“This is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue.” That was the introduction offered by 1960s folk icon Joan Baez at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the opening of the North American portion of Live Aid on this day in 1985. The biggest rock concert and charity event in the history of the world, staged simultaneously on two sides of the Atlantic Ocean and broadcast globally to an audience of 1.5 billion, bore little resemblance to the chaotic, hedonistic and profit-making Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, however. Conceived and organized by the Irish pop star Bob Geldof in response to the disastrous east African famine of 1984-1985, Live Aid raised upwards of £40 million (then equivalent to roughly $50 million) in relief aid via ticket sales and direct contributions from television viewers.
Live Aid grew out of Geldof’s groundbreaking Band Aid project, which pioneered the use of record sales as a large-scale fundraising mechanism. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” directly inspired USA For Africa’s “We Are The World,” just as Geldof’s Live Aid would directly inspire Farm Aid and countless other large-scale musical fundraising events. Still better known in 1985 as the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats than as a philanthropist, Bob Geldof announced plans for Live Aid in the spring of 1985 and convinced a lineup of some of the era’s biggest names to appear on the bill without compensation, including Sting, Madonna, Sade, Dire Straits, Wham and Phil Collins, who appeared both at Wembley Stadium in London and at JFK in Philadelphia thanks to a transatlantic flight on the Concorde. Even more impressive was the list of rock giants who participated: The Who, Elton John, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and—in a powerhouse performance at Wembley—Queen.
Even with such a monumental lineup, Live Aid was not nearly as memorable for its music as for its mission. There was no moment to rival Jimi Hendrix’s legendary “Star Spangled Banner” wakeup at Woodstock, for instance. In the UK, the future Sir Bob Geldof is fondly remembered for exhorting viewers of the Live BBC broadcast to “Give us your [expletive] money,” though he never actually said those words. He was, however, a constant, hectoring presence on screen during breaks between musical sets and did at one point use a choice expletive in urging the BBC presenter to encourage telephone credit-card donations rather than mail-in ones. His efforts helped make Live Aid a smashing success and a model on which many future fundraising events would be based.