Suffolk stars of Live Aid on what it meant to them
Thirty years after Live Aid, entertainment writer Wayne Savage talks to some of the local artists who took part - and co-creator Midge Ure, visiting the region in September - and asks for their memories of the day and the differences they feel it has made.
Nik Kershaw’s Live Aid set was probably the longest 20 minutes of his life. Given the chance to play for so many people, he wanted to relish the moment. It didn’t quite work out that way.
“I didn’t enjoy the performance which is a real shame. It’s all a bit of blur. I just wanted to get on and get it done really. This little kind of gremlin sits on my shoulder in the middle of gigs saying, ‘You’re going to mess up, aren’t you?’, willing me to get things wrong and I can’t shake him off sometimes. He was there that day.
“The sound was pretty lousy on stage, we had no idea what was coming out of people’s TV sets. Everybody was nervous, it wasn’t just me, it was the whole band. It all felt a bit nervy and edgy all the way through. We were kind of getting away with it and at one point I actually forgot the words to Wouldn’t It Be Good. I don’t think that was the last number either so that was in my mind for the rest of the set as well.”
The singer-songwriter, who grew up in Ipswich, can’t remember if he was on after either Elvis Costello or The Style Council. He does remember standing in the wings terrified.
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“Terrified would sum it up quite nicely. I don’t remember much about it,” laughs the former Northgate pupil, who quit school during his A-levels to work at an unemployment benefit office by day and sing in underground Ipswich bands by night.
Some 72,000 people packed into Wembley Stadium that day, with nearly 2billion watching live on TV. That would shake anybody.
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“Something beginning with ‘sh’ is certainly in your mind. There’s film of me from a year before standing in the wings at Wembley waiting to go on at an Elton John concert. I imagine I was pretty much the same colour; almost opalescent, a sort of see-through white, sickly green. I get nervous before going on stage anyway.
“You don’t want to let yourself down and you don’t want to mess up in front of 200 people in an acoustic gig but nearly 80,000? It was the 2bn TV audience, the thought the world was watching. You were also surrounded by your peers, your heroes, people you’d be listening to since your childhood and you don’t want to mess up in front of them either.”
Live Aid was ahead of its time, using cutting edge technology, which added pressure. Kershaw remembers things were held together with string and gaffer tape and could fall to pieces any moment. You didn’t even know if your gear was on stage. You hoped it was.
“You hadn’t seen it, seen your crew. When you do see it, is any of it working and can I hear it? You were just standing at the side of the stage waiting to go on, just walking into this kind of abyss.”
Portable buildings in a makeshift courtyard served as dressing rooms for the rotating line-up. He has no clue who was in his before or after.
“I remember standing there half-an-hour before going on talking to Sting so I know he was there,” he laughs.
Co-organiser Sir Bob Geldof approached Kershaw, performing at the Ipswich Regent later this year for the first time in three decades, at an airport while Nik was flying to Germany for a big pop festival. At that point, Live Aid was just “a gig that’s probably happening somewhere in London”.
“I think he was just hanging around the airport, pouncing on people; he wasn’t flying to Germany. I presume he was just there so he could ambush people at check-in,” he laughs.
Nothing happened for a couple of months, then it became clear this wasn’t going to be “just a gig”.
“It was going to be Wembley Arena, then Wembley Stadium. Then it was in Philadelphia as well and going around the world and it was ‘What have I let myself in for’?”
You don’t say no to Sir Bob though.
“He scared the crap out of me. It never occurred to you to say no but it’d already been proven by Band Aid that you could make a difference to people’s lives thousands of miles away, so you knew it wasn’t an empty gesture.”
Discussion continues as to how much difference Live Aid, which sought to open the world’s eyes to the worst famine to hit Ethiopia for a century, made.
“The (only other) option was doing nothing, but we didn’t do that and that was down to Bob. What’s a permanent difference? Regimes? Climate change? But there are many people alive now that wouldn’t have been otherwise.”
Two words spring to Suffolk musician and producer Thomas Dolby’s mind when I mention Live Aid: David Bowie.
The singer’s regular touring band were busy elsewhere so he decided to put together a band of young English musicians since he was in England shooting the Jim Henson movie Labyrinth at Pinewood.
With just 10 days left until the gig, Bowie turned to Dolby for help. The latter says nobody realised the magnitude of what was to come. They knew it was Wembley, they knew it was going to be broadcast but it snowballed in the last week or so.
“As it got closer we realised he really needed to do some anthems that everybody knew. We had only four rehearsals with him and the band. He kept changing his mind about what songs he wanted, we only settled on the four we did on the final day’s rehearsal, on the Friday. We never actually played them back to back in sequence. He didn’t even decide on the order of the songs until the morning of the show. It was obviously a thrill for me and for other musicians to be playing with Bowie. We’d all grown up with him as a huge influence and big hero; but it was terrifying doing such a massive gig when we were so under-rehearsed.”
Dolby remembers it like yesterday. Living in Hammersmith at the time, the weather was fabulous so he went for a walk along the river. Every top window was open and you could hear the concernt pre-amble coming out of radios and TVs.
The traffic was so bad he had to fly from a heliport in Battersea to Wembley with Bowie.
Dolby was expecting the thin, white duke Bowie from the BBC’s 1974 Cracked Actor documentary, which has become notorious for showing his fragile mental state at the time.
“He was unbelievably friendly, civil, gracious and really an inspiration - until we got on the helicopter,” laughs Dolby. “Then he turned into the Cracked Actor. He was wearing like a Homburg hat pulled down over his face and was chain smoking, much to the annoyance of the pilot who said it wasn’t allowed.
“Bowie swore at him and spent the whole time saying ‘when do we get there’? He hated flying and had only recently summoned the courage. I think this was his first ever helicopter. The flight was only 15 minutes and I remember very clearly banking over Wembley Stadium. In the foreground I had Bowie chain smoking and swearing at the pilot and in the background I had Freddie Mercury crooning to the heavens.
“As soon as we landed, Bowie perked up. There were about 200 paps outside and he said to me, ‘Ooh, I love this bit’ and he flung open the door and sprung out in front of the flashing cameras.”
Arriving mere minutes before they were due on stage, they were taken straight there, kicking off the set with TVC 15.
“It’s not really my style. He would’ve been better off with Jools Holland but we got through the set and it went very well, it was thrilling. We got to Heroes, which we’d only played through once; and although it’d been an anthem of my youth it’s actually quite a confusing song in some ways and I was worried that I’d screw up.
“I just remember staring at Bowie’s back in his light blue suit and beyond him thousand of fans. I didn’t have to look down, my fingers did the walking and I was channelling the teenage me playing Heroes in front of all of those people. It was amazing, a transcendent moment.”
Live Aid’s difference, it’s legacy, believes Dolby, is the idea of being able to do something despite the political agenda.
“It was an amazing realisation that entertainers and the public could actually do something significant. I’m always amazed with a natural disaster and you read about all the donations from the UK. We’re a very generous and caring nation. Just yesterday I heard about a Kickstarter campaign for the people of Greece that had raised hundreds of thousands of Euros. So, yeah, it made a difference.”
Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt, who’s father was born in Newmarket, confesses he only remembers a little about Live Aid. When they were approached about playing, the band had kind of split up.
“We said, ‘Well, the band’s not really together, Bob; we’re not really rehearsed or anything’. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter a f*** whether you’re rehearsed. Just get on there and do it’.”
Reluctantly reforming, they opened the concert with Rockin’ All Over The World. Standing in front of the biggest audience they’ve played to in a single stadium, with cameras everywhere, they soon realised the gravity of the situation.
“You think, ‘Oh my word, this is going out to the whole world; how many people are watching this?’,” remembers Parfitt who, still has family in Newmarket and spent some of his early years in Harlow too.
“It was just incredible. I’ve never known anything like it and still haven’t from that day to this. It was one of the most amazing experiences.
“It was over in (what felt like) about 15 seconds because it was just so wonderful. We came off stage and I remember speaking to Janice Long the DJ about what it was like out there but after that...”
The question co-creator Midge Ure’s asked most about that day is did it make a difference? He knows it did. He’s met the people who survived the famine growing up because people like you bought Do They Know It’s Christmas, bought tickets to Live Aid or listened when Bob Geldof shouted, “Give us your money”.
“The analogy of calling the record Band Aid was it’s a sticking plaster, you can cover a cut but you can’t fix a severed arm. Band Aid and Live Aid were never going to fix Africa, but it’s changed it just a little bit and we’ve changed people’s attitudes towards it and towards charity work.
“We used a medium people could understand - music. It transcends creed, colour and borders. It goes through barbed wire, it crosses walls. Young people got it. They saw their favourite artists standing on the stage at Live Aid doing something for somebody else and that’s the best example you can possibly give.”
Intended as a six-month project, the work continues. Just this morning the former Ultravox frontman has been discussing more funding.
Expecting it to be done to death over the coming days, he doesn’t want to dwell on tomorrow’s anniversary too much when I bring it up during our chat about his forthcoming gig at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds.
Talking about the idea just a couple of months before it happened, he remembers the thought of staging simultaneous dual concerts at London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s John F Kennedy Stadium which would be broadcast to 150 nations via one of the largest satellite link-ups of all time. It seemed impossible to pull off.
“Within the Band Aid Trust (set up to oversee the spending of money raised by Band Aid) we had Lord Grade, who was plain old Michael Grade back then and in charge of the BBC, who managed to eke out five hours of national TV for us. We also had Harvey Goldsmith, who was a big music impresario.
“Between all the trustees and Bob’s unbridled passion for the entire thing, Live Aid was born. We wouldn’t take no as an answer from anybody on anything to do with it. Anytime anyone said, ‘Well, I’m not sure if that will work’, we rode roughshod over them and just did it,” he says.
The build-up, he recalls, was immense. The day itself even more so.
“It was beautiful. I think maybe the one sunny day we had that summer, it was just glorious. When I sat out front after doing my bit, I watched some of the acts thinking, ‘I’m not quite sure I’ll enjoy this because I’m not really into their music,’ or whatever.
“Then you saw them and they were brilliant, every one of them. Then you realised ‘I’m just being a d***’ because these people as successful as they are, as good as they are, they brought it to the table. They were absolutely phenomenal so it was just the most magnificent day.”