When Live Aid rocked the world

In July 1985, musicians united to raise money for Ethiopia, and created a legendary concert in the process. Find out more about the two concerts that took place in London and Philadelphia – and the iconic performances from Queen and other artists – with BBC History Revealed

Live Aid stage at Wembley, London, in 1985

“It’s 12 noon in London, 7am in Philadelphia, and around the world it’s time for Live Aid!” With these words, the British broadcaster Richard Skinner opened Live Aid on 13 July 1985.

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The dream of the benefit concert was to raise money for victims of famine in Ethiopia. Lasting from 1983 to 1985, it claimed the lives of 1.2 million people and displaced double that number within the country. A BBC news report in October 1984 by Michael Buerk, who described the situation in Ethiopia as a “biblical famine”, inspired musician Bob Geldof to organise and release charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Following its immense success, Geldof and fellow music star Midge Ure wanted to do more. The idea of putting on a televised, fundraising concert featuring the biggest stars was conceived.

In fact, two concerts were held simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London and John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. More than 50 artists took part, including David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Elton John, Madonna, Status Quo, Paul McCartney and U2. Phil Collins flew by Concorde so he could perform at both venues – when stateside, he reportedly bumped into Cher and persuaded her to join in with the finale. A number of other countries also got in on the act with their own concerts – including in Australia, Yugoslavia and Japan. Live Aid was one of the largest TV spectacles of all time with a global audience of 1.9 billion people.

The 16-hour event, in front of more than 170,000 inside the venues, has gone down in music history. Queen’s 21-minute performance at Wembley has topped polls for the greatest rock performance in history, becoming so iconic that recent biopic Bohemian Rhapsody recreates the set almost in its entirety. At one point, frontman Freddie Mercury performed a call-and-response a capella section with the crowd, holding a note that became known as the “note heard round the world”.

Geldof, however, wasn’t satisfied with how much was being raised. In a now infamous interview, he took to the broadcast box and caused controversy by swearing as he implored viewers to donate more money. Videos were also shown exposing the desperate conditions faced in Ethiopia.

Both had the anticipated effect and donations soared. More than £150 million was raised overall and the popularity of Live Aid encouraged several nations to make surplus grain available, helping to end Ethiopia’s immediate hunger crisis. Geldof received an honorary knighthood the following year for his charitable work, while many of the artists involved saw a boost in their sales and chart positions.

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This article was taken from the July 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed