Monday 22 July 2019

Calling out around the world... Remembering Live Aid

This Saturday 30 years ago, Bob Geldof assembled the most stellar line-up of talent ever seen for his Live Aid jukebox. A day of magic, chaos and big egos is recalled

Sea of people: Bono performs to a packed Wembley for Live Aid in 1985
Sea of people: Bono performs to a packed Wembley for Live Aid in 1985
Geldof got some big names on board by pitting ego against ego
Live Aid finale

Damian Corless

It was billed as the Greatest Show on Earth and it caught the imagination of the whole world 30 years ago on July 13, 1985. Live Aid was good for the starving masses of famine-stricken Ethiopia. It was really good for an ailing Ireland at a time when the economy was on its knees.

On that scorching Saturday there were mini Live Aids in Moscow, Vienna, Oslo, Sydney and many other cities, with footage bouncing off satellites to all parts of the globe.

Bob Dylan, Madonna, Tina Turner and Duran Duran played for 90,000 at Philadelphia's JFK stadium. But the heart of Live Aid was London's Wembley Stadium, where 72,000 paid £5 admission plus a £20 donation towards Ethiopian famine relief.

Every piece of merchandise was stamped with the legendary 'This Saves Lives' and people were buying bundles of programmes at a pricey £5 a go.

The scheme was hatched by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure as a spin-off from their Band Aid hit Do They Know It's Christmas a few months earlier. The pair set themselves a modest initial fundraising target, but as Geldof whipped more acts into line, the enterprise ballooned.

It would become the biggest global TV event up until that point, raising over £150m. It was a matter of huge pride when the banjaxed Irish nation emerged as the biggest giver after the per capita donations were totted.

As with Band Aid, Geldof had pulled off a miracle, putting together what really was The Greatest Show On Earth in just weeks, through sheer force of will, allied to a lot of shouting and a few white lies.

One tactic was to play puffed-up ego off against puffed-up ego, getting acts to sign up by telling them their rivals had already agreed to play, even when they hadn't.

Such were his persuasive skills that several mega acts agreed to reform for the day, including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Status Quo and The Who. The latter had not played for five years and weren't on speaking terms, and it was on-off until the day itself.

Geldof remarked: "It was like getting one man's four ex-wives together."

The reunion everyone wanted to see was that of The Beatles, perhaps with Julian Lennon standing in for his father John, murdered five years earlier. The rumour took wings at Wembley when Paul McCartney, who hadn't played live since Lennon's death, was seen loitering with apparent intent.

Some of the biggest acts of the day didn't respond well to Geldof's abrasive cajoling, while others balked at playing for free.

The latter demand caused a stand-off with service providers at Wembley, including the caterers and British Telecom, who initially held out for payment. Geldof wore them down.

The Dubliner caught flak for the fact that the only black star on the Wembley bill was dusky voiced Sade. His response was that he'd picked the acts on the basis of their popularity.

Claiming colour-blindness, he said: "I explained that the purpose of Live Aid was to raise money. If a band sold a million records, it meant more people would watch than if they sold a thousand. If more people contributed, more people lived.

"If I have a choice between (reggae act) Steel Pulse or Wham!, I'll take Wham!" The glaring exception was his own Boomtown Rats, whose 15 minutes of fame was a distant memory. Fronting the Rats, he declared: "This is the best day of my life."

While three of the biggest black megastars - Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder - gave Geldof the cold shoulder (see panel), the JFK stage was graced by Tina Turner, The Four Tops, Run-DMC, Bo Diddley, BB King and other class acts.

In his account of the day at Wembley, writer Dylan Jones said: "So many people backstage had little sinner's grins from the booze and drugs that appeared to be readily on tap."

It seems unlikely that mind-altering substances suddenly came into play on the big day. Jones tells a story related to him by Wembley promoter Harvey Goldsmith where, having abandoned an idea to do a transatlantic satellite duet of Dancing In The Street with Mick Jagger, David Bowie suggested that one of the pair be sent to the orbiting Space Shuttle to perform the duet from there.

Goldsmith revealed: "I made a call to NASA and asked if they had a spare rocket we could send Mick Jagger up in. I could tell they were thinking who is this nutcase." In the end, Jagger stayed grounded.

Right up to the last minute there were threats of pull-outs. Jones' book claims that Geldof's penultimate phone call the night before Live Aid was from the manager of an American band threatening a no-show if they didn't get longer than the standard 18-minute allocation.

His response was: "Well, f***ing pull out. I'm going to bed."

Jones wrote: "Minutes earlier he'd had a call from U2's office, threatening to pull the band as they hadn't been offered a soundcheck. His response was typical: 'F**k 'em'."

On the morning of the show Goldsmith got a call from Sony Records threatening to pull Mick Jagger unless Hall & Oates were guaranteed prime-time exposure. The promoter told the caller to do his worst.

Geldof later reflected that the two key figures in getting America to tune into Wembley were the Beatle Paul and Princess Di.

"You had this amazing galaxy of rock stars, and yet Diana was the most famous woman on the planet. As soon as I knew she was going to come, I knew the Americans would tune in," he said.

Those fortunate to be in the midst of their 15 minutes that sweltering afternoon included Howard Jones, Paul Young, Alison Moyet and Nick Kershaw. Sting and Phil Collins played the first of several stellar double-handers, but across Ireland the countdown was to 5.20pm when U2 would arrive.

The band had packed out Croke Park two days running two weeks earlier, but on the global stage they were still bubbling under.

Their planned three-song set went out the window when Bono left the stage to pluck a girl from the crowd for a dance, one of his oldest tricks. While he remained vanished from sight, the other three were forced to string out Bad to an eventual 14 minutes.

The singer finally made it back with his young lady, and the stunt made an electrifying connection between band and audience. By six o'clock the world had seen the future, and the future was U2.

Shortly after U2 seized their moment, Queen booted the accelerator to the floor, cramming an entire greatest hits package into a sensational 20-minute sing-along.

All day rumours had circulated that the cherry on the cake would be a Beatles reunion. It wasn't to be.

McCartney turned up solo to lead a mass rendition of Let It Be, before Bowie, Bono, Bob and a stellar cast belted out a very ropey Do They Know It's Christmas.

The £150m raised by Live Aid undoubtedly saved many lives, but the effort could never be more than a sticking-plaster solution to one particular crisis, and famine remains a recurring scourge of sub-Saharan Africa.

The magnificent response of the Irish public caused Geldof to fall back in love with the country he had abandoned and denounced as a "septic isle" in the hit Banana Republic. For U2, Live Aid was the launch pad to world domination with their next album, The Joshua Tree.

After Geldof was hoisted on the shoulders of his heroes McCartney and Pete Townshend, tired European eyes switched to the USA where Bob Dylan just didn't get it.

Accompanied by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, he topped off a lousy set with: "It would be nice if some of this money went to American farmers."

Geldof chastised: "It was a crass, stupid and nationalistic thing to say."

In the RTÈ studio, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald drew similar accusations of crass behaviour when he pledged host Pat Kenny the paltry sum of £250,000 on behalf of the Irish Government.

The next day's papers accused FitzGerald of mounting a cheap PR stunt at a time when Ireland had recently received hundreds of millions for contributing 92,000 tonnes to the EEC beef mountain, 90,000 tonnes to the butter mountain, and 11,000 tonnes of wheat and barley, which would all spend some time sitting in storage before being eventually dumped. (The Eurocrats' logic was it couldn't be donated as this would upset the commercial markets.)

Live Aid's legacy to music was ultimately negative, putting the pomp back in rock and unleashing a torrent of conspicuous do-gooding as the singers of pop ditties took it upon themselves to save the rain forests and seal up the hole in the ozone layer in the full glare of publicity.

We had Sports Aid, Ireland's own Self Aid featuring Van, The Pogues, The Rats and U2, and Hear'n'Aid (spandex and big hair against want). Neil Young, John Cougar Mellencamp and Willie Nelson even joined forces to see to it that Bob Dylan got his Farm Aid.

But to blame Live Aid for the orgy of bandwagon jumping that followed would be as unjust as blaming Jimi Hendrix for the plague of Van Halens and Judas Priests that came after to give guitar twanking a bad name.

July 13, 1985, was a great day to be alive - in the prosperous Western world anyway - and it was an especially proud day to be Irish.

Acts That Didn't Answer Bob's Call

Bruce Springsteen: "I simply didn't realise how big it was going to be."

Tears For Fears: "Geldof announced we were playing. He didn't ask us. I was pissed off. We went on holiday."

Stevie Wonder: Phoned Bob and said: "I'm not going to be the token black."

Rod Stewart: Couldn't get a band together.

Michael Jackson: Geldof said: "He just didn't seem to want to do it."

Prince: In retirement. Came out of retirement shortly after Live Aid 1985.

Paul Simon: Withdrew citing disagreements with promoter.

Cat Stevens: Turned up at Wembley unannounced, but no room on the bill.

Eurythmics: Withdrew when Annie Lennox developed a sore throat.

George Harrison: Asked to join in for Let It Be, replied: "Paul didn't ask me to sing on it 10 years ago, why does he want me now?"

Turned down invites: The Smiths, Diana Ross, Talking Heads, Van Halen, Donna Summer.

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