I was 18, mad for rock n roll and it was summer. What better way to spend a hot August day than in a field with 100,000 other hairy people? What better way to test the strength of your bladder than having a 30 minutes walk to use a latrine that would not have been out of place in Hades itself?
Me, my brother and his girlfriend had driven down from the north of England through the night. Going to the Home Counties was still an adventure in those days; a trip into the exotic south of England. It seemed to take forever. It probably did. We kipped in a service station overnight, which was no fun in a space as small as the Mini we were crammed into but hey, it was all for rock n roll and that made it alright.
The 4th August dawn came early and sunny. Signs to Knebworth House were everywhere and traffic seemed to be being sucked into the place in long crawling lines.
What we didn’t know as we parked the Mini in a field along with tens of thousands of others was that behind the scenes disputes between promoter Freddy Bannister and Zeppelin’s management were already causing problems. The 1979 gigs, on 4th and 11th August were eventually to bankrupt Bannister’s company. The stage had cost a fortune to build and ticket demand for the second show wasn’t high enough for him to turn a profit. On the other hand it was claimed that the 4th gig was attended by 200,000 rather than the 100,000 Bannister had claimed. Being there, it was impossible to tell how big the crowd was, only that it was bloody big. So big that when we got into the gig we were at least 200 yards from the stage and were still in the front third.
It was a sea of rock n roll refugees in denim, t-shirts and with lots of hair. Looking at photos of the event now what strikes me is how no one in the pictures is fat. If you took a photo at any gig today you’d see a sea of blubber. How did that happen? Mind you, in 1979 I’d never eaten a pizza – hey, it was foreign food – so maybe that had something to do with it!
So we settled down with carriers bag of cans of Harp lager – dreadful weak, thin lager that despite the ad claims did not stay sharp to the bottom of the glass. It was cheap though and cheap mattered.
First on, and I kid you not, were cockney knees up merchants Chas & Dave. They did their bass & piano schtick to an uninterested gathering crowd. Often forgotten is the fact that Chas & Dave were in the excellent country rock band Head Hands and Feet with the brilliant and highly influential Albert Lee; an unsung hero of the British guitar history. All three of their early 70s albums are good, the self titled first one especially so.
Admittedly any band on first at a gig like this is going to have it rough but I seem to recall Chas & Dave were merely ignored. Next up was the current incarnation Fairport Convention. Now, a couple of years later I went to the first Cropredy Festival and Fairport were brilliant in that smaller, bucolic setting. Here they seemed quiet and distant. It’s hard to play delicate, subtle folk music at one end of a field of 100,000 or more people.
Commander Cody hit the stage early in the afternoon, now shorn of his Lost Planet Airmen, they were another band largely ignored in favour of drinking or planning a route to the toilets.
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes brought their horn drench slabs of R & B to the stage mid afternoon. I would have loved them now, back then it wasn’t heavy or rock enough for me and I finally left to dispense the lager that had been consumed.
Getting out of the crowd took half an hour, plucking up the courage to use the toilets took half an hour more – we’re talking trenches here people. I seem to recall someone selling burgers right by the evil miasma. Health & Safety didn’t exist back then!
There was almost no merchandise on sale – a couple of stalls with t-shirts and sweat shirts but it was about as far from the vast corporate rock venture that you would experience today as you could imagine, even though, at the time, we thought it was a very organized, big business, un-hippy type event.
The tricky thing was to find your way back to your mates. Flags were popular way to do it. But we didn’t have a flag. Instead I drew a map on the back of a label peeled off a can of baked bean. It didn’t help. I spent the next hour and a half wandering through acres of sprawled rockers but eventually found my way back in time to see Todd Rundgren & Utopia take the stage.
Todd looked like a giant banana dressed in a yellow jumpsuit. He also appeared to have a banana in the jump suit, even from 200 yards it was easy enough to spot much to the excitement of a couple of biker chicks near us.
They were playing most of the Ooops! Wrong Planet album – one of my favourite Utopia albums full of taut riffs and great melodies. I loved Todd, especially when he cranked up the guitar. I craved loud guitar like food. Then and now.
Utopia was the first band to really get an enthusiastic response from the crowd, in fact I recall quite a few people with Todd & Utopia embroidered onto their denim jacket and on t-shirts too.
But clearly, it was Zeppelin we were all there to see. Their first show in the UK for two years.
Apparently waiting for the sun to go down, they didn’t come on stage till around 9.45pm, which meant a two hour wait. During this period, the tension that grew was palpable. Zep, then as now, attracted a fiercely loyal and passionately devoted legion of fans. They had an almost mystical atmosphere around them even in 1979. It’s worth remembering that we had almost no media in 1979. No videos, no rock on TV to speak of except on Whistle Test and no rock magazines.
We devoured the music press instead. In 1979 the NME was in the tank with New Wave and punk, Melody Maker always seemed to be for 40 year olds to me, so I read Sounds which actually seemed to like rock and the emergent NWOBHM.
A band like Zeppelin felt distant and glamorous precisely because we knew so little about them and we also just didn’t travel much – or at least the working class didn’t – so if they didn’t play at the local Town Hall or City Hall then we didn’t get to see them.
The impatience at the delay and excitement at seeing these four mythical musicians meant by the time they took the stage, the air felt electric, the vibe was febrile, wild, almost scary but very definitely thrilling.
All of the tension was released as soon as they came on as they were greeted with a wave of noise and energy. You can look up the set lists and of course some of both gigs is on the How The West Was Won DVD but what no one seems to recall, perhaps it was local to where we were, but the sound was terrible for about 20 minutes.
The opening number, Song Remains The Same seemed to phase, wow and flutter like it was one of those cheap C60 cassettes you could buy from Woolworths. PA Systems that could deliver the power and volume required in the open air were still being developed but this was certainly loud enough, later we heard people complaining about the noise to the police three miles away in Stevenage.
When the sound quality did clear up, which was at the start of third number, the crushing Nobodies Fault But Mine, I remember Robert introducing it by saying something about it being NME journo Nick Kent’s favourite. This may have been ironic, I never did find out.
During the gig more space seemed to open up as people crushed forward towards the stage, thus allowing for more dancing and general boogying. I was especially delighted to find myself next to a half naked biker chick(the one fascinated by Todd’s banana) with substantial breasts on display, freaking around during Kashmir. We’re talking Russ Meyer big here. To my teenage eyes they were almost super-natural and briefly distracted me from the music. Teenage lust super-cedes even great rock n roll if you recall! But Kashmir and Trampled Underfoot were the musical highlights for me. As that curling riffs kicked in, it was like the top of my head had come right off.
Remember, by this time Zeppelin were deeply unfashionable in certain quarters. They were not classic rock back then; they were old hat, along with other geniuses such as Steely Dan! Even some heavy metal fans had decided the newer, more aggressive, punchy music of the likes of NWOBHM was preferable to the full musical palette of Led Zep. I knew in my heart even aged 18 that this was just wrong; that brilliant music prevails over fashion and so it has proved. There were at least 100,000 there that day that probably felt the same way.
They played until after midnight and incurred a £50,000 fine for the promoters by doing so but it passed by in a blur. Having listened to many Zeppelin live shows, Knebworth isn’t the best gig they played but it was still streets ahead of most bands you could ever see.
Interestingly Plant later said
“Knebworth was useless. It was no good at all. It was no good because we weren't ready to do it; the whole thing was a management decision. It felt like I was cheating myself because I wasn't as relaxed as I could have been. There was so much expectation there and the least we could have done was to have been confident enough to kill. We maimed the beast for life, but we didn't kill it. It was good, but only because everybody made it good. There was that sense of event.”
I don’t recall anyone offering any negative opinions of the gig at the time; not of the music anyway. We had a great time and came away feeling we had really witnessed an important event.
This may be fanciful retrospective thinking, but looking back, I think we knew this was the end of an era. The end of what we might think of now as the classic rock era. We couldn’t know or imagine how it would all end for Zeppelin but it coming away from that field in the middle of the night it was hard to imagine them still doing this throughout the coming decade. That’s one of the reason’s it was so special.
I feel genuinely privileged to have seen Zeppelin. It was an awesome day that helped shape this 19 year olds life forever.
That wraps up the history of festivals series. A lot of people have written and said nice things about it – and suggested I put together a book along the same lines, which is a great idea, I just wish I had the time to do it.
I’ll be starting an new series soon, as ‘Great Moments In Rock History’ in which I’ll, unsurprisingly, be looking at great moment in rock history; discussing music, bands, albums and general rock n roll culture. So keep tuned in for that.
FREE STUFF: DVDs
This week I’ve got five utterly brilliant DVDs to giveaway. These would be ideal for Christmas gifts – especially if you’re either a bit skint or just very cheap.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Live At The El Mocambo
Watch the master rip through an hour long gig in 1983. It’s got Pride & Joy, Texas Flood and a dozen more. Simply stunning blues.
Frank Zappa: Classic Albums Apostrophe & Over-Nite Sensation
This is a compelling documentary covering two of his best and most popular albums, Interviews with all concerned are backed up with loads of home movie footage, music and live performances of Montana, I’m The slime and Camarillo Brillo. For anyone interested in Zappa or in brilliant music. This is one you need to have.
The Band – The Last Waltz.
Scorsese’s classic movie of thee bands classic farewell gig in 1976. You get an expanded version of the album – 32 tracks in total plus unseen footage of outtakes and jams. There’s not a bad performance here but for me it is the magnificent Paul Butterfield that gives me goose bumps every time. Butterfield was magnificent on the old mouth iron.
The Who: The Kids Are Alright.
I told you we had some good stuff didn’t I? The best documentary on The Who coming in at 95 minutes and featuring all the bands best moments it is always compelling. Moon’s exploding drum kit on the Smothers Brothers show is killer stuff and the Shepperton Studios live stuff shows a band still rocking harder than most.
The Who are bloody brilliant. If you need proof, this is it.
Dickey Betts & Great Southern
This is a brilliant package for anyone who loves Southern Rock. A DVD live show of the band - yes Elizabeth Reed is on there! – and then you get a live CD too. Dickey Betts is an irresistible player; both melodic and yet powerful. The DVD runs for 152 minutes so its great value too.
I’ve got three of each of these to give away. For a chance to win just email me email@example.com your address with SRV, Zappa, The Band, Who or Dickey Betts or any combination of those in the subject line. Alternatively just write ‘Gimme Free DVDs’ if you don’t mind which one you win.
The draw is totally random and I’ll do it on 12th December. All other free stuff below has already been drawn and sent out so there’s no point in you emailing in for that now! I always say this but still people do! So don’t, or I’ll have to come round there and spank you with an old Jethro Tull album!
FREE STUFF: BOOKS
Lemmy - White Line Fever.
I've got 3 hard back copies of Mr Kilminster's autobigoraphy to give away. A cracking read, especially about the early years, pour yourself a glass of Jack and enjoy the ride. How can one man consume so many drugs and live? I know a man who has snorted speed off Lemmy's world war II, German knife!
Dear Boy: The Life Of Keith Moon
I've got 3 copies of this 550+ page epic by Tony Fletcher. It's hilarious, complusive and ultimately very sad book that documents in details Moonies madness. It gets closer and goes deeper than any other book on the man that I've read. A brilliant read for the holidays.
For a chance to win these email me firstname.lastname@example.org with Moon Book or Lemmy Book in the subject line or just 'books please' will do fine.
The draw is totally random and I’ll do it on 12th December. All other free stuff below has already been drawn and sent out so there’s no point in you emailing in for that now! I always say this but still people do! So don’t, or I’ll have to come round there and spank you with an old Jethro Tull album! Good luck!