It’s an age-old question: what’s the greatest gig ever?
You’ll probably have your own view on it. It might be that legendary band you saw headlining a festival back in the day. It might be the superstars-in-waiting you caught in a club in the days before they were famous. It might be a band you’d never heard of before and never heard of again, who blew you away on an otherwise unmemorable Tuesday night down the local rock club.
All of those are completely valid. We’re all got our personal favourites, for our own different reasons (for me it’s Metallica at Sheffield City Hall back in the ’80s – the first major gig I ever went to, and one I remember vividly despite it being possibly the drunkest I’ve ever been).
But, truly, when it comes down to it, there’s really only one contender for the greatest gig ever.
And that’s Queen at Live Aid.
Live Aid was unarguably the biggest collection of rock and pop stars ever assembled – everyone from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Status Quo to Mick Jagger, David Bowie and The Hooters (remember them?) took to the stages in London and Philadelphia. But when it came down to it, it was Freddie Mercury and co who stole the show from under everyone else’s noses.
The impact it had even at the time was tremendous. “It’s a band in full flight,” says Extreme’s Gary Cherone, a confirmed Queen diehard and a man who knows a thing or two about stagecraft. “Every band should watch that footage to see how it’s done.”
He’s got a point. Queen’s entire Live Aid set is available on YouTube, and it’s the greatest 21 minutes and four seconds of live music you’ll ever see. Here’s one of the greatest bands of them all, in their pomp and splendour, winning over not just the 80,000 people in Wembley Stadium but more than a billion people who watched it worldwide. Stages don’t get any bigger than that, and Queen grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
But bands shouldn’t just watch it. They should study it, take it apart, learn from it. The performance is 30 years old – and Freddie Mercury himself is sadly long departed – but this is as timeless as rock ’n’ roll gets. Every young rock band should immerse themselves in it to learn how rock an audience. Hell, every not-so-young band would benefit from a refresher course too.
Let’s take those 45 minutes and break it down:
0:02 A brief introductory title flash, and – bang! – were there, the cameras panning up from a banner with the title of Queen’s most recent album, ‘The Works’, on and out across the vast stadium. It’s busy, although not everyone is here to see Queen. At least not yet.
0:30 Freddie sits down at the piano and hammers out a couple of wonky notes as he gets ready. And then it’s right into ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Most bands save the big hit until the end. But then Queen aren’t most bands.
2:43 Freddie’s up from the piano and out strutting in front of the audience for ‘Radio Gaga’. Bob Geldof pitched Live Aid as “a global jukebox”, and Queen are milking it for all it’s worth. None of this fannying about with some obscure B-side – get on and grab people by the throat.
4.25 ‘All we hear is Radio Gaga’ – and all we see is a vast and impressive sea of clapping hands as Mercury conducts the crowd. There are 80,000 people in the building, but it feels like he’s singing to each one individually. This is how you win over a crowd.
6.55 “EEEEEYYY-OHHHH!!!” Actually, forget that – THIS is how you win over a crowd. An epic 40-second acapella call-and-response that has every single person in the audience following Freddie’s lead. With the best will in the world, you don’t get that with Mick Jagger.
12.15 After a steel-plated ‘Hammer To Fall’ that shows what a fantastic heavy metal guitarist Brian May could have been if he weren’t so good at everything else, Freddie dedicates a playful ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, “to all the beautiful people here tonight.” Aw, he says the sweetest things.
16:03 Bam-bam-BAM, bam-bam-BAM! That sea of hands is back for ‘We Will Rock You’, Freddie strutting like a peacock on heat. All killer, no filler, as they say.
17:23 There’s only one song that can follow that, and it does. ‘We Are The Champions’ is the anthem for the ages – a mission statement and a capsule review of their performance.
21:00 “Goodbye, we love you!” And then it’s over. 21 minutes and four seconds of sheer greatness (OK, 24 minutes and 36 seconds if you add on Mercury and May’s acoustic performance of ‘Is This The World We Created?’, but that came later in the day so we won’t).