A division of ApSCo. Microware

Remember A Day



Live Aid

"What Live Aid did was to make artists aware of their awesome power to create positive things," commented a hopeful Graham. (1)

One of the most interesting phenomena of the mid-eighties was the recurring trend of benefit singles and concerts. The social consciousness of the music industry has never been higher. For the first time, rock musicians tried to use their power for the greater good of all mankind. Through Band-Aid, U.S.A. For Africa, Live Aid, Farm Aid, Hear 'n' Aid, Artists Against Apartheid, and Amnesty International, musicians called out to their follower to make the world a better place.

All of this can be traced to one man: a fairly successful pop singer from Dublin, Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats. After watching a BBC documentary on the famine in Ethiopia, Geldof decided that something must be done about it and he could try to do something about it. With assistance from Ultravox lead singer and guitarist, Midge Ure, Geldof wrote "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Then with the help of the entire English pop community and their record companies, the song was recorded and released. It quickly became the all time best selling single in British history.

Geldof almost single-handedly organized every aspect of the single's production and release, from getting the studio time donated to contacting all the people involved from musicians to engineers; all at his own expense. When the American effort, U.S.A. For Africa, was had its problems, Geldof was called in to help out. They were recording a song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, "We Are The World."

The contrast between the British and American recordings could not have been more dramatic. Where in London everybody had just rolled up looking pretty much as they would look on most Sundays at home, here in LA the whole affair was 'show-biz'. When in Hollywood.... (2)

The American effort was just as successful as the British single, but Geldof was highly critical of the way it came about.

Even before his involvement with U.S.A. For Africa started, Geldof was working on a large benefit concert to make even more money for Ethiopia. He said to promoter Harvey Goldsmith, who was responsible for the Concerts for Kampuchea, "We should try to have the most important rock artists of the last twenty-five years on one stage.... It's going to be a global telethon.... Because people are dying...." (3) It was evident that this was going to be the biggest concert of all time. From Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, it was projected that over 2 billion people would see the live seventeen hour broadcast. A video link was going to bring shorter sets in from Melbourne, Vienna, the Haugue, Moscow, and Cologne. David Bowie and Mick Jagger even recorded a version of the Motown classic "Dancing In The Streets" just for the day.

"Remind me," Harvey Goldsmith, the chief promoter of Live Aid, was to say later, "next time Bob has an idea I should go on holiday." (4)

Goldsmith, Geldof, and San Francisco based promoter Bill Graham, who was partly responsible for Monterey, started arranging every aspect of the day. Seemingly easy tasks, like where to hold the concerts, began to get difficult. Getting bands to commit to either London or Philadelphia on a certain day was either amazingly easy or incredibly difficult. Geldof even encouraged some artists by telling them that others had agreed before he had even talked to them. It was evident that Geldof would do just about anything to get Live Aid going.

The biggest problem is that Geldof wanted everyone, including broadcasting companies, venues, concessionaires, as well as the bands and their crews to donate their time for free. Obviously he encountered some big problems. The caterers did not want to do it for free. British Telecom said they could only supply twenty phones for people to call in on, and Geldof said that he needed thousands. Eventually everyone did give in to him.

Somehow, Geldof was able to orchestrate the reunions of several bands that had not performed together in a long time. When Live Aid was first announced, it was stated that the Who would be reforming for the day; this had just been confirmed that morning by Pete Townshend. The Who reunion was off and on up to the day of the concert. Later Geldof said that "it was rather like getting one man's four ex-wives together." (5) Veteran British hard rockers, Black Sabbath and Status Quo, got back together. Duran Duran played their last gig with all the original members. A Rolling Stones reunion was proposed, but in the end Mick Jagger did a solo set, and Ron Wood and Keith Richard joined Bob Dylan on acoustic guitar. The biggest and easiest reunion to arrange was Led Zeppelin with Phil Collins replacing their drummer, the late and irreplaceable John "Bonzo" Bonham. Appropriately, they decided to play in Philadelphia since America had always been Led Zeppelin's stronghold.

Several major artists did not perform at Live Aid for a variety of reasons. Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and Michael Jackson, who were the three hottest stars at that time, did not participate at Live Aid. Springsteen was touring England even up to seven days before the concert, but as he was in the middle of an eighteen month tour and had just got married, he couldn't work it in. Geldof keep working on Springsteen, and even had dinner with him as an effort to get him to play. Even hours before the finale in Philadelphia rumors were circulating that he was going to show up; it never happened. Prince had just retired from public performance; however, he would return to the stage soon after his retirement. "Michael Jackson just didn't seem to want to do it." (6)

Before the show a concern over racial issues appeared. There was a lack of black talent, especially since Prince and Michael Jackson were not going to perform. It was the British who were upset with this lack of representation, as they put it. Geldof's argument was consistent with the rest of his actions; it was all for money:

I explained that the purpose of Live Aid was to raise money. If a band sold a million records, it meant more people would watch than if they sold a thousand. If more people contributed, more people lived. If I have a choice between Steel Pulse or Wham! on this show, I'll take Wham! (7)

The concern over racism is notable, but the bottom line is that the prime concern is to generate as much money as possible in any way possible. To do this, the people have to be given the best. Geldof wanted Paul McCartney to play because that would mean that "millions would watch who would not otherwise watch. That would mean money would come in which would not otherwise come in." (8) That is all that was important for this show. The amount of black talent was not slighted and was perhaps more varied that the rest of the performers: the Four Tops, B.B. King, Billy Ocean, Run-D.M.C., Bo Diddley, Albert Collins, Ashford And Simpson, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, and Tina Turner. It would be difficult to compile a better list of black artists.

July 13, 1985 was one of those days that everyone should remember. It is hard to talk to someone who did not see at least part of Live Aid. Unlike Woodstock which was for the hippies, and the MUSE concerts which were for the politically active, Live Aid had no demographic market. Anything to get any amount of money from anyone was its aim. It was estimated that over $100 million was donated to the Band Aid Trust. Geldof: "Remember on that day for once in our bloody lives WE WON." (9)

The performances that day were quite varied. Some bands were touring and some had not played in years. Although Duran Duran had not played together in over a year, their set was just as strong and professional as always. They were the first band to perform when ABC-TV started their broadcast of Live Aid. The first song of their set, "A View To A Kill," was the number one single in America at the time. Judas Priest gave an amazing set, considering they were all wearing all black leather outfits, which must have made it quite hot under the Philadelphia summer sun.

U2, just having completed a nine month tour, played with more energy than anyone else at Live Aid. The day was a turning point for them. They proved to the whole world that they were the best live rock and roll band at that time. They captured the heart and soul of the world by performing with integrity. In the midst of it, Bono "jumps down among the crowd and grabs a girl and dances with her." (10) It was something he had done every night of their tour, but they were not usually separated from from crowd by two photography pits and a ten foot stage. It didn't stop him, however.

The two biggest reunions, the Who and Led Zeppelin, went off very well, except that because of a transmission failure, most of the Who's set was not seen in the United States. Considering all of the bickering between band members before the concert, they performed as if they were in their prime. Pete Townshend started writing a new song, "After The Fire," to debut at Live Aid but it was not ready in time. Roger Daltrey did record it later in the year. The Led Zeppelin set could have been the most anticipated set of the entire day. It had been exactly five years and one week since their last live performance. With Phil Collins on drums they performed three classics, including "Stairway To Heaven," during which it seemed like the entire Philadelphia audience sang with Robert Plant.

Phil Collins was the most visible performer of the day. He started the day performing solo in London, accompanying himself on piano. He then sang two duets with Sting. Immediately he took the Concord to New York, where a helicopter flew him to Philadelphia. After playing drums for Eric Clapton, he again accompanied himself on piano, playing the same two songs he had in London, "In The Air Tonight" and "Against All Odds." Between songs he utter the now famous comment: "I was in England this afternoon...funny old world innit!" (11) Finally, he finished the day by drumming for the mighty Led Zeppelin. It is obviously why today he is considered to be the hardest working man in show business: the James Brown of the eighties.

Just like the contrast between the Band Aid and U.S.A. For Africa recording sessions, the finales were just as different. In London Paul McCartney played "Let It Be" on the piano while the whole Wembley audience sang for him, for his microphone was dead and he did not know it. Soon a chorus of David Bowie, Alison Moyet, Pete Townshend, and Bob Geldof strolled on stage to join McCartney. Geldof described what happened next.

At the end Townshend and McCartney had decided they'd get behind me and grab hold of my legs and hoist me onto their shoulders. I nearly died of embarrassment. It was terrible. These people were pop greats. "Please put me down. I really don't want this." I remember thinking, it may not mean much to someone not interested in pop, but looking back, I am still embarrassed but intensely proud that I was carried on Paul McCartney's and Pete Townshend's shoulders. (12)

As he sang "Do They Know It's Christmas?", Geldof was the most visible person in the world. Everyone knew who he was and what he did. Because of him millions of dollars were going to fight starvation and disease in Ethiopia. He had pulled off the greatest concert of all time. There is no disputing that point. He did it because he cared about humanity. He did not do it for the money, nor the fame or career advancement. Bob Geldof showed everyone that one man can make a difference in the world.

The situation in Philadelphia was quite different. After Keith Richards and Ron Wood helped Bob Dylan sing a few songs very poorly, Dylan commented on stage: "It would be nice if some of this money went to the American farmers." (13) Geldof replied in his biography:

He displayed a complete lack of understanding of the issues raised by Live Aid.... Live Aid was about people losing their lives. There is a radical difference between losing your livelihood and losing your life. It did instigate Farm Aid, which was a good thing in itself, but it was a crass, stupid, and nationalistic thing to say. (14)

The American finale would unfortunately continue this anticlimax. Lionel Richie led everyone in singing "We Are The World." This would seem like a nice way to end the day, but compared to Paul McCartney and the entire British rock community singing the song that made the entire world aware of the plight of Ethiopia, this was a poor finish. Lionel Richie had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the day, but somehow managed to walk on stage and take control like it was all because of him. When people like Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Phil Collins, and Eric Clapton have been performing to save lives, Lionel Richie is a bit of a poor ending. Even though he co-wrote "We Are The World," this hardly gives him the credentials to just sing that one song after rock legends have been on stage. The British finale was an inspiring congregation with incredible meaning; the American finale was a joke. However, if a joke would help more people give more money, then perhaps it was fitting.


Last updated:
Copyright 2005, Adam Stanley