By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)
Held at two massive venues and broadcast to nearly 2 billion people across 150 countries worldwide on July 13, 1985, Live Aid remains one of the biggest live events in television history.
John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia brought in many of the biggest names in popular music at the time, but the event’s most memorable shows took place at London’s iconic Wembley Stadium. It was where Queen delivered the performance of their career and one of the most famous sets to ever take the Wembley stage, U2 began to make a name for themselves globally as a must-see live band, and many other classic rock legends made once-in-a-lifetime collaborations as they performed together in the name of aiding rampant starvation in Ethiopia.
Bob Geldof and Midge Ure worked together to organize the event known as the “Global Jukebox”, which included the massive single “We Are The World”, performed by over a dozen famous musicians. Culture Club’s Boy George is credited with the idea of staging a live benefit concert to raise funds for charities to donate to efforts to relieve the Ethiopian famine.
In addition to performances by The Who and the aforementioned Queen and U2, members of Led Zeppelin reunited for a one-off performance of “Stairway to Heaven”, Paul McCartney delivered an emotional rendition of “Let It Be”, and Mick Jagger collaborated with Tina Turner for the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)”. And that’s just scratching the surface of the incredible amount of legendary names that took the stage in each of the two venues that day.
Thanks to YouTube, many of the concert’s most memorable performances and moments will live on forever. Check out the below clips to get a glimpse of this iconic event, 30 years later.
Queen’s Entire Set
Freddie Mercury & Co. were already known as one of the biggest tickets in live music and unparalleled live performers, but their unforgettable Live Aid set somehow took it to yet another level.
When you factor in the fact that it was a concert to benefit those in severe need, it makes the band’s performance that much more spectacular. The fans joined in to sing along with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and other classics, resulting in one of the most unifying concert moments ever captured on video.
Queen may have alienated some fans with their poppier early-’80s sound, but at Live Aid they proved why they were still arguably the biggest live band in the world. Freddie had complete command of the audience, and could do it like no other rock frontman in history.
U2 – “Bad”
U2 thought they blew their chance to deliver an entertaining set when the time for “Bad” ran too long. But the reason for the delay was because Bono went above and beyond to get a fan to the front of the stage, where he gave her a big hug.
The fans loved the moment and Carter Alan dubbed it “one of the galvanizing moments of Live Aid”. It was still early in the day at the time, and fans may have not been ready for such a poignant, powerful moment – but leave it to U2 to deliver that.
Paul McCartney – “Let It Be”
It’s hard not to get chills just sitting by yourself spinning “Let It Be” with headphones on your iPod. Put the song in the context of Live Aid, and its power brings the world together.
As Paul performs the song, you can almost feel the force of the world singing along and joining together in the cause. Bob Geldof, David Bowie and others joined Paul at the end of the performance for backing vocals, which only heightened the emotions in the air.
Led Zeppelin Reunites for “Stairway to Heaven”
You can hear the feverish buzz in the Philadelphia crowd as Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones took the stage. The biggest, heaviest rock band of all time was finally reuniting after several years apart, and they played the biggest song of all time.
Although this was a reunion for the surviving members of Led Zeppelin, who had lost John Bonham only five years prior, they sounded like they never took a break. Jimmy is on point with his famous double-neck SG, while Plant could still belt the highest notes of “Stairway to Heaven” with ease.
David Bowie – “Heroes”
You can hear Bowie dedicate this song to his son, as well as “All our children, and the children of the world” before busting into “Heroes”, easily one of the most fitting, emotional songs performed that day.
Watching this classic performance only makes you yearn for more live Bowie – something that’s been painfully absent in recent years, even though he continues to put out new material.
Bob Dylan ft. Keith Richards & Ron Wood – “Blowin’ in the Wind”
In a day filled with peace, love and amazing music, Dylan’s performance was one of the only sets to draw controversy. Despite the event explicitly being held for victims in Ethiopia, he took the opportunity to bring up his own agendas – specifically, the need for aid to America’s farmers: “I hope that some of the money…maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe…one or two million, maybe…and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks…”
Bob Geldof took exception to the comments, because his were focused on those losing their livelihoods – Live Aid was about saving people’s lives. While he had good intentions, his comment was misguided.
Thankfully, he did deliver a strong performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” with guests Ron Wood and Keith Richards. It’s odd in retrospect that they performed right after bandmate Mick Jagger and there was no Rolling Stones set, but Mick was aggressively pursuing a solo career at the time.
Eric Clapton & Phil Collins – “Layla”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more unique live version of the iconic “Layla” than this one, shredded by Clapton and featuring Phil Collins on drums.
This version is slightly faster than the Derek & The Dominos original, which gives it more of a racing feel. While probably unintentional, the heightened tempo really makes you feel the urgency of the problem the whole concert addressed.
Dire Straits ft. Sting – “Money for Nothing”
Live Aid may have featured the likes of Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin and Queen, but arguably the biggest band on the planet in the summer of 1985 was Dire Straits, whose song “Money for Nothing” topped the charts around the world. It features Sting in the song’s “I Want My MTV” intro and outro, so it was only fitting for the Police frontman to join Mark Knopfler & Co. for the performance.
Despite having no way to reproduce the song’s famously distinctive music video in a live setting, the performance itself is spot-on, with Knopfler’s patented finger-shredding on full display.
Elton John – “Bennie & The Jets” and “Rocket Man”
As one of the closing performances of the day at Wembley, Elton John delivered a predictably energetic set punctuated with deft piano stylings and a strong backing band.
The fans had just learned that the concert was being broadcast to 95 percent of the world’s television sets, which brought an even sharper focus to Elton’s set. Knowing that the world was literally watching you, it makes his spot-on performance that much more impressive.
The Who – “Love Reign O’er Me”/”Won’t Get Fooled Again”
The Who will always be one of rock ‘n’ roll’s quintessential arena acts, their songs and riffs tailor-made for giant audiences. It didn’t get much bigger than Wembley Stadium and 2 billion people watching on TV, so it’s only natural for them to be one of the final sets of the day and send the concert out in thrilling fashion.
This rendition of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” took on a bigger context given the cause to relieve the Ethiopian famine. Though the song is mainly about political and cultural revolution, with Ethiopia in desperate need of positive changes this song was a perfect choice to underscore the importance of the concert and cause.
Mick Jagger & Tina Turner – “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)”
Tina Turner is as close to a “rock star” as it gets in R&B and soul. She not only fit in perfectly, but may have even upstaged Mick Jagger as the duo performed a special collaborative version of “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It),” preceded by the Michael Jackson/Jagger collaboration “State of Shock”.
“We Are The World”
Although star-studded collaborative charity singles have been copied, imitated, mocked and parodied to death – and re-watching videos like the above performance may evoke cringe-y awkwardness rather than happiness or hope – there’s no denying that “We Are The World” was a massive success, selling over 20 million copies worldwide and raising over $63 million for aid in Ethiopia. The show-closing performance of the song at Live Aid undoubtedly brought billions of people together in one of pop culture’s greatest moments of unity.