By Megan Willey
“My name is Bob Geldof. I have a terrible cold. I’m a musician. And in 1984, I was watching a news broadcast about a famine that was occurring in Ethiopia. And I felt I had to do something about it.” Bob Geldof is the musician responsible for sparking the string of events that eventually helped raise close to $200 million for famine and drought relief in Africa. Plagued with drought, starting in 1981, Ethiopian crops were failing, peaking in 1984 with an extremely poor harvest. While the Ethiopian government warned that five million people were at risk from starvation, their response was mediocre at best. In addition to fighting hunger and famine, the country’s dilemma was further complicated by a twenty year civil war in its northern provinces. The West hesitated to interfere because of Ethiopia’s Marxist state, led by a military government. As countries debated whether to send aid, it is reported that a million people lost their lives to starvation.
Geldof started to “do something about it,” when he collaborated with fellow Irish musicians, Midge Ure and Harvey Goldsmith, forming the group Band Aid Trust, and recording the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” All the proceeds from the song’s sale went “directly” to famine victims. With Band Aid Trust’s success and the continued poor condition of the Ethiopian people, Geldof began to organize Live Aids, hoping to make close to $2 million for the relief fund.
Few music fans of this generation forget what they were doing on July 13, 1985. Whether the audience was in the crowds or glued to their television, Live Aid was the first truly global concert. Coined as a “global jukebox,” the concert had two main sites, Wembley Stadium in London with 72,000 people, and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia with 90,000, along with a few side locations, including venues in Sydney and Moscow. It was reported that 1.9 billion viewers in 150 countries, the biggest television audience ever, watched the show. The concert started at 12:00 (GMT) at Wembley, announced by Prince Charles and Princess Diana of Whales, and continued at JFK at 13:51. The U.K. performances ended at 22:00 and the U.S. at 4:05, making the concert 16 hours long, with many overlapping venues.
Featuring over 70 artists and bands, this concert topped all others previous. Major names include U2, Queen,Madonna, The Who, Elton John, George Michael, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Joan Baez, Santana, Eric Clapton, Run-DMC, Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan, among many others. While the concert made music history, no one in the audience or onstage forgot why they were there. Geldof constantly reminded the audience to give money and after a video showing the starving and diseased children of Ethiopia played along with the song “Drive,” by the Cars, leaving many in tears. Geldof received the largest donation from the ruling family of Dubai, taking in $1.64 million. In all, the total of $245.4 million blew Geldof’s dream out of the water.
Memorable moments throughout the concert at JFK include Joan Baez’s announcement that “this is your Woodstock,” Bob Dylan’s guitar string breaking, and the reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as well as Led Zeppelin. Wembley’s memorable incidents include The Who’s performance, in which the entire crowd sang to “We Will Rock You” in unison. The presence of a Beatle deemed great importance to Wembley’s concert organizers, and while Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” had technical difficulties, it brought greater legitimacy to the stage as an elder in the British music scene. Also worth noting is Phil Collins’ performances at both Wembley and JFK, jumping on a Concorde jet after his U.K. show.
Geldof received an honorary knighthood in 1986 for his incredible work; however, he did face some criticism and controversy in a few areas. Dylan generated some debate with his comment on how some of the money should go to American farmers. Geldof angrily responded in later articles, stating that Dylan showed a complete lack of understanding of the issues of Live Aid; he said his comment was “crass, stupid, and a non-nationalistic thing to say.” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly critiqued Geldof’s oversight of the money, stating that a large proportion of the funds were siphoned off by the government. While U2’s Bono agreed with the O’Reilly’s accusations of controversy in an interview with Tim Russert on “Meet the Press,” he felt it was better to give the funds to questionable organizations for the people who need support than to not give them at all. However, although Live Aid met some critique, Geldof’s actions did help people in great need.