Bob Geldof bounds through the tall, mahogany, double doors in the Harold Pratt House, an old-money mansion on New York’s Park Avenue, rushing from one microphone to another without missing a syllable. The tall, rubber-limbed Irishman and ex-Boomtown Rats singer — decked out like a rock-star gangster in a black, pinstriped, three-piece suit — has been talking all morning and will continue to do so for the rest of the day. He is here to meet with the Council on Foreign Relations as a member of the Commission for Africa, an independent panel launched this year by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to recommend and generate action in the fight against the epidemic poverty, disease and hunger there.
Geldof is also in town to promote the latest offensives in his personal, twenty-year crusade to save the starving continent: an all-star re-recording of the 1984 Band Aid hit, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which he co-wrote with Midge Ure; and the long-awaited commercial release of Live Aid, the pioneering charity-rock spectacular that he conceived in the wake of Band Aid’s success, then cajoled and bullied into reality on July 13th, 1985, at London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium. The concert, originally simulcast on radio and TV around the world, is now jam-packed onto a fast-selling four-DVD set (it debuted at Number Two on Billboard‘s music-video chart), while the Band Aid 20 single is crammed with cross-generational starpower. Singers and players include Sir Paul McCartney, U2’s Bono, Justin Hawkins of the Darkness, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Joss Stone and members of Radiohead, Supergrass and Travis.
“People were buying it all over eBay,” Geldof says irritably, referring to the bootleg copies of the 1985 Live Aid broadcast that have circulated in recent years. “We tried stopping it with eBay — they refused, the fuckers. I got one pirate and put him in jail for three years. Without being corny, people like that are taking food out of people’s mouths. It’s as direct as that. When you buy it now, you’re putting it back in.”
Why did it take two decades for Live Aid to become a commercial release?
I avoided the lawyers. Twenty years ago, people would say to me, “When is the record coming out? When is the video coming out?” I said, “It’s not.” Because I talked to George Harrison. He rang me and said, “Don’t talk to the lawyers.”
He battled lawyers and accountants for years to free the money he raised at the Bangladesh concerts.
Exactly. When I got the acts for the show, I said, “It’s one gig. Just do the hits. There’s no record.” So they were relaxed, because they thought they were not being taped.
Then I got a call from Jill Sinclair, a documentary film producer. She was doing a documentary about Ethiopia twenty years on. She was going through Africa news footage in the BBC vaults, and she came across this entire shelf of stuff. She pulled it down — and it was Live Aid. And beside each reel was recording tape. The Brits just ignored what I said and recorded the [Wembley] show on twenty-four-track.
When I went to see it, the first thing that was up was Paul McCartney’s set — when his mike went down. On the day, it looked like a disaster. But on the video, the whole crowd sings the song for him. I was in this room, watching this and freaking out: It was like you were there. And the Who — I was like, “Is this romanticism, or are these people really playing better?” I put on U2 — “Sunday Bloody Sunday” — and it was OK. I thought they were a bit rusty, stiff. Then “Bad” came on, and it was, “Yeah, fucking U2, big time!” It was incredible.
But we couldn’t find the American stuff. We rang MTV, and they did a big search. They found the tapes in a cardboard box in a corner. They didn’t know what they were, but they thought, “Oh, don’t throw them out.” It was the whole thing from Philadelphia, on video and two-track tape. The first thing I got to was Neil Young, and it’s frighteningly good. Then Madonna. At the time, I remember thinking, “She’ll last a couple of singles.” And she is full-on! “This girl is going to take the thing out.”
I remembered Bob Dylan being pretty dire on the day. He was pushed over to the side of the stage. Bill Graham had roadies wandering behind him, out in the open, getting the USA for Africa finale together. Keith Richards was out of tune. But God bless Bob — he said it was OK to use something. How cool is Bob Dylan? He says, “Live Aid? Take one song.” Which one? “You can have ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.'” OK!
What is the legacy of Live Aid, twenty years later? We live in an age of charity fatigue: benefit shows everywhere. There is so much that is still wrong in the world, including hunger in Africa. Yet Live Aid — based on initial sales of the DVD — is an event and institution that has transcended its time.
It was not a charity. I’m not interested in charity. I believe that if somebody is in a wheelchair and you want to help that person, you put your hand in your pocket. Cancer — you put your money in, and it goes to research.
Live Aid was a political lobby for change. And there were several cultural factors at play, which you could not have anticipated. Go back twenty years: mobile phones. Only the extreme rich had them. Faxes were unknown. Only important people had answering machines. The common form of international communication was telex. There was no global television. CNN was a baby; MTV was groping its way to a market.
Live Aid proved that we were all connected, while simultaneously addressing a massive issue — not a cause — using the lingua franca of the planet. Which was not English. It was pop music. Live Aid was a key moment in a time of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, movements that claimed that individualism is the key, greed is good and consensual ideas of the world don’t work. Live Aid proved that an individual can change the world — but only if we band together.
It was not a charity gig. I was under no illusions. You cannot put a band-aid on a gaping wound. The wound is political. The world is broken. We must address this. And the manifestation of that understanding is money: Give me the money, and I will keep people alive.
Did you attend the recording sessions in London for Band Aid 20?
Of course. The vibe? For me, like the movie Groundhog Day [laughs]. I wore my original “Feed the World” T-shirt. I dug it out. It’s all yellowed — my kids wear it around the house.
In Europe, Live Aid is taught in civics and history classes, and the single gets released every Christmas in the U.K. Generations have grown up with this song. Carol singers come around at Christmas singing it — they think it’s 300 years old. It’s in the culture. So these musicians turned up for the session, thinking, “Fucking hell, I’m doing George Michael here.” “I’m Bono.” “I’m Sting.” It was in their heads; I saw it.
The Darkness were very antsy, really full of it, taking the piss. But when they met Bono, they were like, “Do you mind if I have my picture taken with you?”
McCartney played bass on the new record but didn’t sing.
Supergrass’ drummer, Danny Goffey, was freaking out. Paul was playing his Beatles bass — the Hofner with the old set list taped on it — and playing the way he used to lock in with Ringo. That was the band: Paul, Danny, Thom Yorke and Fran Healey from Travis. [Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood also played guitar.] Then the singers came in. Robbie Williams did his bit from L.A.; Dido did hers from Australia. Again the difference from twenty years ago — down the fucking wire.
Everybody knew what they were there for. But in ’84, we had all the news reports coming out of Africa. You don’t have that now. I thought, “Hold on, these guys are reenacting a time from their parents’ lives.”
Remember the video that Bowie introduced at Wembley? It was footage from the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] — stuff that they wouldn’t show on telly because it was too hard. You had these beautiful girls, tanned and healthy, on their boyfriends’ shoulders, on this beautiful English day. Then this thing comes on the screen, and their faces fall. They crumble; they’re sobbing.
I showed that video at the session. I was the school teacher: “Please, everyone. I want you to understand what we’re doing today.” I played the video. Towards the end, there’s a little girl, two years old. The kid has been given fifteen minutes to live; there’s nothing in the mother’s breast. The child’s face is like a death’s head. Really, I got quite teary. Then I said, “So you understand what you’re going to sing, the direct impact of what you’re doing — that little girl, because of what we did twenty years ago — here she is.”
And the girl arrived. She is now this beautiful woman. An agriculturalist. The Sun newspaper found her — incredible. Band Aid and Live Aid kept millions of those children alive. I’ve met national sporting heroes, an Oxford don, a philosopher, all kept alive by it. Joss Stone fled the room, crying. Damon [Albarn] from Blur turned away, sobbing.
The difference is, if you listen to the chorus on the first version — “Feed the world” — people are singing. They’re trying to find their harmony and their octave. This one, it’s a shout, a fucking demand. The promise of 1985 is finally delivered by the Live Aid babies.
This is really politics. We addressed the issue through pop, globally, because that’s the language people understood. Live Aid was on ninety-five percent of the world’s screens at the time. Here’s another time. And we know it will work — because we got 150 million bucks then. But the U.N. also debated Africa for the first time, and we changed thirty-seven laws governing bilateral relations. It’s a broken world, and band-aids won’t mend it. But politics will. And who will the politicians listen to? The kids buying this DVD. [Smiles] Which is a great fucking present.