Live-Aid: 27 Years Ago Today

Live Aid was a dual-venue concert that was held on 13 July 1985. The event was organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for relief of the ongoing Ethiopian famine. Billed as the “global jukebox”, the event was held simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London, England, United Kingdom (attended by 72,000 people) and John F. Kennedy Stadium inPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania, United States (attended by about 100,000 people). On the same day, concerts inspired by the initiative happened in other countries, such as Australia and Germany. It was one of the largest-scale satellite link-ups and television broadcasts of all time: an estimated global audience of 1.9 billion, across 150 nations, watched the live broadcast.

Memorable Moments at Wembley Stadium

The Coldstream Guards band opened with the “Royal Salute”, “God Save the Queen“. Status Quo started their set with “Rockin’ All Over the World“, also playing “Caroline” and fan favourite “Don’t Waste My Time”. This was to be the last appearance by the band to feature bassist and founder member Alan Lancaster, and drummer Pete Kircher who had joined the band three years earlier.

Queen galvanised the stadium with some of their greatest hits, in which lead singer Freddie Mercury at times led the entire crowd of 72,000 in thundering unison refrains. In their 20 minute set the band opened with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and closed with “We Are the Champions“. They extensively rehearsed their performance at London’s Shaw Theatre. Prior to their taking the stage, Queen’s sound engineer covertly switched out the limiters that had been installed on the venue’s sound system so the performance would be louder than the others. Queen’s performance on that day has since been voted by more than 60 artists, journalists and music industry executives as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. Mercury and fellow band member Brian May later sang the first song of the three-part Wembley event finale, “Is This The World We Created…?“.

Bob Geldof himself performed with the rest of the Boomtown Rats, singing “I Don’t Like Mondays“. He stopped just after the line: “The lesson today is how to die” to loud applause with the lyrics taking on a whole other meaning. He finished the song and left the crowd to say the final words.

Elvis Costello appeared singing a simple but touching version of The Beatles‘ “All You Need Is Love“, which he introduced by asking the audience to “help [him] sing this old northern English folk song”.

U2‘s performance established them as a pre-eminent live group for the first time – something for which they would eventually become superstars. The band played a 14-minute rendition of “Bad“, during which lead vocalist Bono jumped off the stage to join the crowd and dance with a girl. The length of their performance of “Bad” limited them to playing just two songs; the third, “Pride (In the Name of Love)“, had to be ditched. In July 2005, the girl with whom he danced revealed that he actually saved her life at the time. She was being crushed by the throngs of people pushing forwards; Bono saw this, and gestured frantically at the ushers to help her. They did not understand what he was saying, and so he jumped down to help her himself.

Another moment that garnered a huge crowd response was when David Bowie performed “Heroes” and dedicated it to his son, as well as “All our children, and the children of the world”.

The UK reception of the US feed failed several times and was dogged throughout the US concert by an intermittent regular buzzing on the audio from the US (see the JFK Stadium section for more detail) and also failed during their relay of Japan’s concert, which blacked out most of Off Course‘s song “Endless Nights”.

In addition, the transatlantic broadcast from Wembley Stadium suffered technical problems and failed during The Who‘s performance of their song “My Generation“, immediately after Roger Daltrey sang “Why don’t you all fade…” (the last word was cut off when a blown fuse caused the Wembley stage TV feed to temporarily fail). The Who were playing with Kenney Jones on drums, who was still an official member of The Who at this time, although this was their first performance since they’d officially disbanded after their 1982 ‘farewell’ tour. The Who’s performance included an at times chaotic but still blistering version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again“, which was extremely popular with the audience in Wembley Stadium. The band’s performance was described as “rough but right” by Rolling Stone magazine, but they would not perform together again until the 1988 BPI Awards.

While performing “Let it Be” near the end of the show, the microphone mounted to Paul McCartney‘s piano failed for the first two minutes of the song, making it difficult for television viewers and the stadium audience to hear him. During this performance, the TV audience were better off, audio-wise, than the stadium audience, as the TV sound was picked up from other microphones near Paul McCartney as a disappointing, but preferable choice to no sound at all from Paul. The stadium audience, who could obviously not hear the electronic sound feed from these mikes, unless they had portable TV sets and radios, completely drowned out what little sound from Paul could be heard during this part of his performance. As a result, organiser and performer Bob Geldof, accompanied by earlier performers David Bowie, Alison Moyet, and Pete Townshend, returned to the stage to sing with him and back him up (as did the stadium audience despite not being able to hear much), by which time, Paul’s microphone had been repaired.

At the conclusion of the Wembley performances, Bob Geldof was raised heroically onto the shoulders of The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney – symbolising his great achievement in unifying the world for one day, in the spirit of music and charity.

Memorable Moments at JFK Stadium

At the very beginning of the televised portion of the Philadelphia concert, Joan Baez announced to the assembled crowd (and the viewing audience) that “this is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue”, before leading the crowd in “Amazing Grace” (paired with a couple of verses of “We Are the World”).

When Madonna got on stage, despite the 95°F ambient temperature, she proclaimed “I’m not taking shit off today!” referring to the recent release of early nude photos of her in Playboyand Penthouse magazines.

During his opening number, “American Girl“, Tom Petty flipped the middle finger to somebody off stage about one minute into song. Petty stated the song was a last minute addition when the band realised that they would be the first act to play the American side of the concert after the London finale and “since this is, after all, JFK Stadium”.

When Bob Dylan broke a guitar string, Ronnie Wood took off his own guitar and gave it to Dylan. Wood was left standing on stage guitarless. After shrugging to the audience, he played air guitar, even mimicking The Who‘s Pete Townshend by swinging his arm in wide circles, until a stagehand brought him a replacement. Although this moment was left off the DVD, the performance itself was included, featuring footage focusing solely on Keith Richards.

During their duet on “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Mick Jagger ripped away part of Tina Turner‘s dress, leaving her to finish the song in what was, effectively, a leotard.

The JFK portion included reunions of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the original Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne, and former members of Led Zeppelin, with Phil Collins and Chic member Tony Thompson sharing duties on drums (although they were not officially announced by their group name from the stage, but were announced as Led Zeppelin on the VH1 10th Anniversary re-broadcast in 1995).

Teddy Pendergrass made his first public appearance since his near-fatal car accident in 1982 which paralysed him. Pendergrass, along with Ashford & Simpson, performed “Reach Out and Touch”.

Also, Duran Duran performed a four-song set. The five original band members would not perform together publicly again until 2003. Their set is also memorable for an incredibly weak, off-key falsetto note hit by frontman Simon Le Bon during “A View to a Kill“. The error was trumpeted by some media outlets as “The Bum Note Heard Round The World”, in contrast to Freddie Mercury’s powerful, sustained note during the a cappela section of Queen’s Wembley set, which was dubbed as “The Note Heard Round The World”. Simon later recalled that it was the most embarrassing moment of his career.

The UK TV feed from Philadelphia was dogged by an intermittent regular buzzing on the sound during Bryan Adams’ turn on stage and continued less frequently throughout the rest of the UK reception of the American concert and both the audio and video feed failed entirely during that performance and during Simple Minds‘s performance.

Notable Absences

Michael Jackson and Prince also did not play (although Prince did send a pre-taped video of an acoustic version of “4 the Tears in Your Eyes”, which was played during the concert. The original version appears on the We Are the World album, while the video version was released in 1993 on Prince’s compilation The Hits/The B-Sides.)

Bruce Springsteen declined an invitation to play at Live Aid despite his huge popularity in 1985, later stating that he “simply did not realise how big the whole thing was going to be”. He has since expressed regret at turning down Geldof’s invitation to appear at Live Aid stating that he could have played a couple of acoustic songs had there been no slot available for a full band performance.

Billy JoelBoy GeorgeWaylon JenningsKris KristoffersonTears for Fears, and Stevie Wonder, along with Huey Lewis and the News and Paul Simon, were all included in the initial promotional material for the Philadelphia concert, but failed to appear at the show itself. The final poster for the Philadelphia show features the acts Peter, Paul and Mary and Rod Stewart (who also featured in the Philadelphia concert programme). Peter, Paul and Mary were to have joined Bob Dylan for a rendition of “Blowing In The Wind” which on the day failed to happen (though they can be spotted taking part in the concert’s finale), while Rod Stewart was not touring at the time and was ultimately unable to put together a band in time for the concert.

Tears for Fears did not appear at the Philadelphia leg of the concert, though listed on the bill. According to band member Roland Orzabal, Bob Geldof “gave us so much gip for not turning up at Live Aid. All those millions of people dying, it was our fault. I felt terrible. I tell you, I know how Hitler must have felt.” The group made up for their absence by donating the proceeds from several shows of their world tour that year, and also contributed a re-recording of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (entitled “Everybody Wants to Run the World“) for Geldof’s Sport Aid charity event in 1986. The single reached the Top 5 in the UK, even though the band’s original version had been a hit only a year earlier.

Cat Stevens wrote a song for the Live Aid concert, which he never got to perform – had he done so, he would have made his first public concert appearance since converting to Islam and changing his name to Yusuf Islam. However according to the official book that was released after the event, he arrived at Wembley Stadium on the day without prior warning, and Geldof was unable to fit him into the schedule.

Liza MinnelliYoko Ono, and Cyndi Lauper were tapped to present at JFK Stadium, but due to scheduling conflicts the singers backed out. Lauper did appear in a commercial for the “Live Aid Book” that aired during the concert.

A reunited Deep Purple were also due to appear from Switzerland via satellite, but pulled out after guitarist Ritchie Blackmore refused to take part in the event. Eurythmics were scheduled to play Wembley but cancelled after Annie Lennox suffered serious throat problems. Huey Lewis and the News and Paul Simon both accepted requests to play the Philadelphia concert but later issued press statements stating they had chosen not to appear after all, citing disagreements with promoter Bill Graham. Deep Purple (minus Blackmore, who left the band in 1993) appeared at Geldof’s Live 8 sequel 20 years later, performing at the Toronto leg of the event while Annie Lennox appeared at the London leg of the same event.

There were wild rumours at the time that George HarrisonPaul McCartney and Ringo Starr would reunite as The Beatles; for the first time since the band’s dissolution in 1970. There was also frenzied speculation that Julian Lennon would join the three former Beatles. There were no grounds for the rumours or speculation from any of the musicians referred to and there is no evidence that the rumours were anything but fan fantasy. Paul McCartney appeared at the event in his own right.

Bob Geldof also invited Def Leppard to perform at the event, but due to Rick Allen’s car accident and uncertain future of the next album, they turned it down. Def Leppard appeared at the Philadelphia leg of Geldof’s Live 8 sequel 20 years later.

Talking Heads was to have appeared, but David Byrne was currently busy with his film True Stories at the time of the concert.

AC/DC were also invited to play at the event, however they declined the invitation.

Frank Zappa was invited to perform, but refused because he believed that money raised by Live Aid did not address the core problems facing the developing world. He also questioned the legitimacy of Live Aid, saying “I think Live Aid was the biggest cocaine money laundering scheme of all time.”

Live Aid performers and setlists

(In order of appearance, times given are British Summer Time and indicate the start time of the performance. Key: W – London Wembley Stadium, JFK – Philadelphia JFK Stadium)

London Wembley Stadium

JFK Stadium

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