Oh, Younger Enthusiast, sit yourself down and get comfortable: your Uncle TotD has a story for you, one about victory and destiny and tragedy and farce, and simultaneously a tale of both absolute self-possession, and utter lack of self-awareness. It is set in 1985, before the medium upon which you read these words existed (kinda), during an age when Rock Stars ruled the earth. They dominated the popular culture just as thoroughly as Jay, Bay, and Ye do today; the weight of the record industry–much more powerful back then–was behind them, and their doings and happenings made the paper, and not just the music rags. (One day, Younger Enthusiast, I will tell you about newspapers.)
There’s this guy (all stories start with that phrase) named Bob Geldof, Irish guy from a band called the Boomtown Rats who had one truly majestic single called I Don’t Like Mondays. It sounds like this:
I have literally never heard another Bootface Cats song, but Mondays is the best song ever written about a female school shooter. Bob Geldof also played Pink in the movie version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and he was a radio deejay, and a journalist, and he went to parties. Whatever the Irish term for gadfly is, that’s what Bob Geldof was. Nowadays, he’d have an impeccably curated Instagram account.
Down the pub one night, a bloke said to Bob Geldof, “You know there’s a place called Africa?”
And Bob Geldof said, “No! Tell me everything.”
In 1984, Africa’s terrible place was Ethiopia. (Africa always has a terrible place.) Famine had struck, aided along by first the kleptocrat tyrant who was fucking everything up, and followed by the rebels who overthrew him and immediately began fucking everything up even harder. Trying to raise money, Bob Geldof called in favors from the British music world and recorded a Christmas tune, one as dunderheaded as it is catchy: Do They Know It’s Christmas?
So much casual smoking.
Anyway, that was called Band Aid, and it opened up the floodgates to a surge of shit: U.S.A. For Africa’s We Are The World, and then the metal guys did one, and I think there was a Canadian one that I’m sure one of the Northern Enthusiasts will post: the biggest stars you could get, singing the worst song you could write. (Except for Do They Know: Bono’s lead singering is a hoot, and George Michael’s verse is a joy, and the big silly FEED THE WOOOOOR-RLD at the end is either soaringly cynical or adorably naive, and either way is okay with me.
A single–even a hit Christmas single–will not feed the world. You might be able to feed a small family, but not the world. Certainly not Africa.
Queen had been thinking of Africa, too: South Africa, specifically. They had played there in November of ’84, and it had not gone well at the shows or around them: scheduled for 12 shows at the Sun City Casino, Freddie’s voice blew on the first night; he left the stage in tears, and the band had to cancel five nights.
Also, it was Sun fucking City. Strap in, Younger Enthusiast, as it’s time for another round of: The Past Was Terrible. From 1948 to 1991, South Africa had as official policy something called Apartheid.
Originally, South Africa–being in Africa–was full of black people. Then white people showed up, mostly the Boers (who were Dutch) and the British (who were British), and then those white people found diamonds and gold, and then many more white people showed up. The two white tribes fought a few wars, but then intermarried to the point where they were one white tribe. At this point, they began to fight the black tribe. (And, of course, by “tribe,” I mean the people who were living there first and not bothering anyone.)
And say this about Afrikaners: they were massively skilled at being atrocious to black people. America is good, and Australia has had its moments, but the Afrikaners maintained Apartheid in the face of international censure and internal rebellion for half-a-century. (It might have helped that neither the US nor the UK cut off trade with South Africa in any way.) Blacks were restricted in terms of housing, jobs; simply put: under Apartheid, blacks did not have as many rights as white people.
This was 1985, Younger Enthusiast, and–if I may speak simply once again–white people weren’t supposed to be acting this way any more. The atom had been split, and the moon trod upon: knock it off with the King Leopold bullshit. No sports team would play South Africa, and bands weren’t supposed to, either; most musician’s unions had rules about not going there.
(Sun City wasn’t technically in South Africa: it was in Bophuthatswana, which was a country within South Africa, but no one would recognize it because the whole thing seemed like a scam of some sort, so Sun City was really in South Africa.)
Queen played Sun City. They insisted on an integrated audience, and paid for a school to be built and other charity stuff, but the fact is that Queen played Sun City, against Little Steven’s express wishes.
So they were on everyone’s shit list, but Bob Geldof still called them to do his next charity benefit, which was not a single but a concert, and not a concert, but two simultaneous concerts on two separate continents broadcast to 1.5 billion people. Wembley in London, which held 72,000, and the old JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, where they packed in 100,000 that day. (Bill Graham produced the Philly show.)
It was everybody: the Stones and Dylan and U2 and Tina Turner and the Beach Boys and Tom Petty and Bowie and Sting and Madonna and Phil Collins and Phil Collins (he took the Concorde and appeared at both shows) and the Pretenders and The Who and Elton John and Run DMC. Led Zeppelin was there. The fucking Zep, man.
Queen knocked all their dicks in the dirt.
Human beings walk onto stage or even run, but Freddie pranced with that springy, kicky run he did: his heels hit his ass with each stride so the folks in the very last row know that he is running. He makes no hand gestures–that wouldn’t be seen in the back of the stadium–instead using his whole fist-topped arm to punctuate his lines
They do Bohemian Rhapsody first, and though the song starts with Freddie on piano he has to greet the crowd first: he punches the air, big roundhouses that end up above his own shoulder, and raises his hands in victory–this is before he’s done anything, mind you–and then back to the piano, where the crowd joins him without any prompting.
And it is here that you realize that while there were 72,000 in the stadium, there were 1.5 billion watching live, and another nine million on YouTube, and you must remember that the legend of this performance was based as much on what was broadcast as what was seen that afternoon in London. And what was broadcast was Freddie Mercury; there are three other men in the band, but none of them get any close-ups: the director stays with Freddie for virtually the entire set.
Mostly because the director figured that if he stayed on Freddie, he could get shots like this:
This was Radio Gaga, the second song–they only did the first verse of Bohemian Rhapsody–and once free from the piano, Freddie danced across the stage with his chest and cock proudly thrust towards 1.5 billion people, and then he planted himself there with his legs spread and dared the world not to look at him.
And sometimes he boogied across the stage. It looked like this:
These are motions designed for, and honed by, crowds. Large rooms with multiple levels, the farthest fan was hundreds of feet away, and detail was lost: broad and purposeful gestures would carry back to the cheap seats–Queen didn’t have a video screen–but amplified and magnified by the television cameras, they become mesmerizing and almost alien. Humans don’t move that way. Only Freddie Mercury moved that way.
At the end of the song, Brian and Freddie and John Deacon walk back to the drum riser and try not to fuck up the ending.
Freddie had done his vocal call-and-response routine since the band’s inception, and the Queen fans would not have been surprised to hear the ecstatic, almost aggressive, answer Wembley gives him: that’s how crowds always reacted when Freddie wanted to sing with them. How many people get a chance to sing with Freddie Mercury?
Into Hammer To Fall, which is a big sloppy rocker with a big dumb riff, and while he should be singing the second verse Freddie starts dancing with the cameraman, round and round with a naughty smile on his face; when he walks away from the cameraman he looks like this:
(You’ll notice Freddie’s studded armband. In the pre-Grindr days, Younger Enthusiast, there was something called the bandana code. Gay guys would put bandanas in their pockets, dangling out, and the color and placement would signify their specific interest: a blue one in the left pocket meant you wanted to get a beej; right pocket meant you wanted to give a beej. The studded armband was an offshoot of the code, and when you wore it on your right bicep it meant that you wanted to have sex with 72,000 people and also 1.5 billion people.)
At the end of the song, Brian and Freddie and John Deacon walk back to the drum riser and try not to fuck up the ending, but they fuck up the ending.
Queen never did much jawing onstage: Freddie made arch asides in between songs, and Brian usually introduced everyone, but before Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Freddie says this:
“That means all of you.” And the crowd roars because it is the best kind of show biz bullshit, and that is sincere show biz bullshit.
It is always apparent when someone does not know how to play the guitar, even before a note is struck, just from the way they wear the sucker. Freddie often disparaged his skills on the piano, and while he was a self-taught and highly idiosyncratic player, he accomplishes the one true goal of any musician, which is that he sounds like himself. He also made light of his guitar playing, but there he was right: Freddie had no fucking idea how to play the guitar.
On the other hand, he wrote Crazy Little Thing Called Love on a guitar, and it became a #1 hit single everywhere in the world. Did you ever write a #1 hit single on an instrument you had no fucking idea how to play? No. No, you didn’t.
If there’s a questionable choice in the set, it is this song: why make Freddie stand there with a Telecaster when he could be being Freddie? The question is resolved when one realizes that no one “makes” Freddie do anything, and he must have wanted to do that song, so shut up and stop being a picky little nerd.
At Live Aid they had lights on the side of the stage–green, yellow, and red–that flashed down and showed you your time; no act got more than twenty minutes, and both Bob Geldof and Bill Graham had threatened to pull the power of anyone who went over. (Geldof didn’t: The Who went five minutes over. Bill Graham totally would have.)
With four minutes left, Queen plays their fifth #1 hit of the set, which is the traditional set closer We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions. (WWRY/WATC reached the top spot in France, and Hammer To Fall was number one with a bullet point in the Fillmore South charts this week.) And we can both agree to pretend there is no sickly colonialist implication inherent in a London crowd singing We Are The Champions at a bunch of starving Africans.
Freddie looked like this:
There’s other tidbitty gossip, of course: Queen’s sound guy–perfectly named Trip–removed the limiters from the board, making them louder than all of the other bands; and Freddie hit on an oblivious Bono backstage.
The thing that matters–if it does–it that there were a little under five billion people on the planet in 1985; a third of them watched this show, and Queen won the day. These twenty minutes would lead to their biggest tour, and greatest success, and Freddie would be dead in four years.
I just don’t want you to get your hopes up. This story has a sad ending.