Live Aid Turns 30: U2, Madonna, Led Zeppelin Reunion & More Highlights

Peter Still/Redferns
Bono of of U2 performs at Live Aid on July 13, 1985.

It’s hard to believe 30 years have passed since Live Aid. The monumental charity concert, which raised funds for famine relief in Africa, featured a laundry list of '80s artists that now reads like a music fan’s dream concert. The event was held on July 13, 1985, simultaneously in London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, which was torn down just seven years later. It featured a who’s who of rock and roll and pop music with some heavy metal and hip-hop thrown in for good measure.

The huge event was the brainchild of Sir Bob Geldof, who was inspired by the success of the all-star charity singles “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World,” which both helped raise awareness and funds for Ethiopian famine relief.

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Live Aid was a tremendous success, raising more than $104 million that day (it went on to raise over $150 million thanks to subsequent merchandise sales). More than 1.9 billion people watched the event live on television, which was unprecedented at the time, with many recording the concert on their brand-new VHS machines. The list of acts at the event is still staggering, from The Beach Boys, Elvis Costello and Run-D.M.C. to Madonna, Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan and Duran Duran. The event was a cultural steppingstone and helped launch and maintain the careers of several artists and marked some amazing reunions. Below, we look at some of the highlights and the huge reunions that took place back on July 13, 1985.


U2 were the breakout stars of Live Aid. Their memorable two-song set, featuring “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bad,” still resonates with fans. There are some amazing moments, including an epic mullet-maned Bono climbing down the front of the huge stage at Wembley Stadium to help 15-year-old Kal Khalique, who was getting crushed against the security barrier. He worked with security guards to pull her out of the crowd and slow-danced with the lucky girl before climbing back up to finish the epic 12-minute version of “Bad.” The song featured teases of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” and “Walk on the Wild Side,” as well as the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday.”  

Like many of us, legendary artist Joan Baez watched Live Aid unfold on TV. Perhaps she explains U2’s iconic performance the best, saying, “The high point was witnessing the magic of U2. They moved me as nothing else moved me. They moved me in their newness, their youth, and their tenderness.” Ironically, U2 thought they had blown a huge opportunity. According to a Rolling Stone article, the group was unhappy with Bono climbing down to the crowd, which forced the band to cut their biggest hit to date, “(Pride) In the Name of Love,” from the set. Later, they realized that not only did they not blow it, but their Live Aid performance was a career-making moment that helped the band get back on the U.K. charts and established them as a force in the U.S.

Queen was one of the biggest rock bands on the planet in the '80s. So expectations were high for the band’s set at Wembley Stadium in their hometown gig. The late, enigmatic Freddie Mercury led the group through a stellar version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that flowed into “Radio Ga Ga.” The titans then launched into “Hammer to Fall” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and ended with a triumphant versions of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” In a 2005 BBC poll, Queen’s Live Aid set was voted the best rock performance of all time.

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Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton played a no-frills set in Philadelphia. He touched on the '60s, '70s and '80s, playing Cream’s “White Room,” Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” and his hit single at the time “She’s Waiting.” Clapton was an icon at the time but had trouble selling out arenas. After his Live Aid performance, ticket sales exploded and Clapton steamrolled through the rest of the decade. His stellar Live Aid set, which featured the late Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass and Phil Collins on drums, reignited his future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career.

Phil Collins
Phil Collins made waves when he performed a solo two-song set in London and then hopped on the Concorde jet and flew to Philadelphia in time to join Eric Clapton on drums. After arriving in Philly, Collins played the same songs (“Against All Odds” and “In the Air Tonight”) he performed in London earlier that day, before sticking around and playing drums with Led Zeppelin.

Madonna’s star was on the rise back in 1985, but her afternoon performance at Live Aid gave her career a huge push. At the time, she was one of the hottest female singers around with hit singles like “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” under her belt, as well as controversial nude photos in Playboy and Penthouse magazines. On stage, she addressed the photos explaining no matter how hot it gets (temps were in the 90s in Philadelphia), “I am not taking shit off today. You might hold it against me 10 years from now.” Madonna performed “Holiday” and “Into the Groove” and then was joined by Nile Rodgers for “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Later in the day, she joined Rodgers, Billy Idol’s guitarist Steve Stevens and the Thompson Twins for a cover of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” as the sun set in Philadelphia.  

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Led Zeppelin
Although they were not billed as Led Zeppelin, Live Aid was the first time Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones performed live following the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. The band took the stage with Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums, as well as Paul Martinez on bass. They performed a memorable and chill-inducing (while far from note-perfect) 20-minute set in Philadelphia including “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven.” There are some classic moments, like Jimmy Page’s guitar strap getting stuck on a mic stand during the beginning of “Rock and Roll” and Phil Collins missing the drum fill before the guitar solo in “Whole Lotta Love.” It would be three years before Page, Plant and Jones would take the stage together again at the Atlantic Records 40th-anniversary concert in NYC in 1988.

The Who
The Who reunited at Live Aid for a tremendous set, including “Love, Reign o’er Me,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “My Generation” and “Pinball Wizard.” At the time, the band was split and it would be four years before they would tour as the Who for their 25th-anniversary outing in 1989. The Who’s Live Aid performance was their last with drummer Kenney Jones, who filled in for the late Keith Moon following his death in 1978.

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Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Crosby, Stills & Nash did a three-song set early in the day in Philadelphia, performing “Southern Cross,” “Teach Your Children” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Later in the evening, Neil Young performed, setting the stage for a surprise reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. They hit the stage after Led Zeppelin and played Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “Daylight Again” and the group's “Find the Cost of Freedom.”

Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath reunited with original singer Ozzy Osbourne for an early 10 a.m. set in Philadelphia. The group performed high-octane versions of “Children of the Grave,” “Iron Man” and “Paranoid.” The reunion was short-lived as Ozzy and Tony Iommi continued their respective solo careers. It wasn’t until 1997 that Sabbath and Osbourne reunited for a full-fledged tour on Ozzfest.