Monday, 13 July 2015

Remembering Live Aid

I see a lot of people are commenting on Live Aid today. A lot of people who weren't there. I've read a lot of words from a lot of people who don't like Geldof, who don't like Bono and who don't like the idea of Queen having played Sun City.

I don't like those things either. But I was at Live Aid. Not sat in front of the telly... I was there, in the heat and sweat and thick of it all on the pitch at Wembley Stadium. My opinion of the events of July 13, 1985 is no more valid than any other. But it's at least pretty well-informed.

I was 21 years old. I had bought the Band Aid single the previous Christmas, though not through any particular sense of humanitarian duty. I bought it because I was young and into pop and rock and, back then, I bought a lot of records.

I was a nascent hack, a cub reporter on the Teignmouth News under the irascible genius that was Rodney Hallworth (more about him in some future blog). Wedding reports, bowls results and council minutes filled my working life, but every now and then my devotion to music would worm its way into the seaside weekly paper's pages too. Lo, it came to pass that in December 1984 I found myself interviewing Bob Geldof backstage at a Boomtown Rats gig in Exeter University's Great Hall.

My funny little paper had been encouraging its readers to knit tiny jumpers for starving African children, and I brought a couple of the little sweaters to show the scruffy little bastard. He obliged with encouraging words, we took a photograph of him holding two of the garments like ridiculous hand puppets, and I noted the understated revelation that he had started working towards a live concert in the summer, to reprise the whole Band Aid shenanigans. This was duly reported and ignored by the good people of Teignmouth. I offered the concert tip-off to the NME's newsdesk. They ignored it, too.

A couple months later press ads started appearing for Live Aid. I was curious and interested. David Bowie was confirmed, so that was it. I wanted in. Question: How does one get a ticket?

Answer: One books a coach from Teigmouth to Bristol (the closest available ticket outlet), one queues overnight outside the Virgin store (with hundreds of other people) and then one catches a coach back the next day. That's right folks. On the pavement, in the cold, overnight, just to buy tickets. That's how things used to work.

Then came the day – a blisteringly hot, scorchio one. TV crews buzzed around outside Wembley Stadium, reporting live from the queues at the gates as we (me and my mate, Ray) waited to be allowed in. Expectancy was high – and we were confused. The notion of strict 20-minute sets, even for big boys like Bowie and The Who, was revolutionary. The rotating stage design sounded, well, weird. Would it work?

On our way in, rushing to find a good spec, I flashed by a banner or two: “You are saving lives,” I think one might have said. There were t-shirts: “This t-shirt saves lives.” Programmes: “This programme saves lives”. Posters: “You don't have to be mad to work here...” You get the picture.

Sanctimonious? Here's my point: sorry, you weren't there. The atmosphere on that day was, even for the mid 1980s, simple and gracious and really quite pure. While you lot in TV land were watching Geldof swear next to Ian Astbury in a commentary box, our inadequate stage-side screens were screening ads for Budweiser. Unbearable given the July sunshine. From my right came a tap on my shoulder. “Swig mate?” Amber nectar. From a stranger.

Cups of water were passed around. I saw a chain of bottled beers snake its way into the crowd. Somebody handed me some suncream, too. My nose was blistered and almost bleeding come the end. But it's the thought that counts.

And it's the thought that still counts. I'm not claiming that this was some kind of Woodstock-ish utopia where everybody just got along for the first time. But the vibes, man, were good. Every act – even Nik Kershaw, folks - was entertaining and memorable. And well-received. Bowie's set was emotional and exciting – even my dad, who watched it on telly at home, conceded that he was 'pretty good'.
And then there's that video. The Cars. Harrowing TV viewing, right? I watched it with 70,000+ people, all blubbing. I can't begin to describe how I felt then. It was collective, though. And there was no kitchen to run to, no kettle to put on. We were a very big 'one'. And, oh heck, Status Quo were fab.
Yes, bands did well out of their Live Aid appearances. Reputations were forged and heightened. But is that really important? When I bought my ticket I knew what I was buying into: I wasn't there to save Africans: I was there to see a load of bands.

But still, when I saw those ships heading to Africa with “With Love From Live Aid” painted on their hulls, their steel bellies filled with food and medicine and what have you, I couldn't help but feel like I had played a small role in making that happen. We don't live in a perfect world. But sometimes something comes along to offer a little help.

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