The film “Bohemian Rhapsody” does a great job of re-creating Queen’s performance at Live Aid. I try to re-create my backstage – and onstage – experiences on that weekend
Musicians around the world were among the millions moved by the soul-wrenching video coming out of Africa in 1984 showing drought, famine, starvation and death. British rock and pop stars assembled for an all-star recording of a song written by Bob Geldof, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” which was sold to raise money to help the victims in that ravaged part of the world. Weeks later, in early 1985, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie composed “We Are the World” and the biggest stars who had gathered in Los Angeles for the American Music Awards chimed in as Quincy Jones recorded the fund-raising song that was American pop music’s answer.
The media were not invited into the studio the night that collaboration, dubbed USA for Africa, did the recording, but I and my employer, ABC Radio News, were invited to a couple of events that followed, and they became among the highlights of my career in broadcasting.
Geldof and other British musicians spent the winter and spring of ’85 planning a charity benefit concert to raise further funds for famine relief. “The show should be as big as is humanly possible,” said Geldof.
He came to the US to announce the show in an interview with me. It would be at Wembley Stadium in London and overlap with a second concert at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. The concert, called Live Aid, would be telecast worldwide with a simultaneous stereo radio feed provided by ABC. Oddly, a decision was made to have the anchors of our radio broadcast sitting in a studio in New York, watching the concert on TV monitors. I was to be backstage in Philadelphia with a wireless mic and headphone setup, providing interviews with the performers.
Saturday, July 13th, was the date set for what lived up to its organizers’ hopes for the biggest benefit concert ever. Late on the day before Live Aid, I was prowling around the huge stage along the goal line at the north end of the stadium, watching various bands go through their soundchecks. Mick Jagger and Tina Turner popped onstage to rehearse a duet of “It’s Only Rock & Roll” and I took some snapshots of them from an enviable POV. (I kept waiting for some stagehand to holler at me to GTF off the stage, but I was able to snap away and watch this extraordinary run-through.)
The ABC contingent was quartered at the Four Seasons in Center City and that night, everywhere you looked, there were high-profile rock musicians and their entourages chatting in the lobbies, drinking in the bar. Chrissie Hynde and Jim Kent of Simple Minds rocked their baby in a pram.
The temperature hit 95 degrees the afternoon of the concert and I was drenched in sweat as I pursued interviews with the likes of David Crosby, Robert Plant and Jack Nicholson, host of the Philadelphia concert. Instead of going live to me, the NY producers recorded my interviews and dropped them in later in the broadcast. Not many of the performers were willing to do interviews, not even with us, the official radio broadcaster which had bought the rights. And, as the purchase of the broadcast rights was, in effect, a donation to the famine-fighting charity, the network couldn’t really lean on the talent to do interviews in a traditional show-biz fashion. This gave me time to roam the stadium, gather some sound from excited concert-goers, and enjoy some of the highlights, including a Bob Dylan/Keith Richards/Ron Wood trio, Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The night was capped by Mick and Tina’s duet on “State of Shock” and “It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)” during which Mick ripped off Tina’s leather miniskirt. I happened to be at the perfect spot when Tina exited stage right. In a photo taken by an ABC photographer you can see the excitement on both our faces as she gave me a couple of quick sound bites about the show-stopping moment. I have absolutely no recollection of what we said, nor do I know if it ever made air. But that photo has always been a favorite of mine for the kinetic energy it captures.
Thanks to producer extraordinaire Dave Alpert, audio of the moment exists. Listen as I, er. . .debrief them about the de-skirting:
The concert was seen by an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s population at the time and raised a reported 150 million pounds (about $196 million dollars today).
It also set in motion an episode of follow-up reporting that would take me to Africa on one of the most emotionally trying assignments I have experienced.