22 years ago yesterday, Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the iconic rock band Queen, died of complications from AIDS. While some artists fade into obscurity after their death or retirement, Freddie Mercury and Queen remain an enormously popular rock icon whose music is enjoyed across generations. Anyone who has even sung along to Bohemian Rhapsody while riding in a packed car – which, at this point, should be everyone with access to a car and friends – knows the joy Freddie Mercury brought to the world.
In a word, Freddie was magnetic. He had an ability to command an audience like no one else, arguably more than Robert Plant, Mick Jagger or even David Bowie. He could match any of those performers in stage presence, and he also had one decisive advantage:
As opera singer (and friend of Freddie Mercury) Montserrat Caballé noted what separated Freddie from similar rock stars was that his primary selling point was his voice. He didn’t need to reinvent himself – he had what he needed and made it the center of his music. Freddie’s voice and performance style were so distinct that anyone who can successfully imitate it immediately goes viral.
In honor of the anniversary of his passing, Deadshirt.net is going to pay tribute to one of Freddie’s best moments…
…and nothing sums up Freddie better than Queen’s set at Live Aid in 1985 in front of a packed Wembley Stadium.
The generation of artists that was coming up at the time of this performance, the first one powered by MTV, put the concept of spectacle over substance – essentially taking the concept of “glam rock” to sickening extremes. Costumes and elaborate dance routines became more important than vocal ability or charisma. Look at any VMA performance (such as this one or this one, both from this year) and you will notice distinct stretches of time where the singer lets their backing track straight up do the vocals for them. They spend more time looking pretty or changing costumes instead of singing their own songs.
Freddie and Queen didn’t have time for such trifling. No costume changes. No backup dancers. No pyrotechnics, no flashing lights. No backing track. No pitch correction. (Something Duran Duran could have used mere hours later.) Just a wifebeater, light jeans, sneakers, and a belt. The most complex thing Freddie wears is that spiked armband. He always claimed he was out to shock the audience. Perhaps the most shocking thing – both then and now – was how he kept things simple. (Even his stage costumes outside of this performance were somewhat mundane compared to contemporaries like Jagger and Bowie.)
Something to keep in mind during the duration of this video: this is not a Queen concert. This is a charity concert featuring dozens of acts. People didn’t get tickets to this just to see Queen, but through the magic of Deacon, Taylor, May, and especially Mercury, it became the biggest Queen concert of all time. The crowd clapped along to “Radio Ga Ga” just like the music video. They filled in the dropped verse to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
During “We Are The Champions,” every single person in the crowd is waving.
That vocal-range interaction with the audience? That was improvised. The long sustained note is often referred to as “The Note Heard Round The World.”
In 2005, it was named the greatest live rock performance of all time by a BBC poll, ahead of Hendrix at Woodstock and the Rolling Stones’ free gig in Hyde Park after Brian Jones died. It’s been called “20 minutes that changed music” and there was a tacit understanding among the other musicians performing there that Queen straight up stole the show.
The power is still there. I lived in London for a month in the summer of 2012. About four times a week, I took the tube past Wembley Stadium. Each time I passed, the first thing that crossed my mind wasn’t that it was a notable sports arena. It was “that’s where Queen performed at Live Aid in 1985.”
There’s never been anyone like Freddie, before or since. Here’s hoping that Queen can get someone to play Freddie in their biopic sometime soon – it’s the closest we’ll get to reliving it. (Sorry Paul Rogers.)