On April 20th, 1992, over 72,000 people packed London’s Wembley Stadium to honor Freddie Mercury five months after the Queen frontman died from complications related to AIDS. Mercury was one of the most beloved performers in rock and an amazing lineup gathered that day to honor him, including Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, David Bowie, George Michael, Elton John, Roger Daltrey, Def Leppard, Tony Iommi and many, many others. “We’re here to celebrate the life and work and dreams of one Freddie Mercury,” an emotional Brian May told the audience. “We’re gonna give him the biggest send-off in history!”
Highlights of the long night included George Michael and the surviving members of Queen performing “Somebody to Love” and David Bowie re-teaming with his Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson for “All the Young Dudes” and “Heroes,” but the one that had everyone talking the next day came near the end when Elton John and Axl Rose joined forces for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Axl was battling intense accusations of homophobia over the lyrics to his song “One in a Million” and casual use of the word “faggot” and this pairing seemed designed to at least partially put that issue to rest, or maybe he just wanted to perform with his childhood hero and one of his greatest influences. (If you doubt that, listen to “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and “November Rain” back to back.)
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“Bohemian Rhapsody” is notoriously difficult to play live considering the layers of vocal overdubs that Mercury slathered onto the original recording. Much like Queen often did in concert, Elton opted to skip the opening “Is this just fantasy” section and begin the song with the first verse. And much like Queen again, they simply ran a recording of the original “I see a little silhouetto of a man” verse. That’s easy enough for Wayne and Garth to lip sync, but basically impossible to actually sing without assembling some sort of insane choir. Axl Rose ran onstage to belt out the frantic “so you think you can stop me and spit in my eye” section before locking voices with Elton for the “nothing really matters” outro.
Months later, Axl and Elton would perform together again at the MTV Video Music Awards and in 1994 Axl would induct Elton into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s unclear if they’ve had any sort of communication since then. But earlier this year, Elton John defended his decision to embrace both Axl Rose and Eminem, who also dealt with accusations of homophobia. “I’m always a supporter of the people that are getting trashed,” he said. “Never in a million years did I think [Axl Rose] was homophobic. So I did things. I did the MTV Music Awards with him and the Guns N’ Roses. And I did the Grammys with Marshall and I became very big friends with Marshall. I’ll fight for anyone who is misunderstood and misrepresented by the idiots out there.”