Live Aid at 35: Queen still rocks

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Patrick Ryan

There’s never been a show quite like Queen at Live Aid.

“El­ton John’s ‘Can­dle in the Wind’ at Princess Diana’s funeral had enor­mous res­o­nance and was also in­cred­i­bly emo­tive, but I don’t think any­one’s yet out­done Queen in 1985,” says Holly Thomas, a Lon­don-based writer and editor who wrote a trib­ute to the per­for­mance for CNN.

Live Aid was a ben­e­fit con­cert watched by nearly 2 bil­lion peo­ple world­wide when it was broad­cast on July 13, 1985. The fundrais­ing event was held si­mul­ta­ne­ously at Philadel­phia’s John F. Kennedy Sta­dium and Lon­don’s Wem­b­ley Sta­dium. The big­gest acts in mu­sic per­formed, in­clud­ing Rick Spring­field, Madonna, El­ton John, David Bowie, Paul McCart­ney and U2.

So why is it, 35 years later, Queen’s set is the most lauded? Partly be­cause it marked the come­back of a rock icon, Freddie Mer­cury, who had some­thing to prove when he took the Live Aid stage.

“Freddie was mes­mer­iz­ing,” says Les­ley-Ann Jones, who was at the show and later au­thored “Mer­cury: An In­ti­mate Bi­og­ra­phy of Freddie Mer­cury.” “He seemed to sum­mon the bril­liance of ev­ery great per­for­mance artist who had gone be­fore.”

In the decades since, Mer­cury’s life and ge­nius have been memo­ri­al­ized in pop cul­ture, from Mer­cury’s in­flu­ence on fash­ion to the Os­car-win­ning “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” film.

On the an­niver­sary of one of the big­gest con­certs in rock his­tory, we look back at Queen’s un­ri­valed per­for­mance.

At the time of Live Aid, Queen was still re­cov­er­ing from the crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial dis­ap­point­ment of the 1982 al­bum “Hot Space.” The band was on hia­tus from record­ing, and star singer Mer­cury had just re­leased his poorly re­ceived solo al­bum, “Mr. Bad Guy.” So when they took the stage at Wem­b­ley for an early evening set, they wanted to si­lence the naysay­ers.

“I think Queen ap­pre­ci­ated – pos­si­bly more so than the other band on stage that day – the PR po­ten­tial of not only tak­ing part in Live Aid, but uti­liz­ing their set time to ex­hibit the full po­ten­tial of their act,” Thomas says. “They were no doubt aware that this was a chance to re­deem them­selves af­ter their dis­as­trous run of shows in South Africa, and had re­hearsed thor­oughly, tak­ing ad­van­tage of their most bom­bas­tic and the­atri­cal songs.”

They set­tled on a six-song, 22-minute set: start­ing with “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody,” and lead­ing into “Ra­dio Ga Ga,” “Ham­mer To Fall,” “Crazy Lit­tle Thing Called Love,” “We Will Rock You,” and “We Are The Cham­pi­ons” as the rous­ing, fist-pumping fi­nale.

“They couldn’t in­dulge them­selves by play­ing tracks off the lat­est al­bum (1984’s “The Works”) – they had to go with their great­est hits to be in with a chance of win­ning the throng over,”

Jones says.

Jones, who got to know the band well as a rock jour­nal­ist for the U.K.’s Daily Mail news­pa­per, re­calls that Mer­cury wasn’t feel­ing well that day, and his doctors had ad­vised him not to per­form.

“He wasn’t hav­ing any of it,” Jones says. “He was calm, he knocked back a cou­ple of large vod­kas, and he rose to the oc­ca­sion. He went out there, and some­thing hap­pened: The tem­per­a­ture soared. The mood changed. Watches stopped. It was like those breath­snatch­ing sec­onds when a tsunami is about to hit, and the sea sucks back and pauses be­fore hurl­ing it­self at the beach and crush­ing ev­ery­thing. Ev­ery­one held their breath. Queen went for it.”

Part of what made Queen’s show so cap­ti­vat­ing and unique was the stripped-down na­ture of the per­for­mance. Mer­cury, who was known for his out­ra­geous, flam­boy­ant style on and off stage, came out dressed in skintight jeans and a white tank top, with a stud­ded arm band and belt as his only ac­ces­sories.

Due to the quick turn­around be­tween artists’ sets, “they knew they couldn’t have their nor­mal show with an enor­mous light­ing rig, smoke, ex­plo­sions and spe­cial ef­fects, so Queen crammed all they had into a short set – and did it with en­ergy and power,” says Peter Hince, who worked and toured with Queen for more than a decade as a roadie, and was part of the Live Aid crew.

Then there’s the fac­tor of Mer­cury’s ail­ing health. Mer­cury, who was 38 when he played Live Aid, was di­ag­nosed with HIV in 1987 and died of AIDS-re­lated com­pli­ca­tions in 1991. But ac­cord­ing to Mark Langhorne and Matt Richards’ bi­og­ra­phy “Some­body to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mer­cury,” Mer­cury started show­ing symp­toms com­mon with HIV in 1982, which adds poignancy to his dy­namic Live Aid per­for­mance.

“I think the rest of the band’s very ob­vi­ous def­er­ence to Freddie’s show­man­ship might be the main thing – it was as though they all knew this was his mo­ment, and he might not get an­other like it,” Thomas says. “He re­ally ate up the op­por­tu­nity to show off what he had to of­fer.”

Rid­ing the suc­cess and good­will from the show, Queen booked a come­back tour the next year, and re­leased three more stu­dio al­bums dur­ing Mer­cury’s life­time.

“The tragedy was that their sec­ond com­ing would be so trag­i­cally short-lived,” Jones says. “What wasn’t fully ap­pre­ci­ated un­til much later on was quite how bril­liant Freddie was, and quite how much we had lost. Count­less thou­sands have flocked to see Queen fronted by Adam Lam­bert. Mil­lions watched Freddie’s story on the silver screen, with Freddie re­vived by Rami Malek (in 2018’s “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody”). Nei­ther of them comes close to the magic of the orig­i­nal. Freddie was the great­est rock front man ever.”


Queen’s Freddie Mer­cury per­forms dur­ing Live Aid in 1985.

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