Live Aid Remembered

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.

Vinyl Frontier Live Aid banner


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 posterLive 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:


Poor Africa…

It was hard to watch – BBC’s Panorama programme on the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa.  The programme makers conveyed a sense of helplessness and ignorance of the deadly nature of the virus amongst the population, and almost criminal complacency on the part of African Government representatives.  A Guinea Government Minister admitted that their initial response to the outbreak was to keep a lid on it for fear of scaring away foreign investors.

The only heroes to come out of the programme were the Medicines Sans Frontier (MSF) who had experience of dealing with Ebola outbreaks and understood the deadly nature of the virus.  Whilst they were shouting and waving their arms to be heard, politicians, aided by dithering representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO) conspired to down play it.  Fear swept through communities and rumours spread that there was no Ebola, only mass murder of people in makeshift hospitals and cannibalism.  Riots ensued, leading to more deaths of patients and more infections.  Traditional burial practices served to intensify the spread of the deadly virus, said to have crossed over to humans from infected bats – either their consumption or through contact with their bodily fluids.

Only after six months when the outbreak had spread from Guinea to neighbouring countries Sierra Leone and Liberia (and a small outbreak in Nigeria), with over 800 dead and many more infected, did the WHO reluctantly declare it an emergency.  Is it because poor Africans simply don’t matter?  A similar outbreak in Europe would be identified and dealt with quickly, and there would be calls to the European Union (EU) to intervene.  In this West Africa horror story, there was not one mention of the African Union (AU) – Africa’s equivalent organisation.  Finally, after intervention from the USA and some European countries, the outbreak was contained and the number of deaths and new infections decreased to a point where the emergency is now over.

Come to think of it, the AU has not even been mentioned in the current mass migration of people from Africa to Europe – most are simply escaping poverty.  Are poor Africans doomed to suffer from famines and disease, whilst the wealthy elite just look on with mild disdain, bordering on contempt?  When the Africans themselves jokingly refer to the AU as the ‘African Dictators Club’ then you know there is little hope.  That joke isn’t funny anymore.

For too long the West has turned a blind eye to post-Independence African leaders fixing elections to stay in power so they can rape and pillage their countries, denying education and information to their people in order to control and exploit them more efficiently.  Their sham elections are accepted by Western Governments, the IMF and World Bank because it ticks the boxes.  They have ‘democratic’ elections so they qualify for loans and aid.  Mugabe and Museveni are laughing at us.  We have failed to help Africans realise the full meaning of independence, development and personal freedom.  They have simply swapped one form of dictatorial rule for another, with African leaders using the full might of Western technology to control and suppress the people.  Power and money corrupt.  This we know.

How can Europeans and the rest of the Developed World help Africans to be empowered and improve their quality of life?  Surely this massive gulf between the poorest countries of the world (most of which are in Africa) and the wealthiest should be addressed.  The current attempted migration of thousands of Africans prepared to risk their lives to get to Europe shows that something must be done.  The bizarre ‘solution’ proposed by EU officials to accept African economic migrants and send them to different countries on a quota basis will surely send a green light to Africa for more to come.  By next year the numbers will have doubled or trebled, and the Mediterranean Sea will be a graveyard of floating corpses.  The underlying social and economic causes must be addressed and the Human Trafficers neutralised.  Hello AU, are you listening?

A proper plan for Africa must be made, involving African Leaders, academics and professionals.  Yes, Africa must be encouraged to lead the process, but the West must be prepared to back it up with real investment.  Hard decisions must be made, even to the point of regime change and international interim administrations.  Vested interests must be swept aside.  Unless quality of life improves for the masses, Africa will continue to be the poor relation of the World, slipping further behind as the rest progresses – South East Asia and South America have fared much better in the last seventy years than poor abused Africa.  Perhaps the time has come for a re-appraisal of post-Independence rule (and the AU) to see what can be improved.  Clearly, the whole Free and Fair Elections thing has been massively abused.

Perhaps this Ebola epidemic story, only ended by direct intervention from the USA and Europe, is a direct parable for ailing Africa to have its ongoing problems finally addressed by the international community.  The current Aid programme is simply (and cynically, some might say) putting a plaster over a gaping wound.  China should get involved, as they now have substantial mineral mining interests across the continent.  Surely the time has come to stop the heartless pillaging of African resources and economic oppression of its people.  They deserve something better.  ACT NOW FOR REAL AFRICAN FREEDOM!

NB ‘Ignorance’ means the absence of knowledge, and does not imply stupidity.  State owned media still exist in many African countries, as Governments actively control information flow to the masses…a barrier to achieving an empowered and educated population.

Memories of Michael Sata

In the international news this week is the announcement that the President of the Republic of Zambia, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital. The veteran politician, aged 77 when he died, was known as ‘King Cobra’ for his willingness to strike out at opponents.  His determination to succeed finally saw him win an outright election in 2011 and achieve his life’s ambition of becoming President of his country.

I first met Michael Sata in 2004 in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. At that time I had an office in Farmer’s House on Cairo Road (grandly named by the British former colonists to be part of Cecil Rhodes’ Cape to Cairo highway) for my publishing and advertising businesses, Concept Marketing Limited.  The office opposite me across the hall was Michael Sata’s base for his opposition political party The Patriotic Front (PF).  At that time he looked doomed to be in opposition forever, as opposition parties rarely win an election in Africa against a firmly entrenched ruling party.

We were both smokers, and would stand outside the building chatting about this and that over a fag. He was inquisitive and wanted to know about my business.  I did not know it at the time, but I was employing his nephew as a Graphic Designer.  One morning he burst into my office without a knock and asked to use my fax machine.  It was his way.  Not a request that you could decline, more of an order.  I told him what I would charge for a local and international call and he brushed me aside with a wave of the hand, saying he would send his Accountant over later to pay.  The fax was sent and the Accountant duly paid.

On another occasion I was queuing in the bank and he swept in, walking straight to the window and demanding he be attended to straight away by the startled young female Teller. There was a murmur of discontent from the long Friday lunchtime queue, and to her credit, the young lady refused to serve him and told him to join the back of the line.  A spontaneous round of applause broke out from the queue and words were spoken in Nyanja.  Sata left in a huff, unused to not getting his own way.

He had a well earned reputation for being someone who Got Things Done, and was respected for it. He had served as a Minister under first President Kenneth Kaunda and second President Frederick Chiluba, before forming his own political party and going into opposition.  His successful election campaign in 2010/11 was based on political opportunism and, ultimately, false promises.  Jobs for the disaffected youth, economic recovery and the expulsion of the hated Chinese.

It was rumoured at the time that his election campaign was funded by the Taiwanese, based on the promise that once elected, they could replace the Chinese as Zambia’s new friend. A shrewd move by Sata was to appoint Guy Scott, born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) to British parents, as his vice presidential running mate.  He had been a farmer in Zambia and involved in politics since the early days of the MMD, and was acceptable to both Zambians and the international community.  All was set for a high energy, high impact and emotional election campaign.

His election victory on 23rd September 2011 was indeed historic, sweeping past the struggling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), whose twenty year reign was staggering to a halt under unpopular President Rupiah Banda, despite a reasonably good set of economic figures.  Perhaps a warning to the ANC in South Africa?  The MMD was hurriedly set up in 1991, with US and British support, as a vehicle to topple the creaking Kaunda administration, and restore Western economic interests back into the country.

Fast forward twenty years and the Chinese have become the bed fellows of many African States, offering infrastructure development in exchange for minerals. They wanted a slice of Zambia’s copper and cobalt output, and their preferred approach is to side-step Western free market economy rules and head straight for State House for behind closed doors negotiations.  In Zambia’s case, the Mines and Minerals Act was amended in 2005 to force mining license holders to return a proportion of their land to Government.  These reclaimed mining concessions were duly handed over to the Chinese.  African Leaders love the personal attention and the feeling of being important the Chinese bring to negotiations, oh, and their personal wealth tends to increase as a result.  The West are left feeling uncomfortable and rejected, like a jilted bride at the altar.

Sata’s manifesto was therefore greeted with a mixed reception by the business community and internationally. To throw out the Chinese would please the West, but carried with it the possibility of further draconian measures including more expulsions of foreigners or the return of the dreaded Nationalisation.  Poor Zambians were hopeful of a better life, and turned out in large numbers to vote in the PF and Michael Sata on a wave of nationalism.  In my office in 2009, I had caught his nephew designing a PF newspaper advert and admonished him for doing a private job on company time.  Perhaps it was just as well that I wound up my business and left Zambia in 2009 to return to the UK, and watch political events unfold from afar!

There was ultimately a sense of anti-climax after Michael Sata’s ascendancy to the Presidency. He was an aging man in declining health, and had just achieved his life’s ambition.  As with many in his situation, he was forced to accept compromise to keep various interest groups happy.  The Chinese were the first to make their way to State House, and shortly after their presentation to the new President, all was rosy in the garden and their friendship with Zambia was re-affirmed.  Business as usual, and the youths hopeful of employment were left with the harsh reality of taking low paid jobs for Chinese and other foreign investors on the minimum wage of less than two US dollars a day.

Michael Sata’s story is one of endurance and determination. His road was long and hard, perhaps mirroring the post-colonial experience of many Africans.  But he proved that it is possible to succeed, and that under the scrutiny of the international community, it is less easy for ruling parties to fix the election to stay in power…..well, at least in some countries.  Congratulations to Zambia on recently celebrating their 50th year of Independence.  I remember my time in Zambia with warm and deep affection for the country and its people.  I wish them happiness and success as they tread the thorny road between self determination and the pressures from the international community, both East and West.