From Queen to U2, here's why this classic concert did more than raise awareness (and cash) for poverty.
When the creators of “Bohemian Rhapsody” needed an emotional hook for the Freddie Mercury biopic they didn’t have to look very far.
The 1985 Live Aid concert stared them right in the face.
The historic event, held July 13 at London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, captured Queen at the band’s fiery best.
That’s saying something for a group renowned for its stage theatrics.
The moment bookends the film, starring “Mr. Robot’s” Rami Malek as the mercurial lead singer. It’s safe to say some movie goers will warm to these sequences, their nostaglia circuits firing with every guitar lick.
Others, including those born long after the concert, will wonder what the fuss is all about.
Here are 29 Live Aid facts to remind Millennials and Boomers alike why the epic concert matters.
Ka-Ching: “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” penned by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984, earned north of $24 million. The song started Geldof’s fundraising machine, leading to Live Aid’s creation. Not to be outdone, the American take on the concept, “We Are the World,” raised more than $63 million for famine relief.
Crowd Size Matters: Live Aid audience estimates are all over the map. History.com reports 110 countries watched the massive concert courtesy of 13 satellite feeds. The Guardian ratchets the number up to 150 countries.
In the Air Tonight: Phil Collins didn’t want to miss a moment of either Live Aid concert. So he played drums at Wembley Stadium early in the day before jetting to Philadelphia to drum for a reunited Led Zeppelin. More on that debacle in a moment.
Where’s the Money? A 1986 expose by Spin Magazine reported some of the millions raised by the concert got redirected to Ethiopian strong man Mengistu Haile Mariam’s war chest. The cash, in turn, helped him snuff out a rebellion, not feed the poorest of the poor.
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The Daily Mail’s reporting said up to 20 percent of the funds were diverted away from starving Africans. The BBC shared a similar report only to walk its reportage back in humiliating fashion. Geldof has repeatedly savages such headlines, defending both the concert and its successful fundraising measures.
More than 30 years later, the subject remains red hot.
Here’s Jack! Movie legend Jack Nicholson introduced U2, the Irish quartet hitting the stage between sets by Bryan Adams and the Beach Boys. At one point in the concert, the screen icon promised the crowd relief from the brutal summer heat: “We’re gonna hose you down, now,” he said in his inimitable Jack Speak.
Come Dance With Me: Elaine Hills, one of the women who heeded Bono’s call to join him on stage, recalls the U2 singer’s show of affection. The singer’s forehead buss “was a really big, wet kiss,” Elaine said. “And he had all this stubble and sweat and I thought, whoo.”
And the Winner Is…: Queen tore through six songs during the band’s Live Aid appearance which began at 6 p.m. London time. The set list? “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Radio Ga Ga,” “Hammer to Fall,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” Elton John later announced Queen had stolen the 16-hour show. Dave Grohl went further. “They walked away being the greatest band you’d ever seen in your life.”
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Zeppelin Crashing: Led Zeppelin’s set marked the band’s first performance together since the death of drummer John Bonham. It went … poorly, by most accounts. Tech problems entangled their best intentions. Jimmy Page’s guitar was out of tune. Robert Plant’s voice was hoarse and hardly rock god like.
I Gotta Get Out of Here: Phil Collins shared his take on his Live Aid experience in his autobiography, “Not Dead Yet: The Memoir.” Regrets, the “Genesis” alum has a few. The Led Zeppelin reunion proved disastrous for him, too.
“It wasn’t my fault [that] it was crap. If I could have walked off, I would have. But then we’d all be talking about why Phil Collins walked off Live Aid—so I just stuck it out.”
Appearing alongside co-drummer Tony Thompson of Chic also annoyed the music legend.
“If I’d known it was to be a two-drummer band, I would have removed myself from the proceedings long before I got anywhere near Philadelphia.”
No Footage for You: Led Zeppelin had all of one hour to rehearse their set. And it showed. The members emerged so furious they wouldn’t let footage of their set be included in a 20th anniversary DVD of the concert. You won’t find their songs on the official Live Aid YouTube channel, either.
Cher and Cher Alike: Collins also says he helped snare Cher for the big JFK concert. The musician was traveling via Concorde from London to Philadelphia when he met Cher. He naturally talked about the concert, catching her by surprise. She wanted to be a part of it but figured it was too late. Collins gave her a quick tip. “Just show up.” She did, and she sang as part of the finale. It’s nice to be Cher.
Killer Legs … and Shoes: Tina Turner’s lingering memory of her Live Aid appearance? Landing on Mick Jagger’s foot with one of her high heels during “It’s Only Rock n’ Roll.”
Tough Sell for Two Networks: Bob Geldof says both CBS and NBC turned down the chance to broadcast part of the concert.
Live Aid So White: The concert caught heat during the rollout for the lack of black stars. Many were allegedly approached, with a large number of rejections. Late additions included Run DMC, bringing a dash of hip hop to the affair.
Hall & Oates forced the matter, inviting Temptations graduates David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. to harmonize with them.
‘The Man’ Lent a Hand: Pepsi, Chevrolet, AT&T and Eastman Kodak sponsored the concert. They also opened their sizable wallets, since Team Geldof requested they pony up at $750,000 along with the proverbial “goods and services” to be part of music history.
No News Isn’t Good News: Huey Lewis and the News were no shows for an interesting reason. They wanted to be sure the money would be going to the people who needed it the most. Without a firm guarantee they weren’t comfortable doing the show.
Don’t Believe the Rumors: The Live Aid broadcast teased rumors that yes, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would appear before the end of the show. Wrong. The “Boss” said he didn’t want to ask his band to play after getting their first vacation in a very long time.
Madonna Gets Modest: The Material Girl addressed a controversy of nude pictures during her set, vowing against any wardrobe malfunctions. She noted the sticky weather but vowed to stay in costume. ““I am not taking sh** off today. You might hold it against me 10 years from now.”
What, Not Who, Was That? The Who’s set, hardly the act’s finest hour, marked one of the final collaborations between the founding members and Kenney Jones. The drummer had replaced Keith Moon following the musician’s death in 1978. This Daltrey quote helps explain why it never was a good fit for the band. “It’’s like having a wheel off a Cadillac stuck onto a Rolls Royce. It’’s a great wheel but it’’s the wrong one.”
Can We Have a Little Quiet? Duran Duran was such a major act in 1985 Geldof assigned them to sing at the U.S. event to give its lineup extra juice. Not everyone felt that way, according to lead singer Simon Le Bon.
Le Bon recalls doing line checks and getting interrupted by folk legend Stephen Stills (who auditioned to be a Monkee but got rejected in part due to his imperfect teeth). Stills heard Duran Duran playing and demanded, “Will you guys shut the f*** up,” Le Bon says.
Oh, That Explains the Band’s Name: Bono got an interesting reception from Mercury backstage. U2’s lead singer recalls Mercury chatting him up like he was a bird, not realizing the Queen legend’s sexual orientation.
Thanks, But No Thanks: The no-shows for the big event were few, but notable. Geldof unsuccessfully reached out to Liza Minnelli, Yoko Ono, Cyndi Lauper and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. Rod Stewart allegedly couldn’t rally enough musicians to accompany him for a set. Depeche Mode, echoing Lewis’ concerns, feared the money wouldn’t go to the appropriate targets.
Michael Jackson, the King of Pop? The perfectionist said he was too busy on his music to commit. Diana Ross? On tour . So were the Pointer Sisters.
The most colorful excuse came courtesy of Frank Zappa, who later told Howard Stern the event “was the biggest cocaine money laundering scheme of all time!”
That’s … Not a Rock Song, But OK: When Bob Geldof finished his set the crowd took its turn singing to him. They broke into a chorus of, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
What About an Encore? David Bowie told Ure, who co-founded the concert with Geldof, that Live Aid should be an annual event. That, alas, never happened, though the 2005 Live 8 concert tried, and failed, to duplicate the majesty of the 1985 concert.
Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Ure says working on Live Aid kept him away from his band, Ultravox. That led to frayed relations with his band mates. The group recorded one more album before splitting up.
The Missing Cat: One of the event’s workers managed to snag Cat Stevens for a possible appearance. The singer, who had changed his name to Yusuf Islam after becoming a Muslim, had abandoned his pop music career. He still considered appearing, offering to play an Islamic children’s song at the event. When that plan got nixed the singer declined but gave a large donation to the cause.
‘Blinded’ By Sky High Expectations: Thomas Dolby got tasked with forming a backing band for David Bowie’s Live Aid set. Easier said than done. He scrambled to get the musicians required, Dolby recalled, then had precious little time to rehearse. They never even played the whole set prior to the concert.
Dolby said getting “Heroes” right gave him the most trepidation. Luckily, muscle memory took over. “The song just played itself … my fingers did the walking.”
Keeping Tabs on Music History: Earlier this year Geldof handed over the Live Aid archives to Ireland’s National Library where it will be cataloged and preserved over the next two years. Once completed, the material will be accessed via the National Library’s Special Collections reading room. The material in question originally was housed in London.
Want More Live Aid? You can thank “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance will be released for the first time ever as part of the soundtrack album to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the forthcoming biopic on the band.