Live Aid and the rise of ‘charity rock’ in the 80s

If you care to watch the 1984 Band Aid video, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (I advise you think carefully before doing so), you will see some of the worst haircuts ever sported by humankind – or rather, by mankind, as all the worst offenders are men. Simon Le Bon, Bono, Paul Young, George Michael: it’s a roll-call of hirsute horror. Only three women – the ladies of Bananarama – featured in the original Band Aid ensemble, and none of them get a prominent vocal spot. In their rush to feed Africa, songwriters Bob Geldof and Midge Ure left gender equity by the wayside.

Blow-dried mullets are not the only aspect of Band Aid, and the attendant rise in rock n’ roll charity fundraising that it spawned, which retrospectively appear in bad taste. Band Aid is at once overblown as a spectacle and, as a response to the famines ravaging Ethiopia during the 1980s, manifestly inadequate. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ brought together a bunch of wealthy rock stars, and the British public bought the song in droves, making it the highest-selling UK single of all time until Elton John’s similarly mawkish ‘Candle In The Wind’ (in memory of Princess Diana) eclipsed that sales record. No doubt everyone’s desire to help was genuine. But lyrically, the song creates an insurmountable barrier between the rich (participating musicians, the listening public) and the poor (those other people, over in Africa), whose suffering becomes an object of pitiable contemplation. Bono even sings at one point ‘Well tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of you’. Someone’s gotta starve, eh? Glad it’s not me!

So how did a severe famine in an impoverished African country, created by a complex array of political, environmental, and economic factors, become a cause celebré in affluent Western countries? In one word: television. The horrific conditions of the 1984-5 Ethiopian famine were brought home to British audiences via news broadcast – the BBC were the first foreign television network to report on the famine, in October 1984 – much in the way that the Vietnam War had been, for American audiences in the 1970s, their first televised glimpse of a battlefield. The response, naturally, was more television. The video clip for ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was put together, like the song, in little more than 24 hours and rushed into high rotation, while Band Aid’s accompanying 1985 concert Live Aid was watched globally by an estimated 2 billion people.

Bob Geldof was one, very well connected viewer prompted to action by the news reports. His Irish band The Boomtown Rats, who rode the crest of New Wave into number one with ‘Rat Trap’ in 1978 and ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ in 1979, had pushed him into the milieu of jet-setting rock stars, and he called upon all of them (using a Rolodex, perhaps?) for his hastily-conceived Band Aid plan. The song was co-written with Midge Ure, of Ultravox, and utilised the combined talents of – well, if you really need to know, watch the video. David Bowie was drafted to contribute but couldn’t make it. Boy George was flown by Concorde from New York to London in order to record his lines, at which point the unintended irony metre had to be sent away for repairs.

Celebrity was Geldof’s main criteria for Band Aid: he wanted huge stars to ensure huge sales. On that level, no one can deny the success of his formula, which was swiftly repeated in the US with ‘We Are The World’ (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, et al). The air of 19th century philanthropy that clung to Band Aid – See these generous rich people! Doing things for free! – showed up the fact that by the mid-1980s, popular music was not just big business, it was respectable business. Rock stars were no longer a tacit threat to the social order: bigger than Jesus they might have been, to use John Lennon’s phrase, but that was just fine. Celebrity musicians became substitute politicians, which says as much about the reduction of politics to populism as it does about the fuzzy ‘inclusiveness’ of stadium rock. At political rallies and arena concerts, the idea was the same: raise your hands in the air and sing along.

Live Aid certainly managed that: held on 13th July, 1985, it brought over 70,000 people to London’s Wembley Stadium and close to 100,000 at the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. An Australian version, Oz for Africa, was held at the Sydney Entertainment Centre on the same day. In the UK, the concert cemented U2’s live reputation and gave glam rock titans Queen the opportunity to lead the crowd in fervent self-congratulation with ‘We Are The Champions’. INXS, then at the height of their fame, headlined Oz for Africa with Countdown’s Molly Meldrum as host.

Live Aid has been used as a template ever since for large-scale charity concerts that combine live music, television and radio broadcasts, and an element of home-viewer fundraising, generally a telethon. The most recent local examples have been Australia Unites, held on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House in early 2005 to raise money for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and Sound Relief, in March 2009, for those affected by the Victorian bushfires and the Queensland floods that year. Like Live Aid, Sound Relief was held at two venues simultaneously – the Sydney and Melbourne Cricket Grounds – and featured a line-up of contemporary, early 00s favourites (Wolfmother, Eskimo Joe), reunited oldies (Midnight Oil, Hunters & Collectors), and Jet, who literalised their name by flying cross-country between both venues. Also, Kings of Leon had the tact not to perform ‘Sex On Fire’.

The million-dollar question – literally – pertaining to Band Aid, Live Aid, and its many subsequent imitators, is where does the money go? The BBC was forced to apologise to Bob Geldof in November 2010 after airing a series of reports which suggested that money raised by Band Aid for famine relief in Ethiopia had instead been diverted to armed rebel groups. The fact that some aid money had been used for such a purpose was not in dispute, but whether or not any of this money had originated from Band Aid. Geldof insisted no, and after initially standing by its reports, the BBC apologised without reservation.

But the difficult issue remains of how humanitarian fundraising, particularly in massive amounts, is distributed in a way that ensures it helps, rather than hinders, the people it was intended for. Aid expert David Rieff has raised detailed concerns that a good proportion of the roughly 50 million pounds raised by Geldof’s musical charity went to NGOs who colluded in the forced resettlement of more than half a million Ethiopians. “There is no necessary connection between raising money for a good cause and that money being well spent,” wrote Rieff in British newspaper The Guardian, “… there is ample reason to conclude that it [Live Aid] did harm as well as good.” (June 24, 2005). Somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 people died in the resettlements – likely as many as were saved from famine by fundraising efforts. As most rock stars know from experience, a lot of money can be a dangerous thing.

Anwyn Crawford



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