Musicians impact audiences in very different ways, and when it comes to those who attain fame on the world stage, they reach many millions of people. In fact, I think at some level everyone is affected.
Last week and next week are the anniversaries of the deaths of rock music legends John Lennon and Freddie Mercury. Lennon was murdered at age 40 by Mark David Chapman on Dec. 8,1980. Mercury died at age 45 from AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia on Nov. 24, 1991.
Lennon’s musical career began as the lead singer and guitarist of The Beatles. Mercury was the lead singer of Queen. These two men, along with the bands they led, had an amazing impact on people worldwide, but in remarkably different ways.
Beatlemania was so named because of the effect the Beatles had on audiences which, in the early years, were predominantly female. Tens of thousands of yearning fans, at show after show throughout Europe, Britain and Australia cried and screamed hysterically to such an extent the music was completely drowned out.
Cracking the United States market has been tough for many overseas artists throughout rock’s history, and for The Beatles it was no different. Their manager, Brian Epstein, could not convince EMI’s U.S. arm, Capitol Records, to take a chance on the Fab Four. Then fate intervened.
In 1963, returning from Europe, U.S. television show host Ed Sullivan encountered a throng of hysterical Beatles fans at London’s Heathrow Airport. Soon afterward he and Epstein struck a deal; The Beatles were to appear on his show three times in just one month.
This gave Epstein the leverage he needed to convince Capitol Records to play ball. With a few hits under their belt and with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at number one, the Beatles came to the U.S. on Feb. 7, 1964. The group appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9 to an estimated television audience of more than 70 million people.
They went on tour, and Beatlemania swept the country.
Queen, another British band, had an entirely different effect on people. Responses to their music are better described as appreciation, joy, celebration and love. The way I see it, Beatles audiences experienced a longing for connection. Queen audiences experienced the joy of actually connecting.
On July 13, 1985, Queen appeared at the Live Aid Concert at Wembley Stadium in London to an estimated worldwide audience of over one billion people. Queen performed alongside Rock’s top performers of the time. They weren’t headliners. In fact, they were considered past their prime. However, when Mercury appeared on stage the audience went wild.
When Mercury sang the first words of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the 72 thousand strong crowd sang along with him. For twenty minutes, for song after song, the audience was in a continual state of celebration and unity unlike anything ever seen before at a rock concert.
The feeling of unity reached a tipping point when Queen sang “Radio Ga Ga,” and the stadium resembled a Nuremberg rally. This unfortunate resemblance attracted widespread criticism of the group, but did nothing to slow their upward spiraling success.
In the U.S. it was different. In 1984 just before the Wembley phenomenon, the release of their “I Want to Break” video brought their already dwindling popularity to a halt. The video was banned by MTV because the members of the band were dressed as women. It was a parody of the British soap opera “Coronation Street,” but the humor didn’t translate across the Atlanitc.
Queen stole the show at Wembley that day in 1985. Mercury’s commanding performance is remembered in the rock industry as the twenty minutes that changed rock history. Watching his performance leaves me in awe no matter how many times I watch it.
My interest in this historical event is tied to something I have known for a long time — there are entry points into the collective human psyche and music goes right to them. In an interview last year with Alberto Redondo, the head of Lane’s music lab, he said that music is in everything.
This isn’t just about music per se; it’s about art, films, plays, writing, projects of all kinds and even some conversations. It’s about having the capacity to reach people — sometimes at a deep level. This is important knowledge, and it echoes through my mind often that hitting the right note is perhaps one of life’s most important achievements.
Lennon sometimes chose to shock people, evidenced by his highly controversial statement that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. As he matured, he and his music kept changing and hitting entirely different notes. Just as powerful, only different. Mostly though, Lennon inspired us to really “Imagine” a different world.
Mercury evolved too. Even after a long and successful career with Queen, his operatic duet with Spanish opera diva Montserrat Caballe singing “Barcelona” was a musical triumph. From the first time he heard Caballe sing, he was captivated by her voice. She inspired him to bring the operatic style, evident in some of his previous music, to new heights.
A host of gifted rock musicians are no longer with us. Interestingly, like Lennon and Mercury, many of them died quite young. The song made famous by The Righteous Brothers, “Rock and Roll Heaven,” is a fitting tribute to them all and to the legacies they left behind.
If you believe in forever
Then life is just a one-night stand
If there’s a rock n’ roll heaven
Well you know they’ve got a hell of a band . . .