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Live Aid Save the Queen: The Geek Girl's Guide to Music History

The Story of the Day That Rock and Roll Changed the World, and the Trajectory of One Band

A still shot of the Live Aid concert scene portrayed in the Bohemian Rhapsody film; Image courtesy of Google

What do you get from grouping together an art student with three scientifically educated students, all of whom are also remarkably talented musicians? In the 1970’s, you got Queen; the legends and royalty of rock and pop music with hall of fame notoriety, record sales in the hundred millions, and hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” and “We are the Champions” that are stone-solid firm in the waves of pop culture tracks. Fast forward fifteen years with the high-profile band, through  their album flops, personal dissension, dis-abandonment for individual pursuits, and a general wane in popularity. What do you get when you give them a quite literal stage before the world? You get not only Queen’s resurgence of power, but also their immortality sealed in the entertainment world.

With Hollywood’s decades-long aspirations to chronicle Queen’s rise to stardom finally coming to fruition, trailers for the film titled, Bohemian Rhapsody seem to allude to a story centered on the band’s front man, Freddie Mercury, exclaiming between montage teasers, “The only thing more extraordinary than their music is his story.” With no discredit to his vision, his leadership, and his contributions to the band and the industry at large, a keener eye watching the trailers can recognize a recreation of Live Aid’s sold-out Wembley Stadium venue while Freddie commands the foreground. Queen’s story could not be rightfully told without him, but it also couldn’t be told without Live Aid: the likely culminating point of the film and one of my favorite events in modern music history.

The Day that Rock and Roll Changed the World

That stage before the world afforded to Queen was during Live Aid, an international charity super-concert held on Saturday, July 13, 1985, intending to raise awareness and funding for a famine crisis in Africa. Often known as the day that rock and roll changed the world, festival-like concerts sold out Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s John F. Kennedy Stadium, and London, England’s Wembley Stadium, with the two venues connected via satellite broadcasts, and transmitted worldwide, and the British concerts beginning around noon while the stateside concerts began at seven in the morning in their respective time zones. Collectively, around sixty popular music artists of the decade were in attendance between either location, performing on rotation for nearly sixteen hours, and millions were made in support of relief for the crisis. 

"Rolling Stone" special cover and feature; image courtesy of Google 

Live Aid's Predecessors: Band-Aid and USA for Africa

Live Aid’s conception began with a BBC news broadcast spotlighting the horrors of the famine crisis in Ethiopia late in 1984, which had been exacerbated by a natural widespread drought with widespread political and social unrest. The most heart-breaking images of the segment were of the overwhelmed volunteer physicians in the field, who could only choose up to five hundred lives to tend out of thousands others who were near death seeking help. Of those in particular moved by the newscast were Bob Geldof, a bawdy rock star of the Irish punk rock band, Boomtown Rats, and his friend from Ultravox, Midge Urie, who set about creating the holiday single, “Do They Know its Christmas?” with its proceeds contributing to the famine relief. Geldof persuaded many of Britain’s popular music artists at the time to volunteer on the project for free, and the likes of Bono, David Bowie, Boy George, Phil Collins, the Police with others on the track became known as Band-Aid. (Queen, though, was away on a tour and couldn’t participate.)

As Band-Aid’s song became a worldwide hit, a similar project called the United Support of Artists for Africa took shape stateside, and anthemized “We Are the World” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and performed by America’s music all-stars including Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers, Huey Lewis, Diana Ross, Billy Joel, and more. Their song was produced in January 1985, with final recordings taking place right after the American Music Awards ceremony, and released in March. Both songs would later be used to close the future super-concert. 

Respectively,  Band Aid and USA for Africa artists recording in the studio; Images courtesy of Google

From Singles to Stages-JFK, Wembley, and the World

While a concert is the typical next step after a record is produced, Bob Geldof actually conceived the idea of a concert on an enormous scale. “As big as humanly possible,” in his own words, envisioning performances at London’s Wembley Stadium being linked to a major American venue, which would end up being the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Either venue sold out tickets in hours! Though London and Philadelphia were the heart of the event, several other countries were inspired to get involved, one most notably being the Oz for Africa festival out of Australia, actually taking place the day before given the time differences. History.com states that Live Aid was broadcast to over one billion viewers in 110 countries, and more than 40 of those nations held telethons to raise money during the show. Live Aid is also a technical marvel of the decade as much of its supporting technology was either in its infancy or pushed to the limits, so both the live shows and live feeds weren’t without their own brief technical challenges and failures from time to time.

Live Aid crowds at Wembley and JFK respectively. The British military band opened the Wembley concert with "God Save the Queen." Images courtesy of Google. 

Feature or Fiction: Who played that day?

Even the (potential) performance lineup seemed unbelievable at first. When Geldof discussed the acts to be featured in Live Aid during a preceding New York press conference, his list could’ve just as well been read from part of the Billboard Pop charts, several of whom were not even confirmed or directly contacted beforehand. In truth, and according to the documentary Live Aid: Against All Odds, no artists were clamoring to play “the greatest show on earth” at first for an array of reasons, some just being uninterested in playing—like Queen, at first; others having prior obligations, some couldn’t be fit in by the time they agreed, or others just simply withdrew or didn’t show up. In fact, U2 threatened to pull out if they didn’t get a sound check, and Dire Straits actually performed Live Aid prior to their own residency concert at the nearby Wembley Arena. Some, like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, original Black Sabbath, and Led Zepplin, were just broken up, but reunited (stateside) for the event.

Just as many are the reasons why artists either got on board or stayed on board. Some participants were persuaded by a promise Geldof made that the concert would be a “one-off” event never to be seen again after that day. He even requested that ABC erase the broadcast tapes, leaving only secondary broadcast recordings, though copies were given to the Smithsonian Institution, but eventually lost. The BBC on the other hand, had just erased fragments, and MTV had archived the recordings, which had performances cut short by station breaks and presenters. As consequence, the concert in its complete original form was never made, though what was available would later develop into a DVD set Geldof’s company produced over twenty years later. 

Paul McCartney in particular was sought after with the idea that his presence, as an “elder statesman” of British music and a surviving Beatle, would give the concert efforts a greater legitimacy in swaying the political opinions to sympathizing for the African epidemic. McCartney’s management (or more like his kids) persuaded him to join.

Mick Jagger told a Rolling Stone interview that he participated to “raise a lot of money... draw attention to hunger in the world... [because] down the line, people can appreciate what can be done by an event of this magnitude. It was really a relatively nice, well-meaning event.” The same article points out that some of “the biggest names in rock—known for their arrogance, others for their egotism—had at least for this day, [seemed to] cut the pretentiousness and one-up-manship,” likewise recognizing the magnanimity of the day. At the same time however, another quote from the same article claims that over 75 percent of the acts participated for ulterior motives, like jockeying for primetime viewing or refusing to go after some other act. 

Poster for Live Aid listing hopeful music acts; image courtesy of Google

Queen Will, Queen Will Rock You

But just the same, a combined interest in the humanitarian cause and the egomania seemed to have interested Queen’s participation. Freddie Mercury is quoted saying that, “Everyone will be trying to outdo each other, which will cause a bit of friction. It makes me personally proud to be a part of it.” The band cleverly requested a 6 PM slot, as that was the UK’s prime time hour where viewership would peak, and before the U.S. audience (five hours behind) would succumb to “big band fatigue.”

They were one of few acts who pulled off a six-song set where most did three to five songs, opening with an abbreviated “Bohemian Rhapsody” that led into “Radio Gaga.” Before continuing the set came what’s now known as “the note heard around the world,” in which Freddie improvised an operatic-style sing-along with the audience. The Wembley crowd would also carry the singing during parts of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “We Will Rock You.” Freddie and guitarist Brian May went on to start the Wembley show’s closing with “Is This The World We Created?” 

This shot looking out on Freddie Mercury commanding the crowd is one of the most iconic moments of the event; image courtesy of Google

Someone still loves you.

From 1985 to this day, Queen's Live Aid performance has been hailed as the greatest live performance in rock music history. They had pitted themselves against the rising and more relevant music stars of the time, and did more than hold their own in the process. Critics to cohorts alike had agreed they stole the show, and commentators ever since have praised Queen and Freddie Mercury at Live Aid as one of the best acts of all time. Even an internet search on Live Aid will show Queen not far from the top or closely associated hits on the topic. Case in point, the charity concert was instrumental in reestablishing the rock band in the music world.

With many of the artists receiving a surge in commercial popularity after Live Aid, Queen’s three-year old Greatest Hits album broke ground into the top twenty on the music charts, as did Freddie’s solo album “Mr. Bad Guy”. With their Live Aid performance like a reinvigorating “shot in the arm”, Queen ended 1985 by releasing the single “One Vision,” and The Complete Works box set that included previously unreleased material. The following year would also be their last to tour with the original lineup as Freddie’s health deteriorated. Perhaps not without coincidence would “Bohemian Rhapsody” be featured in the SNL comedy, Wayne’s World, released in the year following Freddie’s death. With that as a start to their long-reigning pop culture momentum, the following twenty-six years of tributes, honors, and adaptations have led up to this upcoming film portrayal of Freddie Mercury and Queen, and hopefully there’s no stopping now on their continued resonance through the generations!

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