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Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercuryby Lesley-Ann Jones
By making this concert, we are doing something positive to make people look, listen, and hopefully donate. When people are starving, it should be looked upon as one united problem. Sometimes I do feel helpless. This is one of those times I can do my bit.
It was the perfect stage for Freddie Mercury: the whole world.
There was a time when politicians made great orators. The art has dwindled dramatically in this century. Rock ’n’ roll, of all unlikely disciplines, is one of the few remaining professions in which an individual or group can hold an audience in the palm of their hand, controlling a throng of thousands with their voice. Film actors can’t do it. Television stars don’t even get close. Perhaps it makes the rock superstar the last great compelling figure of our times. This occurred to me as I stood in the curtained wings at Wembley Stadium on Live Aid day with Who bassist John Entwistle and his girlfriend Max. We watched Freddie perform in sweltering heat for close to 80,000 people, and for a television audience of . . . who knows? A lot of figures have been bandied about in the ensuing years, but somewhere between “400 million in around 50 countries via satellite” and “1.9 billion worldwide.” With nonchalance, wit, cheek, and sex, he gave it the works. We looked on, open-mouthed. The deafening roar of the crowd drowned out any attempt to speak to them. Freddie couldn’t have cared. The raw power that held his audience spellbound was so potent, you imagined you could smell it. Backstage, the most legendary names in rock paused to watch their rival stealing the show. Freddie knew what he was doing, all right. For eighteen minutes, this unlikely king and Queen ruled the world.
* * *
We make luck in random ways. Bob Geldof, scribbling in his diary in a taxi one day: that was lucky. This was in November 1984. From the depths of his brain, a “battleground of conflicting thoughts,” as he later described it, came rudimentary bits of lyrics that would soon enough rock the world. It happened shortly after watching Michael Buerk’s terrible bulletin from famine-wracked Ethiopia on BBC News. Horrified by television footage depicting suffering of biblical proportions, Geldof felt at once shocked and helpless, his gut telling him that he had to get involved. He had no idea how. He could do what he did best: sit down and write a hit single, the proceeds of which he could pledge to Oxfam. But his Irish punk band the Boomtown Rats were by then in decline, having not enjoyed a Top Ten hit since 1980. Their zenith, a Number One with “I Don’t Like Mondays,” had been and gone in 1979. Music fans, he knew, would flock to buy a charity single provided the artist was big enough—especially at the Christmas-single time of year. It was a question of finding a sympathetic star to record one. How much better if he could persuade a whole galaxy to join in one song.
Bob spoke to Midge Ure, whose band Ultravox were appearing that week on The Tube—a Channel 4 rock and pop show hosted by Geldof’s then girlfriend (soon to be his wife), the late Paula Yates. Midge agreed to set Geldof’s lyrics to music and to orchestrate some arrangements. Bob then went to Sting, Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon, Gary and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet. His galactic list stretched as time ticked on to include, among many, Boy George, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Style Council’s Paul Weller, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham, and Paul Young. Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt of Status Quo went in willingly. Phil Collins and Bananarama followed suit. David Bowie and Paul McCartney, who were otherwise committed, made contributions remotely. These were sent to Geldof to be dubbed onto the single later. Sir Peter Blake, world-famous for his iconic artwork on the Beatles’ album cover Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was recruited to design the record sleeve. Band Aid was born, the name a pun on a common brand of adhesive bandage. This was to be a “band” that would “aid” the world.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was recorded free of charge at Trevor Horn’s Sarm West Studios in Notting Hill, West London, on 25 November 1984, and was released just four days later.
At Number One that week was knockout Scottish singer Jim Diamond, with his sublime, timeless ballad “I Should Have Known Better.” Although Jim’s group PhD had scored a hit with “I Won’t Let You Down” in 1982, he had never had a solo hit. The music industry was therefore gobsmacked when big-hearted Jim gave an interview about his chart success.
“I’m delighted to be Number One,” he said, “but next week I don’t want people to buy my record. I want them to buy Band Aid instead.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Geldof. “As a singer who hadn’t had a Number One for five years, I knew what it cost him to say that. He had just thrown away his first hit for others. It was genuinely selfless.”
The next week, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” went straight to Number One in the UK, outselling everything else on the chart put together and becoming Britain’s fastest-selling single since the chart’s inception in 1952. A million copies were shifted in the first week alone. The record held the Number One slot for five weeks, selling more than three and a half million copies. It went on to become the UK’s biggest-selling single of all time—ending the nine-year reign of Queen’s magnum opus, the “ba-rock” “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” would only be outsold in 1997 by Elton John’s double-A-side charity single “Candle in the Wind/Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” rerecorded as a tribute to the late Princess of Wales.
“Queen were definitely disappointed that they hadn’t been asked to appear on ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?,’ ” admits Spike Edney, a session musician who toured with Queen as the band’s fifth member, contributing on keyboards, vocals, and rhythm guitar, and who had made his name playing for the Boomtown Rats and a string of big-name acts.
“I was out doing a Rats tour with Geldof, and I mentioned this to Bob. It was then he told me that he was hoping to get a show together, and he was definitely going to ask Queen to play. I remember thinking, Bollocks. He’s nuts. It’ll never happen.”
The industry’s reaction to what Geldof had achieved so far suggested otherwise. Hot on the heels of the British chart effort came America’s contribution, in the form of supergroup USA for Africa and their single “We Are the World.” Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian, the session brought together some of the world’s most legendary musicians. It was recorded at Hollywood’s A&M Studios in January 1985, and boasted a stellar cast, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, and Huey Lewis among them. In all, more than forty-five of America’s top artists took part. A further fifty had to be turned away. When the chosen ones arrived at the studio, they were confronted with a sign instructing them to “please check your egos at the door.” They were also met by an impish Stevie Wonder, informing them that if the song wasn’t up to scratch nor down in one take, he and fellow blind artist Ray Charles would be driving them all home. The record sold more than twenty million copies, and became America’s fastest-selling pop single ever.
It was after Queen’s challenging The Works outing that Geldof took his aid campaign up a notch, announcing plans to create the most ambitious rock ’n’ roll project of all time. Because they had been ignored for the single, Queen did not consider themselves an obvious choice for the concert lineup. That seems an irony now. Despite their fifteen-year career, a matchless back catalogue of albums, singles, and videos, royalties into the multimillions, and having landed most music awards going thanks to musicianship which embraced rock, pop, opera, rockabilly, disco, funk, and folk, Queen’s star appeared to be in the descendant. The band had been away from home for a considerable period between August 1984 and May 1985 promoting their album, The Works, during which they took part in the Rock in Rio festival in January 1985—performing live for 325,000 fans. But the tour had been beset by problems. There was talk of them going their separate ways.
“They were obviously drifting,” confirms Spike Edney. “Times had changed, we were into a whole new musical genre. It was all New Romantics, Spandau Ballet, and Duran Duran. There’s no accounting for success or failure—and no guarantees. Things had been going a bit awry for Queen for a while, especially in America. There was shit going down with their US label. Their confidence was knocked. Maybe they did take it out on each other a bit. Who wouldn’t?”
“Hey, people fight,” reasons their close friend, keyboard maestro, and former Strawb and Yes-guy, Rick Wakeman.
“Band members argue. It’s understandable: in how many other jobs are you flung together all the time? Out on the road, you eat breakfast together, travel to work together, have every meal together. The only time you are alone is in bed—and not always then. No matter how friendly you all are, there comes the day when you say to yourself, “If that guy scratches his head one more time, I’ll stick a knife in him.” You have to learn to give each other space. Provided you make the right music, it doesn’t matter if one gets pissed, one goes to a drugs den, one makes it to the arena to practice, another nips off to a football match. Get a band of four or five people together, extreme creatives who do wondrous things with their minds, hands, and voices, and there’s all the potential for fireworks. In that respect, Queen were no different from the rest of us.”
After touring to promote their bewilderingly dance-y, guitarless 1982 album Hot Space, Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon had effectively disbanded to concentrate on solo pursuits—notably Brian with Eddie Van Halen on the Star Fleet Project, and Freddie on his own album. In August 1983, they regrouped in Los Angeles to collaborate on The Works, their tenth studio album and debut CD. “Radio Ga Ga” was the first single. The Works also featured hard-rock number “Hammer to Fall,” the plaintive ballad “Is This the World We Created. . .?,” and the controversial “I Want to Break Free”—its outrageous cross-dressing video loosely based on a domestic scene from British TV soap Coronation Street. While the single proved hugely popular in the UK and other territories, it had offended conservative Middle America and upset many fans.
Worse, Queen had recently broken the United Nations cultural boycott, as had Rod Stewart, Rick Wakeman, Status Quo, and others, to perform in apartheid South Africa. Their October 1984 shows at Sun City, Sol Kerzner’s casino, golf, and entertainment resort in Bophuthatswana, earned the band widespread criticism and saw them fined and blacklisted by the British Musicians’ Union. For an African-born musician—which Freddie was—this was a travesty. The situation was not solved until racial segregation fell in 1993, a year before Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. Queen would become major and active supporters of Mandela in later years.
“I stood up for Queen totally when they went to South Africa,” retorts Rick Wakeman. “I, too, performed a concert in the middle of apartheid, with an orchestra made up of black Zulus, Asians, and whites.
“I did Journey to the Centre of the Earth down there, and got crucified by the British press. I tried to explain, but they wouldn’t listen. Music isn’t ‘black’ or ‘white,’ it’s just an orchestra, a choir. To play there wasn’t supporting the apartheid regime. George Benson went there. Diana Ross went there. How come people of color could perform, but not whites? That’s racist in itself. Shirley Bassey went down, saying, ‘For fuck’s sake, I’m half-black and half-Welsh, how bad can it be?’ So when Queen went to South Africa, I thoroughly applauded it. They threw a spotlight on the stupidity of it all and drew attention to the fact that music has no sexual, cultural, or racial barriers. It is for everyone.”
Live Aid’s “global jukebox” would be staged in two vast venues on 13 July 1985. Wembley Stadium and the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia were booked. Organization proved a logistical nightmare.
“When Bob first came into my office to discuss this event, I thought he was joking,” remembers promoter Harvey Goldsmith. “In 1985 there weren’t fax machines, let alone computers, mobile phones, or anything else. We were working on Telex and landlines. I remember sitting in my office one afternoon with a big satellite map and a pair of old callipers, trying to map out where the satellite was going to be at certain times. Also, when we went to the BBC, Bob was thumping the table and saying, ‘I want seventeen hours of television’—that was revolutionary. Once the BBC had committed, we could use that as leverage to persuade broadcasters all over the world to do it. It was the first time that had ever happened. It was my job to pick up the pieces and make it work.”
Then came the challenge of persuading rock’s biggest names, some of whom had already contributed to the recording of the charity singles, to perform and help raise further money for the dying. This was to prove a fantastically blatant retaliation by the music fraternity at governments around the world that had failed to act.
As Francis Rossi of Status Quo puts it, “This was the dickheads in rock ’n’ roll, just getting on with it. It does make me angry, when I look back. I believe that if everyone had pulled together—if we’d understood then the magnitude of what could have been achieved—we could have got the oil companies, the BPs and Shells and whoever else, to do their bit. We could have made twenty times whatever it was we raised. Don’t tell me the government couldn’t have legislated to get round the issues with advertising and so on. All big businesses could have got involved, and the result would have been mega. At the time, it was virgin territory. We think about Live Aid differently today. But still, all credit to Bob. He pulled together something which precious few could have achieved.”
How did Geldof get Queen involved?
“Bob asked me to ask the band if they’d be up for it, which I had the opportunity to do when Queen were on tour in New Zealand,” says Spike Edney. “To which they replied, ‘Why doesn’t he ask us himself?’ I explained that he was afraid they would turn him down. They didn’t sound that convinced, but said they might be prepared to consider it. I told Bob, and he approached [Queen manager] Jim Beach officially.”
Geldof later explained how he’d persuaded them.
“I traced Jim all the way down to . . . some little seaside resort that he was staying at, and I said, ‘Look, for Christ’s sake, you know, what’s wrong with them?’ Jim said, ‘Oh, you know, Freddie’s very sensitive.’ So I said, ‘Tell the old faggot it’s gonna be the biggest thing that ever happened—this huge mega thing.’ So eventually they got back and said OK, they would definitely be doing it, and I thought, Great. And when they did do Live Aid, Queen were absolutely the best band of the day. Whatever your personal taste was irrelevant. When the day came, they played the best, they had the best sound, they used their time to the full. They understood the idea exactly—that it was a global jukebox, as I’d described it. They just went and smashed out one hit after the other. It was just unbelievable. I was actually upstairs in the Appeals box in Wembley Stadium, and suddenly I heard this sound. I thought, God, who’s got this sound together?”
Geldof had no way of knowing, and nor did anyone else at the time, that just ahead of their 6:40 p.m. appearance, Queen’s sound engineer James “Trip” Khalaf went out front to “check the system,” and fiddled surreptitiously with the limiters.
“We were louder than anyone else at Live Aid,” confessed Roger Taylor. “You’ve got to overwhelm the crowd in a stadium!”
“I went outside,” said Geldof, “and saw that it was Queen. I looked down over this crowd of people just going crazy, and the band were amazing. I think they were delighted afterwards—Freddie in particular. It was the perfect stage for him: the whole world. And he could ponce about on stage doing ‘We Are the Champions’ and all that, you know? How perfect could it get?”
“We didn’t know Bob at all,” remarked John Deacon in a rare interview. “When ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was out, that was a lot of the newer acts. For the gig, he wanted to get a lot of the established acts. Our first reaction was, we didn’t know—twenty minutes, no sound check! When it became apparent that it was going to happen, we’d just finished touring Japan and ended up having a meal in the hotel, discussing whether we should do it . . . and we said yes. It was one day that I was proud to be involved in the music business. A lot of days you certainly don’t feel that! But the day was fabulous, people forgot that element of competitiveness . . . it was a good morale booster for us, too, because it showed us the strength of support we had in England, and it showed us what we had to offer as a band.”
“There was nothing very magical about the way we put the set together,” admits Spike Edney.
“We all sat around discussing which songs to play, and eventually hit upon the idea of playing a medley of hits. No great mystery to it—if you’ve got a bunch of songs and you can’t choose, it’s the obvious thing to do. It was all very matter-of-fact, perfect timing notwithstanding, of course. Every member of that band is a nightmare perfectionist . . . and a good thing, too. On the day, it turned out to be amazing.”
“Queen had rehearsed really hard at the Shaw Theatre on [London’s] Euston Road for a whole week, while others just went on and busked it,” remembers Peter “Phoebe” Freestone, Freddie’s personal assistant.
“That’s why they were the best on the day. I remember Freddie being stunned when he launched into ‘Radio Ga Ga’ and saw thousands of hands start going. He was dazzled by that, having never seen anything quite like it before. They had only ever performed that song in darkness.”
Spike Edney remembers things somewhat differently, however, insisting that Freddie was in “full-blown bring-it-on mode,” and that he and the band took proceedings completely in their stride. From what I saw, I have to agree with him. This was Queen’s ultimate moment, towards which they had been building their entire career.
“It was all organized chaos behind the scenes,” Spike recalled. “Everyone backstage was exceedingly engaging and open. No one was being bitchy or trying to outdo each other. Until Queen came on, it was all a bit of a nice summer picnic. Which is not to say that Queen were being calculating and cunning. They just did things the way they normally would, expecting everyone else to do the same. I was stunned to hear certain artists belting out their latest single: that’s not your audience out there! Queen didn’t do that. They just did what Bob demanded. The ‘greatest rock performance of all time,’ as it’s often referred to nowadays. What does that really mean? What it was, actually, was a band at the top of their game doing what they did best and surprising the fuck out of everybody.”
“No one was ready . . . except Queen,” recalls Pete Smith, the show’s worldwide event coordinator and author of Live Aid. “I saw the set on the monitors backstage. The BBC had installed TV monitors all around the artist area. With the many clocks that Harvey had ordered, these TVs kept everyone aware of what stage in the proceedings we were at. Queen tore up the rule book and then rewrote it in twenty minutes flat. The effect was palpable. Live Aid was now cooking on gas.”
At their brilliant best both musically and technically—there was no more professional rock band in existence at that point—Queen’s reputation on the world stage was confoundedly on the wane. Their popularity had slipped due to a plethora of miscalculations, mishaps, and a general, wide-sweeping change in musical tastes. Queen were beginning to feel that they’d had their day. A permanent split was in the cards. They’d talked about it. Thanks to Live Aid, all this was about to change.
Yet why were people so amazed by their electrifying performance? Spike Edney for one couldn’t fathom it.
“This was what Queen were about!” he laughed. “They were well known all over the planet for putting on a terrific show, for giving it all they’d got. They were veterans at stadium gigs, they weren’t exactly novices. This was their natural habitat, and the bigger the audience the better. They could practically do this stuff in their sleep. Queen were surprised that everyone else was surprised, frankly! To them, it was another day at the office. Having said that, we knew when we came off that we’d done it. After Live Aid, Queen found that their whole world had changed.”
Bernard Doherty masterminded publicity for the event, taking care of all the media on the day.
“We knew we had to keep the press sweet, to ensure maximum coverage. I had only eight triple-A laminate passes, but hundreds of press. We had to share them around. One by one I said to everyone: ‘Right, you’ve got forty-five minutes in there, get what you can, get back out. See you in the Hard Rock CafÉ,’ of which there was a ‘branch’ backstage. Backstage was a wagon-train-style scenario, with all the artists’ Portakabins pointing inwards, and Elton cooking a barbecue somewhere in the thick of it all because he didn’t fancy the offerings of the cafÉ. David Bailey set his photo studio up in a stinky little corner; he wasn’t proud. Nobody’s conditions were ideal. It was all thrown together on the fly. But somehow it happened. Everyone got in the spirit of the thing, most people left their egos at home, and it worked.”
At the time, Doherty had David Bowie as a client, and was obliged to take care of his needs, too.
“Always a little nerve-racking when you are looking after your artist and doing two jobs at once. In my case, that day, about eighteen jobs. There wasn’t much love lost between David and Elton—they’d obviously fallen out. David came out of his performance OK. Elton did all right. The one musician David was genuinely pleased to see was Freddie. They really were delighted to be together again. They stood chatting, as if they’d only seen each other yesterday. The affection between them was tangible. David was wearing an amazing blue suit, and looked incredibly sharp and healthy. Just before David went on, Freddie winked at him and said, ‘If I didn’t know you better, dear, I’d have to eat you.’ No wonder David went out on stage with such a big smile on his face.”
All day long, Freddie remained relaxed.
“He sat holding court, in that perfectly camp but quite humble way of his,” agrees Bernard. “He knew the power he had over people, but it didn’t go to his head. If he’d been sitting outside a beach hut in Southend-on-Sea, he’d have taken people’s breath away. He was a true star, with that indefinable quality. John Deacon I wasn’t aware of, where was he? And I didn’t see Brian May or Roger Taylor speak to each other all day. They were like a divorced couple at the same party.”
Quo’s Francis Rossi disagrees.
“I don’t subscribe to the theory that Queen were on the point of breaking up then. They seemed like they were getting on all right to me, and we knew the boys in the band pretty well. All bands have differences. They were certainly united in their commitment to the Live Aid cause.”
The backstage area was nonetheless rife with rumors about Queen being on the verge of breaking up.
“It showed,” insists Bernard Doherty.
“Not when they went on, though. If there were differences, they were intelligent enough to put them aside to get on with the job in hand. And they went out there and won. Queen had the wow factor. What else do we remember about Live Aid? The sound going down on the Who. Bono getting in the zone, losing the plot and confounding the others by breaking the rules of performance that day—none of the rest of U2 would talk to him after that.”
Despite Live Aid turning out to be the performance that established U2 as a stadium group with a superstar future, it almost went horribly wrong. Not only did they play a self-indulgent fourteen-minute version of their “heroin song” “Bad,” from the 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire, but Bono punctuated it riskily with blasts of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” and “Walk on the Wild Side,” as well as by bits from the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” This left room for only one other song, causing their finale “Pride (In the Name of Love),” an eventual global mega-hit, to be ditched. Then Bono spotted a young girl whom he apparently thought was being crushed in the crowd when the audience, reacting to the singer’s charisma, surged forwards. At the time, it was reported that he had signaled desperately to stadium stewards to pull her free, but that the stewards had failed to understand . . . so Bono leapt from the stage to reach her himself, then hugged her, comforted her, and wound up dancing with her. Subsequent interviews with fans—he kissed and danced with more than one on the day—have revealed that this was more likely a stunt on Bono’s part, to demonstrate how brilliantly he could connect with an audience. Whatever it was, it became an indelible image of Live Aid, resulting in all of U2’s albums reentering the UK charts.
“On the day, though, they really thought they’d blown it,” said Doherty. “Simon Le Bon did blow it, with the bum note of all time. Then there were the critics drooling over Bowie. Phil Collins, playing both Wembley and JFK courtesy of Concorde—though I think a lot of people wished he hadn’t bothered, not least the hastily re-formed Led Zeppelin, who he drummed for at JFK. As for Queen, they did exactly what Bob had asked them to do. I watched from the wings and I was blown away. I was behind Freddie, looking over his shoulder onto the piano, just a couple of feet away from him. I stood watching the audience with some trepidation. You never know: even the greatest acts in the world bomb, and you don’t know why.”
We needn’t have worried. Queen drew from every influence, every which way. They gave it all they had. So many other supreme performers flooded back into my mind at that point: Alex Harvey, the great glam rocker of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Mick Jagger. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders. What Freddie displayed better than on perhaps any other occasion was instinctive star quality, as well as a phenomenal grasp of what makes a must-watch show. He conjured up all the genius of vaudeville. It was as if he had studied and absorbed the best-kept secrets of every definitive artist who had gone before him and sorcered a little of all those greats into his own act. It was quite a formula. The ultimate peacock, Freddie seduced us all.
Not, admits Doherty, that he knew Queen were making history that day.
“Not on the day, no. I had headphones on, and a walkie-talkie—no mobile phones back then. I was worrying about Dave Hogan and Richard Young in the pit. I had Bob and Harvey to fret about. It was all going on, I had a lot on my mind. I knew the band were going down well, sure. The crowd was going nuts. Everyone backstage stopped talking to watch them. That was bizarre. Never normally happens . . . Who came on before or after Queen? Hardly anyone remembers. What do I remember? That Freddie Mercury was the greatest performer on the day. Perhaps the greatest performer ever.”
David Wigg, the veteran journalist then writing for the Daily Express, had long been a close personal friend of Freddie’s.
“I was the only journalist allowed to join Freddie in his dressing room as he prepared for Queen’s performance at the biggest show in the world,” he says. “He was very relaxed, and looking forward to getting out there to do his bit.”
“We are playing songs that people identify with, to make it a happy occasion,” Freddie had explained.
Freddie and David discussed the reasons behind Live Aid, and talked about Freddie’s own experiences in childhood.
“He said that he first became aware that he was luckier than a lot of children when he attended an English boarding school in India, and discovered through a boy’s eyes the plight of the country’s poor.”
“But,” Freddie had insisted, “I’m certainly not doing this out of guilt. I don’t feel guilty just because I’m rich. Even if I didn’t do it, the problem would still be there. It’s something that will sadly always be there. The idea of all this is to make the whole world aware of the fact that this is going on. By making this concert we are doing something positive to make people look, listen, and hopefully donate. Neither should we be looking at it in terms of us and them. When people are starving, it should be looked upon as one united problem.”
Freddie openly admitted to “Wiggie” that when he saw TV film of Africa’s starving millions, he had to switch off his set.
“It disturbs me so much, I just can’t watch it. Sometimes I do feel helpless, and this is one of those times I can do my bit. Bob has done a wonderful thing, because he actually sparked it off. I’m sure we all had it in us to do that, but it took someone like him to become the driving force, and actually get us all to come together.”
For one concertgoer, that day was the more overwhelming for the fact that this was his first rock experience. Jim Hutton, the humble hairdresser who became Freddie’s partner shortly before Live Aid, went on to share the rest of Freddie’s life. Little could he have known that day that, just six years later, he would be helping to prepare his lover for burial. Conveyed to the concert in grandeur as Freddie’s other half in the star’s own limousine, it was the first time Jim had ever attended a gig of any kind, let alone watched Queen play live.
“Talk about chucking me in at the deep end,” laughed Jim. “I was a bit blown away by all the glamorous superstars, to be honest. Every member of the band had his own trailer. All the wives were there, as well as Roger’s and Brian’s children. Freddie knew everyone. He took me to meet David Bowie, who I’d actually met before, when I cut his hair. He even introduced me to Elton John as ‘my new man.’ Freddie didn’t need time to get ready, he was just going on stage in what he was wearing when we left home—a white vest with a pair of faded jeans. He also had on a pair of his favorite trainers, a belt, and a studded amulet. When it was their turn to go on, he knocked back another large vodka tonic and said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“I walked with him to the stage, and kissed him good luck. Not that he needed it. To hear them playing those songs live—a bit of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with Freddie on the piano, ‘Radio Ga Ga’ with the crowd clapping wildly in unison, ‘Hammer to Fall,’ then Freddie on his guitar for ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love,’ and ‘We Will Rock You,’ and ‘We Are the Champions,’ thundering away . . . to a simple guy like me, this was all just mind-boggling. Then later on, once it had got dark, Freddie and Brian back on stage together, just the two of them, performing that wonderful ballad ‘Is This the World We Created . . .?’ They had recorded it quite a while before Live Aid, hadn’t they, but it was as if they had written it especially for the occasion. The words were so right, and the way Freddie sang them was just magical. It moved me to tears, as Freddie often did.”
At last, Jim, who died from cancer in January 2010, nineteen years after Freddie’s death, had seen his rock-star lover at work.
“He gave it everything up there. He amazed me. Then, when he was off, he seemed glad it was done. ‘Thank God that’s over,’ he laughed. Another large vodka, and he was calm. We did stay until the end to catch up with everyone, but Freddie didn’t want to bother with the after-show party at Legends nightclub. Instead, we went home to Garden Lodge like an old married couple, to watch the rest of the American leg on television.”
Conspicuous by their absence that day were Freddie’s own parents. Although often in attendance at Queen’s UK concerts, they chose instead to witness this spectacle at home.
“It was such a huge event, it would have been too complicated,” recalled Freddie’s mum Jer, suggesting that she and Freddie’s father, Bomi, would have been overwhelmed by both the crowds and the logistics of getting to and from the stadium. “So I watched it on television. I was so proud. My husband turned to me and said, ‘Our boy’s done it.’ ”
From the viewpoint of professionals charged with transmitting and recording the event, Freddie’s contribution had been little short of sensational. Mike Appleton, former executive producer of The Old Grey Whistle Test—the influential BBC television rock series—remembers Mercury’s performance as “fascinating.”
“For a start, he was not even supposed to go on. Doctors had already said that he was too ill to perform. His throat was terrible, from a cold or something. He wasn’t well enough, but he absolutely insisted. It happened that he and Bono of U2 wound up as the most successful performers of the day.
“It was so interesting to see Freddie through the monitors—I was shut away in a sweltering OB truck all day long. We were literally building a program live on air as we went. Come five o’clock and we were flipping live to JFK—alternating twenty minutes here, twenty minutes there, let’s put an interview in here, a live bit from earlier there, some highlights of the first hour in this slot . . . it’s actually very exciting television, and the only way I like to work. Freddie simply came on, took immediate possession of the stage, coolly and calmly, and then proceeded to take possession of the audience.
“Queen had at that point been off the boil for a while, having made no significant impact with an album for some time. The Live Aid experience wound up putting them back on the map, and had the same effect on the music business as a whole. Overall, sales went up. Live Aid proved to be a tonic for the entire industry. As Freddie was the out-and-out star of the day, he was undoubtedly the main ingredient of that tonic. He was more dominant that day than I’d ever seen him before. The day may have belonged to Bob emotionally. It definitely belonged to Freddie musically.”
Mike later received the BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television Arts] Award for Live Aid as Producer of the Best Outside Broadcast.
Dave Hogan, who captured the show in stills, shares Appleton’s opinion.
“Only six of us were chosen as Live Aid’s official photographers,” reveals the fabled Sun lensman known as “Hogie” (who is no stranger to a splash headline himself—“Maimed by Madonna” was his Warholian moment).
“We were shooting for the Live Aid souvenir book, so we weren’t stopped from going anywhere,” he recalls.
“It was obvious to everyone on the day that Freddie was the main man—but not until he actually got on stage. Freddie wasn’t a limelight-grabber when he wasn’t on. His behavior was gentlemanly and low-key, compared to most. No one realized how powerful he was until he went out there. At that point, we knew, this is it. I remember him launching into ‘Radio Ga Ga.’ It wasn’t even dark, he was whipping up all this magic in daylight. That ocean of fans clapping and stamping together just sent shivers down your spine. For us, it was heaven. This is the moment you want. He stole it. The day was full of fantastic moments—Bono leaping into the crowd, McCartney’s first live performance since John Lennon was assassinated. But what I saw Freddie do that day took my breath away. He engaged with every single person present. Total unison. Nobody has done that, before or since. I think he was the only one who could do it.”
Thus, the cream of rock sang and danced to feed the world. It has been repeated ad nauseam 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.
“By far the most extraordinary,” agrees radio presenter Paul Gambaccini. “You could sense a frisson backstage as heads rose towards the monitors like dogs hearing a whistle. They were stealing the show, and they would regain a stature they would never lose again.”
The other members of Queen were the first to praise their front man.
“The rest of us played OK, but Freddie was out there and took it to another level,” said Brian, with typical modesty. “It wasn’t just Queen fans. He connected with everyone.”
As he later elaborated to me in an emotional interview at Queen’s Pembridge Road offices, “Live Aid was Freddie. He was unique. You could almost see our music flowing through him. You couldn’t ignore him. He was original. Special. It wasn’t just our fans we were playing to, it was everyone’s fans. Freddie really gave his all.”
Of all Queen’s 704 live performances fronted by Freddie, it remains their most iconic, their finest hour. Live Aid gave the band the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that, stripped of props and trappings, of their own lighting rig and sound equipment, of fog and smoke and other special effects, without even the natural magic of dusk and with fewer than twenty minutes in which to prove themselves, they were unchallenged sovereigns who still had what it took to rock the world. They would now embrace the unequivocal fact that Queen were greater than the sum of their parts. They had no way of knowing that their finest hour was already behind them. United in exultation, recommitted to the cause, all thoughts of solo careers shelved—for the moment, at least—they were soon to discover that their glittering, second-chance future with Freddie would be tragically short-lived.
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