Happy Birthday, Bob Geldof! The Boomtown Rats singer turned 67 today.
On July 13, 1985, a dual-venue concert, Live Aid, organized by Bob Geldolf and Midge Ure, were held to raise funds for the relief of the ongoing Ethiopian famine. Held at Wembley Stadium in London and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the gigs were attended by over 172,000 and watched around the world. But what was the legacy of the world-renowned charitable act?
Bob Geldof only wanted to help, which is how a lot of terrible things first get started. Appalled by searing images of starvation in Ethiopia on his television screen, he set about creating Band-Aid, an unprecedented gathering of pop stars, singing a hastily written song to raise money to offer relief.
On November 25, 1984, the charity single Geldof wrote was recorded by a host of the world's top pop stars in Notting Hill, London and released four days later. It became the fastest-selling single of all time in the UK, shifting over a million copies in the first week alone. It was number one for five weeks too, selling over three million copies and becoming the biggest-selling single of all time in the UK.
Depicting Africa as a parched wasteland where western privileges like food, water, and seasonal cheer are unheard of, the super-group sang of a place “where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow, do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”
And, well, did they know it was Christmas? It’s quite likely many of them did.
But since the entire upper half of Africa and the Horn of Africa are Muslim countries it’s also likely they weren't particularly bothered. Unperturbed by these complexities, the super-group sang on, “The greatest gift they'll get this year is life ...”
Actually, the greatest gift “they” could ever get this year or any year is a functioning democracy, free of lunatic warlords and megalomaniacal dictators.
Better and wiser foreign policy would be an enormous help too. But I can see why Geldof didn’t work these factors into his song.
“There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime,” sang the group. Not even that statement was true, though.
In fact, it does snow in Africa, because it's a vast continent with 54 countries that defies any easy categorization. All that complexity was pushed aside in the overarching effort to help.
Looking back you can see that Geldof's song simply wanted to make Africa (them) intelligible to people who could not otherwise relate to it (us). That explains its weirdly paternalistic tone.
Africa was presented as a place apart, a scorched earth so unlike Europe that the only way we could be expected to understand it is through him telling us why they are just like us.
But the unexpectedly terrible thing that happened was that in bringing together all these superstar egos for Band-Aid, it practically ensured they would later be brought together again for Live Aid.
It was the kickstart of the 24/7 celebrity culture that has now encircled and engulfed the globe and transformed pop music, to its detriment.
Do you remember Live Aid? If you were around in the 1980s you can't fail to. It was the Reagan era's Woodstock, but with much less altruism and much more hairspray. On July 13, 1985, it utterly riveted the planet.
Broadcast back-to-back from Wembley Arena in London and the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, it was a watershed in high technology and live performance. It was also, most of it, dull as a wet Wednesday in Bognor Regis.
Frozen in the amber glow of nostalgia, people forget now how stilted and uninspired so much of it actually was.
Two old hams saved the day as it turned out. Freddie Mercury and David Bowie were both gifted with the kind of stage presence (and tunes) that turned an otherwise fairly workmanlike live concert into something transcendent and unforgettable.
In Wembley, Bono tapered on the stage like an overdressed goat tapering on the Matterhorn, and the band’s performance saw their own record sales explode afterward.
But it was really the producers and the record companies that got the memo about the money-raising potential of mega-celebrity events like Live Aid. After Live Aid, shows like "American Idol" and "Britain's Got Talent" became an inevitability, and both had their origins in that far off summer of 1985.
I imagine Simon Cowell probably started dreaming of One Direction shortly after the final song played. So the arrow that went up with Band Aid and the simple human desire to help eventually came down with Harry Styles. And thereby hangs a tale.
* Originally published in 2015.