Even though I was only seven years old, I could sense that Live Aid was important.
Thirty years ago today, the biggest musical acts in the world performed as part of a single, massive event, unprecedented in scope. Everyone from Madonna to the Beach Boys to the Pretenders to Paul McCartney helped put on the biggest concert in the history of the planet, before or since.
The strange thing is that I realized just a few days ago that the 30th anniversary was coming up. The relative lack of fanfare struck me as odd. Rather than trying to write a comprehensive history about the event, or even an analysis of the concert itself, I thought I would string together 30 facts about Live Aid to commemorate the occasion.
1. Live Aid began as an offshoot of Band Aid, a group of mostly-UK artists who recorded a one-off charity single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The song was so popular in late 1984 that organizer Bob Geldof decided to see if he could parlay that momentum into a mega-concert that would likewise raise funds to assist in combating African starvation, particularly in Ethiopia. Several of the participants in Band-Aid (such as the members of U2) were suspicious about Geldof’s motives.
2. Band Aid also inspired USA for Africa, a similar effort in the United States that produced “We Are the World,” written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson.
3. Geldof was invited to the recording of “We Are the World” in Hollywood, but became enraged when he saw the $50,000, caviar-rich spread that had been donated by local, high-end restaurants. He lectured the Americans present on the hypocrisy of enjoying the finest food while recording a record devoted to fighting famine. Geldof stormed out, but producer Ken Kragen chased Geldof down and talked him into returning. “We Are the World” went on to earn $45 million, or about four times as much as “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
4. Despite the obvious connection between “We Are the World” and Live Aid, several prominent artists who were a part of USA for Africa didn’t make it to Live Aid, most notably Michael Jackson himself. Legend has it that Jackson actually attempted to organize a boycott of the event, ostensibly over the exclusion of black artists (moreso in the United Kingdom than on the American bill). There was also some criticism levied against the organizers for not including actual musical acts from Africa. Geldof said at the time the goal was to generate the most money possible, and he didn’t care about the color of the participants. Years later, Live Aid promoter Harvey Goldsmith would remark, “Political correctness—thank God—wasn’t that terrible at that time, so we didn’t have to have a one-legged lesbian and all the rest of it.”
5. The primary concert took place in two venues: Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. In addition, smaller, affiliated concerts took place in several other nations around the world. Live Aid was an amazing event in many respects, but perhaps the most incredible was the feat of putting on a live, transatlantic concert with 1985 technology. The United States was so crucial because our technology was the best, and America was essential to making the broadcast work. Live Aid was the first all-day, transatlantic, satellite broadcast in history. Yet, somehow, an unbelievable 95% of the televisions on Earth had the capability of seeing the concerts.
6. BBC handled primary broadcasting duties. Both MTV and ABC aired the American television broadcast, with ABC only broadcasting the final three hours in primetime. In both the UK and the US, the TV over-the-air broadcast was in mono, but the radio broadcast was in full stereo sound, as was the MTV broadcast. The UK and US also had their own “telethon”-esque bits between acts, as was Geldof’s intention. However, there was a “clean” feed provided to certain countries that had only the concert footage, with no talking-head segments.
7. To give you an idea of just how staggering an undertaking Live Aid was from a technological standpoint, the 1984 Olympics involved two satellites and one master feed used for a worldwide broadcast. Live Aid involved 16 satellites with eight feeds.
8. Speaking of transatlantic, Phil Collins performed at Wembley Stadium, boarded the Concorde, then performed again at JFK. Collins had been told other musicians would be making the trek, as he was concerned that his being the lone traveler would appear showy and pretentious. As it turned out, he was the only performer to appear live on both sides of the ocean.
9. In planning the concert, Geldof gambled big, and not just on the hope that the technology would pan out: At the press conference announcing the show for the first time, Geldof read a list of participants that was, in effect, a wish list. Although a few acts had been confirmed, and many more had at least entered negotiations, many of the participants Geldof declared would be at Live Aid, such as Queen, had never even been contacted by the organizers. But the height of gall was Geldof’s announced that The Who—a band that was broken up—would be re-forming specifically for Live Aid. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry weren’t even on speaking terms at that point. Rather, this was a sheer fabrication that, luckily, turned out to be true after arm-twisting by Geldof and company.
10. Did I mention that this press conference took place three weeks before the scheduled date of the concert? Three weeks!
11. Geldof’s largely successful strategy was to tell Artist A that Artists B and C had already committed, then call Artist B and say that A and C had committed, and so on. The big break for Geldof was that Dire Straits was playing Wembley Arena (a smaller venue very close to Wembley Stadium) at the same time and had free time during the day on July 13th. With proximity of both hour and geography, Dire Straits said “yes.” With one major, top act on board, other musical dominoes began to fall.
12. The UK organizers didn’t get along with the man they selected to organize the American side of the concert, West Coast promoter Bill Graham. As the frustrations of Geldof grew, Graham reportedly began undermining the JFK concert by telling the acts he was supposed to be recruiting that their participation would hurt their careers. Geldof specifically cites Bill Graham’s behavior as the reason that Paul Simon pulled out of Live Aid.
13. Irrespective of whatever alleged problems Graham was causing, there were still issues with getting commitments in both the US and the UK (moreso the former than the latter). Huey Lewis and the News pulled out late on the American side, and several of the major stars of the USA for Africa record stated they wouldn’t participate in Live Aid. In the UK, Paul McCartney didn’t commit until the last minute, as he hadn’t performed live since John Lennon’s death. He only finally agreed because his children (whom he referred to as “the management”) told him he had to do it. Meanwhile, Ringo Starr and George Harrison didn’t participate because both were wary of being forced into a Beatles reunion.
14. Because timing was so essential to the event, and there were so many acts, there was a rotating stage in Wembley. That would allow for preparation to occur prior to an act going on. As one act finished its set, the stage would rotate, and another band would be ready to come on and begin playing almost immediately. Despite some of the shortcuts in place to make such an undertaking possible, one of the major concerns of several of the acts was that they would not have their normal ability to prepare, conduct a sound check, and to execute other, normal, pre-show routines. In fact, the lack of a sound check almost torpedoed U2’s involvement just hours before the show began.
15. The choice of Status Quo to be the opening act was not a popular one. Even 30 years ago, they were seen as too old and too corny. Geldof called them “almost a cartoon version of Rock n’ Roll.” It all worked out. Once the music began, even the cynics and critics embraced Status Quo and the overall spirit of the day.
16. The BBC broadcast presentation was chaotic to say the least. The hosts had not only never presented a show longer than an hour, but they also had zero rehearsal time, due in part to Live Aid’s ever-changing schedule. At one point, a repairman who had come to the broadcasting box to fix the air conditioning was nearly interviewed on air after everyone in the in-booth production team assumed he was someone famous.
17. U2, which almost backed out at the last minute, as mentioned above, had one of the more memorable performances. Their three-song set became two songs as Bono took an extended break during “Bad” to dance with a girl who had been pulled out of the crowd, creating a powerful, emotionally-evocative image. His bandmates were furious. They couldn’t see Bono from where they were positioned, and, once he returned to sight, the band’s third number, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” had to be cut. This felt like a crushing blow, as U2 had missed the opportunity to play its biggest hit. It wasn’t until they became aware of the worldwide reaction to Bono’s embrace of the woman from the crowd that the band realized what they thought was a massive failure had turned out to be the biggest victory of their careers.
18. When Dire Straits played their hit “Money for Nothing,” they altered some of the lyrics, mindful of the worldwide audience. Specifically, the second verse begins with “That little faggot with the earring and the make-up / Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair / That little faggot got his own jet airplane / That little faggot, he’s a millionaire. Dire Straits changed the words slightly so that all instances of “faggot” were removed.
19. In another conflict with Graham, Geldof was irritated that the Hooters had gotten a prime spot on the Philadelphia end of Live Aid. Geldof famously remarked, “Who the fuck are the Hooters?” in a Rolling Stone interview. The irony is that, in 2004, the Hooters’ opening act during a tour in Germany was none other than . . . Bob Geldof.
20. There’s not much to say about Queen’s legendary performance that hasn’t been said elsewhere. It was an A+, and, if anyone on this incredibly stacked bill stole the show, it was Queen. What some people may not know is that Queen’s inclusion was controversial among some of the other acts (e.g. Hall & Oates) because Queen had violated the then-taboo of playing the Sun City resort in South Africa, which was still under the apartheid regime at that time. Queen was tense, bickering, and nervous prior to taking the stage. It worked out pretty well, I’d say.
21. The performances weren’t all spectacular, and a combination of lack of rehearsal (or too much rehearsal in a short period of time), bad luck, and technical problems did create sets that weren’t exactly Queen-like. In one famous incident, Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon hit a note(?) during “A View to a Kill” that sounded like a cross between yodeling and a cat being run over by a car. Or possibly a yodeler being run over by a car.
22. Late in the day on the UK broadcast, Geldof had become very irritated with what he perceived to be laziness by the audience in donating to the cause, as only 1.2 million pounds had been raised in over seven hours of broadcasting. En route to give the two billion viewers a piece of his mind, Geldof was stopped in his tracks by the power of Queen’s thrilling set. After he finished watching it, however, he went through with his plans, saying at one point, “There are people dying NOW. So, give me the money!” shortly before dropping an f-bomb about whether to give the address or phone number for donations out first (and not, as lore has it, about the money itself).
23. David Bowie’s “Heroes” provided unforgettable moment. The lyrics seemed particularly impactful given the context of the day. Bowie cemented the gravity of the event shortly thereafter, when he cut his set short to introduce and show a video of starving children in Africa set to the Cars’ “Drive,” which shifted the mood of the Wembley crowd dramatically.
24. Back at the other end of the spectrum, Phil Collins sat in on drums for a reunited Led Zeppelin. It, uh, didn’t go well. Collins got bad vibes from Zeppelin from the outset—when he attempted hastily to go over a few things backstage before going on, Jimmy Page questioned Collins’ knowledge of “Stairway to Heaven.” Taken aback by the negativity that seemed to engulf Zeppelin, Collins nonetheless looked forward to the performance. However, he knew immediately that both Page and Robert Plant were not in “fighting shape.” The band thought the outing was so bad that they have successfully had it blocked from any official rebroadcast in any form, including the Live Aid DVD set, the anniversary rebroadcast on VH1 in 1995, and any subsequent documentaries about the event. Collins has remarked that he contemplated simply walking off at one point.
25. During The (reunited-as-promised!) Who’s set, a generator blew, causing part of their set to be lost due to the interrupted BBC feed. This came after Pete Townshend purposefully stomped on a red warning light near the front of the stage that was intended to warn acts when they were running close to their allotted time.
26. Paul McCartney also fell victim to problems. Although viewers at home got some semblance of audio, those in Wembley heard no vocals. They simply saw Paul sitting at the piano, his lips moving silently as he banged his way through the first couple of minutes of “Let it Be.” Eventually, the sound returned. When the DVD set of Live Aid was produced, McCartney actually re-recorded the missing vocal portion of “Let it Be” in order to maintain consistent audio.
27. Bob Dylan took time out during his performance to mention the plight of American farmers, hoping that, one day, some money could be allocated toward paying off some of their mortgages. These comments caused heat with Geldof, who thought comparing loss of livelihood to loss of life trivialized what Live Aid was trying to do. Dylan’s speech, however, was the seed that gave rise to Farm Aid.
28. The sixteen-hour event ended with a rendition of “We Are the World” at JFK, despite the aforementioned missing key components of the original USA for Africa line-up. Among those not present was Bruce Springsteen, who was invited to Wembley, but declined, later noting that he just did not realize how huge the event would wind up being.
29. In an era when everything wasn’t immediately available in digital (or even analog) format for viewing and/or purchase, Geldof was very, um, particular about the handling of Live Aid footage. He wanted the event to be a moment in time—a “global jukebox” and a shared experience that viewers lived once, making it all the more special. More specifically, he told all of the broadcast partners to destroy the footage after the original broadcast. Ever the good soldiers, ABC apparently complied, meaning that the master tapes of their coverage, hosted by Dick Clark, do not exist. Thankfully, the BBC quietly held on to their footage against Geldof’s wishes.
30. After years of steadfastly refusing to allow any portion of the concert to be released and sold, Geldof eventually relented in time for the 20th anniversary of Live Aid. A DVD set including about ten hours of the concert was released, with almost all of the “bad” moments among the six hours that were excised. I happen to own this set, and it gets my strongest recommendation for anyone who has even a passing interest in the history of popular music.
There’s simply no way to equate Live Aid to anything that could be experienced today. The media landscape has fundamentally changed, to the point that an event as unifying, communal, yet worldwide as Live Aid was might not even be possible.
The best that organizers could hope for would be to be the top trending topic for most of the concert and to have perhaps a few hundred million viewers (despite the fact that the overall population of Earth has grown considerably since 1985).
It was a once-in-a-lifetime event in the truest sense: Not only will it obviously never be repeated, but the conditions that allowed such an event to take place could not occur again in our modern world.
I’m grateful that I’m old enough to remember it first-hand.