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Musicians (Live Aid):

  • David Bowie: Vocals

  • Kevin Armstrong: Guitar

  • Matthew Seligman: Bass

  • Neil Conti: Drums

  • Pedro Ortiz: Percussion

  • Clare Hurst: Saxophone

  • Thomas Dolby: Keyboards

  • Tessa Niles/Helena Springs: Backing Vocals

Repertoire (Live Aid):

TVC15 | Rebel Rebel | Modern Love | "Heroes" | Let It Be | Do They Know It's Christmas?

On March 23rd and 24th 1985 Bowie made surprise appearances during the encores of a two-night residency at the Birmingham NEC on Tina Turner's Private Dancer tour. David Mallet filmed the first concert, which would later be aired on television and released on video. Sporting a white jacket, wing collar, black trousers and one of his less successful hairstyles, Bowie joined Tina in a duet of "Tonight" and a medley combining Chris Montez's "Let's Dance" with his own hit of the same name. The performance - not one of David's greatest moments - appeared on various Tina Turner compilations, including 1988's Live In Europe, the 1992 CD single "I Want You Near Me", and the 1994 CD & Video double pack Tina Live - Private Dancer Tour.

During the "Absolute Beginners" sessions at Abbey Road three months later, Bowie informed his group that "I've got this little gig - can you do it?" Ever since Bob Geldof had confirmed plans for a concert on July 13th in aid of Ethiopian famine relief, Bowie had been high on his wish list. Plans for a transatlantic satellite link-up with Mick Jagger were abandoned and in its place came the recording of "Dancing In The Street". Thereafter, augmented by keyboard wizard Thomas Dolby and saxophonist Clare Hurst, the band rehearsed a shortlist of ten songs on three consecutive Sundays at Bray and Elstree Studios.

Thomas Dolby, who had joined the band at the instigation of bassist Matthew Seligman, recalled in a 2009 interview that "Bowie was very busy filming Labyrinth at Elstree Studios, and we had to grab a few hours here and there to rehearse. He kept changing his mind about what to play. He started out wanting to promote his current single, "Loving The Alien", but soon realised that Live Aid was much bigger than that. He settled on the final songs the evening before the show, and we had never played them back to back." The final rehearsal was recorded and each band member given a tape.

Bowie's technical preparations for Live Aid were among the most meticulous of the day. According to the compere Andy Peebles, "his army took over" from the Live Aid crew for the duration of his set. At midnight on July 12th Bowie was still backstage at Wembley, examining blueprints and discussing the stadium's dead spots. Allegedly he even scripted Peebles's introduction. However, reports of Bowie's control-freakery at Live Aid were to be treated with caution. Television presenter Noel Edmonds, who spent the day flying performers to and from Wembley by helicopter, recalled many years later that "David Bowie's management said he only flew in a blue helicopter - that's blue on the inside - and we managed to find one. I was killing time with him at Battersea before he flew in and I said, 'Look at the inside of this helicopter!' He looked at me as if I were mad. He didn't give a shit what colour the helicopter was."

In a double-breasted grey suit and gravity-defying blow-dry (provided the previous day by Freddie Mercury's partner Jim Hutton), Bowie at Live Aid cut a figure somewhere between his Serious Moonlight and Diamond Dogs personae. Early in the day he spent an hour in the royal box with the Prince and Princess of Wales. His set began at 7.20pm with a rollicking "TVC15", followed by smooth, sax-driven versions of "Rebel Rebel" and "Modern Love", and finally the undisputed highlight, a splendid "Heroes" which Bowie dedicated "to my son, to all our children, and to the children of the world."

David Bowie in the Royal Box at Wembley Stadium - Live Aid July 13th 1985
David Bowie on-stage at Live Aid with Bob Geldof - July 13th 1985
David Bowie on-stage at Live Aid July 13th 1985

The general consensus is that Queen stole the show at Live Aid, but with his uniquely evocative "Heroes" Bowie came an honourable second. He was originally to have played another number, "Five Years", but at the last minute he sacrificed the remainder of his allotted time to introduce a film compiled from newsreel footage of the Ethiopian famine. Bob Geldof later recalled showing David the video backstage: "Bowie was sobbing...he says, I want to drop a song and introduce this." Sure enough, as the band left the stage David announced, "Let us not forget why we are here. People are still starving." The film, backed by The Cars' "Drive", remains one of the abiding images of Live Aid. "That tape was the turn-around moment in the entire event," said Geldof. More money was pledged immediately after its transmission than at any other time during the concert.

Bowie's contribution to Live Aid didn't end with his set: in addition to the screenings of "Dancing In The Street", he joined the all-star backing group who helped Paul McCartney through a technically hampered "Let It Be", and sang the opening line of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" for the final encore. "We should make it an annual event," he enthused afterwards. For many years the Live Aid recordings remained unreleased, finally appearing on DVD in November 2004.

In the twenty months following Live Aid Bowie made only two concert appearances. The first came on November 19th 1985 when he took to the stage at New York's China Club for an impromptu jam on "China Girl" and other numbers with a band including Iggy Pop, Stevie Winwood, Carlos Alomar, Carmine Rojas and Ron Wood (the occasion was the birthday of Labyrinth drummer Steve Ferrone, who also played). The second was his live performance of "Dancing In The Street" with Mick Jagger at the Prince's Trust Concert at Wembley Arena on June 20th 1986. A little under a year later, with a new album under his belt, Bowie was back on the road.

The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg

The Complete David Bowie

by Nicholas Pegg

New Edition: Expanded and Updated

"This is the best Bowie reference book one could ever hope for"

Tony Visconti

David Bowie performing at Live Aid - July 13th 1985
David Bowie, Alison Moyet, Pete Townshend, Bob Geldof and Paul McCartney - Live Aid July 13th 1985
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