Review: The Vinyl Frontier Show; Live Aid Organiser, Pete Smith, interviewed by Jeff Lloyd.
Venue: Nordern Farm Arts Centre, Maidenhead, on Saturday 25th June 2016.
Where were you on 13th July 1985? Those of us old enough to have witnessed the world’s most incredible concert will never forget the superb, unselfish performances and tear-jerking emotional pleas of Bob Geldof to ‘give us yer f**king money’. It was a momentous cultural event, a huge technological achievement and the World’s greatest ever charity fundraiser.
But who organised it all? Vinyl Frontier’s Jeff Lloyd, had met the man who organised Live Aid, Pete Smith, at BBC Radio Berkshire. As he lives close by, in Henley, he agreed to come along and be interviewed in front of a small audience, with Jeff playing memorable songs from Live Aid on vinyl records, whilst showing video footage on a screen. This format worked well, with Pete Smith telling his anecdotes between songs, bringing the whole event to life, and, by the way, plugging his soon-to-be-published book on his memories of organising Live Aid, Just the Ticket.
So who is Pete Smith and why have we never heard of him? It was Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, right? Well, it all started with Bob and Midge… The success of the previous Christmas’s Band Aid single, Do They Know it’s Christmas? had led to speculation about a possible live event. Once Bob had the idea in his head, he sought out the world’s leading music promoter, Harvey Goldsmith, in his office in central London. Harvey cautiously endorsed the idea, saying he would oversee it but would need to find someone to personally manage an event involving so many acts in a short space of time.
Pete Smith’s name was floated in a brain-storming meeting, as he was a promoter well-known throughout the music industry, someone who would have the stature and authority to call on the world’s leading music acts, and be able to co-ordinate a tight schedule with some of the world’s biggest egos and most difficult managers. Oh, and his wife worked for Goldsmith and floated his name in the meeting! In the days before mobile phones and computers, and with many acts touring around the world or simply inactive, this was a logistical nightmare. He was formally employed by the Band Aid Trust, and was the only salaried employee, on a six week deal.
Pete described some of the calls he made to hotels around the world, and the diplomacy needed when negotiating the conditions. He was operating from a desk in Goldsmith’s offices, with a landline telephone, using telex. He also needed to co-ordinate with USA concert organizer, Bill Graham, which involved a number of cross Atlantic flights, and acting as peace-maker in deadlock between Bill and some artists. Many refused to perform for various reasons, and some top artists were not invited at all, possibly for reasons of commercial interest.
His task was to persuade acts to perform for free, in a 20 minute slot with up to 4 songs. This was the opening offer, but once interest had been expressed by acts and artists, a judgment call had to be made in meetings on how ‘big’ acts were, with some artists being downgraded to one or two song slots, or encouraged to collaborate with each other to be included. Pete recounted how he was often compromised by the music promotion and business interests of Goldsmith and some others, who kept meddling in the line-up, one example being Elvis Costello (not in Goldsmith’s promotion stable) having his slot whittled away to just a solo acoustic song between stage sets, whilst Adam Ant was pushed in to plug a new song, despite his career having bombed. Why were The Style Council in the second slot in the UK, and The Hooters on second in the USA? Some artists, including David Bowie, had been inactive for some time, and Pete found himself helping to organise musicians to form backing bands and rooms for rehearsal sessions – going on all over Britain and the USA in the weeks before the concerts.
Other controversies included Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, being blocked from performing a new song when they wanted him to play his classic hit, Morning Has Broken. Pete was left fuming at this stand-off, and other instances of interference when it had previously been agreed that artists could play what they want, although the ‘guidance’ offered was that ‘greatest hits’ should be played. This was generally the case, as most artists played their best-known hits, with some songs chosen for their peace, love and unity themes.
An additional viewpoint was added to the Wembley story by audience member Paul Maynard, who worked on the day (for free) as a steward, showing some of his ‘unofficial’ photos projected onto the screen, including backstage celebrity pics and an intriguing overhead shot from a gantry showing the rotating three set stage structure.
Jeff played a number of memorable Live Aid classics, starting with the concert opener, Status Quo’s Rocking All Over the World. Bob Geldof had ruffled some feathers by moving the Boomtown Rats up in the order to number 3, so that he could sit with Prince Charles and Lady Diana in the Royal Box for the first two acts, and then perform in front of them, before they left. Jeff played I Don’t Like Mondays and Queen’s Radio Ga Ga, Elvis Costello’s moving version of All You Need is Love, David Bowie’s Heroes, Cat Steven’s Morning has Broken, something by Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Beatles’ Let It Be (Paul McCartney agreed to perform at the last minute, on the orders of his children! But George Harrison refused to be part of an attempt to make a surviving Beatles reunion).
All in all, it was a riveting evening, with Pete Smith casually informing a spellbound (and largely over 50s) audience of the politics and pressures behind putting on the Worlds’ Greatest Show. I look forward to reading more details of the back-stage politics of Live Aid and the uncomfortable relationship between charity idealism and commercial interest, when his book, Just the Ticket, comes out.
Live Aid Stats…
- Over £40 million was raised for famine relief in Ethiopia
- 1.5 billion viewers in 110 countries watched the live broadcast, organised by the BBC (UK) and ABC (USA) beamed by 13 satellites around the World
- Over 170,000 people attended the two live concerts in London and Philadelphia.
- A dozen other countries staged their own fundraising concerts
- The British concert ended with Do They Know It’s Christmas? and six hours later, the US concert concluded with We Are the World
- The 10 hour concert at Wembley Stadium had 22 slots, each of 20 minutes, many shared by artists collaborating
- The 14 hour Philadelphia concert had 34 x 20 minute slots, again with many artists collaborating
- Phil Collins performed at both concerts, flying to the USA on Concorde
- Queen’s performance at Wembley was subsequently hailed as ‘the greatest ever live rock performance’.
Where was I on Live Aid Day? I had finished my final exams for my degree course at the Poly of Wales in Pontypridd, and had returned to my shared house in Treforest for a rest after a muddy Glastonbury festival…my sister and her husband were visiting for the weekend and we had agreed to go out for a meal that evening. Well, once we started watching Live Aid on the telly, with Bob’s heart-rending appeal, we quickly changed our minds, pooling our cash and phoning through a donation.
The issue of starvation in Ethiopia was too big, the message too powerful, too compelling to resist. I think we managed a sombre trip to the pub in the evening, missing some of the USA show…well there was inevitable burn-out after 8 hours….but what a show!
For more details of the event and full line-ups follow this links: