Fly On The Wall: Behind The Scenes At The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
As big as Live Aid, with an unfeasibly broad bill of rock, pop and showbiz stars, the Wembley fest commemorated Queen’s late flamboyant frontman and made a little history of its own
by Johnny Black
Queen at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. Photo: Getty images)
One of few shows to rival Live Aid for scale and spectacle, the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert commemorated the late Queen singer and raised awareness about Aids. Held at Wembley Stadium in April 1992, it brought together the worlds of rock, pop and showbiz – the former represented in the first half by Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Def Leppard and Extreme, while the second half found Queen members Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon backing A-list rock and pop stars including Robert Plant, Elton John and George Michael, with Liza Minelli and Liz Taylor for good measure. An estimated one billion tuned in to this unlikely collision of worlds – not to mention David Bowie intoning The Lord’s Prayer.
Brian May (guitarist, Queen): The night Freddie died, we said: “Well, we should give him an exit in the true style to which he’s accustomed.”
Harvey Goldsmith (promoter): Queen’s manager, Jim Beach, took control of it all. He came to me with a proposal to do a show at Wembley Stadium. They had a wish-list of artists, so we had to ring round to see who was available. Jim had already sorted out some names. Liz Taylor was one. She was involved in Aids campaigning through her friendship with Elton, so when the tribute concert came up she was already interested in the cause.
Wendy Laister (publicist): The biggest problem in the run-up was that a gay activist group, ACT-UP, stated that Guns N’ Roses shouldn’t be on the show because Axl had allegedly made some homophobic remarks. That was difficult to handle because Axl didn’t talk to the media, so we had to rely on the members of Queen speaking up about that issue.
Brian May: It was a massive strain on our shoulders because we weren’t just performing, we were also organising everybody else. It was difficult enough just choosing the acts who would appear. We argued a lot among ourselves about the bill, but the basic criteria for the acts finally selected was their relevance to Freddie.
Harvey Goldsmith: Rehearsals were held at various places: Nomis Studios in London, Bray out of town near Windsor and then finally, the day before the show, in Wembley Stadium.
Terry Giddings (Freddie Mercury’s personal minder and chauffeur): The rehearsal at Wembley Stadium was great. Everybody turned up on time and nobody seemed to mind hanging around. Tony Iommi was so patient, and George Michael was there the whole time even when he wasn’t rehearsing. People would start out trying to do the songs like Freddie, but then they’d have to give up and just do it like themselves.
Joe Elliott (vocalist, Def Leppard): In one sense the day of the show was light-hearted and up. People popped in and out of each other’s trailers and dressing rooms all the time. On the other hand, there was definitely a real sadness, and it was obviously different in Queen’s trailer.
Brian May: I was very nervous at the Wembley tribute. I get like that if it’s an unfamiliar situation, and I was worried about forgetting to introduce people.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Spike Edney (Queen’s keyboard player and musical director): I’d become sceptical of events like this. It seemed that anybody who didn’t get on the Live Aid bill made bloody sure they appeared at any charity gig that came along afterwards, cynically seeking the exposure as a big boost to their careers.
Joe Elliott: Axl was in the next room to us. Elton told us he knocked on his door and Axl’s big security guy said: “Axl’s sleeping.” And Elton said: “Well I’m doing a duet with him in four hours!” And the guy shrugged his shoulders and shut the door in Elton’s face. So Elton comes into our dressing room and says to us: “What the fuck’s wrong with that guy?” Elton had a little rant and a cup of tea and then he took off.
Mark Cox (audience member): Extreme were the first band on. They were quite big at the time. But it was weird that they played a load of Queen songs in a medley. It was like seeing a pub tribute band without the Freddie lookalike.
Gary Cherone (vocalist, Extreme): It was the biggest show broadcast – it was bigger than Live Aid. That was probably the best collective day of our lives. Because we got to meet David Bowie... I could talk to you forever about it.
Harvey Goldsmith: The atmosphere backstage was surprisingly uplifting. Nobody caused a fuss or tried to pull rank. Everybody accepted the running order, because we explained to them that it had to be that way just to allow the show to flow.
Joe Elliott: Our [Def Leppard’s] performance was really tricky, because Rick’s [Allen] electronic drum kit isn’t your standard kit, it’s all about plugging cables in. And they plugged Rick’s kit in upside down, so he was hitting his snare drum pedal and making a bass drum sound. If you watch the raw footage of the gig, you can hear him flapping around trying to get them to unplug it and plug it in the right way round.
Terry Giddings: Guns N’ Roses seemed to be genuinely in awe of everyone else. They seemed to me like humble, gentle people.
Mark Cox: There was a lot of controversy about Guns N’ Roses, but they got a great reception. Axl Rose wore a T-shirt that said ‘Kill Your Idols’. In the circumstances that seemed a bit tasteless.
Terry Giddings: I was looking after Liz Taylor. Axl came running off the stage with two huge minders, and as he came into the holding room he ran into Liz. I remember the shock of seeing them run towards her, but then she smiled, and you could see that despite the mutual embarrassment there was respect.
Joe Elliott: Duff McKagan was FUBB. I stepped over him when he was lying on some stairs backstage. He was just a mess. That was after Guns N’ Roses had finished their set. I watched it, and Duff was flawless. He’s a brilliant bass player. But he was mullered.
Mark Cox: I enjoyed all of the bands, even Spinal Tap, but I couldn’t wait for Queen to come on. You know – fucking-well get on with it! That’s what we were here for. And they started with Tie Your Mother Down, with Joe Elliott and Slash.
Joe Elliott: Brian said: “I want you to do Tie Your Mother Down, but you’re only on in the second verse because I want it to start off with just the three of us.” I said: “Hey, it’s your gig!”
Slash: I was about to go up with Queen, and I had my shirt off and something was wrong with my pants, so I had my pants down to my ankles. And I heard this voice, and someone was introducing me to Liz Taylor. I pulled my pants back up and just went: “Er, nice to meet you.”
Tony Iommi: I was really proud to play with Roger Daltrey and, of course, Queen that night [on I Want It All]. It was a very raw experience. It had been building that way for weeks in rehearsals.
Robert Plant: “Freddie said they’d written Innuendo as a tribute to Led Zeppelin, but I couldn’t get my head around the words” (Photo: Getty Images)
Mark Cox: Robert Plant did a good version of Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Innuendo wasn’t so good.
Robert Plant: Freddie said they’d written it as a tribute to Led Zeppelin, but I couldn’t get my head around the words. I tried to learn them on holiday in Morocco, but I ended up with a huge lyric sheet taped to the stage.
Harvey Goldsmith: Bowie delivered the performance of the day. Even The Lord’s Prayer, I felt, was right.
Mark Cox: Seeing David Bowie was a big deal. But when he dropped to his knees and starting reciting The Lord’sPrayer I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was meant to be an emotional moment, but a lot of people around me were laughing.
David Bowie: I felt as if I were being transported by the situation. I was so scared as I was doing it. A couple of my pals were sitting near Spinal Tap and they were speechless with disbelief.
Joe Elliott: Doing All The Young Dudes was the best three minutes of my life in front of an audience – my favourite song in the world, ever, with Queen as the backing band, fronted by Bowie, Hunter and Ronson. Phil [Collen, Def Leppard guitarist] didn’t want to do it. I grabbed him by the ear like a headmaster, pulled him out on stage, and said: “You’re doing this!” It was Ronson’s last ever performance on stage.
Mark Cox: The best singer was George Michael. The jacket he wore was terrible – he looked like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. But when he sang Somebody To Love it was like Freddie was up there. Elton was good too, especially with Axl [on Bohemian Rhapsody]. But George Michael was just incredible.
George Michael: It was probably the proudest moment of my career, because it was me living out a childhood fantasy: to sing one of Freddie’s songs in front of 80,000 people.
Wendy Laister: Anybody who imagined Axl was homophobic obviously didn’t see him with his arm round Elton John during Bohemian Rhapsody. I know for a fact that a few days later Axl wrote a letter to Brian saying how proud he had been to be part of it all.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Mark Cox: Seeing everybody singing We Are The Champions was a great way to end the show. It was a great send-off. The fans were still singing Queen songs when we were all queueing for the Tube.
Elton John: People said: “You didn’t go on for We Are The Champions,” but I felt that I didn’t want to get involved in the bunfight. It was a very moving day, but I just felt kind of numbed by it. My feelings were that I’d rather it was Freddie up there than me.
Joe Elliott: When we’d finished the We Are The Champions bit, I was following Brian off and I grabbed his sleeve and said: “Brian – turn round and look at this, because you might not ever see this again.” He stood there and had a long look. And then he said: “Thanks, Joe.” And he gave me a big hug and then buggered off.
Harvey Goldsmith: The party downstairs at the Hard Rock afterwards was a strange feeling. Elation and deflation at the same time.
Joe Elliott: It was amazing. You’d be standing there knocking back the free booze and Liz Taylor would breeze past. People like that are beyond celebrity. She was wearing a diamond the size of a football.
Tony Iommi: Immediately after the show was over, in private, it hit Brian very hard. Hit them all. It was so, so sad. John was just in bits. It was a case of: “Right, that’s it, over, final".
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
The profits from the show were used to launch the Mercury Phoenix Trust Aids charity. Although as it turned out, it wasn't over for Queen. In 2004, Brian May and Roger Taylor joined forces with former Free singer Paul Rodgers for the cunningly named Queen + Paul Rodgers. Later still, they'd reform with Adam Lambert on vocals. John Deacon made just two more appearances on stage with May and Taylor, in 1997, before retiring from the music business completely.
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #190.