On 13 July 1985, 72,000 people gathered at Wembley Stadium, London, and 90,000 at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, for Live Aid, a massive, transcontinental rock concert broadcast live to an estimated 1.5 billion viewers in 100 countries to raise money for victims of the 1984-1985 Ethiopian famine. Live Aid was a defining and unprecedented moment in the history of rock ’n’ roll, broadcast media and disaster relief, and spawned the mega-charity concert as we know it today, including Geldof’s own Live 8, the 2005 benefit concert pressuring governments to banish extreme poverty.
The story began with a song in 1984, when Bob Geldof, of the Irish band Boomtown Rats, saw a news report about the Ethiopian famine, the culmination of a long-brewing disaster that had started with severe droughts in 1981. Geldof felt moved to raise money and awareness by producing a single whose profits would go to charity. With Midge Ure of the British rock group Ultravox, Geldof wrote the song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and enlisted the United Kingdom’s top pop acts of the time to record it. The single went directly to Number 1 in the UK charts and sold more than 3 million copies, soon becoming the biggest-selling single in the UK in history.
Geldof felt this effort was not enough, so he and Ure planned Live Aid, a multi-venue rock concert that would be a show of global unity and support for Africa. The concert drew nearly all the biggest names of rock: Madonna, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, The Who, Queen, Led Zeppelin and many more. Throughout the show, which lasted 16 hours, viewers phoned in with donations, which at one point reached $433 per second. Recent estimates state that the concerts directly resulted in $216 million raised for relief.
Besides focusing the world’s attention on the problem of famine, the extraordinary show of public support forced governments to address the problem. ‘It prompted change in 30-odd laws governing multilateral and bilateral aid,’ said Geldof, ‘and it brought a sense of empowerment: that you weren’t impotent in the face of monstrous human tragedy; that governments had to take notice of you; that there was a connectedness between you and other people; and that there were duties and obligations.
‘It created something very powerful. For the first time, we had thrown an electronic loop around the planet and ordinary people were talking to each other.’