Thirty-five years ago this week, Live Aid became the greatest show the world had ever seen. Mark Beaumont looks back
In the swarming backstage scrum of Wembley Stadium, rock 'n' roll supernovas collided. A sweaty post-gig Pete Townshend embraced Elton John, en route to the stage. Freddie Mercury accosted Bono by the makeshift Hard Rock Cafe constructed for the occasion. David Bowie and Paul McCartney mock-boxed for the cameras between luxurious ferns.
On one dressing room door, a sign listed the three acts scheduled to use it during the day, then the mysterious "Ensemble Male". A space reserved, rumours abounded, in case it was needed by the surviving, reunited Beatles.
Out front, history was in the making. "It's 12 noon in London, 7am in Philadelphia," BBC presenter Richard Skinner had told an audience of almost two billion across the globe, 40% of the Earth's 1985 population. "And around the world it's time for Live Aid."
The Coldstream Guards struck up the royal salute, Status Quo piled into Rockin' All Over the World and, 35 years ago this week, the biggest, most ambitious concert that had ever been staged crashed onto 500 million TV sets from New York to Tokyo, Moscow to Montreal.
By the time it wrapped up 16 hours later with an emotional rendition of We Are the World at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, legends had been created and £50m raised for famine relief.
When Freddie Mercury, at the climax of his famous call-and-response "Aaaaaay-o" segment, struck what would become known as The Note Heard Around the World, he couldn't have imagined it would resonate with a global tone of such rich compassion.
With a nebula of stars queueing up to perform at two simultaneous stadium shows in London and Philadelphia, Live Aid wasn't just the greatest gig on Earth, it was the birth of music as a formidable humanitarian and philanthropic force.
It was also a gigantic leap of faith built from Bob Geldof's determination to hustle, bully and cajole the greatest show he could imagine into reality.
Following the three-million-selling success of Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? the previous year, which became the fastest selling UK single ever and raised £8m for Ethiopian famine aid, the perception might well have been that Geldof now possessed a golden Filofax and had the biggest names in rock at his beck and call.
In fact, when Boy George suggested organising a star-studded concert after Geldof and assorted Band Aid alumni joined Culture Club for an encore of the single at Wembley Arena in December 1984, it took every ounce of Geldof's single-minded guile and resolve to pull it off.
First stop, promoter Harvey Goldsmith's office. "I didn't really get a chance to say no," Goldsmith told The Observer in 2004. "Bob arrived in my office and basically said, 'We're doing this.'"
Goldsmith set about hiring Wembley Stadium and his US counterpart Bill Graham secured the 100,000-capacity JFK Stadium for the American leg of the show - all at a charity discount. And Geldof entered into the most high-stakes game of bluff in his life.
"He'd say to Bowie, 'Queen are doing it, Elton's doing it' and he was making it up," says Live Aid's UK production manager, Andrew Zweck. "Then he'd say to Elton 'Oh yeah, Bowie's definitely in, I've spoken to him'. He played that game very successfully."
"When I announced it, the only one who was dithering, as ever, was Bryan Ferry," Geldof himself told The Observer. "So, I just said, 'And Bryan Ferry'. And he rang to say, 'I didn't say yeah'. I said, 'Well, say no, then. You're the one who can announce it, though'."
Ferry, it turns out, wasn't the only artist dithering. When Geldof officially announced his "global jukebox" at Press conferences in London and New York on June 10, he reeled off a line-up that was significantly more TBC than he made out.
Bowie, Elton, The Who, Eric Clapton, U2, Madonna, McCartney, Robert Plant, Dire Straits, Phil Collins and a plethora of New Romantic chart-pop acts of the day were certainly all signed up. But hearing their names among the roll-call came as a surprise to the likes of Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Huey Lewis, Tears For Fears and Stevie Wonder.
"Mick was a bit surprised," Jagger associate Tony King told Rolling Stone. "But he wasn't annoyed. He thought, 'Okay, now I've actually got to do something'."
As the A-listers piled up, so did the offers. Although some in the UK team suspected Graham was warning off some big names, such as Paul Simon and Whitney Houston, uncertain that Geldof could pull it off, Graham soon had 100 major artists asking to perform. Graham had to turn down arena-filling acts such as Foreigner and Yes even when he'd shortened sets and brought the US show's start time forwards from noon to 9am to fit more performers in.
The Press duly noted that, considering this was a concert for African famine relief, Geldof had struggled to find black acts for the bill. Diana Ross and the Pointer Sisters were on tour, Donna Summer was studio-bound and Michael Jackson, according to his publicist, Norman Winter, was "immersed in a couple of heavy projects. He'd liked to have done the show, but it's impossible."
Camped out in an office at Phonogram Records in the weeks before the show, Geldof hustled, ruthlessly, right up to the last minute.
He drove up the price of licensing the broadcast to NBC in America by pretending rival US channels CBS and NBC were interested (they weren't) and threatened to pull the broadcast from Germany unless it agreed to run a telethon.
A lot of tables were thumped long before he famously demanded the BBC viewing audience "give me the money".
It got results. The night before the main event, Eric Clapton, Simple Minds' Jim Kerr and Bryan Adams were spotted in the bars and restaurants of the Philadelphia Four Seasons hotel, where Ozzy and Judas Priest's Rob Halford worried, over tea, if they might disintegrate when playing in sunlight.
Meanwhile, hordes of Duran Duran fans besieged the Palace Hotel across the road, where it had laid on a sumptuous pool party late into the night for performers including Mick Jagger, Hall & Oates and Robert Plant.
Geldof himself spent the night before the show sleeping on towels because of night sweats, terrified no one would show up. And, at the stadium, Zweck had his own concerns.
"It was intense," he recalls. "It was brand new. How do you put on 22 acts in one day down to the second?"
As the crowds poured in beneath Wembley's famous twin towers and Noel Edmonds' helicopter company ferried the stars from Battersea to a nearby cricket ground where the local teams continued their tournament between arrivals, July 13 arrived with the air of history in the making. Everyone from Elton to Adam Ant lined up in the banquet hall to greet Prince Charles and Diana and Geldof, Queen and Bowie took seats with them in the royal box to watch the opening acts.
Geldof took an early slot with The Boomtown Rats. "It was only when I walked on stage with the band that the romance of it and the hugeness of it got to me," he said. "That moment when I pull up sharp on I Don't Like Mondays - 'and the lesson today is how to die' - time became elastic, like I stood there for hours and my hand just stayed in mid-air."
Geldof stole the afternoon and it was a tough afternoon to steal. By 3.20pm, the crowd had already been graced with sets by some of the biggest chart names of the decade: Adam Ant, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Nik Kershaw, Sade and Elvis Costello.
Here, while the event was still warming up, were Sting and Phil Collins tag-teaming Police hits with Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now) and In The Air Tonight. Collins raced straight from the stage to Edmonds' helicopter, bound for Heathrow to catch a Concorde flight to the US, where he would join in the Philadelphia leg.
Arriving in Philadelphia, Collins walked into a scene of sheer pandemonium, a tsunami of stars. Backstage, The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash were being swarmed by photographers and TV crews. Madonna and Sean Penn, inseparable to the point of reportedly going into a one-person portable toilet together, shunned the Press, preferring to hang out in their trailer with Jim Kerr and Chrissie Hynde.
After a guest spot with Eric Clapton and a solo set at JFK Stadium, Collins stuck around for what he thought was going to be a low-key performance with his old friends Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, but which had been upgraded to a Led Zeppelin reunion.
What followed would be described as "one of the worst rock 'n' roll reunions of all time". Plant's voice was shot, Page's guitar was out of tune and Collins' drumming was unregimented at best.
"It wasn't my fault it was c**p," Collins said later. "If I could have walked off, I would have. But then we'd all be talking about why Phil Collins walked off Live Aid, so I just stuck it out."
Back in London, Wembley wasn't without its own hiccups. Bryan Ferry began his set to find his microphone was broken, his guest David Gilmour's guitar wasn't working and his drummer had destroyed a drum skin on the very first strike.
The onstage traffic light system, designed to give acts a two-minute warning before the plug was pulled, got mysteriously smashed during The Who's raucous performance. And Paul McCartney's surprise rendition of Let It Be towards the end of the show was famously inaudible for the first two minutes.
None of which distracted from an event of historic impact and significance and some of the most memorable live moments of the decade.
Then a lesser-known act, U2's set proved a breakthrough, even though their closing song Pride (In The Name Of Love) had to be cut. Bowie also cut the song Five Years from his set in order to screen a video of footage from the famine.
It was Queen's magical 22-minute set, however, which has come to epitomise Live Aid. Introduced by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones dressed as policemen investigating a noise complaint from Belgium, Mercury jogged onstage for a career-defining performance: the piano intro of Bohemian Rhapsody gave way to stadium-wide cult clapping for Radio Gaga, We Are The Champions turned Wembley into a sea of swaying arms and Mercury bestrode the event like a colossus.
"I remember a huge rush of adrenaline as I went on stage and a massive roar from the crowd," said Brian May. "And then all of us just pitching in. Looking back, I think we were all a bit over-excited and I remember coming off and thinking it was very scrappy. But there was a lot of very good energy, too. Freddie was our secret weapon."
As for Geldof, it was a stressful and highly strung experience. His mood ricocheted throughout the day, aggravated by pain from a sprained back that kept him slightly hunched. By the time he was gathering a stage full of stars for the finale of Do They Know It's Christmas? he was thoroughly exhausted, carried shoulder-high by Townshend at the show's end towards a much-needed rest.
In Philadelphia, the party raged on. At 1am in a second-floor suite at the Palace Hotel, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Bob Dylan chatted with Jimmy Page and Stephen Stills about their various onstage mishaps. "Fun?" said Dylan of his three-song set with Richards and Wood. "No, we couldn't hear anything." "Would have been better if we'd gotten paid," Richards joked.
Indirectly, though, most of them did. As the CD era was dawning, sales of the acts involved with Live Aid soared. Collins, Madonna, U2 and Queen saw their records catapulted back into the charts and one of the most immediate legacies of the show was its cementing of a top tier of heritage musicians who would hob-nob with Charles and Diana at similar events over the coming years - a rock 'n' roll royalty of their own.
Financially, the success of the event would come into question. In the wake of the Band Aid single, relief food was left to rot in Ethiopian docks as the country's dictatorial leader Mengistu Haile Mariam prioritised the unloading of weapons for his four internal conflicts. The $127m raised by Live Aid helped to break the trucking cartel that was stopping relief getting into the country, but, according to investigations by Spin in 1986, much of it was funnelled through Mengistu's government, who used the money to purchase hi-tech weaponry from the Soviet Union.
The beneficial legacy of Live Aid, however, cannot be underestimated. In its wake governments woke up to the swell of public support for humanitarian global relief and began to place it at the heart of foreign policy decisions.
"We took an issue that was nowhere on the political agenda," Geldof told The Guardian, "and, through the lingua franca of the planet, which is not English, but rock 'n' roll, we were able to address the intellectual absurdity and the moral repulsion of people dying of want in a world of surplus."
The ripple effect of Live Aid, in terms of lives indirectly saved, is incalculable. "What I've seen over the 35 years," says Zweck today, "is the awakening of the social conscience of the music industry, with artists realising they had a power and they could do good with that power.
"You can look back at Live Aid and see that's where it started. Governments now listen and that all started with a pop concert."