Hitting The Trunk Road: Live Aid

With absolutely no fanfare, this past Friday marked the 27th anniversary of Live Aid. As the event received significant acknowledgement on its 20th and 25th anniversaries, it doesn’t seem unfair that the world didn’t reverently spend the weekend genuflecting upon the historic concert. On the Trunk Road though, we remember Sir Bob Geldof’s Herculean effort to assemble his “global jukebox” and produce a show that the world truly did watch.

[CC-BY-SA-3.0 – Squelle at Wikipedia]

In the more than quarter-century since Geldof staged his dual concerts from Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, the presentation and consumption of live music, including the entire theory of the “event concert” have undergone wholesale changes. Prior to Live Aid, the history of the multi-artist destination festival primarily consisted of Woodstock, Altamont and Steve Wozniak’s US Festival: the good, the bad and the ugly of the pre-Live Aid era. (Settle down you fans of the Concert For Bangladesh or Summer Jam at Watkins Glen). Now, in a time when Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Coachella are annual events, it’s quaint and slightly hard to imagine that Live Aid was near revolutionary in its concept, especially the part where it would be broadcast into everyone’s living room.

The origin story of Live Aid has become an oft-told tale. Bob Geldof, who at that time was solely the lead singer of The Boomtown Rats, a middling British band with one real hit to its credit – the modestly poignant I Don’t Like Mondays – became deeply affected by stories of hunger and poverty in Ethiopia. Following in the footsteps of Harry Chapin, the Cats In The Cradle singer that helped create World Hunger Year and who, one Thanksgiving, famously pondered about why we don’t seem to care about what the homeless eat on the other 364 days, Geldof acted rather than bloviate in the media. He gathered a slew of British musicians, including Sting, David Bowie and members of Duran Duran and Culture Club under the moniker of Band Aid, recorded and released Do They Know Its Christmas and, chiefly through the force of his personality, funneled the proceeds to needy organizations in Africa. Three months later, inspired by Geldof’s philanthropic zeal, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote We Are The World and gathered their own assemblage of American superstars (and Dan Aykroyd) under the banner of USA For Africa. Four months later, Live Aid, essentially the world’s first global telethon, would take place in England and the United States. In America, MTV would infamously cover all but the last three hours of the show, which were broadcast live on ABC.

The world really did watch that day; people made concerted efforts to be in front of a TV as Live Aid was a creature heretofore unknown. It’s curious to look back on the event and recall certain aspects that seem anachronistic in hindsight. It’s also interesting to think back on a time where a show of this magnitude could be organized without undergoing simultaneous scrutiny via the Internet.

In the world before Facebook, Twitter and the Internet sent rumors around the globe with lightning fast speed, news spread at a glacial pace. Rumors would arise and there would be no efficient way to debunk any false information. This did lead to one moment that you could watch now and never grasp the excitement experienced by those watching at the time it occurred. The most prevalent rumor leading up to Live Aid was that Geldof had convinced the surviving Beatles to reunite with Julian Lennon filling in for his father. This was mind-blowing news that no one could or would confirm or deny, although a slightly different version would emerge with Elton John replacing Lennon. Keeping in mind that Paul McCartney had yet to become a one-man Beatles nostalgia factory, the sheer fact that he walked on stage to close the show with Let It Be was electrifying in its own right. However, in the midst of the song, which was plagued with technical problems, Geldof, Bowie and Pete Townshend walked on stage to sing backup. Both Wembley and JFK (watching via satellite) erupted to see three other people walk on stage and everyone at home watching the long shot leaped off their couches because PEOPLE THOUGHT THEY WERE ABOUT TO WITNESS A BEATLES REUNION. Let that one sink in for a moment. Arguably, the most exciting five seconds at Live Aid were created by the fact that no one knew for sure what was about to happen; this would likely never occur with the existence of our current social media.

When you look back on the lineup filled with rock and roll royalty, one name does jump out as significantly not like the others: Madonna. The woman who arguably ruled the Eighties not only played a brief understated set in the early afternoon that included Holiday and Into The Groove, she did so with relatively little fanfare. If anything, the then 26-year-old Madonna hardly seemed daunted by the size of the crowd and made a statement that she deserved to be on a stadium stage. At the time, Madonna’s emerging superstardom in mainstream America was being threatened by Playboy and Penthouse’s publication of nude photos taken when she was an up-and-coming club rat. Yes, this is completely bizarre when you consider she would go on to release a book full of erotic photos (for $50+ you got to see her cavort with Vanilla Ice – oh joy) and get the video for Justify My Love banned from MTV (a song written by Lenny Kravitz!?!). Showing a sense of humor rarely seen since, Madonna told the crowd she wasn’t going to take her jacket (or anything else) off in the heat because they might hold it against her in ten years. On a night filled with fewer guest appearances than you would imagine, Madonna later returned to the stage to lend backup vocals to a cover of The Beatles’ Revolution by The Thompson Twins (who were neither named Thompson nor twins or really very good).

Given that you would need a scientific calculator to tabulate the top price that tickets for a Led Zeppelin reunion tour would go for on the secondary market, it’s bemusing that the Led Zeppelin reunion at Live Aid wasn’t the centerpiece of the show. In fact, in the leadup to the event, everyone seemed to be going out of their way to not call them Led Zeppelin billing Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones separately and often forgetting to mention Jones. No matter that it had been only five years since John Bonham’s death, the return of Led Zeppelin was every much of the big deal that would be expected. Only, it turned out that underplaying the return of Zep was the correct play. While their early evening set time might have been misplaced, the crowd reaction wasn’t and sadly Plant, Page and Jones didn’t quite live up the hype. This performance and the issues surrounding their 1988 set at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert loomed large over any future reunion show and likely provided the impetus to make their 2007 O2 Arena show their finest in thirty years.

On a show that featured Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, a healthy portion of prime time on ABC was given to Hall & Oates . . . and this made complete sense. (Giving prime time to Patti LaBelle still makes no sense). In addition to being one of the biggest hitmakers of the Eighties, Hall & Oates were riding upon a wave of nostalgia with Live At The Apollo which featured Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffin of The Temptations and devoted the majority of their set to their recent Motown collaboration. The Temptations being one thing, but, on its face, it may seem strange that the Hall & Oates band, including Hall on keyboards, stayed out to back Mick Jagger – yes, that Mick Jagger – while Keith Richards and Ron Wood were also in the building. However, at the time, G.E. Smith (of SNL fame) led the Hall & Oates band and like Paul Shaffer pulled enough weight to do things like back a Rolling Stone. As documented pretty well in Richards’ biography, this was during the period of time where Jagger was trying to make a go of his solo career, much to the irritation of Richards. While no one could muster a Rolling Stones set, even with most of them present, we still got the visual of Jagger ripping off Tina Turner’s skirt in the first known instance of an “inadvertent” wardrobe malfunction.

It’s likely hard to imagine a time when Bono wasn’t the prevalent rock star with a conscience but it did exist. When U2 took to the Wembley Stadium stage they really weren’t that big of a deal. Once they were done with their 20 minute set, everyone knew that Bono wasn’t your average run-of-the-mill lead singer and that U2 were head and shoulders above their new wave brethren. Looking as if he’d been awake for the last three days awake, Bono led U2 through a torrid and inspired Sunday Bloody Sunday but it was their unforgettable version of Bad that proved indelibly memorable. Halfway into the song, Bono made his way from the monstrous stage down to the massive sea of people on the stadium floor, plucked a female fan from the audience onto the scaffolding and with The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. playing on, held her in his arms and danced with her while she tried to stave off hysterics. Running back onto the stage, Bono riffed on Lou Reed’s Satellite Of Love and Walk On The Wild Side and The Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday and Sympathy For The Devil and by the time they finished, hadn’t left enough time to play their last song. Queen’s performance from this day goes down as one of rock and roll’s best but everyone who saw U2 steal the show at Live Aid recalls it as their first step on the path to becoming one of the most important bands in the world.

The only rap artist booked for either show was Run DMC and the Philadelphia crowd simply did not know what to make of them. Rather than embrace the genre that would one day save their network, MTV didn’t even think their 7½ minute set was worth airing. Run or DMC would have been completely within their rights to tell the crowd that they might not have been ready for them but that their kids were gonna love it. (Back To The Future had come out two weeks earlier so “continuity rules”).

An American icon to serve as a counterbalance to a Beatle closing the Wembley portion of the show, Bob Dylan was the final act to take the Philadelphia stage. To put this in perspective, this is years before Dylan would reinvent himself as a live performer with Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton and he wasn’t too far removed from his born again period. Expectations were not only far from high, they were non-existent. Rather than offer a transcendent performance, Dylan served up a train wreck, mumbling incoherently while Keith Richards and Ron Wood bemusedly strummed along. At one point, Dylan broke a string, so Wood gave him his guitar and goofily played air guitar. Yes. A pairing of Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones fell flat and a good part of Dylan’s reputation as unintelligible comes from this three song set. If subpar music wasn’t enough, Dylan managed to royally piss off the future Sir Geldof by suggesting that some of the money being raised should be diverted to American farmers to pay off their mortgages. It didn’t fall on deaf ears though: the offhand comment inspired John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young to stage Farm Aid just two months later and Farm Aid 2012 will take place on September 22.

Although it seemed like this would be plum opportunity for MTV, their VJs showed little knowledge of the proper way to cover a concert event of this magnitude. Gushing uncontrollably and babbling like idiots, the VJs exuberance led to them talking over the music and even worse, not showing the music. Years later, MTV showed they learned nothing. During their attempt to broadcast Geldof’s sequel, Live Eight, they felt the need to not only cut away from a reunified Pink Floyd playing Comfortably Numb, they cut away from The Who tearing through Won’t Get Fooled Again. Who cares what the sponsors were paying for ad time; there is nothing short of the outbreak of war that requires cutting away from The Who playing Won’t Get Fooled Again.

At Live Eight, Geldof offered a proper coda to Live Aid. Bringing out one of the girls depicted in one of the Live Aid videos, Geldof let everyone know how the money raised at Live Aid had saved her life, summing it up by saying “Don’t let them tell us this doesn’t work.”

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