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Africa famine persists and so does Live Aid

Times Staff Writer

Rock musicians who want to keep what they do in perspective often fall back on the observation, “We’re just entertainers -- we’re not curing cancer or saving lives.”

Not Bob Geldof.

The Irish rocker who spearheaded the massive, transatlantic Live Aid benefit concerts in 1985 gets right to the point with the new DVD release of those landmark performances in London and Philadelphia. The booklet cover for the handsome four-disc package declares: “This DVD saves lives.”

The booklet further notes that the Band Aid Trust and Live Aid Foundation has spent $144 million on famine relief in Africa and that money raised from the sale of this DVD will be used to continue that work.

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Nearly 20 years after initiating that campaign to raise awareness of the ravages of famine in Africa and solicit money to do something about it, Geldof hopes the document of Live Aid will give the ongoing effort a boost and generate a new flood of funds for relief.

“It marks a moment that music twisted the culture a bit,” Geldof said Thursday from Ghana, where he spent Thanksgiving filming part of a six-segment BBC special that will air next year on the concert’s 20th anniversary. “With Live Aid, all the promise of rock ‘n’ roll and how the times they are a-changin’, now they’d changed.”

Until late 1984, Geldof had achieved only moderate acclaim as the leader of Irish rock band the Boomtown Rats. But he gained international fame -- and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth -- as a humanitarian, first for organizing the all-star famine-relief single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” then for his work with Live Aid, seen by an estimated 1 billion people on TV.

The DVD runs about 10 hours, most of it footage from the concerts, whose lineups featured Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, U2, Mick Jagger, the Who, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Queen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton and dozens more.

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It captures several performances for the ages.

U2 stretches out “Bad” in a rendition in which singer Bono builds chorus after repeated chorus into an emotional torrent that washes over London’s Wembley Stadium crowd.

The Who unleashes all its fury in powerhouse versions of “Love Reign O’er Me” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with singer Roger Daltrey eruptive in the latter song’s final, cathartic “Yeahhhhh!”

Costello goes solo for the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” receiving impassioned harmonic support from the 57,000 fans at Wembley. Bowie caps a commanding four-song performance with an increasingly forceful version of his uplifting “Heroes,” and McCartney offers a benedictory performance of “Let It Be.” Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Ron Wood don’t have a functional vocal cord among them, but their ragged rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a raw-nerve quality befitting the occasion. That leads into the all-star finale in Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium of “We Are the World,” the American response to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”.

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Most artists approved use of their footage for the DVD, despite some uneven performances and Geldof’s original promise that Live Aid would never be rebroadcast or released on video. One exception was the Led Zeppelin reunion for which Phil Collins subbed for drummer John Bonham, who had died five years earlier. Guitarist Jimmy Page, citing what he considered to be a substandard performance, declined, but said that because he and Plant support the cause, they are donating proceeds from their own DVD to help.

Several performances are now overlaid with a poignancy that wasn’t there originally, because of lives that have since been lost: Queen’s Freddie Mercury, six years before his death due to complications of AIDS; Ray Charles, who died in June, shown during filming of the “We Are the World” video; the Who’s John Entwistle; Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay, in a rehearsal performance that wasn’t originally broadcast; and, beaming an approving smile over the human sea gathered in London, Princess Diana.

It may not have every performance from the 16-hour twin-pronged concerts, but the fact that it is being released at all is something a lot of rock fans thought they’d never see.

“Bob Geldof was adamant that the concert should not even be recorded, let alone shown again,” DVD producer Jill S. Sinclair notes. “The BBC in London took no notice of this ludicrous notion, but ... producers of the U.S. concert had taken Bob at his word and deliberately ‘disabled’ all their footage so that it could never be rebroadcast.”

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MTV, however, discovered more than 100 backup tapes of the U.S. performances, and the BBC located most of the tapes from the London concert in its archives. Again, Geldof has persuaded all participants to waive legal impediments and donate their royalties.

One sign of how the message of Live Aid lives on is a new version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” recorded by a flock of today’s top pop and rock acts, including Coldplay, Radiohead, Dido, Travis and original participants Bono and McCartney. It will be released in the U.K. next week, but Geldof says there are no plans for a U.S. release.

One of many bonus features on the DVD is “Food, Trucks and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a documentary commissioned by Geldof and originally broadcast by the BBC, outlining how much aid reached its destination, and the impact Live Aid had beyond that summer day 19 years ago. Geldof is shown in a pointed discussion with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, reminding her that “people are dying.”

Eventually, he helped persuade current British Prime Minister Tony Blair to create the Commission for Africa to look for solutions to political issues that have contributed to the famine.

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“All that stuff about ‘Nothing you can do that can’t be done’ and ‘all you need is love,’ corny as it was,” Geldof says, “it was all true. It really did work.”


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