Twenty-nine years ago today, this happened.
It was a Saturday. I remember it like it was last Saturday. I was up all night the night before because I was so excited about seeing Queen live. Late Friday night, I set up camp in the family room of my boyhood home in Bay City, Michigan and turned on MTV in the wee hours to discover this obscure, live concert broadcast from Australia. I had no idea what Oz for Africa was, nor did I recognize any of the bands outside of INXS (clearly, I completely missed Men At Work’s set), but I kept it on so as to not miss Live Aid.
As was customary for my brother and I in the summer, we usually did our paper route on the weekends long before sunrise (although I think I was flying solo, at this point, as he had recently turned 16 and I think he had a job). As soon as the bundles of newspapers were dropped off at the corner, we’d throw them in our canvas Bay City Times delivery bags and walk the three blocks to our route. All before 4 a.m. on Saturday mornings, usually. I know what you’re thinking. “That doesn’t seem safe!” Relax. It was totally safe. And quiet. And dark. And fun. The cool summer night air and dewey grass made it pleasant and peaceful…and the cloak of the godforsaken hour’s pitch-black darkness combined with our sense that we had to be stealthy and animal quiet made us feel like we were getting away with something, like we were committing a caper! Hey, when you’re 14 years old, you live on whatever edge you can find.
By the time I returned home and ditched the canvas bags, I returned to my family room entrenchment as Oz for Africa was heading into its homestretch. It closed with INXS performing one of their signature hits, Don’t Change. Around 6 a.m. ET, Live Aid kicked off in London’s Wembley Stadium. I watched as Status Quo—a band I had never heard before—opened the festivities with a song I still remember to this very day: Rockin’ All Over The World. So many great performances from rock icons and bands of the zeitgeist bands of the day: Style Council, Bryan Adams, Run-DMC, Howard Jones, U2, Duran Duran, The Hooters, Billy Ocean…and on and on and on. I know I nodded off at some point during the show, because my brother woke me up to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
When Queen finally took the stage in the early afternoon (in the US), I had the TV on in the family room and the stereo on in the dining room and I was bouncing around the house during their set. I was right there with Freddie and the Wembley crowd, fist-pumping during Radio GaGa, singing along to Freddie’s serve-and-volley with the crowd and playing air guitar while Brian May played Hammer To Fall. I don’t recall if it was that day or later, but my friend Bobby—knowing I was a huge Queen fan—later told me he was going to call me when Queen went on to make sure I didn’t miss it.
On a bill that included performances from Paul McCartney, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan (w/ Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood), Elton John, Mick Jagger w/ Tina Turner, Madonna and so, so many more, who knew that Queen’s performance at Live Aid would go down as THE performance of the entire event?
What people don’t remember is Queen, at that time, was no longer a huge band in the U.S. After The Game, Queen was largely forgotten in the States. While they were conquering the world in 1986, American audiences mostly ignored them. It wasn’t until Freddie Mercury died in 1991 that anyone in the U.S. really began paying attention to Queen’s music again. And then, in 1992, Queen’s revival was boosted by that one scene in that one car in Wayne’s World.
I don’t know that a concert of this magnitude could take place again and resonate like Live Aid. Remember, this was long before the Internet. People still listened to the radio, bought records (on cassette or CD, at the time) and MTV still played music videos. I suppose you could say Live Aid bridged the gap between the great music festivals of the 1960s and the Coachellas and Bonnaroos and Lollapaloozas of today.
A big difference between then and now: no one talks about a legendary Bonnaroo performance outside of those who were there. Twenty-nine years from now, we won’t be having a discussion about Skrillex or Dierks Bentley or even Elton John at this year’s Bonnaroo. No one will point to any of these festivals as the culmination of that moment in time quite the way we do with Freddie and Queen at Live Aid. I mean no disrespect to the artists who perform at those events, nor the fans who attend, but it’s the reality of a 24/7, information overload world. We don’t have shared pop culture moments like this anymore. We, as a society, no longer stop and stare at the same thing unless it’s a tragedy.
Even though it took Freddie’s death to rekindle Queen’s popularity in the U.S., the casual Live Aid observer couldn’t help but note he truly owned the stage on that one July day in 1985.
Hard to believe it was 29 years ago today. And I remember it like it was yesterday.