Live Aid was hardly the first internationally minded charity concert (it was only six years after the No Nukes concert in 1979), but it was certainly the most high-profile. And 25 years later, it’s still the standard by which other all-hands-on-deck rock and charity events are judged.
For one day — July 13, 1985 — an estimated 1.4 billion of the planet’s 5 billion people stopped and watched former Boomtown Rats frontman and concert organizer Bob 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, streaming video and Twitter.
The seeds for Live Aid were first planted in 1984, after Geldof saw a BBC documentary about the famine in Ethiopia, which claimed more than 1 million victims in 1984-85 alone. He decided to write a song to help raise money for the starving citizens of the East African nation.
Geldof (then still with the Boomtown Rats) teamed with Ultravox leader Midge Ure, gathering 40 of Britain’s 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 a host of others. Aided by its video and growing awareness of the cause, the track became a worldwide hit, raising more than $10 million.
The Band Aid single set off a slew of companion songs across the globe, from the 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.
But Geldof didn’t stop there. He began calling together more and more superstars — some involved in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and others new to the party — and began putting together the international event known as Live Aid, which would deliver some of the world’s biggest musical acts and bring in millions in donations from viewers.
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.
Even discounting the logistics of putting on two simultaneous stadium shows using ’80s satellite technology, Live Aid was a remarkable achievement. Geldof got the whole thing together in about three weeks. All of the acts performed for free, and many were in the middle of their own tours. Plus, Geldof managed to book a few bands who, at the time, didn’t even exist: He convinced the surviving members of Led Zeppelin to play their first gig together since the 1980 death of drummer John Bonham and also managed to coax the living members of the Who and the original lineup of Black Sabbath out of retirement.
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.
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 The Unforgettable Fire’s “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.
Each artist — including living legends like David Bowie, B.B. King, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney — 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. Geldof earned himself a knighthood and swore that he would never attempt a sequel — a promise he broke when he staged Live 8 in 2005.
What are your memories of Live Aid? Let us know in the comments!