It took the members of Queen 20 minutes to revive their careers. All they had to do was perform for nearly 2 billion people worldwide simultaneously.
Those 20 minutes, held at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1985 and broadcast live to locations throughout the world, have since become legendary. Numerous rock stars took the stage at that Live Aid benefit concert — Paul McCartney, U2, Elton John, the Who, members of Led Zeppelin — but Queen, and frontman Freddie Mercury specifically, is why it’s remembered. When folks think of Queen, they think of Mercury on that stage, clad in white, with outstretched arm and clenched fist.
“That is what really increased my interest in Freddie Mercury,” said Liane Hansen, who was among the 70,000 at Wembley Stadium that day. “The place was packed, shoulder to shoulder, and the music was incredible. It was seminal.”
It’s also the climactic moment in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the new Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic being released nationwide on Friday. While the film itself is getting mixed reviews, actor Rami Malek’s pitch-perfect turn as Mercury has been unanimously lauded. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman said the actor “takes on the role of Freddie Mercury as if born to it”; Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote that Malek “digs so deep into the role that we can’t believe we’re not watching the real thing.”
For Hansen, seeing the film’s teaser trailer was a bit surreal: It’s been more than 30 years since that evening at Wembley Stadium, but for her it nearly feels like yesterday.
“It’s like sense memory, you know. You see something like that, and every part of your body and mind remembers being there,” she said.
Some of the biggest hits from Queen’s Live Aid set — “We Are the Champions,” “We Will Rock You” — come from the band’s 1977 album “News of the World.” Through 1977 and ’78, Queen played 47 dates on that tour, including one at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, known these days as Oracle Arena, in Oakland, California. Jon Van Woerkom was 17 years old when he attended that show.
“He just took the stage and really, you know, just grabbed the audience,” Van Woerkom, who now lives in Roseville, California, said of Mercury. “The audience was totally all in.”
Van Woerkom remembers the music. He also remembers Mercury’s costume changes, of which there were many. Mercury embraced the pageantry of live performance more fully than almost anyone and wore all kinds of outfits on the “News of the World” tour — skintight patent leather biker suits, black-and-white checkered singlets with plunging necklines — but, Van Woerkom said, those get-ups always complemented rather than upstaged the music.
“They were just masters,” he said. “So for him to die when he did, from AIDS, was just a tragedy to music. An artist like Freddie Mercury — super creative, and that vocal range, even as he got older — he would have been able to keep performing. Such a creative artist, it makes you sad what the world has lost.”
Mercury died of complications from AIDS in 1991. In the years between Queen’s Live Aid performance and Mercury’s death, the band only toured once more, in 1986, but continued to release new music. Though reports of Mercury’s condition circulated for years, he didn’t publicly announce his AIDS diagnosis until the day before his death. Six months earlier, he and his band mates filmed a music video for the song “These Are the Days of Our Lives.” Mercury looks thin, emaciated and fragile. It was his final on-screen appearance.
“Everyone who had the affliction looked like that: skeletal,” Hansen said. “And that was hard to take, too. To see him bounce around that stage at Wembley, and then six years later he’s a skeleton of his former self? Whoa.
“Between 1985 and 1991, a lot of people died (from AIDS),” she added. “And you could see the physical signs of people who were dying. And it was a time when nobody was paying attention — for a long time. He was one of many, but every one was sad. 'Another one bites the dust,' you know. It was so sad because he could still be making really good music.”
The singer made a ton of it while he was alive. And those who saw him perform it in person will always be witnesses.
“Music — I don’t care whether you’re sitting in your room, driving down the road, or in church, or at a Queen concert — there is something about live music, and what it evokes,” Van Woerkom said. “Being there, what I came away with was that I was in the presence of greatness.”