It was 37 years ago today (July 13th, 1985) that the Live Aid concerts took place in Philadelphia's JFK Stadium and London's Wembley Stadium. The mammoth fundraising shows were organized by then-Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof, who began the music industry's efforts to fight famine in Africa with Band Aid's “Do They Know It's Christmas” all-star single in 1984.
Live Aid featured performances by Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Tina Turner with Hall & Oates, Madonna, U2, Judas Priest, Duran Duran, Queen, Eric Clapton, Sting, Elvis Costello, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan with Keith Richards and Ron Wood, David Bowie, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and scores of others. Led Zeppelin, the Who, and Black Sabbath staged one-off reunions especially for that day.
The 16-hour Live Aid marathon was watched by an estimated global audience of 1.5 billion and raised more than $140 million for famine relief.
Organizer Bob Geldof recalled that his panic for the show to come off smoothly actually turned into physical pain for him: “I was frightened that nobody would show up. I had no contracts. I had a very sore back and my wife used to put towels underneath the sheets in the bed because I used to have cold sweats, y'know, with fear. And as the day wore on, my back got more and more painful, and Bowie came over and said, 'Lie down.' So I lay down and David Bowie gave me a massage, y'know. Best massage by a rock star that I ever had.”
Shortly before his 2016 death, David Bowie recalled how he and Mick Jagger had originally planned to perform their version of the Martha & The Vandellas‘ “Dancing In The Street live via satellite, with Bowie in London and Jagger in Philadelphia, until technology forced them to simply world premiere their video instead: “I was going to do my part of the song in England and Jagger was going to be in the States doing his part over there; but we couldn’t find anyone who was fully convinced that we could sing at the same time and make it work. So, we abandoned that idea, anyway.”
Judas Priest performed at the Philadelphia portion of the event and Rob Halford remembers that it finally gave him the opportunity to meet one his personal musical heroes, Joan Baez. However, for Halford it was temporarily an anxious encounter, because Priest had made a monstrous metal anthem out of her song, “Diamonds And Rust,” and he worried that she would not approve: “She's like, 'I just wanted to speak to you about the “Diamonds And Rust” song,' and I go 'Yeah . . . OK . . .' She says, 'My son is, like, a huge Priest fan and, y'know, I really think you did an incredible version of my song.' So, I'm like, huge sigh of relief, y'know, major letting-go of the slumping shoulders. And I said, 'Well, that is so cool that you've said that to me because it is an incredible song and we certainly (laughs) mutated it beyond belief.' Because the original version is just Joan and acoustic guitar, and Priest got a hold of it and just threw all these slabs of heavy metal on top of it and crushed it to death.”
In the summer of 1985, Bryan Adams was riding high on the success of his 1984 Reckless album, which was quickly propelling him into a household name. He recalled the moments before gearing up to play at Live Aid over 30 years ago: “'Bryan, that gentleman over there is going to be introducing you. Just so you know, you’re the first person that’s going live to the UK, so make sure you say ‘hello’ to London.' I said, ‘Okay.’ ‘And wait for that gentleman’s cue, and then you can start. I said, ‘Okay.’ I looked over and it was Jack Nicholson introducing me.”
Hall & Oates, who were at the peak of their success at the time of Live Aid, performed a separate set with Temptations' David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks — as well as serving as Mick Jagger's backing band. Daryl Hall revealed that it actually was his idea to work with the Rolling Stones' frontman: “Mick was doing his first solo thing then. And in fact, I was working with him on one song and he didn't have the band — the rest of his band — so he needed a backup band. So, I said, 'Well, why don't, y'know, Hall & Oates band will back you up.' And then that's how we closed the show. So, it all worked out.”
Phil Collins was among Live Aid's stars, playing in London on his own and with Sting, then taking the Concorde to America, where he was rushed to Philadelphia to perform on solo and with Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin. He told us that he was surprised Live Aid came off in the first place: “Sting called me and said 'Have you heard about this concert Bob's trying to put on?' I said, 'I've heard about it, yeah. It won't happen, will it?' And he said, 'Well, I think it's gonna happen.' And he said, 'Do you want to do something together.' And I actually did not dream that it would still be talked about.”
While still on the tarmac, Collins spoke to the press about crossing the Atlantic and playing both venues: “It’s been fun out there, everyone’s been very nice backstage — no egos, nothing. Pretty good (Reporter): Who’s idea was this whole trip, this Philadelphia idea? (Phil Collins): (Laughs) No idea! We thought, if it could be done, wouldn’t it be good to do it, and then we went in to the logistics and we found out that it was possible. I didn’t want to go to America just to play my own songs, so I arranged. . . Eric Clapton’s on tour out there and so is Robert Plant — so I rang them up to see if I could play with them so it’d give me something to go for, and it’s just nice to be as involved as possible. Y’know, I’m a lunatic — no, not really.”
Phil Collins recalls legendary British promoter Harvey Goldsmith explaining to him that it was feasible that he could actually perform at both the London and Philly shows: “He said 'Of course you could do it if you wanted to. You could play both.' I said 'What do you mean?' He said 'Well, you could in theory get on Concorde and be there, y'know, in time to catch Eric's set and Robert's (Led Zeppelin's) set if we put them on later.' So, because it could be done, I did it.”
Longtime Beach Boys and Brian Wilson guitarist Jeff Foskett first began touring with the group in 1982 and was on hand when the band — including Wilson — performed at the Philadelphia show: “It was so cool. We did 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' and Brian and I were singing it together and they had Brian's picture up on the screen of that for the majority of the time and, it was so cool. We walked off that stage and somebody, y'know, had a cell phone — which was fairly new in '85, I mean, they didn't really start happening till later in the '80s. And somebody called from Wembley backstage and said, 'The Beach Boys just destroyed Great Britain!' (Laughs) How cool is that? That was a really, really great gig.”
Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine told us that the band is still donating funds to the Live Aid charities in an effort to rid the world of hunger: “By the way, we reassigned our rights to — just recently — to Bob Geldof. He has unrestricted rights to market it anyway he can to continue to, y’know, to raise money for that charity.”
George Thorogood gave us the back-story on how he, Bo Diddley, and Albert Collins came to perform at the Philly show: “Naturally, the Destroyers were not called first, or second (laughs). Somebody did it and then they canceled. And (promoter) Bill Graham said: ‘We gotta get somebody.’ And what Bill Graham wanted — because it had to do with someplace in Africa — he wanted. . . because B.B. King was on it, but he was playing — it was in all three places; it was, a part of it was in London, a part of it in Holland, or someplace, and in Philadelphia. And they said, ‘We want some black artists on this thing. Y’know, some blues people to connect with the African-Americans.’ And (Bill) said: ‘Well, George Thorogood’s your man, ‘cause he’s tight with all those cats. And they said, ‘Well, who can you get?’ So I said, ‘Well, let’s go for. . .’ I had met Bo Diddley maybe once or twice. And we were not very close, but we had done numerous shows with Albert Collins, who was fantastic! And I thought of those two artists, because I thought they could connect with the rock people.” (50: OC: . . . the rock people)
Long before the “reunion” tour became an everyday part of life in the rock world, the reunions of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath and the Who – less than three years after their much touted farewell tour — proved to be major coups for Bob Geldof and the Live Aid audience. That day at Wembley, Roger Daltrey sat down with journalist Paul Gambaccini and spoke about the Who deciding to reunite for Live Aid: “It’s an offer you can’t refuse. We’ve had our problems in the Who, everybody knows, but this Ethiopian thing and the Band Aid thing is much more important than any of that. So, as I say, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse. And it’s great to be doing it. (Paul Gambaccini): Did Bob call you, or another of the group? (Roger Daltrey): Yes, he called me! And he swore at me! We couldn’t say no.”
Although they’ve since deemed their Live Aid reunion as too under rehearsed and sloppy to be officially released, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones‘ performance that day marked the first time in five years that Zeppelin took to the concert stage, and their first reunion since the 1980 death of John Bonham. Filling on for “Bonzo” was Phil Collins and the Power Station‘s Tony Thompson. The band stopped to talk with MTV’s Alan Hunter after their ragged, but spirited set: “(John Paul Jones): Very fast and furious, indeed. But, yeah. The feeling was there, it was really good. (Robert Plant): I mean, musically, it was better than what just happened, we had a lot of. . . ‘cause the elements weren’t quite with us , if I can use that term in the ‘80s — um. . . Of course I am in the ‘80s, I have my own career! Yeah, it was very hard to work with the (P.A.) wedges, and stuff, but we know when we play those songs what we do. Yeah? And it’s been a while since we played ‘em. (Alan Hunter): Would it be silly or overbearing to say it was nostalgic in a way, though? Did you feel something? (Robert Plant): I don’t know, I mean, I didn’t try to think about it, really. We just said we’d do it. This is the right reason to do what we did.” (Phil Collins): I saw about 90,000 kids out there, all with their arms up, lovin’ every minute of it. And so, the ragged edges — and there are probably a lot of ragged edges, because they were a band, y’know, and that was it. But, I think there were kids out there (that) actually loved every minute of it, which is very strong. As I say, I wasn’t playing half the time — I was just watching.”
Queen’s “Radio-Gaga” with the image of tens of thousands of fans clapping in unison to the song will always remain the one moment that future generations will always identify with Live Aid. Freddie Mercury was proud that Queen held their own against the best in the field that night, and was even happier it was for a worthy cause: “It is a very good cause and initially, I think we would’ve like to have talked part in the Band Aid single, but I think we were in separate parts of the globe. And so, the second bash at it was, was this thing — and also, some of the biggest and best known groups around the world are taking part — why not us?”
To many, Live Aid was the watershed moment in U2’s career. Nearly two years away from the worldwide multi-platinum success of The Joshua Tree, they grabbed the world’s attention and led the way into rock’s future. Bono was also beginning to develop a far-reaching political stance on world politics in relation to the Western world and the African continent: “The thing that interests me about this — and I don’t know if this is the time or place — but, y’see, it’s the government’s responsibility, ultimately; I don’t care whether conservative, labor — anything. It’s the governments of our countries’ responsibility to look after our money –‘cause we give them money in tax. And it seems to be an 'either/or' situation. Either they invest in life or they invest in death. And, y’know, for the cost of MX missiles, or ‘Star Wars' or offensive/defense budgets, we could turn those desserts in Africa into fertile land, I mean, the technology’s with us.”
Paul McCartney, who was the final act prior to the finale at Wembley, remembers Live Aid as being one of the worst gigs of his career: “Oh my God, Live Aid is just one of those things I'd sooner forget. I didn't have a roadie, I didn't even have someone to make sure my mic and speakers were working! So I just sort of went on — there I was in front of the world. And I heard in my monitors a very ominous sound of roadies talking. I though, 'This could be a disaster.' I couldn't hear myself, I couldn't hear anything, so I was not giving a sort of measured performance. But the dear old audience helped me out, God bless 'em!”
Live Aid was commemorated in two 2005 DVD packages: Live Aid: Boxed Set, which contained portions of the two historic shows, and the single-disc documentary Live Aid — 20 Years Ago Today.
In 2018, a 66-track selection of Live Aid tracks was made available digitally. 2018's Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack also featured four songs from Queen's historic set.