Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Live Aid, the charity concert in 1985 that defined a generation and changed the course of history. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that something so big could have been organized so successfully with the relatively primitive technology then available. There were hitches, of course, but Live Aid overcame them all and triumphantly achieved all its ambitions: to unite the world in aid of the starving people of Ethiopia.
It did that using the universal language of music. The biggest stars of the day came together in Britain and America, first recording charity singles, then performing at giant concerts held in London and Philadelphia. From Paul McCartney and U2 to Bob Dylan and the Cars, from Queen and Adam Ant to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin: Live Aid united all generations of musician and all generations of fan. If you were alive at the time, it was hard to miss Live Aid. If you attended one of the concerts, it was something to remember for the rest of your life.
Those who were born since 1985 or were too young at the time can now visit YouTube and watch every minute of what was broadcast to the world. There are some memorable performances – and haircuts – but by general agreement one band stole the day: Queen. And they did that largely thanks to the flamboyance and charisma of their lead singer, the unforgettable Freddy Mercury. He held the vast crowd at Wembley Stadium in the palm of his hand, turning in one of the best performances of a life that would end only a few years later.
Oh, and there was also a band called the Boomtown Rats. They were middle-ranking stars in 1985, having emerged from their home-town of Dublin to score hit singles like “I Don’t Like Mondays”. Nowadays they’re most famous for their lead singer, a force of nature called Bob Geldof. He was the man responsible for Live Aid: without his drive and determination, it would never have happened.
Sir Bob – he received an honorary knighthood in 1986 – was a controversial figure then and he’s a controversial figure now. What no-one, fan or foe, can doubt is that he is a remarkable organizer. To persuade so many big names – and big egos – to unite in a common cause was an achievement in itself. But that was just the beginning: next came giant concerts that had to be broadcast live to the entire world. After he did all that, he realized that he was just warming up. Charity singles and the global concerts would have gone for nothing if the money they raised hadn’t reached starving people in Ethiopia.
Sir Bob had to organize the buying and delivery of vast amounts of food. He had to negotiate with politicians and officials in some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the world. From start to finish, the obstacles he faced were staggering, but he overcame them all and achieved what he had decided to do when he first saw heart-rending TV footage of what was happening in Ethiopia. He wanted to help end the suffering he saw and he did. Live Aid didn’t quite manage to “Feed the World”, but there is no doubt that it changed the world.