The legacy of Live Aid: 30 years after they played to Feed the World
Thirty years on from Live Aid, Jonathan de Burca Butler recalls one of rock music's finest moments and examines its legacy, including the making of U2 and the second act of Bob Geldof
Published 06/07/2015 | 02:30
U2 were well over half-way through their epic Live-Aid set when Bono made a career changing decision. Like every other act, the Dublin four piece had been given 18 minutes on stage. They had used up a good portion of that already when the singer bounded off the stage and headed towards the crowd. They were ecstatic. There was a surge forward. Bono saw a girl reaching out to him. He signalled to the ushers to let her get out and join him but they didn't quite get it. For a moment it looked like the impish U2 front man would have to walk away, walk away with that mullet between his legs. It was a potentially embarrassing moment for the leader of the world's least cool band; particularly in a musical era known for its suave. He waited. Eventually a girl was pulled from the crowd and as the boys behind him finished their song to the backdrop of a now cooling early evening, he danced and held her tightly. It was one of many memorable moments from a concert which took place 30 years ago this month.
"I remember every second of every performance," says 2FM DJ, Dave Fanning. "That U2 performance was great but about an hour later I remember Queen stealing the whole show. What a performance that was. Bowie getting on his knees, Status Quo having a laugh at the beginning and not knowing what they were up to. I was back in Dublin doing stuff for 2FM, watching the live feed and doing the links. At one point I remember Garret FitzGerald came into the studio and I had to talk to him about the whole thing. But apart from that, I was just soaking it in."
Seven months before the concert, Bob Geldof and his fellow musician Midge Ure had assembled the great and the glamorous of the rock and pop world to record Do They Know It's Christmas. The single sold one million copies in its first week and spent six weeks at number one in Britain. Geldof had originally hoped to raise a couple of thousand pounds with the song but ended up raising millions. For most people that would have been enough but Geldof wanted to go one further. On a suggestion from Culture Club's Boy George, who as it turned out would be unavailable, the Boomtown Rats singer decided he would organise the biggest concert the world had ever seen.
"Well he was always a bolshie old b***ocks," says Fanning. "Even in school. He was in my brother's year in Blackrock College and was three years ahead of me and I can remember even back then he stood out. I mean there was the name for a start. There was nobody else called Geldof. He really did stand out."
"I knew him from the Rats and I liked their stuff. On Live Aid he was very focussed. He was very much in on the thing and what it meant. It was a huge emotional roller-coaster but I must say he carried it off really well and he just bullied people into submission."
Stories now abound of egocentric and often highly strung musicians being effed and blinded out of it, as the notoriously outspoken Geldof banged their heavily-hairsprayed heads together in a whirlwind 20 weeks that at times left him in a rather delicate, nervous state.While most were eventually persuaded, there were those who flatly refused and others who would do so but only with caveats. U2 wanted a sound check and were told where to go. Tears For Fears appeared on the bill without being asked and decided to go on holiday instead; a decision they later regretted. Stevie Wonder initially said yes but then felt he would be the token black performer and pulled out.
The overall programme was highly ambitious. Two concerts, one in London and one in Philadelphia, would run almost simultaneously. While one concert took a break to change sets or just to simply come down from the emotional highs, the other would feature an act that kept television audiences glued to the screen and, it was hoped, not far from their phones. Eventually, it all came together and the day was a spectacular success, though not without its problems. Satellite links between Wembley and the concert in Philadelphia collapsed on several occasions. When the hosts of a wedding party being held near Wembley arena discovered that a nearby field was being used as a helicopter landing pad, they were none too pleased. David Bowie was sent to have a chat and his photo taken with the bride and groom. Paul McCartney, who had not performed in public for five years, sang the first part of Let it Be into a silent microphone. When it eventually went on, it was met with a raucous cheer.
But behind all the glitz, glamour and chaos of the event was its underlying purpose; the raising of funds for the starving masses of Ethiopia. While the audience and performers might at times have got caught up in the dizzying atmosphere, Geldof never lost his focus. Just before noon, Princess Diana and Prince Charles turned up to lend their support. Diana, a self-confessed fan of Spandau Ballet, had turned up to see them play. The Dubliner was sure to welcome them. He was well aware of Diana's fame and popularity, not just in the UK but across the globe and in particular the United States. If the USA tuned in, the money would begin to roll in or at least that was what he hoped. Throughout the day he was kept abreast of how much cash was actually being raised. By seven o'clock that evening, he was still frustrated. He was sure there was more to give. When Queen finished their outstanding set under Wembley's floodlights to near delirium, he decided he would appeal directly to the television audience who were now sitting down to their tea.
He appeared in studio to read out numbers and addresses along with various other stars. At one point he suggested to host, David Hepworth, that they "f**k the addresses" and just go straight to the numbers because they "need the money now". Geldof's outburst coupled with a video of starving Ethiopian children to The Cars song Drive soon saw donations shoot up.
Geldof had pleaded with people not to go the pub that night but to stay in, watch the show and donate. They responded. £11 m was raised in the UK that day, with another £36 m in the States.
It was a remarkable achievement, particularly in a time remembered for both its greed and high levels of unemployment. Perhaps that was what made it so attractive to people. Despite being in the midst of an economic depression and with unemployment at an all time high of almost 18pc, Ireland was the largest per capita donor; something that was not lost on Geldof, who mentioned it in another interview during the concert. In a way though, Ireland's response was hardly surprising. In 1985, there were very few Irish men doing anything of note on the world stage. There were those who branded Geldof a loud-mouth but he was our loud-mouth and there was no denying the sense of pride around the country.
"We watched it in a friend's house in Waterford," recalls Fanning's 2FM colleague Dan Hegarty, then an impressionable youth. "It was this huge thing and there was a lot of buzz about it. It was a great one for us in the sense that Bob Sr was a friend of the family and my mum was a great friend of Bob's older sister Cleo.
"So you know we were going around telling everyone how our friend's brother, who I've still never met by the way, is doing this great thing for all these people who are starving. Just having all those famous names on the one bill was hard to compute.
"I remember the U2 performance because my sister was really into them but the thing that really sticks in my mind is that iconic image of Bob standing on stage with his arm in the air during I Don't Like Mondays."
"For me it was the day I realised that music could make a difference on a world scale," continues Hegarty. "Connected to that is how historic it was, not just in terms of the line-up but in terms of what it did. Would all of us have known the extent of the tragedy in Ethiopia? Had it not been for what Bob Geldof and initially Midge Ure did with Band Aid, we wouldn't have seen those awful scenes. It certainly gave music a bit more power than it had before."
Hegarty's point is well-made. Band-Aid spawned a glut of charity singles including We are the World, and of course years later Candle in the Wind while some version of Live Aid big or small, is probably staged somewhere every week.
For Fanning there is another less direct result of the concert and the preceding single.
"I can't remember who wrote the book it was an English guy but he said that's when celebrity culture as we know it today started . . . It spawned a whole new industry. So I think that's probably its biggest legacy."
And it's a legacy that has its critics. Writing in The Mail on Sunday some years ago, commentator Ian Birrell pointed out that "despite the best of intentions [Live Aid] promoted a patronising view of the world and encouraged the idea that soundbites, stunts and simplistic gestures can heal the most complex problems. The result is the triumph of cheap emotionalism and celebrity politics - and, unfortunately, damage to the continent it sought to help."
Others have argued that the lack of African artists on the bill at either concert, was emblematic of a Western superiority complex. The idea that the West knows best has, some argue, become even more pervasive since Live Aid; just look at the increase in the numbers of aid agencies.
However, Geldof would point out that his self-imposed brief was to draw attention to the issue and to do that he needed the world's biggest stars.
When the dust had settled Geldof, who was now inextricably linked to Live Aid, tried to get back into the music business.
"You have to remember by the time of Live Aid, The Boomtown Rats were already gone really," says Fanning. "They'd had their day and Live Aid in a way now superseded what Bob was. Nobody took him seriously as a musician again or maybe they just forgot and at the end of the day all he wanted to do was play music."
In 1986 The Boomtown Rats split up. Geldof pursued a solo career and had some success with a single entitled The Great Song of Indifference but the heady days of Rat Trap and I Don't Like Mondays would never be matched. Much of his time after Live-Aid was spent on business affairs. The late eighties were not particularly good to him financially but in the early 1990s he co-created what would eventually become media production company Planet 24. It produced The Word and another Channel 4 staple The Big Breakfast. He would later sell the company for what he once termed "a proper wedge".
Geldof's personal life since Live Aid has been marred by tragedy. In early 1995, his wife of 10 years Paula Yates, left him for the lead singer of INXS, Michael Hutchence. Their romance and the birth of their daughter Tiger-Lily was played out in the full glare of the media and when Hutchence was found dead in a hotel room in 1997 it was a tragic end to an often tumultuous story.
Yates was inconsolable and eventually got psychiatric treatment. In 1998, Geldof won sole custody of their three daughters, Fifi, Peaches and Pixie. The girls' mother died of a drug overdose in 2000, having stayed away from drugs for two years.
Geldof fostered Tiger Lily and gained a daughter. Years later he would tragically lose another when 25-year-old Peaches was found dead in her home. She too had succumbed to heroin.
Geldof released a statement saying his family was "beyond pain". Shortly thereafter, he announced his engagement to his partner of 19 years, French actress, Jeanne Marine. The couple were married earlier this year in the south of France.
Ten years ago, Geldof used the anniversary of Live Aid to launch Live 8 and bring the world's attention to the terrible debts faced by many African countries. He still chipped away at the establishment but this time he could do it from the inside and they were more than willing to listen.
In November of last year he assembled a new generation of pop stars including Ed Sheeran and One Direction to record the latest version of Band Aid.
Thirty years after one of rock and pop's most memorable days, people are still listening to Geldof.
One suspects that if they weren't, one of Ireland's great sons would nonetheless make himself heard.