Less than half a year after Freddie Mercury died of bronchopneumonia, brought on by AIDS-related complications, his bandmates in Queen gave him what guitarist Brian May called “the biggest sendoff in history” in the form of a massive, star-studded concert in London’s Wembley Stadium. David Bowie, Elton John, Annie Lennox, George Michael, Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant, among several others, performed with Queen, and Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, U2 and even Spinal Tap performed their own mini sets at the four-hour extravaganza for some 72,000 Mercury fans. The event took place on April 20th, 1992.
One of the evening’s biggest highlights at what was officially known as “The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness” was “Under Pressure,” David Bowie’s dramatic 1981 duet with Queen. In Mercury’s stead, Annie Lennox sang the tune’s beautifully filigreed higher parts in counterpoint to Bowie’s forceful vocals. Dressed like a shiny, demented black swan – topped off with a raccoon smear of mascara over her eyes – she floated about the stage before inching closer and closer to Bowie leading to a theatrical yet sentimental embrace for the song’s final harmonies. It was a moving moment that drew deafening applause from the crowd.
For fun, also check out video of the ensemble’s visually subdued, but still arresting rehearsal of the song. About three minutes in, you can see George Michael looking transfixed as he sings along.
Aside from the cadre of talent that showed up to pay their respects, the concert is also notable for being the first time that music’s biggest artists came together to draw attention to AIDS awareness. Even more notable was the support of hard-rock and heavy-metal artists, like Def Leppard, Extreme, Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. James Hetfield sang Queens’ thrashy “Stone Cold Crazy” with the group (with an assist from Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi on guitar), while Axl Rose, whose presence at the event had been protested by the AIDS activist group ACT UP due to his use of homophobic slurs, sang both “We Will Rock You” and, in a duet with Elton John, “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the band.
But the biggest thing to come out of the show, other than a home-video release, was a collection of George Michael’s performances with (and a few without) Queen on an EP called Five Live that came out a year later. His performances of “Somebody to Love” and a duet with Lisa Stansfield on “These Are the Days of Our Lives.” Proceeds from the release benefited the Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charity organization that had been launched in Freddie’s name to combat AIDS, and it became a Number One seller in the U.K., going gold there; it bowed at Number 46 on the Billboard 200 but the songs received copious MTV airtime.
Although Michael made a prescient claim about AIDS at the event (If any of you really think that [AIDS victims] are all going to be gay people or drug addicts, you’re lining up to be one of those numbers”), talk related to the disease was kept to a minimum. “That’s definitely what Freddie would have wanted,” Queen drummer Roger Taylor told Rolling Stone at the time. “‘For fuck’s sake, dears, have fun.'”
Watch more highlights form the monument event here.
Queen with James Hetfield and Tony Iommi, “Stone Cold Crazy”:
Queen, Elton John and Axl Rose, “Bohemian Rhapsody”:
Queen and George Michael, “Somebody To Love”:
Queen and Robert Plant, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”: