Saturday, 21 January 2012

Led Zeppelin Knebworth 1979

Led Zeppelin Knebworth 1979
11th August 1979

Like The Poni-tails, I was Born Too Late.  Or so I thought for much of my late teens and early twenties (although, now I am the wrong side of 50, I have begun to think I was perhaps born a few decades too early, but that is another story).  No, the reason for bemoaning my birth date all those years ago was that by the time I started going to concerts regularly, most if not all of my musical heroes’ Golden Years were becoming Golden Memories.

ELP and Pink Floyd had already played their last ever gigs in Scotland, Genesis had managed to misplace Peter Gabriel, whilst Jethro Tull had morphed into an (admittedly rather good) folk-rock band.  I just caught hold of the coat-tails of Yes’ halcyon days with the Going For The One Tour, which sort of just left Led Zeppelin – the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll band of all time?  Certainly the biggest and best of the 1970s, but who had arguably been on a gradual but inexorable slide since the release of Physical Graffiti in 1974. 

But 1979 had seen the release of the In Through The Out Door album – an interesting rather than essential collection – and the announcement of two gigs in the grounds of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire.  

Thus it was that the evening of Friday August 9th of that year found me meeting up with former school classmate A and his mate B, in a pub off the Royal Mile.  A had a spare ticket with him, which he didn’t hold out much hope of managing to shift, but upon leaving the pub we were almost run over by a moped being ridden by a former college-mate of mine – a Johnny Vegas lookalike by the name of Douglas Beveridge (where are you know?) – who, inexplicably, bought the ticket there and then.  Whether he ever made it to the festival, and by which mode of transport (surely not on his little phut-phut of a bike), I never knew. 

Us three were taking the overnight bus down to London; the Red-Eye as it was known – very much no frills.  I cannot even recall if the thing had a toilet on board.  The only cheaper way down back then was by thumb.  From Victoria Station it was then a brief tube ride to Kings Cross, from whence to Stevenage (not Knebworth) rail station.

Finding the grounds of the stately house we took our place in a large, and rapidly getting larger, tented village, where we would spend the night before the concert.  Not that we had tents; we were nowhere near so organised.  I had travelled down for the weekend with a borrowed sleeping bag, a packet of McVitie’s chocolate digestives (which we ate on the bus), and a piteously small amount of cash.

At some point during the evening A&B decided to head off to a local hostelry, ostensibly for a few beers, but really in the hope of “scoring a little weed”, leaving me in the company of a peculiar chap who had sort of latched onto us.  An earnest young man, he would punctuate his critical musings on the parlous state of the UK music scene circa ‘79, by occasionally jumping to his feet and bellowing “Wally!!” at the top of his voice, in the hope of eliciting a similar response from another half-wit in the assembled throng.  At one point there appeared to be a whole plethora of pea-brained communication via this Rock Festival equivalent of Dodie Smith’s Twilight Bark, to what purpose I had no idea.

Sometime, I cannot recall if it was very late evening or very early morning, we became aware of a commotion and saw that a portion of chain link fencing was being torn down by an increasingly excitable crowd.  The fence soon capitulated, and folks began to stream through, clearly intent on stealing a march in the race to get close to the stage.  Following in their wake, we were all brought up short by a second fence, which held the masses in check until the organisers could get gate checkers in place. 

It was light by the time we finally gained entry, and we three claimed a wee bit of turf and settled down to attempt to catch up on some sleep.  But then the rain started – not really heavily, just an intermittent, insidious, penetrative drizzle.  Fortunately my sleeping bag had a sort of plastic lining on one side, so I got into a routine of hibernating inside the thing waterproof side up when it was raining, and waterproof side down when not. 

Then around 11AM, the sun poked its head out and Chas and Dave wandered on stage.  Now I know it is not terribly cool to have much good to say about C&D, but I for one was abso-bloody-lutely delighted to welcome them.  They rattled through an entertaining set: Pay Up and Look Big, Lunatic Asylum, Rabbit, What a Miserable Saturday Night, Who’d Ya Think You’re Talking To?, Scruffy Old *!*?* - most of their Don’t Give a Monkeys album, in fact.  I loved it, and am not ashamed to say have always had a soft spot for the pair of them since.

I should like to be able to provide a considered review of each of the next three bands, but (and I appreciate this was in part due to my unfamiliarity with their music) The New Commander Cody Band, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, and Todd Rundgren, I found just boring, dull and pretentious respectively.  Yes, I was tired, fatigued and grumpy, but whoever thought these three Stateside outfits would appeal to UK based Zeppelin fans really needed to be held down and slapped.  The musical high point of the afternoon was the between set DJ playing Mountain’s Theme for an Imaginary Western, which I think he did three or four times.

During proceedings, I went for occasional wanderings around the grounds.  The toilets were amazing – little more than a high rickety wooden platform built over deep pits dug into the ground.  I briefly and unwisely peeked down the hole of my cubicle, and felt I had truly gazed into the pit of hell.  And I appreciated finally what Nietzsche meant about the abyss gazing back.

Wandering back from completing my ablutions, I quite literally bumped into a young lady who had decided going topless was the done thing at festivals such as this.  And, being a chap who had not seen very many breasts in the flesh as it were, I felt this was particularly generous of her.  She (or perhaps more accurately, they) made quite an impression upon me.  Small pert ones they were, sporting quite the largest areolae I had/have ever seen……….and I still find myself from time to time wistfully thinking about them.  Snap out of it, Boy!

In another part of the ground I came across piles and piles of half-burned tickets from the previous week’s concert, which struck me as such an odd thing for someone to do.  Equally singular was an encounter with a God-Botherer, whilst sitting alone eating some chips I had bought.  He introduced himself as Michael, and informed me he was a Child of the Lord or somesuch, and asked if I felt he could help me in any way. 

He was clearly looking for either a simple Yes or No here, so I responded “You are making an assumption that I actually need some sort of help”.  This nonplussed him somewhat, so he went on “So you don’t think I can help you?”.  I wasn’t having this, so repeated my assertion re his assumption, which appeared to irk him intensely.  He clearly either wanted a Yes, so he could work his god-magic on me, or a No so he could with a clear concience, move onto the next imperilled soul.  He eventually stomped off with what sounded suspiciously like an ungodly word spoken under his breath.

I returned from this brush with piety to catch The New Barbarians’ performance – effectively two Rolling Stones guitarists on a busman’s holiday promoting Ron Wood’s solo album.  Their set opened with a rather sloppy Sweet Little Rock and Roller, and pretty much went downhill from there.  So that by the time a few token Stones tunes were tossed in towards the end of proceedings, they were barely recognisable as such.

Twas dark by the time the headliners took to the stage and, after a preposterously lengthy tuning up (what the hell are roadies for?), Zeppelin cracked on with The Song Remains The Same, then Celebration Day, followed by Black Dog.  (BTW, am I the only person who thinks this last tune bears rather too close a resemblance to the US Marines’ Jody Calls?).

Perhaps it was the anticipation of finally seeing these long time heroes of mine, or perhaps it was the fatigue caused by the last 48 hours, or maybe the guys were actually rusty, but proceedings really did disappoint.  There was, in hindsight, probably no way the band could possibly have lived up to the hype of the comeback.  Don’t get me wrong, there were real high spots: Nobody’s Fault But Mine, Over The Hills and Far Away, Kashmir, Trampled Underfoot – even the delightfully silly Hot Dog.  But for each of these there was another which dragged: No Quarter, Sick Again and The Rain Song, all had folks around me chattering in boredom. 

But the biggest let down was Achilles Last Stand – the studio recording relies heavily on multi-tracked guitar parts from Page both propelling the thing along, whilst simultaneously adding colour.  With just one axe at the band’s disposal, it fell to Jones’ bass to provide the riffing, which just emasculated the masterpiece.  I thought so anyway.

During Stairway to Heaven Plant’s face on the huge screens was so covered in sweat it looked as if he was crying throughout the whole performance (perhaps he was), and it was only really (for me anyway) during the encores that things really came to life.  “Can you do the Dinosaur Rock?” Plant asked before a barnstorming Rock and Roll.  Whole Lotta Love was also great, if a touch too close to The Song Remains The Same album live version for my liking.  Communication Breakdown rounded things off perfectly.

Afterwards, many folks made their way to their tents for the night, but we followed the herd back to Stevenage Station, where trains had been laid on to transfer us back to Kings Cross.  Arriving back in the capital in the wee small hours, there was nothing to do but to find what looked like a quiet corner of the station and curl up in my sleeping bag.

I awoke around 7AM to find myself surrounded by a forest of pin-striped and power-dressed legs – very clearly our “quiet corner” was anything but, even on a Sunday.  Attempting to muster what little dignity I still possessed, I sheepishly emerged from my sleeping bag not unlike a particularly ugly moth emerging from its pupa, to a sea of faces looking at me rather in the manner they would at something unpleasant they had just wiped from their shoe.  At least I had my trousers on – a concert goer next to us had unwisely removed his jeans to use them as a pillow, and had awoken to discover some bugger had nicked them.  I last saw him wandering around in this underwear, begging a spare pair.

Not being able to face the bus again we splashed out, or at least A’s Mum’s credit card via telephone did, on train tickets, and were back home late that same afternoon.

Looking back, this had been great fun, and if Zeppelin hadn’t quite been on top form, this could perhaps be excused by ring-rustiness.  I later pondered if my over-familiarity with the tunes – I had played most of the band’s output to death over the previous few years – had also contributed to my slight feelings of anti-climax. 

Wouldn’t have missed it anything, though.

Set List
The Song Remains The Same
Celebration Day
Black Dog
Nobody's Fault But Mine
Over The Hills And Far Away
Misty Mountain Hop
Since I've Been Loving You
No Quarter
Hot Dog
The Rain Song
White Summer - Black Mountain Side
Trampled Underfoot
Sick Again
Achilles Last Stand
Guitar Solo
In The Evening
Stairway To Heaven
Rock And Roll
Whole Lotta Love
Communication Breakdown


  1. A good review. I went too. Zep were poor. Todd Rungren was better than you remembered, but only relative to what had gone before.

  2. Quite possibly - but C&D apart, I was unfamiliar with most of the support acts. I had only just a fleeting interest in The Stones back then, so even The NBs all appeared unfamiliar music. The fact I was dog-tired and could barely keep my eyes open hardly helped.