Join Appellate Judge Dave Ryan as he sets the Wayback Machine for July 13, 1985—the day of the most important rock concert ever.
"There's nothing you can do that can't be done."
It took nearly two decades, but at long last, the greatest one-day concert in rock history is available on DVD. In fact, this is the first opportunity anyone has had to revisit Bob Geldof's noble attempt to feed the world—in any format, audio or video—since July 13, 1985. Thankfully, Warner Bros. and the DVD's production staff have put hours of blood, sweat, and tears into making this package worthy of the event it documents.
Is it perfect? Sadly, no, for reasons beyond anyone's control. But it's absolutely as perfect as it possibly can be given the circumstances, and calling it a "must-own" for rock fans is a hearty understatement.
Facts of the Case
In 1984, a terrible famine struck East Africa. Persistent drought conditions had caused the failure of most food crops in Ethiopia, Sudan, and neighboring countries, exacting a terrible toll on the impoverished residents of the region. As the blazing equatorial summer dragged on with no growth in the fields, the human tragedy of the situation deepened. International aid groups attempted to alleviate the suffering and bring food to the people, but the scale of the famine was so massive that there were always more mouths to feed than they could handle. At the height of the famine, the BBC sent one of its feature reporters to Ethiopia, to do a feature for the BBC World News. The shockingly tragic video from the report galvanized not only the British public, but the world. Thirty million Africans were slowly but surely starving to death, with no end in sight.
One of the people watching the BBC report was Bob Geldof, the Irish-born lead singer of the Boomtown Rats. While the BBC report touched many people's hearts, for Geldof it proved to be a life-changing event. Faced with the reality of this suffering, he decided to try to do something to help. Maybe he wouldn't succeed in helping much—or at all—but at least he had tried, and done something.
Ultimately, Geldof and friend Midge Ure (the lead singer of Ultravox) settled on a plan to write, record, and release a single, with the proceeds going to famine relief. To improve the chances that the single would succeed, Geldof and Ure invited everyone they knew in the British music scene to help. The response was overwhelming. Dozens of the biggest stars of rock and roll pledged their support. The impromptu group, dubbed Band Aid, recorded Geldof and Ure's composition "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in November of 1984, and the single was hastily rushed into production for the Christmas shopping season.
"Do They Know It's Christmas?" was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Not to be outdone by a bunch of Brits, the U.S. music community organized its own famine relief project, USA For Africa, thanks largely to the efforts of music legend Quincy Jones. This thoroughly American group, sporting talent from Bob Dylan and Cyndi Lauper to Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, recorded its own single, "We Are The World." Several group members also donated unreleased songs or live performances to a USA For Africa benefit album. Again, the public's response was overwhelmingly positive; the single sold eight million copies.
Geldof thought about what the next step would be. Band Aid had raised awareness and a lot of money, but people were still starving. He finally decided that a concert would be a great way to get more people involved in the famine relief effort. But not just any concert—a massive, global, multi-arena concert encompassing as many performers as could be accommodated. And so, Live Aid was born.
Geldof's plan came to fruition on July 13, 1985. Live Aid-related activities would take place in several venues across the globe, but the main focus would be on the primary show, which would take place simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. Wembley Stadium, the grande dame of English football in suburban London, would host the UK portion of the show, which would kick off at noon local time. Later in the day, about a third of the way through the planned 15-hour running time, the American portion of the show would begin, originating from decrepit and nearly-abandoned JFK Stadium in Philly—the only sizeable venue on the East Coast that was available. For about five hours, the show would flip-flop between the two venues, until the London show came to a close at about 10 p.m. London time. From then on, Philadelphia would be the focus, culminating with a three-hour live prime-time broadcast on ABC. The technical challenges alone were substantial—the broadcast, handled by three different outlets (the BBC in London, and MTV and ABC in America), would rely heavily on satellite uplinks. The number of performers scheduled for the shows demanded near-pinpoint timing, just for the logistics of getting equipment on and off the stage. (A revolving stage setup helped matters.) Adding a bit of panache and daring to the festivities, Phil Collins decided he wanted to play at both venues, and booked himself a seat on the Concorde for his attempt. All in all, the odds were extremely low that this gigantic undertaking would go off without a hitch.
There were a couple of hitches—a generator failure robbed the world of half of the Who's reunion performance, and Geldof tripped over a microphone cord while performing the Rats' hit song "Rat Trap," rendering his vocals inaudible—but all things considered, the show was extraordinarily problem-free. And so, close to a billion and a half people—the largest TV audience in history—got to see virtually everyone who was anyone in music circa 1985 perform on a global stage. In the end, the concert raised close to $80 million for famine relief, making it the most successful charitable event ever.
And then…it was history. Rumors of a Live Aid album, featuring the highlights of the show, came and went in 1985 and 1986. A gaggle of other "Aid" projects—Fashion Aid, Actor Aid, and so forth—were held to raise additional funds. Willie Nelson was inspired by the Live Aid show to organize Farm Aid, which supported family farmers in America. Geldof threw himself into managing the Band Aid Trust's famine relief efforts, for which he would eventually be knighted by Queen Elizabeth. But unless you had been one of the relatively few people who owned a video tape recorder and had the foresight to record the show, the actual Live Aid concert was just a memory.
Fast-forward twenty years, to November of 2004. It's the 20th anniversary of the Band Aid recording session. Current British acts, dubbing themselves "Band Aid 20" in honor of the anniversary, have recorded a new version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" And somewhat quietly (given the importance of the show), without a huge amount of fanfare, Warner Bros. releases a four-disc Live Aid DVD set. What gives? Why now, all of a sudden? Why does the disc run ten hours, when the actual show ran nearly sixteen? And—most importantly—how good is the actual concert footage?
There's actually a pretty simple answer to many of those questions: Bob Geldof didn't want this show recorded, period. Geldof felt (probably correctly) that extensive commercial exploitation of the Live Aid concert would ruin the significance and uniqueness of the show, and seem crass. It also solved a legal problem for the show's producers: If the show wasn't going to be recorded, the production company didn't have to deal with the participating bands' rights in their performances (e.g., future uses or residual royalties). Typical for Geldof, he expressed these wishes in the firmest way possible—he said (before the show) that he thought all copies of the videotapes of the show should be destroyed. Odds are he didn't mean it—but MTV took him at his word, and got rid of their production video, which encompassed the entire Philadelphia portion of the show. The BBC, however, just ignored him, and filed away their footage in their video archive.
With the passage of time, Geldof's stance softened. Maybe it was the constant litany of rock interviews that contained some variant of, "I remember how Live Aid influenced me to join a band," that made Geldof realize how important the show was as a historical event. Or maybe he recognized that a DVD release of the show could generate a lot of money for the Band Aid Trust, which is still providing support to hunger relief efforts in Africa. Maybe he was irked by reports of pirated copies of the entire show that were selling on eBay—sales that generated zero revenue for famine relief. Or maybe he just got sick of fans asking for it. Whatever the reason, Geldof agreed to support a DVD release of the show.
Unfortunately, there was that small problem—half the show didn't exist on tape anymore, thanks to MTV's decision to follow Geldof's wishes in 1985. Calls were placed to MTV in New York, asking if anything still existed. A small miracle then occurred. MTV discovered, literally stored in a closet somewhere, boxes and boxes of "B-roll" tape from their Live Aid broadcast. This wasn't the show as it was broadcast on MTV; this was an assortment of long shots, close-ups, alternate camera angles, and audience shots that had been collected during the day, just in case the production team wanted to, say, edit together a highlights package or something. There were hours of material, some of which had live audio tracks to boot. When the DVD team at Warner Bros. got their hands on the material, they could see that they had a tremendous sorting and editing task ahead of them—but they also could see that it just might be possible to reassemble the Philadelphia show solely from this B-roll footage.
After much work, the team managed to put a good deal of the Philadelphia show together. Not every performance had been captured on video, and some performances had video but no audio. Still, there was enough there to enable the creation of a substantial version of the full show. The BBC tapes were just pulled out of storage; they provided almost complete coverage of the London portion of the concert. It turned out that the BBC also had a full set of high-fidelity audio tapes, recorded for BBC Radio—which was icing on the cake for the DVD producers.
One problem remained—this was still largely video footage from the mid-'80s, some of which had degraded, some of which had been converted from PAL to NTSC, and some of which just looked pretty bad. The final task was to clean up this video as much as possible, using modern digital techniques. After all the artists (save one band, which will be discussed below) generously agreed to waive their rights to royalty payments from the DVD release and allow the use of their performances, the project was complete.
It's impossible to understate the importance of this show in the history of popular music. If you were alive on July 13, 1985, and were a music fan between the ages of 10 and 35 on that day, odds are you know exactly where you were, and remember the show in great detail. It was the event of the summer of 1985. Never before (and never since) had there been as dense an assemblage of talent in a single-day concert. The Woodstock concert in 1969—the only event truly comparable to Live Aid—was a three-day festival, after all. Live Aid started at 7 a.m. EDT, and lasted until just before 11 p.m. Sixteen hours of the good, the great, and the legendary taking the stage for 10 to 20 minutes each. No matter your musical preference, there probably was someone there you would enjoy hearing. It was an incredible achievement from a technical standpoint, redefining how big an event could be and still be manageable. It was a societal touchstone as well—to paraphrase Geldof, it made caring cool. But most important of all, it helped people. The money earned from ticket sales and broadcast rights saved lives. Any one of these factors would make the Live Aid show notable; the combination of them makes it legendary.
When you take into account the background story of the video and audio coverage of the show, this four-disc set is beyond impressive. The picture quality, while variable, is better than anyone could reasonably expect from 20-year-old video footage. And believe it or not, the disc's producer, Jill Sinclair, tacitly apologizes for some of the poorer video in the included booklet, and explains some of the problems that popped up. (For example, some of the London video shows signs of "microphany," a banding effect that occurs when the video camera recording the footage is near something very, very loud. That happened more than once in this concert.) The BBC footage is comprehensive, and, as broadcast footage, has the best camera angles and stage coverage. The reconstructed nature of the Philadelphia footage is clear—such as when the image lingers on a long shot of the stage for way too long—but it's really not all that bad. I've seen proper concert films that have worse stage coverage than the Philadelphia footage here. Sadly, as Sinclair notes in her essay, there's some footage that simply doesn't exist. But the footage that does exist is presented well.
The sound quality on the set is solid, but variable. The London concert sound tracks are based on the original BBC broadcast audio and the hi-fi radio recordings, and are therefore of extremely high quality. The Wembley acts burst out of your speakers as clear as a bell, whether you pick the original stereo mix or one of the two 5.1 surround tracks. (As usual, the DTS surround track has a bit more punch and depth than the Dolby surround, but you can't go wrong with either.) The Philly tracks, on the other hand, have audio assembled from whatever was available. Accordingly, it's pretty hit or miss. Sometimes the band will sound great, but sometimes the mix is just plain off—too heavy on vocals, or lacking guitar, or just a bit awkward-sounding. Although nominally upmixed into DTS and Dolby 5.1, in practice the Philadelphia acts are presented in 3-channel "stereo" (the center channel isn't active or consistent enough to call it a surround mix). At worst, though, the sound quality is about the same as a really good bootleg concert tape—which is much better than nothing.
There are so many acts on display here that it's pointless to attempt to list them all. There are so many fantastic moments here that it's pointless to attempt to list them. If you saw the show, you know what I'm talking about here. If you haven't seen the show, you really have no idea what you missed. All I can do here is throw out some notes I accumulated over the 10 hours of music here, in the hopes of whetting your appetite a bit.
• In 1985, the "in-the-know" segment of the music world had pretty much universally proclaimed Queen—one of the most successful supergroups of the '70s—dead and buried. Their sound was dated; their recent success with the single "Radio Ga-Ga" was a fluke; the song itself was silly. Their appearance at Live Aid was expected to be a pathetic coda to what was once a brilliant career.
Boy, were those people wrong. Queen delivered a showstopping performance—one that single-handedly revived their career and brought them some hard-earned respect from the rock intelligentsia. Freddie Mercury, resplendent in his white tank-top and white jeans, worked the crowd like a virtuoso from his simple, plaintive solo piano version of the opening verses of "Bohemian Rhapsody," to the band's anthemic performance of "Radio Ga-Ga" (the sight of 80,000 odd people with their hands in the air, following Mercury's every move, is spine-tingling), all the way through to their soaring closing performance of "We Are The Champions." I'd wager that every person in that stadium left there a Queen fan.
• If Queen wasn't the highlight of the Wembley show, then U2 certainly was. The Irish rockers, still two years away from their monstrous global success with "The Joshua Tree," captured the crowd's attention from the moment they took the stage, through sheer force of sincerity. U2 performs as if music is the most important thing in the world—and they make you believe it, too. Their thrilling, emotional, and cathartic performance of "Bad" (from the "Unforgettable Fire" album) is hands-down one of the all-time greatest live performances in rock history. Wisely, the producers made sure it closes the first disc of the set.
• After watching that U2 performance, I said to myself, "Gee, I'd hate to be the band following that up." But who really did follow that performance? The reunited Beach Boys. Followed by Dire Straits. Gulp. This was a pretty good show…
• I know it's hard to believe now, but once upon a time Phil Collins was cool, and was one of the more creative voices in pop music. His "hopping the Concorde" stunt seems a bit contrived in hindsight, but you can't argue with his choice to keep his performances simple and understated. In London, he plays "Against All Odds" alone at the piano, before backing up Sting on a version of "Every Breath You Take." Much later in Philadelphia, he again plays a solo piano number; this time, a powerful version of "In The Air Tonight." Keeping it simple keeps the performances enjoyable for today's viewer, even though Phil has pretty much become a parody of himself these days.
• Here's another jaw-dropper that you're not going to believe: Spandau Ballet is one of the tightest bands performing here. The Spandaus were always way more popular in England than in the U.S. American audiences typically think of them as Bryan Ferry-esque balladeers, thanks to their lone hit "True." But in truth, they were a very skilled (but occasionally inconsistent) New Wave dance-pop group, with an undeniably talented lead singer in Tony Hadley. Give them a look-see—I think you'll be surprised.
• Another band that history has incorrectly discounted: Hall and Oates. Philly's native sons and their sharply honed blue-eyed soul sound still hold up well today. Here's all you need to know: After performing their set, Hall and Oates (and their crackerjack band) proceeded to back up Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of the Temptations for three songs, then also backed up Mick Jagger, including Jagger's duet with Tina Turner. I'm sorry—Mick freakin' Jagger doesn't let you play backup for him unless you're the best. Case closed.
• Sadly, Philly's other native sons—the Hooters—didn't make the cut. Other MIA acts include Rick Springfield, the Four Tops, Billy Ocean, and Bernard Watson. Watson, you may remember, was the street musician who camped out in Philadelphia in an attempt to persuade Bill Graham (the legendary rock promoter who handled the concert production on the U.S. side) to give him a performance slot. Graham was sufficiently impressed by Watson's pluck that he gave him 10 minutes to perform, right before the official opening of the show. As Don King would say, only in America!
• While the "big ticket" acts are the main reason many will be watching this set, this is a good opportunity for American audiences to get to know some of the more obscure British Pop acts of the '70s and '80s that performed here. (Brit Pop is a subject near and dear to my heart; I used to host a Brit Pop radio show.) I think a lot of music fans might be shocked to see the quality of acts like the Style Council (led by former Jam frontman Paul Weller), Ultravox, and Status Quo. Most American fans know Status Quo solely from their late '60s hit "Pictures of Matchstick Men," a bit of psychedelic pop gold. However, after that hit they had a rather major change in sound, turning into more of a rockabilly-style bar band. Here, they open the entire show with a cover of "Rockin' All Over The World"—a John Fogerty song, of all things. (They also hadn't played together in several years—but you'd never know that from how good they sound.)
• Several of these acts reunited solely for this show, or had only recently gotten back together. Future reality TV star Ozzy Osbourne reunited with his old Black Sabbath mates for the show; the Who played together for the first time in a few years as well. Crosby, Stills, and Nash played with Neil Young for the first time in ages—but unfortunately, their brief set isn't here. (Their individual performances are present and accounted for, though.) The Beach Boys were touring with Brian Wilson for the first time in years—he had only recently come out of his post-sandbox stage fright stage. And then there was that other reunited bunch—but we'll get to them in a bit.
A bunch of terrific extras are included, which only add to the value of this set. The disc opens with the original BBC News report on the Ethiopian famine, which got the whole Band Aid ball rolling. Then, the disc gives you the videos for both "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are The World," both of which are remixed into surround sound. Then, it's on to the Live Aid show itself, which lasts until Disc Four.
The bulk of the extras are found on that fourth and final disc. Most of the non-Wembley, non-Philly performances that were incorporated into the original broadcast are here, often in substantially expanded versions. There's footage of INXS performing in Australia, blues legend B.B. King doing a special performance from the North Sea Blues Festival in the Netherlands, an acoustic performance by Cliff Richard that was only seen on the UK telecast, a snippet of Japanese band Loudness (think "Japanese KISS") performing, and a "medley" of other Band Aid-like groups from Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Norway.
There is also a pair of performances that were taped, but never aired as part of the original telecast. First is Run DMC's performance. Although they'd eventually become arguably the most important group in rap history, here their set served solely as a calibration exercise for the Philadelphia cameramen. It's shown here for the first time ever. Also included is a performance by Ashford and Simpson, who were joined on stage by soul singer (and Philly native son) Teddy Pendergrass. This was Pendergrass' first public concert performance since he had been paralyzed from the waist down by a 1982 car accident, and was pretty emotional for all involved. Both performances are relatively short, but valuable additions nonetheless.
Rounding out the extra features is a documentary, "Food and Trucks and Rock & Roll," that was made as a one-year-on summary of what Band Aid had achieved. It's the perfect capper for the set—not only does it provide vivid evidence of how the money raised by the Band Aid Trust directly helped the famine-stricken Africans, but it addresses one of the biggest criticisms of Geldof's altruism. Many pointed out that Geldof's efforts were truly just a "band-aid"—they fed people, but didn't address the fact there were underlying economic issues that exacerbated the impact of drought and famine. The documentary shows us that Geldof knew quite well that the food drops and grain shipments were just stop-gap measures—and felt that addressing systemic issues was nonsensical while people were dying in droves. First stop the hunger, then fix the system—that was his attitude. Indeed, Geldof threw himself into this "big picture" approach fairly quickly, becoming one of the first celebrities to decry the heavy debt burden of Third World nations (a cause now championed by U2's Bono).
From stem to stern, this is a classy package that should satisfy the legions of music fans who have been waiting so long for this disc set. I can't think of any way it could realistically have been improved. It may have taken twenty years to get this done, but thankfully it's been done right.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are two big things that purists will criticize in this set. First, several of the performances are presented out of order. For example, the reunited Black Sabbath was actually one of the first acts to perform in Philadelphia, taking the stage a little before 10 a.m. EDT. On this set, though, they're slotted in on Disc Three, right after Tom Petty—who didn't play until 5 p.m. Many of these decisions appear to have been made for timing and/or flow purposes, and don't really detract from the overall disc impact.
But there's a bigger issue here. I just know that a large number of people will take a look at this set and immediately yell "Where's Zeppelin?" because the long-awaited reunion of former Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones (with the Power Station's Tony Thompson on drums) is conspicuously absent here. How could you leave off one of the biggest draws of the entire concert?
Again, the answer turns out to be simple: Page and Plant hated their performance, and don't ever want it seen again. (To be honest, I can see their point, if memory serves.) So they refused to allow its use on this set. (To their credit, they both made hefty donations to the Band Aid Trust in lieu of granting permission.) Case closed. They weren't the only ones to refuse permission—Carlos Santana also nixed the use of his Philly set.
Yes, it's slightly disappointing that the Led Zep set isn't here—but that's a small criticism for an overwhelmingly great concert package. Trust me, you won't really miss it.
Rock and roll isn't all that important in the grand scheme of things. This disc is a fantastic record of historic moment in the history of rock—but that usually doesn't make something an important moment in history. Live Aid may be the exception. It wasn't just a concert, it was a moment in time; one of the first true examples of Marshall McLuhan's theorized "global village." It was also a phenomenal concert, one that has every bit as much entertainment value today as it did in 1985.
And it helped people. Real people in desperate straits. Not many concerts can make that claim.
In the end, I'll try and paraphrase Geldof himself, who makes a very valid and sobering point about the whole affair. The images here of innocent people, including children, literally dancing for joy because someone brought them grain to eat, or seed for planting, as a result of someone buying the Band Aid single or attending Live Aid is heartening. But it's also depressing—why should a Band Aid single or a Live Aid show effectively decide whether someone lives or dies? "To die of want in a world of surplus," he said, "is not only intellectually absurd, it is morally repulsive."
It's hard to argue with him.
What sets Geldof apart is that he did something about it, and thereby enabled all of us to do something as well, however small, to help. The Live Aid slogan is no lie—this concert did, indeed, save lives. The evidence is irrefutable on that point. Bob Geldof literally gave up life as a rock star—a rock star!—to devote his time to helping people he didn't know, of a different race, in a far-off country, who were suffering. He didn't save them all, but he saved some.
For that, he deserves all the credit in the world.
"We could be heroes…just for one day."
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