Live Aid: Rock’s Biggest Concert
Bob Geldof was broke. The mastermind behind the versatile punk group The Boomtown Rats was looking for a new direction and a way to desperately score some more cash. Their hit single “I Don’t Like Mondays” had been released five full years earlier, and in October 1984, The Rats were no longer a sought-after band. Geldof struggled to fulfill his contract to the record company and churned out one more record. Album sales stiffed upon its release. Bob was desperate.
Working the phones to try to get interest generated for the album’s first single, he happened to look over at the television set. A BBC documentary by Michael Buerk was being broadcast. The program was a report on the catastrophic starvation epidemic permeating the country of Ethiopia. Images of stark, skeletal human beings looking directly into the camera shook up every viewer who happened to watch the BBC report that night. Geldof had never seen starvation presented in such a blunt, horrifying manner. He did not get much sleep that evening.
When he phoned his friend Midge Ure of Ultravox, the two of them spoke of the devastating situation in Ethiopia. Bob mentioned he was considering putting a record together to help raise money for supplies and food. Midge said he would help. From that conversation, a spark was ignited that would provoke a groundswell of musicians joining together to selflessly perform for a truly worthwhile cause. A benefit performance so massive that Geldof would begin to conceive the endeavor as taking place on two continents. The Concert for Bangladesh, The Concert For Kampuchea, even the No Nukes Concert, had all set a precedent of generosity and musical unity for a cause in the 1970s. But nothing, not ever before or since in the history of rock, would prepare the world for the sheer number of top acts it would witness in London and Philadelphia for a single day’s charitable performance on July 13, 1985.
Geldof had an uncharacteristically nightmarish task ahead of him. One, convince the world’s best recording artists to contribute to his unprecedented concert. Two, line up televised coverage in practically every nation on the planet with a TV set. Three, arrange for individual networks and governments to handle massive amounts of telethon phone pledges. Four, find venues large and secure enough to accommodate the special needs of every superstar. Five, provide enough catering for every human being working tirelessly behind the scenes. And six, oh yeah, whip it all into shape in a matter of four or five months. Somehow, miraculously, he got the job done with a lot of begging and pleading.
Wembley Stadium in a suburb of London is Britain’s top venue for rock acts, and they offered rental of the site for somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000. Promoter Bill Graham helped with securing a site in the United States, and after a protracted search, settled on JFK Stadium in the city of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia was not as generous as their British counterparts. All the technical and stadium personnel, along with their unions demanded to be paid. It would wind up costing around $3.5 million.
MTV agreed to broadcast the event all day long. Geldof felt one of the three networks would bring cachet to the project. CBS and NBC rejected the notion at the outset. Unfortunately, ABC was not too accommodating either. They agreed to a 3-hour broadcast in the evening, showcasing the final 9 acts in Philadelphia and the grand finale in London. No telethon pleas, no continual phone numbers, this was just entertainment to them. Sadly, Geldof was faced with a sole offer he couldn’t refuse. A group of independent stations across the U.S. did, however, wind up joining together collectively to broadcast the show throughout the initial daytime hours, continually displaying phone numbers to call.
As he permanently affixed his phone to his ear, Bob Geldof enticed, cajoled, and according to some disgruntled artists, tried “emotionally blackmailing” them into appearing on the historical date. Sting was one of the first performers to sign on. He had just unofficially broken up with his bandmates, The Police, and asked not to appear with them. Mick Jagger hemmed and hawed, and he intimated that he wanted to do a song via satellite with David Bowie on both sides of the Atlantic. Time lag of the signal would not permit such a technical achievement, so the two of them got together one raucous evening to make the Live-Aid premiere video “Dancing In The Streets.” Geldof really pushed for the members of The Who to get back together and sing some songs. So much internal squabbling, particularly between Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle, suggested the reunion would not materialize. A preliminary rehearsal session was a disaster. But the group managed to put away animosities and join the proceedings.
Bruce Springsteen was the biggest star and the biggest catch Geldof wanted to bag for the Philadelphia half of the program. Springsteen had just married actress Julianne Phillips on May 13, 1985 and claimed he wanted time to spend with her. With The Boss out of the picture, artists were slow to commit in the States. Rumors were spreading that the concert was a shambles, severely underfunded and mismanaged from the start, and more than one musician used this as an excuse to bow out of making a commitment. Huey Lewis and the News, who were still riding high in the charts with their “Sports” album, latched onto this rumor as their reason for not appearing. Both Paul Simon and Willie Nelson decided not to appear because of the poor treatment they were receiving from promoter Bill Graham.
British media eagerly fueled anticipation as the daily countdown wound down towards the concert. In the United States, promotion was scattershot aside from MTV’s spots, and many people were unaware of the mammoth event looming on the horizon. On the night of July 12th, Geldof went to bed with a painful back ailment, grabbing what little sleep he could. The next morning, musicians began trickling in backstage at Wembley, helping themselves to the food. Hard Rock Café wound up donating approximately $200,000 worth of catered delicacies for both the London and Philadelphia shows. Prince Charles and Princess Diana arrived and greeted the rock superstars before heading to the Royal Box. The stadium filled to capacity, and at 12 noon, a few musicians with the Royal Guard sounded “God Save The Queen.” And with that, the biggest concert in rock history began.
The first band to hit the stage was a London-based favorite by the name of Status Quo. Ripping into the opening strains of their song “Rockin’ All Over The World,” the right sentiment in light of this monumental moment, the crowd came alive with substantial cheer. Like many of the bands that were to perform that day, Status Quo had made an effort to patch up old animosities for the good of the Ethiopian cause, as bassist Alan Lancaster begrudgingly agreed to play with his estranged bandmates this one time. The British jazzy-dance group, The Style Council jumped to the stage next with a three-song set, and then it was Bob’s turn.
The Boomtown Rats were met with thunderous applause, and Geldof tried to give his all, despite the ever-increasing pain in his back. Their hit song, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which was originally written about a schoolgirl who went on a shooting spree, now took on a different ominous tone in light of the famine situation, especially when Geldof dramatically emphasized the line, “…And the lesson today is how to die.” Aside from his microphone cutting out for about 30 seconds during their set, the Rats showed they could command an arena full of fans like any of their superstar idols.
The concert took on a snowball effect, as the rotating stage allowed for more acts to seamlessly revolve in a steady stream in front of the world audience. Singer Adam Ant, was the next act, followed by the group INXS, performing via satellite from Melbourne, Australia. Geldof’s pal Midge Ure brought his band Ultravox out for a couple of songs, including the stirring “Vienna.” An act called Loudness sent a video in from Japan, while “True” crooners Spandau Ballet slinked across the Wembley stage.
Then it was America’s turn. A little before 9:00 a.m., Philadelphia time, a curly-haired, 18 year-old kid named Bernard Watson strolled out onto the massive JFK stage and played his song “Interview.” Bill Graham had discovered the boy sitting in his car in the outside parking lot earlier in the week. Watson had just driven up from Miami Beach in hopes of making something happen. Talk about dumb luck. He was the official opening act of the American half of the greatest rock concert on earth! Jack Nicholson, with his trademark sunglasses on, nervously ambled out in front of the crowds and shakily introduced Joan Baez. Positioning her quiet, folk-driven set up front wasn’t exactly a rocking way to get the Philadelphia crowd on their feet. Several people heckled her. Ever the professional, Baez finished her songs and gracefully left the stage.
Geldof stopped to view some of the initial broadcast from the States backstage at Wembley, right when an American TV director decided to highlight the performances with cutaway crowd shots of sexually-enticing, jiggly, overly-endowed women. Bob immediately scrambled to get a message back to America that the suggestive cutaways might just offend many of the cultures who were tuned in at that moment around the world. Meanwhile, Elvis Costello was performing for the London crowd, only given time to sing one song, “All You Need is Love,” while Philadelphia favorites, The Hooters, followed Ms. Baez at JFK with their current hit “All You Zombies.” An Austrian band, called Opus, chimed in via satellite, and then Bristol-native Nik Kershaw, riding the British charts with his album “Human Racing,” graced the Wembley stage.
Prior criticism of the event had been leveled at its somewhat apparent lack of black r&b acts on the roster. This slight backlash didn’t hamper the 60’s quartet singing sensation The Four Tops from performing next in Phillie. The soulful sounds of B.B. King and his favorite guitar Lucille drifted in via satellite from Holland, and then, Billy Ocean, singing to a backing track, got the American crowd dancing with “Caribbean Queen.” Behind him, setting up on stage were the members of the original Black Sabbath, with frontman Ozzy Osbourne rejoining his group after having split from the band in January 1979. The proceedings went from Ocean’s breezy “Loverboy” to the ear-splitting metal sounds of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” and yet, the contrast in genres and styles only served to present a unified feel the world was experiencing that day.
Sade cooed her hits to the audience in London, Run D.M.C. barked their rap musings in Philadelphia, a Belgrade band named Yu Rock slipped in via satellite, and then Sting took center stage at Wembley. Dressed all in white and accompanied by Branford Marsalis on woodwinds, Sting performed a song from the recently-released album “The Dream of the Blue Turtles.” Phil Collins ambled out and perched at a piano to join in on a hushed, now poignant (in light of its context) version of “Every Breath You Take.” Phil was then left alone to present his song “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now).” This tune would figure in the day’s truly wondrous stunt, for Collins would again perform that song, later that night, across the Atlantic. He finished onstage at 3:45 p.m. London time and was immediately helicoptered to nearby Heathrow airport, right out to the tarmac, where a Concorde jet sat idling. Breaking precedence with its normal flight path, the supersonic jet blasted blindingly low across the sky directly over Wembley stadium, and the crowds roared with awe and prideful cheer.
Meanwhile teen heartthrob Rick Springfield was finishing up his set in Philadelphia, and the soft-rock sounds of REO Speedwagon wafted off the stage after him, mellowing the sun’s increasing intensity on this hot July morning. As Howard Jones held the Wembley crowd captive in his solo performance on piano, another historical moment was readying to make its international broadcast debut.
The Cold War attitudes of East and West nations were still very much a palpable reality. The Soviet Union continued to be a mysterious, monolithic nation with little exposure to the outside world. Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and in earlier meetings with his representatives, Geldof’s point man, Richard Lukens, had tried to encourage Gorbachev to appear in the broadcast. In the end, a state-sanctioned rock band named Autograph was the only contribution the Soviets felt they needed to provide. Performing from a cramped Soviet TV studio, the band’s feed was out of sync in its time-base signal, and the world saw a static, scrambled set of songs with wooden, seemingly-apparatchik Soviet teenagers clapping nervously along, just behind the ‘60s-style television cameras. It was rumored that only about 150 people in the entire Soviet Republic watched the Live Aid broadcast. Nevertheless, an effort had been made, and another small divot had been chiseled out of the Iron Curtain on this amazing day.
The roster of acts continued to roll out. Bryan Ferry, Paul Young and Alison Moyet kept the London audience entertained, while Crosby, Stills & Nash, Judas Priest, and Bryan Adams all took to the stage at JFK over the next hour. One of the day’s truly musical highlights involved the charismatic stage presence of singer Bono and his band U2. During the song “Bad,” a sweaty, driven, Bono tried to wave several female members in the audience to make their way to the stage. Frustrated by the crushing crowd, Bono leapt to the Wembley field and helped a dazed and swoony girl body-surf her way to his side. The two slow-danced for a moment before Bono scrambled back to the stage and took command of the final strains of the song. A moment of connection, a small gesture, between pop idol and his adoring fan once again forged a powerful subliminal message that we were united for the day.
Think the concert ended around this point? Are you kidding? It was just getting started. Here’s a list of the superstars that burst from the wings during the evening in London and the afternoon in Philadelphia. The Beach Boys, Dire Straits, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Bo Diddley, Albert Collins, Queen, Simple Minds, David Bowie, The Pretenders, The Who, Santana and Pat Metheny, Elton John, Kiki Dee, George Michael, and some girl named Madonna. Amidst these sets, another strong musical moment occurred when singer Teddy Pendergrass was escorted out in his wheelchair by Ashford & Simpson in Philadelphia. Having suffered spinal paralysis from an auto accident in 1982, Pendergrass was not expected to perform again. The tears rolled down his cheeks, and down many a viewers’ as well, as the trio sang their set before an empathetic crowd.
Technical difficulties marred the early verses of Paul McCartney’s song “Let It Be” back in London. He was the last act to appear before the Wembley grand finale. A brief rain shower during Elton John’s and George Michael’s prior rendition of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” had seeped into the sound system wiring. McCartney, who hadn’t performed in front of a large audience in five years, never let the mishap shake him. The song went on, and as the sound came back, so did fellow musicians, Pete Townshend, David Bowie, Alison Moyet, and Bob Geldof himself, to help with its rousing final verses. Townshend and McCartney hoisted the weary Bob Geldof onto their shoulders as the crowd erupted in overwhelming appreciation. All of the musicians for the Wembley performance then gathered on stage for a version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and at approximately 10:00 London time, ten hours after they began, the European half of the show was over.
Back in the States, Tom Petty was performing. He was followed by Kenny Loggins, The Cars, Neil Young, The Power Station, and The Thompson Twins. When Eric Clapton took to the stage, there was a fellow by the name of Phil Collins sitting in at drums behind him. Having arrived from Kennedy airport in New York, Collins now was able to perform “Against All Odds,” a second time, for the Philadelphia crowd. He stayed on stage to play drums for reunited Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones. After the heavy metal icons stepped down, Duran Duran, followed by Patti Labelle, Hall & Oates with Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, and finally Mick Jagger all took their turns in the spotlight. When Jagger began his song “State of Shock,” a strutting Tina Turner joined him onstage, and the two gave a comedic, give-and-take, mock rivalry duet that resulted in Mick tearing off Turner’s miniskirt. They continued their dueling dance with “It’s Only Rock ‘n” Roll.”
This seemed like the perfect time to wrap up the Philadelphia half of the show, but something truly weird was about to unfold on the stage. As all the members of the American show were called up to perform the finale, Bob Dylan stepped out from the curtain being used to shield the crew setting up backstage, and proceeded to give a truly horrid rendition of “Blowin’ In the Wind.” Behind him, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones attempted to lend acoustic guitar backup, but they were not only out of sync, but gratingly out of tune, and generally disinterested in the whole arrangement. What could have been a defining punctuation mark to the day’s sensational proceedings sadly came across as a shoddy performance by a motley trio of inebriated minstrels.
But this was the only setback in a monumental day of legendary musicians and their unity in a cause. When the grand finale notes of “We Are The World” ended in JFK stadium, the time on the clock read a little after 11:00 p.m. For a solid 16 hours, the planet had experienced a rock concert unmatched in the annals of modern day music.
The day’s powerful moments and musical high points may well be too hard to rank in order for legendary purposes. But one moment which completely encapsulated the meaning behind the day’s intent, that of the power of music and of charity, was not captured in a stage performance nor by any artist’s plea. It took place within a simple video that aired on the screens in both stadiums and around the world. A documentary crew with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had been to Ethiopia and shot some footage of a small child. An emaciated, skeletal-beyond-belief infant. The film simply showed the boy trying to accomplish a very easy task. To stand, and to walk. The song “Drive” by The Cars was the only audio heard over the picture on the screen. An odd choice one might say, but it touched a nerve in everyone who saw it. The sad strains of the tune, “Who’s gonna pick you up, when you fall down? We can’t go on saying, nothing’s wrong,” matched the empathetically somber image of that boy just trying to get up. Just trying to move. No, nothing in the concert could compare to the impact that one video had on the day.
In the end, Geldof was awarded a knighthood in recognition of his effort to relieve the famine situation in Ethiopia. At last estimate, the proceeds from the Live Aid concert and its parent organization, Band-Aid, have raised over $100 million. As of April 24, 2000, because of renewed war, regional rivalries and a three-year drought, the United Nations estimates that up to 8 million Ethiopians are again in need of urgent food and medicine to avert the ravaging horrors of widespread death by starvation.
© 2000 Ned Truslow