Live Aid was recently voted the single most important event in rock history by readers of the Independent newspaper, over and above such cataclysmic highs and lows as Altamont, Cobain’s suicide, Oasis at Knebworth, etc, etc. On the other hand, it has been strongly argued that this transatlantic spectacular, watched by 1.5 billion viewers worldwide and starring the biggest draws on the planet, from McCartney to Dylan to Jagger to Bowie to, um, Adam Ant, sounded the death knell for mainstream rock’n’roll, re-presenting it, notwithstanding the billion sterling it raised for charidee, as self-serving and, moreover, a benign form of entertainment, stripped of any of the revolutionary noxiousness that made it so compelling in the first place.
Whatever your opinion, here it finally is on DVD, for better or worse. The footage, released for the first time after bootleg copies began appearing on the Internet, includes more than 10 hours of film from London and Philadelphia spread across four DVDs. The musical highlights and unique collaborations include U2, The Beach Boys, The Pretenders, Neil Young, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, and an “informal” rendition of “Blowin’ In The Wind” by Dylan, Keith Richards and Ron Wood in America.
Disappointingly, though, some moments have been lost forever. McCartney rectified his microphone failure in “Let It Be” by overdubbing the missing vocal a couple of days later. And Santana and Led Zeppelin have refused to allow their performances to be included here—rather churlishly, since The Who, in the spirit of things, have okayed the magnificently cocked-up “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.
Watching this footage brings back a flood of memories. To be under Wembley’s blue skies that day, you felt overwhelmed, empowered and humbled by waves of colliding emotions-rage and sadness for the pitiful victims of the Ethiopian famine alternating with enormous pride and excitement at the sight of rock’s biggest names seizing the initiative, doing what their governments singularly failed to do.
You remember the helicopters, flying in with their famous passengers; the first lump-in-the-throat glimpse of the Live Aid logo standing tall on either side of the stage; Status Quo kicking off with the hugely appropriate “Rockin’ All Over The World”; the deafening cheers as Concorde roared overhead, carrying Phil Collins to his second performance of the day, at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium; Queen; a heart-stopping finale, with Geldof held aloft by Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend before the mass singalong of “Do They Know It’s Christmas (Feed The World)”.
This is the document of a triumphant occasion born from tragedy. Yet to watch the original BBC report of the famine from Michael Buerk is to know that, nearly 20 years on, more help is vital in a continent blighted by Aids, by crippling debt and, still, by hunger.