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"A band is like a street gang. It makes sense when you're 20 and gets harder as you get older." — Edge

Column: off the Record..., vol. 9-418


off the record, from @U2

"It's 12 noon in London, 7 AM in Philadelphia, and around the world it's time for Live Aid ..."

July 13, 1985, will forever be etched in my mind as the single biggest day of music in my life. While there were shows going on in Cologne, Germany, and Sydney, Australia, among other places, the focus at that time was on the shows in London, England, and Philadelphia, Pa., in the United States. A live broadcast from the latter two shows held millions of people, including myself, spellbound by the quality and quantity of the acts performing that day.

The show was the brain child of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, the same duo who had put together the Band Aid single "Do They Know It's Christmas" a year earlier in response to the famine that was occurring in Ethiopia. While the original idea had been Geldof's and he had been the driving force organizing the artists and press around the event, Ure had done most of the leg work on actually writing and producing the song. When that song went to No. 1 on the charts but the food that was purchased from its success had problems getting to the people who needed it due to the cartels in Ethiopia, it was decided that more money was needed to purchase a fleet of trucks and get past that problem. That was when Bob Geldof conceived of the idea for Live Aid.

I remember setting the alarm to get up in time for the start of the festivities. Since I lived in New York, the show also started for me at seven in the morning. As much as it was against my nature to get up early, I remember that I was very motivated to get out of bed, make my way downstairs to the recreation room (I'm dating myself with that term) and plop myself on the couch for the day. I was 21 years old and very much into what was called new wave music in the States. The known lineup of musicians for the day strongly represented that segment of music and I was excited to be able to see some of my favorite artists for the first time.

The bands I looked forward to included The Boomtown Rats, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Elvis Costello, Sting, U2, Dire Straits, David Bowie, Queen, Simple Minds, The Pretenders and Duran Duran. Most of these bands had not volunteered to play. Rather, they had been strong-armed by Bob Geldof into appearing. I was thrilled to be seeing Ultravox and U2. Ultravox had been my favorite band of the synthesizer era and Midge Ure's vocals were among my favorites. They still are today. U2 had been the band that pulled me back from synthesizers to the guitar sound. Bono's powerful vocals were accompanied by the magic that was The Edge's guitar.

Sixteen hours after the day began with Status Quo opening the show in London, USA for Africa wrapped up things with a version of "We Are the World." It had been a great day of music, but clearly the better performances had come from Wembley. Though I had barely moved from my couch all day other than to deal with the necessities of life, I had run the gamut of emotions as great bands and great songs emanated from these shows they attempted to right a great wrong by undertaking a great cause.

Having the luxury of looking back now due to the DVD set that was released in 2004, it seems that my memories from the original show were mostly validated by the video. U2 had indeed gone from stardom to superstardom with that performance. After Bono had set the stage for this moment with his great performance in "Do They Know It's Christmas," the band had stepped up and let the world know that no stage was too big for them. They have continued to prove that since that time. In my estimation however, the day belonged to Freddie Mercury and Queen. Their performance was simply awesome and no band had the crowd respond like they did. I've had the opportunity to see both of these bands along with quite a few others play live. I have never seen a better front man in rock 'n' roll than Freddie Mercury.

Here are my five favorite performances from the day:

5) Ultravox got bumped from their original spot in the lineup to play later in the show and lead singer Midge Ure fully admits to being very nervous as they took the stage. He quickly regained his composure and the band closed their set with a great version of their classic, "Vienna".

4) Several bands had guest performers on stage with them such as David Gilmour playing guitar for Bryan Ferry. Another such blend saw Thomas Dolby playing keyboards for David Bowie as his song "Heroes" was even more poignant than normal played in these circumstances.

3) When it was learned that Prince Charles and Princess Diana would only be able to stay for an hour, the order of the bands was changed to insure that Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats played during that time. Perhaps the moment that best summed up the day occurred when the band paused in the middle of their classic "I Don't Like Mondays" to fully take in the lyric that Geldof had just sung.

2) Every artist was given 18 minutes to leave their mark on the world. U2 used almost 13 minutes of their set for an epic version of "Bad". Those who miss the power and majesty of Bono's voice and hair never tire of this performance. One week after Live Aid, all four of the band's albums were back in the charts. The next time we saw U2, they released The Joshua Tree.

1) How good was Queen's set during Live Aid? It was voted to be the "Greatest Live Gig Ever" in one poll of music executives. Sadly, Freddie Mercury's last live performance with Queen came 14 months after this amazing moment. The band opened their performance with an abbreviated performance of a classic before segueing into a big hit for them at the time. Take a look at "Bohemian Rhapsody/Radio Ga Ga" which had virtually everyone on the concert pitch supporting them.

More facts about Live Aid:

  • Although the food for the performers was catered by the Hard Rock and available for free, all the artists offered donations in a bucket that had been set up and nobody ate for free.
  • Sting was originally supposed to play with a full band on this day. Just before he went on stage, his band informed him that they would not get on the stage without being paid. Sting said he didn't need them in that case and walked on stage with just Branford Marsalis on saxophone to accompany him. They were joined shortly thereafter by Phil Collins.
  • The initial promotional poster for the Philadelphia show included the names Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and the News, Tears for Fears, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. None of them played that day.
  • The Republic of Ireland gave the most donations on a per capita basis.

Twenty-five years ago, almost to the day, the Live Aid concerts were a magical experience for many. They just about had to be magical to overcome the reality of what was happening in Ethiopia and other areas of the world. It's worth remembering why this event came to pass. This video has some grim scenes of the reality of the situation at the time that will pull at your heartstrings even now.


See you soon!

(c) @U2/Hebert, 2010.