The life of Freddie Mercury came to a sudden and saddening end on November 24th, 1991. Although rumours had circulated about his health throughout the late 1980s as Queen stopped performing live and Mercury greatly reduced his public appearances, the singer had only acknowledged his AIDS diagnosis the day before his passing. For music fans around the world, one of the greatest singers, songwriters, and frontmen in the history of music was now gone.
In their grief, Mercury’s bandmates decided to organise a tribute concert that would raise money for AIDS research. Announced during the 1992 BRIT Awards, tickets for the tribute show sold out within hours of their release despite having no additional acts signed on to the concert. The entertainment world was mourning, and when it came time to pay their respects, the public was eager to show their support.
It was only appropriate for the show to take place at the site of Mercury’s most iconic moment: Wembley Stadium, where Mercury commanded a packed crowd through sheer force of will and magnetism during Live Aid just seven years prior. In less than a decade’s time, that vibrant and authoritative presence would slowly fade away, even if his legacy was permanently imprinted in the minds of fans everywhere.
The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert was more than just a fundraiser and a memorial. It was a time when some of music’s biggest names could pay tribute to one of their fallen comrades. Some were old friends and collaborators, while others were high-profile acolytes who were raised on the band’s music. All told, a vibrant collection of artists walked onto the Wembley stage for one purpose: to try and reach those same heights that Mercury hit night after night.
To commemorate the concert’s 30th anniversary, we’re going band by band, artists by artist, and performance by performance to show how an eclectic mix of artists reinterpreted the Queen canon to pay tribute to Mercury. What guitarist Brian May told the crowd was “the biggest send off in history” became instant legend, with some of those performances that day being etched into the annals of rock and roll history. Through it all, the legacy of Mercury was kept centre stage.
Here’s an act-by-act breakdown of the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.
Part 1: Influences
The tribute concert was divided into two halves: the first being bands paying tribute to Queen’s music, and the second being the remaining Queen members performing with guest singers. Having catapulted into the mainstream with their self-titled 1991 album, Metallica were selling out stadiums and playing to festival crowds that were estimated to top one million.
They were one of the only big-name acts to not include a Queen song in their multi-song set. Instead, the band played three of their biggest hits from The Black Album: ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Sad But True’, and ‘Nothing Else Matters’.
Unlike their preceding act, Boston funk-metal act Extreme understood the assignment: this is a Queen-centred show, so play some Queen songs. Extreme didn’t just settle on one tune, however. Instead, the band busted out a medley of no less than ten different Queen songs run through in rapid succession. After that frenzied opener, the band went acoustic for a rendition of ‘Love of My Life’ followed by their own mellow hit, ‘More Than Words’.
Def Leppard entered the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in one of the stranger parts of their career. By that time, the band had lost guitarist Steve Clark and had seen their brand of glam metal become woefully passé. Still, their performances of ‘Animal’ and ‘Let’s Get Rocked’ are solid, but they really show off their best sound by bringing on Brian May for a rendition of ‘Now I’m Here’. May would later repay the favour by inducting Def Leppard into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
Bob Geldof / Spinal Tap / U2
Following Def Leppard’s performance, the show enters a bit of a lull as former Live Aid king Bob Geldof sings his then-recent song ‘Too Late God’, a song he introduces as being co-written by Mercury. Joke rockers Spinal Tap then take the stage in full noble regalia and announce that they’ve cut their set by “about 35 songs”, playing just ‘The Majesty of Rock’.
Despite going on after a literal parody band, U2 do their best to take the piss out of the entire evening by performing ‘Until the End of the World’ live from California via satellite. Being smack in the middle of their irony-laden ‘Zoo TV’ tour supporting Achtung Baby, Bono’s imitation of traditional rock-star swagger doesn’t really gel with the reverential tone of the concert, even if ‘Until the End of the World’ is as exciting as ever.
Guns ‘N Roses
Of all the Sunset Strip bands of the late 1980s, Guns ‘N Roses managed to survive by leaning on their hard rock bona fides. But the band’s setlist choices for the tribute concert still seems somewhat bizarre: ‘Paradise City’ is an obvious choice to whip the crowd into a frenzy, but Guns ‘N Roses opt to close their set with two covers, neither of which are Queen songs: Alice Cooper’s ‘Only Women Bleed’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. Both Slash and Axl Rose would make appearances later in the concert.
Mango Groove / Elizabeth Tayor / Freddie Mercury Compilation
A series of non-Wembley performances followed Guns ‘N Roses: South African Afropop band Mango Groove performed ‘Special Star’, actress Elizabeth Taylor made a speech regarding AIDS prevention and research, and a compilation of Freddie Mercury’s live frontman acts are shown. Meanwhile, the stage crew prep the stage for the surviving members of Queen.
Part 2: Queen and Guests
Joe Elliot and Slash
The past and present of glam metal come together on the first song with the members of Queen on stage: Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot and Guns ‘N Roses’ Slash team up for a rendition of ‘Tie Your Mother Down’.
It was a bombastic way to start the second act.
Roger Daltrey and Tony Iommi
Another instance of worlds colliding occurred next as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi teamed up with The Who singer Roger Daltrey. Iommi plays the intro to the Dio-era Sabbath song ‘Heaven and Hell’ before busting into the ‘Pinball Wizard’ intro for Daltrey’s entrance. The strange combo of performers then does a mighty version of ‘I Want It All’.
Zucchero / Gary Cherone / James Hetfield
A couple of one-offs follow: Italian singer Zucchero taking on Queen’s Spanish-tinged track ‘Las Palabras de Amor’, Extreme frontman Gary Cherone singing ‘Hammer to Fall’, and Metallica’s James Hetfield unleashing ‘Stone Cold Crazy’. The latter two also feature Iommi returning to the stage.
Queen was a bit medley-heavy during the tribute concert, freely mixing in songs from across their catalogue along with some of their guests’ best-known material. When former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant stepped on stage, he performed parts of ‘Innuendo’, ‘Kashmir’, and ‘Thank You’ before launching into ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, bringing his love of classic ’50s rock and roll to the throwback track.
Brian May and Spike Edney
Brian May gets his own solo spotlight for a brief rendition of ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’, a solo track that was originally intended to be included on The Miracle before being dropped. May performs the track with Spike Edney, who had provided keyboards, guitars, and extra vocals to support Queen live starting in the mid-1980s.
Paul Young / Seal / Lisa Stansfield
A series of singers take the stage to pay tribute to Queen’s ‘80s material: Paul Young goes for the live favourite ‘Radio Ga Ga’, Seal takes on ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’, and Lisa Stansfield opts for ‘I Want to Break Free’. Although these performances are solid, they serve as the warm-up for a legend to take the stage next.
Although the tribute concert is packed with stars, few guests get the kind of spotlight that David Bowie got. Giving a rare live performance of ‘Under Pressure’ with Annie Lennox, a rousing rendition of ‘All the Young Dudes’ with Ian Hunter, Mick Ronson, Joe Elliot and Phil Collen, and an emotional ‘Heroes’, followed by a rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. It remains one of Bowie’s most iconic live performances.
When Queen was faced with choosing who they believed to be the true successor to Mercury’s role in pop music, they saw George Michael as the closest modern figure. Michaels doesn’t hold back, launching into ‘39’ before going full operatic on ‘These Are the Days of Our Lives’ and ‘Somebody to Love’. Although he was already a massive star, Michaels’ performance was a career-defining moment.
Axl Rose / Elton John
The final pairing of the night was Guns ‘N Roses frontman Axl Rose and one of Mercury’s friends, Elton John. Together, the pair ambitiously took on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ before Rose left the stage and allowed John to perform a stirring version of ‘The Show Must Go On’ with Tony Iommi. Rose then put the hammer down with a wild version of ‘We Will Rock You’.
Liza Minelli / Finale
For the night’s finale, various swaths of previous performers join Liza Minelli on stage for a major singalong of ‘We Are the Champions’. May introduces Minelli as “the one person in the world that Freddie would be very proud to have stand in his footsteps”, and she gives a lavishly over-the-top version of the track.
As the stage floods with musicians, the show reaches its triumphant apex as the memory of Mercury continues to linger well into the requisite show-ending playing of ‘God Save the Queen’.