Live Aid – 30 years ago
Live Aid: 13 July 1985. Thirty years ago!
The music wasn’t invariably good, the artists tended to be self-serving, we had seats right at the back of Wembley Stadium, and the legacy of the event is questioned by many. And still, for me Live Aid is an unforgettable event, not only as a historic concert, but because for one day there was so such a concentration of goodwill among people.
Indisputably, there were long stretches of tedium (Bryan Ferry!), as some acts performed songs nobody needed to hear. And the creations of mad hairstylists immortalised the decade of my youth as one bereft of elegance. Just look at Bono! But the dull stretches were enlivened by some high point.
And everybody is right, Queen were indeed, well, majestic. Fred made crazy love to the whole of Wembley stadium. Queen’s set provided my abiding memory: the crowds doing that arms-aloft-clap-clap-arms-aloft-clap-clap thing from the video of Radio Gaga – what a sight that was from where I was sitting, overlooking the masses on the pitch – followed by Mercury leading the 80,000 people (or whatever) in vocal exercises. I was not a Queen fan before Live Aid, nor was I a fan after. But on that day, I was a Queen fan. Even today, I marvel at the footage of Queen’s segment.
Queen played six songs in their allocated time. Acts like U2, Dire Straits and The Who played just two, with all of them doodling on forever with one of these. Dire Straits’ Sultans Of Swing seemed never-ending. The Who went into extra-time with Won’t Get Fooled Again (which is a great song, so no complaints here).
U2 also played my favourite of their repertoire, Bad. Suddenly, Bono jumped off the stage, grabbed that girl from the crowd, and danced with her. In a documentary made twenty years later, Bono suggested it was a spontaneous act. It may well be that he hadn’t planned to do this at Live Aid, but he had pulled that stunt — probably stolen from Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark video, the one with Courtney Cox as the dancee — during every concert at the time. I know: I saw three of them in three different countries over successive weeks that summer.
If Queen had not stolen the show, then Elton John’s set might have taken the honours as the best in the London leg. Elton did the right thing: play the hits. And then he introduced George Michael, who came out as a bearded man for the first time. He was magnificent as he sang Elton John’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, with the Dame backing him. When he got around to recording it almost a decade later, it had lost its magic.
In Philadelphia, Hall & Oates stole the show. In a pretty soul-free line-up, the blue-eyed soulmen hooked up with bona fide soul legends, singing soul music. Otherwise there were the Four Tops, Billy Ocean and Ashford & Simpson with Teddy Pendergrass, appearing on stage for the first time since his accident which left him paraplegic. Neither they, nor Run-DMC had a prominent slot. Pati LaBelle did, and her acute histrionics were entirely distressing, even for a soul fan.
I missed Led Zeppelin’s set. Backed by Phil Collins, who had performed in both London and in Philadelphia, they regarded their performance as their worst ever — and blamed poor Phil for it. They have not given permission for the footage to be used since. So it doesn’t appear on the four-disc DVD set. Also missing from it is Duran Duran’s performance of A View Go A Kill, thanks to Simon Le Bon famous croak (see it here).
The embarrassing moments kept coming. Bob Dylan and the two craggies from the Stones (who looked 60-plus then, but were only in their early 40s) contrived to perform an amusing cacophony of Blowing In The Wind, reportedly because they could not hear each other due to some technical mishap or other.
Doubtless many acts on the bill felt deeply about feeding the world and reminding the starving Ethiopians that they were doing their best to ensure that there will be snow in Africa next Christmastime, regardless of the inopportune consequences of such radical climate change. But many of those who took part were also opportunists, wanting in on the cash-in. Some, such as Queen (who might have been sincere or opportunistic or both), revived their flagging careers on the back of Live Aid. In fact, reportedly all but one act who appeared at Live Aid recorded increased sales after the event, the exception being the Adam Ant. Live Aid was at least as much about corporate profiteering as it was about social engagement. Did much of the artists’ profits from increased post-Live Aid sales go to famine relief? Didn’t think so.
Paradoxically, Live Aid was also a bit of a racially problematic event, and the 4-DVD set aggravates that defect. No African artists other than Sade — hardly an artist whom one would file under World Music — appeared in either London or Philadelphia; an oddity when the event was supposed to raise awareness about Africa. As noted above, black artists were very thin on the bill. The DVD set even manages to exclude the Four Tops’ five-song set, as well as that of Billy Ocean.
I don’t buy into the idea that Live Aid was in itself malign. Pragmatically, it raised money which saved some lives, and built clinics and water purification schemes. That is commendable. It did raise awareness on a range of issues concerning famine, albeit imperfectly, and it promoted some sense of social responsibility. In the callous, self-centred 1980s, Live Aid made charity cool. But it also proposed a notion that charity is not selfless, that for your charity you must get something in return, at the very least the option to congratulate yourself. Consumerist charity, one might call it.
Live Aid, at least initially, did not see itself as a solution but as a contribution to facing a problem. Read that way, its contribution was admirable.
Oh, and Bob Geldof never said: “Give me your fuckin’ money.”
And so, here is a compilation of some Live Aid highlights, timed to fit on two standard CD-Rs and including home-pledged covers. PW in comments. Some comments refer to an earlier version of this article.
1. Live Aid – Intro
2. Status Quo – Rockin’ All Over The World
3. Style Council – Walls Come Tumbling Down
4. Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays
5. Ultravox – Vienna
6. Spandau Ballet – Only When You Leave
7. Elvis Costello – All You Need Is Love
8. Sade – Your Love Is King
9. Phil Collins – Against The Odds
10. Alison Moyet & Paul Young – That’s The Way Love Is
11. Bryan Adams – Summer Of ’69
12. U2 – Sunday Bloody Sunday
13. Beach Boys – Good Vibrations
14. Queen – Radio Gaga
15. Queen – We Are The Champions
16. Queen – We Will Rock You
17. Simple Minds – Don’t You (Forget About Me)
18. David Bowie – Heroes
1. Pretenders – Chain Gang
2. The Who – Won’t Get Fooled Again
3. Elton John – Rocket Man
4. George Michael & Elton John – Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me
5. Madonna – Holiday
6. Freddie Mercury & Brian May – Is This The World We Created?
7. Paul McCartney – Let It Be
8. Live Aid Wembley Finale – Do They Know It’s Christmas
9. Crosby, Stills & Nash – Teach Your Children Well
10. Eric Clapton – White Room
11. Neil Young – Nothing Is Perfect (In God’s Perfect Plan)
12. Hall & Oates with Eddie Kendricks & David Ruffin – Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
13. Hall & Oates with Eddie Kendricks & David Ruffin – My Girl
14. Bob Dylan with Keith Richards & Ron Wood – Blowing In The Wind
15. Live Aid Philadelphia Finale – We Are The World