The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert Was 20 Years Ago Today
On April 20, 1992, a veritable “Who’s Who” (and, in a few cases, “Who’s That?”) played before 72,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium to celebrate the life of Freddie Mercury and to raise funds for The Mercury Phoenix Trust, an AIDS charity organization that is still active today. Tickets sold out three hours after they went on sale, before any artists other than the remaining members of Queen had been confirmed to appear. It was an emotional day for all involved, and despite the best efforts of all the performers, the fans and critics agreed that even though he appeared only in video clips on the giant screens, it was Freddie himself who, one last time, stole the show. Here’s just a very brief recap of some of the more memorable performances that day:
Axl Rose and Elton John
Just days after Freddie’s funeral, Axl Rose phoned the Queen Productions office in London and told the band’s manager (regarding any sort of future tribute), “I don’t know what you guys are gonna do, but I’m in.” Rose had mentioned in a 1989 Rolling Stone interview that while growing up he’d always buy the latest Queen album when it was released, and that Queen II was his favorite. The Guns N’ Roses frontman was infamous for his many homophobic slurs in the press, so it was a particularly poignant moment during “Bohemian Rhapsody” when he embraced Elton John onstage.
Michael’s note-perfect recreation of Freddie’s live version of “Somebody to Love” convinced fans that this man probably spent many childhood hours in the mirror singing Queen songs into a hairbrush. Michael’s Tribute Concert performance was released on an EP called Five Live in 1993 and went to Number One on the UK charts.
Extreme had always listed Queen as one of their main influences, and that fact was never more obvious than during the Freddie Tribute Concert. Taking their cue from Queen’s Live Aid performance, they played a medley of hits that showed off their tight vocal harmonies. They also tossed in a snippet of fan favorite “Mustapha,” using it to segue into “Bohemian Rhapsody” as Freddie often did on tour.
One bittersweet treat for fans was hearing later Queen songs – those recorded after the band had stopped touring – performed live for the first time. Former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant gamely attempted “Innuendo” (the epic title song from the last Queen album released during Freddie’s lifetime), reading the lyrics from sheets taped to the stage floor. Plant had been just one of many stars who’d asked aloud during rehearsals, “How did he (Freddie) hit these notes?!” The Zep classics “Thank You” and “Kashmir” were less of a strain for his vocal range and after nailing those tunes he visibly relaxed before launching into “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
Who singer Daltrey, no slouch himself when it comes to showmanship, described Freddie as “the best virtuoso rock 'n' roll singer of all time.” Roger chose to sing “I Want It All,” another tune that Queen had not previously performed live, and did a credible job with it. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath was also on hand adding his signature guitar wizardry.
For a time after “Under Pressure” was released in 1981, Queen guitarist Brian May often imperiously referred to David as “Mr. Bowie” with just a hint of derision. Apparently during their time in the studio together, May got the feeling that Mr. Bowie was rather dismissive of guitarists in general. Luckily that hatchet was eventually buried and Bowie was welcomed to the Tribute Concert. He sang his own hit, “Heroes,” accompanied by former bandmate Mick Ronson on guitar. The two hadn’t performed together since 1973, and by this time Ronson was very ill with liver cancer (he would succumb just a year later). Between songs, Bowie knelt down and recited The Lord’s Prayer in tribute to both Freddie and another friend who was ill with AIDS at the time. Shrugged a confused May afterward, “He didn’t do that during rehearsals.”
Judy Garland’s daughter may have seemed like an unusual choice to sing “We Are the Champions” to the casual viewer, but Queen fans knew that the Broadway legend was one of Freddie’s main influences. “Liza, in terms of sheer talent, just oozes with it. She has sheer energy and stamina,” he once enthused in an interview.
You can see who else performed that day over on Wikipedia. Forty years after their first album was released, Queen’s back catalog is still selling strongly. What’s your favorite Queen song? If you were organizing a similar tribute concert today, what song would you assign to, say, Lady Gaga? Or Adele? Or….(fill in the blank)?