Live Aid 1985: Time Of Their Lives

Posted: June 26, 2005

Live 8 will have to be pretty stupendous to equal its 1985 predecessor. Live Aid set a standard for ambition, scope, impact and musical talent that is unsurpassed 20 years later.

On a swampy July 13, 32 representatives of rock royalty performed in front of 100,000 sweating fans at Philadelphia's JFK Stadium (with a similar number of acts onstage at Wembley Stadium outside London).

Tickets cost $35 for the show that began promptly at 9 a.m. with a secular invocation from Joan Baez. "This is your Woodstock," she proclaimed, "and it's long overdue."

Tom Farley arrived early from West Chester with his wife, clutching a portable TV. "We figured we were seeing the rock-and-roll Hall of Fame for about $1 a band," he says by e-mail. "Before noon, we had already seen Black Sabbath, the Four Tops, Judas Priest, the Beach Boys and more - every band topping the last one. It was an amazing show."

The 14-hour marathon, run with military precision by promoters Bill Graham and the Electric Factory, raised more than $70 million for famine relief in sub-Saharan Africa. The ABC broadcast, hosted by Dick Clark, was syndicated to 107 stations, and the concert was carried on MTV, a coup for the still-struggling cable channel.

In all, 1.9 billion people in 150 countries saw the show, fulfilling organizer Bob Geldof's vision of "a global jukebox."

"There was a sense of Philly pride," says Ray Koob, the current WMGK-FM (102.9) night jock who at the time was a staffer at WMMR-FM (93.3). "Our town was at the center of the rock-and-roll world in a way that hasn't happened before or since. And we were all proud the Hooters were part of it."

"We took the stage around 9 a.m., blasted our way through 'All You Zombies' and 'And We Danced,' and prayed it sounded better in the real world than it did onstage," says Hooters singer-keyboardist Rob Hyman by e-mail from Germany, where the band is touring. "It was certainly 10 minutes that changed our lives."

The concert had been planned for July 6, but Geldof - who had initially opposed Philadelphia as the U.S. site - postponed it a week, hoping it would give newlywed Bruce Springsteen a chance to participate. The Boss eventually declined.

But the show featured many reunions, including the Who, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And Teddy Pendergrass joined Ashford & Simpson onstage in his first public appearance since his paralyzing car crash in 1982.

Phil Collins was the cynosure of the day for his transatlantic feat of performing at both Wembley and JFK. But Madonna received plenty of attention, too, primarily because nude photos of her had been published in Playboy the previous week. The crowd chanted for her to take off her clothes throughout her abbreviated set.

Many people in attendance say there was a special atmosphere in the stadium that day.

"The excitement was like nothing I had experienced," e-mails Li Gilman, who borrowed her parents' car to drive from New York with a friend. "People just came together. None of the usual pushing, shoving, rowdy concert behavior."

In some ways, though, it was a typical outsize, outdoors rock festival.

"I was 12 years old and . . . my grandmother took me," recalls Jennifer Stomsky of Ambler via e-mail. "My first memory of the day was walking into the stadium and seeing all the people lining the tunnels that headed into the arena area. Some looked wiped out, some were totally passed out. It was a VERY hot day and I recall my grandmother telling me that they hadn't drunk enough and were dehydrated. In retrospect I realize many probably drank too much."

The oppressive heat felt even worse in the area in front of the stage where the crush of bodies was thickest. So after the Pretenders finished, the Fire Department soaked the crowd up front.

Of course, this created a quagmire near the stage, and the combination of water and electricity led to some scary moments during Patti LaBelle's set.

"During 'Forever Young,' I kicked off my shoes because I had the Holy Ghost," the singer says. "I walked all the way down into the audience and the crew was going crazy. . . . They thought I would electrocute myself because I had a cord mike and I was walking through the water out there."

Two local women, Elva Davis of Elkins Park and Sandy Hoffstein of Dresher, had the best seats in the house through a combination of luck and pluck. They acquired passes to the bleachers behind the stage from a friend who was maintaining the plants in the lavish backstage retreat for the stars.

Lingering by the barricades, they pushed their way into a group headed for the stage and suddenly they were 10 yards from the headliners, chilling with the stars.

"The first person I saw was Chevy Chase, and then Don Johnson, who was there with his little boy," Davis says. "There was a fat guy standing in front of my friend, and she said, 'Could you move over, please?' It was David Crosby. Bette Midler, Jack Nicholson and Cher were there. Tina Turner came over. I was dancing with Kenny Loggins. It was surreal."

The ladies ventured onstage to sing the finale, "We Are the World," with a motley chorus that included Lionel Richie, Harry Belafonte, George Segal, Timothy Hutton, Beau Bridges and Famous Amos.

"After it ended, security kind of formed everybody into a line of two rows," Hoffstein recalls. "Mick Jagger was right in front of us. Everyone was hugging each other and saying, 'We did it! We did it!' At one point, Graham Nash came over and hugged me and asked if I wanted to go to a party. I said no because I thought he was a stagehand and there were so many better people around."

Johnson, then starring in TV's Miami Vice, recalls going to the after-party on the roof of the Four Seasons Hotel, riding the elevator with Jagger.

"When the doors opened there were tons of people, big stars," he says on the phone from his Colorado ranch. "And Mick and I were ushered over to this VIP area of stars. I was standing next to Keith [Richards], Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart. I turned to Mick and said, 'Look at you guys. It looks like we've just been invaded by a pirate ship.' "

It turned out to be far easier to raise the money for famine relief than to allocate it effectively. In the ensuing months, there were angry allegations that the vast outpouring of humanitarian aid was not finding its way to the starving people of Africa, that dictators such as Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia were funneling funds and foodstuffs to his militias.

Geldof acknowledged the difficulty of operating in the war-torn region, saying, "I don't know any people who have been into Africa who haven't had their fingers burned one way or another." But he has staunchly defended Live Aid as "almost perfect in what it achieved."

In any case, those who were at JFK on that long, sweltering day were certain they had witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"I stood on the stage to do my final report as the crews were cleaning up," WMMR mainstay Pierre Robert says. "The crowd had all left but you could still feel all this energy like a tornado had blown in and swirled around in this magical demonstration of willingness and hope. Then almost as magically it swirled away. Standing there at midnight, you could feel what the people had felt. But it was gone. It was gone."

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com.

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