July 13, 2020
It’s twelve noon in London,
seven AM in Philadelphia,
and around the world
it’s time for Live Aid
The odds were stacked against them in all aspects. It would be another four years for the cultural mantra of “If you build it they will come” to emanate into mainstream fruition. Be that as it may, the Irishman behind the idea had a vision, and was stubborn enough to see it through, come hell or high water. The massive scale that Bob Geldof was planning to conquer had never been attempted before. Of course, there had been revolutionary rock music festivals like Woodstock, the Isle Of Wight festivals from 1968-1970, the Reading Festivals starting in the early seventies, and even the previous charity-based event Concert For Bangladesh from 1971. But never before had a music festival tried to broadcast simultaneously with other festivals happening around the world at the same time in an attempt to unite the world as one against the plight of the Ethiopian famine.
Since 1985, internationally televised benefit concerts have become a thing of normality. However, there is still a sense of wonder when looking at the success of Live Aid. It was a revolutionary gesture at the time, and considering the state of the world in 1985, not just politically, but technologically, it’s astonishing that it went as smoothly as it did. Although it was a nightmare for program control workers and several malfunctions did occur, a real accomplishment was still made, considering the physical limitations of the equipment that was available at the time.
Although Canada did not contribute stage-wise, there were a few Canadian connections. For instance, one of the most emotionally climactic moments of the festival came during David Bowie’s shortened set. Much to the audience’s delight, Bowie had just finished “Heroes” and proclaimed that the audience were the real heroes that evening. He had agreed to cut his set short to have a video played by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) immediately after. The video demonstrated the hardships the Ethiopian children were suffering from due to malnutrition. For a lot of people, this was the first time they had seen skeletal children with bloated stomachs and unstable balances. By the end, audience members, TV presenters, and artists had been moved to tears. It’s interesting to hypothesise just what it would have been like to be in the audience at that time; to have a musical high with “Heroes” followed by a harrowing low of startling truth, while being in a sea of emotion from 72,000 people. I suspect our current culture has become desensitised to such footage today, and I feel that such a level of dramatically conflicting emotional contrasts as that would be hard to obtain and sustain now.
Musical highlights include the festival kicking off with Status Quo’s “Rocking All Over The World,” the reuniting of Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (which the BBC producers omitted from their broadcast), the questionably sung notes of Duran Duran, the explosion of U2 into the public eye with Bono’s infamous stage leap and audience hug, the sudden cut of the Who’s set due to technical difficulties, Paul McCartney’s piano interludes due to a malfunctioning microphone setup, and Queen’s acapella call and response with over 72,000 people.
There was also the small feat of flying Phil Collins after his performance from London to Philadelphia in the Concorde turbojet, where he was to drum for the reunited Led Zeppelin. Despite the sound being mostly inaudible, it was still a technological achievement to be able to broadcast communications with Phil Collins from the Concorde internationally.
There is no doubt that Live Aid certainly paved the way for future grand-scale international concerts. Since Live Aid, several other charity-based festivals have taken place, including Farm Aid, an annual benefit concert that started in 1985, and Live 8 in 2005. But it is the series of firsts within Live Aid that genuinely sets it apart from other similar concert events. The room for error was immeasurable and yet concluded very minimally. It’s a massive human achievement, both musically and technologically, and successfully brought the world together through telecommunications more than ever before. To this day, Live Aid remains one of those events where people remember where they were and what they were doing when it happened. A lot has changed in 35 years, and there is no doubt in my mind that Live Aid has shaped the way things are perceived and performed in today’s modern world. On its 35th Anniversary, it remains a cultural reflection of a specific time and place in human history, the likes of which we will never experience again.
Photograph featured is from Georges De Keerle/Getty Images.