By Jack Sharkey, July 13, 2017
In retrospect, maybe the premise seems a little naïve. Maybe the song that started it all eight months prior (Do They Know It’s Christmas) seems a little pandering when viewed through the prism of three decades of history. But at the time, it seemed – to everyone – to be the right thing to do. And anyway, who cares about the politics of the event, let’s talk about the music.
Auto-tune was still four years away from being developed by Dr. Harold Hildebrand as a tool for seismologists to discern the difference between oil and rock (the geologist kind not the …& roll kind) – and twelve years away from forever changing what it meant to be a vocalist.
There was no Social Media or Youtube available to help the masses instantly dissect and tear apart every nuance of every performance ad naseum. In fact, depending on the artist, a raggedy performance was pretty much expected at a live show (I’m looking at you Led Zeppelin). We didn’t know any better so the rough edges were just an accepted part of life (and art). Heck, CDs hadn’t yet insinuated themselves into the market – the vinyl LP was still king of musical media.
Maybe the music was a little purer back then? Maybe it suffered from enormous suckage? Who knows? Who cares?
I had tickets to the Philly end of Live Aid but couldn’t go because of a last minute work thing. I watched as much as I could on my little (state-of-the-art) 22” CRT television I had ingeniously wired to my stereo and I reveled in the largest and most sincere musical event of my lifetime. By the way, the wiring of the TV to the stereo was a great idea until my not-quite-three-year old son turned the volume way up one night and completely fried my little JVC receiver and precious AR-18 bookshelves. Not his fault, but being a somewhat unrich young homo sapiens domesticus, it was several months before he got to listen to any music again (me too for that matter, but he eventually hipped me to Pandora and Spotify long before old people like me got on to it, so it all evened out).
Live Aid was the brain-child of mopey Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof with help from a horde of other industry insiders, but it was Geldof’s inspiration and drive that made it happen. MTV was at its absolute zenith, and with the help of the BBC in the UK and ABC in the US, Live Aid became a worldwide event airing in over sixty countries. It was estimated that 85% of all the televisions in the world were tuned in at one time or another, as well as 75% of all radios. But as a historical set piece, Live Aid is a tremendous window on the limits of the technology and the way music was presented and consumed. It’s also an interesting look at just how important – on a massive scale – popular music was in 1985. Divisions among genre, race, nationality and economic station were far more blurred than they are today – it was music first with everything else falling in line afterward. That’s not to say by any means that we should look back at the time and the event through some sort of Utopian Foster Grants – quite the contrary – but there is plenty of positive history for us to take away from the time and the event.
In retrospect, Live Aid was the last meaningful gasp of the Classic Rock Era, and we should embrace that. So, with all of that bloviating out of the way, here’s my choice for the Twenty Most Interesting Live Aid Performances.
Led Zeppelin - Stairway to Heaven
It had been five years since drummer John Bonham's death and the world was antsy for this Led Zeppelin reunion. Having seen them three times before (once in 1975, and twice in 1979) I can say this is not the worst Zeppelin performance I witnessed, but it's obvious there were heaps of rust on the blimp. They were most certainly not helped by the over-zealous drumming of Phil Collins and Chic's Tony Thompson who were collectively no match for Bonham, but the brutal set isn't all their fault. Nancy Reagan's admonishment to "Just Say No" hadn't quite been picked up by Jimmy Page yet and he was, well, not very sober, plus rumours abounded that Robert Plant was in the midst of a major diva moment. Oh, and listen to the bass - sheesh, so yeah, the whole thing was a mess.
Eric Clapton - She's Waiting
On the other hand, Clapton's set was magnificent. At the height of his 80s popularity (as opposed to his 60s or 70s popularity), there is nothing much to say about his entire set except - flawless. Phil Collins was everywhere. but he was kind of a big deal in 1985, so we must deal with that, but when you're Eric Clapton and you get to have Duck Dunn (bass) and Marcy Levy (vocals) in your band, anyone can sit in with you and you'll still be pretty great.
U2 - Bad
You want to know why Bono is still pretty much the biggest rock star in the world, and arguably the last legitimate rock star the world created? Watch this performance in its entirety. In 1985, U2 was still a curious little Irish band with a really cool guitar player who made great noises out of three notes. Still two years away from their breakthrough The Joshua Tree set, this performance - and this performance alone - made the world sit up and take notice. Taking spontaneous live music to the extreme, the rest of the band had no idea what was going on, especially when Bono disappeared into the crowd. In fact, pretty much everyone (especially the secruity detail) caught a bad case of apoplexy during this song. Carpe Diem indeed, eh Bono? Of special note is mic tech Greg Carroll who is seen scrambling about trying to keep Bono's mic cord from tangling. Carroll was killed shortly after this performance and is the inspiration for the wonderful tune One Tree Hill, which closes The Joshua Tree.
Sade - Your Love Is King
So what she's a little pitchy, most notably on the last note of the lead phrase of each verse? At least you'll never find some surreptitious YouTube video of her mic feed posted from a disgruntled FOH engineer. I distinctly remember being a little disappointed by this performance at the time, but over the years it has stood the test of time - it's real, it has class, the band is great and you cannot deny the emotion. I've come to realize how much I miss a little bit of pitchiness and humanity in my music. Maybe we'd all be better off with a little less plastic and a little more pitch.
The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again
If you never got to see The Who back when Pete Townshend was angry and unforgiving before he got all thoughtful and deaf, I'm a little melancholic for you. Except for John Entwistle, the other three guys in The Who were always right on the border of not making it to the note on time or in key, and that was the whole point. At around 3:40 Roger Daltry forgets the words and the band slogs on without him - maybe a peek at why Townshend was terminally annoyed at him. After Keith Moon's death, Kenny Jones took his place and Jones' power and accuracy stood in stark contrast to Moon's speed and edge. Listen to the outro of the breakdown (7:42) and hear one of rock & roll's most under-rated drummers take it to the audience at Wembley.
Queen - Radio Gaga
Sure they had way better songs (although in full disclosure Radio Gaga is this humble blogger and Stefani Germanotta's favorite Queen song), but the audience's synchronized interaction with Freddie Mercury at the 1:41 mark and at the end of the performance are quite possibly the single greatest representations of the power of music ever recorded anywhere. You ever wonder why rock & roll (and large-scale artistic movements in general) frighten governments and parents right to the seat of their Sansabelts? Watch this video and you'll know the answer.
Run DMC - Kings of Rock
When you watch this performance, keep in mind how new the folk music of hip-hop was. It was exciting, scary and totally captivating in July 1985, and the disrupters from Hollis Queens owned the world at that moment. Hip-hop as we know it today doesn't exist without this performance. All hail the Kings of Rock. Oh, and the glorious slap reverb on the drum loop? There's your 1980s right there.
Madonna - Holiday
Before Madonna became everyone's weird old and occasionally inapprioriate aunt she was a good dancer and somewhat capable singer who had ingeniously assembled the greatest production and marketing team in all of music. Rockers and hipsters of all stripes kind of dug her even if we didn't outwardly admit it. And for those of you who aren't sure, this is what real human beings sound like when they sing and dance at the same time, because you know, it uses a lot of oxygen to do both simultaneously.
Black Sabbath - Paranoid
Nothing screams ROCK & ROLL like frosted tips on a feathered hair-do, but it was the 1980s and Ozzy is Ozzy so we didn't really notice anything was askew. And besides, Tony, Geezer (especially Geezer) and Bill are the three coolest dudes ever to put a band together, so we can excuse Ozzy for letting Sharon do his styling. The satellite delay between the audio and video feeds is really evident as you watch Bill Ward on the kit.
The Pretenders - Back On the Chain Gang
Rock's reigning Queen of Eh, I'm Really Quite Dissatisfied, Chrissie Hynde and her band were riding the crest of a massive album at the time. The Pretenders were huge in July of 1985, but look how completely freaked out they are as they faced the massive Philadelphia audience. The performance is restrained and cautious and one can only surmise that all four of them were simply owned by the enormity of it all.
Bob Dylan - Blowin' In the Wind
Mick and Keith were feuding at the time and I guess Ronnie sided with Keef. Regardless, the two Rolling Stones guitar men joined Bob Dylan for a raggedy, rough amd utterly magnificent reading of Blowin' In the Wind. It's a little like Open Mic Night in front of 50,000 people, but there is blood running through this performance. No folkie was I, but after watching this I was pretty much ready to put on a turtle-neck, don some shades and learn how to earnestly drink coffee in a basement bistro as I pondered the state of mankind. Yes, Ron Wood, your guitar is horribly out of tune.
BB King - Rock Me Baby
West Germany, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were three of the countries (who incidentally no longer exist) who joined in with performances via satellite. Australia, Japan and The Netherlands also joined in. Blues-master BB King was on tour in Holland at the time and he rocked the world from a stage at the JVC JazzFest.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers - Who Do You Love
When he wasn't playing minor league baseball in the early 1980s, George Thorogood was telling us it was okay to live a life of drunken excess and virtual vagrancy as long as it was mixed with blindly optimistic swagger and we all bought in. Throw in the king of that frame of mind, Bo Diddley, and you take almost the entire world with you down to the corner bar.
Mick Jagger and Tina Turner - State of Shock / It's Only Rock & Roll
I always sided with Keith in every Rolling Stones feud, but you have to hand it to Mick - he's a showman P.T. Barnum would be proud to call Ringmaster. More Tina would have been nice, but there's an awful lof of fun being had on that stage. A couple of points here: 1) How hard is it to help someone put on a jacket (4:00)? and 2) maybe it's a little cheesy and campy after thirty-two years, but let's admit that Justin and Janet didn't come close with their clumsy Superbowl copy of the bit at 4:20.
Mick Jagger and David Bowie - Dancing In the Street
The original plan was to have Mick in London and David in Philadelphia performing with each other via satellite (or maybe vice-versa, it was a long time ago, who remembers?) But satellites being what they are, the three-way delay simply couldn't be overcome, so they hit the alley behind a warehouse and made this video. The greatest review at the time said this video was, "Two straight A students who were assigned a class project after already having aced the class."
David Bowie - Heroes
In his post-Thin White Duke Let's Dance Phase, there is nothing to say about Bowie and this performance other than - wow. It's a neat contrast between the two consumate showmen Jagger and Bowie. The former comes of a bit campy and almost cartoonish, but while the latter is equally bombastic and showy, he comes just comes off as cool because of his essence, even three decades later. Maybe he was the Starman after-all.
Bryan Ferry - Slave To Love / Jealous Guy
Falling into the category One Of These Things Is Not Like the Other, here you have the almost-as-smooth-as-Bowie, hyper-sexual Bryan Ferry fronting a tight band of ultra-hip musicians with all the right moves, and then...out of nowhere, David Gilmour rolls out of bed, turns his guitar up REALLY LOUD and throws in a few Floyd riffs mid-song. But somehow it worked. A mere four and a half years after John Lennon's death, the reading of Jealous Guy had a visceral power in July 1985 that is almost incomprehensible now.
Hall & Oates with Eddie Kendrick & David Ruffin - Get Ready
Listen, it's pretty obvious Darryl Hall had done an enormous amount of cocaine sometime between waking up and hitting the stage, but I'll chalk the intensely manic pace of the song to the size of the audience not the size of the bump. Beside all of that, hats off to the biggest act in the land that summer for sharing the stage with Kendrick and Ruffin and paying homage to their (and our) roots.
The Cars - Just What I Needed
Ric Ocasek may have been the quirky face of the Cars, but Ben Orr was the band's soul, and this performance shows him in all of his Rock God glory. The sound is off which makes the band sound a little rough and the band gets gloriously out of time at the 2:28 mark (drummer David Robinson takes some time to recover), but I seriously doubt anyone really noticed in real-time because this band was that good.
Boomtown Rats - I Don't Like Mondays
I often wondered how bummed about the world I would be after having a pint with Bob Geldof in some seedy Dublin pub, but nevertheless, Live Aid doesn't happend with out him. Equally interesting as that pondering is the thought that the Boomtown Rats could never have had their biggest US hit with a song about the true story of a high school girl who shoots up a McDonalds in San Diego in today's day and age .
Well there it is kids, thirty two years ago right now, we all thought we could save the world through an earnest display of music industry might and altruistic hip shaking. The aftermath of what happened with the supplies purchased with the money raised is best left to another blog that talks about such things, but for a few hours on a hot Saturday in July, there were a lot of people (even including this insufferable cynic) who thought that maybe we were on to something.
Maybe we were.