Paul Vallely: 'Only 5 billion people are watching'

In his latest diary report, Paul Vallely recounts what happened off-stage as London rocked
Click to follow

The surreal tone was set at the outset; having swooped across the Thames with Bob Geldof in a five-seat chopper into the circles of security, the first thing we did was to march straight out. We were on a long walk not to justice but to Park Lane where Geldof had undertaken to launch London's Gay Pride march.

It was not the most obvious way to kick off a day dedicated to the problems of Africa. But the gay community had booked Hyde Park for Saturday and then offered to hand the booking to the Live 8 London concert. Geldof wanted to say thank you.

He made his way through columns of half-naked men to the float where Sir Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry and other luminaries of the London gay scene were waiting. He climbed on the lorry and he was off, elaborating on how rock'n'roll has always sung the song of the poor and the dispossessed.

A flurry of interest greets Geldof as we return to Hyde Park and the artists' inner sanctum. Even celebrities have their aristocracies. Bob enters U2's portable cabin to talk to Bono. Elton John is laughing with Chris Martin from Coldplay. Sir Paul McCartney is in a glamorously decked-out mobile home. Pete Townshend is making PG Tips in his caravan. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, conducts a series of conversations with Bono, Geldof and Martin.

Sting is with some mates at a table outside his cabin. "Apart from the importance of the cause," Sting says, "what is good about an occasion like this is getting to see other people. The way we work normally is that we are all isolated, like little princelings, instead of having to share space with other people."

At 2pm, the opening act troops up the steep staircase to the stage. Backstage is a bizarre crush. Four French horn players, dressed like the Beatles on the cover of Sgt Pepper, mingle with U2 and McCartney. In a more disciplined line at their side stand a dozen or so trumpeters of the Coldstream Guards, who take the prize for the most outrageous showbiz costumes with their red tunics and hats of real bearskin.

"There's a million in Rome at the Circus Maximus," Geldof tells them. "They're pouring into the Palace of Versailles. Tokyo is in full swing. Good luck." A medley from the original Live Aid in 1985 blares from the speakers at the 200,000 crowd before the huge stage - "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", "Feed The World".

"Ten seconds," someone shouts. "Here we go," says Macca, punching fists with each musician in turn." The red light goes on for Mitch Johnson, the DJ known in the trade as "the voice of God", at the control panel with Richard Curtis, supervising the concert's on-screen messages and between-act films, and Lorna Dickinson the executive producer for the BBC.

"This is Live 8, the greatest rock show in the history of the world," booms Mitch. And for once - as McCartney and Bono begin to belt out "It was 20 years ago today" - it does not sound like rock's usual hyperbole.

In the wings, Michael Stipe from REM rubs shoulders with Sting, Roger Waters and the former Libertine, Pete Doherty, who stands with studied insouciance in a bumfreezer jacket and a bandsman's peaked cap. He got the jacket at Top Shop but has cut the label out. It's too embarrassing, he tells Geldof's daughters, Peaches, 16, and Pixie, 14, who swoon at his every gesture. Excess being the watchword of youth, he wears both belt and braces. It's only when Geldof himself appears that Doherty's cool is momentarily lowered as he asks if he can have his photo taken with the star.

By the time Elton John goes on stage, the show is already 10 minutes behind the revised schedule, which estimates that the concert will end at 10.16 pm (45 minutes after the time the Royal Parks want it to end).

Early on, the artists become aware that the BBC, bending over backwards to appear to cover the show "impartially", is not showing the between-act films made by the Make Poverty History campaign. Quite who the Make Poverty Permanent party is, is unclear.

But the Beeb is wary of the chic cynicism of chattering class commentators whose knowledge of Africa relies on information picked up at dinner parties in Islington or on stereotypes about corruption that went out of date 20 years ago. It is as though none of them have read the report of the Commission for Africa, on which Geldof served for the best part of a year, which shares much of the conclusions of Make Poverty History and yet which sets out a raft of proposals to tackle Africa's corruption. Instead of the prepared films seen by the rest of the world, the BBC audience is subjected to prattle by Jonathan Ross.

In response, the artists begin to beef up the introductions to their songs. "We as a nation have robbed, stolen and exploited the Third World for centuries," says Ms Dynamite. "Surely if there's a debt to be repaid it's ours," she says before launching into Bob Marley's "Redemption Song".

Even the biggest stars are affected by the scale of what they see before them. In the wings, Brad Pitt and Bill Gates, no tyros either, are getting anxious about their lines. Geldof helpfully claps the back of Tom Chaplin of Keane, who looks as young and edgy as a sixthformer outside the exam room.

"Don't be nervous. There's only five thousand million people watching you."

"Thanks, Bob."

Something about the experience is odd. It's like watching the concert down the wrong end of a telescope. The acts performing only yards away seem small and insignificant in the flesh, which is why, perhaps, Geldof stands with his back to most of them, watching on the television monitors. It is as if distance, and the frame of the screen, lend a sense of scale, grandeur and history to the proceedings.

And on it goes, getting more behind schedule, prompting outbursts from the promoter, Harvey Goldsmith, whose eye is on the clock rather than the moments of global solidarity which Lorna Dickinson is trying to engineer for the BBC, as when, at 5pm - in a first for international broadcasting - the crowds in one city after another call out to the next. Rome cheers Paris, Paris cheers Berlin, and so on through the chain to Johannesburg, Barrie, London and Philadelphia.

It ends in the US with the film actor Will Smith clicking his fingers in a slow rhythm to represent the children who die somewhere in Africa every three seconds. The moment brings tears to the eyes of celebrities in the wings.

It is not the only such moment. Geldof's answer to the cynics is to play the 1985 video of African children staggering and dying - and then to bring out one of those children, said to be 15 minutes away from death then, who is now an agricultural student. Berhan Woldu has asked to be taken on stage before the set by Madonna, the only person on the bill she had heard of in her home in Ethiopia.

Eyes glistened too as the spacey sound of Pink Floyd's first number, "Breathe", floated across the night air. It was as if the spirit of reconciliation of their reunion after more than 20 years symbolised not just what Africa needed but touched a spiritual ache within their fellow musicians.

Then the finale with Sir Paul and it was over, 90 minutes later than planned. The darkness was still and the adrenaline began to fade. Geldof and Curtis sat in a production office with a bottle of wine. Mariah Carey stuck her head round the door. "Anyone want to go clubbing?" Geldof smiled. "I think I'll go home." Outside there were no cabs. Only a rickshaw.