Pete Smith, an unsung hero of Live Aid and Band Aid Trust’s sole employee, shares his unique memories of the historic concert, 35 years ago
At 12 noon on Saturday 13 July 1985, Live Aid kicked off at London’s Wembley Stadium. Five hours later its sister event would join in from the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. I took a moment, in between running around with a walkie-talkie answering questions and troubleshooting, to enjoy the show. (Henleystandard.co.uk)
It had been six weeks since Harvey Goldsmith and Bob Geldof had appointed me as the only employee of the Band Aid Trust and asked me to get on with organising the thing, both here in the UK and in Philadelphia.
A lot had happened by the time that Status Quo started it all off with John Fogerty’s Rockin’ All Over The World. The band had wanted to do it at 4pm but I called their manager Colin Johnson (now a fellow Henley resident) to move it up to the top of the show.
Paul Weller had asked to open the show and I had already agreed that, so I had to interrupt the Wellers’ family holiday at the Grand Hotel in Torquay and move him back by 20 minutes. He was, as ever, the epitome of the best and most gracious that the music business has to offer.
I have lots of other memories of the big day. I escorted David Bowie on and off the platform, having been asked to attend his rehearsals the week before and approve his set.
That was a cool situation for a former Leeds University student who had once bought Ziggy Stardust with some leftover beer grant dosh in order to impress my mates and the girls who much preferred Cat Stevens anyway. And thereby lies a tale.
I had talked to Cat’s brother on the phone after I had taken it upon myself to find the man and see if he would play for us. This was an unlikely prospect given that he had changed his name and his life in a move away from the music business and the public eye some years before.
Harvey and Bob just didn’t believe me but he turned up and I organised a quick meeting with the now surprised duo in the dressing room village.
Yusuf, for now it was he, wanted to play an Islamic children’s song. I had discreetly arranged a few minutes on stage for him to do this. Only Andrew Zweck, the production manager, knew. Even the BBC was out of the loop. But Bob was not having it, he didn’t want the song. Yusuf simply got back in the car and left, later sending a big donation. He would have sung Morning Has Broken too, I knew that, but he wasn’t negotiating.
My hero of the day? Elvis Costello. I agreed four songs to be performed with his band and then off he went to tour Australia. By the time I called Brisbane it was down to three songs. I called Sydney the next day and it was down to two. The very next day I called Melbourne and offered one song only, without his band.
His manager, Jake Riviera, took it well, despite his fearsome reputation and told me: “If you call me tomorrow and cut another song, Pete, you can tell Bob that Elvis isn’t coming.” I didn’t.
After all that, he turned up and sang another man’s song. The line of the day was his and John Lennon’s: “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.” Viva Elvis.
There are many other stories which I put in my memoir for Bob’s charity â?? about Springsteen and Madonna, about Philadelphia and New York, about Dire Straits and Paul McCartney, and my meeting with the latter to agree his bit, about Concorde, about peace and love.
But I want to offer two tales about artists who were not there on the day.
The whole thing could not have happened if George Harrison had not previously opened the door to such events with his Concert For Bangladesh in New York in 1971.
He had Dylan, Clapton, Leon Russell and notable others at Madison Square Garden and it was a global first. I always saw it as being our template, our model reference.
The other was Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, who sat down and wrote The Tide Is Turning (After Live Aid), telling us: “On Saturday night the airwaves were full of compassion and light with a million candles burning.” That song is a legacy, as sincere as the day itself.
On the US show planning, a visit to veteran concert promoter Bill Graham in his New York office was challenging.
Bill had made a commitment to ABC television to put the biggest rock talent in the last three hours of the live show in Philadelphia for their special. The network and their advertisers only wanted the big rock names â?? Dylan, Clapton, Jagger, Led Zeppelin and the like. Madonna’s manager, Freddy DeMann, got wind of this and he was now demanding that she too be included in the ABC special.
Bill wanted me to sort it out and he promptly dialled Freddy in front of me and handed me the telephone.
“You talk to him,” he barked.
I had to think quickly.
“Freddy, listen,” I offered in my best American.
“It will work best if Madonna is on at 4pm in Philadelphia. It will be 9pm in London and 10pm in Paris, Frankfurt and Rome. The Japanese will be having breakfast, as will the kids in Australia. You’ll miss this pan-Â international prime time TV opportunity if you go later with ABC.”
There was a pause.
“Let me talk to Bill,” said Freddy.
Bill took the phone and then put it down.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Freddy said that I have to guarantee that Madonna is on at 4pm in Philly or she’s not coming,” replied Bill.
“Now you can see why I refuse to work with half of these artists, Pete.”
I duly enquired: “What about the other half, Bill?”
Without hesitation, he announced: “They refuse to work with me.”
I had to laugh and Bill did too.
Back in London later, there was an amusing and somewhat confusing moment with McCartney.
On the Friday evening two weeks before the concert I went to his office in Soho Square to talk to him about doing the show. He had not committed to Harvey or Bob and it was my job to persuade him.
After an hour or so we reached an agreement. I had five minutes to get him and his album on the Nine O’Clock News on BBC1 that night. I called the BBC and it was done.
Then he announced: “I was going to do it all along. The management told me to do it weeks ago.”
I asked why the “management” had not simply said so.
He smiled and explained: “I mean the real management, Pete â?? my kids. They’ve been doing Live Aid projects at school for a month or more. They promised their mates that I’d do it.”
Even so, we had sorted out his timeslot and song, selected and borrowed Elton John’s white piano and chosen his backing singers, Alison Moyet, Pete Townshend, Bowie and Bob. Harvey was to say later that the result of that meeting was a huge plus for the show.
Elton’s participation is an adventure story in itself, from his decision to let Jagger and Bowie sing Dancing In The Streets on their video even though it was already on Elton’s Wembley song list, to his asking George Michael to join him on stage with Andrew Ridgeley, thus giving us back 10 minutes of what would have been Wham!’s set time.
Elton also donned a chef’s hat and manned the barbecue at his Winnebago RV motor-home that we hid in the truck park three days earlier.
I had a post-show beer and burger with him before moving on to Legends Club in Mayfair where I had organised the BBC TV continuity broadcast from 10pm in order to maintain the link with the show in Philadelphia.
I had arranged for Cliff Richard to turn up at 1am and sing a song called A World Of Difference for us, hot-footing it from the Birmingham Odeon, where he had already played two charity shows that day.
Cliff arrived in the back of a white stretch limo that a man who runs a wedding car business in Essex had offered free of charge. It was just one of many incongruities that day. Happy ones, of course.
I haven’t yet mentioned Freddie Mercury and Queen. They delivered rock’s greatest live performance blast of all time, bar none.
Queen were there, everyone on the planet was with them, and I was there, standing in the wings.
Then it wasn’t Bob’s show and it certainly wasn’t mine. It was everyone’s show by that time.