Live Aid ’85: The Resurrection of Queen

By Tom MacIntosh

On July 13, 1985 the world witnessed the biggest satellite-broadcast musical event of all time with Live Aid, a dual venue benefit concert staged in London’s Wembley Stadium, 72,000 in attendance, and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia with 100,000 people. The aim was to help raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia. It was organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure who put together a lineup of some of the biggest rock stars of the time, The Who, Dire Straits, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, U2, Brian Ferry, Elton John, to mention just a few. Billed as the “global jukebox”, it was seen around the world by some 1.9 billion people. 

Today, we take a look back at that day, firstly, to talk about what has been described by dozens of artists, journalists, and music industry bosses as the greatest live performance ever by a rock band: Queen -Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor. Ironically they were reluctant to participate at first because they were scheduled to perform in broad daylight, something they figured would lessen the effect of their normally rousing theatrical shows of lighting razzle-dazzle, pyrotechnique finesse, and outrageous costumes, but in the end they did, and hit this one straight out of the park!  And secondly, September 5th is Freddie Mercury’s birthday. He would have been 71.

They played a medley of six hits, kicking off with Freddie at the piano on Bohemian Rhapsody, and the crowd went wild and sang the ballad bit along with him, - mesmerising - with a riveting guitar solo by Brian May taking over on his mythic guitar ‘Red Special’. (a guitar he designed and built, with the help of his father in the 60s). This runs straight into the second, Radio Ga Ga where Freddie brandishes his signature mike on a stick (a cut-off stand) he uses to theatrical effect like a boss, and the crowd is right with him, clapping the salute as seen in the original video version of the song. Freddie’s all over the place, prancing, dancing, and kissing the multitudes. The song slams to a finish and Mercury struts to the stage edge and begins an a capella song-off with the crowd, they respond lovingly to every syllable, then he hits a high note and holds it: it was awesome and became known as “the note heard around the world”. And it was “Alright!”, they all shouted. 

For a band who had the world eating from the palm of their hands years earlier, then faded somewhat from ‘81 to ‘84, they didn’t “waste no time at all” as sung in their next number Hammer to Fall, they heard the bell “and answered the call”. A truly rock and roll piece of the 70s-80s with clean licks and crisp tightness. Again May’s ‘Red Special’ was let loose; a great road tune! Deacon almost always used a Fender Jazz Bass or Fender Precision Bass, which is hard to tell from this clip due to the passage of time, yet the sound is remarkably good. A Crazy Little Thing Called Love is next with Mercury starting it off on a 1983 Fender Telecaster, a Standard blonde model; Freddie himself admitted he played shit guitar but was good enough to get this one off the ground. After using his 1978 Fender Black Telecaster in the beginning of the song, May’s ‘Red Special’ again howls with a superb solo, with the feedback sound he built into it. We Will Rock You is probably best known as their anthem, the emblematic Queen rock piece. And like a general before the troops Freddie Mercury leads them into the fray of pure rock that to the masses was pure pleasure, and before they could gather their senses, he’s back at the piano with the set’s final song, We Are the Champions, which could also be considered their other anthem, and certainly played at legions of professional sporting finals around the world where the winner takes a victory lap to it blaring from upon high.  

The greatest live rock performance ever? That’s in the eyes and ears of the beholder, but consider that this was 32 years ago last month. Broadcast around the globe for the noblest of causes: world hunger. Later in the evening, Mercury and May would perform, Is This The World We Created...?, a moving ode to a situation that persists today. The event raised $150 million and the conscience of the planet to new levels.

The greatest performance perhaps, but certainly the most unforgettable.