In a November, 1986, interview, when asked what his most memorable moment with The Cars was, Ben responded, “Oh… Probably Live Aid, I would say. We had a really nice time there and it was great playing for the world.”
There were a lot of BIG things about the 80s: big hair, big shoulder pads, big technology (have you seen the size of those portable phones?). And right in the middle of it (literally: middle of the decade, middle of the year, and middle of the month) was the mother of all 80s bigness: Live Aid. Capturing the world’s attention for about 16 hours on July 13, 1985, a bevy of the biggest names in music took turns busking on stages on both sides of the globe in an unprecedented charity concert to raise money for famine relief. Ultimately, the event set the Guinness World Record for the Largest Simultaneous Rock Concert TV Audience, was viewed by about 1.9 billion people in 150 countries, and reportedly raised around £150 million. See what I mean? BIG.
In the United States, things kicked off at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at 9 a.m., and while there is SO much to talk about in regards to this iconic concert, it’s only natural that I narrow the discussion down to the parts that pertain to our boys.
I believe The Cars took the stage at just after 5:30 p.m. They played four songs, opening with “You Might Think,” and then moving through “Drive,” “Just What I Needed,” and “Heartbeat City.” There’s lots to unpack here, and indeed, I’m not sure where to start but… how about we get the stink out of the way first?
The Collins Intrusion
Any serious Cars fan who’s watched this footage knows exactly what I’m talking about. For whatever reason, the powers-that-be felt it was of the utmost importance to document Phil Collins’ lackluster arrival in the U.S., and they had no compunction about cutting away from The Cars’ performance to bore us with the publicity grab. Yes, yes, I’ve heard that it was somehow a newsworthy feat that he performed ‘on both sides of the Atlantic,’ playing a short set in Wembley Stadium and then flying to Philly in a Concorde jet, blah blah blah. For lovers of The Cars, the time the broadcasters dedicated to the stunt was insulting.
And it’s not like they only mentioned it during an intermission, or cut in just once. The Collins Intrusion began early on, biting into the footage of The Cars’ first song, and then kept popping up with frustrating frequency. For what? The video feed of his arrival was totally boring! At least he could have done some cartwheels on the tarmac or something. Give me something to look at, for cripe’s sake. And you know what’s even more pathetic? After all that hoopla, Collins only played two songs, and then filled in a bit here and there. Certainly nothing to write home about.
Okay, okay. Enough of that, although I will mention that that little trick festered in comedian David Juskow’s brain for years, and inspired him to later write the Cars mockumentary Turbocharge: The Unauthorized Story of The Cars. Love it or hate it (I think it’s hilarious!), the film is part of the Fanorama. You can read more about it here, if you dare: The time has come for Turbocharge!
Alrighty… moving on!
Let’s take a minute to hang this performance on the Cars’ timeline. The band toured heavily in the latter half of 1984 behind their fifth album, Heartbeat City. As they moved into 1985, they took a break from The Cars ‘proper’ and invested varying levels of energy elsewhere. Elliot performed a handful of gigs promoting his solo album, Change No Change, and Ric was working on his second solo project, This Side of Paradise. And somewhere in there, the band was recording “Tonight She Comes” and making decisions about their Greatest Hits album, which would be released in October of that year.
NERD ALERT: Fun facts about the way that stage worked:
As you can imagine, the logistics of moving 38 musical acts and all of their various gear on and off the stage in about a 14 hour window could get pretty sticky — and time consuming. In order to speed up the process of switching the bands out, the center of the stage was circular and was divided into halves with a wall of portable screens. It was fitted with a motor that would allow the stage to rotate as a turntable. In this way, bands could be performing on the front half while the next band was setting up behind the screens. When it was time to switch acts, the stage would rotate, bringing the next band forward for their set, and allowing another switcheroo to happen ‘back stage.’ At least, that was how it was supposed to happen.
Wouldn’t you know it? Less than 24 hours before the concert started, the motor on the turntable went kaput — broke — with no time to replace it. Someone had to come up with a plan B, and fast. Here’s how sound engineer Dave Skaff, who was part of the team in charge of providing for all of the audio at JFK that day, described the solution:
“Between Bill Graham and [legendary stage designer] Michael Tait, they decided it would have to be manually turned—but how? Tait came up with a great solution where they cut pockets around the turntable and put in these metal ‘receivers’ [where you could put in] a Schedule 40 aluminum pipe and now you had something you could push on. Well, they put about 20 of those in and then Bill Graham made a call to the Philadelphia Eagles and they had 20 guys over there as quick as they could get them. The Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive line came in and turned the turntable all day—that was pretty wild.”
You can see that solution in play in this photo taken by Elaine Hawkes (shared with permission).
Can you imagine how wildly their hearts must have been beating as they slowly rotated to face the audience? The roar of the crowd, the wave of heat, the sea of people gradually coming into view as the band smoothly emerges from behind the scenes… Wowza! What a moment!
By the way, if you want to read more about the insane logistics of organizing the monitors, microphones and mixing consoles for more than 30 bands rotating out at 20-minute intervals in front of 90,000 people, check out this article from Mixonline.
For me, at the age of 15, Live Aid was the altar my best friend and I gathered around that summer day, but I wasn’t really into The Cars back then (for shame! haha). I don’t remember their set, and I certainly didn’t tape it. If it wasn’t for YouTube it would probably be lost to me forever, so I’m very grateful for today’s technology!
There were lots of uploads out there from a variety of sources (the MTV broadcast, some from ABC, and some from the BBC), but it looks like nearly all of them have been pulled from YouTube. For this article, I created a compilation video to pull together The Cars’ Live Aid experience by combining my favorite footage clips in chronological order, but YouTube won’t let me upload it, either. Rats! Oh well, all is not lost. I cobbled together a little playlist that includes most of the videos I had hoped to use. It’s a bit of a choppy fix, but but it’s all I can do. (Yep, I went there.) Oh, and I’ll see if I can get my compilation on my Facebook page at some point, too.
So just to be clear, there is nothing new unearthed here; just everything gathered into one place.
So let’s go ahead and take a closer look at their set. I won’t go over every song with a fine-tooth comb, but I do have a couple of things I want to point out.
“You Might Think”
Not to start off on a weird note, but I paused this video at about 0:16 because I was trying to get a good look at David’s hair; more specifically, his ponytail action. Does he have two? Or is it a half up, half down? I know the headphones are reducing his general fluff on top, and that adds to the unique look. As for Ben, he has a couple of eye-popping bass moves: don’t miss him at 1:13 (right after Ric’s adorable little smile), and that big bass swing at 2:13. Other notable nuggets: Elliot’s guitar solo is sizzling, and Ric’s wearing a snazzy “PARIS” lapel pin.
If you look at the footage carefully, you’ll notice three women standing in the wings off of Elliot’s right. In the “Drive” video you can see them fairly well at 2:14 and 3:28. The blonde woman in the pink on the left is Diane Grey Page, Benjamin’s fiancée. The second woman in pink is Greg Hawkes’ wife, Elaine, and the taller woman with the dark hair in the pale green (or blue?) dress is, I believe, Elliot Easton’s wife, Colleen. I point them out because I think I see a sweet connection happening…
Whatever Ric’s intentions were when he wrote “Drive,” the song had a special meaning for Diane and Benjamin, and every time Ben sang it, no matter where they were, he would make sure to find Diane and attempt to make eye contact. This event is no different. You can see him acknowledge her several times during his performance of the ballad, turning toward her frequently and smiling. When Ben flubs the lyrics a little in the second verse, he catches himself right away. He looks over to the side of the stage toward Diane with a wide, seemingly self-conscious grin and kind of an ‘aw hell’ hand gesture, swinging his arm up expressively. I imagine them sharing a laugh over it later as they relived this magical weekend.
“Just What I Needed”
The band’s performance of “Just What I Needed” is off the hook. It is the highlight of their set for me. The force of Elliot’s solo hits me right in the chest, and then he follows with that outro and my knees get weak. But, naturally, it’s Benjamin that sends the song into the stratosphere. He has me from the start with his jaunty address to the crowd, “It’s good to see you again!” He’s removed his sunglasses, and with the wind gently ruffling his hair, he looks genuinely pleased to share the moment with the 100,000 people bouncing in the stadium in front of him. His voice is clear and strong, his eyes are bright, and with every movement he’s giving off this perfect rock-and-roll swagger vibe tinged with a sheen of giddiness, and then you top all of that off with his flawless physical looks, and is it any wonder that many, many fans say that this footage of JWIN is the spark that ignited their obsession with Benjamin?
When Ric launches into “Heartbeat City” he is a bit late and has to ditch the first line of the song, but he appears completely serene. It’s funny, too, how everyone gives up lip-syncing to the backing vocals by the end of it. To me, this is the most lackluster song of the set, and it seems like a rather sedate note to end on, but don’t skip it. Elliot’s guitar solo is other-worldly and wonderful to watch.
NERD ALERT: Some gear notes that I stumbled across.
Elliot used two guitars in the set. He started out with a Fender Telecaster in Fiesta Red (the same one he used in the video for “Magic.”) As we know, EE loves his Teles! He kept this one long after Live Aid, but in the mid-90s he had problems with the neck. He loved the body of it so much, though, that rather than ditch it, he had Fender Custom Shop guru Fred Stuart build a new neck and give the gal a makeover. The body was refinished in a distinctive, sparkly lime color with blue and white pinstriping. Many will recognize it from the back cover art of the 1995 Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology.
The second guitar Elliot played was a bit of an eye-catcher, and represented the latest technology. It was the Roland G-707, a guitar played in conjunction with a synthesizer, and it was perfect for crafting the unique sounds in the song “Heartbeat City.” He had used it during the recording of the Heartbeat City album, and also played it on the subsequent tour. I’m not sure how long Elliot kept it after Live Aid, or if he ever played it for any other gigs beyond that, but it has been up for sale a couple of times on ebay. I think the most recent listing I saw was around 2017.
That gorgeous bass Ben is playing is a Guild Pilot. Anything I know about Ben’s guitars I learned from the excellent file called Moving In Stereo: an instrumental retrospective of Benjamin Orr compiled by Michelle Bourg. You can find the entire photo album on Facebook, but I’ll share the relevant page here. In addition to Michelle’s background on the model, she points out that this is the same bass Ben used in the video for “Tonight She Comes.”
There are a small handful of goofs during their set. At the beginning of “Drive” you can hear David’s programmed drums go a little crazy, and Greg’s looking over at him like “Dude!?” I hadn’t realized before that things were going a haywire in the silence before the song started, but at one time there was alternate footage out there that made it really clear (it has since been taken down).
As I mentioned, Ben mixes up the lyric lines in the second verse of “Drive,” singing, “who’s gonna come around” instead of “who’s gonna hang it up.” Right after that, the lush backing vocal track comes in a little too early, beating the chorus. And Ric’s got a few flubs in “Heartbeat City,” as we noted.
I feel like these little stumbles can probably be attributed to several factors: the technical complexity of the music from HBC and the fact that the band had been off tour for several months, along with general (and justifiable!) nerves.
No matter. The Cars were at the height of their popularity. They sounded phenomenal; the crowd loved them. They all looked gorgeous, happy, relaxed. They had the world at their feet, and their performance was (and is) unforgettable. What a beautiful thing!
Notes on the heart-wrenching video
CBC Television (owned by the Canadian Broadcast Company) created the original promotional video that featured harrowing images of the suffering in Ethiopia backed with The Cars’ song “Drive.” Engineer Colin Dean happened to be listening to the song while he was editing footage for a short film, and he found the lyrics and emotion of it to be a moving and appropriate anthem for the desperate fate of the young children he was seeing before him. He added it in. He discusses his memories of that night in this stirring interview clip:
Upon viewing the finished film, David Bowie was so affected that he insisted it be part of the event, even cutting his own set short to make room. Live Aid promoter Harvey Goldsmith remembered, “One afternoon before the concert, Bowie was up in the office and we started looking through some videos of news footage, and we watched the CBC piece. Everyone just stopped. Bowie said, ‘You’ve got to put that in the show, it’s the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen. I’ll give up one of my numbers.’ That was probably one of the most evocative things in the whole show and really got the money rolling in.” (“Live Aid in Their Own Words” by Carl Wilkinson, The Guardian, October 16, 2004)
The exposure pushed “Drive” back up the charts in 1985, rising to #4 on the UK Singles Chart. Proceeds from the sales of its re-release were donated to the Live Aid cause, and Ric himself presented a check for 160,000 pounds to charity trustee Midge Ure in 1986.
The Drive Aid Signature Car
Another fundraising element to the Live Aid efforts involved two donated GMC IROC-Z cars. A bunch of the July 13th performers signed the vehicles, their autographs preserved by a clear protective coating. One of the cars was sent off to the GMC Heritage Collection Center for a bit and eventually sold at auction. The other was raffled off as the Drive Aid Signature Car, quickly sold by the winner, and then under the care of a collector for almost 25 years until it was listed for sale again. The two histories get mixed up a bit and I didn’t try to noodle it out. If you’re interested in diving deeper, you might start with the extensive history on this old website, and this more recent information from 2018. What matters here is that documents list Ric and Ben as having applied their signatures, but I’ve only found images of Ben’s (behind the driver’s door) and Greg’s (on the hood on the driver’s side).
There are scads of Live Aid photos floating around out there, so I’ll just add a few of my particular favorites here. The first one might seem an odd choice, but it’s just such a tease, with Diane and Ben off to the left, and Ben so obviously engaged in conversation.
The Miami Vice thing
In that interview segment toward the end of the playlist, Martha Quinn questions Ben about having to cancel a television appearance to be at Live Aid. It wasn’t just a rumor… I wrote more about that here, if you’re curious: Miami Vice: Missed Opportunity
And speaking of that interview, I just get such a kick out of their flirty little exchange from 1:18-1:40. That woman is a paragon of self-control in the face of Ben’s lavish charm.
Ending on a high note
The Cars’ music shows up a handful of episodes of The Goldbergs. It was fun to hear them mentioned in this clip about Live Aid: