Freddie Mercury delivered the performance a lifetime on July 13, 1985 — and all it took was 20 minutes. Queen’s set at the historic Live Aid charity concert inside a packed Wembley Stadium has gone down in music legend, representing the definition of rock ‘n’ roll excellence to millions of fans. The six-song run-through serves as the triumphant finale for the record-breaking — and Oscar-nominated — biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek as the volcanic frontman. Though some moments were indeed engineered for dramatic effect, according to those who were there that day, the magic was even bigger than the big screen.
Though it seems strange now, Queen were at a commercial nadir prior to taking the stage that day. “People thought Queen’s best moments were behind them,” BBC broadcaster Paul Gambaccini tells PEOPLE.
“’Bohemian Rhapsody’ was 10 years old at that point and The Game, which had two American number ones — “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust” — was five years old. Going into the gig, the hot acts of the day were U2 in London and Madonna in Philadelphia.” Lesley-Ann Jones, the author of Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury, agrees. “They were sort of the elder statesman of rock. Queen were not cool,” she says. “They are cool today, but they weren’t cool back then. You were either a Queen fan or you really weren’t a Queen fan.”
There was even some mild concern within Queen’s own camp about the future of the band. “There’s a real possibility they were going to break up around then, because they’d been doing it for a long time,” Queen roadie Peter Hince explains. “I think [bassist] John [Deacon] was pretty tired and he had this big family, and Fred was doing his solo stuff, so I think they were at a low ebb. I didn’t think they’d definitely break up, but it was more like, ‘Well, what are they going to do next?’”
Despite the film’s portrayal of upheaval within the band, in reality they were extremely close. “We’d known each other a long time and we were almost like family,” guitarist Brian May told PEOPLE in 2017. “We had no airs and graces with each other.” Hince also rejects the notion that the group were at odds with one another. “Certainly they would argue in the studio, and they would argue over things on tour. But the way it was shown was wrong. Leading up to Live Aid it appears that the band fired Freddie, which just never happened.”
Director Rudi Dolezal was another one of the privileged few to witness the band at work in the studio while working on the visuals for “One Vision” and many of their other music videos. “Queen was a democratic band. The four of them were equal. When they had arguments in the studio, when I was present, Freddie was always the one who said, ‘Come on, let’s not fight here.’ He was the peacemaker, and not the one who was the problem by being a diva.”
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For all of Queen’s ups and downs in the first half of the ‘80s, Bob Geldof‘s invitation to perform at Live Aid would permanently cement their status as one of the greatest live acts of all time. The biggest names in music pledged to appear at Wembley that hot July day, including David Bowie, Elton John and Paul McCartney, which added to the stress of a tightly scheduled satellite broadcast. “It was hard work, and there was obviously a lot of tension,” says Hince. “For the first time Queen went on to a stage without a sound check!” But Brian May remained confident. “It wasn’t such a foreign territory to us,” he explained to PEOPLE. “We knew how to play a football stadium because we’d already done it in South America. To most of the people who appeared at Live Aid it was very daunting and very difficult because they hadn’t developed that knack of transmitting the energy to a huge stadium, whereas we went on knowing we could connect.”
Though Mercury did bring his new boyfriend, Irish hairdresser Jim Hutton, to watch in the wings, he did not actually make a pitstop that day to introduce his love to his parents. Nor would he ever. Mercury’s family, Parsee Indians who lived in the African protectorate of Zanzibar before settling in the UK, practiced Zoroastrianism, a strict ancient faith.
“Freddie’s parents weren’t aware of Jim until after Freddie died,” says Jones. “He could never come out and be gay or bisexual because their religion does not allow it. He was very respectful of his parents and he did see them, but they weren’t aware of his private life until after he died. I’m sure that we would’ve found a way dealing with it, but they were from a different generation and the expectations were different. They weren’t uncompassionate people, they were very loving parents, but they were from a different time, from a different country and a different religion.” As in the movie, they watched their son’s performance on television.
At 6:41 p.m. Mercury stepped out in front of 70,000 people — plus the hundreds of millions watching on television — and delivered a 20-minute performance for the ages. “They just nailed it,” says Hince. “I think it was the right time. The audience had to sit through bands who maybe weren’t as exciting as Queen were. More laid back. And I thought they needed a kind of shot in the arm, you know? Queen came on and just ripped the place up.”
Their stage presence had been honed to perfection through a decade of shows, and their truncated setlist was skillfully crafted for maximum impact. “They had whipped their set into time during their rehearsals at the Shaw Theater the week before,” says Gambaccini, who was commentating for the BBC at Live Aid that day. “They took very seriously to heart Bob Geldof’s admonition to all the performers, ‘Do your hits. Don’t promote new songs, and you have to keep to a certain time, because the satellites are booked.’” Catching the set on a monitor in the star-studded backstage area, he knew he was watching something special. “You could feel the frisson amongst the artists,” he says. “Everybody realized that Queen was stealing the show.”
The impact of the performance was immediately obvious even to Brian May. “I don’t think we realized how much we’d evolved, but it was apparent after we came off that stage at Live Aid that we had connected in a way that absolutely fitted the occasion.” The British public — if not the world — made it clear that the band was the audience favorite. “The BBC took a survey of its listeners and viewers the following week asking who was the best at Live Aid,” remembers Gambaccini. “Sixty percent said Queen. Now, when you bear in mind who else was on that bill: Elton, McCartney, Bowie. For more than 50 percent of an audience to agree on anything is amazing. But for 60 percent to say that the world’s greatest were outshone by Queen on the day — that shows you the power of that performance.”
As far as his friends are concerned, Mercury never aimed for anything less. “He strove to be the best, to be the biggest band, to put on the biggest show, and to raise his game,” says Hince. “He had that effect on everyone around him.”