Live Aid 30th Anniversary: The Day Rock and Roll Changed the World

Today, on the 30th anniversary of Live Aid, the event's success in raising both awareness about the famine in Africa and money for relief programs remains staggeringly impressive.
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Catherine McHugh
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Today, on the 30th anniversary of Live Aid, the event's success in raising both awareness about the famine in Africa and money for relief programs remains staggeringly impressive.
Freddie Mercury: Charitable Champions (Of The World): Bono (from left), Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury perform together at the Live Aid Concert—a concerted effort to help end hunger in Ethiopia—on July 13, 1985, at London's Wembley Stadium.  (Photo by Steve Rapport/Photoshot/Getty Images.)

(From left) Bono, Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury perform together at the Live Aid Concert in London. (Photo by Steve Rapport/Photoshot/Getty Images)

Live Aid was staged on Saturday, July 13, 1985. About 75 different acts performed live for about 170,000 people in London and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, an estimated 1.5 billion people in 110 countries watched it via a live television stream from 13 satellites. More than 40 nations also held telethons for African famine relief during the broadcast.

In our current digital age, these numbers may seem quaint, but in 1985, there was no World Wide Web, no email, no live blogging and no Twitter. Most people still listened to music by listening to the radio or playing vinyl records and cassette tapes; compact discs (CDs) only became widely available this same year.

The event was a spectacular success, though not without its problems. Satellite links between London and Philadelphia failed several times. But in an ultimate triumph of technology and good will, the event raised more than $125 million in famine relief for Africa.

Origins: Band Aid and USA for Africa

Live Aid was the brainchild of Bob Geldof, the singer of Irish rock group the Boomtown Rats, whose biggest hit was “I Don’t Like Mondays.” In 1984, news reports of a horrific famine that had killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians and threatened to kill millions more prompted Geldof to travel to Ethiopia. Upon returning to London, he gathered some of the United Kingdom’s top pop artists Culture Club, Duran Duran, Phil Collins, U2, Wham!, and others to form Band Aid. 

Released on December 3, 1984, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” written by Geldof and Ultravox singer Midge Ure and performed by Band Aid was the best-selling single in the U.K. to that date. Its proceeds raised more than $10 million for Ethiopian famine relief. Also a No. 1 hit in the United States, the song inspired U.S. pop artists to come together. 

On January 28, 1985, USA for Africa recorded “We Are the World,” a song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. Producer Quincy Jones organized the U.S. ensemble, which featured Jackson, Ritchie, Geldof, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, and many others. That single eventually raised $44 million for famine relief.

An Ambitious Event

As the famine continued in Ethiopia and spread to neighboring Sudan, Geldof proposed Live Aid, a dual charity concert aimed at raising more funds and increasing awareness of the plight of many Africans. Organized in just 10 weeks, Live Aid was nothing if not ambitious. The event consisted of two concerts, one in London’s Wembley Stadium and the other in Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, which ran almost simultaneously. While one show took a break to change sets and equipment, the other featured an act that kept television audiences glued to the screen and, it was hoped, not far from their phones. 

Around midday (London time) on July 13, 1985, Prince Charles and Princess Diana officially kicked off Live Aid and an unprecedented 75 artists performed, sometimes joining each other onstage. Continuing on at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, the “super concert” clocked in at 16 hours.

Concert Highlights

Phil Collins performed at Wembley concert and then memorably boarded the turbojet-powered supersonic passenger jet the Concorde, which delivered him to Philadelphia where he performed again. Later in the show, he filled in for the late John Bonham to play drums in a reunion of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. 

The London bill included the Boomtown Rats, Adam Ant, Elvis Costello, Sade, Sting, Bryan Ferry, U2, Dire Straits, Queen, David Bowie, The Who, Elton John, and Paul McCartney. Being included in the event was a big break for U2 and Bono famously made the most of it by pulling 15-year-old Kal Khalique out of the audience slow dancing with her (for about 20 seconds) as the band played on. 

Musically, the critics seemed to concur that Queen stole the show as the band had never sounded better. 

Over in Philadelphia, performers included Joan Baez, The Four Tops, Black Sabbath, Run DMC, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Judas Priest, Bryan Adams, Beach Boys, George Thorogood & the Destroyers (also with Bo Diddley & Albert Collins), Simple Minds, The Pretenders, Santana (also with Pat Metheny), Ashford & Simpson with Teddy Pendergrass, Madonna, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Duran Duran, Patti LaBelle, Mick Jagger (also with Tina Turner), Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Ron Wood

Madonna Photo

Madonna performs at Live Aid at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images)

Beatle Paul McCartney and The Who’s Pete Townsend held Bob Geldof aloft on their shoulders during the London finale, which featured a collective performance of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Six hours later, the U.S. concert ended with “We Are the World.”

Live Aid’s Legacy: Live 8 and Beyond

The funds Live Aid raised and the publicity it generated encouraged Western nations to make available enough surplus grain to end the immediate hunger crisis in Africa. Queen Elizabeth II later knighted Geldof for his efforts and he has remained a committed activist. 

In early July 2005, Geldof staged a series of “Live 8″ concerts in 11 countries to help raise awareness of global poverty. It was purposely scheduled days before the annual G8 summit in an effort to increase political pressure on G8 nations to address issues facing the extremely poor around the world. An estimated 3 billion people watched 1,000 musicians perform in 11 shows, which were broadcast on 182 television networks and by 2,000 radio stations. 

Unlike Live Aid, Live 8 was not billed as a fundraiser. Geldof’s slogan was, “We don’t want your money; we want your voice.” Perhaps in part because of the spotlight brought to such issues by Live 8, the G8 subsequently voted to cancel the debt of 18 of the world’s poorest nations, make AIDS drugs more accessible, and double levels of annual aid to Africa, to $50 billion by 2010.

Geldof has said he sees “no political logic” to staging such another Live Aid but Band Aid (this time featuring Chris Martin of Coldplay, Elbow, Foals, Sinead O’Connor and Bono) did release a new version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” with updated lyrics in November 2014. Proceeds from its sales will go toward fighting against Ebola in Africa.