britpop era. And more importantly than that, it raised £1.25m, which paid for prosthetic limbs for Bosnian youngsters, premature baby units, a mobile medical unit and hundreds of thousands of condoms.
The materials were distributed by War Child, a small charity that had been set up only two years previously by the British film-makers Bill Leeson and David Wilson, after their return from making a documentary in the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia.
What is so special about War Child's relationship with music is that the story did not end with Help, rendering the project just one among those many gestures – most of them a lot of fun and some of them sanctimonious – in which the rich and famous have shown their concern for the developing world's poor. Unlike some of those one-offs, War Child has stayed with the pace.
Its latest venture, Heroes, is its most ambitious yet. Some of the greatest artists in the history of popular music, Bob Dylan, Sir Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Brian Wilson and David Bowie among them, were approached with the suggestion that they nominate a favourite track from their back catalogue and then choose a contemporary act to rework the song. "We wanted a concept that raised the bar musically but still kept the charity at its centre," says Ben Knowles, War Child's music director and a former editor of NME. "It was very much a dream music-magazine cover-feature idea turned into an album."
Sir Paul and Bowie came back quickly. The former Beatle had met Duffy on Later... with Jools Holland and wanted her to perform "Live and Let Die". Bowie chose the New York experimental rockers TV on the Radio to rework his classic "Heroes".
But Knowles really knew War Child was on to something special when the call came from America to say Dylan had not only been thinking long and hard over the charity's request but he had come up with a selection: Beck to interpret Mr Zimmerman's treasured "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat". "You just go, 'Wow,'" says Knowles, recalling his response to the call. "It's a combination that you would never have predicted, but you can't wait to hear it."
The beauty of the Heroes concept was that the performing artists would inevitably record their tracks with a sense of duty. This was no casual offloading of unwanted album filler material. "They were all very aware that one of their all-time personal musical heroes had made a request for them to do it, and was probably pretty keen to hear the results," says Knowles.
"We totally idolise New Order and Joy Division," agrees Joe Goddard of Hot Chip, who were selected to perform Joy Division's "Transmission". "We didn't want to piss off any die-hard fans." Rufus Wainwright says he didn't hesitate when told that Brian Wilson had picked him to do a medley of his compositions "Wonderful" and "Song for Children" from his famous Smile album.
The legends appear taken with the efforts of the younger generation. "I think Duffy's version of 'Live and Let Die' is great," says Sir Paul. "I was really impressed. The breadth of talent on this Heroes project is amazing."
Knowles says the project was only possible because of the strength of the music War Child had previously produced. "It made my job a hell of a lot easier because we had the clout of War Child," he says. "Bands are inundated with requests from charities to give music for free. So they give songs that hadn't quite made it or were B-sides. We are treated slightly differently because we are credible."
War Child album covers are not adorned with heart-rending images of distressed children. The artwork for Heroes, as with Help, was done by the former Stone Roses guitarist John Squire in his familiar Abstract Expressionist style. Squire also produced the cover for the 2005 project Help! A Day in the Life, in which 20 of the UK's leading acts, including the Manic Street Preachers, The Coral, Bloc Party, Hard-Fi, Kaiser Chiefs and Keane, went into the studio the same day, 9 September, and recorded what became "the fastest-ever No 1 album recorded in British music history". The money raised was spent on helping children living with the effects of war in Iraq.
For most charity donors, the key concern is that their money is getting to the intended recipients. War Child claims to be less bureaucratic than older and more established non-governmental organisations, with a small team operating from a former Victorian false-teeth factory in Kentish Town, north London.
"Being small enables us to be flexible," says Mark Waddington, War Child's chief executive, who has extensive experience in working with the victims of conflict, especially in Africa. "When decisions are taken, they are taken very quickly."
That was why Crean had teamed up with War Child after having that original idea for a music-industry support project. "We talked to a few different groups and just met a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of people just sitting on their hands," he recalls. "You saw these awful images – a picture of a young girl who had hanged herself rather than face being raped – and something needed doing now. War Child had people on the ground; they were providing immediate help. They were doing something, and doing it quickly."
There are more than 70 countries where children are in need of War Child's help, but it targets its work to make it more effective, operating mainly in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Indeed, War Child is the only child-protection charity currently working in south Iraq, independent as it is of the need for funding from bodies such as the UNHCR. In Afghanistan, its work has been ground-breaking, separating children from adults in Afghan jails and providing kindergarten facilities for female prisoners.
Perhaps more than anywhere else, the impact of War Child's work is felt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which suffers more than almost any other from charity fatigue. War Child has taken politicians to the conflict zone, in an attempt to influence policy. It appears to have made some difference. "Aid to Congo has more than doubled in four years to £100m in the next tax year, and we are very proud to have played a role in that," Waddington says.
As well as politicians, the charity has taken musicians to the stricken central African state. Feeder visited in 2006 to publicise the plight of Congolese children. War Child acknowledged at the time that some people might think it trite to use pop stars to try to solve a humanitarian crisis. "Does the Congo really need a rock group right now?" it asked in its literature. "We can all be cynics when it comes to a trip like this; it's wise to maintain a healthy scepticism. The terrifying fact is that over the last eight years some four million people have died in a conflict we've barely noticed in the UK."
When Feeder returned to Britain, they played three concerts for the children of Congo. Keane staged two huge War Child events during 2007, with the support of other acts, including the Pet Shop Boys and Lily Allen.
After more than 13 years, the music industry still wants to work with War Child, which believes it can do even more. Waddington's new target is for it to be helping 10 per cent of the marginalised children in each of the 10 countries worst affected by war. "This album is Heroes volume one," he says. "It's just the start."
On 18 February, Coldplay and The Killers play a one-off gig at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire in aid of War Child
Free Heroes CD offer
Two exclusive War Child compilations, 'From Help to Heroes', are available free with 'The Independent' and 'The Independent on Sunday' this weekend. The 10-track albums include Hot Chip's rendition of Joy Division's "Transmission", The Kooks' take on The Kinks' "Victoria", and Estelle's cover of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition", all from the next War Child LP, 'Heroes', released on Monday.