Sunday, July 19, 2009

It could have been worse

On this day in 1979, promoter Freddy Bannister announced the full lineup of supporting acts that would be appearing on the same bill as Led Zeppelin the following month at the Knebworth Festival in England.

Jimmy Page bemoaned the lineup on the day after the announcement, while giving an interview to the Melody Maker. "The lineup we had hoped for was Fairport [Convention], Dire Straits, Little Feat and Joni Mitchell."

Well, they got Fairport Convention, the folk quartet featuring some friends of the band. The rest were unavailable. Rejections likewise came pouring in with just about every act that was offered a spot on the bill. Bob Seger, Aerosmith and B.B. King were among names rumored to have been booked, but they weren't on the list of Led Zeppelin's support acts announced 30 years ago today.

Bear in mind that concerts at Knebworth House had a long tradition of attracting multiple big names to the same billing since the occasion was first attempted in 1974. That year, when the event was first known as the Bucolic Frolic, the acts included the Allman Brothers Band, the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Tim Buckley. Promoter Freddy Bannister had come close to booking Led Zeppelin, but the band backed out when a report surfaced in the Melody Maker about the booking before an announcement could be made.

Big-name acts that played Knebworth on four occasions between 1975 and 1978 include the Steve Miller Band, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Todd Rundgren, Genesis, Jefferson Starship, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Devo, Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, the Tubes and Swan Song recording artist Dave Edmunds. Many of these names were huge when they graced the stage on the Knebworth grounds and still resonate today as top performers in musical history.

Bannister had high hopes when he succesfully booked Led Zeppelin in 1979. Even before he arranged any other bands to support Zeppelin, he optimistically allowed his booking be announced exclusively on the TV show "The Old Grey Whistle Test." He also let the tickets go on sale on June 3 without any other acts announced.

Assuring words from Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant said that the band was about to make history and that Bannister was helping to make it happen. After a four-year absence from the British stage, whose event would be revered as Led Zeppelin's triumphant return? Bannister's. Even following a noticeable change in the musical climate at that time, Grant was counting on the public opinion to side with Led Zeppelin.

Bannister just needed the ticket sales to reflect it. Since a second Knebworth performance was in the works for Aug. 11, anything short of a complete sell-out for the Knebworth concert on Aug. 4 would mean two things: one, that Bannister wouldn't have earned enough money from ticket sales to break even; and two, that he wouldn't be able to justify green-lighting the tentative second Knebworth show. Production costs were sky-high, as were the fees the musical acts wanted.

Ticket sales in early June started off with a bang, and Bannister even reported to the press they had sold out. He now insists this was a tactic to generate interest in the second concert when in reality, the ticket sales for that first show, while great, did not provide the sell-out needed to cover his expenses. Bannister hoped other big names being added to the bill would boost ticket sales and help make Knebworth a sold-out show -- two weeks in a row.

Bannister says many of rock's biggest names declined his offers to share Zeppelin's gig. His account is painfully detailed in his paperback autobiography, titled "There Must be a Better Way: The Story of the Bath and Knebworth Rock Festivals 1969-1979." Among the acts he recalls that turned him down in 1979 are J.J. Cale, Little Feat and Roxy Music. In one telling quotation, Bannister says, "No one, it seemed, wanted to play with Led Zeppelin. It was at this point, rather belatedly, that I began to realize just what a reputation the band enjoyed for their egotistical behavior."

Bannister remembers repeatedly approaching Ian Dury and the Blockheads, "with no luck, and in desperation finally offered him an eye-watering £100,000 for the two shows." Bannister explains that "Ian, at the time, was very popular and his presence on the bill would certainly have helped ticket sales. I was also of the opinion that his very individual style of music would ideally [complement] Zeppelin's heavier sounds." No dice. "Ian was adamant and would not budge."

Grant, realizing the uphill battle, returned to Bannister with the news that he himself had arranged for another band to play Knebworth. It was the New Barbarians, a side project of the Rolling Stones that included two of them, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, plus Wood's former Faces bandmate Ian McLagan. "Two out of five of the Stones can't be bad, I thought," writes Bannister. In the end, the New Barbarians backed out of playing the Aug. 4 show because of ongoing studio sessions for the Rolling Stones album Emotional Rescue, but the group did sign on for the Aug. 11 show only. It was only with three weeks before showtime that the group committed to playing it, which meant little time to publicize it.

In the meantime, Led Zeppelin's suggestion of Fairport Convention panned out. Bannister writes that he hadn't been aware the band still existed; he thought they'd broken up years earlier. No, they were actually now down to a fourpiece. Scheduling was a problem for Fairport Convention too as the group was organizing its own festival, Cropredy, to take place Aug. 4, and was previously booked elsewhere on Aug. 11. Fairport squeezed in a single Knebworth performance early on Aug. 4.

Another band booked for only one date was Chas & Dave, which played Aug. 11 only. They were offbeat pub rockers who'd just struck a major U.K. hit with "Gertcha." Bannister, who was already familiar with their act, writes in his memoir, "They were just fine in the intimacy of a small theatre but on the giant stage, trying to project novelty songs to a hundred thousand rock hungry kids, it was a different matter."

The Marshall Tucker Band was briefly scheduled to appear at both shows. However, the band dropped out by the end of July, to be replaced quickly by Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. Rounding out the bill for both weeks were Todd Rundgren's Utopia -- a repeat Knebworth performer -- and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. And that's the complete lineup for Knebworth '79. "Not a vintage support programme," recalls Bannister, "but in view of the difficulties I had been experiencing, it could have been worse."

A more damning opinion eventually came from even the least likely of sources to criticize anything Led Zeppelin-related. "In retrospect it was the worst support bill ever assembled for a Knebworth Festival," Led Zeppelin historian Dave Lewis wrote 10 years ago in his "Tight but Loose" fanzine. In his second retrospective on the festival, Lewis admittedly applied a "more objective" view than the one before, "published soon after the shows," which "duly reflected my own blind devotion of the time -- a view of the proceedings through rose-tinted glasses." Lewis now theorized, "It would seem Peter Grant had little input and perhaps shrewdly let Bannister assemble a lineup that was going to pose little threat to Zeppelin."

Grant told Led Zeppelin biographer Ritchie Yorke years later that he had aerial photos taken both weeks at Knebworth that, when analyzed by an astronomical laboratory in the United States, revealed approximate attendances of 218,000 the first week and 187,000 the second. Bannister writes that he was never privy to this alleged evidence and that the 36-acre site couldn't accommodate more than 104,000 by a rather conservative estimate that didn't even account for the massive stage taking up a part of the grounds. He also leans back on the ticket sales, which indicated 104,000 paid attendees the first week and the paltry figure of only 40,000 on the second. His company, Tedoar Ltd., entered liquidation one month after the Knebworth concerts.

Even if Led Zeppelin drew 144,000 fans to Knebworth, it was record numbers for the festival and staggering attendance figures for any band. The actual attendance on the second week may have been much higher than the ticket sales indicated, thanks to gate crashing that occurred on Aug. 11. Those who were there can attest to this. Robert Godwin, the noted author of several books on Led Zeppelin, attended both shows and insists he was never in a larger crowd at any time in his life, even at an Olympic event that was reported to have 150,000 people. That's the way he prefers to remember the final concert in England by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham.

Because it was In that sense a last hurrah, the memory of Led Zeppelin's 1979 Knebworth concerts remains tinged with sadness. While this writer was not born for another three months after these concerts, it is necessary at this point to turn again to the words of Dave Lewis, who was there, and who 10 years ago wrote, "Led Zeppelin at Knebworth could have been, and should have been, a new beginning. As it was, it turned out to be their last goodbye, but being there to unknowingly wave them off was, for all in attendance, a truly unforgettable experience."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The latest at includes a summary of the book Dave Lewis has prepared to release in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Led Zeppelin appearances at Knebworth.

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