Memories of Live Aid 1985

George Waller, then 21, was among 80,000 music fans at Wembley for the 1985 Live Aid concert. Twenty-five years on, he relives the highlights and tells Steven Russell how the day exceeded his wildest dreams

George was working in the classified advertising department of the East Anglian Daily Times and Evening Star at the time, so he had his ear to the ground. Once the Live Aid ad appeared, “I decided I was going, come what may”.

News that tickets would be sold on a one-per-person basis called for action, since his then girlfriend also wanted to go, so one night in 1985 “we just grabbed the nearest bits of plastic, a couple of sleeping bags, and went there without really much thought”. There was a stretch of pavement in St Helen’s Street, Ipswich, where they camped out overnight from about 8 or 9pm and waited for the doors to open the following morning at the Gaumont Theatre.

It proved an awfully long wait, miserably wet and cold, and George got soaked. There was precious little sleep to be had, too. “It was the longest night of my life, to be honest,” he grins. “Seemed like it, anyway. I’d never done anything like it before.”

An EADT article estimated the queue stretched to about 1,000 people. There’s a reason you can’t see George in the photographs: he’s dodged out of sight at the back because he didn’t want his bosses to discover why he was late for work! “I don’t know that they were being serious – maybe they were – but I’d been warned not to skive off and go and get tickets. So I was sitting down, hiding, when the photographer came round!”

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Ironically, it transpired he needn’t have spent the night at the side of the road. “We had assumed they would sell out. The awful thing was that, the day the tickets went on sale, it turned out people were able to just stroll in during their lunch breaks and buy tickets without any problems at all – no “shortages” that had been implied.”

Officially, tickets were �5 – plus a �20 donation (presumably to avoid thousands being swallowed by VAT). “Considering who you were going to see, the cream of every pop band at the time, I think �25 was cheap! Some of the prices bands charge now are scandalous . . .”

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George and his girlfriend left Suffolk in his Ford Cortina, parking in front of the stadium – partly under “the large ramp” that we deduce must be the famous concrete walkway known as Wembley Way! They slept in the car overnight and were among the first into the stadium when the turnstiles opened.

They declined the chance to stand right in front of the stage, figuring they’d probably be squished by the crowd pushing forwards, and settled for a central position a little further back – 15 or 20 feet in front of a tent housing sound-mixing equipment.

And then the music started . . .

Even if you weren’t a fan of Status Quo, it was hard not to enjoy their infectious performance. “I went to see Bowie, and from my point of view he stole the show. But then Queen came on and stole the show yet again!

“I’d run out of camera film by then. I’d only taken one: one measly 24- or 36-exposure. I was so ill-prepared! I wasn’t a photographer. I had no idea. I’d gone there thinking ‘It’ll be enough . . .’ And, of course, it wasn’t!”

In fact, he’d received a crash-course in photography (and the loan of a camera) from his girlfriend’s father only the day before. He reckons his pictures were “not the best in the world but not bad for my first time with an SLR camera”.

Particularly since it didn’t have automatic exposure. “You had to do it manually. From what I can vaguely remember, you had to juggle the aperture settings versus the shutter speed settings to get this little needle in a comfortable zone. It was complicated!” (He’s kindly lent us a selection for these pages, and we rather like them.)

He says of the concert: “One thing I didn’t notice until I saw it on television afterwards was Dave Gilmour (of Pink Floyd fame) playing guitar for Bryan Ferry. I missed that completely, and it wasn’t announced.” Adam Ant: “His attitude seemed to be ‘Here’s my new record I’m promoting’ (Vive Le Rock) and it was so little to do with the whole meaning of the event. So people got a bit fed up with that.”

(In a recent interview with Simon Price, Ant said he was on the bill, then told he was off, and finally back on again after a fuss – though told he could do only one song. Stand And Deliver and Antmusic would need two lots of drums, so he did Vive Le Rock. “And by the way, everyone was told ‘You’ve got three f------ minutes, there’s a circular stage, and if you go over time, someone at the other end doesn’t go on’.”)

George remembers Bowie sacrificing some of his allotted time to play a near-four-minute Canadian Broadcasting Corporation video about the Ethiopian famine. “What Bowie did, which was extraordinary, was shove aside one of the songs he was going to sing, played this on the big screen, and the audience wept. It was amazing. If you’ve ever seen 80,000 people crying, that was it.”

Other things stick in the mind.

“The whole of the floor was covered in this plastic sheeting – glorified tarpaulin. Everyone walked in with these cartons of orange juice; they were selling hundreds of those. This floor got gradually wetter and wetter with spilt drinks, maybe food, but mostly orange juice and soft drinks, and maybe a bit of booze thrown in. This all got trampled in as well. As the day cracked on, the stuff on the floor started fermenting in the heat and you got this distinct smell I’ll always remember. It was wafting up through everyone. Not very pleasant, really!”

It was generally a clear and hot day, with blue skies. “They had to start hosing down the audience at the front and it just fell short of where we were, unfortunately!

“But the strange thing was, halfway through the day, when everyone was about to pass out, a little cloud formed over the arena and there was some light rain. It was enough to turn you religious! Where did that cloud come from? I’m of the theory now that it was probably our own sweat that had gone up there, formed a cloud, and rained back down on us!”

Another stand-out memory was “that there was a vast amount of people all crammed in together but no trouble at all. I wasn’t aware of a single arrest even in relation to a minor offence”. Even when the concert finished, at the end of a long and sticky day, there was still no aggravation or impatience to speak of as people left.

“In short, it was the most memorable, fantastic concert experience I ever had.”

It wasn’t quite over. Instead of sitting in a big traffic jam outside Wembley, George and his girlfriend opted to spend another night in the Cortina. With the show in Philadelphia not wrapping up until about 4am British time, car radios came on across the car park and the mellowness continued through the night.

George has got the Live Aid DVD but doesn’t often take a trip down memory lane. “You do tend to resort to freezing the shots, trying to find people you know. You can easily waste hours!”

Looking back, though, Live Aid was something of a peak.

He feels it was one of the last concerts where the record company promotional machines weren’t obsessed by image rights. Now, taking pictures of one’s favourite performers is generally outlawed – something he laments. “Photography is about memory, and they are now being restrained by people.”

He wasn’t at all taken, either, by the LIVE 8 anti-poverty concerts held around the world in 2005, including London’s Hyde Park, and didn’t bother watching the whole show on TV. It had all become too commercialised, he says, and he didn’t like the fenced-off semi-circular area in front of the stage “for those who paid just that little bit more”.

He explains: “You know you’re never going to have the same experience again. Like most things, the first time it happens can never be beaten. It’s like Hollywood: the first version of a film is always the best, and follow-ups are never as good.”

The magic of Live Aid might well have inspired George to pick up an instrument himself. About a year after the show he sold the Cortina and submitted to an urge to buy an electric guitar.

“It was straight out of a comedy,” he laughs. “I remember walking past Axe Music one evening” – a shop in St Nicholas Street, Ipswich – “and in the window display there was a spotlight and a little shaft of light illuminating this beautiful blue-coloured guitar from a Japanese company called Ibanez. This thing was sitting there, beckoning me, and I just got transfixed and thought ‘I’ve got to have that guitar.’

“I remember in one lunch break turning up in the ad room, struggling with a Marshall amp in one arm and a guitar case under the other. I was thinking ‘This is my new career path’ . . . and I couldn’t play a note at the time!”

He did have lessons, and played around with it for perhaps nine or 10 years, “but it didn’t quite come together, sadly. It was a lovely dream. Maybe I should have learned first . . .”

He’s still got the Ibanez. Perhaps it’s not too late . . .

“Trouble is, I’m a bit laid back now. I’ve lost the angst you need!”

Live Aid: the basics

What? Two mega concerts, at Wembley and Philadelphia, featuring big names

When? July 13, 1985

Why? To raise money for Ethiopian famine relief

Prime movers? Musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure

It followed . . . Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? the previous year

What was that? Another Geldof/Ure project, when singers and groups united to produce a charity single for Ethiopia

Wembley attendance? About 80,000

And TV? About two-billion viewers, in 60 countries

Successful? It’s reckoned that about �150million was raised for famine relief because of the concerts

Wembley: the line-up

Status Quo, Style Council, Boomtown Rats, Adam Ant, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Elvis Costello, Nik Kershaw, Sade, Sting, Phil Collins, Howard Jones, Bryan Ferry, Paul Young, Alison Moyet, U2, Dire Straits, Queen, David Bowie, The Who, Elton John, Kiki Dee, George Michael, Andrew Ridgeley and Paul McCartney.

Acts in America included The Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Judas Priest, Bryan Adams, The Beach Boys, Simple Minds, Madonna, Neil Young, Thompson Twins, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins (he flew in by Concorde!), Led Zeppelin, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards

From William Martin, who lives near Woodbridge:

I was lucky to have a ticket for the Live Aid concert. It was one of the greatest concerts of all time I have seen, and I have been to many large concerts. The whole day was brilliant. Memories that stand out for me are Status Quo when the concert started, with Rockin’ All Over The World. Other stand-out acts were U2, Queen, David Bowie and The Who, and the finale with Paul McCartney and all the acts on stage.

A truly great concert for a very worthy cause at the time. I still have the programme and ticket, and T-shirts from the concert.

From Ann Wright, Stowmarket:

I went to the concert with two friends. I remember it was a sunny day and we managed to get near the front. My abiding memory is watching Queen, although I had never particularly been a fan. I also remember Dire Straits and Sting singing Money for Nothing.

I had been a U2 fan for a few years by then and it was wonderful to see them live.

Midway through the day Wembley joined in a live link with the concert in the USA, which was shown on a big screen. Everyone was dancing to Brian Wilson singing Surfin’ USA.

I do not have souvenirs of the day. However, someone told me a photo of me, in the crowd, appeared on the front of the Socialist Worker.

I don’t think, at the time, we realised what a huge difference the concert would make to people’s lives. We were enjoying a rock concert, but were part of an historic event – our generation’s Woodstock.

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