AFTER YEARS of being bootlegged, an official DVD of 1985's monster, 13-hour Live Aid concert was released this fall by organizer Bob Geldof. The proceeds will go to benefit the Band Aid Trust, with the noble goal of feeding the hungry in Ethiopia. To watch the DVD is to unearth a time capsule of 1980s pop culture.
As the four-disc, ten-hour set shows, the concert was an incredible spectacle. Held at open-air stadiums on two continents--Philadelphia's JFK Stadium, and England's Wembley--the concert also utilized additional satellite hookups to Japan, Belgrade, Cologne, The Hague, and Melbourne. Organizers went so far as to fly Phil Collins across the Atlantic on the Concorde, so that he could play in both the United States and the Britain.
The concertgoers certainly got their money's worth. While there were a few clinkers, most of the nearly 70 acts gave it their all. And as the DVDs demonstrate, the groups which came off best were, for the most part, seasoned road veterans to whom playing a stadium like JFK or Wembley was just another gig, even if another billion and a half people were watching at home: Elton John, U2, and Brian Ferry all put on good shows, as did Eric Clapton. While he and his veteran band had probably played "Layla" hundreds of times before, Clapton turned in some beautiful lead lines on the song's extended coda. For other groups, Live Aid was a swansong. In many respects, it represented the culmination of Queen's career. Freddie Mercury would largely vanish from the public eye a few years later, and be dead from AIDS by 1991.
Of course, not everybody came off so well. A failed microphone meant that most of Paul McCartney's lyrics on "Let It Be" were inaudible; he overdubbed a new lead on the song for the DVDs. But not all mistakes could be covered up: Led Zeppelin, reuniting five years after the death of drummer John Bonham, delivered a dreadful set and refused to allow it to be included in the DVD.
WHILE LIVE AID was a great day for pop music, it was meant to be more than that. It was organized by Bob Geldof, who, prior to his efforts, was best known for two things: He was the lead singer in an Irish new-wave band which had moderate chart success with the song "I Don't Like Mondays," and was the star of The Wall, the film version of Pink Floyd's best-selling album.
The seeds for Live Aid were planted in 1984 after Geldof saw a BBC documentary about famine in Ethiopia. Touched by it, Geldof decided to get involved, first by co-writing a song called "Do They Know It's Christmastime" to raise money for famine relief, (this spawned an American counterpart, "We Are The World"), and then by organizing mega-concerts.
While the recordings of "Do They Know" and "We are the World" raised several million dollars, Geldof wanted more. As he said to the global audience on the night of the concerts, "Don't go to the pub tonight; there are people dying now. So please, stay in and give me the fucking money!"
People did, to the tune of $245 million.
IN A devastating piece in England's Spectator, Daniel Wolf reports on what happened after the music stopped. In the '80s, Colonel Haile Mariam Mengistu, the despot who overthrew (and later executed) Haile Selassie as ruler of Ethiopia in 1974, was more than willing to exploit Geldof and the millions of dollars Live Aid raised.
And the BBC documentary which inspired Geldof made little mention of how Mengistu exploited famine as a political weapon. His goal was to depopulate rebel-held areas by forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of villagers from northern Ethiopia to areas in the south. Instead, the BBC's Michael Buerk merely described Ethiopia's situation as "biblical famine."
Buerk knew what he was doing. As he later told Wolf, "You've got . . . to make the decision, is this side story of any real significance? And also, at the back of your mind, is: if I overemphasize a negative angle to this, I am going to be responsible for . . . inhibiting people from coughing up their money." Why let facts complicate a good story?
Between the BBC documentary, other news stories, and the Live Aid concerts, nearly a billion dollars flowed into Ethiopia during the '80s. Most of it came from various foreign governments; Geldof's efforts represented nearly a quarter of total.
Along with the cash, thousands of western workers and journalists began to enter Ethiopia. Mengistu knew a good thing when he saw it and used the combined tidal wave of money and sympathy to prop up his regime. He required that relief workers convert their western tender to the local currency at a rate favorable to his junta, which tripled its foreign currency reserves, allowing it to buy arms and materiel. Mengistu's troops also commandeered aid vehicles and fed themselves on the incoming foodstuffs. As Wolf notes, "it became clear that a significant proportion of the relief food in Tigray--the epicenter of the famine--was consigned to the militia. The militias were known locally as 'wheat militias'."
The money allowed Mengistu to string out his war efforts for six more years. Between starvation and outright murder, the war cost more than 100,000 Ethiopian lives.
DURING THE SHOW, The Who performed their '70s anthem, "We Won't Get Fooled Again." The Boomer and MTV generations frequently forget how often they get fooled again.
While Live Aid was spectacular television, it was just another in a series of Big Events from people who believed that throwing money at a problem eventually solves it. Eerily, it forecast how the left would interact with Iraq: Substitute Mengistu for Saddam Hussein and it's amazing how all the rest of the players stay the same--the BBC, the United Nations, and celebrities who believe that despots can be reasoned with to do the right thing. We won't get fooled again? Of course you will.
Ed Driscoll has been writing professionally since 1995, on topics ranging from technology to pop culture to politics. Sadly, he no longer wants his MTV. For more of his writings, see eddriscoll.com.