Live Aid is 30 years old this week. The concert for Ethiopia, held simultaneously at London's Wembley and Philadelphia's John F Kennedy stadium, brought together a who’s who of pop and rock. Titans were made at the two concerts: Freddie Mercury and Queen stole the show, U2 took a giant step toward global dominance. Meanwhile, Led Zeppelin and the Who reunited with mixed results (to this day Plant and co. refuse to release footage of a performance they consider lackluster). In between, the flashy pop stars of the age pranced around the stage for a good cause. In many ways, the megastar pop charity event was born in what some consider the defining moment of ‘80s popular music.
However, looking at the roster of stars (and nobodies) who played the show, there are some who have faded from the fickle popular consciousness almost completely. Here’s a look at some of those who deserve another look.
Status Quo, appropriately, opened the London leg of the show with their infectious foot-stomper “Rockin’ All Over The World.” Though their sound might be as versatile as a tub of lard, “The Quo” got the Wembley crowd going on that July afternoon in 1985. Even Prince Charles was arrhythmically tapping his knees (and probably also thinking “What the hell am I doing here?”). Anyway, what’s wrong with being formulaic? One can hardly say that AC/DC or The Ramones were eclectic.
Adam Ant’s star was falling fast in 1985, and his performance at Live Aid was cut to one song at the London leg of the concert. Only a few years earlier, Adam & The Ants’ tribal rhythms, dandy neo-Napoleonic fashions and Adam’s own gloriously camp delivery had seen “Antmania” take over Britain and make waves across the pond. Millions had followed Ant’s mantra, his photogenic foppishness, complete with warpaint and eyeliner, adorning teenage bedroom walls and lavishly baroque videos on heavy rotation on MTV in the early ‘80s. Songs like “Antmusic”, “Stand and Deliver” and “Goody Two Shoes” were paragons of poptastic post punk that refuse to date and bettered most of his posing peers. However, by ’85 the rot of overexposure had set in and sales fell faster than Jimmy Swaggert’s trousers. A short acting career ensued for Adam, followed by a brief stint in a psychiatric hospital in 2003. But Adam Ant is back, healthy and playing some riotously received shows on both sides of the Atlantic.
There was a time in the mid-'80s when Billy Ocean was an unstoppable hit machine, selling millions of records and topping the charts with his infectious R&B pop. "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going," "Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car," and “Loverboy” were gargantuan smashes. Come the 1990s, Ocean slipped out of the charts. However, like popped collars and the piano necktie, Ocean should never have gone out of fashion.
One of the most bizarre Live Aid anecdotes is that of the little remembered Bernard Watson. An 18-year-old recent graduate of Miami Beach Senior High, the unknown Watson persuaded the concert’s producer, Bill Graham, to let him open the Philadelphia leg of the concert. The teenager had spent the previous week sleeping in his Oldsmobile outside the stadium and impressed Graham with one of his original compositions – a folk rock number called “Interview.” Watson went on to perform the song, as well as a cover of Dylan’s “All I Really Want To Do” as the unofficial opening act of the American side of the global charity concert. Little footage of the performance exists, and even less is known of what happened to Watson. His music may not have made an impact, but his ingenuity still inspires (or, at least it should).
Along with Duran Duran, the much-maligned Spandau Ballet were at the forefront of the New Romantic movement in the U.K. However, unlike Duran Duran, nostalgia hasn’t been that kind to Spandau. Their glossy plastic pop has come to represent the worst of the ‘80s style over substance excess situation. Their biggest U.S. hit, “True,” is perhaps their most cited crime against music – saccharine yuppie wine bar slush, music that American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman might play to compose himself after bludgeoning someone to victim to death. By mid decade, they had adopted a kind of bland sophisti-pop that made George Michael look like Frank Zappa. That said, before they were scrambling for American radio airplay, Spandau knocked up a couple of synth-pop gems. “To Cut A Long Story Short” and “Chant No. 1” are worthy of your time.
Ashford and Simpson
Hunter S. Thompson once said he felt the same way about disco as he did about herpes. However, looking at today’s hit parade, it's obvious that the genre has influenced some of the best of modern pop. A prime example is the husband and wife duo, Ashford and Simpson, who appeared at the Philadelphia leg of the concert. In 1985, they were still pumping out their soul-infused brand of disco years after it was declared dead. Behind the jerry curls you will find some dance floor fillers, most notably 1981’s “Solid (As A Rock”). In 2009, they re-wrote their hit as "Solid (As Barack)" for Obama’s inauguration festivities.
The Style Council
Paul Weller is one of those quintessentially English things that Americans have never embraced. In his homeland, Weller’s near 40-year career puts him up there with rock royalty stalwarts Paul McCartney, Ray Davies and Joe Strummer. His mod revival power trio, The Jam, racked up four number one hits before their split in 1982 (more than his more revered contemporaries The Sex Pistols and The Clash ever mustered), while his solo career since the 1990s has seen him hailed as “The Modfather,” the elder statesman of Britpop and one of the greatest songwriters Britain has ever produced.
It’s interesting that the nearest he came to trans-Atlantic success was with his post Jam - pre solo career band, The Style Council. Moving away from the three-minute thrashings of The Jam, Weller’s new band combined soul, pop, funk and, god forbid, jazz. Despite entering the lower echelons of the U.S. Billboard charts for the first time, The Style Council are often considered a mid-career lull for Weller. Their blue-eyed soul left fans of The Jam not so much punching the air as wringing their hands. However, the undercurrent of political commentary of his early work was still there amongst a handful of decent tunes, and Weller’s voice gradually achieved that lived-in huskiness that has worked so well in a string of stellar solo works (check out Wild Wood, and new release Saturn’s Pattern). Wake up America, dig Paul Weller!
Bryan Ferry is one of a number of '70s artists who were labeled sellouts in the '80s. By 1985, he appeared to have lost everything that made him so vital a decade earlier. In the ‘70s, as front man of Roxy Music, Ferry’s wry narcissism, backed by the otherworldly sounds of the band, pierced the dope smoke of '60s hippidom with a shot of avant-garde and rock n’ roll. By 1985, this aural Jackson Pollack was more aural Thomas Kinkade – his slick, middle of the road solo career standing in contrast to the wild eclecticism of the band. Still, we should never forget how arresting, peerless and downright weird Ferry was with Roxy.
The Boomtown Rats
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Before he was Sir Bob, Bob Geldof, the brilliant brains and provocative motormouth behind Live Aid, had been the lead singer of Irish punk pop outfit The Boomtown Rats. Though they were never as good as some of their more celebrated contemporaries, they did knock up a few noteworthy hits – most memorably 1979’s “I Don’t Like Mondays,” a semi-operatic new wave number about a California school shooting. By Live Aid, the hits had long dried up for the Rats, though they did enjoy a brief resurgence after the event. The Rats occasionally reunite for the odd tour, though Geldof’s achievements with Band Aid/Live Aid have permanently overshadowed the music he made with his fellow rodents.
It all went a bit “meh” after Live Aid. By this point, Simple Minds had already released “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” a song that will forever be synonymous with The Breakfast Club. They spent the rest of the decade as a kind of poor man’s U2 – purveyors of politically-tinged stadium rock, though without the weight of an album like The Joshua Tree. If you've never checked it out, the band's early back catalogue is worth checking out. Albums like Reel To Real Cacophony, Empires and Dance, Sons & Fascination and Sister Feelings Call are a revelation. There are elements that foreshadow some modern indie rock, and even EDM. On recent tours the band has gone back to this early stuff, much to the delight of old-school fans. But, yeah, “Don’t You…” is still in there.