July 10 – Greenpeace Became White Knights To Music World

The ’80s weren’t quite the ’60s when it came to protest music, but nonetheless there were plenty of musicians who were concerned with the fate of the planet and advocates for the environment. So today we look at an awful event in history which resulted in a memorable benefit concert and album. The Rainbow Warrior ship was sunk, deliberately by the French government on this day in 1985.

The Rainbow Warrior was a 131-foot long ship that was the flagship of environmental organization Greenpeace. At the time it was docked in Auckland, New Zealand and it was planning a trip to the South Pacific to observe, and protest French nuclear tests. For nearly twenty years, France had had nuclear bombs and tested them fairly regular in the beautifully South Seas. This of course, couldn’t have been good for the environment nor the atmosphere…or the health of the small number of residents who lived on the islands. Stopping it, and whaling as well, were two of the main goals of Greenpeace.

This day 37 years back, the boat was rocked by two explosions and quickly sank in the harbor. Though ten crew members got off more or less safely, a Dutch photographer, Fernando Perreira died on the boat. New Zealand correctly termed it an act of terrorism, and their investigators soon found bombs had been placed on the ship by two French scuba divers who worked for that country’s secret service. They charged them with murder, among other things, while France tried to deny any involvement. First they claimed to know nothing at all, then they admitted the arrested men were their employees but were only supposed to be watching the boat to take notes. Eventually a British newspaper got access to French government papers – labeled “Operation Satanique” no less! – with that country’s President, Francois Mitterand authorizing the bombing.

The United Nations were brought in to mediate. The two French bombers eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received 10 year prison sentences, but got returned to France after about one year. The French government paid New Zealand about $10 million in damages and settled privately with Greenpeace and the Perreira family, while at home, there was little fall-out beyond a handful of political resignations – Mitterand not being one of them. He in fact was re-elected in 1988.

That was the end of the news story, but not the reaction. Many people were outraged, understandably…including many musicians. Early in 1986, a Greenpeace benefit concert was organized in Auckland which was headlined by Jackson Browne and Neil Young, and as a special treat for the home crowd, a reunion concert by Split Enz two years after their enz had split. (Sadly, no one seemed to tape the show, or at least archive it online.) Three years later, a major double-album was put out on Geffen Records to raise funds for Greenpeace, entitled Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors. No wonder it took awhile to organize and get to shelves… it contained 31 songs that came close to being the definitive package to remember the ’80s by.

Among the many, varied artists who contributed to it were some predictable ones who’d always been environmental advocates – Peter Gabriel (“Red Rain”), U2 ( a live version of “Pride”), Sting (“Love is the Seventh Wave”) and R.E.M. (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”) for instance – but they were joined by quite an impressive array of other artists who were apparently appalled by the bombing. Those included Bryan Adams (“Run To You”), Bryan Ferry (“Don’t Stop the Dance”), the Pretenders (“Middle of the Road”), Simple Minds (a live cut of “Waterfront”), the Thompson Twins (“Lay Your Hands On Me”), Robbie Robertson (“Somewhere Down the Crazy River”), the Grateful Dead (“Throwing Bones”) and on and on…Huey Lewis and the News, John Mellencamp, the Silencers, Sade. It was an impressive collection, and show of musical solidarity with the environmental agency.

Last but not least, in 2005 a supergroup of New Zealand’s artists recorded a song called “Anchor Me” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the bombing It hit #3 there.

The good news is that perhaps the ongoing bad publicity eventually led France to stop testing nukes; last detonating one in the Pacific in 1996.

June 11 – When The Music World Sang Happy Birthday To Nelson

There was a time when race was usually only considered an issue for South Africa. After years or protesting South African politics and apartheid in conventional manners, some charities and activists decided to raise awareness through music. The result was Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party (a month prior to his actual birthday) to protest the Black political leader’s ongoing imprisonment. The ANC (African National Congress, a radical group attempting to bring Black power to the government anyway possible) wanted a highly-politicized event but organizers agreed to focus on music to get more coverage and attention. It happened this day in 1988 and it worked.

It was held in London’s Wembley Stadium – the stadium holds about 80 000 and was sold out. What’s more, the concert was televised in over 60 countries including the U.S. (On Fox), Britain and more surprisingly the USSR and China. Mind you, the American broadcast wasn’t without controversy. Some politicians objected to it being shown at all, given that Mandela was officially a “criminal” in his land, while many others objected to the network’s handling of the concert. They edited it down heavily and actually refused to use Mandela’s name in the advertising, calling it “Freedom Fest” instead.

While Mandela wasn’t there in person, obviously, the effects of the show and the protests which followed didn’t go unnoticed in South Africa. Then president Botha of that country moved Mandela to a much more open and better prison, after 25 years in harsh conditions only weeks later and by 1990, he was released outright. Most estimates say about 200 million tuned in to see the concert that day and at least double that have viewed it since in repeats or videos. The day-long event began with Sting doing a four-song set, including “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.” His manager was irate with him for doing that, he felt Sting should have been a headliner or not there at all, but Sting was scheduled to perform in Germany that night and didn’t want to cancel, hence his early appearance. The show went along with a few speeches from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Connolly and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. While inexplicably Prince and Bono refused to appear, musical highlights were aplenty. Among the main stars were George Michael, Eurythmics, Paul Young, Bryan Adams, Midge Ure with Phil Collins doing XTC’s “Dear God”, UB40, with Chrissie Hynde, Peter Gabriel (performing his renowned South African protest song “Biko” with Simple Minds and Youssou D’nour), a jam doing “Sun City” including Meat Loaf and actress Daryl Hannah (there with her then boyfriend Jackson Browne) with Simple Minds  and Stevie Wonder. He played two songs after nearly walking out on the event because of equipment problems; he ended up using Whitney Houston’s band’s gear instead. As as a fnale, Dire Straits appeared. Mark Knopfler’s band had Eric Clapton joining them for an embarrassment of riches on guitars. They played seven tunes including Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”. Dire Straits would break up shortly after (but reunite briefly in the ’90s.) but went out on a high note therefore.

The event didn’t hurt by any measure. It raised about $2 million for charities including Oxfam and by 1994, Mandela, now much better known internationally, was not only no longer incarcerated but the President in South Africa. 

April 13 – Sting Of The Jungle

Call him pompous or egotistical if you will, but one thing that can’t be said of Sting is that he won’t show up for a good cause. One of the big voices in the Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and on the Wembley stage for 1985’s Live Aid to a fundraising concert for out-of-work autoworkers in Canada more recently, if there’s a wrong to be righted, Sting will probably sing out for it. And Big Apple music fans were able to benefit from that 20 years ago today…and 22 years ago too! That was when the 2000 and 2002 Rock for the Rainforest Concerts were held at Carnegie Hall.

Sting’s always been something of an environmentalist and long ago he realized one of the big problems for the planet was the deforestation of tropical rain forests, particularly the Amazon (but also to lesser extents ones in Africa and south Asia.) It was hastening extinction of numerous species, adding to climate change problems and forcing a number of indigenous people from their traditional lands. So he and his wife, Trudie Styler started a non-profit organization called the Rainforest Foundation in 1987, aiming to raise money to preserve forest lands and fight plans for development for mining, urbanization, dams and the such in sensitive areas. Given his profession and history, it was natural that he’d try to highlight it and raise money through a concert. The first one was in 1991 and saw him joined by Elton John and some Brazilian classical and bossa nova artists like Gilberto Gil and Antonio Jobim. It raised about $250 000, and won good reviews, so he ran one again in ’92, with Elton returning and being joined by James Taylor and Don Henley. It became an annual spring tradition in New York throughout the decade, then switched to every second year after 2000. Several times they even managed to get the Empire State Building lit up in green lights to mark the event. Elton and James Taylor have been regulars, and the list of other performers through the years is quite impressive – Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Sheryl Crow plus comics Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Murray just for starters. The 2000 one was noteworthy for the only appearance by Stevie Wonder, while 2002’s saw a lineup that included Nina Simone and Ravi Shankar in addition to Sting and Elton as always.  2019 appeared to be the last one, with it changing venues to the Beacon Theatre in the city. Rolling Stone reported it featured Sting (of course) as well as an “extremely rare Eurythmics reunion” and “Bruce Springsteen (who) came onto the stage and called on John Mellencamp to help him sing ‘Glory Days’”. Also in attendance, Bob Geldof who taped the show with his smart phone “a look of absolute joy on his face.”

Presumably any plans for one in 2020 and ’21 were scuttled by the pandemic and right now it doesn’t seem like one is on tap for this year, although one might expect an announcement soon. After all, Sting spoke out again recently saying “legend has it that Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. While obviously bristling at the dubious factoid that such a stupid man could be a musician, none of us, including me, can be complacent about the tragic dimensions of the disaster taking place in the Amazon…(fires for land clearing) are up 80% from last year…this is criminal negligence on a global scale.” Sounds like a guy who’s readying to take the stage with some angry words and ditties soon to us!

To date, the foundation has saved 28 million acres of rainforest in 20 countries and led battles to stop several large developments. The concerts have raised at least $20 million and are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “largest environmental fundraising event”.

January 28 – States Tried To One-up Britain…For A Good Cause

It’s probably fair to say that when it comes to pop/rock music, Britain always has “punched above its weight.” For a land with a population only double that of Canada’s and just one-fifth of that of the U.S., there sure are a lot of great musical acts from there. It’s probably also fair to say that a fair number of American artists and record companies perhaps feel a bit of rivalry with them. This rivalry or jealousy resulted in something beneficial on this day in 1985.

Some prominent American music people noted that the British collaboration “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was all over the airwaves and had endeared the likes of George Michael, Boy George and the previously largely-unknown Bob Geldof to the masses. At the same time it was raising millions of dollars for worthwhile causes related to starvation in Africa. Whether out of rivalry, a desire to help out too or both, a number of Americans, likely beginning with Harry Belafonte then Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones, decided they should do something similar. Thus was born USA For Africa, and they quickly assembled to make their hit song “We Are The World”. Most of the recording was done 37 years ago today.

It’s said to have been Belafonte’s brain child, and Richie and Jackson were all for it, quickly writing the majority of the hit-to-be. They convened in secret in L.A. on Jan. 22 to record the demo, if you will, including most of the actual music and a rough take at the lyrics. Jackson called on some of his friends and acquaintances to play the tune, including Louis Johnson (of the Brothers Johnson) on bass, his Off the Wall drummer, J.R. Robinson (who’s played drums on an incredible 50 Grammy Award-winning records) and Greg Phillinganes on piano. David Paich of Toto later added some synthesizers. They couriered demos out to dozens of prominent artists with an invitation to take part in the final record. They picked Jan. 28, giving artists a few days to make travel arrangements… if they weren’t already in L.A., which many were because it was also the night of the American Music Awards.

They recorded at the A&M Studios and amazingly, kept if pretty hush hush at the time. Organizers were afraid crowds of paparazzi might find out and show up, thereby scaring shy artists like Bob Dylan and Prince away, and distracting the more media-friendly types. Jackson was first into the studio and cut his part by himself, before the others rolled in. And roll in they did, quite an all-star team for the period. About 45 musicians took part that night, being greeted at the door by Stevie Wonder who joked about driving them home if the sessions ran late. Among the featured singers were Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and Wonder himself, with help from Sheila E., John Oates, Smokey Robinson and actor Dan Aykroyd, as well as Band Aid star Bob Geldof from across the ocean. Geldof addressed the group, telling them “I think what’s happening in Africa is a crime of historic proportions…you see dead bodies lying side by side with the live ones. In some camps, you see 15 bags of flour for 27 500 people…and it’s that that we’re here for.”

Well most were. Prince skipped the event, allegedly because he and Geldof had a personal feud. He did donate a new song for the accompanying album however. Waylon Jennings caused a bit of a ruckus, storming out when Wonder suggested they could do a line in the song in Swahili, but for the most part the night and the recording went smoothly.

Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian quickly went to work on the tapes and produced a record ready for release less than two months later. The CBS single quickly went to #1 for four weeks in the States, and also topped charts in a number of countries including the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland, and racked up multi-million sales. Although not the first to top two million copies in the U.S. by any means, it was the first single certified as multi-platinum, eventually being 4X platinum and one of the year’s top 20 hits. Surprisingly, Down Under it did better, being the #1 hit of the year in both Australia and New Zealand.

They collectively decided to try to do more and put out a whole album a few weeks after the single, with a longer (7 minute) version of the song plus a Canadian charity single – “Tears Are Not Enough” written by Bryan Adams and some of his musical friends – and a few new tracks including live tracks from Bruce Springsteen and Huey Lewis & the News, as well as the aforementioned Prince song, “4 the Tears In your Eyes.”

the records combined went on to raise about $63M for the African charities and was re-recorded 25 years later by a new set of musicians to raise funds for Haiti which had suffered a major earthquake.



January 22 – Talent Flooded Welsh Stage For Good Cause

Twenty years earlier, African famine had caused a number of international music stars to come together on stage, in 2005 a tsunami caused another tidal wave of talent to try to assist. On this day that year, the biggest charity fundraiser concert since Live Aid took place in the unlikely locale of Cardiff, Wales. It was the first and biggest of several Tsunami Relief concerts staged in different countries to raise funds for victims of the terrible tsunami that had killed some 220 000 people and swept away entire towns about four weeks earlier. That tsunami, caused by the third-strongest earthquake ever measured offshore Indonesia, had ravaged that land and done considerable damage to other Indian Ocean-bordering locations like Thailand and India.

People worldwide were quick to reach for their wallets to help out, and the concept of a fund-raising concert came together quickly… in fact, it was less than four weeks between when the water caused the Indian Ocean destruction and when a Welsh classical singer took the stage and sang “Amazing Grace” in front of over 66 000 fans to open the show. It took place in the Millennium Stadium (now known as the Principality Stadium), home to the Welsh national rugby team. Apparently that’s quite popular there as the stadium can hold up to 74 000 despite serving a city with a population of only about 340 000!

The show began around 2 PM local time and when all was said and done, some 21 acts took the stage, with video messages from members of the Royal Family, British PM Tony Blair, and Bono added in. Musical acts spanned the genres and generations and included some local rock bands and rappers but to most of us, the most noteworthy were Keane, then up-and-coming Snow Patrol, Jools Holland, locals the Manic Street Preachers (who ironically enough had done a song called “Tsunami” in the ’90s) and the headliner, Eric Clapton. Clapton finished the show with help from Holland, and did a six-song set of old blues numbers including Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Spades”, Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive” and the finale of “Shake Rattle and Roll.” Although the crowd was appreciative of the legendary guitarist, the biggest cheers apparently went to the home town Manic Street Preachers, who did five songs culminating in their then new single, “A Design for Life” which hit #2 in the UK.

The Welsh benefit was broadcast live on BBC radio and streamed on their website with highlights shown on TV that night. It raised about 1.25 million pounds (about $3 million in today’s terms) for the relief effort.

A month later, on Feb. 18, a similar show was held in Anaheim, California, with the organizers, Linkin Park, as well as No Doubt, Ozzy Osbourne and the Black-eyed Peas. Tony Kanal of No Doubt said of it, “a disaster of this magnitude, that effects so many people, forces yourself to ask ‘what can I do to help?’ (we decided to) do what we do best to make the most impact in both dollars and awareness.” No Doubt he was right about that.

September 18 – Time To Rock The Back 40 Again

It’s getting towards harvest time, which means farmers around the land are hard at work. As are too the performers looking out for them – it’s Farm Aid time again. Actually next Saturday this year’s Live Aid will take place, in Hartford, perhaps surprisingly (last year they held an event, but it was virtual with online performances from home) but Sep. 18 has been a popular day for the event which began 36 years back. The 1994, 2004 and 2005 Farm Aids all took place on this day, in New Orleans, metro Seattle and metro Chicago respectively.

Farm Aid as you probably know, is a big fund-raising concert designed to make money for small independent farmers and raise awareness of the difficulties they face. It began in 1985, spurred on by the success of Live Aid. Bob Dylan made some offhand comment about farmers needing help too, and Willie Nelson took it to heart. So too did John Mellencamp, who’d just released the Scarecrow album featuring the lament for the small farmer, “Rain on the Scarecrow.” Neil Young also found it a cause close to his heart, and Willie, John and Neil decided to stage a concert to raise some funds and say “thank you” to the small family farmers. It was a big success, but little did they know it would be ongoing and now in its fifth decade. They’re doubtless proud of the success (the first concert alone raised $9 million for small farm causes) but equally upset the need for them is still as real as it was in the Reagan years. Along the way Dave Matthews also became concerned and was brought on board as a director along with the original trio.

Those going to a Farm Aid concert can expect a few things. Typically all four of the founders/directors perform, with a number of other guest artists, and there are sure to be a few speeches and a lot of information booths promoting local produce, help for famers and healthy eating. One thing that does vary is the locale… thus far, they staged the show in 20 states from Atlantic to Pacific.

The September 18th shows are typical. The ’94 one at the Superdome in the Big Easy had some local flavor with the Neville Brothers performing. Neil Young brought along Crazy Horse for an electric set, but it was one of the rare shows where Mellencamp didn’t appear. The show highlighted the fate of a 60 year-old Nebraska farmer who was sent to jail for selling his own hogs while he was filing for bankruptcy. That farmer was pardoned by Bill Clinton soon after the concert.

In 2004, Dave Matthews had become a regular and he was there with his band for the fourth-straight year, joining Mellencamp, Nelson and Young. Among the others in Washington that day were Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. A year later, not-yet-president Barack Obama was a featured speaker to the crowd of 28 000 at the Chicago-area show and special booths were set up to collect for victims of Hurricane Katrina, which had passed through Louisiana only a couple of weeks earlier. A new book documenting Live Aid was introduced at that show, but as always, the real highlight of the day was the music. Fittingly, in 2000 the organization released a fund-raising album, a double-CD with performances from various Live Aid shows, opening with John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” and ending with Neil Young’s “Mother Earth.” In between there are songs from Willie Nelson, the Dave Matthews Band and a bevy of other artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Bryan Adams to Beck.

Next week’s event in Connecticut will star three of the four regulars – ol’ Neil is sitting this “Harvest” one out – as well as Sturgill Simpson and John’s son Ian Mellencamp, like his dad a singer/songwriter.

August 30 – Live From New York, It’s John Lennon

Call it playing catch-up or call it being a terrific humanitarian…likely both were true, and either way about 30 000 New Yorkers were all the better off for it this day in 1972. That was the day John Lennon held two concerts, an afternoon and an evening one, at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were quickly arranged benefit shows, and although no one knew it at the time, they’d be the last full concerts Lennon would ever give. He was the only one of the Beatles who never toured as such after the Fab Four split up.

Lennon decided to do the shows to raise money for the Willowbrook School after seeing a TV news story about it. Willowbrook was a state-run school for mentally disabled kids and none other than Geraldo Rivera, an up-and-coming newsman at the time, brought to light stories of both abuse of the children and poor conditions at the school caused by disrepair. Lennon and Yoko Ono felt moved to act, and so the concerts were arranged, with all proceeds going to the school. They brought in Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack and Sha Na Na to play on the bill as well; in a surprisingly magnanimous move, Lennon also invited Paul McCartney, who declined.

The idea was wonderful, but it was also highly reminiscent of a double concert George Harrison had done the year before to raise funds for Bangladeshi relief at the same venue. As even the Beatles Bible point out, “the success of George Harrison’s ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ the previous year may well have influenced his decision.” No doubt it irked him a little to see Harrison come to the Big Apple – John’s adopted hometown – and become a hero, not to mention score a hit record, with a charity event that was exactly the type of thing they’d expect Lennon and Ono to do.

Whether a bit of jealousy played a role or not, it was hard to argue with Lennon’s gesture. They sold tickets at between $5 and $10 (depending on seat location) and both shows sold out quickly. ABC filmed it and turned it into a TV special, paying $350 000 to the cause for the rights.

Lennon and his wife brought in session drummer Jim Keltner, and the Elephant’s Memory Band (a group of session musicians from the New York area who often backed Lennon at the time) to play, with John playing rhythm guitar himself. They rehearsed for three days. After Rivera welcomed them to stage for the afternoon show, it was apparent to some that a bit more practice might have helped. The sound was a bit off, and at one point John joked “welcome to the rehearsal.” They played 17 songs, starting with “Power to the People” through a finale of “Hound Dog”. He powered through his Beatles tour de force “Come Together” and a number of his early hits or near-hits like “Imagine,” “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma”. Yoko took center stage to do a couple of numbers, “Born in a Prison” and “Sisters, Oh Sisters.” The evening set apparently sounded a bit better, and had 14 songs, including “Give Peace A Chance” to end it. The two Yoko songs were dropped from the bill, with no record of if any fans felt short-changed because of it.

The shows ended up raising over a million dollars for the school, making it a great humanitarian success. Commercially, it wasn’t a massive, or immediate hit. In 1986 (after John’s death of course) a live album – John Lennon Live In New York – and videotape of it were put out, produced by Yoko.

Two surprises came of that fact. One, she chose the afternoon set to use, which even the musicians themselves thought the lesser of the two, performance-wise, and two, that she had an uncommon lack of egotism, basically editing herself out of the record. Her songs weren’t included and on songs where she was singing harmony, her voice was mixed very low so as not to detract from Lennon’s. The video had a different selection of songs. Rolling Stone would say of it while it “could have used a few more hours of practice” it was still a decent listen as “classic Lennon, because it’s all here – his humor, pain, anger and unshakeable faith in the power of rock’n’roll to change the world.” Traits his ex-bandmate George Harrison would no doubt admire. The album was a minor success, hitting #41 in the U.S. and eventually going gold.

What no one there knew of course was that it was going to be the last time to see John do a concert of his own. Even though he was active recording through the ’70s and up until his death in 1980, he gave up playing live entirely after this show. The only exception was a brief appearance, also at Madison Square Garden, to be on stage with his friend Elton John in 1974 at one of his concerts.

August 1 – George Made Rock Charitable 50 Years Ago

His biographer Gary Tillery says on this day in 1971, George Harrison “changed the perception of recording artists, making it clear they could be good world citizens too!” He did that by organizing and starring in The Concert for Bangladesh, the first real effort to merge rock music and charity.

The area now known as Bangladesh had been undergoing a terrible two-fold crisis. A civil war and attempt to declare independence had left thousands dead and as many as seven million refugees, many crowding into India. And a massive cyclone had caused devastation the previous winter, killing tens of thousands more and washing away towns. Harrison had been briefed about the calamity by his friend, sitar-player Ravi Shankar, and decided to do something. (When asked why he got involved, he simply answered “because I was asked by a friend if I’d help.”)

His answer was a star-studded concert (or two) to raise funds for the refugees and popular awareness of the problem. After only six weeks of planning, Harrison staged a pair of concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden on this Sunday, at 2:30 and again at 8 pm. Although little-publicized, they sold out and the 40 000 fans raised about $250 000 for Unicef through initial ticket sales. The resulting album raised millions more, with Unicef apparently receiving about $12 million by the mid-’80s. Harrison got Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and more to perform. John Lennon had initially agreed to perform but backed out when it was clear Yoko Ono was unwelcome; Paul McCartney apparently refused outright, saying “blimey! What’s the point? We’d just broken up!” But fans weren’t short on great performers or performances, starting with Ravi Shankar followed by a long set featuring Harrison with his friends behind him, performing songs like a medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Young Blood” led by Russell, “Here Comes the Sun” and Dylan doing a five song set including “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”.

McCartney and Lennon missing notwithstanding, the set was a success, Phil Spector would say “it was magical…nobody had ever seen anything like that before” Spector produced the album for Harrison, which ended up hitting #1 in the UK and #2 in North America and winning the Grammy for Best Album. And with George’s help, the stage was set for future charity events, such as Live Aid 14 years down the road.

July 30 – Mick Said Toronto Was Back After Mini-pandemic

Another summer day, another huge concert memory. On this day in 2003, Canada had its biggest-ever rock show – Molson Rocks For Toronto, more commonly referred to as “Sarstock.”

In some unfortunate ways, 2003 was a sort of “fire drill” for 2020 as it turns out. A new corona virus – SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) – had shown up in China, originating it would seem in one of their live animal markets. Hundreds there began getting a pneumonia-like, highly contagious disease that at first baffled doctors. And made them sick as well. The virus made its way through adjacent areas of Asia early in the year but, remarkably, stayed more or less contained there – with one exception. Canada, or more precisely, Toronto. On Feb. 23, about four months after the Chinese outbreak began, an elderly woman from Hong Kong showed up in a Toronto hospital with it. Soon she was joined by her son, who died days later. Seemingly within a blink of an eye, it was running wild throughout Toronto. Or at least its large “Chinatown” neighborhood and several hospitals. By the time the World Health Organization declared it “contained” in July, Canada had accumulated something in the range of 400 cases, mainly in Toronto, and had 44 deaths from it, the most outside of Southeast Asia. (there were no fatal cases in the U.S., by comparison, and at highest estimate, 27 cases.) It was suggested that 90% of the cases were spread in two hospitals, North York General and Scarborough General. Many of the effected and dying were in fact doctors and nurses. So bad was it that the W.H.O. put out an advisory briefly in the spring urging people not to travel to Toronto. Such things understandably hit the Toronto economy hard, with an estimated 100 000 out-of-town tourists canceling plans to visit and hundreds of hotel workers losing their jobs.

By the time cases were beginning to diminish, a couple of federal politicians from Ontario wanted to do something to promote tourism again. Their concept – a big, televised concert to show the world Toronto was safe and open for business again. They got together with Molson breweries and quickly set up the huge one day event at Downsview, an abandoned military base in the city. It had hosted the Pope the previous year and let over three-quarters of a million people see him, so the sky was the limit for this show.

A high-quality lineup of both local acts and international superstars was assembled, with none other than the Rolling Stones headlining. The Stones have had an odd love-hate relationship with Toronto, with Keith Richards being arrested and jailed there in the ’70s for drug possession (which resulted in a charity concert as part of his penalty) but the band also recording records at the small El Mocambo club there and seemingly being almost part-time residents for years. Mick Jagger said on the concert day, “eight weeks ago we were asked to do this. We were on tour in Europe and we had some other dates. We moved those dates around and decided we would do this.”

The gates swung open around 8 AM, and by lunch the show was under way, kicked off by comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi, who’d do a few numbers throughout the day. Sam Roberts, then a very promising young rocker who was riding up the charts was on soon after, and Kathleen Edwards and The Tea Party. The Flaming Lips were the first big international act, complete with many dancers in furry animal costumes on stage. The Isley Brothers followed, as well as local faves Blue Rodeo. The fast-paced (15 minute sets generally) afternoon sets gave way to the big events as the sun grew lower in the sky, beginning with a rather poorly-received Justin Timberlake who at times had to dodge water bottles being tossed at him. As a show of support perhaps, the Stones would invite him back to join with Mick on “Miss You” while Keith admonished the crowd for bad behavior. After Justin came the much better-liked Guess Who, hometown heroes Rush (who added a cover of “Paint it Black” to their set) then AC/DC and of course the Stones as a finale. They did a fairly complete 90 minute set. Jagger would tell reporters that night it was “the biggest party I’ve ever seen. Toronto is back!”

The $21.50 tickets sold out quickly weeks in advance, with the total number of attendees being pegged at 490 000. A chunk of the funds went to hospital workers and unemployed hospitality-sector workers. The city opened up the subway and ran them for free that night to help the massive crowd disperse.

In Canada, MuchMoreMusic televised the show for those out of town or who suffer from claustrophobia; the national CBC network also showed a highlight show that night. Media like the New York Times were there and reported on it, no doubt helping publicize the politicians original goal of getting tourists to come back. Toronto’s counter-culture paper, Now, rated the show 3-stars out of 4, calling it “a well-behaved” – save for the water bottles and booing of Timberlake – middle of the road concert, lamenting that for a show sponsored by a brewery, beer stands were hard to locate and “simple actions like buying a hamburger or finding the city of outhouses required at least 30 minutes.” They also put forth a common opinion of the day, that “AC/DC stole the show with their balls-out approach. The Stones on the other hand were suprisingly sloppy.” Not that too many were complaining by the time the final refrains of “ “ rang out.

Within a few months, those who missed out looking for hamburgers or beer could soon relive it at home… to some degree. A two-hour DVD of the show was put out by Rhino Home Video, although obviously, some acts (Sam Roberts, Blue Rodeo) were omitted entirely and most of the big-name sets were edited to just one or two songs.

If only Covid was so limited that a single concert in one city could help alleviate its toll.

July 2 – Geldof’s Benevolent Encore

Bob Geldof never stopped trying to help Africa and draw attention to global problems… or keep his name in the headlines, depending upon your point of view. Either way he was once again the star of the day 16 years back as the Live 8 Concerts took place.

The 2005 event came almost 20 years to the day after the more famous Live Aid, and would seem like it was a natural sequel to it. However, even though he organized it with help from Midge Ure – just as they had done with Live Aid – Geldof disputed the comparison. “This is not Live Aid 2,” he said, “these concerts are the start point for the long walk to justice, the one way we can all make our voices heard.” Be it is it may, the day-long Saturday event did have a lot in common with the ’80s Super Concert besides just the name. Once again it was a showcase of worldwide musical talent in concert trying to raise funds for charity, primarily ones helping alleviate poverty in Africa. The timing was set to nearly coincide with the global G8 Conference in Scotland that month and in fact, the final bit of the event took place July 6, in Edinburgh, the day the world leaders met there.

Similar to Live Aid, but more ambitious. Instead of just London and Philadelphia, they decided to stage events in the other G8 nations as well, plus South Africa. Therefore shows took place in Moscow’s Red Square, Berlin, near Tokyo, suburbs of Toronto, Paris, Rome, Johannesburg and a hastily organized set in Cornwall, England. That one had all-African musicians, to deflect criticism that there were too few African artists involved (Youssou N’Dour being the only notable shown on the largest stages.) Geldof answered that one honestly noting their aim “was for the biggest global stars to ensure media attention and a large TV audience.” No matter how politically incorrect it seemed, there were few African musicians who were well-known enough to capture American or British imaginations and have them tune in en masse. Which they did, with the shows televised live on MTV and VH1, the BBC and over 100 other networks around the world. ABC broadcast a two hour primetime highlights show that night.

There was plenty to take in from around the world. Billie Joe Armstrong infuriated some in Berlin by singing “American Idiot” with its lyrics including “Seig heil!”. They along with Audioslave, Roxy Music and a set by Brian Wilson in which he jammed eight Beach Boys songs into 20 minutes were international highlights there amongst a roster of German artists. The Pet Shop Boys are popular everywhere as shown by them headlining the Russian show, and doing a full dozen songs… well, 11 actually but they opened and closed with “It’s A Sin.” The Barrie show, north of Toronto, was a who’s who of Canadian musical talent including Bryan Adams, Bruce Cockburn, Celine Dion, Blue Rodeo, Jann Arden, the Tragically Hip and Neil Young closing (along with a few of his friends) with a rousing rendition of “Oh Canada.”

The mayor of Philadelphia said “a million” people turned out for their outdoor event; the crowd was so huge and stretched along the road so far it was anybody’s guess, but certainly numbers were into the hundreds of thousands. In one of the event’s more poignant moments Will Smith led the crowd in synchronized finger-snapping every three seconds to represent how often a child dies in Africa. Musically, Smith went back to his ’90s sitcom rapper persona and the crowd got to cheer the likes of the Black-eyed Peas, Bon Jovi, Kanye West, Sarah McLachlan and a fine seven-song finale from Stevie Wonder.

The cornerstone though was at London’s Wembley Stadium, just as it had been 20 years earlier. The 66 000 tickets were distributed via a text-message lottery, with over a million people paying 1.50 pounds to enter. Paul McCartney and Bono opened the show with a take on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, and the likes of Keane, Travis, Elton John, Bob Geldof himself (doing “I Don’t Like Mondays” with a bit of help from Travis), Madonna, Coldplay (joined by The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft for “Bittersweet Symphony”) and Robbie Williams soon followed. An anticipated (by some at least) Spice Girls reunion didn’t occur but better yet, a rare Pink Floyd one did. For the first time in 24 years, Roger Waters and David Gilmour appeared together, doing five songs including “Money.” It would turn out to be the last time the “classic” lineup of the band played together; Waters and Gilmour’s mutual disdain soon overtook chances of more work and Richard Wright died a couple of years later.

After all that, the July 6 Scottish show seemed a bit of an anti-climax. The fans there got to hear speeches on the state of the world from people like George Clooney, Susan Sarandon and of course, Bono, plus sets from The Proclaimers, Wet Wet Wet, Midge Ure, and to finish it off, oddly, James Brown.

The event was similar to Live Aid, but received a lot more negative attention than the first one. Scottish police were mad the concert in Edinburgh was set up without their permission or input. The Baltimore Sun called it a “ravenous orgy of celebrity ego”; some complained that while the artists at the Philly show weren’t paid, they did get expensive gift bags with gifts ranging from custom guitars to Hugo Boss clothing. The London show, while generating a good amount of money, had to pay over a million pounds to another charity, the Prince’s Trust, because they usurped the stadium the latter had booked for a show that day. And some respected charities suggested that while all was fine and well with giving money and food to the poor in Africa, it was meaningless unless something was done about “corrupt regimes” in charge of many of the poorest nations and a peace-keeping force was sent to quell civil wars in countries like the Congo and Uganda.

For all that, it did raise millions of dollars, both on the day, and later through sales of DVDs of the concert. The American release sold over 900 000 copies alone (good for 9X platinum in DVD status). And whether coincidentally or not, the G8 leaders did agree to increase foreign aid and write off debts from some of Africa’s poorest lands during their meetings there. Will there be a Live 9 or Live Aid 40th Anniversary? Well, no one has suggested anything but as long as there are poor people in Africa and Bob Geldof is still around, we wouldn’ t bet against it.