“I think on stage you either have the magic, or you don’t,” said Freddie Mercury. Queen’s charismatic frontman was bursting with magic, and he and his bandmates – Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon – were among the greatest live performers of the 20th Century. Here we pick 15 of the band’s best live performances, capturing exactly what it is that made them so great.
15: ‘Let Me Entertain You’ (Montreal, 1981)
An appropriate one to start a list of 15 great Queen live videos: Freddie Mercury singing ‘Let Me Entertain You’. Mercury wrote the high-energy crowd-pleaser, which was given one of its finest outings at the Montreal Forum in November 1981. The brilliant Canadian concert, which also included versions of Queen classics such as ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘Killer Queen’, plus a rousing cover of Elvis Presley’s hit ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and their first-ever live performance of ‘Under Pressure’. Rami Malek, who went on to play Freddie Mercury in the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, was just six months old when Queen stormed Montreal.
14: ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ (Rainbow Theatre, 1974)
The wonderful North London music venue the Rainbow Theatre – now long gone and turned into a Pentecostal church – was the setting for some of the most memorable concerts of the 70s, including classic shows by Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Van Morrison. Among the greatest shows at the Rainbow from that era were Queen’s run of concerts in 1974. They came during a momentous year for the band, in which they released two acclaimed albums, Queen II, in March, and Sheer Heart Attack, in November. Their live version of ‘Stone Cold Crazy’, a song taken from the latter album (and the first Queen song to be credited to all four band members), burns with fervor as Mercury struts the stage confidently, sharing the limelight with Brian May, who offers up some searing guitar work.
13: ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ (Rock In Rio, Brazil, 1985)
Freddie Mercury said that the song ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ “was a very good way of telling people what Queen was about in those days”. The band’s Works! Tour, of 1984/85, was elaborate, featuring slick new costumes and a state-of-the-art lighting rig. Their ability to create a spectacle show was shown at the 1985 Rock In Rio festival in Brazil. Queen performed over two nights in front of a vast crowd estimated to be in excess of 250,000 people each night – including a pulsating version of ‘Keep Yourself Alive’.
12: ‘Play The Game’ (Milton Keynes Bowl, 1982)
“I’ve never considered myself the leader of Queen,” said Mercury. “It’s the four of us that make the whole thing work. It’s 25 percent down the line. I’m the one out front, that’s all.” Vital contributions from each member of Queen are shown in the stirring performance of the song ‘Play The Game’ at the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1982. The performance shows them bringing their fine musicianship to excel on the constantly changing sound of another classic Queen hit.
11: ‘Hammer To Fall’ (Rock In Rio, Brazil, 1985)
‘Hammer to Fall’, written by guitarist Brian May for Queen’s 1984 album, The Works, was one of the standout songs at the 1985 Rock In Rio show – and May was at center stage for an extended guitar workout. The song was also featured in the Highlander film.
10: ‘Under Pressure’ (Wembley Stadium, 1986)
‘Under Pressure’, Queen’s brilliant collaboration with David Bowie for the 1982 album Hot Space, became a staple of their live shows for the next five years. One of the band’s best performances of the song came at London’s old Wembley football stadium on a summer Saturday afternoon in July 1986. “Freddie was amazing that day,” said Brian May. “It was a pinnacle for us. We were very good at that point and Freddie was stunning. He had worked out this amazing way of dealing with a whole stadium and becoming a connecting point.”
9: ‘White Queen (As It Began)’ (Hammersmith, 1975)
It must have been a great way to spend Christmas Eve – watching Queen on 24 December 1975 playing London’s Hammersmith Odeon. The concert, which was shown live on BBC television, was a brilliant way to finish off a hugely successful year for the band. ‘White Queen (As It Began)’, originally conceived by guitarist Brian May in 1968, was inspired by Robert Graves’ poetry essay ‘The White Goddess’. It was also about a fellow student whom May thought represented the idea of the “perfect woman”. Mercury delivered a tender version at Hammersmith, a concert that was later released on album and DVD, featuring stunning live versions of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Killer Queen’.
8: ‘Radio Ga Ga’ (Wembley Stadium, 1986)
Mercury said that when he first heard drummer Roger Taylor’s song ‘Radio Ga Ga’ he knew “instantly” that they had a massive hit on their hands. The song, which appeared on the album The Works, quickly became a concert show-stopper. The version performed at Wembley in July 1986 was full of enthusiastic crowd participation. The crowd, living in the moment, long before the age of mobile phone filming and selfies, joined in gleefully with the bare-chested ringmaster Mercury as he led the packed stadium audience in a clapping, singalong version of Taylor’s joyous song. “We can please a pretty wide range of people,” said Mercury. “And the people who have come to see us in concert have spanned a wide age group. We’ve always put our necks on the line.”
7: ‘Friends Will Be Friends’ (Budapest, 1986)
One of the most atmospheric concerts of the Magic Tour of 1986 was a July gig at the Hungarian Népstadion (it used to be called Ferenc Puskás football stadium), during which Queen delivered a rousing version of ‘Friends Will Be Friends’, a song co-written by Freddie Mercury and John Deacon. Queen were one of the few bands from western Europe to perform in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. During this exciting concert, they also performed ‘Under Pressure’ and a version of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’.
6: ‘I Want To Break Free (Wembley Stadium, 1986)
“We’ve been very lucky that everywhere we’ve been, there has been a very similar kind of reception – where the audience get very in-tune in terms of how to participate,” said Mercury. That was so true of how the Queen fans behaved during his charismatic performance of the song ‘I Want To Break Free’ – known for its light-hearted music video – at Wembley in July 1986. The song was written by bass player John Deacon, who said that one of the strengths of the band was that they were comprised of “four people writing songs”.
5: ‘A Kind Of Magic’ (Wembley Stadium, 1986)
On a Friday night at Wembley in July 1986, Mercury was dressed in one of his most iconic outfits: a bright yellow jacket in a military style, with multi-buckle fastenings and a pair of white trousers with red and gold piping. As he clicked his fingers and slowly eased into a pulsating version of ‘A Kind Of Magic’, Mercury was in full command of the show. “We are a bit flashy, but I also think we’re sophisticated, the music’s not one big noise. It’s not glam rock, either. We’re in the show business tradition,” the Queen frontman said. The performance showed drummer Taylor, who wrote the song, at his best, holding it together with a magnificent beat.
4: We Are The Champions’ (Montreal, 1981)
‘We Are The Champions’ was one of Queen’s greatest live songs, and brilliant versions from around the world – including Budapest, Frankfurt, and Tokyo – survive. The one from Montreal in 1981, where Mercury is wearing white shorts and a red neckerchief, was masterful. “I just cook on stage! To me, playing in front of a big crowd – that kind of surge – is unequaled,” said Mercury. “The feeling I get from the audience is greater than sex. I love the excitement of it and I always feel that I want more – more, more, more. I’m just a musical tart!” This version of ‘We Are The Champions’ shows a top showman singing a fantastic feel-good song.
3: ‘Somebody To Love’ (Milton Keynes Bowl, 1982)
Mercury described ‘Somebody To Love’ as “a killer to do live,” because it involved bringing to the stage a song that had been expertly produced in the studio with layered voices. He said the key to performing the song live was to “put across the atmosphere of the song on stage”. That is what Mercury did to perfection with his spirited, fast performance of this Queen classic at the Milton Keynes Bowl in June 1982. “Are you ready, brothers and sisters?” shouted Mercury, who was playing the piano as he launched into a passionate eight-minute version of a song he had written for the 1976 album A Day At The Races.
2: ‘We Will Rock You’ (Rock In Rio, Brazil, 1985)
Mercury was a born performer. He once said that it was “awe-inspiring and mind-boggling to be up there with all those people in the palm of your hand”. In January 1985, Queen headlined two nights of Rock In Rio, the biggest music festival the world had ever seen. More than a quarter of a million Brazilian fans joined in with the singing on a gripping version of Queen’s stadium anthem ‘We Will Rock You’. The concerts were broadcast throughout Brazil by Globo, and each show was watched by nearly 200 million people in more than 60 countries.
1: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (Live Aid, Wembley Stadium, 1985)
Queen’s 1976 tour-de-force, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, opened the band’s celebrated Live Aid set in July 1985. “The concert may have come out of a terrible human tragedy, but we want to make it a joyous occasion,” said Mercury before the show. They did just that. The performance of his masterpiece set the tone for a mesmerizing gig. Mercury jogged out on stage and welcomed the crowd like they were 72,000 close friends; by the time he sat down at the piano and hit the first few notes of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, he was the absolute master of the stadium. The pressure of performing to a global television audience brought out the best in Mercury, who showed that day that he was one of the greatest live performers of his generation.
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