Listening to Desert Island Discs today, in which the castaway was Lord David Cobbold, founder of the Knebworth rock festival, I found a ‘window of memory’ opening (in Tony Judt’s phrase) and remembered the first two Knebworth festivals that we attended, in 1974 and 1975.
It was July 20, 1974. Four of us drove up from London and the weather was good – it stayed dry and warm throughout the day and into the evening. The site provided a natural amphitheatre, with the stage set at the foot of gently sloping ground. The sound was good, and it was a great line-up.
Remarkably, Tim Buckley was bottom of the bill. After the folk-rock of his sixties albums, he’d probably lost a lot of his audience with the tricky Lorca and Starsailor albums, and this was also his first UK show since 1968. Most of the songs he played that afternoon were from his 1972 album, Greetings From L.A., with a couple from Sefronia, released the previous year. The second song was ‘Dolphins’, and as the sun shone down and I listened to those yearning lyrics – and that voice! – drifting in the haze I was blown away:
This old world will never change the way it’s been
And all the ways of war won’t change it back again…
Lord, I’m not the one to tell this old world how to get along
I only know that peace will come when all our hate is gone
I’ve been searchin’ for the dolphins in the sea…
This old world will never change
I must have seen Buckley perform the song live on The Old Grey Whistle Test a couple of months earlier:
Set list: Nighthawkin’, Dolphins, Get on Top, Devil Eyes, Buzzin’ Fly, Sweet Surrender and Honey Man. The musicians were: Art Johnson (guitar), Jim Fielder (bass), Mark Tiernan (keyboards) and Buddy Helm (drums).
Less than a year later he was dead from a heroin overdose.
Next on was the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, which I don’t remember at all. But I do have strong memories of the Mahavishnu Orchestra set, with John McLaughlin firing guitar notes like missiles over the crowd.
Van Morrison was next – though not, as advertised with his Caledonia Soul Orchestra. He was accompanied only by Peter Van Hook (drums), Pete Wingfield (piano) and Jerome Rimson on bass. He played a long set with many highlights, including Warm Love,Street Choir,Listen to the Lion, Bulbs, Into the Mystic,I’ve Been Working and Brown-Eyed Girl.
The NME wasn’t impressed:
Van looked like a probationary teacher on his first day in the science department of an East End comprehensive. For most of the set he was largely uninspiring , although he managed times – notably on Into the Mystic – when he succeeded to mentally scuff the listeners’ life and then lapse into false calm again. Pete Wingfields piano keys stuck time and time again and Morrison would appear an almost tragic figure as he struggled to reactivate the set, wiping his spectacles painfully and looking fairly ludicrous in his lace flied leather pants.
At last, at around 7.00, the band most of us had been waiting for - Allman Brothers Band – appeared on stage and began to play, continuing for about three hours as the sun set, giving one of their typical performances of extended blues jams spread over two sets and lengthy encores. They were on good form and played all the best numbers from their two live Fillmore albums, as well as their recent Brothers and Sisters lp.
First set: Wasted Words, Done Somebody Wrong, One Way Out, Stormy Monday, Midnight Rider, Blue Sky, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed
Second set: Statesboro Blues, Come and Go Blues, Ramblin’ Man,
Encore: Trouble No More, Jessica, You Don’t Love Me, Les Brers In A Minor, Whipping Post
A year later, July 5, 1975, we were back again for the second Knebworth Festival, featuring Captain Beefheart, The Steve Miller Band, Roy Harper and with Pink Floyd headlining.
The UK Rock Festivals site recalls that:
The festival played host to the mother of all traffic jams and queues stretched back for up to ten miles in length, something that had not happened to this extent in 1974. This was partly due to the fact that although the festival was a sell out – and the organisers had asked people without tickets not to attend -many fans still arrived in the hope of scoring tickets from touts, or just hanging around and listening to the show from outside.
On Desert Island Discs, David Cobbold looked back on this event with great affection, selecting a track from Dark Side of the Moon and recalling that 100,000 people attended.
Roy Harper’s set was in two parts. The first was Harper on acoustic guitar accompanied by a small orchestra (string and brass) conducted by David Bedford. The second part was Harper plus Trigger. He played Commune, Twelve Hours of Sunset, Another Day,Hallucinating Light, Referendum, Highway Blues, Too Many Movies, The Spirit Lives, Home, The Game,and Grown Ups are Just Silly Children.
The Steve Miller Band was next up. I remember that his Number 5 album was a real favourite at the time, especially on car journeys. However, he didn’t play anything from that album, choosing to feature songs from all stages of his career. The set list was: Feel So Good, Mercury Blues, Boogie Children, Freight Train Blues, Stagger Lee, The Window, Living in the USA, Space Cowboy, Shu Ba Da Da Ma Ma Ma Ma, Rock’n Me, Come On in My Kitchen. With Steve Miller were Lonnie Turner (bass), Les Dudek (slide guitar) and Doug Clifford (drums).
Captain Beefheart played for an hour, but, extraordinarily, I have no memory of this whatsoever. Finally, as the sun began to sink, the event we had all been waiting for: the advertisements had read, ‘All roads lead to Knebworth – Pink Floyd 1975′ and now they were on stage, beneath specially-commissioned Gerald Scarfe animations on a circular screen, introduced by dee-jay Pete Drummond. Then came the moment that imprints this festival on my memory: just as the Floyd were about to start, two World War II spitfires appeared out of the sky, flew low over the crowd, pulled into a climb over the stage, dipped their wings and disappeared.
On the Neptune Pink Floyd fan website, Freddy Bannister, a stage technician with the band, recalls how this stunt was planned:
I had been asked to book two World War Two Spitfires for the Floyd and I had contacted the late Neil Williams to supply them. Neil, a former RAF pilot, had been British Aerobatics Champion three or four times and had loads of experience flying Spitfires, plus practically everything else with wings. The general idea was just as Pink Floyd started their performance, the Spitfires would fly in at tree top height and, crossing over, would pull up into a vertical climb just as the band struck their first chord. The timing was going to be critical. We had already, of course, obtained permission for the stunt and our local contact was Luton Airport. One of the air traffic controllers had agreed to liaise between Neil and myself.
Sitting in my office, the upper of two Portacabins, I had a terrific view of the stage area. Barry Turner had arranged for a phone line to be rigged up between the office and a point backstage and we had a GPO phone line installed on which I could call Luton. Sitting there with a phone to each ear, I was enjoying myself. About ten minutes before the start of the Floyd’s performance I made contact with Neil, courtesy of our friendly air traffic controller.
‘When exactly do you want us?’ he asked. I checked with the Floyds co-ordinator. ‘We’ve got a problem. It’ll be another ten minutes,’ he said rather abruptly.
Ten minutes later, when I checked back with him, I was told my assistance was no longer required. ‘Just have the aircraft cross the stage in ten minutes,’ he said, ‘Make sure it’s ten minutes to the second.’
Passing on his message, I sat in the office and waited. A couple of minutes before the Spitfires were due I dialled the talking clock. The pilots timing was impressive. Just as the pips went so the two Spitfires appeared crossing behind the stage and pulling up with perfect symmetry into a vertical climb, the Rolls Royce Merlin engines making the sort of noise that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Unfortunately, The Floyd didn’t start playing until a minute and a half later but, as they say, that’s rock ‘n’ roll’.
Pink Floyd have a special significance in the memory window. It must have been sometime in 1974 when we bought our first proper stereo system (Thorens TD160 deck, Rotel amp, Wharfedale speakers). The first lp to play as soon as we got it set up had to be Dark Side of the Moon: those heart beats!
The Knebworth set was basically in the same format as the concert we had seen six months earlier when the Floyd played the Liverpool Empire in November 1974 (programme above: a 16-page comic with a colour cover). The first half of the set was dedicated to material from the album that would appear in 1976, Wish You Were Here, dedicated to their founding member Syd Barrett.
Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
You were caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom,
blown on the steel breeze.
Come on you target for faraway laughter,
come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!
You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision,
rode on the steel breeze.
Come on you raver, you seer of visions,
come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!
The music unfolds gradually, with the jazzy textures of ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ building at a leisurely pace, with long, winding soundscapes and guitar solos from Dave Gilmour. The second set, performed as darkness fell, was a complete live re-creation of The Dark Side Of The Moon, followed by ‘Echoes’ as an encore with a dazzling fireworks display.
Set list: Raving And Drooling, You’ve Got To Be Crazy, Shine On You Crazy Diamond parts 1-5, Have A Cigar(with Roy Harper vocal), Shine On You Crazy Diamond parts 6-9, Speak To Me, Breathe, On The Run, Time, The Great Gig In The Sky, Money, Us And Them, Any Colour You Like, Brain Damage, Eclipse, Echoes.
The band at this stage still included Roger Waters, Dick Parry played saxophone, and additional vocals were by Venetta Fields and Carlena Williams. Very soon after this, I tired of the overblown pomposity of their music – and so did most of us. Punk was five years away. And Thatcher.
The lunatics are in my hall.
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more.
And so we close the window of memory.