Thirty years ago, Delawareans were among the 100,000 who filled Philly’s JFK Stadium for a concert unlike any the world had ever seen—or is likely to see again
It was miserably hot on that July day in Philadelphia, so sweltering that the crowd happily sought to be doused with fire hoses. The music was memorable, but also so awful in spots that some bands still forbid their performances to be played commercially.
Looking back through the haze of 30 years, the globally broadcast, socially-conscious trans-oceanic concert called Live Aid was a typical music mega-festival in many ways, with predictable flaws and flubs. But in many other ways that still resonate, that Saturday in Philadelphia (and at London’s Wembley Stadium) was like nothing the world had ever seen, or is likely to see again.
And for thousands of fans from Delaware who made their way to the cavernous and now-extinct JFK Stadium on July 13, 1985, or who watched the 16-hour concert from start to finish with friends at impromptu house parties, it also was a festival that came with a rush of pride—it happened here, near our homes, just up the street in a city that has always been part of the zeitgeist of Northern Delaware. The world’s spotlight cast a flattering beam for a time on a town so often dismissively branded as “Filthadelphia,” and in many memorable ways, Delaware basked in the edges of that spotlight.
Thirty years later, in an artistic sense, the music that was played for a global television audience of nearly 2 billion people hardly matters. Some of the lesser stars that performed that day are in many cases now revered more for nostalgic value than enduring artistic essence. But the reason they came to play that music—and the reason Americans came to hear it—still shapes our society in ways that transcend the mere entertainment value of music.
Mick and Tina’s Wardrobe Malfunction
Today, memories of the event among those who were there live on. Brian DiSabatino was a concert-crazy college kid when he joined his friends—and about 100,000 other sweaty fans—as 95-degree Philadelphia became the improbable Co-Center of the World for a day.
There was the moment when Mick Jagger, performing “It’s Only Rock and Roll” with Tina Turner, ripped part of her skirt off to reveal a leotard, perhaps presaging “wardrobe malfunctions” to come. There was the long-anticipated—if ultimately uninspired—“reunions” of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and the joyous return to the stage of Teddy Pendergrass after a near-fatal car crash.
Crosby Stills & Nash performed three songs, then later reunited with Neil Young for “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “Daylight Again/Find The Cost of Freedom.” Graham Nash, who is coming to the Grand Aug. 9, recalls some of the highlights of the day: “I remember playing with Neil Young again—always a thrill. Seeing Bob Dylan—always a thrill. Seeing Jack Nicholson—always a thrill. A lot of good times and a lot of good music.”
Indeed, it seemed to be everyone who mattered, in one place, at the same time. And “we” were there.
“When the show opened, Joan Baez came out and she said something to the effect of, ‘Good morning, Philadelphia—this is your Woodstock!’ And the place just went berserk.
First thing at sun-up, she put the whole thing in context,” says DiSabatino, now president/CEO of Wilmington’s EDiS construction management company.
That special context embraced a loftier purpose than even Woodstock could claim—raising money for victims of a three-year Ethiopian famine that would ultimately kill 400,000 people. As a social cause, it perhaps wasn’t something everyone really knew about at first, or even much cared about before the concert. But, as Live Aid’s momentum and spirit took hold, younger Americans discovered that the notion at its core—using music and the love of music to achieve a positive impact in the world—was something they could (and did) embrace.
“I have to believe it changed people’s mindset,” says Harry Sachs, a Mount Pleasant High grad who attended the concert and now runs Crest View Animal Clinic in nearby Lincoln University, Pa. “Before things like Live Aid and [organizer Bob Geldof’s charity single] ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas,’ the collective good was Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. That was how people contributed to help others. This showed that not only could people help others, they could have a good time doing it too.”
Synth-pop artist Howard Jones—who will be at The Queen in August—performed the song “Hide and Seek” solo on a grand piano at Wembley Stadium during the concert.
“I think every artist, including myself, was a bit nervous about that event as it was the biggest audience that anyone was ever going to play to, really, when you consider all the people that watched from around the world,” says Jones.
“I started the first verse a little bit fast—my heart rate was very high—[but] when I got to the chorus the whole audience joined in with me. From that moment on, I kind of relaxed and tried to enjoy this amazing experience. It was a great day. I do remember it very clearly even now. I think when the [energy] is running so high it embeds itself in your memories. It was really an amazing day.”
For Rob Hyman, co-founder of Philly favorite The Hooters, the band’s career-juicing opening set at Live Aid was also remarkable for its seeming improbability. Just a few years previously, the band was a favorite on the bar scene in and around Delaware, playing for far smaller crowds at locally legendary venues. “It was part of what I call the ‘Boot Camp Days,’” Hyman says. “We did a long stint at clubs like the Stone Balloon; we played at the University of Delaware, and a little bit in Rehoboth, Dewey Beach.
“We spent many a night at the Stone Balloon, none of which anyone can remember,” he adds with a laugh.
By opening the show, the band felt like unofficial local ambassadors for the world, he says. But by the day’s end, and in the coming months, their stint as “just a local band” would end. “It was a huge break for us. It got our name to a worldwide audience,” he says. “But it wasn’t an overnight break. We kept working at it.”
The day would lead to sustained popularity for The Hooters in Europe. Even today, the band is prepping for another continent-wide tour.
The Power of Pop
“In the heat of the moment, you feel the power of pop music. All of that started to come together in that period,” Hyman says. “I think people opened up their pockets and people continued to contribute. It did give rise to a whole slew of shows, and again, I’d like to be idealistic and optimistic about that. I think it did change the world.”
And it still resonates with Nash. “As a matter of fact I just came across—I think it’s about two-and-a-half-feet by two-feet—a handwritten sign for all the dressing room allocations at JFK. And it was getting thrown away. I’m an archivist, so I picked it out of the trash. Right now, it’s heading to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where they’re doing an exhibit on my life this November.”
Other assessments of the impact are more jaundiced, especially when seen through a 21st century mindset soured by 30 years of routine scandal and institutionalized capitalistic corruption. “I don’t know how many benefits these concerts really have,” muses Ron Ozer, an Arden resident who marked one of his life’s seminal moments while viewing Live Aid. “The problems are really political. It seems like we’ve worked to destabilize so many governments in Africa. A lot of the economics have come to favor taking wealth out of those countries.”
Ozer remembers watching U2’s gripping performance of their classic “Bad”—a song appropriately inspired by the seemingly willful disregard by the rich to living conditions that breed drug addiction and despair. At the time, Ozer’s wife-to-be, Dorinda Dove, had decided to join the Peace Corps and leave for Malawi—ironically to help the African poor herself—and their relationship was at a crossroads.
“She was packing to leave, and I was watching Live Aid on television,” he recalls. “The performance of U2 was very powerful and I remember being moved by it, but also feeling very sad because I felt it was going to be impossible to make it through this two-year Peace Corps gig.”
Ron and Dorinda would make it. Thirty years on, most of us did—still willing to embrace hopeful aspirations, but wiser, perhaps a bit more cynical, maybe not any more convinced that there are answers to the problems taken up by people like Bob Geldof, or to the kind of endlessly recurring world tragedies that inspired Live Aid.
But maybe that’s Live Aid’s final lesson, after all: When people need help, and when the suffering need solace, it never hurts to try—or to have fun while you’re trying.
No time for idolatry at Live Aid
Legendary Delaware photojournalist Fred Comegys, who spent 52 years with The Wilmington News Journal shooting politicians, criminals, sports and entertainment figures, as well as everyday people, is typically blasé about his moment at the feet (sometimes literally) of rock’s superstars at Live Aid. The memories that linger are of the heat and the sense of urgency—his time at the stage was limited, and his shots had to be ready for the presses long before Live Aid’s day was done.
“I was always too worried about getting the pictures I needed to idolize anybody,” he says, recalling the tight turn-around time photographers operated under in the film camera days. “It was like Christmas, opening presents: ‘What am I going to get?’”
He would end up “getting” Madonna, George Thorogood with Bo Diddley, Ozzy Osbourne, Simple Minds, and a chaotic, crazy crowd.
“I just remember it being hot and quick,” says Comegys, now 73 and as full of fire as ever. “Christ, it took forever to print that [stuff]. Not like today, when you see it automatically. You didn’t know what you had until you saw it. Back then that was what separated the men from the boys.”