On August 9, 1986, over 120,000 people gathered outdoors at Knebworth Park to watch a number of British musical acts. Topping the bill was the rock band Queen, fronted by their charismatic vocalist, Freddie Mercury, and still riding high after their stunning performance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium (July 13, 1985).
Knebworth was powerful and Queen’s performance was 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 the concert for people like myself, who were there, and for any Queen fans who missed it.
Other Bands at Knebworth Park
Despite some traffic problems caused by the huge crowd, the atmosphere was generally relaxed and upbeat. The other bands who 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 opening a Queen concert and wasn't received well by the audience.
Status Quo went on next, and their performance went down much better. They were expected to appear just before Queen, but apparently they had to rush off to another gig that they were playing later that day, so they went second.
During the Status Quo set, there was an amusing incident when a roadie climbed on 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 that they fired him!
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, taking his own life.
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.
- Freddie Mercury: vocals, piano, guitar
- Brian May: guitar, backing vocals, keyboards
- John Deacon: bass
- Roger Taylor: drums, backing vocals
- Spike Edney: keyboards, piano, guitar, backing vocals
As you can see in the documentary footage, Queen arrived at Knebworth Park by helicopter. Mercury seemed to be in great spirits and full of energy that day. Queen delivered a stunning, two-hour set full of energy to a deliriously enthusiastic audience.
Nobody knew at the time that this would be Freddie Mercury’s final performance with Queen. According to Mercury’s partner, Jim Hutton, Freddie wasn’t diagnosed HIV-positive until the following year (1987), and he didn’t announce publicly that he was ill with AIDS until the day before his death on November 24, 1991.
There is no official film of the concert, but Queen's official YouTube channel includes excerpts from Knebworth in a pair of live videos—"Radio Gaga" and "We Are The Champions"—and I've included links to both here.
However, it is worth noting that the audio was captured in high quality and much of it used on 1986's Live Magic album.
I always knew I was a star, and now the rest of the world seems to agree with me.
— Freddie Mercury
Queen: A Brief History
Queen first got together 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. It was their hit song—and its accompanying video—"Bohemian Rhapsody" which really brought them into the international limelight in 1975.
More hits followed and the band appeared at the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, where they gave one of the greatest performances of all time, in many people’s opinion.
Notes about Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury's Performance Style
Freddie Mercury was a charismatic entertainer 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 pop singer playing big venues.
When did Freddie Mercury find out he was HIV positive?
According to his partner, Jim Hutton, Mercury was diagnosed HIV-positive in April 1987.
This contradicts what was depicted in the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, which altered some of the facts and chronology of events in Mercury's life for dramatic effect. In real life, when his Live Aid performance happened in July 1985, Mercury had not yet been diagnosed as HIV-positive.
How did Freddie Mercury die?
Mercury died of bronchial pneumonia due to AIDS on November 24, 1991. On November 22, Freddie called Queen's manager, Jim Beach, to prepare a public statement, which was released the following day. That statement was the first time the general public learned that Freddie had AIDS.
What were Freddie Mercury's last words?
In his book, Mercury and Me, Hutton said that Mercury's final words were, “Pee! Pee!”
This was a request from the singer to be taken to the bathroom, as Mercury was extremely weak and unable to make the trip without assistance. Shortly afterwards, Mercury suffered a convulsion and fell into a coma. He never recovered consciousness.
When I'm dead, I want to be remembered as a musician of some worth and substance.
— Freddie Mercury
Questions & Answers
Question: In the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, Freddie Mercury finds out he has AIDS in 1985, is that true?
Answer: Although the movie is based on Mercury's life, it is a fictional account and contains many historical inaccuracies. Mercury was actually diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, and not before the Live Aid concert, as is depicted in the movie.
Jackie Allatson on July 02, 2020:
I was at the Knebworth concert and it was epic! Queen were always best live and I saw them 4 times over the years. I’ve just shared the knebworth film and shed some tears too - there will never be anyone who tops them in my opinion...long live Queen
Kathleen on November 30, 2019:
Freddy Mercury ... the greatest performer I have ever seen; the most beautiful vocalist I have ever heard. My heart was broken, never to be restored, November 24, 1991. I cannot listen or watch Queen without shedding heartfelt tears for the loss that we all have suffered. The movie, Bohemian Rhapsody of 2018, was absolutely amazing. The resemblance of the actors to Queen was mind-blowing. Freddy Mercury and Queen will always own my heart, my respect, and my love.
Judy Perry on June 02, 2019:
I saw Queen live in concert in September 1980 at Boston Gardens. It was the best rock concert I ever been to. Still a huge Queen fan!
Heather Riley on May 07, 2019:
I was at this concert, 24 yrs old, and until now never realized it was Queen's last. This was pre-big screen and I'm 5 ft tall. I don't think I'd been to an outdoor concert before. I went with my friend Ann-Marie and we watched the opening acts at a fantastic spot maybe 25 rows back from the stage. There was room to breath. Then Queen came on and the crowd surged forward. We had to go with them. The music was amazing but I never really got to see more than the tops of their heads. The ground in front of the stage was like a bowl, so as we were pushed forward we ended up lower than we were. Unfortunately I was at armpit height. Some nice guy hoisted me on my shoulders at some point, but then those behind hurled empty (large) plastic bottles at my head so that ended that. Despite the armpits and guys peeing all around us it was epic. When we finally got back to the car it took 4-5 hours to get out of the park because someone had been stabbed and they were questioning everyone. I think Queen is unprecedented. Al of them amazing musicians and Freddie Mercury of course, one in a billion. Their music will live on and inspire forever. And the challenges of this concert for a short woman before big screens came on board did not negate an incredible memory and adventure. Bless them all xoxo
timbotombo on February 23, 2019:
Saw them 3x in USA. Still really miss havimg them together. Great legacy but also somewhat sad at the same time.
Trish on February 19, 2019:
Not to be picky, nancy, but it's Freddie, not Freddy.
Mia on February 05, 2019:
I was only 18 when I went to this concert and I feel so lucky that I got to see Queen live.
Nancy on January 27, 2019:
Always loved Freddy Mercury ! I could (and do) listen to Queen over and over! They NEVER get old! I never was able to see them in person but my ears heat them often in my own home!
Freddy, a HUGE talent lost WAY TO SOON!!! May he RIP!!
Clive Robinson on January 11, 2019:
My then girlfriend surprised me with a pair of tickets for the knebworth concert, what a fantastic day! Little did we know it was his last concert.
My girlfriend lost a shoe & a ski yogurt hit her in the back of the head! & a 4 hour trip to get back to Orpington.
Fantastic day great memories, thanks jo .
Linda on December 21, 2018:
I had the pleasure seeing queen in the united states. Aug 1982. I was only 19 and i couldn't have seen a better band. I cam still at 55 cry thinking how he died. He was amazing talent. Truly missed. Rip.
Jon on November 25, 2018:
I was at the show as well. Queen was really on top of their game. The first and last time I ever saw them. We were about 100 yards from the stage - just amazing. The thing I recall about Big Country is that they played their big hit, In Big Country, early in the set .. then .. as an second encore they said "Hey .. this is the biggest crowd we've ever played to and we actually haven't rehearsed anything else, do you mind if we play In a Big Country again?" The crowd cheered and so they did!
Mick from oz on November 16, 2018:
Never got see queen live however when a friend put on this music yes tape in 1980 I remember saying this sound and melody which was crazy little thing called love is very unique, and this queen band could be something big. Also said that about u2. Around same time. Reg Freddy Mercury he was the next big live performer to me after elvis.
Whats most significant is these rock melodies from queen are excepted by people in their mid 20s today while band members are late 60’s.
So very unique group.
Mark on November 04, 2018:
Like Carole, saw them with Mott back in April 1974, Memphis TN. Once more with Freddie around 1980 in Oakland, CA. Lastly with Adam L. in Nashville.
Carole on October 29, 2018:
I was there, way in the back (by the beer tents and toilets) until we saw the helicopter. Worked our way down to the front and ended up about 3 rows from the stage. Saw one of their first performances (back up to Mott the Hoople) and their last. Feel very fortunate.
Steve on October 28, 2018:
Was at the concert,only 16 at the time was overwhelmed by the shear size of the crowd.Status Quo went down well I remember the roadie on top of the stage rig,Queen were on top form,brilliant day.
Alan & Michelle on October 16, 2018:
I was at this concert and rember it as it was yesterday fantastic day and night
Linda Wharton on August 07, 2018:
A day never goes by that I don't turn on my tv and watch a video of Queen with the Great Freddie Mercury ...Still brings tears many times to know he's gone...He was one of a kind!! No doubt he's still singing
Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on November 18, 2013:
A true giant of a performer was Freddie Mercury. The way he got the fans in the palm of his hand at Live Aid was very special. That piercing voice and strutting dynamic figure. What a man!! Let's not forget the other members of Queen, all supreme in their own way, allowing Freddie the freedom to do what he did.
I envy you a little seeing him at Knebworth (I was at Knebworth 1976 for the Stones!).
Thanks for the personal slant. Voted up and shared.
jh on July 10, 2012:
Freddie already had full blown AIDS when he was diagnosed in '87! AND Kaposi's Sarcoma! What's amazing is how he managed to hang on another four and a half years, at a time when there were no treatments. Its wonderful that you got to see them at their very last concert with Freddie. He really went out on top.
aplaksa on February 20, 2012:
OMG Queen playing here again. With Adam Lambert on vocals! What an honor!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Michael Donnelly on October 22, 2011:
I was at the knebwoth show brilliant day never forget it.
Was lucky enough to have seen Queen seven times x
b. Malin on September 26, 2011:
Freddie Mercury was one of the most Talented performers...and eveyrtime I hear "We are the Champions my friend, we'll go on Fighting till the end"... I say a silent prayer of thanks to him, and his great Talent, which was taken away much too soon, in his battle against Aids. Wonderful walk down Memory Lane Paul, and thanks for the Video.
Jools Hogg from North-East UK on September 26, 2011:
I saw them at Edinburgh Ingleston Hall in June 1982 and it was AMAZING! Freddie was the ultimate showman, you really felt a bond with him as a performer. I remember being up on the shoulders of a lovely American US Airforce guy stationed near there so I had a great view. Everyone sang "Love of My Life' and Freddie conducted us - brilliant atmosphere! This is a great hub, made me realise how much he's missed. Voted up, interesting & awesome.