'Live Aid'

It is a small measure of the relative discretion and humility of Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof, leader of the British rock band The Boomtown Rats, that no film record of the giant two-continent concert was supposed to have been kept.

An emaciated mother and child at an Ethiopian refugee camp in the early 1980s.

An emaciated mother and child at an Ethiopian refugee camp in the early 1980s. Warner Bros. hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros.

His idealistic image of the show — dozens of famous performers playing throughout the day, in stadiums in London and Philadelphia — was that it would be broadcast once on BBC and then float out into the ether. Fate did not let that happen.

We learn from the liner notes accompanying this four-disc record of the show and its aftermath that the British network paid no heed to his request. In addition to the BBC reels, footage of a great deal of the American concert was later found and pieced together — so what could have been lost to posterity has been rescued.

Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders perform "Back on the Chain Gang" at Live Aid.

Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders perform "Back on the Chain Gang" at Live Aid. Warner Bros. hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros.

Since the footage came from so many sources, you can't expect a coherent cinematic experience, and the sound is nothing special either. But the set still functions as a more-than-adequate record of the performances the compilers chose to include, for better or worse.

The first disc of this set comprises the first few hours of the London show, before the Philadelphia show kicked off, and reflects a definitive account of British pop music of the time. This unspeakable aggregation includes Ultravox, Adam Ant, Paul Young, Howard Jones and someone named Nik Kershaw. Their poofy mullet hairstyles, shapeless leisure suits and flatulent synth-based music combine to become almost cauterizing.

Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath perform "Paranoid."

Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath perform "Paranoid." Warner Bros. hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros.

Once the United States joins in, the concert rises to the level of the merely hit and miss. Phil Collins fans will love his performances — ostentatiously, he played in London and then took a Concorde to back Eric Clapton in Philadelphia that same day. It's hard not to respect U2's career-making set, or at least watch with interest as Paul McCartney sings "Let It Be" with Peter Townsend and David Bowie doing backup vocals.

U2 lead singer Bono leads the crowd on a chorus of "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

U2 lead singer Bono leads the crowd on a chorus of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Warner Bros. hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros.

The catholic nature of the guest list makes for a lot of sweeping mediocrity from stateside as well ("Spandau Ballet, please meet REO Speedwagon!"). But leavening it all in the end is perhaps the Pretenders, led by the radiant Chrissie Hynde, whose performance is somehow human and real, even at midday on a stage set in a football stadium.

What's Included:

The supporting material will be engrossing for those with more than a passing interest in the period. You get the BBC report on the famine in Ethiopia that catalyzed Geldof's interest; the original "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are the World" charity-record videos, and a long documentary on what Geldof's group did with the money.

You're not going to get a hard investigative look at where the money all went, and it's possible that those who charged that the money earned by Live Aid was wasted will probably not be happy. But that's not the real story here.

What comes across is a tale somewhat different — about a minor rock star, Bob Geldof, who unapologetically and defiantly took it upon himself to at least try to do something about a great human catastrophe. The political realities of Africa, of course, made a lot of his efforts fruitless. But he could have done nothing — and he didn't. For better or worse, these four discs are an opportunity to contemplate Geldof's legacy.

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