Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Live Aid ‘85: 25 Years Later

In many ways, the immense Live Aid charity concert, which took place simultaneously in London, England and Philadelphia, U.S.A., 25 years ago today, was my Woodstock. (Joan Baez made a similar statement to the crowd at J.F.K. stadium in Philadelphia when she came onstage.) I was way too young to have been able to attend the seminal 1969 Woodstock, N.Y. concert, which crystallized the 60s in many people’s minds. So when almost everyone who was a who’s who in English and American rock and pop music got together, under the auspices of The Boomtown Rats' Bob Geldof and Ultravox’s Midge Ure, to raise monies for the starving millions in Ethiopia and Sub-Saharan Africa, I was psyched to lose myself in the music. And I certainly, like so many, was shocked at the images of starving children, in particular, facing death in the 20th century. That this terrible tragedy could be happening in such a ‘prosperous’ world seemed almost inconceivable. At that time, I was working in a video rental outlet (remember them?) located in a department store in downtown Toronto, fortuitously right in front of all the televisions. So when I showed up for work that Saturday morning of July 13, 1985, I made sure all the TV sets in the department were tuned to the live broadcast of the concerts and also that the TVs were turned up loud. (I still remember one of the older salesmen holding his hands over his ears in silent protest at the ‘noise.’) Later on, after my shift was over, I headed off to a friend’s house to watch the taped ABC special commemorating the event. That whole day, twelve hours long at least, was all about the cause and the music.

My memories of that day, so many years later, is that a lot of the music was great and everyone seemed to be determined to make their performances count, aware of how important their sets were going to be in helping raising funds for the starving people in Africa. And I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time immersed in music for such a prolonged period.

Recently I purchased the 2004 four disc DVD release of Live Aid ’85, which contains about 10 hours of the ‘official’ 16 hour long concert in chronological order – it was actually longer when you count the concurrent performances going on for part of the time in the two Live Aid venues – and over the last few days, have watched about 70 per cent of the footage. Here are some of my views on what I saw.

The crowd at London's Wembley Stadium
The British acts, even the lesser talents, who performed at Wembley Stadium, seemed, then and now, the stronger to me. And if you were at Wembley that day, you would have gotten to see, among others, The Who, Sting, Queen, Dire Straits, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, U2, Elton John, Bryan Ferry, The Boomtown Rats and Paul McCartney, who ended the show in London, all on the same bill. That’s a fucking incredible line-up. (Not all the Brits performed in London; on the Philly bill were the likes of  Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, Eric Clapton, Duran Duran and Judas Priest. Oddly, The Rolling Stones chose to perform separately: Mick Jagger, solo and with Tina Turner, Ron Wood and Keith Richards with Bob Dylan for the U.S finale. Phil Collins flew to the U.S, on the Concorde and thus was the only musician to perform in both venues.) Many of the American singers, by comparison, seemed lacklustre, including Chrissie Hynde, George Thorogood and, even, The Beach Boys, though Tom Petty acquitted himself well. He did give someone the finger during his set; I’m not sure why.
Freddie Mercury rocks the house
Live Aid was also a sad reminder of who we’ve lost since that important day: Lady Di, then not even four years married to Prince Charles and still surrounded by the aura of that 1981 fairytale marriage; The Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson; soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, who made his first appearance at Live Aid since the 1982 traffic accident which rendered him a paraplegic; and, of course Freddie Mercury of Queen, who I think gave the most blistering, riveting set of the day. If you’ve never seen Mercury perform, and own the Live Aid DVD, you’re in for a treat. He had charisma and energy to spare and rivalled Jagger for showmanship and style and he’s on the DVD longer than anyone else, with his fellow band members generally receding in the background and letting him do his stuff. Dire Strait’s Mark Knopfler was also great, delivering a terrific version of “Sultans of Swing” though his hit “Money For Nothing” had fallen victim to political correctness by this time, with the controversial lines, “that little faggot with the earrings and the makeup,” a reference to Culture Club’s Boy George, changed to “little queenie,” not the most egregious act of self-censorship I’ve ever heard but still… Also a musical standout: Bryan Ferry, the epitome of cool, doing "Slave to Love" and "More Than This" and U2 and Bono with their can't miss hit "Sunday,  Bloody Sunday," which in the context of Live Aid seemed more relevant and powerful than ever before.

There were also some interesting pairings at the concerts, besides the obvious ones like Elton John and Kiki Dee performing “Don’t Go Breaking my Heart’. Branford Marsalis, on saxophone, added a nice jazz tinge to Sting’s rendition of The Police’s “Roxanne." Sting himself brought his strong vocals to “Money For Nothing.” Some of the covers, too, stood out that day, for good and for ill. Elvis Costello performed a catchy version of The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” amusingly introducing it as ‘a Northern English folk song’ but Madonna, Steve Stevens, Nile Rodgers and The Thompson Twins butchered The Beatles’ “Revolution.”

Madonna at Live Aid
And though there weren't too many musical omissions from Live Aid – Led Zeppelin, reuniting after many years apart, did perform in Philadelphia but deemed their performance so bad that they would not allow it to be included in the DVD - I do wonder where Michael Jackson, AC / DC, Paul Simon and Joe Strummer were? Bruce Springsteen was also missing but he turned down the offer to perform at Live Aid, ostensibly because he didn’t get the full import of what it was all about. Personally, I would have liked to see Frank Zappa and Talking Heads added to the bill; if we had to put up with the bland likes of Spandau Ballet, The Style Council, Howard Jones and REO Speedwagon, surely room could have been made for those unique acts. One interesting difference between the British and American concerts; the latter also had a Hollywood presence, with stars like Jack Nicholson, Bette Midler, Chevy Chase and Don Johnson taking turns introducing the musicians but, frankly, their presence wasn’t necessary.

What was most arresting about Live Aid was when it took place and the significance of that time in musical history. In 1985, the Internet was in its infancy, no one had ever heard about downloading, CDs were still relatively new and artists did not tour as often as they do today, an outgrowth of consistently declining record sales, which forces musical acts to raise more money though their shows than through record sales. Thus, many of the estimated 2 billion (!) viewers of Live Aid, according to Knopfler, would not have had any chance of seeing many of their favourite performers live, much less so many of them on one bill. A surprisingly large number of those performers in 1985 are still going strong 25 years later.

Enjoying Live Aid in Philadelphia
Live Aid also took place just a few years before World Music made its mark. Though some eight other countries, including Austria, Japan, Germany, the then Soviet Union, the then Yugoslavia and Australia also staged shows for Africa on July 13 – reduced to snippets of footage on the DVD extras – Live Aid was strictly an Anglo – American venture, with a few Irishmen, Scots and Canadians added to the mix, albeit one broadcast to sixty nations worldwide. If something like this took place today, you can bet the roster of performers would be a much broader one, more representative of the planet, with acts like Charlotte Gainsbourg, Manu Chao, Tinariwen, Toumani Diabate, Rachid Taha, Gogol Bordello and Balkan Beat Box, on the bill. It would also have added a welcome dose of colour to what was mostly a white, male event at Live Aid.

The DVD’s extras on the Live Aid set are scant but they include the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which was recorded in England in late 1984, to raise money for Ethiopia, and was the actual genesis of Live Aid. (The American equivalent, We Are The World,” also included on the DVD is much sappier.). Also among the extras, BBC and CBC news reports on the Ethiopian famine (the CBC one is in appallingly bad taste with the African country’s human misery set to the beat of a pop song) and a probing Bob Geldof inspired documentary “Food and Trucks and Rock and Roll,” which explained how the monies, a record to that point $80 million plus, was dispersed.

So did Live Aid make a difference in the end? The answer to that is yes and no. Obviously, many lives were undoubtedly saved but Ethiopia still faced famine in coming years. Today, Africa has different but equally horrendous problems: genocide in Darfur, mass rapes in the Congo. But Live Aid also woke the world up to what could be done if entertainers gave their all, on a heretofore unimagined scale. Live Aid was repeated later on, in new editions, Willie Nelson created Farm Aid, to help his nation’s struggling farmers and the template for a certain kind of charity fund raising, such as the recent star studded live TV broadcast to raise money for the victims of Haiti’s devastating earthquakes, was permanently created.

And because the DVD exists, and almost didn’t as Bob Geldof had decreed that the concert footage be destroyed so as not to be exploited, instructions which were ignored by some of the broadcasters, we can see for ourselves how much good those concerts did. Alleviating the starvation of millions of men, women and children was the raise d’etre of Live Aid. Preserving so many great – and, yes some not so great musical performances – for posterity, was a bonus for a good deed done well.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.


  1. I was at Live-Aid but, rather than counter your article with my own memories and opinions, I'll just be brief and make a couple of necessary corrections. The Who were not at JFK Stadium in Philly. In Philadelphia, we watched their Wembley Stadium performance stream to us from the London video feed on the Diamond Vision screen until (due to a technical problem) it unexpectedly faded away right before Daltrey was to sing the lyric "fade away" in the song 'My Generation'. Also, Dennis Wilson is not a lost Live Aid memory (like Carl Wilson is) as Dennis did not perform that day with The Beach Boys, having drowned in late 1983, a year and a half before the famed charity rock event.

  2. Thank you for your corrections. I have inputted them into the piece. I assumed The Who were in the States because Jack Nicholson introduced them from J.F.K. Stadium.