Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 11, 2004)
July 13, 1985 stands as one of the greatest days in rock history. It saw the most star-studded concert event ever, Live Aid, which topped a year or so of unprecedented charity work from the rock community. When Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof saw news footage of starvation in Ethopia during the fall of 1984, he decided to do something about it. He created Band Aid, a UK-oriented supergroup whose single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” raised millions for relief work.
Not to be outdone, the Americans responded in the late winter of 1985. Recorded in a session after the American Music Awards, another supergroup called USA for Africa created the Michael Jackson/Lionel Richie penned single “We Are the World”. It wasn’t nearly as good a song as the catchy “Christmas”, but the star-packed recording nonetheless sold millions of copies and did its job. An album called We Are the World followed; it included the single plus unreleased recordings from megastars like Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and others.
Not content to rest on these recorded laurels, Geldof decided to initiate a massive concert event. Dubbed “Live Aid”, this blossomed into a dual-continent affair. Two huge connected shows took place on the same day. England’s Wembley Stadium hosted one while Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium housed the other. The pair complemented each other, and together, they filled about 16 hours with performances.
Despite the lucrative possibilities, no official releases connected to Live Aid ever appeared - until now. After almost 20 years, we finally have an official release of Live Aid on home video - or much of it, at least. This new 94-song, four-DVD set includes many parts of the two concerts but leaves off almost half of the day’s events. The package presents the songs in the order they appeared during the day. I’ll look at each disc individually to make it easier to digest the whole event.
DVD ONE (two hours, 17 minutes, 30 seconds):
Set list: Status Quo “Rockin’ All Over the World”, “Caroline”; Style Council “Internationalists”, “Walls Come Tumbling Down”; Boomtown Rats “I Don’t Like Mondays”, “Drag Me Down”; Adam Ant Vive Le Rock; Ultravox Dancing With Tears in My Eyes”, “Vienna”; Spandau Ballet Only When You Leave”, “True”; Elvis Costello “All You Need Is Love”; Nik Kershaw “Wouldn’t It Be Good”; Sade “Your Love Is King”; Sting and/or Phil Collins “Roxanne”, “Against All Odds”, “Every Breath You Take”; Howard Jones “Hide & Seek”; Bryan Ferry “Slave to Love”, “Jealous Guy”; Paul Young “Do They Know It’s Christmas?/Come Back and Stay”, “That’s the Way Love Is” (with Alison Moyet), “Every Time You Go Away”; Bryan Adams “Kids Wanna Rock”, “Summer of ‘69”; U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Bad”.
Of all the artists who appeared at Live Aid, none enjoyed quite the same “bump” experienced by U2. They went into the show as a big band but it definitely helped catapult them to megastar status. Indeed, although the band maintained a very low public profile between the final show of the Unforgettable Fire tour less than a week before Live Aid and the March 1987 release of The Joshua Tree, their popularity grew enormously. We saw little of them in that span; in addition to Live Aid, they did six June 1986 concerts as part of the Amnesty International “Human Rights Now” tour and a few other minor gigs.
Despite that low-profile, the band somehow turned into arguably the world’s biggest band, and their appearance at Live Aid kick started that. They certainly act like superstars here with a performance that remains vivid and impressive.
Overall, DVD One offers the weakest roster of the four discs, but it presents some good material. Paul Young puts on a surprisingly strong performance as he engages the crowd better than any of the subsequent acts and brings life to some otherwise fairly tepid songs. Boomtown Rats also make the most of their slot with two strong numbers. Style Council was a weak follow-up to the Jam, Paul Weller’s prior band, but “Walls Come Tumbling Down” manages to prosper, probably because it sounds a lot like something from his old group’s later years. And despite a bad piano goof, Phil Collins provides a solid rendition of “Against All Odds”.
I’m a big fan of both Sting and Elvis Costello, but neither of their performances here does much for me. Costello makes a nice statement with a cover of “All You Need Is Love”, but it’s simply not a very good version of the tune. Sting’s stripped-down takes on “Roxanne” and “Breath” also flounder, the latter despite guest vocals from Collins.
As for true duds, Ultravox and Nik Kershaw have aged exceedingly poorly. I don’t know how their synth pop fared back in the Eighties - neither made a dent here in the States - but they sound terrible now. Kershaw’s feeble, generic pop battles it out with Adam Ant for the worst performance of DVD One; Mr. Ant minces and prances in an exceedingly silly manner.
The remaining acts fall somewhere between the extremes. We find a lot of forgettable - and forgotten - music here, from the bar room rock of Status Quo to the romantic white soul of Spandau Ballet. Since it includes mainly acts from the Wembley show, UK-based performers dominate DVD One, which means we find many who never made a name for themselves across the ocean. Based on what I hear here, there’s a good reason for that.
DVD TWO (2:24:35):
Set list: Beach Boys Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Good Vibrations”, “Surfin’ USA”; Dire Straits “Money for Nothing” (with Sting), “Sultans of Swing”; George Thorogood and the Destroyers “Madison Blues”; Queen “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Radio Gaga”, “Hammer to Fall”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “We Will Rock You”, “We Are the Champions”; Simple Minds “Ghost Dancing”, “Don’t You Forget About Me”; David Bowie “TVC 15”, “Rebel Rebel”, “Modern Love”, “’Heroes’”; Joan Baez “Amazing Grace”; The Pretenders “Stop Your Sobbing”, “Back on the Chain Gang”, “Middle of the Road”; The Who “Love Reign O’er Me”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; Kenny Loggins “Footloose”; Elton John “Bennie and the Jets”, “Rocket Man”, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (with Kiki Dee), “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” (with George Michael).
Just as U2 reigned over DVD One, Queen stand as the kings of the second platter. Obviously this set didn’t influence their later career ala the Irish rockers. Queen were already enormously successful, especially in the UK. That’s part of why their set shines so brightly: in front of the adoring Wembley crowd, they could take control, which they do. In a frustrating move, they cut short the classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” right before it gets to the best part, but the rest of their act soars.
For me, I most looked forward to Bowie’s set. He’s my all-time favorite recording artist, so of course I happily greeted his four songs. Performing with an abruptly assembled band of performers I don’t believe he ever worked with before or after Live Aid, Bowie’s magnetism helps hold together his set. The band’s not particularly good, but Bowie sounds fine and engages the audience well. It’s not great Bowie, but even average Bowie is better than almost anybody else, so these songs stand out as one of the day’s highlights.
The Eighties wasn’t a great decade for Elton John, but he pulls himself together well for his set. It helps that he gets the assistance of two guest stars. Although “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” represents Elton at his fluffy cheesiest, the crowd loves it, and the presence of Kiki Dee makes it a lot of fun. John doesn’t sing on “Sun”, as he lets George Michael take the whole thing. That’s a good choice, as the then-Wham! leader handles the number well. John’s set works nicely.
When we look at the rest of the acts, we see why DVD Two is the best of the four. Great acts dominate. In addition to those mentioned, Dire Straits make the most of their two tracks. Sting reprises his ghostly vocals from “Money for Nothing”, and even though he flubs the lyrics at one point, he helps make this an arresting rendition. The band’s take on “Sultans of Swing” doesn’t know when to end, but some biting guitar work from Mark Knopfler brings this warhorse to life.
George Thorogood’s recycled blues/rock never did much for me, but I can’t deny he put on a good show, and he burned up the stage for his one number. The Pretenders weren’t at their best, but they sound decent as they plow through some fine songs.
Not everything on DVD Two works. This incarnation of the Beach Boys may include Brian Wilson, but they sound like crap and can barely pull together meandering versions of their three tunes. The always-insufferable Mike Love doesn’t help matters. For Simple Minds’ two numbers, singer Jim Kerr works way too hard to play Bono and it fails. Their songs ramble and sound feeble at best. The studio “Don’t You” offers some charms, but here it just blathers on and on with no end.
Technical difficulties marred the Who’s set, at least from the TV side of things. Apparently a fuse blew and the transmission became affected. I don’t know if any of that got to the stage and affected the band’s performance, but Live Aid definitely doesn’t see the Who at their best.
Many of us looked forward to the reunited Who’s show. Back when we took band retirements seriously, this marked their first time together in almost three years, and we saw it as a really special event. “Reign” starts slowly but manages to build pretty well and end competently. Unfortunately, “Fooled” never gets going. Actually, it does okay for its first half, but Daltrey badly messes up midway through the song and the band never recovers. At the end, Townshend tries to kick over the mic stand; he misses and falls on his ass. This symbolizes the whole performance for the Who.
In addition, an abbreviated “Amazing Grace” from Baez feels out of place at this event. Kenny Loggins looks foolish between great acts like the Who and Elton John, and he offers a weak performance of “Footloose”. Nonetheless, most of DVD Two is good, largely due to so many great acts.
DVD THREE (2:16:27):
Set list: Madonna “Holiday”, “Into the Groove”; Freddie Mercury and Brian May “Is This the World We Created?”; Paul McCartney “Let It Be”; Band Aid “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “American Girl”, “Refugee”; Black Sabbath featuring Ozzy Osbourne “Paranoid”; REO Speedwagon “Can’t Fight This Feeling”, “Roll With the Changes”; Crosby, Stills and Nash “Teach Your Children”; Judas Priest “Living After Midnight”, “Green Manalishi”; The Cars “Just What I Needed”, “Heartbreak City”; Neil Young “The Needle and the Damage Done”, “God’s Perfect Plan”; Thompson Twins, Steve Stevens, Nile Rodgers and Madonna “Revolution”; Eric Clapton “White Room”, “She’s Waiting”, “Layla”; Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight”; Duran Duran “Union of the Snake”, “Save a Prayer”, “The Reflex”; Patti Labelle “Imagine”, “Forever Young”.
DVD Three sees the set firmly shift from Wembley to JFK. Only “Let it Be”, “Created” and “Christmas” come from the UK, as the remaining tracks all emanate from Philly. That weakens the disc, since so many of the day’s crummier acts appear. REO Speedwagon were already virtual has-beens by 1985; they peaked in 1981 and declined precipitously soon after that. I’m not even sure how they made the bill, and their two tunes don’t make me miss them.
The version of “Revolution” by the Thompson Twins, et al, brings us to three covers of Lennon-penned songs so far. It also stands as probably the most misbegotten performance of the day. I don’t dislike this version because I regard it as blasphemy; I dislike this version because it’s absolutely terrible. An all-style/no-substance synth-based act like the Twins simply don’t have what it takes for a great rocker like “Revolution”, and it’s painful to watch the results.
Patti Labelle competes with Adam Ant for the most pathetic and dismal presentation of the concert. Oh, let’s give that crown of crap to Patti. At least Ant understood the self-parody in his music, whereas the insanely egotistical Labelle clearly believed her own hype. She raises the Lennon tally to four with her bloated and unlistenable take on “Imagine”, and her version of Dylan’s “Forever Young” is equally bad. Labelle doesn’t sing; she shrieks, wails, emotes and bullies her way through song with no goal other than to scream “look at me!!!” Ugh.
Occasionally I read “worst live act” threads on music forums, and inevitably, the Cars appear on these. Their two numbers here aren’t atrocious, but they’re not particularly good either. “Just What I Needed” is a catchy enough tune to work, but “Heartbreak City” is too tepid and flat to overcome the band’s dullness.
I like rocking Neil Young a lot more than soft Neil Young, so his two numbers don’t do much for me. He plays decently but just doesn’t really engage. Actually, “Needle” works nicely, as it delivers a somber message. Although “Plan” has lyrics that work for the day’s theme, the tune’s little more than bland country and flops. His sometime-mates CSN never coalesce with their performance of “Teach Your Children” as they ramble their way through the tune.
I was a newly-minted Duran fan in July of 1985, so I looked forward to their show. They didn’t live up to expectations. Actually, they sound decent, but Simon LeBon seems to take his cues from Adam Ant as he prances and preens in a most obnoxious way. He looks like he bought into his own hype. Based on this, I thought Duran wouldn’t be a good live band when I saw them a couple of years later, but this was incorrect; they can be excellent on stage. But you wouldn’t know it from this passable but inconsistent performance.
Sadly, my favorite moment of the day doesn’t show up since the DVD fails to include Duran’s version of “A View to a Kill”. LeBon’s voice breaks badly during one chorus, which leads to hilarious results. Duran fans and haters alike love this moment, so it’s too bad we don’t get it captured in all its digital glory.
Despite all these indications to the contrary, the picture on DVD Three isn’t entirely murky. Fresh off her first-ever concert tour, Madonna blasts through her two numbers with brightness and vivacity. Clapton presents good versions of “White Room” and “Layla” plus a decent “She’s Waiting”, all of which stand out due to good solos. Tom Petty’s sounded better - and looked better too, as muttonchops are never a good choice - but he and the Heartbreakers whirl through their two tracks pretty well.
Before and even during Live Aid, rumors abounded that the three surviving Beatles would reunite for the show. That didn’t happen, but Paul McCartney came out for the Wembley concert’s penultimate number, “Let It Be”. Technical problems marred the performance, as Macca’s mic didn’t work during the opening verse. Apparently he dubbed that verse not long after the event, and you can slightly tell the difference here, but the two vocals mostly meld well. It’s not a great version, but considering the difficulties, it sounds fine.
Messy but fun and borderline triumphant, “Christmas” ends matters well in London. Most of the day’s performers come out for the finale, which features some of the original single’s vocalists plus some fill-in singers. Geldof takes Boy George’s part, and Bowie substitutes for Paul Young; I have no idea why Young doesn’t do the lines himself, but he may well have left by the end of the show, as I didn’t see him on stage. Others like Sting and Bono reprise their moments from the original. It’s a lively and joyous conclusion to that half of the day.
I never liked heavy metal, so I can’t embrace the performances from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. That said, both sound fine for what they are. Ozzy looks fat and dopey but sings well, and Priest also deliver their best.
It seems likely that DVD Three will plop into my player the least frequently. A few good moments appear but too many weak acts drag down the overall package.
DVD FOUR (45:50):
Set list: Hall & Oates “Maneater”; Hall & Oates + Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin “Get Ready”, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “My Girl”; Mick Jagger “Just Another Night”, “Miss You”; Mick Jagger and Tina Turner “State of Shock”, “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll”; Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood “Blowin’ In the Wind”; USA for Africa “We Are the World”.
Just as the Beatles didn’t reunite for Live Aid, the Rolling Stones steadfastly failed to perform together even though a) they were still together, and b) three-fifths of the band played at JFK. I’ve never understood why the Stones refused to perform at Live Aid; perhaps the members related some justification back then, but if so, it escapes me. Band frictions were high in the era, especially since 1985 saw Jagger relentlessly pursue a solo career with his She’s the Boss album. Nonetheless, they could/should have put those tensions aside for the day.
They didn’t, though, and Live Aid briefly gave Jagger hope that he just might be able to transform himself into a solo star. His turn stands as the most memorable of the JFK show, largely due to his incendiary duets with Tina Turner. Jagger uses the Hall & Oates band as backup, and they do well for the most part. The first two tunes sound good, as Jagger seems more involved in the songs than usual. The duet with Tina rambles a bit - I didn’t remember that “State of Shock” was such a weak song - but their chemistry is undeniable, and their moments electrify. Jagged provides one of the JFK show’s best sets.
As for the other two-fifths of the Stones, they didn’t fare so well. Unprepared and out of tune, Dylan, Wood and Richards shamble their way through “Wind”. Mercifully, the DVD eliminates two of Dylan’s numbers. Why’d they sound so bad? According to Wood, this occurred due to a) Dylan’s desire to change things at the last minute, b) out of tune guitars, and c) the distraction of “We Are the World” rehearsals behind them as they play. If you watch the one number included, you see validation for Wood’s statements. He and Dylan both need new guitars during the song, and Wood gets so distracted with the matters behind the stage curtain that he peeks back there to see what’s happening.
None of this redeems the truly messy performance. Things get so bad that at one point, Dylan looks at Wood with a “what’re ya gonna do?” smirk and roll of his eyes. Whether due to external problems or a lack of preparation, the Dylan set deserves its reputation as a train wreck.
On the surface, it probably looks weird that Eighties relics Hall and Oates get so much time on this disc - they cut out a song from Madonna but kept so much of H2O’s stuff? However, don’t forget that they were absolutely huge at the time, and the inclusion of former Temptations lead vocalists Ruffin and Kendricks brought generation-spanning appeal to those numbers. The numbers are a bit sloppy and don’t live up to expectations, but this is still a fairly fun set.
Finally, the day ends with an all-star performance of “We Are the World”. While “Christmas” finished Wembley on a high note, “World” comes across as bloated and incoherent. Of course, it’s not as good a song as “Christmas”, but the messy and rambling rendition of it doesn’t help. No one really seems to know what they’re supposed to do, and the sound of more Labelle screeching burdens this one even more. It’s an almost unlistenable take on the tune.
That’s too bad, for so much of Live Aid is good that it’s a shame the day finishes on a negative note. Don’t let “World” or the other weak material ruin things for you, though. Any show with this many different acts inevitably will suffer from more than a few clunkers. Plenty of great work shows up here, which means that Live Aid merits its legendary status.