I've been to many hundreds of diverse musical shows from street music at the Sidmouth folk festival to ballet at Sadler's Wells. Every now and again a curious thing happens. The performance of the artists and the reaction of the audience appear to fuel each other, such that the whole experience seems to exceed the sum of its parts. A mere concert transcends itself to become an event. One of these was Live Aid, the 35th anniversary of which is the 13th of July this week. I was lucky enough to be there so let me share my experience with you.
Firstly I was lucky to be there at all as it wasn't my original intention to compete in the battle for tickets. I got a phone call from a work colleague whose wife was planning to call the ticket hotline and thoughtfully asked if anyone else wanted one. About eight or ten of us got on board and stumped up our £25 quid.
On the big day I agreed to meet another workmate, Chris, on the way there. We both had to pickup the tube at Wimbledon so met up for company on the journey to Wembley. Already there was a hint of an atmosphere as clearly a lot of folk were heading in the same direction.
Chris was a decade or so younger than I was and quite a character. He was a flamboyant dresser and a bit of a party animal with an instinct to know where to seek out a good time. On more than one occasion I'd seen him arrive in the office in the clothes he'd been wearing the previous day and he'd confide that he been night-clubbing, ending up in one of the 'early houses' near Smithfield market for a pint and a spot of breakfast.
As there was an alcohol ban inside the stadium, he and I had agreed to 'make other arrangements' and so we each had two litre bottles of lemonade in which we had mixed in bottles of vodka, thinking even if security opened and sniffed the bottles there was still a fair chance we would get away with it, but as it happened the policing of the entry to the stadium was pretty lax and we were soon making our way to our allotted seats with our 'moonshine' in hand.
We were quite far back, about half way up the stands facing the stage and slightly to stage-left. However as the stands were staggered we had unobstructed views of the stage which was not the case for a lot of people on the flat. It was a blisteringly hot day so I started to nip the vodka before a note was played.
Status Quo was famously the first act on stage and they played a blinder. Their performance got everybody in the mood and the simplicity of their pub-rock beat went down surprisingly well in a big stadium. I'd say they were one of the top five acts of the day.
My only negative memory of the concert was that we couldn't see or hear the music from America which was relayed though screens on each side of the stage in between the British acts. Perhaps the technology was immature or we were too far away, but the pictures were hard to make out in the strong sunshine, so I think many of us, at least in our part of the stadium, just resorted to chatting and people watching. Clearly for this purpose God had placed the braless young woman in a loose fitting T-shirt in the row in front of me, whose left boob kept trying to escape when ever she lent forward, an activity to which it had an eye-opening degree of success.
The afternoon went on and the atmosphere built. It was a uniquely friendly atmosphere for such a large event and people were all happy to be there, just having a party to feed the starving Africans. This became apparent when we realised that despite losing liquid in the heat, some of the two litres of lemonade/vodka cocktail was going to have to come out at some point.
It was Chris who then came up with a cunning plan. The nearest toilets at Wembley were at three o'clock, if you consider the stage was mid-day and we were about twenty-five past six. He suggested that if we moved down onto the pitch we could ease our way gently towards the stage and get there just about in time to watch U2 which he considered would be a great act to catch up close. Then after seeing them we would head right to the bogs and then back in a triangular path.
All hail the party animal! His plan worked a treat. We gently mingled our way through the good-natured crowd with amazingly nobody moaning about pushing in, and after a while made our way to the 'sweaty mosh-pit' just as U2 came on. By that time it really was exceptionally hot and the stadium staff were spraying us with water to keep us cool. When U2 started playing there was a crush as everyone exploded with excitement. By that time we'd got within about ten metres of the stage, roughly inline with where Bono later rescued a woman who seemed to be being crushed. We couldn't get any closer once they were playing but it was a great memory seeing some of the show from there.
As planned we then headed off to the toilets, which took some time. In the bowels of Wembley there are a series of rooms which led to the facilities and as you can imagine, with 72,000 people there that day the queues were pretty horrendous. While we were waiting though, we were rewarded with a sweet surprise. A door opened and all of a sudden a small crowd appeared, moving through our tunnel. On the outside were a gaggle of paparazzi madly flashing their cameras. Inside that there was a cordon of police who were linking arms surrounding none other than Bob Geldof!! I can't adequately describe how that moment felt but there were dozens if not hundreds of audience members who realised who it was, realised his importance to the staging of the event and how improbable it was that we would get so close to him on the day. Egged on a little by the flashlights, we each to a man started screaming hysterically and unselfconsciously like teenagers at a Beatles concert. I suddenly got an insight as to what Beatlemania must have felt like.
After availing ourselves of the facilities we made it back to our seats to enjoy the remainder of the show. Queen were of course the main event, their songs so skilfully crafted to work a big stadium like Wembley and Freddie Mercury the consummate rock-God performer. However my overriding memory of the night was that of George Michael singing 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me'. Up until then I think a lot of people, me included had dismissed George as being a bit of a light-weight popstar, good, but second division. That night though he stepped up to the plate and smashed it out of the park. Just as Live Aid itself had transitioned from a music concert into a much more special event, so George transitioned before our eyes into the mature superstar he was. It was certainly the song I had buzzing in my head on the long journey home, and remains, of all the wonderful music I heard that day, the song that most readily takes me back there whenever I hear it.