Freddie Mercury's Final Performance With Queen, Knebworth Park 1986
On 9th August 1986, over a hundred and twenty thousand people gathered outdoors at Knebworth Park to watch a number of British musical acts.
Topping the bill were the rock band, Queen, still riding high after their stunning performance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley and fronted by their charismatic vocalist, Freddie Mercury.
The concert was powerful and Queen’s performance outstanding. What none of us knew at the time, including myself, was that this concert would be the final performance of Freddie Mercury with Queen.
I thought it would be interesting to look back at that day and the concert for both people like myself, who were there, as well as other Queen fans who unfortunately were unable to attend for whatever reason.
I always knew I was a star And now, the rest of the world seems to agree with me.— Freddie Mercury
A brief history of Queen up to then
Queen were formed in 1971 and released their first album in 1973. They had a degree of success in Britain, but they were slow to gain wider recognition and it was their hit song and accompanying video, Bohemian Rhapsody which really brought them into the international limelight in 1975.
More hits followed, including stadium rock appeared at the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, when they produced one of the greatest performances of all time, in many people’s opinion.
And, we have no such thing as a budget anymore. Our manager freaks when we show him the bill. We're lavish to the bone, but all our money goes back into the product.— Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury was a charismatic frontman and knew how to work an audience. At times he could camp up his performance, other times, he could rock out, an ideal mixture for a singer in a pop rock band, playing to big venues. Mercury who was bisexual, was diagnosed as being HIV positive in 1987, according to his partner.
This would later develop into full blown AIDS and there there was no way of slowing the disease back then. His condition was kept secret until the 23rd November 1991 when Mercury’s illness was announced to the press. Just over 24 hours later, Mercury died. The Knebworth Park concert would prove to be his last with Queen.
Each gig should be unique. You're always treading that line between keeping yourself fresh and giving people something they want to hear.— Brian May
How the day of the concert went
Over 120,000 people attended the concert that day and the weather was close to perfect for an outdoor concert. Despite some traffic problems caused by the huge crowd, the atmosphere was generally relaxed and upbeat. The other bands that played that day were Beloius Some, Big Country and Status Quo. Beloius Some, an emerging act from the dance scene, was probably a bad choice for a Queen concert and wasn't received well by the audience.
Status Quo were on next and their performance went down much better. They would normally have been expected to appear as the penultimate act and appear just before Queen, but apparently they had to rush off to another gig that they were playing later that day.
During the Status Quo gig, there was an amusing incident when a roadie climbed on top of the stage and played a cut out guitar whilst headbanging to the music. The rumour is that Status Quo were so annoyed about being upstaged by the roadie, they sacked him!
Most of us in this business are insecure little show-offs.— Francis Rossi (Status Quo)
Next up were the Scottish band, Big Country, who were very big in the mid 1980s, but have since faded from public memory to some degree. Their lead singer was Stuart Adamson (who tragically died in 2001).
Their music was folk-influenced and their clever trick was to use sound effects to get their guitars to sound like bagpipes. They seemed like an odd choice for a Queen support band to me, but they played a decent set of music and went down reasonably well with the audience.
In true bombastic style, Queen arrived at Knebworth Park by helicopter. They played a two hour set which was greeted by a rapturous response from the audience.
As I mentioned in my introduction, nobody knew that this would be Freddie Mercury’s final performance with Queen at the time (according to Mercury’s partner, he wasn’t diagnosed as HIV positive until the following year, and he didn’t announce publicly that he was ill with AIDS until the day before his death in 1991).
Nevertheless, Mercury seemed to be in great spirits and full of energy that day. Queen delivered a stunning set, full of energy and slickness to a deliriously enthusiastic audience.
The Queen Line Up That Day
Freddie Mercury (vocals, piano, guitar)
Brian May (guitar, backing vocals, keyboards)
John Deacon (bass guitar)
Roger Taylor (drums, backing vocals)
Spike Edney (keyboards, piano, guitar, backing vocals)
When I'm dead, I want to be remembered as a musician of some worth and substance.— Freddie Mercury
The finale involved a particularly emotional rendition of God Save The Queen. Whether Freddie knew by then that he might be seriously ill and he was saying goodbye to his adoring fans, I really don’t know for certain. But the fact was, however, that we were witnessing the final concert of Freddie Mercury and Queen.