On July 13, 1985, at 6.41pm in London, history was made. Freddie Mercury walked out on stage at Wembley Stadium, followed by fellow icons Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. There were almost 80,000 crammed into the venue with up to two billion watching around the world. Everybody there on the day and across four decades agrees that Queen stole the show. Yes, they are a natural stadium band with an extraordinary back catalogue and one of the greatest frontmen of all time. But the likes of Bono, Elton John, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, George Michael, Paul McCartney and more also played that day. Queen had an extra trick up their sleeve.
Earlier that year, Queen had played another legendary concert in Rio, with a live audience in excess of 700,000 across two nights.
But Live Aid stripped all the acts back to the basics. No rehearsals, no sound checks, no special lighting or effects in broad daylight.
Taylor later said; “Lights are everything, but they do nothing in the day time. We never performed in the day time.” He added: “The sound on stage was so terrible. It was, and it was very archaic if you look at it.”
So how did Queen upstage everyone else?
It was all down to the band’s sound engineer, Trip Khalaf. The movie Bohemian Rhapsody shows the band’s manager Jim Beach sneakily turning up all the sound levels, but it was Khalaf in real life who found a clever way around the local Brent Council limits on noise levels.
Brian May told Mojo in 1999: “We didn’t have a soundcheck, but we sent our brilliant engineer to check the system, so he set all the limiters for us. We were louder than anyone else. I remember being in the audience and hearing the first few acts thinking that I could hardly hear them. You’ve got to overwhelm the crowd in a stadium.”
Lesley Ann Jones is the author of Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography, and went on the road with the band many times. She was standing side-stage at Live Aid.
She also confirmed the story: “Queen had their sound engineer go out the front to ‘check the system’, but what he was really doing was whacking up the sound level, so Queen were actually producing a sound on the day that was much louder than all the other bands that had come before. So, of course, people stood up and took notice.”
Naturally, none of this detracts from the sheer inspired genius of the band’s performance and Freddie’s total command of the crown in the stadium and watching at home.