Music » Feature

Live to tell

A Haligonian’s inside look at the biggest charity concert of all time, featuring the whims and demands of Bob Geldof, Sade, Freddie Mercury and Sting.



In the early ’80s, the done thing for any self-respecting Clash fan was to squat in the riotous, terminally unemployed south London neighbourhood of Brixton. That’s where I landed fresh out of university in fall 1984, sharing a busted row house with a messy pile of ex-pat Haligonians. It was all roses and tequila until my money ran out, so one day in January 1985, I answered an ad and scored the receptionist position with a concert promotions company on Oxford Street. (My squat mates, who doubled as the Canadian cast of The Young Ones, were astonished—not about the position, but that anyone should actually get a job out of the Brixton Job Centre.)

Harvey Goldsmith Entertainment was the premiere concert promoter in the UK. Namesake founder Harvey, a foul-mouthed, tubby east ender, began his career in the 1960s—he’s the man who first brought Dylan to the UK and had a long-standing association with Bowie, the Stones, Paul McCartney...the royal elite of Brit rock. He produced the Concerts for Kampuchea. His first words to me were “Who the fuck are you?”

I learned the ropes on Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour. Five dates at minimum 80,000 seaters, and every single ticket was sold out of our offices with a 50-pence booking fee going straight into the coffers. Clearly, Harvey was a smart guy with ridiculous pull in the entertainment world. So I wasn’t surprised the day Bob Geldof strode in, a brace of shihtzus nipping at his heels, to talk about getting Live Aid off the ground.

Bob Geldof was as abrasive as Harvey. In the boardroom across from my desk, they shouted their way through the details:

Harvey: The concession fuckers want full fucking profit.

Geldof: Fuck them. Fucking replace them!

Harvey: They have the fucking stadium contract!

Geldof: Fuck the contract!

Both (to me): Where’s my fucking Perrier?!

On the morning the Live Aid dates were announced, the phones rang off the hook. By around 10am, a burning plastic smell had enveloped the reception area. It turned out to be a routing box literally melting down. By noon, we had no phones at all. Harvey came roaring down the hallway: “’Ow the fuck we gonna save the world with no fucking phones?!” He spent the rest of the day parked on Oxford Street in his limo, melting the car phone. I could hear him above the traffic three floors up, cursing his lungs out.

For the next few weeks I was privy to a spectacular parade of rock stars, promoters, investors and actual royalty as details of the twinned UK and US concerts were hammered out. It was chaos as our wee staff of maybe 20 people pulled the concerts together and, after hours, processed the UK tickets from the heaps of mail that arrived by caravan. Harvey and Geldof worked at a pace of such ferocity that I took a refresher in CPR in case one of them dropped dead in the boardroom. Even stratospheric stars like Bowie, George Michael, Phil Collins and Sting had to clock time on the couch next to my desk, gossiping in the juiciest way. (Turns out George Michael’s gay. Who knew!)

On July 13, 1985, the day of the concert, I left the squat at five to get to Wembley Stadium by my 6am call. I’d been assigned two jobs, sharing shifts with Diane, another PA. In the morning, I would head up the VIP phone room, and in mid-afternoon, I would shift to backstage runner.

Just before kick-off, Diane and I snuck out to smoke a joint near the VIP driveway. We were in the midst of hysterics about something or other when a limo horn honked. A window rolled down. It was Elton John. “Bit early, innit?” he quipped as we waved him through. He stepped out of the limo and beckoned us to him. I thought we were in for it, but instead he linked arms with us, saying, “Let’s make today fantastic, eh?” and we all strolled to his dressing room.

The VIP donation room consisted of half a dozen phone lines for super rich and/or celebrity donors. I took a call from Dubai offering a million-dollar donation from a Saudi prince if only he could speak to Geldof in person. I ran out to find him. Geldof all but swatted me away until I’d explained the situation. He took the call, and after they’d spoken, Geldof slammed the phone down, pronouncing the prince “an oily bastard.” Five minutes later he thanked the prince live on stage. He did what he had to.

I took my only break late afternoon to watch U2’s brilliant set from a spare seat in the royal box. As the last notes died, I was called urgently backstage. I jumped up in a panic, crushing the foot of the guy next to me. The foot belonged to Who guitarist Pete Townshend, who glared balefully at me as I fled.

The panic was that Freddie Mercury had been deposited in what had been Sade’s dressing room. She’d left some things behind, Queen was minutes from taking the stage, and someone had to go in there and sort it out. With the beautiful, serene Sade standing behind me, I tapped on the dressing room door. Out stepped a giggling Freddie, swinging one of Sade’s hairpieces like a cat by the tail. Definitely not a smooth operator.

A while later, I heard production coordinator Suzi’s hoarse Cockney voice yelling out my name. “Oi, Outhit! Look what you lot’s done!” They were broadcasting a CBC-produced video featuring images of famine-stricken Ethiopian children, backed by the Cars’ tune “Drive.” As we watched on the monitor, the stadium fell silent. Suzi put her arm around my waist and we both misted up. I spotted Geldof across the way; he caught my eye and gave me the thumb’s up for Canada.

My last job of the day was to help the lead wrangler make sure all the stars were ready for the finale. I ran from dressing room to dressing room with a checklist. Five minutes to go and one was missing. “Nik Kershaw!” barked the wrangler. “Who?” I asked. “Exactly,” replied the wrangler with a wry laugh. Then we realized the miniature one-hit wonder was standing right behind me.

Two minutes later, I stood in the wings watching Paul McCartney sing “Let it Be” with no microphone. There was panic as the techs tried to get the mic going. Meanwhile, 100,000 voices filled in the melody. Even the stage manager and his pit crew, furiously setting the rotating stage for the finale, sang along as they heaved amps and DI boxes about.

After the finale, Geldof was carried offstage, cursing volubly as stars and media swarmed him. In the end, something like $140 million was raised. It was the biggest television and fundraising event in history. Having fed the world, I picked up a takeaway curry and went home to the squat.

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