Added on 05-Dec-2009
Below is piece written by Classic Rock contributor Harry Doherty, it has been written especially and exclusively for QOL as part of the promotion and lead up to the release of Queen + Paul Rodgers Live In Ukraine 2CD/DVD.
When it comes to logistic-defying rock events, nobody does it better than Queen. Across all continents, they’ve proven itâ€¦ and in 2008, they decided to step into the arena again. Of course, they embraced the opportunity as only Queen can…
And then came a call, presenting them with their biggest challenge of all.
With only weeks to prepare, Queen + Paul Rogers were asked to perform their first ever concert in Ukraine. Not another 10,000+ arena they were setting up to perform throughout the tour, but one of the biggest audiences they will have played to in their impressive history: open air, in one of Europeâ€™s largest city squares in the industrial city of Kharkov in the northeastern region of Ukraine. It would be a concert to help in a modern fight in a country with a history of political and social turmoil.
Queen + Paul Rodgers were only too willing to help. Brian May remembers listening favourably to the offer of the gig: â€œIt was everything that appeals to us on a performance and philosophical level. But we already had a tour planned and the only way we could do the Ukraine concert was at the beginning of the tour because there were no other gaps. So it was a case of â€˜Okay, this is the â€˜sort ofâ€™ warm-up gig except itâ€™s not because weâ€™re deadly serious about itâ€¦ and itâ€™s in front ofâ€¦ oh dearâ€¦ an awful lot of people!â€
As production manager Robbie Williams recalls: â€œIt was added at the last minute. Also the rehearsals for the show had been put together an indoor arena show that could go round Europe, so having rehearsed at Elstree for an indoor arena scenario, we have to switch immediately to a massive outdoor event, and then to have to airfreight everything out to Kharkovâ€¦ that was a bit of a nightmare. We had set up for one thing and then this was presented. So we had to configure it for the outdoor show and then come out of Kharkov and almost overnight reconfigure it back into the area show for Moscow.
â€œIâ€™ve done a couple of thousand shows in my life, many of them with the biggest bands in the world. This was one of the most challenging.â€
Queen had never been to Ukraineâ€¦ but evidently the people of Ukraine have long been into Queen.
Ukraine has a problem, and it is a problem that is ingrained into the Queen organisation since one of its founders, Freddie Mercury, was lost to the AIDS virus in 1991. Ukraine suffers greatly from this uniquely modern plague, but in some ways they are in denial. Standing almost alone in attempts to acquaint the population of the inherent causes and dangers is the independently operated Elena Franchuk AntiAids Foundation, founded by Ukrainian businesswoman and philanthropist Elena Franchuk. For Elena, an influential voice was needed to address the youth of her country, and who better than Queen, who across generations have been one of the most revered rock acts in the country.
And Brian May did: “Of course, we know all about this plague. We were asked to do a show to publicise the fact that there was a problem. It’s another one of those thingsâ€¦ it’s partly about money, but it’s also about the need for perception of the problem before itâ€™s possible to fight it. The government wasn’t really acknowledging the seriousness of the problem, so the purpose of the concert was to put it in front of everybody and put it on the agenda. Our concert would put the issue right out in the open. How could we turn it down?”
The city of Kharkov provided the perfect setting for the concert. Firstly it offered Freedom Square. The third largest city square in Europe, the Square is something else, breathtakingly beautiful â€“ and massive. Consider that it was used as a landing site for planes during World War II. That gives an idea of the scope for an outdoor concert. But high on the agenda was the fact that Kharkov ranks as one of the most prolific centres of higher education in Europe. With 13 universities and numerous other higher educational institutions in the city, Kharkovâ€™s student population numbers upwards of 150,000.
For Elena Franchuk, Founder of the ANTIAIDS Foundation, it was the obvious choice: â€œIt is the biggest city of our country after Kiev with a population of 1. 5 million and is at its heart a student city. The greatest incidence of new HIV cases is registered among young people between 15-25 living in the big urban areas. Nowhere else in our country could we reach this audience in such numbers.â€
But the Foundationâ€™s message â€œDonâ€™t Let AIDS Ruin Your Lifeâ€ would reach well beyond Kharkov. It had also motivated Ukraine state TV Channel Noviy to carry the concert live into what would be expected to be several million homes using the special title â€˜Life Must Go Onâ€™.
Once confirmed, Elena put wheels in motion. In what looked like a logistical nightmare overall, she had her own minor nightmares to contend with: the finance, the organisation, manning the barricades, so to speak: â€œThe Queen concert was free of charge except the VIP zone for 500 seats where those people would contribute money to the orphanage reconstruction in Kharkov where children with HIV/AIDS live. All expenses were covered by Elena Franchuk ANTIAIDS Foundation.
â€œIt was our first experience of organizing such a huge concert outside of Kiev and working on enormously large square. During the secondâ€™ World War, it was used as a landing spot for planes. Now the square has four subway exits which were closed due to security reasons. The time, zones, routs and passes were organized properly and the crowd left the square 30 minutes after the concert. Local militciya and authorities were very cooperative and eased preparation process significantly.
â€œBut working with the Queen organization was very good. It wasnâ€™t an easy project as we had very complicated logistics and a short time to plan the whole project. Nevertheless, the key people were very supportive and open. We had fun putting the whole thing together and looking for right solutions. Besides our precious experience, we acquired a lot of friends and partners for our future projects.â€
With weeks, rather than months to prepare, the call to action was heeded, and the date was set for Friday, September 12, 2008. Jim Beach, production manager Albert Lawrence and TV producer Rocky Oldham went to Kharkov for a recce. They flew straight to Kharkov from Vienna only to find that their Austrian Airlines plane smashed part of the runway on landing and was unable to take off again. How would the runway cope with all the equipment that had to be flown in? It wouldnâ€™t ! It was an ominous start.
â€œFrom getting the okay to the gig, that was probably about a month. Not bad for something of that scale it took a lot of organisation,â€ Oldham considered. â€œThe spec was primarily guerrilla TV. Weâ€™ve worked with Queen for many years on videos, the Nelson Mandela show, their live showâ€¦ so we knew who we were working with and their expectations. We have a longstanding relationship with Jim and the band.
â€œAs it was a charity show, one of our main considerations was holding the costs down while maintaining the quality. With an expected audience of 200,000 people, however, you do need a fair number of cameras to capture that scale â€“ probably 18-20. And as it was a free show, that audience number could be easily exceededâ€¦ so we had absolutely no idea of how many would turn up!â€
Oldhamâ€™s team worked in close liaison with the local TV team who would be broadcasting the concert live across the Ukraine. But where they would usually take an outside broadcast unit with them to manage the production and direction, in this case they build that facility in the back of a tent to keep the costs down! Guerilla TV indeed!
â€œI have to say the Ukrainian people were superb,â€ he added. â€œThey were very hard workers and while we werenâ€™t convinced at the outset, they were really spot on. We werenâ€™t convinced that it would all come together as planned, not only putting on a huge show but organising a live TV broadcast with a whole day of broadcasting. But it was absolutely fine, seamless, in factâ€¦ it was a bit of learning curve for everybody but it worked very well.â€
So suddenly, with Queen + Paul Rodgers preparing to play in Moscow to 15,000 fans, the whole operation was derailed to Kharkov to play to an audience that was originally estimated to be 150,000. The logistics escalated: the equipment and people carriers were no longer viable. Commercial carriers would no longer be enough. Now on the travel grid would be two specially commissioned Antonov 124 aircraft â€“ the worldâ€™s largest cargo planes, along with a Boeing 737. But this provided further complications: as the recce had proven, Kharkovâ€™s landing strip would not be able to take the enormous cargo planes that were needed. The equipment would have to land in Kiev and then be transported to Kharkov by a convoy of military trucks under an armed guard. Would the roads damage the delicate equipment?
The backroom crew were aghast, but Brian, Paul and Roger wanted to go ahead. The first gig of the tour would not be played in front of a mere 15,000 Queen fans but ten times moreâ€¦ and 25 times more as it turned out!
Tour director Robbie Williams, a veteran of large-scale events, took it in his stride: “This was new, big time. A huge gig in unknown territory at an unknown venue. It was quite a challenge.” Williams acquainted his 40+ crew of the challenges. “We got on and coped with it. The band wanted to do it, so it was a case of make it happen or else!”
Since 1977, Trip Khalaf has worked with Queen as front-of-house sound engineer. Since that first gig, Khalaf has progressed to being a main man with the world-famous Clair Brothers sound organisation. Forgive him when he sounds a little bit been-there, done-thatâ€¦ for he has! But when Queen came calling for the 2008 tour, he dropped everything. “It was a bit old man on the road,” he laughs, “bad idea, mostly sore muscles and lower back pain. But the band said they wanted me to do it, so I dropped everything. That’s what you do for Queen.”
It was upon Khalaf’s shoulders to take Queen and Paul into the unknown territory of Ukraine and safely out again. And he wasn’t messing around. Ever the pragmatic, he wasn’t keen on the gig in the first place. “It gave cause for concern to travel agents. The place is spelt three different ways. We were preparing for something else and then this comes along. My initial impression was ‘do we want to put pressure on the band to play in front of 150,000 people when we should just be breaking the ice in a theatre to get the cobwebs out. But that’s Queen. It all worked out.”
There was a further modification to the impending undertaking: there was a sense this would be a historic event, so the decision was taken to film the concert as well. As master of the understatement, May concedes: “It was a bit of a dangerous thing to do at the time, as you can imagine. “
But as has been historically the case with Queen, the decision would turn out brilliantly. This is the truly evocative and emotional DVD you see now, a testament to the affect that music can have on people.
The “A” team were called inâ€¦ headed by director David Mallet and his producer Rocky Oldham. You could not ask for better pedigree, especially when the backs are against the wall in grand old rock and roll fashion. Mallet has worked with Queen and their eccentricities since Radio Ga Ga and I Want to Break Free in the early 80â€™s; he also directed the previous Queen + Paul Rodgers DVD, Return of the Champions. Not surprisingly, David and Rocky responded to the call!
Rocky, having reccied Freedom Square, knew that they needed the best; he’d worked with Queen and Mallet before, and could see the scale of what was unfolding before him. He reckoned on 20 cameras for an audience of 150,000 but, with a free gig, knew that this could be much bigger. Somehow, this documentary captures the size and emotion of over twice that initial estimate.
For Mallet, the urgent call to arms meant no time for the usual storyboards and camera plots, just the dependence on pure skill and fleet of foot.
Through his guerrilla approach, Mallet depended on his raw instincts, and that comes vividly across on this film: a mesmerised audienceâ€¦.rock and roll to the bone, knee-cracking chords; brain-crunching riffs; thunderous drums and throat wrenching vocals, all captured to maximum effect in one compellingly memorable, historic concert.
So seat-of-the pants was the process of getting the event on film, Mallet had no real inkling of what he had recorded, but he was aware of something different from the many concerts and events he’d recorded previously: “The close-ups of the audience were strangely moving. First of all they were singing along in English and I’ll bet none of them knew any English, so they learned it phonetically and there was a great spirit there. We don’t know how the other half lives. We are spoilt, we are cynical. These guys were honoured that there was a major band there. These are not spoilt blasÃ© people. I really had no idea until later that we had captured something so special.”
Brian May realised during the day of the event that this was building into an occasion fit for Queen: â€œWe were aware during the day that it was just building and building to something special. We did our soundcheck in front of thousands of peopleâ€¦ to great cheers. You gotta do it no matter what. We always always do a soundcheck. In my opinion, you canâ€™t do your best until youâ€™ve done that walking around and just made those final adjustments. The fact that you do it in front of that many people doesnâ€™t come into it. In fact, it added to the flavour of a memorable day for me.â€
From the stage, this all looked spectacular to Brian May, Roger Taylor and Paul Rodgers. A truly fantastic event in a new territory. May remembers that “It was very cold. One of these things that it’s hard to factor in. Once the sun goes down, it was brisk with a fair old breeze. And of course you have to take care of your fingers as a guitarist to make sure you don’t freeze up. That was a consideration. We did a lot of warming up and kept moving before we got on stage so that the blood is going. Then the adrenalin took over once we got on stage.”
Paul Rodgers recalls: â€œIn my eyes, the only true benefit to having â€˜celebrityâ€™ status is to use it to make a difference. Ukraine is a special place with special people and a critical cause.
â€œIt was a huge undertaking to play to 350,000 people the first night of a major tour. Truth be told, we flew in a private jet, were whisked through customs and treated like royalty. The real heroes that night were the crew.â€
And in Kharkov, it achieved everything it set out to do, according to Olga: “We are all great fans of Queen songs as it is the music of our youth. Looking at the crowd in Kharkov we realized that in spite of the age difference we still see the same 20-years old kids whispering Queen songs together with us and our parents, and it was wonderful to see how much they embraced Paul Rodgers.
â€œThe AIDS message was very strong due to the TV marathon about life of Freddie Mercury before the concert. We saw people crying in the crowd when they heard first accords. The week before the concert, ahuge wall behind the stage was covered with graffiti paintings welcoming Queen. That wall became a sightseeing point and is still one of the most popular places for photographs.
â€œWe wanted people come together, have fun, listen to the music, talk about safe sex, absorb the atmosphere of Freddieâ€™s presence amongst us and to feel that AIDS is closer than we think. We count on the massive emotional impact that such events can produce followed by shift in the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. We managed to draw attention towards AIDS problem: the publicity in local media rose significantly. We managed to change overall ignorance re AIDS issue. There was an increase in the number of HIV tests reported in Kharkov right after the concert.â€
Roger Taylor afterwards remarked: â€œWhat a team, what an audience, what a night. So glad we came, I will remember this even when Iâ€™m older!â€
As ever, music is a unifying and healing process.
As for the facts: on that night in Kharkov 350,000 turned up, by conservative estimates…a further 10 million watched the concert in their homes. Funds raised through sponsorship and public contribution since the event have contributed to building an AIDS orphanage in Kharkov.
The release of this DVD will help continue the education and awareness work of the Mercury Phoenix Trust and the Elena Franchuk ANTIAIDS Foundation.