Monday 20 November 2017

sir bob, hope and charity -- WHEN ROCKED THE WORLD

It was billed as The Greatest Show On Earth and it caught the imagination of the whole world 25 years ago on July 13, 1985. Live Aid was good for the starving masses of famine-stricken Ethiopia. It was great for Ireland at a time when the nation was despairing on its knees. Ultimately, it was bad for music, anointing a new rock aristocracy and investing them with a risible sense of their own self-importance.

On that sweltering Saturday there were mini-concerts in Moscow, Vienna, Sydney and many other capitals. Bob Dylan, Madonna, Duran Duran and Tina Turner played for 90,000 at Philadelphia's JFK stadium.

But the beating heart of Live Aid was London's Wembley Stadium where 72,000 people paid £5 admission plus a £20 donation towards Ethiopian famine relief. Every piece of merchandise on sale there was stamped with the legend 'This Saves Lives' and people were buying bundles of programmes at the very steep price of £5 each.

The scheme had been hatched by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure as a spin-off from their Band Aid smash hit 'Do They Know It's Christmas' the previous winter. The modest target was to raise £1m from the show, but as more acts answered Geldof's summons, the enterprise ballooned.

It was to become the biggest ever global TV event of the time, raising over £150m. It was a matter of huge pride that the Irish people, with their economy in tatters, emerged as world champions when the donations per capita were totted.

RTE threw itself into the spirit of the day, with unbroken coverage from the first bars of Status Quo's opening 'Rocking All Over The World' to the dying strains of 'We Are The World' from Philadelphia at 4am. A shockingly ill-looking Phil Lynott manned a phone as part of the Montrose telethon. One of the more unusual pledges phoned in was of a 1966 Morris Minor in showroom condition. The event almost provoked a bank dispute at AIB. The bank's decision to open on the Saturday to accept walk-in donations was seen by some in the union as an attempt to introduce regular Saturday opening by stealth. A truce was declared and the counters were fully manned.

Emigration in 1985 had hit levels not seen since the grim 1950s, but as the cameras panned the throng, we could allow ourselves a consolation smile that most of our emigrants had apparently ended up basking on the Wembley turf. There were many Irish tricolours among the fluttering banners, but easily outnumbering the other emblems were the flags emblazoned with 'U2'.

And then there was Bob Geldof. Already dubbed 'Saint Bob', he was the other source of glowing Irish pride. As he accompanied Charles and Di when they took their seats, the entire stadium rose in a rousing standing ovation. Throughout the day, he flitted from pillar to post, at one point accepting a £1m phone donation from a Dubai prince. Seven hours into the Wembley show, he inquired how much the British public had raised. Dismayed that it was a piddling £1.2m, he exploded in an outburst of effing and blinding, banging a studio table and demanding viewers give more. Donations went through the roof.

Backstage, the preening pop stars also got short shrift. There was a ban on the usual riders of pink champagne, crinkle-cut sandwiches and black orchids. Each artist, irrespective of status, had 30 minutes in the dressing room before and after their turn, after which they were turfed out.

Geldof caught flak for the fact that the only black star on the Wembley bill was chocolate-voiced Sade. His response was that he'd picked the acts on the basis of their popularity. The glaring exception was his own Boomtown Rats, whose 15 minutes of fame was by then ancient history. On stage, he declared: "This is the best day of my life." The Rats closed with 'I Don't Like Mondays', on the line "and the lesson today is how to die".

Those fortunate to be in the middle of their 15 minutes that famous afternoon included Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones and Paul Young. Sting and Phil Collins played the first of several stellar double-handers, but many in Ireland were counting down to 5.20pm when U2 would take the stage.

The Dubliners had packed out Croke Park two days running a fortnight earlier, but on the international stage they were still bubbling under. By six o'clock, they had come gloriously to the boil. The world had seen the future and the future was U2.

The Cold War was still sub-zero and President Reagan was threatening the USSR with his costly but patently preposterous Star Wars weapons system. U2 issued a statement condemning the huge spend on space junk while millions in Ethiopia starved. The hacks in the media tent chuckled and ignored it. But there was no ignoring U2's 14-minute rendition of 'Bad' during which Bono plucked a girl from the crowd and made an electrifying connection between band and audience.

Shortly after U2 cranked up through the emotional gears, Queen put the accelerator to the floor, cramming an entire 'greatest hits' package into a stunning 20-minute singalong. All day rumours had circulated that the cherry on the cake would be a Beatles reunion, with Julian Lennon (who was having hits at the time) standing in for his late dad. It wasn't to be. Paul McCartney turned up solo to lead a mass rendition of 'Let It Be', before Bono, Bowie, Bob and half of Planet Pop belted out a very ropey 'Do They Know It's Christmas'. Earlier, David Bowie finished his storming set leading 72,000 voices in a refrain of "We can be heroes just for one day". For this one day, that feeling wasn't just confined to those inside Wembley, but to the millions who'd put their nickel in what Geldof called his global jukebox. As the dust settled, those stars who had turned down Bob's invitation to participate felt like kicking themselves, and not just because virtually everyone who showed up experienced a surge in record sales.

Bruce Springsteen didn't need a sales boost, but he openly regretted saying no, reflecting: "I simply did not realise how big the whole thing was going to be."

The absentee with arguably the most egg on his face was the one who dismissed Live Aid in advance with the bitchy comment that, with his chart days behind him, Geldof was the only pop star with the time on his hands to organise it.

The millions raised by Live Aid saved many lives, but the effort could never be more than a sticking-plaster solution, and famine remains a recurring scourge of Ethiopia. The magnificent response of the Irish public caused Geldof to fall back in love with the country he had abandoned and denounced in the hit 'Banana Republic'. For U2, Live Aid was the launch pad to world domination with their next album, The Joshua Tree.

Over the years that followed, however, Live Aid's legacy to music was negative. Less than a decade after punk's Year Zero, it put the pomp firmly back in pop. Worse, it started an 'Aid' epidemic where righting a wrong took priority over writing a song.

Before you could say 'Mother Teresa' we had Sports Aid, Self Aid, Hear'n'Aid (spandex and big hair against want) and entire Amazonian tribes at the entrance to gigs demanding your signature on some petition or other.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Irish Independent

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