Queen at Live Aid: How Rock’s Royalty Stole The Show
Queen’s Live Aid performance has not only gone down in history as the day’s show-stopping event, but one of the greatest live concerts of all time.
The old Wembley Stadium was the setting, on July 13, 1985, for one of the greatest live concerts ever staged: Live Aid. Sting, U2, Dire Straits, The Who, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Elton John, and George Michael were among the acts performing in London that day (Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Madonna and Tom Petty were at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia for the American counterpart). But of all the high-caliber artists on display that day, there was unanimous agreement that Queen’s Live Aid performance stole the whole show with a magnificent, 21-minute tour-de-force set.
The 2019 hit biopic Bohemian Rhapsody starts and ends with footage recreating Queen’s Live Aid concert – a performance that remains the high point of the band’s live history. Their participation was initially in doubt, however, and as recently as June 2019, guitarist Brian May admitted: “We definitely hesitated about doing Live Aid.”
Rehearsals and preparation
After finally accepting The Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s invitation to play the benefit concert for Ethiopian famine relief, Queen – who comprised Freddie Mercury (lead vocals, piano, and guitar), Brian May (guitar and vocals), John Deacon (bass guitar), and Roger Taylor (drums and vocals) – were consummate professionals and decided to rehearse their set thoroughly to get timings and solos down to perfection for what would be a truncated performance.
They booked out the 400-seat Shaw Theatre, near King’s Cross train station in London, and spent a week honing their five-song setlist, getting it ready for the 72,000 fans who would be at Wembley – and the estimated 1.9 billion people watching on television from 130 countries around the world.
Though the band did not like performing in daylight – and knew they would have no soundcheck to get the quality levels they wanted – they knew the concert gave them a chance to show the world what a great live band they were. “It was our opportunity to show that it’s the music first and foremost,” said May.
Geldof had advised all the participants not to promote new hits but to do their old favorites. Queen took the message to heart. When it came to choosing time slots, they were shrewd, opting to go on at 6.41pm, which was close to prime time in the UK and also after the satellite feed from London of the live broadcast had gone global.
Queen’s Live Aid performance
Queen were immediately preceded at Wembley by the comedians Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith – who were dressed as policemen and joked about receiving a complaint about the noise “from a woman in Belgium.” They introduced “the next combo” as “Her Majesty… Queen.”
A truly charismatic Mercury, who looked full of confidence, jogged out on to a vast stage whose top was adorned with a banner saying “Feed The World.” Mercury, sporting his trademark mustache and wearing white jeans, a white tank top, and with a studded band around his right bicep, began by sitting at the piano and playing a short, inspired version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“The note heard around the world”
During “Radio Ga Ga” he got up and strutted around the stage, using the microphone and stand as a prop, and getting the fired-up crowd to join in with the chorus. The next few moments were remarkable, as Mercury led the 72,000 spectators in some spine-tingling vocal improvisation, as they sang along to “ay-oh.” His final, wonderful vocal was dubbed “the note heard around the world.”
The singalong fun was followed by a version of “Hammer To Fall,” a song written by May. Mercury, who had strapped on an electric guitar, then addressed the crowd. “This next song is only dedicated to beautiful people here tonight – which means all of you. Thank you for coming along, you are making this a great occasion,” he said, before launching into an energetic, exuberant performance of his own composition, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
After a short version of “We Will Rock You,” the swaying, delirious crowd were treated to a finale of “We Are The Champions.” Mercury was simply mesmerizing. “I’d never seen anything like that in my life and it wasn’t calculated, either… it was the greatest day of our lives,” said May.
“You bastards, you stole the show”
It wasn’t only Queen who realized they had been sensational. Paul Gambaccini, who was part of the BBC broadcasting team at Live Aid, recalled the awe among other superstar musicians watching backstage. “Everybody realized that Queen was stealing the show,” said Gambaccini. These were the very words Elton John uttered when he rushed into Mercury’s trailer after the set. “You bastards, you stole the show,” joked the charismatic star.
“Queen smoked ’em. They just took everybody. They walked away being the greatest band you’d ever seen in your life, and it was unbelievable,” said Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters. “And that’s what made the band so great; that’s why they should be recognized as one of the greatest rock bands of all time, because they could connect with an audience.”
“It was the perfect stage for Freddie: the whole world”
Two months later Queen began work on the album A Kind Of Magic, which sold six million copies and was promoted with a record-breaking world tour.
The choice of album title was apt. Queen provided magic on that summer day in 1985. Their impact was summed up by Geldof. “Queen were absolutely the best band of the day,” the Live Aid organizer said. “They played the best, had the best sound, used their time to the full. They understood the idea exactly, that it was a global jukebox. They just went and smashed one hit after another. It was the perfect stage for Freddie: the whole world.”
Looking for more? Check out music journalist Richard Havers’ personal memories of the Queen Live Aid performance and listen to the best of Queen on Apple Music and Spotify.
July 13, 2019 at 12:22 pm
1.9 million people? Proves you are utterly clueless
July 13, 2019 at 7:23 pm
I’m sure the writer can edit the word million and correctly change it to billion.
July 14, 2019 at 6:22 am
I was there at LiveAid and I went to see Queen. They stole the show. Freddie was magnificent, the best I have ever seen him perform. Loved every second of it.
Allyson MCKENZIE Neyens
August 27, 2019 at 2:25 am
I too was there and I still get goosebumps when I dwell back on it. Mesmerizing simply mesmerizing.
Helena O Kekai
September 24, 2019 at 7:34 am
Two people: “I was there! I went to see Queen.”
If all the Americans were added up who said “I was at Woodstock” there would have been 85 million people at Woodstock in 1969!
Dorothy if you went there to see Queen??? Queen was despised as they had just played Sun City, a white resort city in South Africa IN THE MIDDLE OF APARTHEID! Anyone who played there was a traitor to humanity.
Little Stevie…Steven Van Zandt (E Street Band) produced the song “Ain’t gonna play Sun City” w g DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, The Fat Boys, Rubén Blades, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr and his son Zak Starkey, Lou Reed, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Jackson Browne and Daryl Hannah (his girlfriend at the time), U2, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Peter Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth, Michael Monroe, Peter Garrett, Ron Carter, Ray Barretto, Gil Scott-Heron, Kashif, Nona Hendryx, Pete Townshend, Pat Benatar, Clarence Clemons, Stiv Bators and Joey Ramone.
Live Aid saved Queen’s butt after their phenomenal idiocy in playing that resort.
November 17, 2019 at 5:28 am
Live Aid didn’t have to save their butt, they were loved around the world no matter what they did and therefore, if they were to have had a regular stadium concert, just as many would have been there, just saying..
September 10, 2020 at 10:17 am
It was an unforgettable performance – nothing else came close
Thomas O Miller
July 13, 2021 at 5:19 pm
Huge Queen fan here in the USA… Saw it live on TV… In my humble opinion, the only thing that they could’ve done to make it better would have been to omit Hammer To Fall… So many other great songs they could’ve done instead… I suspect it was a nod to Brian, and his choice… I bet he’d admit he should’ve picked one of his other tunes…
December 10, 2021 at 6:15 am
Remarkable. In company with the greatest performers in the world, Queen played their hits with maximum effort and outshone every other performance. Watching it more than 30 years later only confirms the magic they produced.
December 16, 2021 at 8:56 pm
Let’s be honest, Queen aren’t very good. They probably aren’t as bad as I think they are, but they are definitely worse than you (and they) think they are.
December 22, 2021 at 8:43 am
Gotta Love a Good Troll LOL
February 18, 2022 at 8:49 pm
I wasn’t there at the concert, but wish I was. I have seen the movie and every time I see it, it brings tears to my eyes seeing how he connected to the audience. It is as if the band and the audience were one in the same. Simply amazing and powerful. This is how music can bring everybody together. Has to be one of the best live concerts of all time, and I’m not even a big Queen fan, but I am more of a fan now because of this concert.
May 17, 2022 at 6:27 am
APARTHEID was mentioned by Helena in 2019. 3 years later I say and people in South Africa have said that the greatest harm was done when US Pension plans, etc., pulled their investments out of South Africa. Pensions lost money big time and put the brakes on what was naturally happening in the country at the time, transition from Apartheid. The US press had a lot to do with this back sliding.
There will always be bias but companies there were treating employees as equals. You hear of ‘black buses’? Yes. fare was 1/12 the fare on a white bus. Anyone would ride the white bus if they had the $$. The government paid the 11/12 portion.
The list goes on and on.
There is injustice everywhere, even now. Sun city was a red herring.
July 13, 2022 at 3:05 pm
So despised that Nelson Mandela requested them personally for his 46664 concert. Go figure
July 13, 2022 at 9:46 pm
Minor thing to note per the article in its current state— Freddie actually had on faded blue jeans, not white ones. It’s hard to tell in the embedded video, but if you look at other photos and videos, they’re definitely a pale blue.
July 18, 2022 at 2:01 pm
I was there at LiveAid and I went to see Queen. They stole the show. Freddie was magnificent…
here same pictures…