That time Elton John, Axl Rose and Queen played the most brilliantly chaotic version of Bohemian Rhapsody ever

Elton John and Axl Rose
(Image credit: Getty)

The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert was a triumph. Held on Easter Monday, April 20 1992, at a raucous and emotional Wembley Stadium just under five months after Queen frontman Freddie Mercury had died of complications related to AIDs, it united his surviving bandmates with some of the biggest names in rock and pop music history.

Metallica, Def Leppard, Bob Geldof, U2, David Bowie, Robert Plant, Annie Lennox, Tony Iommi, Guns N' Roses...the bill felt like a who's-who of artists who had helped to define music itself over the previous two-plus decades, coming together for a show to which few others have compared throughout history (many would argue you'd have to wait until this year's similarly moving Taylor Hawkins Tribute Shows to find something of similar calibre).

The concert essentially took place in two halves - one half consisting of big-ass rock bands playing their own hits, and the other featuring a Queen-and-friends super-show, in which Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon would invite a ton of iconic artists to help them play some Queen classics. 

As much as it was great seeing Metallica, GN'R et al play, it was undoubtedly Queen's set that provided the most everlasting memories. Chief amongst them were Queen being joined by Tony Iommi and a guitar-less James Hetfield for a rowdy version of Stone Cold Crazy, David Bowie and Annie Lennox turning up for a fabulous version of Under Pressure and Seal emerging for an emotional take on Who Wants To Live Forever

Surely, though, the concert's most brilliantly demented moment was Queen's union with Elton John and Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose for a high-octane blast through Bohemian Rhapsody. The presence of Rose alone was seen by some as controversial. Here was a man performing at a Freddie Mercury tribute who, in the not too distant past, had to face accusations of homophobia due to the unsettling lyrics of Guns N' Roses song One In A Million (accusations that Elton John himself would defend Rose from - "never in a million years did I think he was homophobic," he'd later state). Plus, by 1992, Axl had well established himself as one of rock 'n' roll's most unpredictable frontmen - and he played to type on the day of the Freddie show.

“I do remember being determined that we'd get Elton singing with Axl...because Axl never turned up for rehearsal,” Queen's Roger Taylor told Classic Rock: “It was really flying by the seat of our pants.”

Def Leppard's Joe Elliot confirmed the story. "Axl was in the next room to us," he recalled. "Elton told us he knocked on his door and Axl’s big security guy said: 'Axl’s sleeping.' And Elton said: 'Well I’m doing a duet with him in four hours!' And the guy shrugged his shoulders and shut the door in Elton’s face. So Elton comes into our dressing room and says to us: 'What the fuck’s wrong with that guy?' Elton had a little rant and a cup of tea and then he took off."

Needless to say, from those in the crowd that were none the wiser to those behind the scenes tearing their hair out, no one knew quite what to expect as Elton John took his seat behind a keyboard to tinkle out Bohemian Rhapsody's first few famous notes.

Watching the video back now, things start fairly straightforwardly - Elton is a fine vocalist, after all, and makes relatively light work of moulding his own tone around Freddie's iconic vocal lines for the opening minute or so of the song. Then, unexpectedly, he's out of his seat (though the piano notes remain a-playin'), mic in hand, strolling across the stage and looking endearingly awkward as he sways about and leads the 70,000+-strong crowd in one of the loudest Wembley singalongs ever (not that they need much enticing, at this point).

For the epically bonkers, operatic midsection, Elton hands over to the original as a backing track, allowing Freddie's own voice to beam out across an increasingly excited Wembley - and for those watching at home, we even got the added visuals from the video.

Then, things go full-blown batshit. Brian May's thunderous heavy metal riff drops, fireworks explodes, and here comes Axl - bang on time, spinning across the stage like a kilted top as 70,000 people jump up at once and threaten to send an Earthquake through North-West London.

"So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?!" screeches Axl, whose voice might not carry the warmth of Freddie, but by hell, he can hit the notes, and right now, that's what counts.

"So you think you can love me and leave me to die?!"

The song reaches its crescendo before floating into its piano-driven denouement, leaving Elton and Axl to sing togetehr and gaze chummily at each other before engaging in the kind of awkward half-hug usually reserved for forgotten relatives you only see once every five years at a family BBQ.

Chaotic bliss? Dramatic perfection? A bit of a mess? It's a performance that has divided many a Queen fan since it first aired, but one thing's for sure: thirty years on, Axl and Elton remains the duet we still can't stop watching.

Relive it in all its majesty below.

Merlin Alderslade
Executive Editor, Louder

Merlin moved into his role as Executive Editor of Louder in early 2022, following over ten years working at Metal Hammer. While there, he served as Online Editor and Deputy Editor, before being promoted to Editor in 2016. Before joining Metal Hammer, Merlin worked as Associate Editor at Terrorizer Magazine and has previously written for the likes of Classic Rock, Rock Sound, eFestivals and others. Across his career he has interviewed legends including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Metallica, Iron Maiden (including getting a trip on Ed Force One courtesy of Bruce Dickinson), Guns N' Roses, KISS, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Meat Loaf. He is also probably responsible for 90% of all nu metal-related content making it onto the site.