To be perfectly honest I was never a big fan of either Queen or the band’s lead singer Freddie Mercury. However, they were really good at what they did and I could respect them for that. While others might make claims on their behalf, they made no bones about what they were or what they did. They were the last great glam rock band. When Bowie took off his glitter paint post-Ziggy Stardust, they were the ones who carried on the spirit of glam—and they did a great job of it. Musically they were over the top without ever forgetting they were a hard rock band at heart. As far as flamboyance went, it didn’t matter what the rest of the guys in the band did, Mercury was flamboyant enough on his own to light up stadiums all over the world.
There’s also no denying the band and Mercury were incredibly popular. Not only were they able to sell out arenas around the world for their whole career, how many other bands can you name who played a key role in a mystery novel’s plot? (If you’re a Queen fan, you have to read Chris Brookmyre’s A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away.) Therefore, it’s not much of a surprise that when Mercury passed away from AIDS-related symptoms in 1991, the band would want to do something both in honour of his memory and to raise money to help combat AIDS. In 1992 the surviving members of the band, Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor, got together with a bunch of friends and thousands of screaming fans to hold a tribute concert to their deceased front man. While various versions of the concert have been released over the years, Eagle Rock Entertainment have now released the penultimate package of The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert on Blu-ray, including performances not released before now and all sorts of extras as well.
The concert was divided into two parts. The opening acts featuring Metallica, Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Bob Geldof, and various other bands playing their own tunes and covering some Queen numbers, and the main show featuring the surviving members of Queen being joined by guests to sing a string of their greatest hits and some of the guests’ tunes as well. With performers ranging from Liza Minnelli to Axl Rose appearing on stage (and Elizabeth Taylor popping up to make a speech about AIDS awareness) there was enough variety of styles and sound to please all tastes. While I could have easily done without the likes of George Michael and Lisa Stanford or some of the hard rockers who also graced the stage (sorry, never even heard of half of them), there were enough great performances from the rest to make it interesting.
Watching Roger Daltrey run onto stage swinging his microphone like a lariat, you’ll find it hard to believe the bugger had aged a day since Woodstock in 1969. Daltrey has always been the consummate performer, and his rendition of “I Want It All” was just another example of how great a showman he is. Watch how he not only uses his mic as a stage prop but how he positions it to control his singing volume. He knows he can project his voice into the stratosphere, so when he’s harmonizing with the rest of the band, he’s pulling the mic away from his mouth to avoid overwhelming their voices in the mix. Unlike some singers who think they have to deep throat a microphone, Daltrey lets it work for him and his voice.
It was also Daltrey who seemed to understand the most what the loss of Mercury meant to the other members of Queen. One of the special features included on the Blu-ray was a documentary made about the concert on its 10th anniversary. While nearly all the performers who appeared on stage were interviewed, Daltrey was one of the few who didn’t just mutter some platitude about “what a loss it was” in regards to Mercury’s passing. He talked about how he still hadn’t recovered from the death of The Who’s former drummer Keith Moon—how bands were like families—and how raw the wound must still be for the surviving members of Queen. Daltrey is not what anybody would call sentimental—he’s always struck me as a street kid who got lucky by becoming a rock star instead of a petty criminal—so when he says something like that he means it.
Back on stage, one of the better performances was Roger Plant camping it up for his version of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. In any images I’d seen of Plant prior to this show, he’d always come across as somebody who took himself a little to seriously. Seeing him starting to loosen up and have such a good time on stage was really cool. You can see he’s starting to change his approach to music and it’s like a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen with his career in the future.
While those two guys were cool, they weren’t the highlight of disc as far as I was concerned. Watching David Bowie and Annie Lennox singing “Under Pressure” is almost worth the cost of the disc on its own. Lennox looks like she stepped off the cover of one of Bowie’s old glam rock albums—white Kabuki makeup with a raccoon mask of black over her eyes—and wearing a stark grey and black dress. With Bowie doing his Thin White Duke thing, the visual contrast is amazing. Listening to how their voices intermingle was a joy. They both can run up and down the scale without any apparent strain and proceed to take turns singing low and high harmonies. It was not only great music, it was great theatre—which is, after all, what Queen was about.
However, if you want to talk about contrasts and great theatre, the best was saved for near the end of the concert. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more unlikely duo to share the stage than Elton John and Axl Rose, but that’s exactly what they did for a extremely intelligent and interesting version of the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody”. John opens the song, doing all the soft parts leading up to pseudo-choral bit in the middle. Instead of trying to recreate that live, the part of the original video for the song where Queen sang it was broadcast over the stadium’s video screens. Then, without missing a beat, the live band takes over for the hard rock segment of the song, with Rose doing the lead vocals. He and John come together centre stage for the song’s finale. It’s a perfectly executed piece of theatre and if they had ended the show right there it would have been a fitting tribute to what Queen had been.
Unfortunately, and this is probably why I was never a big fan of Queen, they had to take it one step more and do a couple of more songs, including “We Will Rock You,” with Axl Rose and a grande finale of Liza Minnelli leading everybody in “We are the Champions”. It all felt like a bit of a let down after the great performance Rose and John had given. I understand those were two of the band’s biggest hits and they wouldn’t want to leave them out, but they should have figured out something else. I also don’t understand having Minnelli singing the closing number either. She might have had a great and powerful voice at one time, but by 1992 she was a mere shadow of what she had once been and she had all the charisma of a wet blanket.
I had briefly mentioned the disc’s special features earlier. While the documentary about the concert doesn’t offer much more than people muttering the usual platitudes you’d expect to hear, the included footage of Annie Lennox and David Bowie rehearsing their performance is a treat. They’ve also included some nice information about the Mercury/Phoenix Trust and stills gallery from the concert. While this is a Blu-ray presentation, it’s important to remember the original concert was shot in 1992 and neither the sound nor the audio are of a quality you’re used to. That being said, the remastering job done on both is quite amazing as the quality was nearly as good as anything you’d buy recorded today.
The net proceeds from the sales of this disc are donated to the the Mercury Phoenix Trust, and after reading about the work they do I’d say they are more than worthy of being supported. They are working directly with grassroots front line organizations in the places the disease is still impacting the most. With prostitutes and the poor in both Africa and South East Asia, where they not only have to work against poverty but government antipathy and a serious lack of medical infrastructure. They are funding projects which are actually making a difference to people’s lives on a day to day basis, and that’s the best thing an organization like this can do.
Watching this disc makes you realize how much of what Queen was as a band was due to Freddie Mercury. The songs just don’t have the same qualities they did when sung by anybody else. You need to have the flamboyance, the arrogance, and the ego of a person like Mercury in order to bring them off. In the hands of other people they just sound like any other rock song, but somehow he was able to turn them into massive hits. Whether you liked the band or not, after watching this tribute to Mercury it’s impossible not to realize how much of an impact the man had on popular music during his career. For Queen fans who don’t already own a recording of this concert, it is a must-have.