On Saturday, July 13, 1985, an estimated 1.9 billion people across the globe gathered around their television sets and radios for Live Aid, a benefit concert for famine relief in Ethiopia. An additional 150,000 or so saw the event live from Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.
The roots of Live Aid go back to the fall of 1984, when the BBC aired a series of reports on the famine in Ethiopia. Watching those reports was Bob Geldof, then best known as the lead singer of The Boomtown Rats. Geldof was inspired (along with Ultravox’s Midge Ure) to arrange for a group of all-star UK artists (collectively known as Band Aid) to record a single for famine-relief charity. The result was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, an undeniably catchy, hugely problematic slice of cheese that, ahem, hasn’t aged well.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was well-intentioned but cringe-worthy in a number of ways that weren’t obvious to me in 1984. Regardless of its flaws, the single sold like hotcakes; “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” sold 2.5 million copies in the US alone, and worldwide it sold about 11.7 million copies by 1989. The single also spawned an equally cringey US version, co-written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson and credited to USA for Africa, called “We Are the World”.
The success of Band Aid and USA for Africa inspired Geldof and Ure – on the suggestion of Culture Club’s Boy George – to organize a concert event to be held on two continents, titled Live Aid. The idea was to use satellites to bounce back and forth between two locations, so music was constantly playing at one location while equipment was taken down and set up at the other.
Geldof and Ure hired promoters Harvey Goldsmith and Bill Graham to help organize the event, and set about enlisting artists to play on each continent (and, in one notable example, both continents). Venues were selected. Television and radio broadcasting rights were secured.
The music began at noon in London, 7 am EDT. By the time the lights went down on JFK, the music had been playing for sixteen hours.
My summer job that year was picking berries at a farm for 50 cents a quart. I had to work that morning, but we had the radio tuned to the event, and I was home by early afternoon to catch the rest of the broadcast. I don’t really recall the concert feeling life-changing at the time. I just remember, as with any live event, there being certain artists that I was really looking forward to, some of whom lived up to the hype and some of whom crumbled under the weight of expectations.
For better and for worse, here are some of the memorable performances from that day.
- Phil Collins
Phil Collins was the Live Aid MVP. The only artist to appear at both locations, Collins performed at Wembley, took the Concorde across the Atlantic, then performed at JFK. And in addition to his own sets, he gave assists to Sting, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin (see next entry). Apparently Collins was under the impression that other artists would be making the transcontinental trek with him and was mortified to learn he’d be the only one.
- Led Zeppelin
Live Aid was the first time the surviving members of Led Zeppelin played together since the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. It didn’t go well. Their set was disjointed, instruments and voices were out of tune and Robert Plant’s voice was hoarse. Jimmy Page tried to throw guest drummer Phil Collins under the bus, suggesting that Collins hadn’t known his part, but honestly, Collins is only a fraction of the problem here.
- Dire Straits
Dire Straits was a massively popular band in the summer of 1985, thanks to their album Brothers in Arms and its #1 single, “Money for Nothing”. The song’s success was due in part to an assist from Sting, who provided the background vocals, including the iconic “I want my MTV” (sung to the tune of The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”). Sting pitched in to help when Dire Straits took the stage at Live Aid, and the result, while not perfect, didn’t disappoint.
Madonna was the biggest pop star on the planet in 1985, thanks to Like A Virgin. The world could not get enough of Madonna. I could not get enough of Madonna. I’d actually just seen her in concert for the first time, at the Detroit leg of The Virgin Tour; the woman puts on a hell of a show. Madonna was introduced (hilariously) by Bette Midler, who alluded to the recent scandal involving nude photos of Madonna taken several years earlier appearing in Playboy and Penthouse magazines. Madonna played along, telling the crowd imploring her to take off her jacket (it was 95 degrees in Philly that day), “I ain’t taking shit off today”, before launching into her dance-party hit “Holiday – and getting the audience on their feet.
- David Bowie
When I started working on this piece, I knew I needed to ask my bestie if she had any specific memories from that day. The first thing she said was how Queen gave her goosebumps (see the final entry on this list). The second thing she said was “David Bowie singing ‘Heroes'”. Bowie had the misfortune of following Queen, but if ever there was a performer who could rise to the occasion, it was David Bowie. Bowie had the audience in the palm of his hand, and those of us at home knew we were watching something very special.
- Bob Dylan with Keith Richards and Ron Wood
Bob Dylan created a bit of a stir when he told the audience he wished some of the money being raised that day could go to struggling farmers in the US. Bob Geldof was angry at Dylan for his remarks, but the seeds were sown for Farm Aid, which took place two months after Live Aid. Dylan’s set was a bit of a mess; at one point, a string broke on his guitar, so Wood passed his over and basically played air guitar until someone could bring him another one. But when we talk about Dylan and Live Aid now, it’s generally regarding his pre-performance comments.
U2 were not yet superstars in 1985, but Live Aid helped launch them into the stratosphere. Their performance that day is the stuff of legend: a planned third song, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, had to be jettisoned after their second song, “Bad”, turned into an eleven minute opus. Turns out Bono was looking for a young woman to come up to the stage and dance with him, as was his custom. But the crowd was surging, and Bono helped security pull a few people to safety, one of whom, Kal Khalique, would later tell The Sun that Bono had saved her life. The Edge, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton were purported to be angry at Bono, as he disappeared from their view, leaving them to repeat the same few bars of the song for several minutes. It wasn’t until later that they – and the rest of the world – fully understood what had happened.
- Paul McCartney
The concert’s promoters desperately wanted at least one of the surviving Beatles – preferably Paul – to play; Paul was hesitant, as he hadn’t performed live since the death of John Lennon five years earlier, but “the management” (McCartney’s children) insisted he play. George Harrison and Ringo Starr, not wanting to deal with a “Beatles reunion” scenario, opted not to participate. McCartney only performed one song, but it was the perfect choice. Technical difficulties prevented the folks at Wembley from hearing the first two minutes of the song, but it mattered little – by the end of “Let It Be”, all 72,000 people in the stadium were singing along.
- Black Sabbath featuring Ozzy Osbourne
Instead of rehearsing, the reunited band got to talking about the old days and went to the bar to get drunk. They took the stage at JFK at 9:52 am, still hungover (or possibly drunk again, depending on which account you read). Either way, their performance was a disaster.
- Elton John
Elton John had the longest set of the day, coming in at about 32 minutes. He sang one hit after another – “Rocket Man”, “Bennie and the Jets”, “I’m Still Standing”. He also got some help from Kiki Dee and George Michael on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, respectively (Andrew Ridgeley, Michael’s Wham! bandmate, was consigned to singing background vocals). The crowd ate it up.
- Duran Duran
- Band Aid/USA for Africa
Each show ended with the song that started it all, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in London and “We Are the World” in Philadelphia. It’s all fairly predictable, but hoo boy when Patti Labelle starts belting, you kind of forget everything else.
Queen was not the top act on this ticket, but when all was said and done, Queen – and Freddie Mercury specifically – were the stars of the show. When the dust settled, many fans agreed that their set was not only the highlight of the day but the greatest rock performance in history. Simply put, they brought the house down. Absolutely iconic.
You can listen to/watch the Live Aid performances a number of ways. Here are a couple of suggestions. You can listen to the complete setlist on Spotify:
Or you can subscribe to the Live Aid YouTube channel here: