Promoters called it “a global jukebox.” It was, In truth, much more. It was bad boy Ozzy Osbourne blessing the crowd like a teary Baptist preacher; it was superstars such as Daryl Hall and John Oates happily playing in a backup band; and it was, by the time it ended, the most widely seen TV broadcast since Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk that Woodstock summer long ago. Live Aid, held to raise cash for African famine victims, helped raise a generation’s consciousness in the process. For its alchemic stars, the event was rewarding beyond any royalty. For those who watched it, it was simply the greatest day of rock ever.
Hosted by Dick Clark, among others, it was the ultimate American Bandstand: It had a great beat, you could dance to it and save lives. Early on the theme was: Reunited, and it feels so good. One fan said she could die happy, having seen three-quarters of Led Zeppelin perform together. It was a sunny reunion for Black Sabbath, whose members, including ex-leader Ozzy Osbourne, performed despite a cross fire of internecine lawsuits. Crosby, Stills, Nash and, eventually, Young provided historical perspective. Next up: Blue-eyed soul (Hall and Oates) met godlike soul (former lead singers of the Temptations David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks) and almost stole the show. Trouble was, they only made great music. Mick and Tina made millions of central nervous systems turn to mush. Tina passed up a lucrative gig and laid out $11,000 in transportation costs to steam up the already humid night. Why? Explained her manager, Roger Davies: ” ‘Cause Mick called her and asked her to.”
Onstage the stars could check out their egos in the video monitors. But in keeping with Beach Boy Mike Love’s dictum that “the event itself is the star,” rock’s royalty made like commoners backstage—after their own fashion. Sequestered by location, security personnel and a multilayered credential system, the stars were free to enjoy one another’s company without too much interference from fans and other mortals. Madonna, looking a bit frightened despite a phalanx of guards, clung to the hand of her intended, the surly Sean Penn. Penn spent most of the concert either inside Madonna‘s trailer or gazing at a video monitor in front of trailers being used by Robert Plant and Tom Petty. Madonna later relaxed enough to drape an arm around the shoulder of Bob Dylan, no slouch himself in the surly department. Hey, the lady knows what she likes.
He may be a Nobel nominee, but Bob Geldof’s got some explaining to do. Taking a bow for organizing the most successful benefit concert in rock history is one thing. Upstaging Princess Di is quite another. After an ovation more thunderous than that which welcomed Charles and Diana to Wembley Saturday morning, Geldof tried to pass himself off as just another Boomtown Rat. “This is an aberration in my life,” he had protested earlier. No one was fooled. Cheekiness runs in the Geldof genes. Standing in a preconcert receiving line with her mother, Paula Yates, 2-year-old Fifi Trixibelle Geldof (no lie) presented flowers to Diana and said, “Where’s the fish?” Yates, who once authored a photo book featuring rockers in their skivvies, explained to the Princess that Fifi’s favorite food was smoked salmon: “I told Fifi she could have some if she presented the flowers nicely.”
Talk about one world united by telecommunications was far from frivolous: When they blew a fuse in London, it was felt in Philly. Roger Daltrey was in the middle of the group’s classic Won’t Get Fooled Again when the power proved him wrong, short-circuiting global transmission of The Who’s one-time-only re-formation. An American technician described the event’s convoluted technology as a series of “little chaoses inside a larger confusion.” British rockers knew just what he meant when the power went out. Suddenly plunged into darkness, stars could be heard calling to one another: “Elton, where are you?” “Sting—I’m over here.” Human circuits, as well, were overloaded during the highly charged show. David Bowie was so emotionally wasted after his performance that he had to cancel a photo session. An aide said that Bowie was in his dressing room crying.
In the end Live Aid was a triumph not only of technology but also of the human spirit over the pettiness of human nature. Consider, for example, The Who, who, after their 1982 tour, had disbanded in a flurry of bad feeling. Geldof quickly overcame their egocentric objections. “He called up and said one million people would die if we didn’t perform,” reported Pete Townshend, the group’s guitarist and main songwriter. Live Aid’s aim was to renew faith in an old hope: that a powerful and living art can actually change the world. For at least one very special day, it did.