Live Aid: Behind the scenes

BY Simon Button

26th May 2020 Music

Live Aid: Behind the scenes

As we're getting closer to the 35th anniversary of the legendary benefit concert, we take a look at some of the lesser-known facts about Live Aid 

The Live Aid benefit concerts on Saturday, July 13, 1985, were staged at London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s John F Kennedy Stadium—drawing crowds of 72,000 and 90,000 respectively, plus a worldwide television audience of 1.5 billion.


Ticket sales and donations brought in around £80 million for famine-stricken Ethiopia, with half the money going to emergency relief like food and medicine and the other half on development projects such as dams and wells.

Tricky operation 

After Status Quo kicked off proceedings at midday with a very apt “Rocking all Over the World”, more than 75 acts performed on both sides of the pond. Folk singer Joan Baez was the first to take the stage in Philadelphia, while Phil Collins played both shows—appearing with Sting at Wembley before heading to Heathrow in a helicopter (piloted by Noel Edmonds, no less), hopping on Concorde to New York, hopping on another helicopter for Philadelphia and arriving just in time to do his own set and be the drummer for Eric Clapton and a reunited Led Zeppelin.

Performers who never were

Prince. Image via wiki commons 

Many big name musicians said no to organiser, Bob Geldof. Bruce Springsteen had just finished touring with his band and thought they needed a rest, Diana Ross was on the road, Prince claimed he’d retired from performing live (though he did make an appearance on video), Huey Lewis wasn’t convinced the money raised would reach the needy and none of Frankie Goes To Hollywood bar Holly Johnson were keen on the idea. Eurythmics, meanwhile, had to pull out when Annie Lennox developed throat trouble, as did Tear For Fears when two of their backing band quit.

The legendary Queen set 

Take it from someone who was there on the day: Queen’s now-legendary performance of six songs in 17 minutes not only stole the show, they were also the loudest act on the bill after their sound engineer fiddled with the mixing desk. Their flawless performance was the result of three days’ rehearsals but the group almost didn’t take part because Freddie Mercury worried their performance would be seen as a political statement and had to be convinced otherwise by Geldof.

Unexpected disruptions

The show was far from plain sailing. Paul McCartney’s microphone packed up during Let It Be, Eric Clapton’s mic gave him an electric shock, Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp fell over mid-performance as did Pete Townshend, a streaker stormed the stage during Sade’s set, Led Zep’s Jimmy Page forgot to tune his guitar and, in his rush to cross the Atlantic, Collins (sharing drumming duties for the band with Chic’s Tony Thompson) had omitted to learn the songs.

Whims and fancies

Elton John. Image via wiki commons 

Each act at Wembley was allocated one of the stadium’s very basic dressing rooms for an hour before they performed and 30 minutes afterwards. Unhappy with the arrangement, Elton John set up a motor home in the car park complete with pot plants, a picket fence and a BBQ. The rest of the acts feasted on free food provided by the Hard Rock Cafe but were asked to make donations—with the event’s co-organiser Midge Ure telling me later that he handed over £50 for a burger.

Dancing in the street 

Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s cover of the Motown classic “Dancing in the Street” was intended as a live transatlantic duet but back in the mid-1980s, there wasn’t the technology to pull such a thing off in terms of syncing the sound so they did it as a video instead. Later released as a single, it topped the UK chart for four weeks with all proceeds going to the famine relief fund. 

The Wembley show ended with a rousing rendition of the song that started it all, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (co-written by Bob and Midge) which topped the charts for five weeks over the previous festive season and raised £8 million for famine relief. Most of the on-stage ensemble hadn’t sung on the original record, though, so they had to frantically learn the words backstage.

Bono, who had of course actually sung on the single, ad-libbed “Let them know springtime is coming”. That may have seemed odd in England in July but, as springtime in Ethiopia starts around August time, it actually made geographical sense.

Surprise visit 

Cher. Image via wiki commons 

The Philly concert wrapped six hours later with Lionel Richie leading a “We Are The World” singalong. A surprise singer in the line-up was none other than Cher, who Collins had bumped into on his Concorde jaunt. Seems she hadn’t heard about the event and was gutted she’d missed out, but Phil said “Just show up!” so that’s what she did.


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