We liked it first time. We li-i-i-ked it. But now?

G8: Live 8 - Twenty years on from Live Aid, Bob's become an establishment figure, bands are wise to

''If the vibe on the day's the same as it was then, it'll be amazing. But it doesn't seem like the vibe's there." This is Francis Rossi of Status Quo, talking on the phone from Germany, where the Quo are about to embark on their 12 millionth gig, or wherever it is they're up to. They really have had the most phenomenally long career, the Quo. This time 20 years ago they were opening Live Aid. They weren't doing it to get their name about, because if anything they had already peaked. And "credibility didn't come into it. You were badgered into it . . . Geldof was just this little upstart. He was a loud-mouthed Irish person, which he still is, but he did what he did and it kind of worked."

Nostalgia is nothing if not predictable - of course Live Aid had more of a vibe than Live 8; the past always has more vibe. So even if you don't have to look far to find someone to corroborate Rossi (Pete Clark, who in 1985 was pop columnist for the Mail on Sunday, said: "There is no buzz about it this time at all, as far as I can see"), that does not necessarily clinch this as a fact. But it's true: the vibe isn't there. It's not because the line-up looks a little naff, a wee bit Royal Variety Performance with extra bikinis (there were plenty of cheesy boy-bands in the original - Duran Duran were nothing if not a boy-band). It's not because Geldof has morphed into a different kind of creature (though he has, of which more later). It's not because the music business is way more squeaky-clean than it once was. (Although that is certainly true, as Clark remembers: "This was the height of cocaine madness. Everyone was coked to the gills. None of these people can remember a damn thing about it. Status Quo can't remember if it was daytime or night-time when they played, and they were the first band on!") Live 8 is just nebulously, atmospherically, not the same.

The thing started to look slightly sour when certain people, having won the ticket lottery, didn't go out celebrating, but instead put their tickets straight on eBay. Bob Geldof was livid; eBay was embarrassed; outraged Live 8 supporters tried to scupper the bidding with fake offers of £10m. It was directly counter to the spirit of the thing, cashing in on other people's altruism; it isn't, whichever way you look at it, very nice. But at the same time, consider the net impact of this black market. If this gig really is supposed to be about awareness, rather than money-raising, surely it racks up as a good thing. Sure, a handful of couples would arrive who had bought their tickets, hadn't won them fair and square. But they'd still be aware, wouldn't they? Wouldn't the eBay news coverage have actually boosted awareness even more?

I'm being wilfully naive. Bob's rage was about symbolism, and the symbolism of this was crushing. With a charity music event a silent contract is in place: "You, celebrities, are bestowing upon us a presence that would normally cost hundreds of thousands. You are doing it for free, for no better reason than that you are kind. We will match that kindness, and gladly. Here, have a load of cash. Have awareness. Have big-heartedness. Take whatever we've got." All it takes is for one person to step out of the contract, saying, silently again, "I don't think you are that kind. I think you're doing it because it would look bad if you didn't. I'm going to flog my tickets and go to Malaga," and the spell is broken. This event begins and ends with the idea that musicians are doing something so insanely generous that it begets insane generosity from all. And for a number of reasons, partly celebrity-appeal fatigue, partly our more advanced awareness of the value to a musician's career of a good PR exercise, we don't quite seem to buy it. No wonder Bob is cross. He didn't just want awareness - he wanted awareness plus a nice warm feeling, and that warm feeling has gone the same way as opening doors for ladies and calling politicians "sir".

There is also - and this might explain the contrast with Glastonbury, which seems to generate a fresh vibe every year, whatever its naysayers neigh - a bit too much polish to the enterprise. Live Aid was spontaneous and shabby; Live 8 is not (Glastonbury is always shabby; it's amazing what you can do with a bit of mud). Clark says of 1985: "It looked like it was all held together by rubber bands and sticky-backed plastic. There was definitely an element that it could have really fucked up, big time. It was the great British amateur production, the biggest garden fete that you'd ever seen in your life. Then, it was all a bit last-minute: 'Come on, what a larf.' Now, it's: 'I'm a bit of a mover and shaker, and if you care at all about your public image, I think you'd better come.' It has got less cred because this is slightly military. It's not a spontaneous outpouring of generosity. It's more, 'We will do what we must do'."

Rossi also observes that none of the bands had any idea, back then, how big Live Aid was going to be for their careers. It all dovetails into the core charm of this shambolic unknowability - nobody could have been charged with acting cynically, simply because nobody knew that there was anything to be cynical about. On the public side, nobody predicted the scale of the donations; on the celebrity side, nobody knew they were doing themselves a favour; they all just thought they were doing Geldof a favour. This could have been at the back of the organisers' minds when they decided Live 8 wasn't going to be a fundraiser, it was just an awareness-raiser. By removing the cash from the equation, they hoped to reclaim that atmosphere of old-school, no-strings, all-heart innocence that two decades of celebrity appeals for this and that have in effect destroyed. They tried to buy the vibe back with all the money they pointedly didn't ask for. You can't, unfortunately, buy vibe. Otherwise we'd all have it, and bars would never go bust.

And of course, the Geldof at the head of this array is a horse of a whole new colour. This is indirectly demonstrated by the musicians - Damon Albarn among them - who have complained that there are no African performers on the bill at Hyde Park. Geldof batted this off with eminent good sense. The bill has been chosen for its mass-market likeability. It's an absolute no-brainer - if you want to raise awareness about the richness and texture of African music, you do one thing. But that is not the point here.

I don't honestly think even Albarn himself would be arguing with this if Geldof had the same public image as he had in the Eighties. Then, Bob Geldof may have been a little tendentious, but he was essentially just the lead singer of a busted flush of a band, in possession of a very passionate belief. Now, his public face is slightly conflicted. He is anti-authoritarian in so far as he will swear at press conferences, and tell people to converge on Edinburgh without asking the police first if that's OK. Yet at the same time he is headmasterly and the expletives are a smokescreen for a man who is involved at the very highest level of international negotiation.

He is not, in other words, the straight-talking, cream-bun-throwing outsider he would have us believe. And while this does not for a second diminish the sincerity of his mission, nor the time and voltage and excitement he brings to it, it does make people want to poke holes in his saintly exterior. It is outright lunacy to accuse the man of racism, which is what's underpinning Albarn's remarks. But it is telling, none the less, that people are looking for the cracks.

The truth is that if the weather is nice, it will be a brilliant day, everyone there will enjoy themselves, and the rest of us, tuning in for ten minutes here and there, will think "that looks fun". Whether we'll go on to think, "Why all this fun? Africa? Suffering in hideous poverty? When a bit of will and open-handedness from the west could solve these problems? What are we waiting for?" . . . I think that's a long shot.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Now is the time to act