Live Aid, the massive, one-day, two-continent, sixty-plus-artist charity concert to raise money for a disastrous African famine, took place on July 13, 1985. To say the least, it was a momentous occasion and now, somehow, it’s thirty years later.
The brainchild of Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldolf, Live Aid arose in the wake of Band Aid, the supergroup Geldolf assembled in 1984 to record the smash hit charity single and holiday season perennial “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Jumping back and forth between London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, Live Aid provided a telling snapshot of top-ticket music smack in the middle of the year that was, in turn, smack in the middle of the ’80s.
MTV-friendly pop acts dominated the day’s lineup with considerable dollops of FM-radio veteran classic rock acts taking on the nighttime anchor positions. Run-D.M.C. provided rap. Soul and R&B came courtesy of Sade, Patti LaBelle, and Ashford & Simpson with the recently disabled Teddy Pendergrast (a moving moment to be sure). The closest Live Aid’s roster got to punk was U2 and Geldolf’s aforementioned Boomtown Rats (neither of which actually qualify, at least not by how they sounded in ’85).
Surprisingly, Live Aid gave heavy metal a relatively decent shake. This occurred despite metal being despised at the time beyond any other genre by mainstream tastemakers, from Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, which was actively fighting for censorship in Washington, to snooty rock outlets such as Rolling Stone, where a review of AC/DC’s just-released Fly on the Wall led off with the line: “Heavy metal is the idiot-bastard spawn of rock, the eternal embarrassment that will not die.”
So for Live Aid’s 30th anniversary, let’s raise a horn-fingered salute to rock’s Herculean push for humanitarian aid by highlighting the concert’s 6.66 most metal moments.
6.66. “Stars” by Hear N’ Aid Sounds Off
Let’s begin with a highly metal left-hand move by paying tribute to a Live Aid-spawned happening that didn’t actually occur at Live Aid: the 1985 recording and 1986 release of the charity single “Stars” by the heavy metal supergroup Hear N’ Aid.
The song was performed by a once-in-lifetime assemblage of longhair and leather that included lead vocals by Ronnie, Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Don Dokken (Dokken) Eric Bloom (Blue Öyster Cult), Kevin Dubrow (Quiet Riot), Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche), and others, as well as lead guitar solos by an army that included Campbell, Yngwie Malmsteen, Neal Schon (Journey), and Brad Gillis (Night Ranger). Among the other performers on the track were Ted Nugent, Spinal Tap, and members of Iron Maiden, Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P., Twisted Sister, Y&T, and Giuffria.
While “Stars” may not have made the same mainstream splash as other charity singles connected to Live Aid, it was at least cooler than that goofy “Hands Across America” nonsense the following summer (which was expertly parodied by the Ramones’ “Something to Believe In”).
6. Eric Clapton Plays “White Room” and “Layla”
Enjoying a mid-’80s tenure as a refined gentleman rocker, Eric Clapton paid tribute to his proto-metal roots by resurrecting “White Room” arguably the most familiar anthem by his supreme 1960s power trio, Cream. Phil Collins ably took on Ginger Baker’s original drum thunder.
After playing his recent hit “She’s Waiting,” Clapton closed his three-song set with “Layla,” fully blasting the song’s monster electric guitar riff and slashing solos, in a manner that no way indicated he had any inkling inside him of that 1992 acoustic version that your mom liked so much.
5. Rush and Frank Zappa Refuse and Resist
Numerous superstars turned down invites to appear at Live Aid for a variety of reasons. Bruce Springsteen was exhausted from touring and had just gotten married. Prince said he feared getting assassinated on stage. Stevie Wonder initially agreed to play, but then backed out, according to Geldof, by stating, “I am not going to be the token black in the show.”
Other acts questioned the likelihood of all that donated money actually reaching famine sufferers, including Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, and, weirdly, Huey Lewis and the News.
Rush, bane of the mainstream rock press, also received no invite, despite singer Geddy Lee’s activity with the Canadian charity group, Northern Lights and their fund-raising single, “Tears Are Not Enough.” Drummer Neal Peart eloquently summed up his feelings by saying, “We didn’t refuse to take part because of any principles. Mind you, I wouldn’t have been happy being part of this scenario. Those stars should have shut up and just given over their money if they were genuine.”
Most outspoken of all, of course, was all-around musical genius and heavy metal hero Frank Zappa, who told Howard Stern that Live Aid “was the biggest cocaine money laundering scheme of all time!”
4. Judas Priest Lives After Midnight Just Before Noon
Storming Philly’s JFK Stadium stage at 11:26am, Judas Priest tore through a commanding three-song set of “Living After Midnight,” “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming.”
Bedecked in their signature studded black leather, Priest blazes for seventeen minute in the late-morning sun, with Rob Halford commanding the mic and the twin axe attack of K.K. Downing and Glen Tipton knocking the throngs for a full metal loop, despite some squeaky feedback technical issues.
“So we’ve got a few thousand metal maniacs here,” Halford said between numbers. “Nice to see, nice to see.” The crowd, as you might expect, went wild. Chants of “Priest! Priest! Priest!” happily ensued.
3. Led Zeppelin Reunites… Sort Of
In strict formal terms, Led Zeppelin no more reunited at Live Aid than did Deep Purple, who had actually been scheduled to do so via satellite from Switzerland until guitarist Ritchie Blackmore experienced an eleventh-hour change of heart.
First off, Zep drummer John Bonham died in 1980, a fact that brings to mind George Harrison’s response when asked if the Beatles would be getting back together at Live Aid: “[We] can’t reform—or haven’t people read the papers the last five years?” (Of course, no similar notions prevented the Who from coming out of their first in a series of retirements).
Secondly, the band that performed “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Stairway to Heaven” at Live Aid consisted of original Zep members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones backed on bass by session player Paul Martinez and on drums by both Phil Collins and Tony Thompson of Chic and the Power Station.
Thirdly, the calamitous results do not live up to the Zeppelin name. Robert Plant, in full foofy ’80s hair-do, sounded hoarse and off-key. Jimmy Page looked and played like a mess, then blamed Phil Collins for not knowing his drum parts, griping, “We played ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and he was just there bashing away cluelessly and grinning. I thought that was really a joke!”
Defending himself, Collins fired back, “It was a disaster, really. Robert wasn’t match-fit with his voice and Jimmy was out of it, dribbling. It wasn’t my fault it was crap … If I could have walked off, I would have.”
Regardless, Live Aid gifted us with the three living members of Led Zeppelin live on stage performing three of the group’s timeless anthems. That alone is a quintessential metal milestone and so, too, in a Spinal Tap sort of way, is how it all kind of bombed.
2. Black Sabbath Reunites… For Real
By the time Live Aid happened, the still-going Black Sabbath faced a serious career ebb after their excellent but unsung one-off Born Again album with vocalist Ian Gillan while former frontman Ozzy Osbourne was soaring to an unprecedented high off three instant classic solo releases: Blizzard of Ozz (1980), Diary of a Madman (1981), and Bark at the Moon (1983).
Thus it was a big deal for Ozzy, who had been summarily fired from Sabbath six years earlier and was still decades away from getting clean and sober, to agree to perform with his old bandmates. Fortunately, the Prince of Darkness was properly moved by Live Aid’s humanitarian effort to front a full reunion of Sabbath’s four original members.
Brought on by comedian Chevy Chase, the classic Sabbath lineup, on stage together for the first time since 1978, seriously whipped through “Children of the Grave,” “Iron Man,” and “Paranoid.” Ozzy, albeit chubby and sporting his high-fluff ’80s coif, sounded great while Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, and Bill Ward on drum erupted as though the foursome had never broken up.
1. Queen Rules
For those who want to protest that Queen aren’t a “true” metal band, take that up with the multiple generations of hard-and-heavy extreme rock musicians who worship the work of guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon, drummer Roger Taylor and, of course, incandescent vocalist Freddie Mercury.
In addition, all naysayers are advised to watch Queen’s 25-minute Live Aid set wherein the group, presumed to be years past their prime, won over, utterly commanded, and transcendently transformed the entire planet, beginning with the 100,00-plus concertgoers at Wembley Stadium followed immediately by the countless millions watching on TV or listening on the radio.
Opening with a medley of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Radio Gaga,” Queen mesmerized on a scale that was at once cosmic and intimate, masterfully bedazzling through “Hammer to Fall” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” before closing with “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions.”
Any question as to who the greatest rock frontman of all time is was also laid to rest by Freddie leading the crowd in an operatic, a capella call-and-response exchange that embodied the best of what Live Aid was about beyond just raising money: for a brief, shining moment, Queen connected all of humanity in an act of sheer joy and spiritual uplift. They also, being heavy metal rockers at heart, kicked all manner of ass, too.