There are moments when you hear a band for the first time, and something stops your heart, and you say to yourself “I need to buy all their records and I need to buy them now.” That was the feeling many music fans around the world experienced 34 years ago this month (July) when U2 played its inspired and somewhat improvisational set at LiveAid. The band left the stage thinking they had torched their careers, but most critics say those twenty minutes made them the international superstars they are today.
LiveAid was the transcontinental music festival and fundraiser for Ethiopian famine victims organized by former Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldolf and Ultravox’ Midge Ure. The list of performers was so long that each was limited to a twenty-minute set. The non-stop schedule included everyone from Paul McCartney and David Bowie to Dire Straits and Sade. Fans who couldn’t get tickets spent the entire day – from sunrise to well past sunset in the United States — glued to the TV.
Even though the recent Freddie Mercury biopic showcases a fantastic performance by Queen, what many fans remember most about LiveAid was the mesmerizing performance of U2. Younger fans won’t remember the days when U2 were a fairly well-known band known for its politics at a time when pouring politics into music was not commonplace. Bono was not yet cavorting with presidents and prime ministers or dressing up in odd costumes before outsized video screens. In 1985, he was just a gifted singer in an Irish band known for soaring anthems and “anything can happen” live performances. Fans and critics loved Bono’s on-stage antics dating back to the band’s earliest club gigs in the early 1980s. The charismatic frontman would, in his own words, “walk out on tables, kissing people’s girlfriends and drink their wine.” During the 1983 War tour, he managed to climb into the balcony at Boston’s Orpheum theatre. He famously took up mountain climbing for the band’s “Under a Blood Red Sky” concert video. Bono always said he’d do anything to keep the audience focused and engaged at all times.
Because of the time restriction, U2 fans weren’t expecting much more than a musical amuse-bouche when they came on stage after a brief introduction by Jack Nicholson. The original set was supposed to include what are still the band’s most iconic songs “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Bad.”
“Bad” started off quietly enough with Bono ad-libbing a few lines of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love,” a small nod to the worldwide concert broadcast. The first half of the 11 plus-minute song is just Bono singing with the power and passion he is justly famous for. However, Rolling Stone suggested that the crowd may have been somewhat less passionate. They had already been packed into the stadium for more than six hours in a sweltering London afternoon. To regain their attention, Bono decided to enlist a cameraman and head down to the audience to bring the flagging fans back to life.
As Bono seemed to disappear from view, bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist The Edge (aka David Evans) and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. vamped for an additional five minutes. Rolling Stone described the interlude as “the musical equivalent of a plane circling the airspace near Heathrow awaiting permission to land.” (“I’m just glad the cameras didn’t show the rest of the band during the whole drama,” The Edge said later, “Because we must have looked like the Three Stooges up there.”)
What happened next was a little bit of semi-impromptu stagecraft. Bono complained later that he didn’t like the distance between the stage and the crowd. So, he decided to look for what he called “a symbol of the day, something he could hold onto. ” By this time, fans knew Bono frequently pulled fans onto the stage. But that day, it took a lot more effort. Before it was all over, Bono has jumped over three different stage risers and pulled three female fans from the front row up onto one of the risers. Reporters later identified the girls as sisters Melanie and Elaine Hills and the most famous woman, Kal Khalique. Khalique had secured her position down in front to eventually see Elton John perform with George Michael later in the afternoon. She recalled feeling as if she was suffocating moments before Bono gestured to security to pull her over the barricade.
Bono later admitted he was looking for a magic moment. “I’d gone AWOL to try and find a television moment and forgot about the song.” The Guardian UK described it as a mixture of music, a little marketing, and every fan’s belief their favorite band is singing just to them.
But Bono wasn’t done yet. Once he was back with the band, he treated fans to fragments of “Ruby Tuesday,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Sympathy For the Devil” while the band continued to vamp behind him. After the set, band members assembled backstage and let it be known they were not amused by Bono’s Excellent Adventure. After LiveAid, the singer went off to visit family and brood about his grand plan gone awry while the others mourned what they thought was the missed opportunity of a lifetime. History, however, had other ideas. Individuals may differ, U2 and Queen are considered the two standout moments in nearly 16 hours of iconic performances. It was the moment that established U2 as worldwide superstars.
Since that July afternoon, many critics and fans have tried to explain the alchemy that occurred during that set. But as is often the case with U2, guitarist The Edge might have the best explanation of events. “Looking back, as I did a week later, I started to see what it was. It was the sense of real, total jeopardy, which is always very exciting for a live event. Bono’s complete determination to make physical contact with the crowd and eventually getting there after two minutes of struggling over barriers. I think there was something about the effort he had to put in to do it that somehow made it even more powerful.”
Photo Credit: Adam Clayton (far left), The Edge (second from left), Bono (second from right) and Larry Mullen, Jr. (far right) (Photo by © Aaron Rapoport/CORBIS OUTLINE/Corbis via Getty Images)