Editor’s Note: I bolded the relevant part ‘cos it can be hard to catch.
‘Live Aid’ Provided Reunions Of 60’s Bands
By Robert Palmer
The New York Times — July 15, 1985
”It’s incredible, it’s just absolutely incredible.” MTV’s video jockeys, blissfully unhampered by even the vaguest notions of rock’s history and heritage, resorted to this formula again and again during the cable television channel’s complete coverage of the marathon ”Live Aid” concerts for famine relief at Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia on Saturday.
The commentators for Metromedia, which covered morning and afternoon portions of the event, and ABC, which broadcast the last three hours, were more restrained and often better informed. But for once, the hyperbole of the video jockeys was not entirely beside the point. The 16-hour telecast, much of it intercutting live segments from simultaneous performances on opposite sides of the Atlantic, was an unprecedented musical event. Many of the performances actually lived up to their advance billing.
Watching a 16-hour rock telecast could have been a numbing experience. But home viewers undoubtedly got a more intimate look at the onstage action than the stadium audiences did; the pitiless sunlight, stage lighting and close-up shots made it easy to tell which performers were emotionally involved and which ones were sleepwalking through their star turns. The incessant commercials, easy enough to endure with the sound turned off and a good book in hand, and the time constraints of the concerts themselves conspired to package the music in easily digested segments of two or three songs each. And there was enough genuine excitement to keep the proceedings from going stale.
The much-touted band reunions of several 60’s favorites provided some of the day’s worst moments and a few of the best. There was no Beatles reunion, only a sing-along led by Paul McCartney. The Who have given entirely too many ”farewell” performances and should leave well enough alone. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young melded their voices in yowling harmonies only a dog could love, singing even more wretchedly than that upstart Madonna. Ozzy Osbourne, rejoining his erstwhile bandmates Black Sabbath, would have been right at home in a Las Vegas lounge. ”Isn’t it great to be here,” he purred, ever the suave master of ceremonies.
”Now, here’s ‘Paranoid.’ ”
The three surviving members of Led Zeppelin, with Phil Collins and Tony Thompson substituting for the deceased John Bonham on drums, slashed and burned through their set, especially the guitarist Jimmy Page. They courted chaos more recklessly than any of the other performers, finding at the edge of the abyss the inspiration and infectious excitement that are supposed to be what rock-and-roll is all about.
There were many other highlights. A crusty, scowling Neil Young cut through the broadcast’s stifling atmosphere of self-congratulation. (”We can end hunger,” the ever-recurring designer-famine commercials assured us blandly. ”This is the moment, and we are the generation that can do it.”) Mr. Young’s unerring choice of original songs was a timely reminder of several generations’ less endearing aspects. ”The Needle and the Damage Done” mourned a drug overdose victim, ”Powderfinger” pondered young men who willingly go to war, and ”Helpless” suggested that a veneer of affluent altruism could be mere protective coloration for the apathetic and the irresponsible.
MTV gave critics who accuse it of racism another round of ammunition when it cut off the black rap group Run-D.M.C. after a snippet of a single song in order not to miss a verbose introduction for Sting’s performance at Wembley. Hall and Oates struck an effective blow against the notable paucity of black performers at both concerts by sharing their sets with two of Motown’s greatest singers, the Temptations graduates David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. The four of them harmonized beautifully during their own set, which gave generous solo space to the ex-Motowners, and as backup singers for Mick Jagger. Throughout the day and evening, there were exceptionally musical and emotive vocal performances from Paul Young, Sade, Teddy Pendergrass and the Four Tops’s Levi Stubbs, among others.
Mick Jagger was all over the place. In a new video he sang a duet with David Bowie on the Motown oldie ”Dancing in the Street.” His performance of his own songs, backed by the Hall and Oates band, was rushed and inconsequential. But when he got together with Tina Turner for a rampage through ”State of Shock” and ”It’s Only Rock-and-Roll,” the result was both unselfconscious fun and sexual electricity.
Some of the most riveting moments came from relatively unsung instrumentalists, many of them mere sidemen to the stars. The guitarist Mike Campbell and the pianist Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers proved their mettle as two of the strongest, most resourceful team players in rock. Mark Knopfler’s eloquent guitar solos sparked a fine set from Dire Straits. Tony Thompson and Phil Collins were adept drummers for every occasion, and Mr. Collins turned in low-key but effective solo performances in both London and Philadelphia, taking a Concorde flight to the United States after an early performance at Wembley. The Rolling Stones guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood played all-but-inaudible acoustic accompaniments to Bob Dylan’s topical songs, apparently happy just to be part of the event.
Both concerts concluded with grand finales, sing-alongs on the anti-famine anthems ”Do They Know It’s Christmas” and ”We Are the World.” Several of USA for Africa’s leading lights, including Harry Belafonte and Lionel Richie, made a surprise appearance for ”We Are the World,” which was marred when Patti LaBelle held onto a microphone and shrieked a shrill descant to the other singers’s lines, verse after verse.
The other egregious exception to the event’s spirit of generosity was MTV’s coverage, which kept cutting away from the performances to show its video jockeys bouncing to the music, making sure they were on camera every possible moment and generally using the event for relentless self-promotion. The professionalism of the Metromedia and ABC coverage was a welcome contrast; on Metromedia, even the music sounded better.