A movement ignited in late 1984 that culminated with two mega-hits that live on today, and perhaps the single greatest one-day collection of talent in a concert ever performed. For me, at the time, Live Aid was primarily about the reunion of Led Zeppelin, whose three remaining members reunited for the first time on stage since John Bonham’s death and the band’s dissolution in 1980, but for most of the world, the overall meaning of this project was much bigger.
It started in December of 1984, when a collection of British artists, known as Band Aid, led by Bob Geldof, lead vocalist for the Boomtown Rats, created a Christmas anthem, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The intent of the song was to raise awareness and funds for the hunger crisis across the continent of Africa. It was a massive success, and was the biggest selling single in UK history until Elton John re-recorded “Candle in the Wind” for Princess Diana’s memorial service. Solos were assigned to, and recorded by Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Simon Le Bon, and a powerful verse from Bono. Phil Collins played drums and sang backing vocals, and other notables in the chorus included Geldof, Sting, Jody Watley, and most of the members of Ultravox, Bananarama, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Culture Club, and others from the British pop scene. At the moment, it seemed like a very successful one-off creation, but the movement was just starting.
In the United States, Harry Belafonte, a very active and socially conscious singer, embraced this concept, and signed up Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson to write a U.S. version of the anthem, entitled “We Are the World”. Produced by Quincy Jones and Micheal Omartian, the entire ensemble came together on one night in late January, 1985 in Los Angeles to record the track. Similar in format to “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, it features a remarkable collection of many of the greatest U.S. artists of the 20th century, across many generations and genres. Solos were assigned to Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Darryl Hall, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes. Closing solos were granted to Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Wonder and Springsteen, along with Charles and Ingram. The U.S. version had truly stepped up the game; this was indeed an epic collection of talent. Among the many other legends in the ensemble chorus were Bob Geldof, signifying continuation from Band Aid, Harry Belafonte, the project initiator, and a long list that included Dan Aykroyd, Lindsey Buckingham, Sheila E., almost all of Michael Jackson’s siblings, Waylon Jennings, Bette Midler, The Pointer Sisters, and Smokey Robinson. How Smokey didn’t land a solo within that list above boggles my mind, but maybe he was having an off night. Anyway, this was also a massive success, and it sold over 20 million copies, becoming the 8th highest selling single of all time.
Like the Christmas track, it is impossible today to listen to this song and not only marvel at the collection of talent, but also some of the endearing quirks of the song. Among my favorites: Michael Jackson insisting that he record his solos away from the group, Stevie Wonder telling the entire group he and Ray Charles would drive them all home if they didn’t finish this in one night, Kenny Rogers’ odd but charming placement in this lineup, the magical high-tenor power-trio of Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry and Darryl Hall singing in succession, and Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper and Kim Carnes all trying to sing over each other, which was supposedly a nightmare in early rehearsals. Overall, I think the performances were genuine and impressive, and for me, Ray Charles absolutely took over with his smoky voice and the unique tone of his passionate delivery.
To Geldof’s credit, the movement continued, and the idea for a series of live fund-raising concerts became the next task. Ultimately, the date of July 13, 1985 was selected, with dual venues in London (Wembley Stadium) and Philadelphia (JFK Stadium). Inspired by the energy of this campaign, Geldof was able to secure an absolutely stunning list of artists who appeared at the two shows. Naturally, the London show started first, and the Philadelphia show started a few hours later, and both were all-day events before completely jam-packed stadium audiences. One of the remarkable and unique feats of the day was delivered by Phil Collins, who performed at the UK show, then boarded the Concorde for the US, on a flight that was just a bit over three hours in duration. The lineups were a perfect blend of most of the great rock acts of the 20th century, with significant overlap from many of the modern pop and rock acts who had served to make the two recordings a hit.
The UK Lineup: (Wembley Stadium) – UK Anthem to open the show, Status Quo, The Style Council, The Boomtown Rats, Adam Ant, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Elvis Costello, Nik Kershaw, Sade, Sting, Phil Collins, Branford Marsalis, Howard Jones, Bryan Ferry (w/ David Gilmour), Paul Young, U2, Dire Straits, Queen, David Bowie, The Who, Elton John (w/ Kiki Dee and George Michael), and Paul McCartney, along with the rest of the ensemble who sang “Let It Be” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” as the show closed.
The US Lineup: (JFK Stadium) – Joan Baez, The Hooters, Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Black Sabbath, Run-D.M.C., Rick Springfield, REO Speedwagon, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Judas Priest, Bryan Adams, The Beach Boys, George Thorogood and the Destroyers (w/ Bo Diddley and Albert Collins), Simple Minds, Pretenders, Santana (W/ Pat Metherd), Ashford & Simpson (w/ Teddy Pendergrass), Madonna, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Kenny Loggins, The Cars, Neil Young, The Power Station, The Thompson Twins (w/ Nile Rodgers), Eric Clapton, Phil Collins (Again!!), Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, Nash AND Young, Duran Duran, Patti Labelle, Hall & Oates (w/ Eddie Kendricks & David Ruffin), Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, Bob Dylan (w/ Keith Richards & Ronnie Wood), and the stage ensemble closing with “We Are the World”.
It is almost too much to believe that all of this happened at a dual set of shows on one day, but it did, and it was broadcast all around the world. In the U.S., the entire show was shown on MTV. I have many personal memories of a particular set to elaborate on, but first let’s go through the highlights of this amazing day.
First of all, I thought it was very smoothly produced for such complicated egos and logistics. Each artist was allotted a roughly 20-minute set, with some minor variations, and it seemed to transition very well from act to act on both stages. From the UK show, I liked the early insertion of many modern acts, setting the stage for the titans to come. Elvis Costello performed a great version of the Beatles hit “All You Need Is Love”, and the blended set with Sting, Phil Collins and Branford Marsalis was a great mix. U2 cemented their role as stadium artists with a powerful rendition of “Bad”, and legends David Bowie and The Who represented themselves very well, and Kenney Jones was still tagging along on drums, as it was their first performance since their “farewell tour” in 1982. The second-best performance of the night had to be Elton John, he sounded amazing, and his duets with Kiki Dee “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and George Michael “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” were really well done. “Rocket Man” was another show-stopper. Naturally, when Paul McCartney took the stage to close the show, he was anointed the expectation and privilege due the greatest living recording artist from the UK, and he did not disappoint.
Of course, as it has been revisited recently, the most powerful performance of the show from either stadium was when Freddie Mercury and Queen took the stage. Queen has always been uniquely beloved in the UK, and they were spectacular in this performance. Starting with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which bleeds into “Radio Ga Ga”, you see the entire stadium completely transformed and within the control of Mr. Mercury. It is a stunning visual display, with great audio dynamics as well. The set continues with “Hammer to Fall”, builds energy with “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, and climaxes with the blockbuster duo of “We Will Rock You” / “We Are the Champions”. Among a setlist overloaded with legends, Queen clearly won the day and night.
From the U.S. set, Joan Baez reflected back on Woodstock as she celebrated the opening. The Four Tops were a great early addition, and we saw another reunion as the original Black Sabbath lineup reunited for the first time in many years. Run-D.M.C. made the stage, which was a good add for the evolving trends of hip-hop to be represented, just 90 miles south of Queens. Judas Priest was another solid metal act, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, in both of their appearances, along with Santana, also bridged the gap back to Woodstock. The Beach Boys were able to bring Brian Wilson out of seclusion to perform a beautiful version of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and Madonna, Tom Petty and The Cars also contributed to the modern blend of acts. Hall & Oates brought out Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin from the Temptations for a Motown medley that was great. The Rolling Stones technically did not perform, as Mick and Keith were “on a break” at the time, but the first of the last two performances were the famous duet of Mick Jagger & Tina Turner performing among others, “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)”, which was a phenomenal and triumphant performance by Turner. The Stones were also represented well in the last set, as Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood backed up Bob Dylan’s set, including a great version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Like the UK show, the U.S. performance concluded with the ensemble performance of “We Are the World”, which featured Lionel Richie and some of the original performers from the studio version, many of them jumping in to sing other parts. Noticeably, among the biggest stars from “We Are the World” who didn’t perform that day were Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder. It was still an amazing day, one that will likely never be matched in star-power again.
As I noted above, while all of this was great to watch, the 1985 me was still all about Led Zeppelin, so during the days leading up the concert, as rumors swirled that some collection of the band may play, had me over the top in excitement. I worked an early shift at King Soopers that morning so I missed a lot of the early performances live, but got home in time for the late afternoon as sunset fell on Philadelphia. As the crowd cheered Phil Collins for his second performance on two continents on one day, the crowd and I, watching alone in my basement, lost our collective minds. As I dreamed, Phil Collins introduced “Mr. Robert Plant, Mr. Jimmy Page, and Mr. John Paul Jones” to the stage, and it was finally happening… Led Zeppelin was back!!!
Visually, they looked great. I still am searching to find my version of the bright blue shirt Robert Plant wore, as he looked every bit the king of the stage as the ‘80s had evolved his appearance. Jimmy wore a white scarf and had his swagger back, and John Paul Jones was as crisp and smooth as ever on bass. The cymbals crashed, and “Rock and Roll” ignited the crowd. In my dreams, I would tell you this was the band at their triumphant best. Sadly, that wasn’t quite the case. Robert had been wearing down his voice from touring and was not fresh on the upper-end, like many of the Zeppelin shows in the late 1970s. Word has it that Jimmy had probably had a few too many pre-show refreshments before the set, and his guitar playing was not perfectly tuned or that precise. Only Jones, like always, was the fully prepared professional. To fill in for Bonham, both Phil Collins and Tony Thompson from Chic and the Power Station played drums. They weren’t perfect, and later it was said that Page and the band were underwhelmed by their performance, but the truth is, aside from Jones, none of the act were fully ready or prepared for this primetime moment.
However, as an 18-year-old recent high-school graduate who lettered in Led Zeppelin (and tennis), it was still one of the most memorable and exciting moments of my musical life. Certainly, it was the highest of the highs for a show I didn’t attend personally. After they tore through “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven”, I remember running outside, jumping up and down, completely overtaken with adrenaline. I tried to explain to my next-door neighbor what had just happened, but of course she didn’t get it. Even my parents appreciated the significance, and they suffered with me through a replay of this inconsistent performance that was the highlight of my entire summer.
In the end, there are mixed reviews and memories of all of this. Cynics and skeptics will point to inefficiencies and issues that plagued the actual usage of funds and food as it was intended, but this event set in motion a trend of fundraising shows that would follow in the many years to follow. None would ever reach quite the heights of Live Aid, “We Are The World”, and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” My streaming service had almost 10 hours of live performances that I listened to over the last 24 hours; it has been a real mission and gift. I also rewatched the Zeppelin set, as the band was so disappointed in their performance, they did not allow it to be included in any retrospective audio or video releases. It has been a great flashback, and a memory myself and many others will never forget.