This is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue!
On July 13th, 1985, a unique event took place. Under the moniker Live Aid, an international, 16 hour, concert was staged in order to stop the ongoing famine in Africa.
October 23rd, 1984
As laid out in the article on Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?, on October 23rd, 1984, BBC News broadcast a report on the famine in Ethiopia, that already had cost hundreds of thousands of lives. At the time it was highly unusual for the BBC to cover foreign stories using own people and equipment.
Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plains outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the 20th century. This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on earth.
The text was accompanied by images of a bleak landscape filled with starving refugees, surrounded by corpses and emaciated children. The shocking images went global, and were also broadcast in The Netherlands. I vividly remember being shocked and saddened by what I saw. In England Bob Geldof saw the documentary as well. He was shocked, angry, sad and decided to do something.
Band Aid / USA For Africa
It all resulted in the one-time benefit single Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which was accredited to Band Aid. It inspired Harry Belafonte to organize a similar event in the US, this time primarily focused on black artists. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote We Are The World, accredited to USA For Africa, which was released as a single on March 7th, 1985. On April 23rd, 1985, an entire album was released, which, next to the aforementioned song, also contained previously unreleased songs by artists like Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner.
Both singles generated over $50 million, but Geldof wasn’t ready yet. On May 1st, 1985, he set the plans for a concert in motion… It would eventually turn into a 16 hour concert extravaganza that would be broadcast in 100 countries and reach approximately 2 billion people. Utilizing 13 satellites and 22 transponders it was the most ambitious satellite event to date, and it still is one of the biggest televised events of all time. It has been said that the event was shown on 500 million (of the available 600 million) television sets around the world, even in the communist Soviet Union and China.
In just 10 weeks Live Aid was turned into a reality. An impressive feat, from booking stadiums, reserving satellites, securing television timeslots and, last but not least, signing up artists. It all came together on July 13th, 1985, in England at London’s Wembley Stadium, selling 70,000 tickets, and the American JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, selling 100,000 tickets. Other countries would contribute to the main broadcast, including Australia, The Netherlands, Japan and the Soviet Union.
Ss he had done with the single Do They Know It’s Christmas?, Geldof bluffed his way in, artist after artist. He told Elton John that David Bowie and Queen had already committed and vice versa. It worked, artist after artist committed themselves to the event. However, the three big stars of the time were absent. Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Prince were not part of the day’s line-up (the latter two did contribute songs to the We Are The World album and the first had co-written the album’s title song).
The footage was shot and broadcast by the BBC in England and ABC and MTV in the US. In the US in particular quite a lot of songs weren’t broadcast due to excessive commercial time (measured against European standards at the time). In The Netherlands broadcasting organization VARA enabled the event. The broadcast was interrupted by the news only (cutting the Queen show midway).
It’s twelve noon in London, seven AM in Philadelphia, and around the world it’s time for Live Aid.
Richard Skinner, July 13th, 1985
The big day
How I looked forward to it! At the time I worked in the fields as a seasonal laborer, which meant I also worked on Saturdays from 7 AM to 12 PM. Upon returning home I grabbed a quick shower, just in time for the big start at 1 PM (local time). I remember my father and me seeing it all. My sisters and mother have seen big chunks, but not all. At 12 PM (BST) the mother of all concerts started, the “global jukebox”. Prince Charles and Lady Diana took their seats, starting off the national anthem God Save The Queen. At 12:02 PM (BST) the concert was opened by Status Quo with their (John Fogerty cover of) Rockin’ All Over The World. One after the other artist paraded by: The Style Council, Boomtown Rats (with Bob Geldof), Ultravox, Elvis Costello, Sade, Run DMC (the only hip-hop act on the day), Bryan Ferry, U2, Queen, Simple Minds, David Bowie, The Pretenders, The Who, Elton John, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Patti Labelle and Mick Jagger (with Tina Turner). Highlights and lowlights, at times simultaneously.
Each act was on for 18 minutes, which was strictly enforced. Using a stop sign, each act knew how much time was left before the sound was switched to the next act, a feat copied from the festival of festivals, Woodstock: the so-called ‘revolving stage’. While one act was playing, the equipment of the following act could be set-up. If the act was finished the stage was rotated, the sound signals were redirected and the next act was off. The result was acts were on without a soundcheck. Some acts threatened to pull out because of it. By that time Geldof was so sure of himself and Live Aid his standard reaction was “don’t fucking play then”. Of course nobody backed down. The most obvious equipment failure was during Paul McCartney’s performance, who staged his first concert since John Lennon’s murder on December 8th, 1980. The entire first verse of Let It Be was inaudible. When his voice did come through the roar from the crowd was immense, which in itself was a beautiful moment.
Starting from 2 PM (BST) America joined in. Joan Baez opened the show with “Good morning, children of the 80’s. This is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue!” followed by Amazing Grace. It was remarkable that the quality of the sound from the US was far inferior to that coming out of England. The images were far inferior as well (NTSC versus PAL). Also noticeable was the fact that quite a lot of English artists were performing in the US.
As stated before the Dutch broadcast was facilitated by the VARA. At times it was a cringe worthy experience. Boudewijn Büch (a Dutch author) was all over the place with his musings on everything but Live Aid itself. He had no affiliation whatsoever with any of the artists, except for Mick Jagger whom he adored. In the north of The Netherlands, where I lived, we were completely reliant on Dutch television, as we were unable to watch German of English television. We missed the Queen concert, due to the broadcast of the 8 o’clock news (local time). Luckily we could hear the stunning show on the radio.
Over the course of the years some nice and/or embarrassing anecdotes have seen the light of day:
- Paula Yates, Bob Geldof’s girlfriend at the time, bought a flower bouquet for Lady Diana at a gas station en route to Wembley Stadium
- It was an extremely hot day, in London as well as in Philadelphia. The crowds were cooled off with extra water
- In Philadelphia artist Keith Haring had created some pieces of art for Live Aid backstage
- The Hard Rock Cafe in Philadelphia opened a backstage restaurant for the stars, VIPs and guests
- Following his performance in London at 3:35 PM (BST), Phil Collins was flown to the United Stated by Concorde, where he performed his second show at 1:04 PM (BST) and played along with Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin
- Teddy Pendergrass performed for the first time since his 1982 accident, which had left him paralyzed
- Upon entering the stage, Madonna shouted “I’m not taking shit off today!”, referring to the recent publication of early nude photos in Playboy and Penthouse
- Queen‘s sound engineer upped the limit of the sound level on the central PA, making Queen sound louder and more impressive than anything that had preceded them
- Freddie Mercury discarded the advice of his doctor, who had advised him not to sing, due to a throat infection
- David Bowie and Mick Jagger had recorded Dancing In The Street as a benefit single for the Band Aid trust. The initial idea was they would perform the song together via satellite: Bowie from England and Jagger from the US. Unfortunately it couldn’t be done, so instead the video was premiered at the concert
- When Live Aid was 7 hours underway Geldof was unhappy with the proceeds until then. He barged into the BBC commentary box and yelled “Fuck the address, let’s get the numbers” calling all viewers to donate using the phone, instead of donating by letter. The average amount received immediately shot to £300 per second
- After David Bowie had seen some footage of starving and sick children (made by the Canadian Broadcasting Company), combined with the music of Drive by The Cars, Bowie told Geldof “You’ve got to put that in the show, it’s the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen”. Geldof refused, due to time limitations. Bowie shortened his own set and the footage was shown. It was an impressive moment during the show, reducing the entire audience in London to tears. A rare moment of reflection and a reminder of the reason behind the day. The gifts accelerated at an enormous rate
- The Pretenders practiced their set at a local bar, as all professional spaces had already been rented out
- Due to blowing some fuses during The Who’s set the television broadcast lacked almost half of the performance
- Led Zeppelin played together for the very first time since the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. It was an embarrassing affair. Plant’s voice sounded hoarse and Page’s guitar playing was subpar. The band’s arrogance was the main cause, as they didn’t have to practice. Phil Collins drummed along and was blamed by Page, who was being an absolute jerk. Led Zeppelin has banned any release of the recordings. Plant: “a fucking atrocity for us. … It made us look like loonies”
- Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon was responsible for what became known as “The Bum Note Heard Round the World”, upon his voice missing a note rather badly during A View To A Kill, something Le Bon is ashamed of to this day. The performance was the last of the original band for over 18 years
- During the Mick Jagger/Tina Turner show, Jagger pulled away a part of Turner’s dress, basically reducing Turner’s stage attire to a leotard
- Bob Dylan said “I hope that some of the money … maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe … one or two million, maybe … and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks” when he was on stage, which annoyed the hell out of the organization. It truly was a bad thing at a bad time type of situation, inspired by local problems. However, it did instigate the first edition of Farm Aid in September of 1985
- When Dylan broke a guitar string, Ron Wood gave him his guitar, leaving him with nothing on stage, so he started playing ‘air guitar’
- After the London show had finished all taxis in London were occupied, leaving Bob Geldof to hitchhike his way home
- Bob Geldof had promised that all recordings would be destroyed, because of the one time nature of the broadcast, ABC destroyed all recordings
Geldof had hoped to raise about £5 million in order to halt the hunger. He raised 30 times his desired amount. An impressive feat, especially considering the fact that all gifts were personal. All major companies lived up to the characterization of the 1980s, the “age of greed”, and donated absolutely nothing. Highly disappointing.
At the time there were highlights abound. What stood out was that generally speaking the ‘oldies’ fared much better than the newer acts. At the time I was very happy with the performances of The Style Council, Sade, Bryan Ferry, U2, Queen, David Bowie, The Who, Patti Labelle and Mick Jagger (and Tina Turner).
The performances by U2, Queen and David Bowie in particular, left a lasting impression. U2 was convinced they had bombed their performance, because Bono took so much time during the performance of the majestic Bad that their planned hit Pride (In The Name Of Love) could not be played anymore. The band even feared for their career. However, the audience had embraced the band, which would be catapulted into superstardom with their next record. If there was one band who realized what was at stake that day, it was probably Queen. They had timed, practiced and prepared their show to the second and sounded raw. Mercury pulled out his bag of tricks and wooed the crowds into a frenzy. To this day, very impressive. David Bowie was great as well, perhaps for the last time in the 1980s. His rendition of “Heroes” is classic.
The complete line-up
|Time||Artist||Place (- Country)|
|12:02 PM||Status Quo||London|
|12:19 PM||Style Council||London|
|12:44 PM||Boomtown Rats||London|
|01:00 PM||Adam Ant||London|
|01:06 PM||Oz For Africa (INXS)||Sydney – Australia|
|01:34 PM||Loudness and others||Japan|
|01:47 PM||Spandau Ballet||London|
|01:51 PM||Bernard Watson||Philadelphia|
|02:02 PM||Joan Baez||Philadelphia|
|02:07 PM||Elvis Costello||London|
|02:10 PM||The Hooters||Philadelphia|
|02:15 PM||Austria For Afrika||Austria|
|02:22 PM||Nik Kershaw||London|
|02:32 PM||The Four Tops||Philadelphia|
|02:38 PM||B.B. King||The Hague – The Netherlands|
|02:45 PM||Billy Ocean||Philadelphia|
|02:55 PM||Black Sabbath||Philadelphia|
|03:10 PM||Yu Rock Mission||Belgrado – Joegoslavië|
|03:12 PM||Run DMC||Philadelphia|
|03:27 PM||Rick Springfield||Philadelphia|
|03:35 PM||Phil Collins||London|
|03:45 PM||REO Speedwagon||Philadelphia|
|03:50 PM||Howard Jones||London|
|03:58 PM||Autograph||Moscow – Soviet Union|
|04:08 PM||Bryan Ferry||London|
|04:15 PM||Crosby, Stills And Nash||Philadelphia|
|04:24 PM||Band Für Afrika||Cologne – West-Germany|
|04:26 PM||Judas Priest||Philadelphia|
|04:38 PM||Paul Young (Alison Moyet)||London|
|05:01 PM||Bryan Adams||Philadelphia|
|05:40 PM||The Beach Boys||Philadelphia|
|06:00 PM||Dire Straits||London|
|06:26 PM||George Thorogood and the Destroyers||Philadelphia|
|07:03 PM||Première Bowie/Jagger Dancing In The Street video||Philadelphia|
|07:07 PM||Simple Minds||Philadelphia|
|07:22 PM||David Bowie||London|
|07:41 PM||CBC video||London|
|07:41 PM||The Pretenders||Philadelphia|
|08:00 PM||The Who||London|
|08:20 PM||Santana / Pat Metheny||Philadelphia|
|08:50 PM||Elton John (with Kiki Dee / Wham!)||London|
|08:57 PM||Ashford And Simpson / Teddy Pendergrass||Philadelphia|
|09:19 PM||Kool & The Gang (pre-recorded live)||Philadelphia|
|09:48 PM||Freddie Mercury / Brian May||London|
|09:51 PM||Paul McCartney||London|
|09:56 PM||UK finale Wembley||London|
|10:02 PM||Tom Petty||Philadelphia|
|10:30 PM||Kenny Loggins||Philadelphia|
|10:49 PM||The Cars||Philadelphia|
|11:07 PM||Neil Young||Philadelphia|
|11:43 PM||The Power Station||Philadelphia|
|12:21 AM||The Thompson Twins||Philadelphia|
|12:39 AM||Eric Clapton||Philadelphia|
|01:04 AM||Phil Collins||Philadelphia|
|01:13 AM||Led Zeppelin (billed as Plant, Page and Jones)||Philadelphia|
|01:30 AM||Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young||Philadelphia|
|01:47 AM||Duran Duran||Philadelphia|
|02:11 AM||Cliff Richard live at the BBC||London|
|02:15 AM||Patti LaBelle||Philadelphia|
|02:50 AM||Hall And Oates||Philadelphia|
|03:15 AM||Mick Jagger||Philadelphia|
|03:28 AM||Mick Jagger / Tina Turner||Philadelphia|
|03:39 AM||Bob Dylan / Keith Richards / Ron Wood||Philadelphia|
|03:55 AM||US finale||Philadelphia|
Of course Live Aid sparked some criticism. As had been the case with the single Do They Know It’s Christmas?, the biggest objection was that Western pop stars felt obliged to show their imperialistic and patronizing message to the world: Africa is unable to do it alone, they are in desperate need of (predominantly white!) pop stars.
A fair point by the way, because where were the African stars at Live Aid? Even though world music was not commonly accepted yet, crossover was happening. Out of all the artists performing that day, only Sade Adu came close with her half Nigerian roots. Where were black artists in general? There’s a story going round that Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson had planned to boycott the event and tried to get other black artists involved. I have not been able to confirm this story.
Finally: why use those rock dinosaurs over and over again? What about innovation? What about the alternative bands, rap and hip-hop, the upcoming dance scene? It boiled down to conservative music for conservative people. Also a truly fair point, although it has to be said that almost every established act fared better than the contemporary ones.
The end result of Live Aid is up for debate as well. It is undeniable that humanitarian help and the willingness to help the less fortunate became acceptable and even fashionable. On the other hand, the real purpose behind the event, helping the actual people, was less successful. It didn’t take long for Geldof and his organization to realize that it was almost impossible to get the money to the people who were the real victims. A lot of it went to (local) people in power who could hold their positions even longer by the cash flow.
Almost every act that was involved in Live Aid benefited from their performance. Record sales went up, ticket sales went up. Some acts even got a second breath of life. No band has benefitted more than Queen. Initially, the decision to let the band play at Live Aid was deemed as the nail in the coffin to the entire event. The band had been internationally shunned, because of thier performance at Sun City in South Africa, despite the international cultural boycott, as protest against the South African Apartheid regime. It was rather hypocritical of the band to show up to Live Aid and play the charity card. Following the stunning performance nobody ever spoke of it again. The band was back.
For a small number of acts Live Aid was a failure. Adam Ant, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan in particular were far inferior to everything and everybody else. Zeppelin represented the criticism regarding the ‘oldies’. Arrogant, out of touch millionaires who think they can play a little show like this, but subsequently complain when things don’t turn out the way they had planned it. Dylan played with Richards and Wood. They looked like clowns, who couldn’t be bothered to show the least amount of respect for the good cause.
Live Aid DVD / Live Aid channel
On November 8th, 2004, a four disc DVD boxset was released. The discs contained no less than 10 hours of material (of the 16 hour show). Most of the recordings came from the archives of the BBC and MTV, who had kept the recordings on file. As mentioned before, ABC had kept its promise to Geldof to destroy all recordings after the broadcast.
Some minor changes have been done to alter the original recordings, including the microphone issue during Paul McCartney’s performance. A number of artists didn’t authorize their performance for release (including Led Zeppelin), for some clearing the rights was an issue.
On September 7th, 2018, the Live Aid audio recordings were made available on streaming services, five days later followed by the launch of the Official Live Aid channel on Youtube, showing a total of 87 videos of the Live Aid concert.
Live 8 was a string of benefit concerts that took place on 2 July 2005, in the G8 states and in South Africa. They were timed to precede the G8 conference and summit held at the Gleneagles Hotel in Auchterarder, Scotland from 6–8 July 2005. Both events also coincided with the 20th anniversary of Live Aid. Run in support of the aims of the UK’s Make Poverty History campaign and the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, ten simultaneous concerts were held on 2 July and one on 6 July. On 7 July, the G8 leaders pledged to double 2004 levels of aid to poor nations from US$25 billion to US$50 billion by the year 2010. Half of the money was to go to Africa. More than 1,000 musicians performed at the concerts, which were broadcast on 182 television networks and 2,000 radio networks.
See the updated Spotify A Pop Life playlist or see (one of) the videos below:
- Live Aid – Sade
- Live Aid – Run DMC
- Live Aid – U2
- Live Aid – David Bowie
- Live Aid – Madonna
- Live Aid – Neil Young
What did you think of Live Aid at the time? Did you see it all? What were your highlights? Let me know!
Closing words by Bob Geldof
Please remember this day all of your lives. It’s important.
Remember the day you wanted to help.
Remember the bands and crews who did it. The professionals who made it an extraordinary technological feat.
Remember the dying who were allowed to live.
Remember the day you die, there is someone alive in Africa ‘cos one day you watched a pop concert.
Remember your tears and your joy.
Remember the love.
Remember that on that day for once in our bloody lives WE WON.
Remember the dying goes on and remember so that as time passes you can tell others ‘it’s possible I know.’
What a day, what a lovely day!
Bob Geldof, July 1985
Live Aid JFK Stadium & Live Aid Wembley Stadium images: pinterest.com
23 oktober 1984 BBC image: bt.com
Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Ad image: etsy.com
Bob Geldof at Wembley Stadium 07/10/1985 image: flashbak.com
Live Aid ticket image: julienslive.com
Live Aid – Scripts image: globalauctionplatform.com
Live Aid – Dutch TV image: liveaid.free.fr/apoplife.nl
Live Aid DVD set image: bol.com/apoplife.nl
Live Aid Wembley stage image: mutualart.com