A couple of weeks ago, I was looking through a box in our basement and came across a manilla envelope just stuffed with papers. It was every bit of paper I collected on a trip to Europe. In it were bus tickets, bank receipts, maps, information sheets, etc. But, wedged in between some of the papers was one 3 x 4.5" in size with black text and a pink watermark. It was a ticket stub from the very last Queen concert ever.
I was in York in August, 1986, staying with the Johnsons – a couple my family had met at a campground in Canada. They are a lovely couple and we are still in touch, 30 years later. I stayed with them for 2 weeks - a visit that now seems like it must have been interminable for them - two weeks with a 17-year-old. But they seemed to enjoy it.
It was a lazy Saturday, August 2, the day after I arrived in York, when we went shopping and took a tour of their city. I can’t quite remember the details but while we were in town, David, a huge Queen fan, bought us tickets to see the band the following weekend at Knebworth Park, Stevenage, about 30 miles north of London.
At the time (I cringe to think of this) I really didn’t know much about Queen and didn’t really like them much. I knew and liked recent top 40 hits like “Radio Ga Ga” and “We Will Rock You”, but they were more from the 1970s and were, to me, boring and behind the times. Originally the tour was scheduled to end in Spain, but after the two shows at Wembley Stadium earlier in the summer had sold out so quickly, Knebworth was added to catch more of the British audience. No one knew that this concert would be the very last Queen concert ever – the concert every Queen fan wishes they had seen. I didn’t even realize it was the last concert of their big European tour. And (despite what the recent movie claims) certainly no one knew that Mercury had AIDS and would die only 5 years later. I got the experience that SO many Queen fans wanted – and at the time I didn’t appreciate it at all.
We drove down from York to Knebworth Park. It’s about a 3 1/2-hour drive down to Stevenage, and since this was an outdoor concert with no assigned seating, David wanted to get there reasonably early - gates opened at 11. We left before 7:30 am. I slept most of the way there, being a teenager and being a bit sick with a cold. We arrived by 11:30 and parked - the number of cars was incredible, and the gates were quite a long ways from the parking lot. The area set up for the concert was huge – probably 4 football fields in size.
I remember sitting on a blanket about ½ way up the field on the left hand side of the field. Food trucks and tents, as well as merchandise stands surrounded the site. I think we brought food, but I also remember buying some there. As I was sitting on that blanket, I didn’t know there were 118,000 people watching the show (that was the number at the time, some sites now say 125,000 or 200,000, but I think I’ll go with what was stated then). I didn’t know this was one of the first concerts to use big screen technology, and I didn’t know someone would be stabbed and killed after the show. I just sat there and listened to the opening acts, which were Belouis Some, Status Quo, and Big Country. With more than 60 chart hits to date, Status Quo have more in the UK than any other band. I knew none of their songs. Big Country was the one band I was a little excited about, although in truth I only knew one of their songs: “In a Big Country”.
Stuart Adamson, the lead singer of Big Country, came on stage for an encore, took a look at the audience and told us to hold on a minute before running behind stage. He ran back on stage almost instantly with a camera and said: “no one will ever believe this” before he snapped a picture of the audience. It was the largest crowd they had played on this tour.
After what seemed like an eternity after the opening acts, as the sun was sinking toward the horizon, the iconic Queen helicopter flew into the park with cheers from the crowd. After another eternity, Queen emerged from the smoke and the light to sing “One Vision” - we watched mainly on the huge screen above the stage because it was so far away, but I believe we also had binoculars. I got one good look at the stage, though, when a friend of David’s – a big, tall rugby-player type – lifted me up on his shoulders to see the lighters during "We Are the Champions". The thought of that memory makes me laugh a bit. I have had an interesting life! Queen played everyone’s favourite songs right to the end with “We Are the Champions” and “God Save the Queen”. I recognized a few of the more recent ones.
The walk to the car took at least 45 minutes. We decided there was no use trying to leave the parking lot, so we all crashed in the car for a few hours. We eventually got the car moving around 4 am and arrived home 24 hours after we left – at 7:30 am on the 10th.