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.”