Live Aid: The Complicated History of the World's Biggest Charity Concert, 35 Years Later

George Michael, Bob Geldof, Bono, Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, and Howard Jones gather together for the Live Aid finale at London's Wembley Stadium.
George Michael, Bob Geldof, Bono, Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, and Howard Jones gather together for the Live Aid finale at London's Wembley Stadium.
Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pop music didn’t suddenly discover altruism in the 1980s. The idea of the star-studded charity concert dates at least as far back as 1971, which is when former Beatle George Harrison organized The Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit for refugees in the former East Pakistan. But do-gooder musicians took it to the next level in the '80s—the decade of “We Are the World,” Farm Aid, Band Aid, and of course, Live Aid.

Bono performing with U2 at the Live Aid charity concert in London in 1985. Dave Hogan/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Live Aid, which took place on July 13, 1985 for a global audience of 1.9 billion people, was a massive, bicontinental pop concert created to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief. It was the brainchild of Bob Geldof, leader of the Irish new wave band The Boomtown Rats. Geldof was spurred to philanthropic action after seeing a BBC report in October 1984 that featured footage of starving children. His first thought was to make a charity single.

Geldof enlisted his buddy Midge Ure, the frontman of the band Ultravox, to help him write and record “Do They Know It’s Christmas” just a few weeks later. The single, which was released on December 3, 1984, was credited to Band Aid—an amalgamation of the day’s biggest pop stars, including George Michael, Boy George, and Bono. It reached No. 1 on the UK charts and raised more than $28 million for the cause. But that wasn’t enough for Geldof. At least not if the Band Aid organization was going to buy a fleet of trucks to move food and supplies to Ethiopians in need, as Geldof hoped. So he took the next logical step and planned a concert.

Setting the Stage

Much has been said and written about Live Aid over the last 35 years. To some, it was a beautiful moment of idealism and compassion. Others question the motives and effectiveness of a bunch of wealthy celebrities—most of them white—trying to swoop in and save Africa.

David Bowie performing at the Live Aid concert in London on July 13, 1985.Georges De Keerle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To measure the success of Live Aid, one needs to consider three different things: numerical data, entertainment value, and overall impact. By the first of these metrics, sheer numbers, Live Aid was an overwhelming triumph. Geldof and company secured both Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia to host the concert on two continents. Using industry connections, persuasion, and a little bit of trickery, Geldof was able to book more than 50 of the music industry's biggest names, including Queen, David Bowie, Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Who, Bob Dylan, U2, and Madonna.

“He had to call Elton and say 'Queen are in and Bowie's in,' and of course they weren't,” production manager Andy Zweck told The Guardian of Geldof’s tactics. “Then he’d call Bowie and say 'Elton and Queen are in.' It was a game of bluff.”

With the help of producer Michael C. Mitchell, Live Aid sold broadcast rights to 150 countries, at least 22 of which aired telethons. Both MTV and ABC carried the feed in the United States, the latter in the form of a primetime special hosted by Dick Clark. All told, Live Aid raised approximately $140 million.

A Musical Twofer

Of course, Live Aid wasn’t just about fundraising. It also had to be a great show—or else why would people bother to watch it in the first place? As it happened, the day was filled with memorable performances on both sides of the Atlantic. The consensus pick for Live Aid MVP is Queen, whose 21-minute Wembley set included “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” and “We are the Champions.” Mercury "strutted and preened, carrying his microphone on a metal pole that he treated as a vaudevillian’s cane, an air guitar, and, of course, a phallus," The New York Times wrote of Mercury's performance. "He was a rock star playing a rock star, leather-lunged and imperious but also grinning to let everyone share the joke ... For 21 minutes, Freddie Mercury undeniably made the world his stadium." In 2005, Queen’s Live Aid set was voted the greatest rock gig in history by a panel of music industry experts.

Less than two hours before Queen hit the stage, U2 wowed Wembley with a performance that cemented their status as future stadium kings. During their 11-minute rendition of “Bad,” Bono plucked a 15-year-old fan named Kal Khalique from the crowd and slow-danced with her as if no one else was watching. Of course, U2 knew everyone was watching, and while Khalique has claimed that Bono saved her from being crushed, the mulletted rocker may have engineered the moment for TV cameras. Either way, it worked.

Live Aid was also a big day for Run-DMC, and hip-hop in general. In 1985, pop radio stations were still reluctant to play this new form of music, and the Queens rappers undoubtedly raised some eyebrows as they took the stage in Philly with no band—just DJ Jam Master Jay behind two turntables. “We got a whole lot of rock groups backstage tonight, but D wants y’all to know one thing," Joseph “Run” Simmons told the crowd, just before launching into “King of Rock.” Run-DMC later boasted about their Live Aid win on 1986’s “My Adidas,” rapping, “Stepped on stage, at Live Aid, all the people gave, and the poor got paid!”

One man who literally went the distance for the cause was Phil Collins. The Genesis frontman and chart-dominating solo artist performed with Sting at 3:15 p.m. in London, then jumped on the Concorde and flew to Philly to play his own set and serve as drummer for Eric Clapton and a reunited Led Zeppelin. Most people agree that the Zeppelin set was a total disaster—the band was under-rehearsed and out of tune. But decades later, Collins’s ocean-hopping stunt is what people remember. “I was in England this afternoon,” Collins told the Philly crowd. “Funny old world, innit?”

Other highlights included Madonna getting into the groove, Mick Jagger turning up the heat with Tina Turner, and Elton John and George Michael dueting on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” Bob Dylan planted the seeds for another charity concert, Farm Aid, when he took a moment during his performance with Keith Richards and Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones to suggest that some of the money be used to help struggling American farmers.

The Diversity Divide

In all, the shows offered a good mix of Baby Boomer favorites (Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney) and hip younger acts (Elvis Costello, The Style Council, Adam Ant, Thompson Twins). But Live Aid did have a diversity problem.

Run-DMC performing at Live Aid in 1985.Frank Micelotta Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

About a month before the show, legendary concert promoter Bill Graham said that “every major Black artist on the Billboard 200 chart and R&B chart” had been approached. Many artists, including Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Prince, had simply declined to perform. But others, including Dionne Warwick, said they’d never been invited. As the concert date grew closer, Live Aid organizers scrambled to add more Black artists, including The Four Tops, Tina Turner, and Patti LaBelle.

“After the concert, we were lambasted for not having enough Black artists on the bill. It became this anti-colonial diatribe, ‘You whites, telling us poor Black guys what to do,’” Midge Ure told the Independent. “It was unfair but it happened.”

The lasting impact of Live Aid remains a far greater source of controversy. In 1986, SPIN ran a story titled “Live Aid: The Terrible Truth” which claimed that food and aid money were bolstering the government of dictator Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the man most responsible for Ethiopia’s suffering. According to SPIN, Mengistu used food to lure people into camps that allowed his regime to forcefully relocate hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. Mengistu reportedly also used Western aid to purchase arms from the Soviets to use in his fight against rebels.

In a 2005 piece for The Guardian, David Rieff paraphrased Ethiopia expert Alex de Waal and wrote that Live Aid cut the famine death toll by “between a quarter and a half.” “The problem is that it may have contributed to as many deaths,” Rieff added.

Geldof has always defended Live Aid’s use of funds. “I said as early as January 1985, I will shake hands with the devil on my left and on my right to get to the people we are meant to help,” he said in response to the SPIN exposé. Geldof later said that Live Aid was “almost perfect in what it achieved.” He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1986 in recognition of his work in helping Africa's starving population.

The Live Aid Legacy

One thing Live Aid definitely did was put Ethiopia on Americans' and Europeans' radars. It also created a new template for high-profile musical benefits. Farm Aid launched in 1985; three years later, in 1988, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and others crossed the globe as part of the Human Rights Now! tour on behalf of Amnesty International. There was The Concert for New York City after 9/11 and The SARS Benefit Concert in 2003. In 2005, Geldof revisited the Live Aid model with Live 8, a series of concerts aimed at convincing the G8 leaders to forgive debt for African nations and enact fairer trade laws.

In 2007, Al Gore helped to organize Live Earth, which was essentially Live Aid for climate change. Geldof was critical of the event, which he said lacked “a final goal.” “I would only organize this if I could go on stage and announce concrete environmental measures from the American presidential candidates, Congress, or major corporations,” Geldof said.

Geldof made headlines again in March 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when he helped pop singer Rita Ora design an emblem to promote the WHO and UN’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. In an interview with the Toronto Sun, Geldof gave Ora most of the credit for the logo. The man who mobilized the world for a single cause 35 years earlier also seemed less convinced that human beings—musicians or otherwise—were any match for humanity itself.

“The Achilles heel of humanity is its hubris,” Geldof said. “We think that we can dominate everything but nature just comes along and wipes us out.

“What’s positive is that people understand how fragile we are and they also understand the bravery of all the people who are working to help ... But that will fade over a very short period when we go back to the same old, same old. It’s simply a function of globalization and that’s not going anywhere.”

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Songwriters

A songwriter in her natural habitat.
A songwriter in her natural habitat.
Soundtrap, Unsplash

Behind every club banger and power ballad is an eclectic team of individuals, each with their own role in its creation and promotion. Needless to say, it couldn’t happen without the songwriters. These gifted musicians don’t just pen the lyrics that fuel all your car concerts and karaoke nights—they also manage egos, help artists articulate their innermost feelings, and juggle their own side gigs. So what does a songwriting career actually look like? Mental Floss chatted with three experienced songwriters about everything from how they make money to how they make hits.

1. It’s common for songwriters to have their own music careers.

From Carole King to Pharrell Williams, the music industry has long teemed with talented artists who’ve written songs for other acts—so it’s not exactly surprising that so many songwriters are nurturing what they call their own “artist projects.” In fact, all three songwriters interviewed for this article have released new music in the last few months. Daniel Capellaro released the EP Nightside [A] in November under the moniker “Dvniel”; Skyler Stonestreet’s first single as “The Sunshine State” dropped in late October; and Trent Park has been unveiling a steady stream of singles and corresponding music videos since June.

Though it seems like it could be difficult to constantly fork over songs that they might want to release themselves, the collaborative nature of the business prevents this from being a major issue. Often, the songwriter is working off ideas and emotions specific to the artist they’re writing for, so the song truly feels like it belongs to that artist. Other times, the song gets tweaked by so many writers and producers that it’s no longer the original songwriter’s personal opus. “When a song comes out, sometimes I’m like, ‘Ah that was good, but I would’ve done it a totally different way,” Park says. “But that means it wouldn’t be the song that it is.”

2. Songwriters sometimes have to fake it ’til they make it.

In a business built on relationships, it’s pivotal for up-and-coming songwriters to always be on the lookout for new connections. Sometimes, this means acting first and thinking later. During Capellaro’s early days in Los Angeles, his demo CD was his de facto business card. About a month after giving one to an executive from Universal Music Group, he got a call from the company asking when he was playing next. Having no dates lined up, he picked one at random: March 16. “So I hang up and I'm like, ‘OK, I’ve just committed to playing a show. I've got no venue. I've got no band. I have to get all this put together in the next 30 days,” Capellaro remembers.

He found a former bass player from the band Lifehouse on Craigslist, and the two set about securing the rest of the band. For the venue, Capellaro chose a well-known rehearsal space called SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals), only to find out that the Universal exec slated to see the show “[had] never signed a single act at SIR—she hates that place.” It was too late to switch venues, so Capellaro reassured his Universal contact over the phone that “she won’t recognize it” and immediately transported everything in his recently furnished living room to the stage to give it a whole new look. “I had a couch, a rug, tea candles,” he says. “I wanted it to feel like MTV Unplugged.” The hard-to-please executive was duly impressed. “She’s like ‘You sound great. How long have you guys been playing together?’ and I’m like, ‘Ah, you know, for a while.’ I didn’t want to tell her ‘Four days.’”

When asked what surprised him most about the industry, Park answered without hesitation: “That nobody knows what they’re doing.” He, too, confessed to occasional fibbery. “There are some times when I reach out to an artist and I say, ‘I love your stuff. I have a song for you,'” he says. “I’m completely lying. I just want to work with that person, and once they reach out I end up formulating songs in the vein of their stuff.”

3. Songwriters don’t just write for career music artists.

Songwriters like Capellaro and Stonestreet, who are signed to music publishing companies, mainly do work on songs for fellow artists. Park, on the other hand, is an independent songwriter—so his clients sometimes come from other industries altogether. “Right now I'm writing for a couple lawyers that are just doing it as a passion, but they pay me really well,” he says. “I’m there for everyone. Honestly, it’s way better money.” Park also spent a few weeks writing songs for the wife of a billionaire app developer. Not only did she pay him triple his per-song rate and triple his per-diem rate, she also insisted on posting him up in a luxury hotel and giving him an additional $500 each day for food and other expenses. “That was a really cool [scenario],” Park says, “I’m hoping for more of those.”

4. There are countless ways to create a song—and countless people involved.

Songwriting isn’t exactly a linear process. “You can start from any place,” Capellaro says. “You can start with someone toe-tapping, or have a piano pulled up and just start playing a C chord over and over again.” Often, the record label has already started for you—they’ll send an instrumental track to multiple songwriters, who each adds their own lyrics and melody. Then, the label simply chooses their favorite.

Other songs originate in songwriting camps. Basically, a record label will gather various songwriters in a house, split them into small groups, and “see if magic happens,” Stonestreet says. During a camp meant to generate hits for Dua Lipa a few years ago, it did: Stonestreet and several other writers penned her 2018 single “IDGAF.”

But even after a track has lyrics and a melody, there’s always a chance it’ll undergo another round of edits. Maybe a label liked a certain producer’s work on another song, so they ask them to tweak this one; or they bring in a new writer to fine-tune a few words or add a post-chorus. Big artists also sometimes have personal collaborators that they want credited on the song, whether or not they actually helped create it. “That’s why when you look at a Katy Perry song, you’re like ‘How did 14 people write this one song that has the most juvenile lyrics I’ve ever heard in my life?’ They didn’t—it’s all politics,” Capellaro says.

5. Songwriters don’t make much from music streaming services like Spotify.

Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are notorious for pocketing most of the earnings from artists’ work. Spotify, for example, pays the rights holder as little as $0.006 for each stream—and that paltry sum must then be split among all the people involved in making the song. Songwriters, producers, musicians, managers, label executives, and any number of other people could each be entitled to a certain percentage of the profits. “I have over a million streams on one catalog, and that translated to $785,” Capellaro says. “If I sold a million copies, I would’ve had a house up in [Beverly Hills].” Not only are the rates low, but artists also have to somehow make their songs stand out from the tens of thousands of other new songs released each week, which Capellaro admits is “virtually impossible.”

6. Songwriters often juggle other jobs.

Since songwriters can’t rely on streaming dividends for income—and salaried music publishing positions don’t always come easy—they often make ends meet with a variety of side gigs. Park realized early in his career that while songwriters were mainly earning money from royalties, producers were often paid an hourly rate or up-front lump sum. “So I learned how to produce,” he says. Then, he purchased a mic and other equipment so he could record vocals at home—like hooks for people’s rap or EDM songs. “Basically, I’m an a la carte thing,” he explained. Park eventually branched out into music video production, and he’s now directed videos for chart-topping artists like G-Eazy and Ty Dolla $ign. He also served as a music technical consultant for 2020’s The High Note, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson; in that position, he made sure the dialogue, instruments, and other music-related details matched real life.

Even when a songwriter appears to be working a job entirely unrelated to the music industry, there could be a shrewd reason for doing so. Capellaro spent more than a decade running a restaurant called Amici in Brentwood, California. “I knew I wanted to be there because that’s where the celebrities live,” he explains. Sure enough, he connected with people like J.J. Abrams, Laura Dern, and Bonnie Hunt, who was hosting her NBC talk show at the time. One evening while refilling Hunt’s water glass, Capellaro posed a question: “Hey Bonnie, what would it take to be on your show?” She asked if he had a CD on hand, which he did, and booked him as a musical guest within weeks. The day after the taping, Hunt dined at Amici again and lauded Capellaro for his performance. “I’m like, ‘This is so surreal. I was just on your show yesterday, and now I’m bringing you sea bass.” A producer who caught the performance later reached out to Capellaro and ended up inviting him to his studio for songwriting sessions—which yielded hits for Chris Brown and Boyz II Men.

It was also at Amici that Capellaro developed a friendship with Marc Caruso, a music engineer who happened to be the founder of a music publishing company called Angry Mob Music Group. About five years ago, Caruso, knowing Capellaro was itching to give up his restaurant job and focus on music full-time, offered him a music publishing deal; Capellaro’s been there ever since.

7. Songwriters have to form close bonds with artists in a few hours or less.

Because the goal is to create a song that feels personal to the artist, songwriters usually prefer to work directly with them whenever possible. And getting the artist to give them some seed of inspiration means forging a deep friendship with them within minutes of entering the studio.

“There’s so much trust that needs to happen in the room. You’re telling potentially intimate details about yourself that would be uncomfortable sharing [with a stranger]. So much of it is trying to create a safe place for the artist and a safe place for the writers, all the while dealing with egos the size of tall buildings,” Capellaro says. “It’s almost like a therapy session: What’s your mood today? What happened over the weekend? What’re you pissed off about? What’re you inspired by at this very moment? Because it can change at 5 p.m. today, and maybe that inspires the song.”

Stonestreet expressed a similar sentiment. “I honestly love when the artist is involved. You won’t know anything specific unless you’re sitting there having a conversation—it can be emotional. You form a relationship, and you trust each other to handle the information.”

8. Songwriters have to say “no” without actually saying “no.”

Songwriters have to find creative ways of steering a song in the right direction without flatly rejecting an artist’s not-so-great suggestion. Stonestreet might toss out a compliment and lean on the lackluster reaction of the room as evidence that they haven’t yet struck gold. Something to the effect of: “‘That’s cool, and I like it, but maybe it’s not jumping out, and it’s not making everyone jump around the room and [giving everyone] that feeling of ‘This is so exciting.’”

“I always say, ‘Let’s try it,’” Park says. “‘I don’t necessarily hear what you’re talking about, but let’s try it.’” Sometimes, hearing their idea come to life is enough to make the artist realize it isn’t a great fit. Park also occasionally asks the artist’s manager, significant other, or another trusted party to weigh in, hoping they’ll side with him. “But I am always honest. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think the idea works. If you like it, 100-percent do it. It’s not my vibe, but it’s your song.'”

And since the artist does have final say, the writers also need to know when to cut their losses. If the artist is hell-bent on certain subpar lyrics? “You’re going to go with whatever they’re going to like,” Capellaro says.

9. Songs sometimes get lost in the abyss.

Earlier this year, Stonestreet wrote Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s duet “Stuck with U,” which got released mere weeks later. “I just heard the demo of it last week, and it’s coming out Friday. I don’t understand what’s going on,” she thought at the time. “That was a freak thing. Usually you do have to wait a minute.” A minute could be a year—or never. “So many people have to say yes to the song for it to come out … All the label’s people, the artist’s team, your team.” Even after getting all those green lights, a single could still test poorly among advance radio reviewers and end up stalling indefinitely.

Sometimes, a record label neglects to send the finished product back to the songwriter. “I think some songs can go into a complete abyss where they just sit on a hard drive for years and years,” Stonestreet says.

10. Songwriters have mixed feelings about making music via Zoom.

Since songwriting often involves multiple people spending long hours in a small studio, the coronavirus pandemic threatened to upend the whole system. So songwriters went virtual. Some, like Park and Stonestreet, already had recording equipment at home; Capellaro, meanwhile, quickly invested in a mic, a monitor, cables, and all the other requisite gadgets. To shift the workflow online, they’ve had to more clearly define each person’s task for each song.

“I’m a vocalist, so I’m going to record vocals in my house, and I will send the stems to producer X, Y, or Z, have them tune them for me [and] put them into the rest of the track," Capellaro says. “I can have another guy master it, [and] we can always hop on a FaceTime or Zoom call to get it written and recorded.” This streamlined process has actually helped with productivity. “I have been writing more music since March than I was previously,” Capellaro says.

Making music via video chat tends to work better with fewer people, so Stonestreet has enjoyed the opportunity for more one-on-one sessions. When there are several people on the call, they cut down on confusion over who’s speaking (and singing) by thoroughly explaining each suggestion. “You really talk things through, which has been really nice,” she says. That said, the camaraderie born in the studio is hard to recreate on a computer screen, and songwriters are eager to experience that again. “I love Zoom, but I also really miss people in the room with me,” Stonestreet says.