POWER POP / Environmental benefit: Most of the artists on the Alternative NRG album are familiar. Only the energy source is not. John May reports

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The Independent Online
It's kiss of death territory. A new benefit album; compassion fatigue time. But this one's about solar power.

Alternative NRG is a 16- track compilation of live performances, all recorded using a solar-powered generator. Dave Wakeling - formerly with The Beat - is the co-executive producer and creative director of Greenpeace Records. On the telephone from Los Angeles he claims that this record 'walks the walk and talks the talk'.

As he and Kate Karam, president of Greenpeace Records, remember it, the idea began in a bar after long hours carrying protest placards during the Gulf war. Several martinis later the idea of producing a solar-powered record had taken shape. The point was to show that solar energy was not a failed Seventies experiment but had real value in a world still fighting over oil resources. Or, as Dave puts it: 'We figured that if we could get a bomb down the chimney of a kid's bedroom in Baghdad, you should be able to get from your house to the supermarket without ruining the sky.'

The starting point was Kate's memory of a picture of a small mobile generator she had seen on someone's wall in 1984. Building the same thing on a large scale was another matter. Wakeling and Karam were worried about having to deal with 'real black hats', in Karam's phrase: many of the companies that manufacture solar cells and panels are also heavily involved with the nuclear industry. In the end, they reconciled themselves to this with the thought that they would be helping these corporations to make the transition to environmentally friendly technology.

Then they had to find somebody who knew how to build their dream machine. They came up with Jim Davis, who had built solar power systems for the houses of Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. He teamed up with a man who had been involved with customising vehicles for the military to convert a 28ft aluminium trailer into a mobile solar power station.

Mounted on its roof is a 1,920 watt, 16sq ft solar panel array, which can be hydraulically tilted to track the sun. The power it produces is stored in two 48V sealed, long-life batteries which use oxygen recombinant technology and are designed to be maintenance free. These particular batteries had previously been used to power the Greenpeace base in Antarctica. The whole rig is pulled by diesel tractor converted to run on a range of biofuels.

The first test for the system came in Phoenix, Arizona, at a Sonic Youth gig. It was 110F inside the generator, everyone was boiling and nervous, and the whole system did the business. Not only that, it was so hot that the venue had a brown-out: the Greenpeace solar generator - named Cyrus after the Persian for sun - powered the whole venue for the rest of the night.

The album contains REM's only live performance in 1993, a charged version of 'Drive' recorded specially for Greenpeace at a small night-club in Athens, Georgia, at a party for family and friends. Michael Stipe was intrigued by the fact that they were using 'local sunlight', as he put it, to capture the music.

There's also a great version of 'Looking Through Patient Eyes' by P M Dawn, a song that was No 1 in America for a couple of months. This was, in Wakeling's words, 'where hi-tech ecology met a huge tribal stomp' - at the Aids Danceathon, held in the Los Angeles Sports Arena in front of a crowd of 10,000 people who had been dancing for nine hours.

U2 were recorded live at the Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, playing 'Until the End of the World'. This was the most challenging situation for the generating truck, because of the huge power requirements and the 14 hours it took to set everything up, but Cyrus never missed a beat.

Other treats include James with 'Ring the Bells', Midnight Oil's 'Tell The Truth', Boo-Yaa Tribe with 'Fam Bam', Soundgarden and Brian May on 'New Damage' and tracks from Annie Lennox, UB40, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, the Soup Dragons, EMF, Yothu Yindi, Jesus and Mary Chain and L7.

The producer, incidentally, is Robert Margouleff, formerly 50 per cent of Tonto's Expanding Head Band, and now established as a top live recording maestro, with the technical ability to master the gizmos and the psychological skills to bring out the best in a band's performance, to make them believe that their song will make a difference.

Not included is a track recorded with Pearl Jam at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch, called 'Better Man'. Originally, it was hoped that Chrissie Hynde would record the vocals, but that never happened. The eventual release date was too close to the date of Pearl Jam's own new album for their label to allow the track to appear.

But in general, over-demand is making it harder and harder to get benefit albums made. Some labels now refuse to allow their artists to participate in benefits because they're sick of giving away rights and royalties; Warner Brothers only allows its artists to do a benefit once a year. The Greenpeace album is out on Hollywood Records, owned by Disney, which is keeping a sharp eye on the proceedings and expect it to turn a profit. That's up to you.

'Alternative NRG' is released on Hollywood Records (distributed by BMG) on 31 January.

(Photograph omitted)