❉ David Geldard shares memories of the all-star memorial concert for AIDS awareness and reflects on its legacy.
“It was tremendous for AIDS awareness. At that time, a lot of people around us were dying. It was weird because there was that paranoia about it. We all were a bit paranoid… It was like when the pandemic first broke out here, you know? No one quite knew what was going on. I think that concert did bring people together.” – Ray Burdis, who produced The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for TV.
On 24th November 1991, the world was shook by the news that the iconic lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury, had passed away from bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. This was just a day after Mercury had announced in a public statement that he was suffering from the disease.
Freddie’s legion of fans across the world, including many of his heroes and peers, were heartbroken. It seemed almost inevitable there would be some sort of huge event held in his honour. This was confirmed at the BRIT Awards, the following February, when Brian May and Roger Taylor announced The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium, to be held on April 20th 1992.
VIDEO: Queen win British Single presented by Simon Mayo | BRIT Awards 1992: Click thru to 6:50 to jump to Roger Taylor announcing The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness.
I was watching this on live television and by hook or by crook, I was going to make sure I was there. A huge Queen fan since childhood, I had pestered my parents to take me to their Manchester Maine Road gig on The Magic Tour back in 1986. For some reason we ended up not going. To this day I’m not sure if it’s because it sold out or it was because my Mum was anxious about her 12 year old son going to an open air rock gig. My Dad said, “I’ll definitely take you next time”. Of course, we know now, there was to be no next time.
Within 24 hours The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert had sold out. I didn’t have a ticket. I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I remembered that a record shop in Stockport, Music Zone, worked with a company called Argon events who did coach inclusive deals. I rang them. They had been allocated six tickets, which were to go on sale the next day. As I was supposed to be at college, my Mum went to queue up for me. She heroically managed to get four tickets!
Other Queen fans were doing whatever they could to get there. “Honestly, I couldn’t believe it!” says long time fan Denise Silcock from Horwich, ” I even got in touch with my bank manager and asked for an overdraft to get the tickets! He said ‘I think you better come in and see us’. So I went in and said ‘Please, please!’, he said ‘It’s alright, you’ve got it!’ (Laughs).
Some fans had even helped make the red ribbons that were given out at the concert to help promote AIDS Awareness. Jim Jenkins, Queen’s Official Biographer recalls, “I’d spent weeks and weeks here, in the house, making them with friends. I remember we were very drunk and everyone was getting pins stuck in their body. Anyway, that’s another story!”.
Actor, director, screenwriter and film producer Ray Burdis produced the show for television. “From the beginning really, Jim Beach, the band’s manager was a partner of mine in a film production company, Fugitive. We were responsible for making a lot of pop promos at the time, one of the largest pop promo companies going. We did The Krays movie too, the original. So, with Jim being a partner, when the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert came up, Jim trusted us to produce that for television. So we got the honour of that and we didn’t realise it was going to be such a huge event. We knew it would be big but I think it outdone Live Aid, I’m not sure?”.
On the morning of 20th April 1992, Easter Monday, my Dad, my mate Jon Fowler, my cousin Steve Howes and myself boarded a coach outside the Garrick Theatre in Stockport to head to Wembley Stadium. Jon Fowler remembers, “What a day that was! I remember your Dad, looking after us. I have memories of the coach driver playing the Elland Road Leeds 1982 bootleg on the way down to Wembley. I can recall discussions on the coach, what we thought the first song was going to be. Whether there was going to be a ‘laser effect’ of Freddie on the stage (there had been rumours in the papers), we just didn’t know. I think there may have been still some of the artists unannounced? We were talking about Monserrat Caballe appearing, Michael Jackson, Madonna, those were the rumours on the coach”.
As we arrived at Wembley, I had never seen so many people in my life! The T-shirts for the event had already sold out. There were people outside protesting against the appearance of Guns N’ Roses (because of the infamous lyric in the song One In Million, which was perceived by many to be homophobic). We queued up alongside a Freddie lookalike who the tv cameras kept returning to throughout the gig. As we reached the top of the steps, he turned around and started performing Radio Ga Ga. Everyone joined in, even the police on horseback!
The concert opened with an emotional intro from Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. Deacon then introduced the opening act , Metallica! The American thrash quartet may not have seemed like an obvious choice to open the concert but they had just hit the big time with The Black Album and enough of the audience seemed to enjoy the mega hit Enter Sandman.
I was lapping up every minute, I’d been a Metallica fan since a school friend lent me Master of Puppets. This was like Queen had booked all the main artists in my record collection. One of the main criticisms at the time though was that the concert was too swayed towards heavy rock. I asked Freddie Mercury’s personal assistant, Peter Freestone, if he agreed with that criticism? “No, because Freddie liked rock. That was what he did. These were the artists that wanted to be there and the performances that they gave were memorable”.
Paul Moody from Queen fan podcast In the Lap of the Pods recalls “It was validation. It was like recognition of how important Queen were to the bands we loved”.
Next up onstage were Boston funk-metallers Extreme, who played a blinder by opting to do a Queen medley. For Queen fan Jon Fowler, Extreme were the highlight of the first half of the show, “Extreme , in my opinion, did what the fans in the audience wanted. They did a Queen set that was absolutely phenomenal. They did it their own way. It was fans onstage playing to fans in the audience. Extreme knew what we wanted”. As soon as Gary Cherone started singing the intro to Mustapha, Extreme had Queen’s audience eating out of the palms of their hands.
Following Extreme, legendary Sheffield rockers Def Leppard hit the stage. This was a huge thrill for me, as I had been a mega fan since I saw them perform ‘Animal’ on Top of the Pops back in 1987. This was Leppard’s first major appearance since the tragic death of guitarist Steve Clark back in 1991 and the first major performance featuring new guitar player Vivian Campell. Leppard blasted into Animal before performing their latest hit at the time, Let’s Get Rocked. The highlight, however, was when their long time friend, Brian May, joined them onstage for a rip-roaring version of the Sheer Heart Attack classic, Now I’m Here.
Bob Geldof came onstage and performed an acoustic number, Too Late God before introducing the legendary Spinal Tap, who added some humour to proceedings. Something, which Freddie would surely have approved of.
On the video screens, Cindy Crawford introduced specially shot live footage of U2 from a gig in Sacremento, California.
Next it was the turn of the controversial Guns N’ Roses. Many wondered if they would even show up, such was their reputation at the time. They needed have worried. At this point, Guns N’ Roses were arguably the biggest band in the world and in the footage you can see that reflected in the audience’s reaction to them. They performed a storming version of Paradise City which ended with Uber-Queen fan Axl Rose shouting “England! Long live Freddie!”. They performed a verse of Alice Cooper’s Only Women Bleed before going into their version of Bob Dylan’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door, which included some fantastic audience participation. Guns N’ Roses looked genuinely pleased to be participating and there was no doubting their credentials as Queen & Freddie fans.
Ray Burdis recalls the backstage atmosphere on the day “It was long day for them (the artists). They were all really professional. I was amazed at people who you might have thought would be a bit Diva-ish, there was no room for that on that day, because it wasn’t anyone’s show. Everyone was there for a reason. For Freddie. So, it was kind of a different atmosphere, they just got on with it. Unlike Live Aid, where all the bands were trying to outdo each other, which Queen nicked anyway, there was none of that. Everyone was sort of together. It permeated throughout the crews, everyone”.
The second half of the show featured the remaining three members of Queen with guest vocalists, but just before they hit the stage, Ian McKellan appeared on the video screens and introduced Elizabeth Taylor to the Wembley stage. Peter Freestone recalls, “My job at that concert was to take the singers to the stage and back. Until Elizabeth Taylor arrived and then I had to look after her”.
Elizabeth Taylor paid tribute to Freddie in her speech and addressed the AIDS crisis. She also expertly dealt with a heckler, much to the delight of the Wembley crowd. There is something quite surreal about seeing someone that famous in front of you.
Freddie appeared on the screens peforming his famous Day-Oh from Live Aid. The pyros went off and May, Taylor and Deacon hit the stage performing Tie Your Mother Down. For the first time I was seeing the members of Queen together in real life after being such a huge fan for years. I was trying to process it because in that moment, being in the crowd, was so exciting. Then, Joe Elliott, (my favourite vocalist after Freddie), joined them on the song. If that wasn’t enough, guitar god Slash then joins in. My excitement levels were through the roof. One just wished that Freddie were up there with them.
Jon Fowler remembers, “Yes! Joe Elliott was just something else! Then Slash! Then after that Roger Daltrey and Tony Iommi! it was just an avalanche of the greatest musicians, one after the other. Respect to Queen, they didn’t even give us time to get our breath back!”.
Indeed, following short intros of Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell and The Who’s Pinball Wizard, Daltrey and Iommi joined Queen for a powerful run through I Want It All. A song which, sadly, Queen never got to perform live. Then followed Italian vocalist Zucchero for a passionate performance of the underrated Hot Space song, Las Palabras D’Amour.
Tony Iommi rejoined Queen onstage and they were, in turn, joined by Extreme’s Gary Cherone for Hammer to Fall and Metallica’s James Hetfield for Stone Cold Crazy (Metallica’s cover of the song had been the B-side to Enter Sandman).
Led Zeppelin legend and hero of Freddie’s, Robert Plant took to the stage. Queen & Plant launched into the track Innuendo. In my own personal view, Robert Plant has been unduly harsh on his own performance of this song. He forgot a couple of words and his voice struggled a little but all in all, I think it was a great performance of a masterpiece of a song from the final album released during Freddie’s lifetime. It wasn’t perfect, but that is live music for you. After a brief verse of Led Zeppelin’s Thank You, Plant and Queen delivered an awesome version of Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
It was then time for Brian May to perform a previously unheard song Too Much Love Will Kill You, which would appear on his solo album Back to the Light and also on the posthumous Queen album, Made in Heaven.
It was a heartfelt version of the song and considering the circumstances, it can’t have been easy for him to perform. The audience was with him all the way.
It was then time for some of the more pop-orientated performers to take the stage. Paul Young led the crowd through Radio Ga Ga. Seal (who was one of the U.K.’s biggest stars at this point) gave his vocal weight to Who Wants to Live Forever.
Lisa Stansfield appeared in Hilda Ogden-style curlers with a vacuum cleaner and performed I Want to Break Free. In doing so she perfectly paid tribute to Freddie’s camp humour.
Things really moved up a gear when Roger Taylor introduced David Bowie and Annie Lennox to sing Queen & Bowie’s 1981 number one smash Under Pressure. Bowie looked suave in his lime green suit and Annie Lennox looked as though her outfit had been inspired by Darryl Hannah in Blade Runner.
One of the most emotional moments of the night, for me anyway, came next. Bowie and Queen were joined by Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter, Spider From Mars (and Hunter’s sideman since 1974) Mick Ronson alongside Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and Phil Collen for a powerhouse performance of All the Young Dudes, the song Bowie had written for Mott twenty years earlier just as the band were on the verge of splitting up. This was a highly significant moment, as Queen got their big break supporting Mott the Hoople back in 1973. In the stadium, the video screens zoomed in to Joe Elliott’s face. Famously a huge fan of Mott, Bowie and Queen, I thought “How is HE feeling right now?”. It was a real highlight, an incredible moment.
Bowie and Ronson then launched into “Heroes”. This performance has extra resonance now, as it was Mick Ronson’s last (Ronson died of liver cancer the following April, aged 46). Bowie dropped to one knee at the end and delivered the Lord’s Prayer. It was a move that has since been mocked and criticised but I think it was done with the best of intentions. By this stage, these performers had lost a lot of friends to this dreadful disease.
Then on came the unexpected highlight of the whole show, Mr. George Michael. Jim Jenkins remembers, “I know it sounds ridiculous. I didn’t know who was going to be on, I didn’t want to know. I was saying ‘Don’t tell me who’ll be on, it’ll be a surprise’ and of course you got to know on the way down to Wembley , the coach because they were all taking about it, it was in the papers. Everyone was going on about George Michael being on. I was like ‘Wham? What the heck… He’s good but… George Michael doing Queen songs?’. Of course, on the way back it was ‘Wasn’t George Michael fantastic!’.
At the time, my friends and I considered George Michael to be more of a lightweight ‘pop’ artist . So, for him to come on and do ‘39, a deep cut from A Night at the Opera, was quite the surprise. That, to me, proved he was a real fan. Jon Fowler agrees. “We didn’t know much about him in those days but then we found out that he used to busk ’39 on the London Underground. Nobody knew at the time, but George was also singing for his lover who had been diagnosed with AIDS, as well as singing for Freddie, so the greatest of respect to him”.
George performed a duet with Lisa Stansfield on These are the Days of Our Lives. Those of us who were there will forever remember the tears in the audience.
Then came the show’s most iconic moment. George Michael performing Somebody to Love. There was mutual admiration between Freddie Mercury and George Michael and Freddie himself surely would have been proud of this moment.
“Well, apparently, it was only George Michael who sang in the original key, which says something”, says Peter Freestone. “There were some great performances though, don’t get me wrong. There were some really nice performances”.
The recording of this performance was to reach number one in the U.K. Singles chart the following year.
Elton John took to the piano, unannounced and launched into Queen’s magnum opus Bohemian Rhapsody. This was one of the most emotional moments of my life. Being stood in a stadium with 72,000 other fans singing ‘Bo Rhap’ at the top of their voices, just five months after Freddie Mercury’s death, gives me goosebumps now, just thinking about it. As the song morphed into it’s heavy metal section, Axl Rose took to the stage like a Tasmanian Devil, in an American Football shirt, a kilt and boots. The crowd went wild.
As Axl and Elton finish the song (apparently all unrehearsed) you can see the delight on Roger Taylor’s face. Elton continued with The Show Must Go On, followed by Axl Rose’s powerful take on We Will Rock You.
It was only fitting that another of Freddie’s biggest heroes closed the show – Liza Minelli.
“I remember Liza Minelli coming on and I thought ‘Oh my God!’, I nearly had a heart attack with her singing Freddie’s song because he idolized her”. says Jim Jenkins, “I remember her singing We are the Champions and saying ‘Freddie, just to let you know we were thinking of you!’. The next thing, we were in a service station on the way home, buying all the newspapers, I can’t even remember leaving the stadium. It’s like a haze in my mind Dave, that gig. I get flashes of it, it’s very strange”.
Jon Fowler agrees, ” The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when Liza Minelli came on. I’m not saying she was the best but it was the very fact that Freddie would have loved that”.
As well left the stadium, under the video screen of the left side of the stage, we got a cheery wave from Spinal Tap as they got into their limo. It was a surreal but lovely moment ending a superb but emotional day.
The long drive back for us Northerners added to the exhaustion. Jim Jenkins recalls, “I didn’t get home until 5am on the Tuesday. I was knackered. Then of course we were watching the recording. I remember going to work on the Tuesday morning but I had to come home. I came home in the afternoon and went to bed, until Wednesday morning”.
I, myself, was 18 years old at the time of the concert. Less than 24 hours later after being a few feet away from Queen performing with all these legends, I was back at my part time college job at Superdrug in Stockport, stacking cans of Panda Pop! It seemed like it had been a dream. It took me a long time to come down from that day and it still remains my favourite concert that I have ever been to.
Ray Burdis reflects on the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert’s legacy, “It was tremendous for AIDS awareness. At that time, a lot of people around us were dying. It was weird because there was that paranoia about it. We all were a bit paranoid. I remember me and my mates going to weight lifting classes and a guy there died of AIDS. Two of my mates went to the doctors thinking they could get it from the metal bars. We laugh now, thinking how stupid that was but at the time… It was like when the pandemic first broke out here, you know? No one quite knew what was going on. I think that concert did bring people together.
“It’s amazing isn’t it, if Freddie had it ten, twenty years ago, he’d probably still be alive today”.
Personally, I think a huge amount of credit must go to Brian May, Roger Taylor, John Deacon and Jim Beach. It can’t have been easy putting a show such as this together when they were all mourning their dear friend. The concert did so much good, not only in raising money and raising AIDS awareness but helping the fans celebrate their hero. I think it also challenged perceptions of homosexuality/bisexuality. Freddie had been subject to press intrusion during the time he had been dealing with his illness and there had been some pretty nasty things said about him in the media following his death. This concert felt like it was the band, the fans, the rock elite and the rock community striking back on Freddie’s behalf.
For Queen fan, Denise Silcock, it inspired her to put on her own events to raise money for HIV/AIDS charities:
“When I got back home I thought ‘I’ve got to do something, I can’t let this go’. I was in a fortunate position where I worked for a newspaper, so I could get into places where other people couldn’t. I was ringing around other people. I found a venue, which was only across the road from where I worked. I went and asked them ‘Would you mind if we put on a big event? We’ll be raising money for AIDS Awareness’. They went ‘Yes, that’s alright!’. At the time, there was a lot of stigma went with it as well. So that’s how it kicked off. The first one was in April 1993, to celebrate the first anniversary of The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. Honest to God, I could not believe the response! It was just incredible, absolutely amazing. We wanted to emulate Freddie’s parties, because he was so famous for his parties. I was getting invited onto radio shows and talking to politicians about things. I went on training courses for AIDS awareness, just to get more information. That’s what I wanted to do as well, make sure that Freddie didn’t die in vain and get some important messages across. We bought a specialist bed for sexual health, that is in Bolton Hospital. We also helped to make one million red ribbons”.
Thirty years on, the The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert is still shown regularly and it is often watched with much fascination by Queen fans who weren’t even born when it happened. It remains a great tribute to one of the greatest rock musicians of all time. It’s also a great time capsule that features other iconic artists such as David Bowie, Mick Ronson, George Michael and Elizabeth Taylor, who are sadly no longer with us.
Like Freddie himself, there has never been anything else quite like it.
❉ The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness took place on Easter Monday, 20th April 1992 at Wembley Stadium in front of a 72,000 sold-out crowd and global broadcast audience of over one billion. It was released on 2 September 2013 by Eagle Vision on SD Blu-ray featuring upscaled standard definition original material with uncompressed stereo and DTS-HD surround sound. Click here to buy: https://amzn.to/3vwZ1fz
❉A regular contributor to We Are Cult and David Geldard is co-editor (with Jay Gent) of In the Lap of the Gods: Queen & Freddie Mercury: Music and Memories, due to be published by Cult Ink later this year with all profits to be donated to The Mercury Phoenix Trust and from which this article’s contributions from Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert TV producer Ray Burdis, Queen’s official biographer Jim Jenkins, Freddie Mercury’s personal assistant Peter Freestone, In the Lap of the Pods Queen podcast host Paul Moody, and Queen fans Jon Fowler and Denise Silcock have been excerpted with their kind permission. David hosts the Classic Rock Hub on http://fabradiointernational.com and tweets as @DaveOfAndrozani