Billions watching . . . and I forget my words!
It’s 25 years since the world paused to watch the Live Aid shindig at Wembley and a concert across the pond in America. Legends like Queen and David Bowie sang to help starving Ethiopians. Among the stars was former Ipswich schoolboy Nik Kershaw, at the height of his pop fame. He tells Steven Russell about that memorable day
SATURDAY, July 13, 1985. Wembley Stadium. The latest ambitious step in the campaign by Bob Geldolf and Midge Ure to use the power of rock to help ease the Ethiopian famine. Anyone who’s anyone in the music biz takes to the stage for free. Among them is heart-throb Nik Kershaw, who had eased his way into the public consciousness 18 months earlier when Wouldn’t It Be Good reached number four in the charts. Before the year was out he‘d enjoyed two European tours and four more hit singles. Further success would come in 1985, with three hits and a world tour. Heady stuff. An invite to Live Aid must have been amazing for a guy who’d cut his musical teeth at places like Rushmere St Andrew Village Hall, on the edge of Ipswich, and Claydon cement works, but did the butterflies ever start fluttering?
“You’re having a laugh, aren’t you? I don’t think ‘nerves’ even vaguely covers it. ‘Blind terror’ are the two words I could think of. It was absolutely terrifying,” he grins today.
“I got nervous before gigs anyway, but there were several reasons for this terror. One was that nothing on this scale had ever been attempted before. You take it for granted nowadays, but the whole event was held together with gaffer tape. So you were aware of the fact that anything could go wrong at any moment. You didn’t have a sound check; you didn’t know if your gear was going to be on the stage; you didn’t know if it was going to be working when you got there.
“So there’s all that going on, plus the knowledge that not only are there 75,000/80,000 people out there, there are also two-billion watching on television – and you’re surrounded by people you’ve worshipped for the last 10 years and you don’t want to look stupid in front of them. You put a huge amount of pressure on yourself before you’ve even thought about stepping on stage!”
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Nik’s allocated slot began at 2.22pm. The transmission cut back to London from the U.S. concert in Philadelphia after the Hooters finished All You Zombies. They’d been introduced by comedians Chevy Chase and Joe Piscopo. At Wembley, Radio 1 DJ Tommy Vance gave the former Ipswich grammar school pupil the big build-up before he launched into an 18-minute set: Wide Boy, Don Quixote, The Riddle and – of course – Wouldn’t It Be Good.
I’ve watched them all on YouTube and he looks pretty chilled and in control.
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“It’s all bluff. Once you get halfway through the first number you think ‘Well, I’m here now; might as well get on with it.’ You’re with your band and in a vaguely familiar situation. But I do remember not being able to hear anything; it was just very difficult.” For instance, the singer couldn’t hear his keyboard player, some distance away on the vast stage, through the monitors.
“My horror moment was getting halfway through Wouldn’t It Be Good and knowing I’d forgotten the words to the second half of the second verse! It was one of those complete moments of panic.
“I’ve done this all my life; it’s a real bugbear, forgetting words. If you think about the fact you’ve forgotten the words, they don’t come. If you don’t think about it and just open your mouth, they come out.
“I remember singing the first half of the second verse, but in my head I was trying to remember the second half. ‘Don’t panic . . . don’t panic . . . it’ll come . . . it’s not going to come!
“And it didn’t come! I ended up singing the second half of the first verse again! So I covered my tracks; but if you know the song, you’ll know that it’s not right.”
Did the band pick up on it?
“Well, yeah, they did, because in order to cunningly disguise the fact I was singing the same words, I slightly changed the tune, which I’d never done before. We went offstage and they said ‘What was that?!’”
I noticed the different arrangement, but thought you must have just been enjoying yourself musically.
“No. It was panic! It wasn’t confidence at all.”
But let’s go back to the beginning. I’ll put on my best Simon Bates Our Tune voice and take Nik back to 1984, when news bulletins were dominated by the famine in Ethiopia. It prompted the Geldof/Ure Band Aid idea, which brought stars together to record the fund-raising song Do They Know It’s Christmas?
Nik, a new kid on the block, wasn’t part of that slightly chaotic gathering. “I just wasn’t in Midge or Bob’s telephone book! It all happened so quickly, I think, and was about who knew who. I wasn’t in that circle, really.”
That changed the following year. With millions still starving, the campaigners hit on the idea of the star-studded concert to end all concerts.
“A whole bunch of us were at Heathrow Airport, flying out to some big German TV event, or something. I think Spandau Ballet were there, and whoever; and Bob was there, lurking. I don’t know if he was going anywhere, but he was at the airport, recruiting people! He just came up and said ‘Look, are you up for this gig in July?’ Well, yeah; brilliant. OK. You don’t say No to Bob Geldof!
“At the time, nobody knew where it was going to be. They were talking about Wembley, but everyone thought ‘Wembley Arena‘. Then it became Wembley Stadium, and then Philadelphia as well. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Nik had risen from largely unknown to a star in a matter of months; did he regress to being a boy from Ipswich when he saw Geldof heading towards him?
“Not really. He’s just a scary man! It was nothing to do with what he’d done in the past, or being starstruck. It was ‘If I don’t say yes, he’s going to shout at me.’ Simple as that, really!
“The weirdest thing is, in a business that’s tied up with lawyers and contracts, I don’t ever remember there being one. I think everybody was just expected to turn up. Which, of course, you did!”
At the time he was living at Ridgewell, between Halstead and Haverhill, and travelled to London on the day with then-wife Sheri.
“We drove down to Battersea heliport, because it was going to be a traffic nightmare around Wembley. We flew into I think it was some recreation ground close to the stadium, and they closed off the roads from there to Wembley. You drove to the conference centre, which was a sort of holding area.
“We walked up to the stadium to meet Di (Princess Diana) and Charles. Di was very chatty. I remember my manager standing next to me and sort of stepped out and introduced me, and she said ‘I know who he is!’ And then we sat in the royal box, watching Status Quo for a bit.
“Then I thought ‘Hang on a minute! I’m going to be on! Better get myself together. What’s the etiquette about standing up and leaving before Charles and Di?’ I had that going on in my head. So I sort of sneaked out.
“There were three portable buildings backstage, if I remember rightly. Basically, you borrowed one for about half an hour before you went on.” Was there anyone to help with hair and other preparations?
“I don’t remember anyone. That bit’s a very shady memory. I think that hair construction, that mullet, was my own work!”
Feeling the need to pace up and down, Nik ventured out into a small quadrangle. “I remember Sting being there and talking about his new (first solo) album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, and just having a chat about how much fun it was to make. He looked cool, as if it was just another gig.”
Then it was time to sing. “You got about 20 minutes and you stuck to it. They dragged you off, otherwise – or the stage started revolving!” The concert had three rotating stages: “One being broken down, one setting up and one onstage.”
Things seemed to go “remarkably well, considering, with only a few technical hitches. The power went off at one point, later in the evening.
“I do remember the nice feeling with that many people. It’s difficult getting 80,000 or so in a stadium without there being some kind of undercurrent or tension. There was none of that at all; everybody was just pleased to be there and knew they were part of something big.”
Of his own stint, Nik reflects: “I had done a gig of similar scale before – I played Wembley Stadium with Elton John – but I still felt I was completely out of my depth, especially on a stadium stage, because I was used to playing theatres and small arenas. When you see someone who knows exactly how to perform at that kind of gig – if you sit in the royal box and watch Queen – you think ‘Ah! That’s how you do it.’”
It was rather “built” for Freddie Mercury, wasn’t it? “It was Freddie’s day. Absolutely.
“It’s stagecraft – which I’ve never learnt anyway! There’s a special kind of stagecraft when the stage is 80-foot wide. All your gestures have to be bigger, if the person standing at the back’s going to link with you at all.”
And then the Kershaw set was over. Cue an overwhelming sense of relief.
“I don’t think anybody would claim it was their greatest performance or their finest hour, but they were glad they‘d got through it – and I was glad I got through it, though you always think ‘I wish I’d done this better; I wish I’d done that better.’”
I’ve watched the footage and think it easily passed muster. “I’ve never had the guts to watch it, to be honest.” Never? “Never.”
There was no dash back to the Essex/Suffolk borders. “You want to soak it in. You’re on such a high, you’re not going to sit in a car, go home and watch the telly. You want to be a part of it.
“We were hanging out with everybody else, watching some of the acts, and getting (Spandau’s) Tony Hadley to buy you a drink!
“I remember we were all sitting in the royal box and he stands up at the front of it and goes ‘Anyone want a drink?’ And the whole box sticks its hands up! (Not the royals: they’d gone by then.) He comes back with tray after tray of lager.”
Nik couldn’t have gone home, anyway. There was the everyone-on-stage finale, singing Do They Know It’s Christmas?
“Being 5ft 4ins, and standing at the back, you won’t have seen me! There was a bit of a scrum, I must admit. They were all fighting to get to the front. I’ve got Bowie and Bono in front of me, so I don’t feel I can push in!
“The funny thing is, every time it comes up and there’s that finale, there’s my guitarist and keyboard player right at the front, giving it some. They got in there, having a lovely time!”
What would he say is the legacy of that day, a quarter of a century on?
“You get asked ‘Did it really make a difference?’ My honest answer is ‘I don’t know.’ I really don’t know. It’s probably a bigger problem now than it was then, in that there’s more people, there’s less food.”
I guess what we can say for sure is that the money raised helped some people in desperate need at that particular point in time.
“If nothing else it made people aware of how lucky they were and what was going on somewhere else in the world.”
Nik says he sees quite a few singers fairly regularly – people like Midge Ure, Go West, ABC and Kim Wilde (“You find yourself at some festival in Europe or over here”) – but the subject of Live Aid never enters the conversation, for some reason.
“The only person I remember talking to about it was Howard (Jones), and that was on the day. He absolutely loved being there, doing what he did, and was lapping up every second. I didn’t. I just wanted to get on and off, because I was just so bloody scared!”
A dad again
JUNE was a cracking month for Nik Kershaw. The 20th brought a first wedding anniversary for him and Sarah. Before that, at 9.01am on the ninth, Theodore Douglas Kershaw entered the world, a few weeks earlier than expected. “He came out a bit uncooked, but absolutely fine. Thriving,” says proud dad, who has three children from his earlier marriage and lives in the Great Dunmow area, near Stansted Airport. His first-born offspring is now 22.
Gosh; the singer/songwriter must have more energy and resilience than me, to contemplate being a father again at 52.
“It’s coincided with a problem with my feet,” he laughs. “I’ve got flat feet and had one incredibly painful foot, so I’ve been hobbling about, thinking ‘How am I going to kick a football about with young Theo? I’ll be 70 years old when he’s 18!’”
Does dad sing to him – a chorus from The Riddle, perhaps?
“I sort of hum to him in a low voice. It gets him off to sleep – so it’s useful for something, anyway!”
Nik’s been doing intimate acoustic gigs, like the one at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich last autumn, but he’s got plans (nappy-changing permitting).
“The important thing for me is to get another album recorded and out, and then maybe tour with a band next year. I’m aware I’m always going to be remembered for four or five songs, and that’s it, because that’s the nature of the media and the beast; but you still want to get up in the morning and think ‘Well, actually, my best work is yet to come. I’ve still got something to say.”
Made in Suffolk
March 1, 1958: born Nicholas David Kershaw in Bristol
1959: moves to Ipswich
Schools: Morland Road Primary and Northgate Grammar School for Boys
Schoolfriend has a Gibson 335 guitar – a copy – and they spend Sunday afternoons daydreaming they are Deep Purple and Black Sabbath
August 1974, Rushmere St Andrew Village Hall: debut of Thor, with Nik on guitar and vocals. Later becomes Half Pint Hogg, and then plain Hogg
1975: Leaves Northgate at 17, halfway through A-levels
‘I had a dream I was going to join a band and rule the world. Then I worked in an unemployment benefit office in Ipswich for three years . . .’
Each Thursday night for three years: practises at Claydon cement works
1978: Offered guitarist’s job in local, and professional, jazz-funk-rock band Fusion after Hogg heard playing at the King William pub in Ipswich. Wife-to-be Sheri is in the band
1982: Fusion breaks up. Nik signs on as unemployed
Borrows friend’s equipment and makes demos
Puts ad in Melody Maker, seeking a manager
One reply is from former musician Mickey Modern, who had managed blues band Nine Below Zero. They join forces
MCA agrees to a singles deal and a trial
1983: Debut album Human Racing recorded during summer
January, 1984: Wouldn’t It Be Good goes to number four in UK charts. Two European tours
Other hits: Dancing Girls (1984, number 13 in UK), I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me (1984, two), Human Racing (1984, 19), The Riddle (1984, three), Wide Boy (1985, nine), Don Quixote (1985, 10)
1989: Leaves the spotlight to concentrate on song-writing
1990s: Writes for and with folk such as Chesney Hawkes (The One and Only), Cliff Richard, Bonnie Tyler, Lulu, Ronan Keating, Jason Donovan, Imogen Heap, Darius and Gary Barlow
Records one of his own songs as a duet with Elton John
1998: 15 Minutes marks a return to making his own records. To be Frank follows