“We have to do something…”
Jacky Smith, Head of The International Official Queen Fan Club, recalls how the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert came to life and what it was like in the weeks building up to the show.
I remember the first discussion about this show… it was in the “band room” at the top of the band’s Pembridge Road offices, the evening after Freddie’s funeral. Roger, Dominique and I think, Chris “Crystal” Taylor, and me! We were drinking the Cristal champagne Freddie so loved – we probably pretty much cleared the stock always kept up there for band meetings! Roger was lounging in Jim Beach’s chair, with his feet on the table… he sat up, stood up, and declared “We have to do something…” and proceeded to outline the plans for his idea. “We must do a tribute gig, we can get everybody, they all want to do something for Fred”. He wasn’t wrong in that, so many of the world's top bands had been in touch, saying that if they were asked to do something for Freddie, they were all in. He ran off a few names, I only remember Guns N' Roses and Seal now, but pretty sure he mentioned loads more. I think he even mentioned Easter as a date, and Wembley Stadium as a venue, because we all thought that might be a bit soon to pull together a show the size of the one he had in his head! But the seed was sown right there. And it began to grow very quickly after that.
The weeks preceding the concert were absolute mayhem in the office. Gerry Stickells and his team were virtually living in the office, and an endless stream of people were coming and going. Roadies, lighting crew, sound people, merchandise companies, stagehands, other artist representatives, etc - pure havoc on some days! The band were always in and out, checking details, watching over proceedings with an eagle eye, determined that the event would be something they could be proud of – and something FREDDIE would have been proud of.
The artists who played were chosen by Roger, Brian and John. Every band and artist offered their services for free. But the concert was not endless, and many people were thanked but turned down. Rehearsals began about five weeks before the event, at the Townhouse Studios in Shepherds Bush. For the first week or so it was just the three members of Queen – going through their material, deciding what to play, and also working out what songs other artists would like to perform (or might be able to perform!) and also familiarising themselves with their own music again – they had not played live since Knebworth in 1986.
The following two weeks were spent in that studio, with a rota of artists joining them at set times to rehearse. The whole proceedings were then moved to one of the huge sound stages at Bray Studios near Windsor, so that the full show could be rehearsed – and those artists came day after day, giving their time unstintingly to ensure that the concert went smoothly and that they were able to give their best performances. I attended a few of those days, and it was the most incredible feeling to be in the same room as no more than 100 people, mostly crew and friends of the artists, and no more than 50f feet from Roger, Brian and John, and a succession of the most famous people in rock! On day one alone, I sat and watched George Michael bring the place to a complete standstill with Somebody To Love (especially that final high note…!), Elton John do Bohemian Rhapsody (Axl Rose never bothered with the rehearsals!), which was pretty funny as everyone in the room tried, in vain, to hit the high notes in the operatic section, it was quite a racket I can tell you! Robert Plant did a GREAT version of Innuendo (with a bit of the Led Zeppelin song Kasmir thrown in), which didn’t quite come across on the day of the show due to some microphone problems, but I assure you it was fabulous in rehearsal! There was also Brian, again silencing the room, as he performed Too Much Love at a tiny keyboard. David Bowie laughed his way through Heroes and All The Young Dudes (he was adorable, smiling and happy despite being there for so long!). Seal put his heart into Who Wants To Liver Forever, and despite not singing it on the day, Gary Cherone belted out Tie Your Mother down expertly.
Everyone was friendly, relaxed and enjoying themselves. I wandered around with some copies of the Tribute show poster, asking all of them to sign it, so we could auction them for the charity later on. They were all kind and obliging, and I got to shake hands and chat with some of my heroes, just WOW!
On the day, I was backstage at the start of the show, helping out where I could, showing folks their dressing rooms, getting more posters signed at the side of the stage as artists came off. The atmosphere was just amazing, electric. Then I went out front to watch…
I, like many others, could probably wax lyrical about that show, on and on. It was an amazing, emotional day for everyone concerned. I thought all of the artists involved gave their all and did their best with the unenviable task of trying to hit some of Freddie’s notes, which proved impossible for most (key changes had to be made!!). For me, George Michael stole the show with Somebody to Love, which to this day makes my spine tingle when I hear it! But everyone was brilliant. I thought David Bowie's impromptu Lord's Prayer brought more meaning to the concert, that of awareness, that much closer.
As Brian said on the night… it was “one of the biggest send off’s in history” – Freddie would have been proud indeed!
Head of The Official International Queen Fan Club