On July 13, 1985, at Wembley Stadium in London, Prince Charles and Princess Diana officially open Live Aid, a worldwide rock concert organized to raise money for the relief of famine-stricken Africans. Continued at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia (where Joan Baez famously kicked it off by telling the crowd “this is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue”) and at other arenas around the world, the 16-hour “superconcert” was globally linked by satellite to more than a billion viewers in 110 nations. In a triumph of technology and good will, the event raised more than $125 million in famine relief for Africa.
Live Aid was the brainchild of Bob Geldof, the singer of an Irish rock group called the Boomtown Rats. In 1984, Geldof traveled to Ethiopia after hearing news reports of a horrific famine that had killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians and threatened to kill millions more. After returning to London, he called Britain’s and Ireland’s top pop artists together to record a single to benefit Ethiopian famine relief. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was written by Geldof and Ultravox singer Midge Ure and performed by “Band Aid,” an ensemble that featured Culture Club, Duran Duran, Phil Collins, U2, Wham! and others. It was the best-selling single in Britain to that date and raised more than $10 million.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was also a No. 1 hit in the United States and inspired U.S. pop artists to come together and perform “We Are the World,” a song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. “USA for Africa,” as the U.S. ensemble was known, featured Jackson, Richie, Geldof, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, and many others. The single went to the top of the charts and eventually raised $44 million.
With the crisis continuing in Ethiopia, and the neighboring Sudan also stricken with famine, Geldof proposed Live Aid, an ambitious global charity concert aimed at raising more funds and increasing awareness of the plight of many Africans. Organized in just 10 weeks, Live Aid was staged on Saturday, July 13, 1985. The lineup featured more than 75 acts, including Elton John, Queen, Madonna, Santana, Run DMC, Sade, Sting, Bryan Adams, the Beach Boys, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Duran Duran, U2, the Who, Tom Petty, Neil Young and Eric Clapton. The majority of these artists performed at either Wembley Stadium in London, where a crowd of 70,000 turned out, or at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, where 100,000 watched. Thirteen satellites beamed a live television broadcast of the event to more than one billion viewers in 110 countries. More than 40 of these nations held telethons for African famine relief during the broadcast.
A memorable performance of the concert was by Queen, particularly frontman Freddie Mercury, who unexpectedly stole the show with a fierce performance. With the group losing steam as they went into the early 1980s after a career of multiple hits, they offered the crowd an unforgettable 20-minute performance. Going from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “We Will Rock You” and finishing with “We Are the Champions,” Queen captivated the audience with a journey through their hits, with Mercury at the helm.
Another top moment was by Phil Collins in Philadelphia after flying by Concorde from London, where he performed at Wembley earlier in the day. He later played drums in a reunion of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. Beatle Paul McCartney and the Who’s Pete Townsend held Bob Geldof aloft on their shoulders during the London finale, which featured a collective performance of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Six hours later, the U.S. concert ended with “We Are the World.”
Live Aid eventually raised $127 million in famine relief for African nations, and the publicity it generated encouraged Western nations to make available enough surplus grain to end the immediate hunger crisis in Africa. Geldof was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his efforts.
In early July 2005, Geldof staged a series of “Live 8″ concerts in 11 countries around the world to help raise awareness of global poverty. Organizers, led by Geldof, purposely scheduled the concert days before the annual G8 summit in an effort to increase political pressure on G8 nations to address issues facing the extremely poor around the world. Live 8 claims that an estimated 3 billion people watched 1,000 musicians perform in 11 shows, which were broadcast on 182 television networks and by 2,000 radio stations. Unlike Live Aid, Live 8 was intentionally not billed as a fundraiser–Geldof’s slogan was, “We don’t want your money, we want your voice.” Perhaps in part because of the spotlight brought to such issues by Live 8, the G8 subsequently voted to cancel the debt of 18 of the world’s poorest nations, make AIDS drugs more accessible and double levels of annual aid to Africa, to $50 billion.