Live Aid: A Look Back At A Concert That Actually Changed The World

Some of the performances may not have aged well, but the spirit of the event lives on.

There’s a good reason why, 20 years after Live Aid, Bob Geldof still looks exhausted.

Even as he hustles to coordinate 10 global events in support of his ambitious July 2 sequel, Live 8 (see “Good Charlotte, Bjork In For Live 8 Tokyo; Moscow Concert Added” ), Live Aid — a still-unprecedented feat of good will, logistics and old-fashioned guilt-tripping, all masterminded by Geldof — looms large as the show that proved music can actually change the world. (See photos from Live Aid.)

Live Aid was the biggest, but it wasn’t the first all-star charity show. Rockers had been lending their efforts to various causes for years, from ex-Beatle George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 (which aided refugees of that war-torn country) to the anti-nuclear power No Nukes show in 1979.

But Live Aid was different.

For one day — July 13, 1985 — an estimated 1.4 billion of the planet’s five billion people stopped and watched Geldof’s “global jukebox,” and were treated to one of the biggest, most ambitious concerts ever staged. At one point, according to a stage announcement, 95 percent of the world’s television sets were tuned in to Live Aid — an even more incredible statistic when you consider that it happened before the Internet, cell phones, e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging and blogging. Through music and an eminently worthy cause, much of the world actually felt connected — even at the height of the eminently selfish “Me Decade.”

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Live 8 artists stress debt relief, critics of the plan sound off and the G8 summit is explained in “Live 8: A Concert To End Poverty” on Overdrive.

That might explain why, 20 years later, even though I recently acquired the shows on DVD, there is still a stack of VHS tapes in my attic somewhere that contain most of the broadcast in all its grainy glory. They’ve been packed and unpacked, moved and temporarily heaped in the junkpile more than a dozen times as I’ve moved around the country. But they’ve never been tossed.

I won’t lie: I’ve never watched them, but for some reason I just can’t let go. Maybe I thought I’d want to show them to my kids, or pop them in some day to remind myself of a time when, despite all the other turmoil around the globe, the world was made aware of injustice and rose up together to try and make a difference.

It all started with a song …

The seeds for Live Aid were sown in 1984, after Geldof saw a BBC documentary about the famine in Ethiopia — which claimed more than 1 million victims in 1984-85 alone — and decided to write a song to help raise money for the starving citizens of the East African nation.

Geldof (then singer of the Boomtown Rats) teamed with Ultravox leader Midge Ure, gathering 40 of the British Isles’ biggest stars of the time to record a song for African famine relief under the name Band Aid. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” featured memorable vocal contributions from Bono, Sting, Boy George, George Michael and several less-memorable others (Britain’s biggest stars at the time included Paul Young, Heaven 17 and cross-dressing non-singer Marilyn) became a worldwide hit, raising more than $10 million for the cause. It sold more than 3 million copies in the U.K. alone, making it the biggest and fastest-selling single in British chart history at the time.

The Band Aid single set off a slew of companion songs across the globe, from the Michael Jackson co-penned USA for Africa smash “We Are the World” to Canada’s “Tears Are Not Enough,” as well as songs from France, Spain, South Africa, Holland, Australia, Jamaica and Belgium.

It also opened the floodgates on a rush of benefit songs and events for a variety of causes, from Little Steven’s anti-apartheid “Sun City” to the well-intentioned American homeless-relief effort Hands Across America, in which 5 million people raised nearly $100 million by forming a (slightly broken) chain from New York to California. There were also the popular Comic Relief benefits for the homeless and the annual Farm Aid shows for struggling American farms.

How do I know? Well, because somewhere near those Live Aid tapes are a stack of T-shirts, singles, buttons and/or baseball caps from all of the above events. I participated in Hands Across America (and bought the shirt), I watched multiple Comic Relief specials (and bought the shirt the first three times), I went to the first Farm Aid show (and yes, bought the shirt) and I distinctly remember annoying my friends by endlessly playing the multiple remixes of the still-funky “Sun City” single.

… And peaked with the show

On the cover of the recently released “Live Aid” DVD is the now-iconic logo of the event (an Africa-shaped guitar), the date of the shows and the tag line “The day the music changed the world.”

  Check out pictures from the 1985 Live Aid concerts.

The event was tagged as a music event like none the world had ever seen, but even the advance hype couldn’t accurately portray the momentousness of the occasion. After all, no one had ever tried to coordinate two massive concerts on two continents with the world’s biggest music stars, and make the whole thing a sufficiently slick TV event to encourage the kind of donations Geldof had in mind.

Relying on satellites, a Concorde jet and lots of good will, Geldof split the show in half, with the majority of the English artists performing in front of 74,000 fans (including Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana) at Wembley Stadium in London and the rest taking the stage for 90,000 fans at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.

Keep a few things in mind: Geldof got the acts to perform — for free — at a show that was organized in just three weeks. Before the days of instant digital communication, someone had to figure out how to coordinate the satellite-linked broadcasts of the two shows, along with beamed-in and taped performances from Holland, Japan, Austria, Yugoslavia, Norway, Germany, Australia and what was then still called the Soviet Union.

Luckily, Geldof had a few aces up his sleeve, among them, the reunion of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin for their first gig together since the 1980 death of drummer John Bonham, as well as reunions by the Who and the original lineup of Black Sabbath.

Then there was Phil Collins. The Genesis drummer and solo star made history during the broadcast when he started the day out by playing his hit “Against All Odds” and performing with Sting in London and then hopping a supersonic Concorde to make it to Philly to sit in with the reunited Zeppelin. (The notoriously sloppy set was not included on the “Live Aid” DVD at the request of the surviving Zep members — ditto Santana’s performance.)

As people from 160 countries tuned in to watch, Geldof pulled together some amazing, one-of-a-kind collaborations. Among them: Mick Jagger and Tina Turner tearing up the stage for “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It),” Madonna — described at the time as an “up-and-coming singer” — joining the Thompson Twins, Nile Rodgers and Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens for a ragged take on John Lennon’s “Revolution,” and Neil Young re-teaming with Crosby, Stills & Nash for “Teach Your Children.”

In addition, the London show cemented U2′s place as one of the best live bands in the world, placing the group on an international stage that they have yet to relinquish, both as a live act and as a force for positive change. Their unforgettable performance — “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and a 12-minute version of “Bad” — saw Bono running down the lip of the stage and encouraging fans to come forward, then jumping 10 feet into the mud to slow-dance with a woman as the band vamped behind him.

Among the other artists who participated in the concerts: Queen, David Bowie, Elton John, Paul McCartney, the Pretenders, Adam Ant, INXS, Elvis Costello, B.B. King, Sade, Run-DMC, Judas Priest, Bryan Adams, the Beach Boys, Santana, Tom Petty, the Cars, Eric Clapton, Duran Duran (in their last performance with all the original members before reforming two years ago) and Bob Dylan, who closed the show with a performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” featuring the Stones’ Keith Richards and Ron Wood.

Each artist was given no more than 17 minutes to play, and the performances were interspersed with short films documenting the famine, as well as impassioned pleas from Geldof to donate to the cause.

At one point, the phone center in the U.S. crashed when 700,000 pledge calls came in at the same time. By day’s end, more than $70 million had been raised.

The 16 hours of music (televised by both ABC in an abbreviated version, and all day by MTV) ultimately raised more than $200 million for the cause, with Ireland generating the most donations per capita, despite the fact that the country was in the midst of a major economic depression at the time.

And Geldof? He was given an honorary knighthood (honorary because the Irish cannot receive full knighthood) and earned the nickname “Saint Bob” for his efforts. Though he swore he’d never attempt a sequel, here he is again with Live 8, marshaling the biggest stars on the planet again.

Looking back, some of the performances and acts at Live Aid were, to be honest, pretty awful. Between the Who’s set being cut in half due to a blown generator, Geldof kicking his microphone cord out during a song, and the trainwreck that was the “We Are the World” Philadelphia finale, much of the event doesn’t really hold up on a musical level.

But even 20 years later, the spirit of Live Aid is what still moves, and that’s the most important part. And this time, Geldof doesn’t want your money — he wants you to speak up.

MTV, mtvU and VH1 will broadcast from Live 8 beginning at noon on Saturday (see “Live 8 Concerts Will Air On MTV, VH1″).

Get involved: Learn about the poverty crisis in Africa, the proposed solutions, and how you can help. Plus find all of our coverage of the international Live 8 concerts and more at our thinkMTV Live 8 hub.

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.