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A Reprise for Rock's Great Good Deed

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page N01

On July 13, 1985, the world was watching a singular event called Live Aid.

That day, an estimated 1.5 billion people in 160 countries tuned into a 16-hour concert taking place simultaneously on two continents. London's Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia's John F. Kennedy Stadium hosted a galaxy of stars -- more than 60 acts in all -- drafted by rock musician Bob Geldof to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia.

Bob Geldof organized the most ambitious one-day humanitarian event in history. (David Caulkin -- AP)

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Yes, the most ambitious one-day humanitarian effort in history -- one that would eventually raise and distribute more than $145 million -- originated not with a government or a foundation but with a minor rock star best known for the acerbic hit "I Don't Like Mondays."

To the 175,000 people at Wembley and JFK (including this reporter), Live Aid was a concert for the ages. To the rest of the world it was a television event of unprecedented scale, an attempt at realizing a global jukebox and, thanks to 16 satellites, a global video village. It drew one of the largest television audiences in history to the greatest entertainment package in rock history.

And then Live Aid disappeared. To minimize legal red tape, Geldof had promised participants that it would never be rebroadcast or released on video. Bootleggers trading in counterfeit tapes and DVDs forced Geldof to reconsider, as did the onset of another famine crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

The result: Live Aid has been released as a four-disc DVD set. It has been issued in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of a Live Aid precursor: "Do They Know It's Christmas," a song co-written by Geldof and recorded by two dozen British pop stars assembled by him and credited as "Band Aid." (A new all-star recording of that song is to be released tomorrow, with funds directed to providing famine relief to Sudan's blighted Darfur region.)

Even with a 10-hour running time, "Live Aid" doesn't include everything. Permission had to be sought from the artists who participated, and some declined, most notably Led Zeppelin. At Live Aid, the band's surviving members -- guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones -- had agreed to perform Led Zeppelin songs for the first time since the 1979 death of drummer John Bonham. There was only a single rehearsal with fill-in drummers Phil Collins and Tony Thompson, and though the crowd loved the 20-minute set, Led Zeppelin apparently hated it and nixed its release. The band did, however, make a significant contribution to Band Aid Trust, the entity that administered the shows' proceeds and continues in that role today.

Also MIA: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who had last toured together 11 years previously and whose two-song set was plagued by monitor problems. CS&N, minus Young, did a separate set, and a dreadful, off-key version of "Teach Your Children" survives here. Neil Young performed "The Needle and the Damage Done" and a new song, "Nothing Is Perfect" (both are included). Carlos Santana also declined to allow his set and a duet with guitarist Pat Metheny to be included.

Some performances have been lost, while others were cut because of technical glitches, including two Who numbers scuttled by a blown BBC fuse. On the other hand, the DVD set includes many performances originally interrupted or excised so ABC could run ads ("we have a business to run . . . electric bills to pay," an ABC exec told the New York Times in 1985), as well as acts featured on the BBC broadcast, which gave preference to Wembley over JFK Stadium.

U2's Bono must have thought about absenting himself, based on the horrible mullet he was sporting back then. But the band's readings of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Bad" are exhilarating. Some acts, including Queen, David Bowie and Eric Clapton, are represented by full sets of three to six songs. Some of the biggest acts did only one or two songs. Looking to draw the biggest possible audience, most acts chose to do hits; sometimes they did so just with guitar or piano, or with ad hoc groups. (Collins played both shows, taking the Concorde from London to Philadelphia.) Some performances are a bit ragged, the vocals flat or weak, but then again, this was Live Aid, not Tape Aid.

After various preliminaries, including the BBC newscast whose cataclysmic images of starvation first galvanized Geldof, and the videos for the original "Do They Know It's Christmas" and its even more famous all-star sequel, "We Are the World," the concert kicks off in London with Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The royal couple, seated in the royal box with Bowie, Elton John and Geldof, wave to the crowd as "God Save the Queen" is played by the Coldstream Guards, followed by Status Quo performing the aptly titled "Rockin' All Over the World."

Disc 1, all Wembley-based, is, truth be told, a less-than-flattering snapshot of British pop taste at the time: synth pop and "new romantics" abound with Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Nik Kershaw and Howard Jones, all given to hilariously floofy haircuts and flouncy fashion. But there are also sterling performances from Elvis Costello ("All You Need Is Love"), Sade, Sting and Paul Young.

Disc 2 switches to Philadelphia, but alternates with additional London performances. Philly performances by the Hooters, the Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Rick Springfield, Kool and the Gang and Power Station are simply excised, while Run-DMC's "King of Rock," one of rap's first significant exposures on a world stage, is relegated to the set's "Extras" package. So is one of Live Aid's most emotional moments: Philadelphia native Teddy Pendergrass making his first concert appearance since a 1980 car crash left him a paraplegic. Pendergrass joined Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson on their old hit "Reach Out (and Touch)," using a special microphone attached to his head.

The star power on Disc 2 includes the Beach Boys, a reunited Who, Simple Minds, the Pretenders, John (who duets with Kiki Dee and George Michael) and Dire Straits (joined by Sting on "Money for Nothing," their dig at MTV, which managed to turn Live Aid into a promo for its vacuous veejays). Queen's stadium-swaying "Radio Gaga" and "We Are the Champions" remain splendid, while Bowie's "Heroes" captured the prevailing sentiment that "we can be heroes just for one day."

Disc 3 is strong as well, opening with Madonna, whom Bette Midler introduces as someone "whose name has been on everybody's lips for the last six months." Madonna, whose inexperience then as a live performer is quite evident, does her dance thing with "Holiday" and "Into the Groove," and backs the awful Thompson Twins on a horrid rendering of the Beatles' "Revolution." Also featured are Duran Duran, Clapton and Patti LaBelle (a searing version of "Imagine" and a poignant one of Dylan's "Forever Young"). A much-rumored Beatles reunion didn't happen, but Paul McCartney's "Let It Be" enlisted a little help from his friends Bowie, Geldof, Pete Townshend and Alison Moyet, before the Wembley crew gathered for a ragged but emotionally right rendition of "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

The final disc includes performances by Hall and Oates singing with ex-Temptations Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin; strutting Mick Jagger and Tina Turner dueting on "State of Shock / It's Only Rock and Roll" and beating Janet Jackson to "wardrobe malfunction" territory by 20 years; an acoustic "Blowin' in the Wind" with Dylan backed by Rolling Stones guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, which must have seemed like a good idea early in the day before they'd had a few drinks.

Naturally, the American finale is "We Are the World," the U.S. response to "Do They Know it's Christmas?" Led by Lionel Richie, with Harry Belafonte, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Baez, Sheena Easton, Dionne Warwick, Melissa Manchester, Kenny Loggins, LaBelle, Daryl Hall, a 50-member children's choir and most of the 36 acts who had performed during the day, it is a mess: There were not enough mikes to go around, and the cameramen had no idea who was going to sing which line.

DVD extras include acts who participated via live satellite feeds or taped sets from Australia (INXS), the Netherlands (B.B. King), Russia, Japan, Austria, Germany and Norway, the Jagger/Bowie duet on "Dancing in the Streets" (a trans-Atlantic duet was scuttled because of an inescapable four-second delay), as well as "Food and Trucks and Rock 'n' Roll," a 1986 BBC documentary showing how the proceeds were spent. (The money came from ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, sale of broadcast rights, merchandising and telethons in more than 20 countries.)

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" went to No. 1 in England and much of Europe, and sold 3.5 million copies in England. In January 1985, USA for Africa's even more crowded recording of "We Are the World" went to No. 1 in America and sold 4 million copies -- the second-best sellers of all time in their respective countries.

The new "Do They Know It's Christmas?" features more than 40 artists, including Bono, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Dido, Robbie Williams, Joss Stone, Dizzee Rascal, Travis, Keane and the Darkness. Times have changed, of course: Besides a CD single, the song is available to download from the Internet through music services that have agreed to donate their proceeds to the Band Aid Trust.

When the "Christmas" video recently premiered simultaneously on England's five main television networks, more than 13 million people tuned in. And the British government recently agreed to refund sales tax collected on the new single and the Live Aid DVD, a move that will generate additional millions for the Band Aid Trust. In the larger scheme of relief needs and political reform, such funds may be little more than Band-Aids, but they are better than nothing.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company