Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 11th instalment! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is A Really Big Show. We’ve asked our guests if they had a time machine, and could go back and see one concert what would it be? It could be a show from before they were born, one tey missed or one they actually attended and would like to relive. Big festival, small club show, you name it.
Today we wrap up this round, with a few thoughts from me here at A Sound Day.
A big thanks to my guest contributors again! I hope you’ve enjoyed their columns and thoughts as much as I have and I have to admit, I’ve been surprised at the range of shows they’d have liked to go back and see. From Count Basie in a swingin’ pre-war show in the Big Apple to the post-modern Talking Heads at their creative zenith in California to a huge hard rock festival I’d never heard of, we saw some great shows through their eyes (and ears).
If asked the same question myself, I’d be quite torn… so many good choices. First let me say, that honestly I would not have picked some obvious choices. Beatles? No thanks. Hey, I love their music and think they influenced modern music more than anyone else but, let’s face it – they quit playing live when they were coming into their real peak period and the shows they played leading up to that – Shea Stadium, etc – had a poor sound system and the fans in the stands were screaming so much you could barely hear the Fab Four. Their rooftop show, documented in Get Back, a cool idea and some fine tunes, but I’d probably be with the few other amused fans and passersby on the street below, in the cold, not being able to see them and hearing it amidst the other street noise. Woodstock? Certainly a historic event, and some fantastic bands, but honestly, quite a few acts that were just a bit before my time and didn’t wow me all that much. Not enough to endure all that rain and mud… plus, I’d not like that some of the better artists were showing up onstage literally in the middle of the night!
I’d also consider going back to re-live a few concerts I did go to, to appreciate them more. U2 on The Unforgettable Fire tour at Maple Leaf Gardens. Powerful, brilliant rocking show finishing with all 18000 or so of us singing the chorus to ’40’ as we exited the building onto Carlton Street in Toronto. Today’s other column’s subject, The Stranglers, in a mid-sized bar in Toronto promoting the Norfolk Coast. Unlike their ’80s concert I saw in a big theater, this time the sound was perfect and they picked a great set of both their old ‘punk’ singles and newer, refined tunes. Frontman JJ Burnel even posed and grinned for a few photos for me while I was only feet from the stage – a marked contrast to the band’s ’70s behavior when he’d likely have cut the song and jumped off the stage to kick my camera out of my hands. This time around I wouldn’t end up losing the SD card! And R.E.M., my favorite band of my own generation. I’ve seen them several times but would probably go back to the Up tour show. Oddly, it was the first album of theirs I’d bought that under-whelmed me a little, and was the first without drummer Bill Berry but the concert was aces. Michael Stipe was chatty and humorous, they played some old nuggets I’d not heard them do before like “Cuyahoga” and they had an incredible, gaudy, fun backdrop of dozens of bizarre neon signs, flashing and looking like a Las Vegas cartoon. And as a bonus, Wilco opened the show! At the time (1999) I remember thinking they were quite good, but only knowing two songs they played. Twenty-odd years later, I’d appreciate their set more too I bet. But for all that, there’s really only one show that would win the “time travel trip” for me. The ultimate live music event of Gen X and in fact, of many of our lifetimes – Live Aid. Set the Time Travel dial to July 13, 1985, destination, London, England.
First off, it was a piece of History. I mean, you can’t think of ’80s music and not think about Live Aid and the fundraising records for the same African charities, notably “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are The World.” People (like me) who weren’t there on that – happily – sunny day, were able to watch on TV for the most part. It was shown on television in over 150 countries and the audience was estimated at over a billion people! Talk about an event bringing the world together. As co-organizer Bob Geldof said, “thru the lingua franca (common language) of the planet – which is not English, but rock’n’roll – we were able to address the intellectual absurdity and the moral repulsion of people dying of want in a world of surplus.” Which brings me to another point – it was for good. George Harrison had started the ball rolling over a decade prior, with his Concert for Bangladesh; Bob Geldof and Midge Ure drove it home this day. Rock and pop music can bring about change for the better in the world both by raising money for worthy organizations that help and, more importantly by shining a light on serious problems many might not have known about. Obviously, the African situation – millions starving, droughts, civil wars – was complicated and throwing a few million dollars at it wasn’t going to solve all the troubles. But at least it helped a little, fed some and made people think about the world scene and how they could make a difference more than they had before.
All that aside, the day was about great music first and foremost and boy, did it deliver. I might add that of course a companion show took place closer to home, in Philadelphia. It too had a great lineup, including the Four Tops, Neil Young, Tom Petty, the Thompson Twins (oddly since they were London-based), riding high still from their Into the Gap, and a perhaps less-than-all-that reunion of Led Zeppelin with Phil Collins on drums. But still, for a non-stop tops show, the London one was it. No doubt to the delight of Princess Diana and not so much for Prince Charles (now “King Charles”) who were in attendance.
It kicked off at high noon with the Royal Coldstream Guards playing a little royal salute and part of “God Save the Queen” – the one Elizabeth would approve of, not the Sex Pistols one – before turning over the stage to Status Quo. No disrespect to them, but that would probably have been my cue to try to get to the snack bar to pick up a bite to eat and some drinks, because after that… it was a pretty jam-packed list of great music I liked, starting with the Style Council. Geldof’s own Boomtown Rats were up next and brought down the house with “I Don’t Like Mondays”. That awed Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp who said “you would follow (Geldof). He has just great charisma. He’d make a frightening politician.”
Spandau Ballet were on themselves soon after, but not before a brief appearance from Adam Ant and a longer one from Ultravox, the other organizer ‘s (Midge Ure) band. They kicked off their set with my two favorite songs of theirs, “Reap the wild Wind” and “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes”. It was barely 2 PM when Elvis Costello came on to do a “little northern folk song”, which turned out to be “All You Need is Love.” Next up, Nik Kershaw, one of the more promising newcomers from the New Wave who was hot at the time but seemed to close to disappear from the scene not long after. Stylish Sade came on and then a super-pairing of Sting and Phil Collins. They cranked through eight songs including “Roxanne” and “In the Air Tonight” before dueting on “Every Breath You Take.” As Phil no doubt ran offstage to catch the Concorde – remember he also appeared at the Philly show later in the day – Howard Jones was on. Unfortunately, he did just one song, and honestly, “Hide and Seek” wasn’t one of his best.
No time to worry about that, because then Bryan Ferry, fresh off the release of his first post-Roxy Music record, Boys + Girls, was up with a new guitarist … David Gilmour of Pink Floyd! Continuing in the stylish vein, Paul Young appeared, joined by the great voice of Alison Moyet for one song. By the time he’d cleared off, I might be getting a bit hungry, but I wouldn’t have been going anywhere because it was U2. More than anything else, their short-ish but express train-energetic set of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and a long take on “Bad” with bits of other tunes worked in was probably what made them rise from popular to contenders for “biggest band in the world.” Remember, they were on in a great time slot and about a billion pairs of eyes were watching Bono & Co.
Speaking of bands who were at the top back then, next up – Dire Straits, who brought Sting back out to help deliver “Money For Nothing.” By the time they were done, the sun would have been dropping in the sky a little. It was nearly 7 and coming on were some ’70s favorites who’d not been making much impact lately on my side of the ocean. But let’s hope no one looked away or dashed to the bathroom, because Queen put on their performance of a lifetime.
Following that was an unenviable task, but David Bowie tried and put on what Rolling Stone said was “arguably his last triumph of the ’80s”. He was in turn followed by The Who. There are people around who like The Who more than I do, but it’s always been a band who knew how to put on a power-packed, entertaining show, and in this case they played one of their (to me) under-rated songs, “Love Reign O’er Me.” It brought to mind a hypothetical question – if you had that time machine, could you take modern equipment like digital cameras with you? Hope so, because I’d want momentos of the day and would have tried to record a bit of the Who for our friend Max from Power Pop Blog.
Not many could properly come on after Queen, Bowie and the Who … but Elton John could. And he did with the longest set of the show, six songs and over half an hour. Interestingly, he brought George Michael on to do “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” which they put out as a single in the ’90s. Also unexpected, he finished with a Marvin Gaye cover, “Can I Get A Witness?”. No chicken suit for Elton but a pretty great set nonetheless, all the more surprising since we now know his mental state and addictions in that period.
Well, it would be almost time to go home with a headful of magic and music, but before doing so, Brian May and Freddie Mercury of Queen came back to sing “Is this the World We Created?” (I wondered if that was scheduled or a last-minute kind of encore for them after seeing how well their own set went over), and a grand finale. And for a British rock show, what could be more fitting that than The Beatles? Sadly we didn’t get a reunion of ¾ of the Fab Four but did get Sir Paul doing “Let it Be” with a little help from his friends, including Bowie, Pete Townshend, Moyet and Gedof. Sure, Paul’s mic was wonky and the sound for it wasn’t great but hey… after that day, who’s complaining?
Live Aid ’85. The Show of Shows, and one I rather think, regrettably, will never be matched. It’s hard to imagine these days how one could get 30 or more top name acts together for a big concert that would appeal to over a billion people and have a lasting generational impact. I was there, via the TV screen. If I had a time machine, I’d have been there with 71 999 others at Wembley Stadium.