Actually, there was snow in Africa that Christmastime – but it was on the snowy peaks of Kilimanjaro and Tanzania – inaccessible to all but the hardiest of explorers. And, of course, the only bells that ring there are not the clanging chimes of doom. You’ve also got the Ghanaian Kangogi and the Grello – a castanet-like finger bell. But as Do They Know It’s Christmas swiftly became the biggest selling single of all time, no-one was picking nits – least of all me. However proud Britain was of Bob Geldof, I was that little bit prouder. Aged nine, The Boomtown Rats had been my favourite band of the punk era. I never understood why my elder brother – a Pistols fan – scorned them for not being proper punks. What, after all, could be more punk than being in a gang called The Boomtown Rats? Add that to the fact that their most well-known song was about a girl who doesn’t like school very much, and – somewhere in the suburbs of Birmingham – Bob had a fan for life.
He really did, too. Months before Band Aid redefined him in our eyes, I was one of approximately twelve people who had bought the Rats’ final album In The Long Grass. I was hardcore. And so, by the end of 1984, when the nation conferred sainthood upon Bob Geldof, I felt that this was a sort of vindication for both of us. In May 1985, when news broke in the Evening Mail about a massive transatlantic benefit for the Ethiopian famine, I knew that I would be there, WHATEVER IT TOOK.
Having said that – there were problems.
Tickets were due to go on sale at 10am the following Friday – the very morning I was due to sit my History GCSE. I knew that there'd be no point getting the bus to Cyclops Records – Birmingham's sole ticket outlet – after I had sat the exam. By midday, it would be way too late. As things stood, there was only one person on the planet who loved me enough to get join that queue at dawn, but Friday was the busiest morning in my parents’ chip shop. My mum had three crates of cod to fillet and portion, and a gallon of curry sauce to make. The last thing she needed was to spend four hours queuing outside Cyclops trying to secure my entry into the Greatest Gig Of All Time. But she did. I repaid her by failing my History GCSE.
That evening, a customer in the chippy mentioned something about Live Aid to my parents. He had spent all morning queueing as well, but to no avail. My parents mentioned that they’d managed to secure a couple of tickets for their 15 year-old son. Then, an hour later, the same bloke returned with the offer of £400 cash for my tickets. My dad called me at home; I said no. A week later, another customer came in with an offer of £1000. Absolutely no way. My parents thought I’d gone mad – but news of the bill had come through and I knew that any gig which gathered together talent like Sade, Dire Straits and Paul Young in one place was surely never to be repeated. In decades to come, people would look back at the line-up and wonder how so many pop titans could have been gathered together at such short notice. I may have failed at history, but soon I was going to be part of it.
That was the pitch anyway, but after brief phone-around of my classmates I realized I might have a problem getting someone to come with me. Robert Singleton – whose beloved Nik Kershaw was playing – looked probable for a while, but his mum said he wasn’t old enough to travel to London without a grown-up. Finally word came through via my brother, that one of his cool art school friends was desperate to go. So desperate, in fact, that she would consider going with a teenage spenk if no other alternative presented itself in time.
We must have made an odd sight, me and Annette. I had downy bum-fluff on my face and mustard cords; Annette was a Home Counties Clare Grogan. You'd think that someone like that would have been way too cool to want in. But Live Aid transcended tribal boundaries. Even Smiths fans didn't quite understand why Morrissey had refused to associate himself from the whole exercise. Live Aid was my punk; the day that the kids got together to show those square politicians in their suits that with Sade, Dire Straits and Paul Young on our side, we were capable of a revolution.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that if some kind of kids’ uprising ever takes place in this country, it won’t start with Status Quo singing Rockin’ All Over The World. At the time though, it seemed a fitting way for the self-styled "global jukebox" to get going. When the gates had opened, Annette and I sprinted across the massive blue tarpaulin covering the hallowed turf to bag a spot just beside the sound desk right in the middle of the pitch. Had Quo sung Pictures Of Matchstick Men, it would have been more appropriate, given that this was all we could see from our vantage point. But it didn’t matter. In the week preceding the show, there had been murmurings in some cynical corners of the media that The Boomtown Rats wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting on a bill like this – had one of them not put it together. Perhaps this was all a shameless bid on Bob’s part to reignite his failing career?
Needless to say, I totally supported his decision to do a Boomtown Rats set that afternoon. So when his band did I Don’t Like Mondays and he sang, “And the lesson to day is HOWTODIE!” whilst raising his saintly first in the air and holding the pose for what felt like a tiny eternity, it felt like I had seen nothing quite as poetically meaningful in all my life. “Yes!” I thought to myself, “Because, when you think about it, the lesson today sort of IS how to die!!!”
It was a good day for this sort of pop revisionism. For a while it seemed like you could take any sad song and pretend it was about Ethiopia. We all fell a bit silent when The Cars’ Drive appeared on the big screens, accompanied by news footage of the famine. “Well put,” I pondered earnestly, “Who IS going to drive him home tonight? NO-ONE. That’s who.” Then there was Macca doing Let It Be. “Yes! LET our concern for Ethiopia be!”
If I’m to honest, few acts that day managed to penetrate my determination to believe that this was the best day of my life. Plodding mid-afternoon sets by Brian Ferry, Sade and Paul Young slowed time right down to an enervating crawl, but I still told myself they were brilliant. Adam Ant sent his career into freefall by plugging his crap new single Vive Le Rock – and yet no-one seemed to mind that Dire Straits took the opportunity to plug Money For Nothing, their rubbish riposte to members of the public who think that rock stars have it easy.
A biblical exodus to the toilet ensued when Bryan Adams came through via the satellite link-up. When Bono spent ten minutes attempting to drag a pretty girl out of the audience during Bad, we didn't have a clue what was going on. As a result, a rumour swept around the stadium that he had seen a fan getting crushed and pulled her out by getting her to cling on to his lustrous raven mullet. The Who were a shambles, but George Michael was better. Flanked by Elton John, he sang Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me and he worked Wembley like some wizened old pro on his ninth consecutive packed house at Batley Variety Club.
Whilst it took me years to bring myself to be critical about anything that I saw on July 13th 1985, I clearly remember knowing within seconds of Freddie’s first “DAAAAAAYO!” that Queen were about to win Live Aid. Only two moments that day truly managed to silence the John Motson in my adolescent head asking, “Is Pete about to undergo the defining experience of his life?” One of them was the Nuremberg-style double-clap on Radio Ga-Ga, with which I found myself joining in. The second was We Are The Champions. Indeed, not only did Queen win Live Aid, but they rubbed everyone’s noses in it with a song built around the age-old playground chant, “Nyer-nyer-nyer-nyer-nyer”! What a fantastically graceless thing to do.
Then there was the emotional finale; Bob raised aloft by almost every sticker in my 1985 Smash Hits yearbook. Yes, that was good. But look at it on the telly now and you’ll notice how poorly stage-managed it all is, with A-list pop stars like Freddie Mercury and David Bowie struggling in vain to wrest a bit of mic action off makeweights such as Big Country’s bassist and Harvey Goldsmith. Besides, after six hours rooted to the spot, I was bursting for a piss. We bought cheeseburgers at Euston and ate them on the train to Birmingham. At Birmingham New St, my dad picked me up. “Did you see us on the telly?” I asked. “We were in the middle of the pitch and Annette had a colourful golf umbrella.” No they hadn’t, but everyone was talking about how Bob Geldof had said “Fuck” live on air. The revolution had been televised. Now people were really going to have to sit up and pay attention when the Boomtown Rats released their next album.
An abridged version of this piece was published in Observer Music Monthly in 2005