Live Aid at 35: Queen still rocks
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, 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.