I remember being a teen in the UK when the news broke that Bob Geldof was assembling a group of pop stars to record a Christmas single to help the starving in Africa, particularly Ethiopia, which had been ravaged by famine since 1983. It was presented like “breaking news” around tea time—possibly during one of the music shows airing then—and made to sound like something world changing was about to happen. The super group of British pop singers was dubbed Band Aid.
I’ll never know whether that reporter was getting an accurate sense of the future, or was trying to do her best to promote Band Aid’s single, but just over half a year later, on July 13, 1985 Band Aid had turned into Live Aid, a massive dual-venue concert held at Wembley Stadium in London and at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. (Phil Collins played one set, backing Sting, in London and then hopped on a Concorde over to New York to play his solo hits.) The set list for both sides of the Atlantic is a who’s who of mid-80s pop and rock–Madonna, Led Zeppelin, U2, Queen, David Bowie all played that day–though the American side was both more eclectic in genre and more middlebrow in taste. For television viewers, it took up an entire day of broadcasting (I should know, I watched it at my friend’s house during a very hot summer day.)
Created as part of a series of mini-documentaries by master filmmaker Errol Morris, the short film above puts Geldof center stage and revisits what Geldof calls “the best day of my life,” stepping onstage at the beginning of Live Aid.
It’s an odd interview. Geldof says he’s still a man disappointed in himself—Morris calls him out on it at one point—and gets emotional when he remembers visiting Africa and how he was asked to appear in photographs alongside the dying victims of starvation. Band Aid had given him the fame to do something about the problems in the world, but it has made him self-conscious about being turned into just another celebrity. (His pal Bono handles it much differently, as he says.)
He talks about his poor upbringing—with dead or absentee parents, he was raised by the radio and it was rock music that saved him. He saw those rock legends and rock’s fans as a lobbying base to get change to happen, and made it happen through will power. He wanted to use the platform that arena rock afforded and did so. From an initial guess of raising $100,000 from the sale of the single, the entire Live Aid event raised $140 million instead and was viewed by 1.5 billion viewers.
Though others have questioned the effectiveness of charity events like Live Aid, Geldof’s takeaway is still positive and broader than assuming one concert can change events—it’s more about how a concert can promote an issue and give organizers the money to change the world.
“The paradox at the heart of individualism,” Geldof says, “is that it only works when we act in concert for the common good.”
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.