To diverge a bit from the subject matter that has been consuming my attention lately, I feel like I have to mark an important anniversary today. Admittedly, this impulse came about when a younger work friend said, in all innocence, “what’s Live Aid,” when I brought it up in conversation.
After I turned into ancient dust and blew away on a gust of 80’s wind, I revisited some of the performances of that day through the myriad posts I was seeing that presented the individual memories of other oldsters like me.
Once upon a time Bob Geldof was a songwriter and singer in a band from Dublin. The Boomtown Rats spent a fair chunk of a couple of decades in the ‘all time favourite’ spot on my personal list, and even today I get a little overwhelmed when I hear songs like
(likely their best known song – and one of the first popular songs I learned to play on the piano). ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ was about school violence in the US, specifically a school shooting in California. The song hit number 1 in the UK, but was denied airplay in the US as radio stations feared lawsuits and negative reaction from the religious right (interesting that those things are still major concerns – backlash from the gun lobby and the religious right – and still dictate too many things in that country).
They appeared in a fantastic ‘To Sir With Love’ spoof on SCTV:
I can remember madly searching for a blank VHS tape when it popped up on my television. I still have the tape.
Their songs were largely ‘story songs’ – telling tales of people and places, slices of life in particular environments at particular times. It’s interesting that they hardly seem dated or out of comprehensible context, despite the fact that they were mainly referring to characters in places like Dublin or London in the 1970’s and 19080’s.
The songs had elements of social criticism wrapped up in the lyrics – often about the lousy lot of the working class in the ‘Banana Republic’ that was Ireland at the time. A ‘septic isle’ under the thumb of politicians, police and priests. A place that was rapidly losing its young people to emigration – or the ongoing conflicts in the North. It was a place that had banned the band from performances due to their outspoken critique of the nationalism, influence of the church and corrupt politicians that they felt were destroying their native land (again, the fact that this is still a thing should be concerning).
‘Banana Republic’ is a fantastic example of how social commentary can be voiced in an articulate yet entertaining manner. Bob’s lyrics were often biting, but they demonstrated an incredibly clever mastery of language and turn of phrase. The songs of the Rats always said something, and they said it in a tuneful, and often playful, way.
“The purple and the pinstripe mutely shake their heads
A silence shrieking volumes, a violence worse than they condemn
Stab you in the back yeah, laughing in your face
Glad to see the place again – it’s a pity nothing’s changed.’
There’s something entirely Irish about the lyrics.
In 1984 Bob saw a BBC news report about the drought and famine in Ethiopia. Out of his horror at the images he saw came this:
He and Midge Ure wrote a song and started a movement to raise money as a response to perceived inaction on the part of world leaders to intervene in the tragedy that was unfolding in Africa. It was the impetus for other musicians to take up the battle cry, and it brought extensive coverage to the issue.
Bob visited Ethiopia to see the extent of the tragedy for himself and realized that a large part of the reason that African nations were in such states of emergency was due to the repayments of loans to Western banks. The song wasn’t going to be enough to even scratch the surface. Even when Americans and Canadians came up with their own songs, in response.
So he and Midge got back to work and planned and executed an unprecedented stage show that would join the world together for one day in a desperate and despairing plea for action in the face of incredible need. By July 13, Bob was exhausted and in pain with a back injury, but his intensity over the course of the day and through the entirety of the live broadcast is palpable.
He continually reminded the audience why we were all there. It wasn’t just the greatest rock show ever staged, there was an underlying purpose that made the trappings and egos of popular music irrelevant and ridiculous (the day that ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’ was recorded he famously admonished all the participants to ‘leave egos at the door’).
The recordings from that day demonstrate just how far we’ve come – technology- and communications-wise, anyway. These days a simple electronic money transfer in support of hurricane victims can be completed in a matter of seconds. In 1985 there was more involved, and Bob knew that he had to drive the message home and maintain the intensity of the purpose so that people would get off their butts and DO something to help.
It was a day of spectacle and excess (Phil Collins hopping the Concorde to play both Wembley and Philadelphia, comes to mind) – and, in addition to the incredible performances (check out Queen. Freddie held that crowd in his hands and revivified Queen in the hearts of many. The DVD highlights the contributions from other countries – INXS’s concert from Australia is still one of my favourites among their live performances), musicians found that their voices – raised together – could impact world events in a positive way.
Over the course of that day, the way we thought about popular music and its ability to affect social change was forever altered and a new standard was set.
A lot of people have done similar things since then. They have used their celebrity in ways that benefit others (Bono started on his path to real political involvement after Live Aid) and raised money and petitioned governments on behalf of many people in need of aid and intervention. But Bob was the first to see the worldwide possibilities that could come with the exploitation of love of music. No one has used music and story as a means of communication as earth-shatteringly as did Sir Bob Geldof.
He has continued his charitable movements for Africa and global peace, achieving success – and his share of critics – over the subsequent decades. His caustic straightforwardness has earned him derision and some enemies. He can be an insufferable jerk. He has amassed a fairly vast personal fortune – and may or may not have paid taxes on some of it. His personal life has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs and negative publicity. He is an unlikely hero in many ways.
That said, Bob used the tools that he had to hand – his background as a songwriter/musician, his connections in the music and music journalism industries, and a seemingly endless supply of energy and passion – to start a worldwide movement that is still resonating in our popular culture. He was recognized, at 34, with an honorary knighthood by the Queen, yet refused to sit on his laurels. He continues to fight for social justice and reform in a number of spheres.
The Rats’ new album is really good (although its exposure has been hampered, as has the great output of so many artists, in the times as they are, right now) – and is reflective of that same drive, even after the passage of the ensuing decades.
On this, the 35th anniversary of the day that changed me – as I learned that those things I love best can help to change those things that needs changing – please remember that there are many contemporary artists who are doing their part to make manifest the lesson I learned 35 years ago today. Art, when wielded well, can do more than bring pleasure and comfort – it can change the world. Listen to what they have to say – and support them however you can.
P.S. If you didn’t get to experience it when it happened, definitely take the time to watch Live Aid in its entirety. Over and above the significance of the day, it featured some incredible – and some never-to-be-repeated – performances. It was truly a day of wonder.