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photo: Getty Images/Hulton Archive
This story is being featured as part of our “Yahoo Best Stories of 2015” series. It was originally published in July 2015.
They were the world. They were the rock ‘n’ children. Hard as it may be to believe, it was 30 long years ago, on July 13, 1985, that more than 75 artists, 170,000 concertgoers, and a whopping 1.5 billion television viewers across 150 nations gathered for Sir Bob Geldof’s massive Live Aid “superconcerts” — held jointly at London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium, and inspired by the all-star charity singles “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World,” to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief.
Three decades later, where those funds went, exactly, is still a hot topic of debate. However, every ‘80s child remembers tuning in to MTV, and every artist that graced those two revolving stages agrees that music history was made that day. Prince Charles and Princess Diana rubbed epauletted shoulders with David Bowie; Sean Penn (aka Mr. Madonna Ciccone at the time) hung out in a trailer with Simple Minds; Mick Jagger de-skirted Tina Turner on live television; the original “Fab Five” Duran Duran lineup played its last show for the next 18 years; Phil Collins hopped on the Concorde in order to appear at both concerts; Queen and U2 played gigs of a lifetime; and everyone from elder statesmen Page & Plant, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young to new wave newbies Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones joined forces for a singalong heard 'round the world.
Below, a dozen or so Live Aid alumni from both sides of the pond reflect on that momentous day: the surreal star sightings, the nerves, the backstage shenanigans, the onstage mishaps, the misplaced money, and more.
MARTHA QUINN, MTV VJ (Philadelphia): My contention is Live Aid 1985 was probably the pinnacle of rock 'n’ roll.
JOHN TAYLOR, DURAN DURAN/POWER STATION (Philadelphia): When I think back on Live Aid, I am almost overwhelmed by the glory of it all. Pop culture would never be the same again.
STEVE NORMAN, SPANDAU BALLET (London): It was an incredible atmosphere in Wembley Stadium. It was a very sunny day. Our singer had a full-length leather coat on! Even though it was a beautiful, sunny July day.
ADAM ANT (London): I did “Viva La Rock,” because I thought it was in the spirit of the day. But in retrospect, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience for me — because people would come up to me endlessly for 30 years saying, “Why didn’t you do 'Stand and Deliver’?” Initially, I was asked to do four songs, and then I think what happened is big bands started to show interest — Queen, Bowie — and late in the day through Harvey Goldsmith, the promoter, I was told, “You’re off the show, you’re not doing it.” Fortunately, I was managed by Miles Copeland, who managed Sting, who said, “If you don’t put Adam on, you’re not having Sting.” So I got one song.
STEVE NORMAN: There was a kind of tension that day, because we only had an allotted time, and if you went one minute over, they pulled the plug on you. It was that simple. So I think everyone had their eye on the clock.
ADAM ANT: The main reason a lot of people got cut is when Bono jumped off the stage… We were all told by Bob Geldof, “No one goes over; if you don’t stop, we’re literally gonna press a button and the stage will spin around.” And Bono jumped off the stage and played forever, so a lot of bands didn’t get to play [their full sets]…. Everybody stuck to their time except Bono! [Editor’s note: Due to Bono’s unplanned stage-jumping, U2 actually cut the final song from their set, “Pride,” in order to stay on schedule.]
MICHAEL DES BARRES, THE POWER STATION (Philadelphia): Bill Graham was the master of the ceremonies, the P.T. Barnum of the situation. It was a circular stage, so you had a band or artist playing and when they finished their three obligatory songs, the thing would turn and then there would be another band set up, ready to go.
JIM KERR, SIMPLE MINDS (Philadelphia): I think we had 13 minutes or something. Thirteen unlucky minutes? But I remember this quite clearly: The legendary promoter Bill Graham came over and leaned in and made it abundantly clear as to what would happen if we played just a minute over. I will just say that he was very frank. But we thought, “This is cool! This is Bill Graham!” Because he was such a legend on his own. You have to remember, we were just some guys from Glasgow.
MICHAEL DES BARRES: Andy [Taylor’s] amp wasn’t working and Bill said, “You’ll never eat lunch in this town in this town again,” or whatever he said. And then the amp started to work and we finally went into the song; if you look at the footage, I’m laughing my ass off at it.
JOHN OATES, HALL & OATES (Philadelphia): I guess if you had to pinpoint a date that was the peak of the Hall & Oates '80s career, it would have been that day… We did our own set first, then we brought out Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, who are two of the principal lead singers of the Temptations, who we had done “Live at the Apollo” with a few months before that. We did a Temptations medley and paid tribute to the Temptations through that. Mick Jagger was working on solo projects at the time outside of the Stones. He wanted to do something. He didn’t have a band, so he reached out to us to be his backup band. He came out, then he brought Tina Turner out. So we were onstage for a long time, because we essentially did three sets.
MARTHA QUINN: Tina Turner canceled gigs and paid her own way to be there. Why did she do that? She said because Mick asked her to! Everybody was on hand to help everybody else. Hall & Oates helping Mick Jagger. Madonna coming onstage with the Thompson Twins and Nile Rodgers. The Beach Boys backing up REO Speedwagon! It was just a kibbutz of talent.
JOHN OATES: One of the things I remember about it, prior to the actual show itself, was when we did rehearsal in New York at Studio Instrument Rentals on the soundstage. We rehearsed with Eddie and David, and then Mick came in to go over his stuff. He went into the entire Mick Jagger routine, but this was in a room with nobody except us. He started running around the stage, flapping his wings like a chicken and doing the Mick Jagger facial things, as if there were 100,000 people in the room. The room was empty. That was really amazing. He went into the full thing. He didn’t just stand there and sing his songs like, “Hey, it’s a rehearsal. I’m just going to kind of stroke my way through this.” No, he did the whole thing. But of course, he didn’t tell us he was going to rip Tina’s skirt off later. That was a cool surprise.
MARTHA QUINN: That was the original wardrobe malfunction, when he tore off her skirt. But I have analyzed that footage, and I think it was very planned. Interestingly, it didn’t get that much of a reaction, really. I think it was because it was within the world of rock 'n’ roll, so people were like, “Oh, whatever.”
MICHAEL DES BARRES: The highlights of Live Aid are not necessarily musical for me — it was Dylan poking his head outside the trailer and seeing this iconoclastic group of groupies, who just happened to be world-renowned international rock stars. The irony of the stuff I saw remains indelibly seared into my DNA — just seeing Dylan open that trailer door and looking at fans who happened to be multiplatinum artists, all gawking at him.
JIM KERR: I remember people like David Lee Roth running around like a mad man, and then in some quiet corner there’d be a very elegant B.B. King, just sort of quietly plucking away. It was very much that kind of day.
ADAM ANT: There wasn’t any record company people or business people backstage; the only people backstage were artists and the crew. That was it. They didn’t even let managers backstage. It was literally a thing of beauty.
JOHN OATES: The backstage area was just a bunch of trailers that were hastily set up in a semi-circle. Each trailer would have a piece of paper on it that had the band’s name. There weren’t enough trailers to accommodate all the artists. Basically, if you were performing, you had an hour before to be in your trailer, and then you had to vacate the trailer so another artist could come in. They were constantly walking around taking, like, Madonna’s name off and putting Duran Duran’s name up [on the trailer door]. Taking Neil Young’s name off and putting Bob Dylan’s name up. It was crazy. The amount of performers in one tiny semi-circle was just absolutely off the charts.
THOMAS DOLBY (London): After the Bowie set, I followed him up to the Royal Box. We sat behind Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Bowie asked Lady Di if she would be joining the performers onstage for the grand finale. “Well,” she said, “I might be able to manage the national anthem.“
RICK SPRINGFIELD (Philadelphia): My agent also had Eric Clapton there at the same time, and said Eric wanted to meet me. But I was just about to go on, so I blew it off. I blew Eric Clapton off? Yes, I am an idiot.
JIM KERR: We got to the top of the stairs and who was standing with that very famous grin and the dark glasses? Jack Nicholson!
MARTHA QUINN: My main, number-one interaction — this is such a small moment, but I completely remember it and will cherish it forever — I was walking backstage and I saw Jack Nicholson. He had just done Terms of Endearment; at that period of time, Jack Nicholson was GOD. He was everything. He walks towards me, and I’m feeling on top of the world because I’m on MTV at that time. And I say, "Hey, Jack, it’s Martha Quinn.” And he goes, “Yeah, I know who ya are.” And I am like, “Oh my God.” Day made. Life made. That was crazy.
TOM BAILEY, THOMPSON TWINS (Philadelphia): We were introduced by Bette Midler…
MARTHA QUINN: There were a lot of great celeb intros, like Jack Nicholson bringing Dylan onstage, but the best was probably Bette’s Madonna intro. I would love to know if Bette calling her “a woman who pulled herself up by her bra straps, and who has been known to let them down occasionally, she’s great, she’s a lot like a virgin, she’s Madonnnnaaaa!” was written by her or someone else. That was genius.
JIM KERR: It was at the whole height of Sean Penn and Madonna, when at the time they were probably the biggest star couple in the world. Sean Penn was great because he came to our Winnebago and he could do this great Glasgow accent. And we were thinking, “How the hell can he do that?” But he’d been working on a play written by a [Scottish] guy called John Byrne, so Sean had been hanging out with him. He really nailed the accent. He was cool.
MICHAEL DES BARRES: I’m a great admirer of balls and confidence, and if there is one woman that represented that, it was Madonna. To see her walk out there with such courage and confidence in front of an international world audience, before she was the Madonna we now look back upon, I thought was amazing. [Queen’s] Freddie [Mercury] and Madonna were the peak of that day.
MARTHA QUINN: The pinnacle of the pinnacle of the pinnacle, the tippy-topmost top of that day, was probably Queen’s performance. That is the top of the arc of rock 'n roll.
STEVE NORMAN: Queen just blew everybody away. Queen got it right; they hit the nail right on the head. It was a celebration of Queen’s songs, and that of course helped to launch them again and put them right up there as leaders in the pack, absolutely.
ADAM ANT: Queen were like, “This is how you do a stadium gig.”
ROB HALFORD, JUDAS PRIEST (Philadelphia): It was a thrill to watch and meet some of the amazing talent that day. At its heart, Live Aid showed the world that all kinds of music can come together in harmony and bring focus and help to those who are in need. And not only was Live Aid for an extremely important cause, but it also gave us the chance to represent British heavy metal.
MICHAEL DES BARRES: I said to Ozzy Osbourne backstage, “Isn’t this great, man, what they’re doing for Ethiopia?” And he said, “What’s that, a restaurant?” So the intentions were mixed for some people.
ADAM ANT: It was kind of namedrop central. Gilmour, Pink Floyd… Freddie Mercury, I remember backstage; there was one dressing room backstage where the band was getting ready, very minimal, one dressing room, no hanging about. It was quite extraordinary. Egos were out the window. It seemed to me that artists left with themselves, without the music industry around them, are just regular guys. You sit talking to people that you never imagined you’d talk with, because you’re all doing the same thing.
JOHN OATES: I remember there was a huge party at the hotel. Pretty much everyone was staying at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia right after the show. That night in the hotel bar, it was ridiculous. Everywhere you turned, there was some kind of band, artist, or superstar. Everybody was there and everybody was hanging out. That was one of the few times when people actually got to do things like that, because we all happened to be in the same place at the same time, which was very rare. So that was unique.
JIM KERR: I remember going back to the hotel and there was a lot going on upstairs. They had a kind of sky bar in the hotel, and I remember Dylan being there and Ron Wood and all those people, and they were getting, how could I say, a little lubricated before they went on. I remember watching them and thinking maybe they’d had one or two too many — even by their standards!
STEVE NORMAN: I think I was pretty drunk that day, to be honest.
JOHN TAYLOR: How could something so celebratory be so f—ing useful? It can only be down to the genius of Mr. Bob Geldof, who had such a taste for both high and low that he was able to bring together such an exotic mix of talents, who all put aside their respective egos long enough to make a dent in the political map and relight the fire for activism in what had become a rather hedonistic and narcissistic industry. Having said that, I rather miss it.
MARTHA QUINN: Bob Geldof single-handedly changed the entire decade of the '80s. He transformed us from the “Me” Decade to the “We Care” Decade. Farm Aid, Sun City, Amnesty International… these all happened in the '80s. One thing that always bugs me is when people call the '80s the decade of greed, because it’s so not true. This was the decade of the most philanthropy I think we’ve ever seen! In the '80s, giving was the new black.
STEVE NORMAN: Let’s not forget the importance of Midge Ure’s contribution. He tends to get overlooked, but not only did he help co-write [“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”], but he’s very important in driving it forward and being there earlier on, especially with Band Aid.
ADAM ANT: Midge Ure sometimes gets thrown into the background, but he must not be forgotten. Midge wrote that song. He was kind of a silent partner.
MIDGE URE, ULTRAVOX (London): I think if you look at the footage at the end of Live Aid, you see everyone pushing forward for the microphone, singing [“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”], and I’m kind of edging my way backwards into the crowd. I just do not want to be seen to be riding on the coattails of something that was done for very, very different reasons, you know?
MICHAEL DES BARRES: To be in a band [Power Station] with [Duran Duran’s] John and Andy Taylor, it was interesting to see these two young'uns at the peak of Duran’s fame almost tipping. It was a fascination to see it through their eyes. I could feel what they were feeling. It’s a very difficult thing to put into words… it was people who were reflective, insecure, overly hyped.
MARTHA QUINN: Duran Duran was kind of our One Direction. They were everything to us! We thought to be in Duran Duran must be the greatest thing ever! But now we know that they drove to JFK Stadium in total silence — angry, weird, uncomfortable silence. Andy and Roger Taylor left [the group] after that. That original lineup didn’t play together again until the next millennium.
MICHAEL DES BARRES: The thing is about that that I found the most interesting is that you had all of these very nervous icons all in one place, so there was an energy there that was so unfamiliar, because you’re used to seeing the posturing and the posing and the narcissism of these guys. But when they’re all together under this unbelievable umbrella of this multibillion-people audience, there was so much nervousness going on. If I saw one person writing the words on the palm of his hand… I saw 20 iconic rock 'n’ roll stars, boys and girls, writing lyrics, adjusting their bracelets, pulling the zips up on their leather jackets, and in Dylan and Woody’s [Ron Wood’s] case, playing three different songs at once when they got up there.
ADAM ANT: Elvis Costello wrote the lyrics to a Beatles song on his hand, I remember that.
TOM BAILEY: The curtain went up and I had an enormous way to get to the microphone stand, and I knew that I had 32 bars to do it. Halfway there, I discovered that the guitar cable wasn’t long enough for me to get to the mic stand, so I had to make one of those decisions. And of course I had to sing, so I just unplugged the guitar and went forward and did that song without a guitar. I think I was playing it, but it wasn’t going anywhere!
JIM KERR: For probably 80 to 90 percent of the time I was onstage, I was thinking, “Holy f—, that’s Jack Nicholson,” so I don’t really have much recollection of our set… I was probably happy to get out of [then-wife] Chrissie [Hynde’s] way for a quarter of an hour!
ADAM ANT: I remember doing a really high jump and nearly killing myself when I landed. But I pulled it off.
JIM KERR: When I watch it now, two things come to my head instantly: “Wow, there’s Jack,” and the other one is “Oh God, wrong trousers.” I wore these trousers, the kind of trousers someone who’s gone yachting in Cape Cod would wear. I could feel them flapping like sailboats. I don’t know what I was thinking, but they were not outdoor onstage trousers. I just thought, “Jim Morrison wouldn’t wear these; this is not good.” Any time I see a picture from Live Aid, there’s a voice in my head that’s saying, “Wrong trousers.” They were like Dumbo’s ears.
STEVE NORMAN: If I look back at it now and see the performance, there’s four tunes and we just have bloody blank looks on our faces the whole time. I think we were terrified. The only thing I can remember of the time was jumping off the stage to run to the front and play the sax solo, and the rest kind of went by in a flash… I look at my performance and I can sense that I’m actually almost not there, you know?
TOM BAILEY: It was a frightening thing to take on. It was an enormous live audience and unbelievably enormous TV audience, and that could make you feel pretty nervous, knowing there was several million people watching.
JOHN OATES: In this day and age when media is all-pervasive and so global, a younger generation perhaps doesn’t realize this was the first concert that was actually simulcast around the world. In this day of the Internet when you can access anything around the world at any moment, it probably seems kind of insignificant. But you don’t realize how big of a deal it was back then. It was like going from the horse-and-carriage to the automobile or something.
JIM KERR: We were aware at the time that it was the biggest televised audience for anything in the world — bigger than the moon landing, technology had changed so much.
MARTHA QUINN: But honestly, [Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon’s voice crack in front of millions of people] wasn’t even that bad. It’s now become famous because they have talked about it a lot, but if they had just zipped their mouths about that, I don’t think anybody would have ever noticed.
RICK SPRINGFIELD: It was a pretty surreal day. Everyone was thinking the world would change because of the incredible degree of commitment from so many for one cause. It didn’t change anything. Music only reflects social change; it doesn’t cause it. The problems in Africa have only multiplied a thousandfold. But it was a brave and noble try.
ADAM ANT: Politics aside, the actual day itself was wonderful and it was a wonderful gesture; I think it became a promotional thing and just a bit of a mess, but I think at that time it was something that was really from the right place. Everybody did it from the heart.
MICHAEL DES BARRES: This Irish punk, Bobby Geldof, created this because he saw a documentary that infuriated him, and it began the idea that rock 'n’ roll stars could do something, that they could actually mean something. There was power there, and I think that that was probably the most important part of that event — because God knows what happened to the money. It was a more innocent time. And a more stoned time.
JOHN OATES: It definitely was a more innocent time. The '80s were an era of what seemed to be endless possibility. It was like, the go-go '80s, you know? And it filtered down through all aspects of society. Like Wall Street, people were making scads of money. Excess was everywhere. It seemed like the horizon was limitless. It just had that feeling to it. It was in between wars. It really had this euphoric kind of feeling. I think everyone’s heart and intention was in the right the place with “We Are the World” and things like Live Aid. It was a nice attempt for the entertainment world and musicians in general to try to do something on a greater scale. There’s nothing you can criticize about that. I would agree now, when you see the fact that Africa and so many places in the world are still in the state that they’re in, it really was only a Band-Aid on a wound that is very hard to heal. I think people are more realistic now. People have more ability to access information. In those days, you just didn’t know; you felt if you raised some money and you could do something good, then good things would happen. It wasn’t that good things didn’t happen, it just that it wasn’t enough.
ADAM ANT: I would have suggested that the U.N. take the money in. I think a lot of the food got to the borders and got taken by the army. And the actual government itself in the problem areas said it did cause a lot of trouble, because a lot of people moved to centers to try and get to the food, and it wasn’t there; it had been stolen by the army. It’s been quite sad, very sad. But I think on the day itself, the energy was there.
MIDGE URE: I can tell you off the top of my head that between Band Aid and Live Aid, I think it generated somewhere in the region of $190 million. So it generated a substantial amount of money; I think the record initially raised something like 7 million pounds.
JOHN OATES: To me, you can’t worry about how much money was raised. What’s [the] more important question is, “How much money actually got to where it was needed to go?” That’s the real question. That’s the question everyone should ask any time they get involved with a charity or a benefit type of event. How much of the funds are being siphoned off on the bureaucratic side of the organization or the event? How much filters out to where it’s supposed to go?
MARTHA QUINN: Where the money is going — that is a totally valid question. I support that question. But does that mean we shouldn’t try? I love that our gut reaction to suffering is to help. The vibe at Live Aid was so positive. Everyone donated their time and paid their own expenses. Philadelphia gave JFK Stadium for free! It was not only a dizzying array of talent, but everything good about humanity.
GLENN TIPTON, JUDAS PRIEST (Philadelphia): To be amongst so many respected and talented artists who were all fighting the same cause was an incredible feeling and one that will live with me for the rest of my life. When everyone joined together onstage and sang “We Are the World,” it was one of the most emotional moments I can recall. And knowing that music, even heavy metal, played its part was a wonderful feeling.
MIDGE URE: Here we are nearly 30 years later, and [“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”] is still played on the radio; the song royalties go directly to the Band Aid trust and go directly to Africa.
HOWARD JONES (London): Live Aid was the highlight event of the '80s. It brought together music artists and a global audience, for a great cause. It was proof that one person’s outrage could be transformed into something that brought the world together and could save thousands of people’s lives. It was a privilege to be part of it. I hope that with this 30th anniversary, it is remembered as a benchmark for global activism and compassion.
STEVE NORMAN: It seems so weird it was that 30 years ago. Good grief.