Thomas Dolby: I feared I’d ‘screw up’ Live Aid

Published 2:35 PM EDT, Fri July 10, 2015

Story highlights

On Live Aid's 30th anniversary, Thomas Dolby reveals behind-the-scenes moments with David Bowie

About 70 acts performed, raising a reported $245 million for Ethiopian famine relief

Around 162,000 fans attended in two countries, and an estimated 1.5 billion watched on TV

(CNN) —  

Thirty years ago at Live Aid, Thomas Dolby felt convinced he would “screw up the gig.”

Hey, no pressure. He was only backing up David Bowie in front of a worldwide audience.

For those who don’t remember, the July 13, 1985, concert amounted to a global response to an Ethiopian famine that had killed tens of thousands of people. It followed recordings intended to raise awareness of the crisis, including Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World.”

That July day, at least 70 acts performed for 16 hours straight at London’s Wembley Stadium and at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. When the last notes faded, the event reportedly raised an eye-popping $245 million, according to MTV.

Related: ‘We Are the World’ at 30: Where are they now?

It was the concert where Bono saved a woman from being crushed by waves of frenzied fans. Phil Collins performed at both venues thanks to a supersonic airliner. And Tom Petty showed his bad-boy side by flipping the middle finger to someone offstage.

Dolby – already famous for his hit “She Blinded Me With Science” – had been asked to form a band quickly as backup for Bowie at Wembley. But as the concert date drew near, preparations were a bit rough around the edges.

The band had only rehearsed five or six times. Also, it had never practiced the full set – all four songs – back-to-back.

When Bowie took the stage to a roaring crowd of 72,000 – and about 1.5 billion watching via satellite – Dolby was at the keyboards. He remembers kicking off “TVC15” in a “piano vamp style that’s not really my thing.” Nonetheless, things appeared to go smoothly.

Dressed in a suit and tie, Bowie owned the stage, dancing arm in arm with a backup singer and then seamlessly moving into “Rebel Rebel” and “Modern Love.”

“The song I was worried most about was ‘Heroes,’ ” Dolby said. Bowie had chosen his classic singalong anthem as a fitting end to his performance. It was one of Dolby’s favorites, which made the pressure even more intense.

When the time came to play the first notes of the song, “I just basically went into automatic pilot and just stared past Bowie’s back toward the hordes of screaming fans,” Dolby recalled.