When David Bowie agreed to perform at Live Aid at London’s Wembley Stadium in July 1985, he had a grand vision of duetting with Mick Jagger via satellite at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium for a cover of Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing In The Street.” Those plans quickly fell apart when the musicians learned they’d have to deal with a significant video delay, so they opted instead to record a studio version of the song and shoot a music video, all in a single chaotic day in June.
That left Bowie’s performance at the two-continent concert against hunger. He hadn’t promoted his 1984 LP Tonight with a tour, so Live Aid marked his first performance since since the end of the Serious Moonlight tour over a year and a half earlier. Bowie had the unenviable task of following Queen, but when he burst onto the stage at Wembley in his Young Americans suit, it was clear he was more than ready for the challenge. Playing with a new, young band (whose members included Thomas “She Blinded Me With Science” Dolby on keyboards), they opened with the Station to Station classic “TVC 15” before ripping into “Rebel Rebel,” “Modern Love” and a truly stellar rendition of “Heroes” to wrap it up. The show could have been a rare opportunity to actually play “Under Pressure” with Queen, but sadly that didn’t happen.
The Live Aid set was arguably Bowie’s last triumph of the 1980s. His 1987 album Never Let Me Down was shredded by the critics, and the supporting Glass Spider tour was largely panned as well. He finished out the decade by putting together the Pixies-inspired group Tin Machine and playing small venues with them around the world. The band was a deliberate attempt to scale back the David Bowie machine, but most people greeted it with befuddlement and raging disinterest. But as approximately two billion people sang along to “Heroes” during his Live Aid set in the summer of ’85, he still seemed like one of the biggest and most vital rock stars in the world.