In 1985, when Bob Geldof organized Live Aid, the historic duel-venue charity event held at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia and Wembly Stadium in London, his intentions were simple: to put on a talent-packed, 16-hour rock concert aimed to benefit the debt-ridden nations of Africa, as well as—maybe, possibly—pat himself on the back at the same time. (He wasn’t the only one patting for long, however. A 34-year-old Geldof was knighted for his efforts shortly thereafter.)
Still, after the historic dust had settled, few really remember whether the money went to the right hands, and fewer still have any recollection of Bob Dylan’s allegedly offensive remarks during his performance. Was Cat Stevens there? Or Joan Baez? Definitely Phil Collins. Looking back, it’s all so foggy—save for one crystal-clear, indisputable takeaway: Queen absolutely slayed Live Aid. In the spirit of Julius Caesar, they came, they saw, they conquered. And that, in the end, is what everyone remembers: Queen was king of Wembly Stadium.
One year after that galvanizing performance, the band set off on their famed Magic Tour, which, despite being Freddie’s final moments as frontman, finished its course by ravaging Wembly Stadium one last time. And, of course—luckily!—the cameras were rolling. Now this bittersweet moment, a year before Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in ’87, is marking its 25th anniversary in the form of a 2-disc DVD set, complete with a 40-page color booklet, behind-the-scenes interviews and footage of the band in rehearsal. All these extras serve well in rounding out the experience, but there’s no getting around what we’re here for: Queen’s electrifying final night at Wembly Stadium.
And what a night it was. From the onset of this nearly two-hour performance, Queen has Wembly locked into a master–servant relationship, and with opener “One Vision,” the crowd is whipped into a frenzy. “One voice, one vision!” bellows Freddie, to Brian May’s courtly equivalent of an AC/DC riff. As you try to take in Queen’s unbreakable command of its audience, you realize Rolling Stone wasn’t so hyperbolic in dubbing them “the first truly fascist rock band.” It’s simple: Freddie and company had charisma, adhering strictly to the word’s etymology of “divine favor.”
With a tizzy of smoke machines and May’s wailing blues asides, the band segues into “Tie Your Mother Down.” Tens of thousands of heads bop in unison, and for such an impossibly big occasion, Freddie rises to the spectacle and allows it to empower, rather than intimidate him. After just two songs, Freddie is drenched in sweat. “How’s it all going, my beauties?” he asks, sipping beer from a plastic cup. “You wanna fool around?” Then May’s arpeggios sound, and Freddie’s clarion falsetto spells out the opening of “In the Lap of the Gods.” Later, they muscle the song’s chorus and, in ecstatic harmony, the crowd mirrors its liturgical power.
In a performance of countless highlights, “A Kind of Magic,” the title track of the band’s 1986 album, proves especially memorable. Used in promotion for the Magic Tour, bulbous likenesses of each band member bob and hover over the hands of the crowd as drummer Roger Taylor builds momentum teasing a cymbal. Over top, May releases delayed and dreamy guitar whelps, and then the tension is broken: “It’s a kind of magic!” Freddie shouts. The crowd erupts with cries of joy. Colored lights crisscross the stage to the sound of ricocheting lasers, and Freddie gestures with Cesarean authority. His fans are a mixed multitude—patrician and plebeian alike. After a chorus or two, the song’s stair-step verse finally yields to May’s wailing, smooth-as-cream solo. Our Queen is a benevolent ruler.
Later, for the band’s truncated version of “I Want to Break Free,” Freddie gestures and embodies his words with typical assuredness. At his beck and call, the packed London stadium barks every lyric with gemlike clarity. If he wanted, the crowd could sing the whole song for him. Such is his power. May lays into a raunchy solo, matching perfectly the song’s escapist, undeterred melody. Every note is hammered with aggressive vibrato—and on and on the night goes, with the band peeling off its greatest hits with, at turns, stern, romantic and playful abandon.
Finally, the moment comes. With the ringing last notes of “We Are the Champions,” and Queen successfully destroying both London and all the world’s collective mind, Freddie curtsies with royal distinction, by now arrayed in the regalia of a British monarch after a quick costume change. The song’s endless outro stretches and bangs for dramatic effect as Freddie, both our king and Queen, tips his hat—or, in this case, crown—to an audience successfully romanced and banged into its refractory period. “Thank you, beautiful people,” he says, with the spirit of a benediction. “Good night. God bless you.”
Free of their instruments, all the group takes their bow, and May’s filigreed instrumental of “God Save the Queen” swells over Wembly’s PA system. Patriotic Britons recite the theme’s lyrics in unison and, with that, it’s over—a performance easily in league with James Brown’s Live at the Apollo or Elvis’ ’68 Comeback, caught at first on tape and now on DVD for its 25th anniversary. Simply put, if you care to mine pop music’s brightest moments in the last half-century, you’d be remiss to overlook this exhilarating, domineering and, yes, even fascistic document of a rock band at the height of its empire.