U2 at Live Aid

U2 formed in Dublin as teenagers in 1976. Between 1980 and 1985, they released four albums (Boy, October, War, and The Unforgettable Fire).

On July 13, 1985, seemingly every major rock act on Earth played the Live Aid concert for African famine relief, hosted primarily in Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium and London’s Wembley Stadium and broadcast to over a billion people worldwide. Backstage at Wembley, U2 met some of their heroes, including Pete Townshend, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and Muhammad Ali. Freddie Mercury flirted with Bono, who was previously unaware that the Queen singer was gay.

U2 hit the stage in London at 5:20 P.M. local time (12:20 P.M. on the east coast of the States); they had a twenty-minute slot between Bryan Adams and the Beach Boys (both performing in Philly). After being introduced by Jack Nicholson (“a group that’s never had any problem saying how they feel”), U2 kicked off their set, which they intended to be three songs long, with “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

0:00 Bono introduces U2’s second song, while we see aerial footage of tens of thousands of fans at Wembley. (Hey, England has the Goodyear blimp too!) “We’re an Irish band,” Bono says by way of introduction. “We come from Dublin City, Ireland.” (Circa 1985, the two facts casual fans knew about U2 were that they were Irish and Christian.) “Like all cities, it has its good and it has its bad,” Bono continues. “This is a song called ‘Bad.’” A bit of a forced transition, but hey, the clock is ticking.

0:20 Bono is wearing a puffy white shirt and a black, vaguely military, jacket, accessorized with a bolo tie and a crucifix dangling in front of his throat. He’s in black leather pants. The most striking thing about his appearance is the resplendent mullet, complete with blond highlights, gloriously crowning his head. On a day with many spectacular hairstyles, Bono’s is far from the best, but it may be the most memorable.

0:23 Bassist Adam Clayton, standing behind Bono, is in head-to-foot gray. He’s removed the sunglasses he wore during “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” He looks scruffy and dazed, as if he just rolled out of bed on a submarine.

0:25 We get a wide shot of the crowd, which has lots of banners reading “U2”–some of which were visible during the sets of earlier bands. U2 has clearly won the hearts and minds of the crucial British flag-waving demographic. At this point, U2 was scratching on the door of the U.S.A.–their sole top-40 single, “Pride (In the Name of Love),” topped out at #33–but in the U.K. they had scored three top-ten singles and two chart-topping albums. U2 managed to book a Live Aid slot that would maximize their American exposure–they supported the cause of ending African famine, but they also knew the broadcast had the potential to break them to a much larger audience. The night before the show, however, U2’s management called Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof at 2 A.M. and threatened to pull them out unless they got a soundcheck. Geldof responded “Fuck ’em,” and the band played as planned.

0:37 Some backing synth-like sounds have been playing gently, but now we get the actual opening of the song, a lick that insinuates itself and keeps looping back on itself, like the ouroboros serpent swallowing its own tail. The Edge wrote variations on this guitar theme for a long time; “Bad” is probably the best, but two years later, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” would become the most successful version.

0:40 A wide-screen view of U2. Clayton towels himself off and drinks some water, waiting for his cue. The Edge wanders out of frame. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. consults with a roadie and audibly bangs his sticks together. Cameramen dressed in white try not to get in the way.

0:56 Bono starts singing: “Bum-bum-ba-bum-bum / Satellite of love,” he sings, quoting Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Satellite of Love.” In 1985, it felt like a big deal that a concert could be happening simultaneously in two locations: separated by an ocean, linked by a satellite in the sky. It was real-life science fiction, impressive and a little scary. Very few people imagined that twenty-nine years later, those telecommunications satellites would offer up U2’s performance to you, almost anywhere, on demand via a telephone you kept in your pocket.

1:22 Extreme closeup on Bono, letting us inspect the quality of his shave that morning. “If you twist and turn away,” he sings, beginning his own lyrics. On The Unforgettable Fire, produced by Brian Eno, “Bad” was a muddy album track buried on side two. “That is potentially a truly great song… if I had finished it,” Bono said. “It was very difficult to do, almost an impossible collision of cultures for us. It was a different kind of songwriting, like Philip Glass meets Astral Weeks, Van Morrison crossed with German electronica. You have sequences which are rigid and metronomic and then you have a bass which is improvising all the way, and the voice too. We were struggling so hard to find that song.” While the studio version of “Bad” was inert, on tour U2 played it obsessively in soundcheck, until the song came to life.

1:54 As the drums and bass kick in, we get a side view of the stage, with the Edge in the foreground. His white shirt is untucked; at age 23, his hairline is receding faster than the evening tide. This is one of the last times he will leave the house without a hat.

2:46 A view of the crowd reveals that “Bad” appears not to be sending its members into a frenzy. (In fairness, they were in the middle of their sixth hour of music: “pace yourself” is the number-two rule at any rock festival, behind only “drink lots of water.”) Visible at the front of the stage: a small cordoned area of about twenty photographers, taking still pictures. Mullen Jr. settles into a martial groove.

“If I could free myself / I’d set your spirit free,” Bono sings with his eyes closed, blocking out the 72,000 people in front of him, and the billion or so people watching around the world.

3:15 Rear view. Clayton is grooving to the song, while Bono is, no lie, dancing! Yes, the bottom half of his body is clearly moving in a rhythmic fashion. Bono continues to cling to the microphone, lest his newfound case of happy feet lead him to do something unwise, like jump off the stage. “Whoo-hoo!” he sings, “Whoo-hoo-hoo.” At that moment, his vowels provide more emotional release than actual words could.

3:43 “So let it go / and so fade away,” Bono belts, as the camera zooms in on his right profile and the band brings the simmering music to a boil. The lyrics of “Bad” don’t translate well to line-by-line analysis–they’re about the scourge of heroin, but you probably wouldn’t know that if the band hadn’t told you. They are, however, extremely evocative, summoning up longing and defiance. And with this “fade away” line, Bono taps into decades of rock history, encompassing “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly, the Stones’ cover of that song, Bruce Springsteen’s single “Fade Away,” and Neil Young’s refrain in “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Bono has zeroed in on the same junkie yearning that made Kurt Cobain quote Neil Young’s lyric in his suicide note nine years later.

4:00 “Wide awake! I’m wide awake!” Bono belts, sweat on his brow. Then a syllogism: “I’m not sleeping.” The lyric was intended as a refutation of the heroin lifestyle: staying awake rather than nodding off in a narcotic haze. But against the backdrop of a concert about suffering in Africa, it plays as a song about striving to do good in the world, rather than regarding your own navel.

4:12 A cameraman finds that rock-show staple: a girl in a tanktop sitting on somebody’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Bono detaches his microphone from the stand and strides to the front of the stage, where he kneels down; you can see a large clock behind him, in the wings on the right side of the stage. The time in London is 5:30 P.M.

A roadie with curly hair untangles Bono’s microphone cord with intense focus. This is Greg Carroll, a Maori man from New Zealand; in the year leading up to Live Aid, he had become the band’s assistant and one of Bono’s best friends. Almost exactly one year after this performance, Carroll would die in a motorcycle accident in Dublin; a shattered Bono wrote the song “One Tree Hill” about him.

4:32 Bono hits a total clam: “Maybe they’d tell me what I should say,” he sings, squeaking “they’d” like a teenager hitting puberty, driving by his intended note like he’s doing 60 mph past a take-out window.

5:17 Bono tentatively puts a high-heeled boot–his right one–on the monitors in front of the stage, and then leans forward, trying to get closer to the audience, which makes him look like the figurehead on a ship, maybe the S.S. FEED THE WORLD. Bono then enters the valley of the “tion” rhymes: “desperation / separation / condemnation / revelation / in temptation / isolation / desolation / isolation.” This is, frankly, a lousy rhyme scheme, but somehow he pulls it off. It’s no worse a lyric than “your eyes make a circle” on “I Will Follow”–two eyes, by definition, make a line.

6:04 Bono channels David Byrne for a brief sideways dance, halfway between the Watusi and an epileptic seizure.

6:09 Bono drops the microphone with a loud clunk. He roams the stage, trying to exhort the crowd, feeling that something in the band’s performance is lacking. Searching for it, he jumps down onto the stage’s apron: a narrow platform in front of the main stage and its monitors, about two feet lower. He runs the length of the apron, towards something on stage right: disappointingly, it’s a cadre of photographers.

6:32 “I don’t like the distance between stage and crowd,” Bono said later. “I don’t like the distance between performer and audience. So I’m looking for a symbol of the day, something I can hold onto.” He tries a trick he’s done at shows before: pulling a girl from the audience, the same way Bruce Springsteen would find a live dance partner for “Dancing in the Dark.” Bono makes eye contact with a girl in the front row and gestures with both hands: come here.

That girl is a young Brit, Melanie Hills. “Bono looked at the audience and suddenly looked towards me,” she remembered. “I was looking around: me? me? And they were saying, yeah, you, you, get up there. Oh my God. And so the security men grabbed me, but they wouldn’t pull me directly onstage. They took me around. So I think he thought that I’d just fainted because I was so overcome by what was going on.”

6:50 Melanie Hills is extracted from the scrum by security guards in bright yellow vests. (Years later, Bono would suggest that he was trying to help fans who were getting crushed, but his primary motive seems to have been finding a moment that would elevate U2’s set beyond the mundane.) Bono keeps gesturing broadly, like he’s playing charades with a slow-on-the-uptake partner. He’s now pointing at the girl who was standing next to Melanie: her sister, Elaine Hills. Apparently, he’s hoping that security will hoist her up onto the apron with him, but they’re not doing it.

“I was making sure the eye contact was definitely happening,” said Elaine, who wanted to make sure that Bono wasn’t actually summoning another girl in her general vicinity. Security extracts her from the front row. “I was whisked off,” she said, “and I didn’t know where I was being whisked to.”

7:17 Bono, frustrated that the girls are not being lifted up to him onstage, vaults off the apron and onto the muddy ground roughly ten feet below, out of view of the band and most of the crowd at Wembley, but not the television cameras. (Years later, Mullen joked with Bono, “I don’t think you realized that once you climbed down, it was like a two-mile walk to get to the punters.”) Bono gestures to a third girl in the crowd and security pulls her out. There are 72,000 fans in attendance at Wembley Stadium; if Bono keeps up this pace, pulling fans over the security barriers one by one, he can get the entire crowd over the barricades in just twelve and a half days.

The third girl is fifteen-year-old Kal Khalique. She is not in the front row because she wants to be close to Bono. “My sister and I were desperate to see Wham!, so we had made it down to the front of the stage,” she explained. (George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley made a guest appearance during Elton John’s set three and a half hours later.) That’s right: Bono has selected a fan whose tastes run less along the lines of “New Year’s Day” and more to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”

7:40 Khalique is pulled out of the crowd and Bono wraps her up in his arms. They stagger back a few steps, and then start slow-dancing, her head buried in Bono’s shoulder. Khalique looks happy but overwhelmed. It’s taken a lot of effort, but Bono has found the dramatic moment he’s been striving for, breaking down the barrier between the bands and the fans. “I didn’t know that when I was holding on to her I’d be holding on to the rest of the world,” Bono said later. He kisses Khalique’s hand, and then kisses her on the cheek. Their whole encounter lasts about twenty seconds–she walks away with her hand on her forehead, apparently in a state of shock, while Bono sprints off through the mud and the crushed soda bottles.

8:10 Cut to the stage: It has been two solid minutes since we saw the Edge, Clayton, or Mullen, when Bono dropped the microphone and left them to play on. Even more relevant to the other three members of the band: when Bono jumped off the edge of the stage, they lost visual contact, like he was an Apollo capsule on the dark side of the moon. Two minutes can be an eternity in front of a live crowd, let alone a global TV audience.

During that time, the three musicians have been heroically vamping, with Clayton throwing in minor but compelling variations on his bassline. “How long can we do this for?” Mullen said he thought to himself. “It was kind of excruciating. We didn’t know whether we should stop, we didn’t know where he was, we didn’t know if he had fallen.”

As the Edge remembered it, “Bono’s dive into the crowd went a bit wrong because he had so much stuff to climb over to get to the front row. It was a massive stadium show with multiple barriers and camera tracks and a level difference between the stage and the floor that must have been twenty feet. We lost sight of him completely. He was gone for so long I started to think maybe he had decided to end the set early and was on his way to the dressing room. I was totally thrown, and I’m looking at Adam and Larry to see if they know what’s going on and they’re looking back at me with complete panic across their faces.” He concluded, “I’m just glad the cameras didn’t show the rest of the band during the whole drama, because we must have looked like the Three Stooges up there.”

Just as the band is about to stop playing, Bono clambers up a ladder, through a group of photographers and back onto the apron, in clear view again.

Bono later admitted, “I’d gone AWOL to try and find a television moment and forgot about the song.”

8:18 Melanie and Elaine Hills are standing on the apron, waiting for Bono. He embraces Melanie and twirls her around, and then pulls Elaine in to join the hug, giving her a kiss on the forehead. “It was a really big wet kiss,” Elaine said. “And he had all this stubble and sweat and I thought, whoa.”

Bono wheels around, his right arm outstretched, looking for a microphone, knowing that Greg Carroll will bring one to him. In his field of vision on stage right is the clock: it’s now 5:34 in London. Carroll detaches the microphone from its stand and jumps onto the apron, handing it to Bono.

8:36 “Kick it off!” Bono shouts, audible once more. As Elaine Hills climbs off the apron to rejoin the crowd, Bono walks over and plants another kiss on her. Mullen goes into a dramatic fill, relieved to have a break from the drum pattern he’s been playing over and over. “Here we go!” Bono yells. He knows that his venture into the crowd has taken all the time allotted for the band to play their third song, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”–this will be U2’s final song of the day. So when he launches back into “Bad,” he gives it everything he has: “Let it go! Go! Go! Go! Let it go!”

9:43 After an electrifying chorus, the band returns to the same lick they’ve been vamping on. Bono sings “I’m not sleeping,” and starts quoting other rock songs: first the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” which he turns into a singalong. Then the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” throwing his body into a doubled-over spasm on each line, before seguing into Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” Tens of thousands of people sing “Doo doo doo, doo-doo-doo-doo,” and Bono raps a modified version of the lyrics: “Holly came from Miami, F-L-A / Hitchhiked all the way across the U.S.A. / She could hear the satellite coming down / Pretty soon she was in London town: Wembley Stadium.”

Bono has often enhanced “Bad” with snatches of other songs–the final score at Live Aid was two by the Stones, two by Lou Reed. Sometimes included in this era, but not on this day: the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”

11:30 “Thank you,” Bono tells the crowd. “God bless you.” He drops the microphone like he’s just won a rap battle, clambers back onto the main stage, and walks past his bandmates while they play that riff yet again. On his way out, Bono grabs a white towel and waves to the crowd, who are now ecstatic.

11:56 The video ends with a brief shot of a helicopter: footage of Phil Collins making his journey to Philadelphia via the Concorde. Also on the Concorde: Cher, who apparently had no idea Live Aid was happening. “She asked what was going on,” Collins said. “I told her about Live Aid and she asked whether I could get her on. I told her just to turn up.”

Afterwards: U2 had a huge argument backstage. Mullen, Clayton, and the Edge were unhappy with Bono’s venture into the crowd, which hung them out to dry and denied the band a chance to play their biggest hit, “Pride (In the Name of Love).” The consensus among the four band members was that their performance had been clumsy and earthbound. “We felt like we’d blown an opportunity to be great,” Mullen said.

“It was a great day, but I thought I had fucked it up,” Bono said. He flew home to Ireland with his wife Ali, visiting her parents in Wexford, brooding about what felt like a massive failure. Over the following week, however, the band discovered that their performance was considered by most observers to be the day’s high point (alongside Queen’s triumphant set). Far from being a blown opportunity, it was a career-making moment that returned all their albums to the U.K. charts, established them in the U.S.A., and transformed them into worldwide stars. The band begrudgingly had to admit that Bono’s instinct as a performer trumped their sensible show-biz plans.

The Edge said, “It really took us by surprise when people started talking about U2 as one of the noteworthy performances of the day. I thought they were joking, I really thought we were crap. But looking back, as I did a week later, I started to see what it was. It was the sense of real, total jeopardy, which is always very exciting for a live event, and Bono’s complete determination to make physical contact with the crowd and eventually getting there after two minutes of struggling over barriers. I think there was something about the effort he had to put in to do it that somehow made it even more powerful.”

Considering Live Aid years later, Bono summed up U2’s set: “Crap sound, crap haircuts, and we didn’t end up playing the hit ’Pride (In the Name of Love)’ because the singer fucked off into the crowd — band wanted to fire me as a result — and it turned out to be one of the best days of our life. Explain that. Ask God, he probably knows.”

By Gavin Edwards. Originally published on the Rolling Stone website in July 2014 as “U2’s ‘Bad’ Break: 12 minutes at Live Aid That Made the Band’s Career.”