The two major benefit-song projects that preceded 1985's massive, multi-continent Live Aid concert pretty well set the tone for the show. Twenty years later, Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" remains an uplifting holiday song that overcomes its "have a small scoop of shame with your fruitcake" message with brisk, bright performances by scarf-festooned, mostly flash-in-the-pan U.K. pop stars. USA For Africa's "We Are The World" seems comparatively pushy today—it's twice as long as Band Aid's record, and its bigger names strangle the life out of the one or two lines Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones gave them to sing. As for Live Aid itself, among the performance sites, London's Wembley Stadium looked like the fun place to be, with future Bands Reunited fodder like Status Quo and Ultravox dressed all spiffy and singing their hearts out to a crowd that knew every word. Meanwhile, at Philadelphia's JFK Stadium, rock legends like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan took themselves and the occasion dreadfully seriously.
In spite of the performances' varying quality, it's good to be able to see and hear them again, rather than relying on memories and legends. Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof never intended for the show to be rebroadcast or repackaged, so it's been available exclusively via the bootleg circuit since 1985. Even the budget-priced four-disc Live Aid DVD set is incomplete, missing Led Zeppelin's "reunion" (reportedly because Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were dissatisfied with Phil Collins' fill-in drumming), about six hours worth of music from other acts (because the original tapes no longer exist), and any new recollections from the people who participated (for no discernible reason). And though it's a little hard to believe that an event seen by millions of people—many with operational VCRs—couldn't be reconstituted in full, it's probably petty to complain about missing songs when people are still starving.
So better to enjoy what's here, starting with all the corny ephemera: Jack Nicholson and Bette Midler introducing acts in Philly, Joan Baez prefacing her a cappella "Amazing Grace" by exclaiming, "This is your Woodstock, and it's long overdue," and Geldof temporarily stopping his song "I Don't Like Mondays" after the line "the lesson today is how to die," so that he can glare knowingly at the crowd. On the legitimately historic side, the Live Aid set offers Queen at the top of its arena-rock game—"Radio Ga Ga" and all—and a career-defining U2 performance, with a fully mulleted Bono telling the cameramen where to aim as he jumps into the pit. On a day where the political side of the occasion was largely ignored, U2 had one of the few socially relevant sets, culminating in Bono captivating a global audience during a 12-minute, dazzlingly digressive version of "Bad." By nightfall, millions of rock fans had a new hero.