30 Years Ago: How Queen Were Reborn at Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
It seemed as if Queen had rocked us for the last time as "God Save the Queen" echoed around London's Wembley Stadium on April 20, 1992, to close the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness.
Celebrating Mercury's life after his 1991 death at the age of 45, Queen's surviving members took the stage for 20 songs with guest singers ranging from David Bowie, Elton John and Robert Plant to Axl Rose and Liza Minnelli. It was a tear-jerking tribute, but it also showed that Queen could play nicely with others – and that there might be more ahead for the band.
"That day was obviously very emotional, and wonderful," drummer Roger Taylor told this writer seven years later. "I can't say we were thinking about something like this at the time, but it did show us that people want to hear these songs, no matter who's singing them."
Queen's post-Mercury career has been one of surprises and surprisingly good taste. Bassist John Deacon retired after the Wembley show, while Taylor and guitarist Brian May have toured with Paul Rodgers and American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert. They've overseen the award-winning We Will Rock You jukebox musical and a Queen Extravaganza tribute show. The 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was a box office hit that won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Drama, four Academy Awards (including Best Actor for Rami Malek) and a pair of BAFTA Awards.
As the song says, the show must go on. "We obviously have some kind of lasting appeal," Taylor continued, laughing at the understatement. "It's extraordinary. I have to say it's a wonderful surprise to us. I didn't think we were a flash in the pan, obviously, but I think it's impossible to tell at the time that something is going to have longevity."
May argued that "people want to hear Queen music," during a Queen + Adam Lambert tour press conference. "They want to hear it done great, and they want to have Roger and I play, and we love to play. ... So having this opportunity is great for me. We're still alive, thank God, and we're still healthy enough to go out and tread the boards one more time."
Especially striking is how May and Taylor have kept Queen on stage through the years.
Watch Queen Perform With Robert Plant
The Rodgers hook-up from 2004-09 was a wildcard: Though one of the finest singers in rock (and one of the great snubs of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), his gutsy, bluesy tenor was a far cry from Mercury's operatic range. Nevertheless, Taylor noted during the troupe's first North American tour in 2006, "we were always a blues-based band, really. At base that's what we were, but I suppose we just branched out a lot."
The union first occurred during the inaugural U.K. Music Hall of Fame Awards in London. "After the first rehearsal, it was kind of, 'Ooh, wow ...'," Rodgers recalled during the tour. "We got a standing ovation from the hardened Queen crew, and it was, 'OK, something's going on here.' Then, when we came off stage after the actual show, everybody just said, 'Y'know, we should take this on the road.'"
Taylor said "Paul sort of dropped in our laps." At the time, it seemed like a reasonable way to go, giving the audiences a singer who couldn't try to sound like Mercury if he wanted to while letting Queen + Paul Rodgers stand as a different band playing some very familiar music.
"I came in with a great deal of respect," Rodgers said during the tour, "and that's increasing the more I perform this material, actually. The style is slightly different to mine. It's more cerebral, in many respects. It's almost a classical feel, sometimes, whereas I come from the blues and soul routes – but the two styles do merge. They do marry quite well."
As for Queen + Paul Rodgers, "it didn't make sense for us to tour under another name," Taylor noted. "It's been our name for 30-odd years, so why try to pretend this is something else?"
Watch Queen Perform With Paul Rodgers
They debuted in South Africa in March 2005 as part of the Nelson Mandela 46664 AIDS campaign, then shortly thereafter toured Europe. That led to the live album Return of the Champions later that year. In addition to Queen material, the group also took on songs from Rodgers' tenures in Free ("Wishing Well," "All Right Now") and Bad Company ("Feel Like Makin' Love," "Can't Get Enough"). They also added John Lennon's "Imagine" for a performance at London's Hyde Park.
"It's been a little tougher than I thought," Rodgers said of singing the Queen material. "When we first did 'We Will Rock You' and 'We Are the Champions,' they are so much in my ballpark, in my range, but there are other songs – like 'The Show Must Go On' or 'I Want It All' – that I really had to sit down and think, 'Now, how do I approach this one? And this one?'
"I always did respect Freddie, but I have a huge amount of respect for him now," Rodgers added. "He had such a huge voice and he delivered so consistently at a high range. It's a huge undertaking, really. But my approach has always been to just be myself. I reinterpret the songs the way I feel them. That's the only way I can do it, really."
Queen + Paul Rodgers released a studio album, The Cosmos Rocks, in 2008, which is to date the final set of original material to bear the Queen name. The collaboration ended a year later on good terms. Rodgers returned to Bad Company and his solo career, adding that "it was never meant to be a permanent arrangement, really. But I really enjoyed it and I think we did a lot, and I think it gave [May and Taylor] a way to keep the band going, in a way."
The seeds of Queen's next step were planted when May and Taylor made a guest appearance on the sixth season of American Idol in spring 2009, performing "We Are the Champions" with Adam Lambert and eventual winner Kris Allen.
"[Lambert] is sensational," Taylor told this writer a few years later. "I describe him as almost a camp Elvis [Presley]. He has this unbelievable range, 'cause Freddie had a great range. Adam can really cover it. He's an extraordinary singer and a real talent. I feel he fits into our sort of theatricality. It was very comfortable."
Lambert joined Queen again in November 2011 at the MTV Europe Awards in Belfast, while the first full Queen + Adam Lambert concert took place in June 2012 at Kyiv, Ukraine, for the Elena Pinchuk ANTIAIDS Foundation. They took some baby steps throughout 2013 then began touring in earnest in 2014.
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert Perform 'You Are the Champions'
"It's so surreal," Lambert told this writer in 2014. Queen was a favorite of his father's who introduced Lambert to their music when he was young. "If someone had said to me, 'By the way, you're gonna be on stage at Madison Square Garden with them in five years, I would've laughed in their face. ... It's an honor. I'm very humbled and very lucky I get to do this."
Queen + Adam Lambert remains a going concern and has released two concert albums – Live in Japan in 2015 and Live Around the World in 2020 – as well as an updated "You Are the Champions" single in 2020 to benefit the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. That remains the current configuration's only released studio project, and Taylor said last year that nobody should hold their breath waiting for more.
"I would love at some point to do new music with Adam because he is one of the finest singers in the world, no doubt about that," Taylor said. "I wouldn't rule that out, either. We have to write the right material. It has to be good. We did a track in Nashville, actually, on tour, but we never finished it. I hope someday we do finish it because I think it was very promising. At some point, it would make sense to do it, but it's not in the diary right now."
Around the same time, Taylor and May were getting Queen + Adam Lambert up and running, they also launched Queen Extravaganza, a tribute show that featured multiple lead singers chosen from "hundreds and hundreds of applications," according to Taylor. Among the best known of those who delivered more than three dozen favorites from Queen's catalog were Jeff Scott Soto, who's logged tenures with Yngwie Malmsteen and Journey, and Canadian Christian rock hitmaker Marc Martel.
"There are a lot of other [tributes] going around representing our work," Taylor noted before the first Extravaganza tour in 2012. "Some of them are cheesy, some of them are very good, but I wanted there to be a really great, first-class option. So we've formed our own sort of authorized band to play our canon ... with all the things we can bring to bear – the film clips nobody's ever seen and all the production tricks that we've accumulated over the years."
Queen Extravaganza mounted tours between 2012 and 2016, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the A Night at the Opera album. Taylor says he still considers it a going concern that may surface again.
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