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Live Aid

"Live Aid will be more powerful in memory than in reality." Such was Bob Geldof's opinion for many years, which explains why one of the largest televised events in history was seen just once for nearly two decades. And even then, those who sat transfixed in front of TV sets around the world on July 13, 1985, still have vivid recollections of one of the decade's most prominent cultural moments. In fact, if most pop-culture archeologists are inclined to write off the '80s as the era when video mattered more than music, introducing a vapid techno-pop bridge between the glory days of FM radio in the '70s and a far more diverse musical landscape of pop, rap, and grunge in the '90s, then Live Aid may be the only thing during those ten years that actually mattered, the one thing that young people who grew up during the Reagan Era could point to and claim as theirs. But unlike Woodstock, no film was made. Unlike Lollapalooza, it would not return the following summer. Because of various legal implications, Geldof insisted that Live Aid not even be recorded for posterity, and producers of the U.S. concert in Philadelphia actually disabled all of their recording equipment during the broadcast. But while music and fashion and MTV are now irrevocably changed, the need for famine relief in Africa continues, prompting the first release of Live Aid for home viewing — and Bob Geldof can thank the folks at MTV, who recently discovered that they had saved a good portion of the American concert in their archives. Some footage still remains lost, but the majority survives. Here then, swathed in feral, foot-long mullets and bright, billowy shirts, are ten reasons to watch Live Aid, again:

  1. David Bowie and Mick Jagger: "Dancin' in the Streets" music video: Everything associated with Live Aid was done on a rushed schedule, and that includes this charity single/video slapped together by the Rolling Stones frontman and the Thin White Duke. The whole affair looks like it was shot with three crew members, a boombox, and 30 minutes of film, and it's slapdash at best. But just point a camera at these two and tell them it's for a good cause — they're willing to be good sports while bumping hips to the Motown beat. Jagger coolly swills a can of lager while Bowie prances and spins. Bowie offers a silly double-take after getting elbowed by Mick. A tandem shake of skinny white English asses is the final flourish, and while both singers have contested long-held rumors that they once were caught in bed together, one wouldn't think this video would be tendered as Exhibit A in their defense.

  2. Joan Baez, Philadelphia: Among the material — good, bad, and ugly — missing from this DVD release is Joan Baez's rendition of Tear for Fears' "Shout," which she appropriated in her set as a noble cry of protest in the '80s era. Even then, it clings to generational memories so much that one can't help but cringe just thinking of it. What does remain is her a cappella offering of "Amazing Grace" in Philadelphia, which she awkwardly urges the crowd to join her in singing. And yes, even with thousands and thousands of people held as a captive audience, it's still possible for every last one of them to hoot, fidget, and cough until the whole thing is over.

  3. Bryan Adams, Philadelphia: Bryan Adams may go down in musical history as one of the arch-practitioners of the power ballad, but at heart he's a rocker, and as he took the stage in Philly with his band, it became easy to see that he didn't care if he was playing for 50 drunks in a backwoods Canadian bar or one billion people on TV — tearing into "Kids Wanna Rock" and thrashing his vocal cords with every note, he channels the energy of every misfit underground band from MC5 to The Replacements. If the music of the '80s was decidedly non-threatening, at least Adams arrived at Live Aid with his Les Paul slung over his shoulder as if it was military-issue, giving the day one good jolt of beer-soaked rock-and-roll noise.

  4. David Bowie, London: Coasting in the wake of his multi-platinum Serious Moonlight, the Duke takes the stage in a powder-blue suit with a slapped-together backing band that includes Thomas Dolby on keyboards (although longtime guitarist Carlos Alomar is absent). Classic tunes "TVC15" and "Rebel Rebel" are rolled out to the crowd's delight, followed by a spirited run through "Modern Love" and an upbeat "Heroes." Before the final song, Bowie announces "I'd like to dedicate this song to my son, all of our children, and all the children of the world" — the sort of false sentiment that could get one arrested were it not for the fact that Bowie's words, and music, seem irreproachably sincere.

  5. Paul McCartney, London: That The Beatles would not be reuniting in 1985 was a foregone conclusion, and the same could be said that Paul McCartney would happily take the stage in front of the world's largest TV audience and belt out "Let It Be" with a white grand piano. One of the sturdiest chestnuts in the Northern Songs catalog, it's been played so often that even ardent Beatles fans tire of it. But in the moment, McCartney still makes it sound fresh. Joining an improvised chorus alongside him are Bowie, Geldof, Pete Townshend, and Alison Moyet, who stumble through and giggle a bit, taking some of the sting out of Paul's eternal earnestness.

  6. Queen, London: Most of Queen's career was marked by the video age, but the band was never better than they were live, thanks almost entirely to frontman Freddie Mercury. The group opens with an obligatory (and unfinished) nod to "Bohemian Rhapsody," but the standout moment of their five-song set is "Radio Gaga," during which Mercury — clad in his distinctive jeans and wife-beater undershirt, a studded leather strap cinched to one bicep — prances across the stage and proves that it always was his favorite place in the world to be. The crowd loves him, so much so that nearly 100,000 people clap their hands in time to the chorus, high above their heads. In this moment, Freddie Mercury is the coolest man on the planet.

  7. U2, Philadelphia: If everyone has a high-school yearbook photo that induces fashion-victim trauma with every revisit, then Bono's is Live Aid. Cresting on the success of The Unforgettable Fire, the Philly concert offers a look at the megaband in their ascendancy, before the spiritual inquiry of The Joshua Tree and the leather-clad Eurocool of Achtung! Baby. This is the U2 of yore, still built out of spare parts and overtones of Irish militancy. Bono's mullet is fluffy and perfectly coifed, and he marches and twirls around the stage in a cavalry jacket, bolo, leather pants, and high-heeled riding boots he might have borrowed from Prince. Nonetheless, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" sounds as urgent as ever. Later, the band stretches out the instrumental portion of "Bad" while Bono urges the security team fetch a young girl from the crowd so he can dance slowly with her and, presumably, make her weep merely by being in his most awesome presence.

  8. The Who, London: The greatest working band in history performed four songs at Wembley, but a blown generator meant that two — "Pinball Wizard" and "My Generation" — would never make it to the airwaves. What does survive are "Love, Reign O'er Me" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," and arguably only the final song really matters. Reunited a few years after their ostensible retirement, they blast through the number with the same energy that marked it both in 1971 and during its finest rendition ever, the soundstage set for the 1978 documentary The Kids Are Alright. Even today, Roger Daltrey's last words — "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" — still mean something.

  9. Bob Dylan, Philadelphia: Just as it was inevitable that Paul McCartney would close out the London show, Bob Dylan was the musical legend who would conclude Live Aid in the New World, and he's joined for his acoustic set by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, who gamely play tag-along on guitars while Dylan warbles thorough "Blowin' in the Wind." It's the last act before USA for Africa takes the stage for the finale, and when Dylan, Richards, and Wood wrap up, they're offered a warm greeting by… Lionel Richie, who, in the process of entering the gravitational field of three supercooled rock legends, instantly becomes the most unhip person in television history.

  10. Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, Philadelphia: The Stones did not play at Live Aid, although Jagger, Richards, and Wood were in Philly on the day. Jagger opted to go solo with his backing band, and even while one wishes the historic moment could have been marked by Mick's rooster-steps and Keith's Telecaster sways, Jagger stills demonstrates that some Stones are better than none at all. His forgettable single "Just Another Night" is followed by an electric rendition of the Stones classic "Miss You," and later he's joined by Tina Turner for the even more-forgettable "State of Shock" and a good rip at "It's Only Rock and Roll." At one point, Mick sheds Tina of her leather miniskirt, revealing those famous legs and proving that true professionals know how to avoid wardrobe malfunctions. Moments earlier, the Stones' strutter had stripped off his oversized shirt — forcing one to consider that Bob Geldof should feed the world, but somebody should remember to feed Mick Jagger too.

Warner Home Video's four-disc release of Live Aid features a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from source-materials of varying quality, although everything in the collection is pleasant and watchable. Audio is available in the original stereo, as well as both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 upgrades. Supplements on Disc One include a BBC report on the famine in Ethiopia, as well as the music videos for Band Aid and USA for Africa. Extras on Disc Four include additional performances by INXS, B.B. King, Ashford & Simpson and Teddy Pendergrass, Run DMC, Cliff Richard, and others; the Bowie/Jagger video for "Dancin' in the Streets," and the documentary "Food and Trucks and Rock 'n' Roll." All proceeds will be used to contribute to the Band Aid Trust in Africa. Four-DVD digipak in paperboard slipcase.
—JJB



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