Watch Queen Rehearse & Meticulously Prepare for Their Legendary 1985 Live Aid Performance

It seems no small irony that lean, late-sev­en­ties and eight­ies New Wave bands like U2, Depeche Mode, and the Cure, who made lega­cy sta­di­um rock acts like Queen seem out­mod­ed, went on to become mas­sive-sell­ing sta­di­um lega­cy acts them­selves. The musi­cal cri­tique of 70’s rock excess­es found its most pop­u­lar expres­sion in bands that took a lot from Fred­die Mer­cury and com­pa­ny: flam­boy­ant sex­u­al flu­id­i­ty, spec­tac­u­lar light shows, raw emo­tion­al con­fes­sion­al­ism, stri­dent­ly sen­ti­men­tal, fist-pump­ing anthems…

Yet in the eight­ies, a “wide-sweep­ing change in musi­cal tastes” dis­placed Queen’s reign on the charts, writes Les­ley-Ann Jones in Mer­cury: An Inti­mate Biog­ra­phy of Fred­die Mer­cury. They were “con­found­ing­ly on the wane” and “were begin­ning to feel that they’d had their day. A per­ma­nent split was in the cards. They’d talked about it.” But it was not to be, thanks to Live Aid, the near-mytho­log­i­cal July 13, 1985 per­for­mance at Wem­b­ley Sta­di­um. After that gig, remem­bers Queen key­boardist Spike Edney, “Queen found that their whole world had changed.”

Sud­den­ly, after their short, 20-minute day­light set (see the video at the bot­tom), they were again the biggest band on the plan­et. “Queen smoked ‘em,” as Dave Grohl puts it. “They walked away being the great­est band you’d ever seen in your life, and it was unbe­liev­able.” The sen­ti­ment was uni­ver­sal­ly echoed by every­one from Elton John to Bowie to Bono to Paul McCart­ney, all of them upstaged that day. “It has been repeat­ed ad nau­se­am,” writes Jones, “that Queen’s per­for­mance was the most thrilling, the most mov­ing, the most mem­o­rable, the most enduring—surpassing as it did the efforts of their great­est rivals.”

The band, how­ev­er, was “sur­prised that every­one was sur­prised,” says Edney. “They were vet­er­ans at sta­di­um gigs… this was their nat­ur­al habi­tat.” Queen “could prac­ti­cal­ly do this stuff in their sleep.” Mix­ing his metaphors, Edney also reveals just how hard the band worked to remain the con­sum­mate pro­fes­sion­als they were: “to them, it was anoth­er day at the office.” As such, they put in their time to make absolute­ly cer­tain that they would be in top form. “They booked out the 400-seat Shaw The­atre, near King’s Cross train sta­tion in Lon­don,” notes Mar­tin Chilton at Udis­cov­er­mu­sic, “and spent a week hon­ing their five-song set,” plan­ning every sin­gle part of it to per­fec­tion.

Live Aid orga­niz­er Bob Geld­of had asked bands not to debut new mate­r­i­al but play fan favorites. Edney was “stunned to hear cer­tain artists belt­ing out their lat­est sin­gle.” But Queen took Geldof’s “mes­sage to heart,” putting togeth­er a care­ful­ly curat­ed med­ley of their biggest hits. In the video at the top of the post, see the band dis­cuss this behind-the-scenes process with an inter­view­er before going onstage in front of a crowd of “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.”

In answer to a ques­tion about going onstage with­out their usu­al spec­tac­u­lar stage and light show, or even time for a sound check before their set, Bri­an May replies, “it all comes down to whether you can play or not, real­ly, which is nice, in a way, because I think there’s prob­a­bly an ele­ment who think that groups like us can’t do it with­out the extrav­a­gant back­drop.” Who­ev­er he might have been refer­ring to, his “We’ll see” sounds supreme­ly con­fi­dent.

The band was metic­u­lous­ly pre­pared. After the inter­view, we see rehearsal footage of near­ly their full set, begin­ning with “Radio Ga Ga,” a song whose cho­rus dur­ing the live event pro­duced what was described as “the note heard around the world.” (See it above.) After their incred­i­ble per­for­mance May sound­ed much more mod­est, even self-effac­ing. “The rest of us played OK, but Fred­die went out there and took it to anoth­er lev­el. It wasn’t just Queen fans. He con­nect­ed with every­one. I’d nev­er seen any­thing like that in my life.”

The per­for­mance is all the more remark­able for the fact that Queen had been shunned just the pre­vi­ous year for break­ing the boy­cott and play­ing in South Africa, for noble but mis­un­der­stood rea­sons at the time. They were con­sid­er­ing call­ing it qui­ets, but the pres­sures they were under seemed only to gal­va­nize them into what every­one remem­bers as their great­est show ever—”Queen’s ulti­mate moment,” writes Jones, “towards which they had been build­ing their entire career.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Queen’s Stun­ning Live Aid Per­for­mance: 20 Min­utes Guar­an­teed to Give You Goose Bumps (July 13, 1985)

A Stun­ning Live Con­cert Film of Queen Per­form­ing in Mon­tre­al, Dig­i­tal­ly Restored to Per­fec­tion (1981)

Watch Queen’s Drag­tas­tic “I Want to Break Free” Video: It Was More Than Amer­i­ca & MTV Could Han­dle (1984)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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