Article by Kathryn Robinson. Edited and researched by Tom Burke.
At 12 noon on the 13th July 1985, the world’s first transatlantic concert began with the sound of Status Quo in London and ended at 4am British time with a host of American artists singing ‘We Are the World’. It was an amazing day for music, but how far can the success of Live Aid be extended beyond this? Did it affect the way we see the world today? Can it justifiably be called a ‘day that shook the world’?
First, we need to look at the background behind Live Aid. Having seen BBC news footage of starving Ethiopians, Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof – not the most likely candidate for taking on the challenge of ‘feeding the world’ – felt he needed to act. He and Midge Ure, lead singer of Ultravox, wrote a charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and persuaded many British musicians to contribute under the name of ‘Band Aid’. The single was released in December 1984, was the fastest selling single ever and raised a total of £8 million for the Band Aid Trust. From this – and the US counterpart ‘We Are the World’, released in March 1985 – the concept of Live Aid was born. It would be a live concert broadcast to millions of people on one day staged on both sides of the Atlantic. Geldof –using his unique brand of charm, persuasion, determination and the ability not to take ‘no’ for an answer – again persuaded many to take part free of charge. Some artists were advertised anyway before Geldof asked them! The concert raised £40 million altogether which went towards food for the Ethiopians and to support long term development in that region. Undoubtedly, it was successful but can we go as far to say that was a ‘day that shook the world’? I think we can for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it really did involve the world. Whether watching it on the television, taking part in the concert, donating money or whether you were one of the people the money was being raised for, it was global experience. Much was made of this on the actual day. Geldof and the organisers of the event had hoped that Mick Jagger and David Bowie would perform the song ‘Dancing in the Street’ on opposite sides of the world at the same time. However, time difference and technology were ultimately against them so they made a video instead. Phil Collins was perhaps more successful in being the personification of this global event. He managed to play a set at Wembley in London before boarding a Concorde flight to the JFK stadium in Philadelphia to perform another set. Clearly, this day touched many parts of the world.
Secondly, the use of The Cars’ song ‘Drive’ over footage of Ethiopians dying of starvation halfway through David Bowie’s London set ‘shook the world’. Many remembered how the stadiums went ‘dead’ – an unfortunate metaphor – when watching the footage. Incredibly, the creator of the piece almost deleted it because he thought it would be inappropriate. Instead, it was extremely powerful and was shown again at the Live 8 concerts in 2005. This moment – along with the mobilisation of the whole event and Geldof’s visible and at times manic determination to raise a great deal of money – opened the mind of the world to the harsh reality of what was going on in around them. It inspired the mind-set of, as the song said, ‘We can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong’.
Live Aid was also significant simply for its uniqueness. A concert had never been staged at the same time on opposite sides of the world, included the biggest names in music and was staged for a charitable cause. The enthusiasm surrounding this event would never again be mimicked. Even for Live 8 in 2005 to raise awareness of poverty for the imminent G8 summit which was staged in even more countries such as Germany and South Africa.
Live Aid was seen by many as the spirit of that generation. Many people remember where they were when the concert was going on and many were even fortunate enough to be at the event. Moments included in the concert would be remembered forever. The immortal image of Bob Geldof raising a fist in the air during a pause after the lyric ‘And the lesson today is how to die’ in the Boomtown Rats’ hit ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ captured a moment in time when music took on a whole new meaning. Prince Charles, watching it from the Wembley Stadium Royal Box commented ‘That is brilliant. Quite brilliant.’ Clearly, this was an event that stood for a generation.
But what about Live Aid’s legacy? African poverty hasn’t been solved through Geldof’s efforts although this is hardly surprising given the enormity of the problem. But what it did do was make a start in raising money for those in need but also raising awareness in the public, political and global sphere. Bob Geldof found a new identity as a result of Live Aid and without his steely determination and plain-speaking addresses to the nation to coax them into donating more money, the event wouldn’t have been the success that it was. Live Aid wasn’t just the day that Queen produced arguably the best twenty minutes of live music ever, or the day that people really started to notice U2 or the day when Paul McCartney’s microphone didn’t work in front of millions but a ‘day that shook the world’ and the world’s consciousness. This would never be repeated.
- Estimates suggest around £150 million was raised directly from donations made during the concerts, some records showing that at peaks points donations came in at £300 per second.
- As a direct result of Live Aid, Geldof received a knighthood. He later received the ‘Man of Peace’ prize and was nominated, along with Bono, for the Nobel Peace Prize, losing to Muhammad Yuunus. Geldof has continued to perform charity work, including the ‘Live 8’ concerts in 2005 and the new version of ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’ in 2006.
- 72,000 people were at the Wemberley show, and around 100,000 went to the Philadelphia concert in the JFK Stadium. These numbers were however dwarfed by the 1.9 billion global audience, the events being broadcast to 150 countries.