It’s 30 years since Live Aid. Whatever you think of the concert and the motivations behind it, there’s no doubt it was an era-defining event. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when it was on – although for most people it was nothing more exciting than sitting in front of the telly in their front room. I was on a school holiday in Italy and watched part of it in the hotel’s TV room and part in a cafe at Venice airport as we headed home. I heard the tail end of it on the radio of the coach taking us home from Gatwick to Glasgow. Not quite on a par with Phil Collins’ transatlantic jaunt but impressive nonetheless, I’m sure you’ll agree.
By now everyone knows the accepted narrative of the concert – how U2 and Queen stole the show with their bombastic performances at Wembley. But we don’t care about them or their ego-driven, career-enhancing, cynical opportunism. Nor do we care about Bob Geldof swearing on live TV, even though he didn’t actually say what everyone thinks he said.
What we do care about though, are the acts that made Live Aid the truly international event that it was… just about. Back in the mid-’80s, Johnny Foreigner wasn’t taken seriously as a pop force in the UK. After the demise of chart titans Abba and Boney M, the Top 10 here was rarely troubled by European artists, and when it was, it was almost always dreadful one-off hits from mullet-and-moustachioed horrors like Opus (“Live Is Life”) and Art Company (“Susanna”).
This was a problem for Live Aid, the self-styled Global Jukebox. The main event, of course, was split between London and Philadelphia, but to maintain at least a façade of international involvement the organisers clearly felt they had to feature contributions from other parts of the world. Hence, the output from Wembley and JFK Stadium was interspersed with live and pre-recorded segments from events taking place elsewhere. For the baffled TV audiences this was the ideal opportunity to pop the kettle on and get ready for the next act they had actually heard of. But if they’d bothered to hang around they would have got to see some top-class entertainment, although not necessarily in the way intended.
The first overseas segment wasn’t too bad – Australia’s Oz For Africa was headlined by INXS, who had already enjoyed some international success and would soon become bona fide rock stars around the world. Time differences meant the Sydney concert, featuring a load of Antipodean pop stars including Mental As Anything and Men At Work, had taken place the previous night. The compere was Aussie pop TV legend Molly Meldrum, best known in the UK for his excruciating interview with Prince Charles in the ’70s. He also fronted the Australian TV coverage of Live Aid itself, which mostly seemed to involve random punters walking in off the street to hand bundles of dollars to Molly (for the charity obviously, not for him to stuff in his wallet), and in the absence of any actual famous people to interview, become a studio guest.
The Oz For Africa segment fell between Wembley performances from Adam Ant and Ultravox, fairly early on in proceedings. The acts shown in each country depended on the local broadcasters, and in the UK, the BBC showed two INXS songs, “What You Need” and “Don’t Change”. Michael Hutchence put in a fairly standard ‘80s rock-god performance, all hair-tossing, loose fitting vests and that weird dancing-on-the-spot thing that Courtney Cox does in the Bruce Springsteen video.
Then it started to go a bit weird. Sandwiched between Ultravox and Spandau Ballet, we were treated to the Japanese contribution. Japan is not renowned for its impact on the international pop-scene and from this evidence it’s not hard to see why. This was also pre-recorded but this time in a studio rather than as part of a concert. First act was the heavy metal band Loudness performing their hit “Gotta Fight”, complete with Spagna-style frightwigs, a star-shaped guitar and a lot of spandex. According to the introduction they were “known internationally through their records” but you would have been hard-pushed to find many people outside of Japan who’d ever heard of them.
Next up, according to the voiceover guy, was “a group of pop artists with beautiful harmony and sophisticated sounds.” Off Course had been around since the mid-‘60s and were apparently the founding fathers of Japanese folk-rock, a hitherto unknown musical genre to me, and not one I’ve encountered since. A few seconds into their pleasant song “Endless Night”, the feed from Fuji Television went down, forcing BBC presenter Richard Skinner to waffle to camera for a bit before the link returned.
The name might not mean much here, but Eikichi Yazawa is rock royalty in Japan. He came to prominence in the 1970s as part of the band Carol then as a solo artist and by the time Live Aid came around he was established as one of the country’s biggest pop stars. Sadly his contribution to the Global Jukebox, “Take It Time”, was as insipid musically as it was illiterate, sounding like something that had been rejected as a filler track for the soundtrack of a low-budget ‘80s action movie.
Finally, the producers unleashed a sweaty Motoharu Sano (“known internationally as Moto Sano”) to sing about “the dilemma between human conscience and greed” on his song “Shame”. The chorus, sung in English for added impact on the global stage, went simply “I’m Angry, I’m So Angry”. We felt his pain. To be honest we were all getting a bit annoyed by now.
Austria was next to get its moment in the limelight, with a live rendition of their Band-Aid style single, “Warum?” (Why?) Austria Für Afrika featured such Austrian pop luminaries as the aforementioned Opus and er, well… lots of other really famous stars. Like most of the Band Aid-style charity records, the song itself was truly appalling. In particular, the line “We’re sending money so we don’t feel bad” was, regardless of intent, right up there with Bono’s infamous “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you” in terms of morally-ambiguous messages. Warum, indeed.
Rather than inflict any of their home-grown popsters on the world, the Dutch sensibly chose to provide a live link to BB King performing four songs at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam. From the country that was soon to produce MC Miker G & DJ Sven this seemed a wise decision. In contrast, Yugoslavia decided to focus on its own version of Band Aid, Yu Rock Mission, during its five minutes of fame. It was something of a rarity to get a peek behind the Iron Curtain at the time, and although Yugoslavia was the most open and “Western” of the Eastern Bloc countries, the grainy pictures from Belgrade were still an eye-opener.
The charity song “For A Million Years” was a predictable cocktail of platitudinous, clichéd lyrics and vapid melody, but what really made it stand out was the absolute state of most of the performers (not to mention the fact that they appeared to have forced numerous reluctant-looking children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to appear in their video).
The segment from the J-R T studios was presented by Mladen Popovic, an editor on a local pop magazine show, who wrote the lyrics to the song. Looking a little like a podgy Sheldon from Big Bang Theory and sporting a standard ‘80s-issue lemon jacket with de rigeur rolled up sleeves, he seemed affable enough what with his little finger-shaking gestures and his message of hope to the watching masses: “We know that music cannot change the world, but it can make it little better place to live in.” Wise words.
By now it was late afternoon in London, and after half an hour of Sting and Phil Collins boring for Britain at Wembley, followed by Rick Springfield and REO Speedwagon doing likewise in Philadelphia, everyone was in need of pepping up. So where better to turn to for a bit of cheer than Eastern Europe’s fun capital, Moscow?
It’s fair to say the Soviet authorities were somewhat wary of popular music and its related culture, what with its rebellious undertones and close associations with American culture. This was a time when bootleg cassettes of Bruce Springsteen albums and pairs of knock-off Levi jeans were selling on the black market for upwards of three or four beetroots each. Russians were clearly desperate for rock ‘n ‘ roll. Instead they got Autograph… Genesis without the fashion sense. Or the tunes. Or the lead singer dressed as a sunflower. Or, in fact, any redeeming features whatsoever. Despite being an art/prog rock band 10 years after the rest of the world had moved on from such nonsense, they had built a huge following performing hundreds of live gigs across the USSR. So when Live Aid came around, they were the obvious (only?) choice to represent the Soviet Union to the world.
Predictably, errant technology almost ruined their moment. After a gushing introduction from Richard Skinner, the satellite feed switched to Moscow. We got the sound OK; an introductory speech from ubiquitous and slightly sinister Russian spokesman-to-the-West Vladimir Posner followed by some tuneless, cod-reggae guff. But rather than pictures of a rock band strutting their stuff on stage, we were instead treated to a bizarre, silent film of Bulgarian cherry pickers. It says a lot that it took an age for anyone – including the BBC producers – to realise that this was a technical error and wasn’t actually the Soviets’ idea of a pop video. It took more than two minutes for the penny to drop and the correct switch to be flicked, allowing Autograph to finally burst onto our screens in all their glory. As suspected, we weren’t missing much.
The next “truly worldwide” moment came from the foot of Cologne Cathedral in West Germany, where Band Für Afrika – made up of the cream of the German pop world – performed their fundraising song “Nackt Im Wind” (and yes it does mean Naked In The Wind). It was predictably awful – worse even than the Yugoslav effort. But before the performance got underway, we had to sit through a heartfelt, if somewhat rambling, political statement from veteran rocker Udo Lindenberg condemning the West for squandering billions on “murderous weapons” while Africans died of starvation. The governments in Washington and the Kremlin, he declared, were “sick in the head”. He had a point, although the rant seemed strangely out of kilter with the general non-political nature of the event.
The final overseas segment came from Oslo and the Norwegian version of Band Aid, imaginatively named Norway For Africa. The video of Kenny Loggins and Sheena Easton introducing this for MTV as they attempted to present Phil Collins is up there with Mick Fleetwood/Sam Fox at the Brits in the toe-curlingly embarassing stakes. Not least because of Sheena’s amazing Hollywood-via-Bellshill accent. Meanwhile, Norway’s pop stars turned out to be a rum-looking lot, including one bloke dressed in skimpy shorts, clumpy shoes and a Hawaiian shirt, one who looked like an ‘80s geography teacher and another who could have passed for Jerry Sadowitz on a dark night. The video also featured standard-issue, multi-cultural children, who were forced to stand and stare longingly at a market stall filled with cherries.
I like to believe that the cherries on the market stall were the same cherries being picked by the Bulgarian teenagers earlier. Now, how amazing would that have been?