Sunday, September 20, 2009

Far behind the music

On this day in 1979, a sheet of paper was typed up within Led Zeppelin's organization to be submitted to the Melody Maker so it could run as a full-page ad. This action was aimed at publicly absolving the band of any wrongdoing related to two recent concert appearances in England.

Under the signature of Frederick Bannister, director of Tedoar Ltd., and dated at top "Sept 20 1979," the letter catches Freddy Bannister at a time when he and his wife, Wendy, were making the unhappy decision to declare bankruptcy and to withdraw from the business of music promotion. This happened quickly after they promoted Led Zeppelin's only U.K. concert dates after 1975, a pair of shows billed as the Knebworth Festival 1979, held Aug. 4 and 11.

There was a much more elaborate reason for the promoters' decision to close up shop, as Freddy Bannister eventually wrote in his book, "There Must Be a Better Way: The Story of the Bath and Knebworth Rock Festivals 1969-1979." He summed it up succinctly in concluding his narrative, published in 2003: "So why did we retire so abruptly? In a word, fear. By this time Peter Grant was in such a terrible state, both mentally and physically, we thought he was on the way out and would be delighted to take us with him. As it happened, he lived another 16 years and, I believe, became a born again Christian."

Much has already been said regarding Led Zeppelin's music at the Knebworth Festival in August 1979. Just read Dave Lewis's new book, "Then As It Was: Led Zeppelin at Knebworth 1979 -- 30 Years Gone," for dozens of perspectives from the field concerning the music. But, even as Lewis acknowledges inside the pages of his book, there was a lot more going on behind the scenes than just rehearsing and performing.

The way Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant handled his flagship band's return to the live stage 30 years ago has been the subject of much focus. Jack Calmes, founder of the sound and lighting company Showco, recently discussed this aspect of the story in a piece printed in this August's issue of Total Production magazine. In it, he references Grant and "the main interface for Zeppelin production," tour manager Richard Cole. He comments, "They were always very secretive about their operations, and Richard could be a difficult person at that stage because he was on the other side of the moon."

Cole, when interviewed earlier this year by Dave Lewis for the U.S. radio show "Get the Led Out," critiqued his own temperament from around 1979. "I must admit," he said, "my memories of Knebworth aren't that great. I was a little bit, um, not myself, you might say." Sober today, he continued. "I was making it difficult for myself. I mean, um, the job wasn't really any more difficult."

As for Bannister, most of his dealings with Led Zeppelin were directly with Grant himself, one on one. Bannister reflects in his book on the many times over several years he and Grant met. He recounts the pleasantries they exchanged while booking Led Zeppelin at both of the Bath festivals held in 1969 and 1970.

Bannister also discusses their other meetings and conversations, often to pitch events for Grant to consider booking Led Zeppelin to play, and sometimes for them to bond over their shared love of antique motorcars. Bannister also muses, "While we were never close friends, we knew each other well enough for Peter to phone me when his wife, Gloria, left him."

The change in Grant's personality after the separation did not go entirely unnoticed by Bannister. "He had totally changed from the Peter we knew and trusted in the sixties and early seventies," he writes. "I had already started to notice the difference when he pulled the band out of the first Knebworth concert in 1974." Rather, it was the extent to which Grant's personality changed that he never expected, Bannister says.

When he first approached Grant in 1979 with an offer to play outside of Knebworth House on two consecutive weekends, the veteran promoter thought he would have everything under control. "I had been warned that Peter had changed," Bannister writes, "but I suppose I was arrogant enough to think that, because we had got on so well in the early days, that I could handle him."

Bannister now surmises that, at some point along the way, Grant "had begun to believe his own hype." He credits Grant with always having possessed "judgment and taste that belied his humble origins." Nevertheless, Bannister admits his inability to foresee "the effect that drugs had on his judgment." For one thing, Bannister recalls hosting a 26-hour meeting at his residence to negotiate fees for Led Zeppelin and Showco, the sound and lighting company. He says that around 4 a.m., "Peter was keeping himself going with long lines of cocaine plus the occasional Mogadon [a brand-name hypnotic sedative] to maintain the balance. Wendy and I stuck to coffee, a rather more prosaic and decidedly cheaper stimulant. ... Twenty-six hours after he had arrived, Peter went home. God knows how much cocaine he got through during the course of the meeting."

From Bannister's account, his interactions with Grant, and with others connected to him, made him appear less like the manager of old and more like the mobster character he'd portrayed for cinematic effect in The Song Remains the Same. Now, Grant also had a criminal record to boot, since he had been arrested on an assault charge during Led Zeppelin's previous North American tour and since been given a suspended prison sentence. Bannister vividly describes several incidents in which Grant and his henchmen exuded intimidation in order to get their way.

Basically, Bannister says any last-minute concessions to Grant were enacted only to avoid further aggravation and headaches. For one, just before the band took the stage at Knebworth on Aug. 4, Bannister relinquished all rights to any filming made "for the princely sum of a shilling (5 new pence)." He initially refused but changed his mind after an argument and Richard Cole's declaration, "With the mood Peter's in these days you really don't need the aggravation." Bannister later arrived at an understanding that "the only way someone signs their rights away for 5 pence is under duress, as I was, and this, I was told sometime afterwards, totally invalidates the contract."

It does not appear that Bannister ever sought redress on that point. As Graeme Hutchinson notes in an appendix contained in Lewis's "Then As It Was," a company called TV International filmed both of Led Zeppelin's Knebworth appearances in their entirety -- 193 minutes of professionally shot video from Aug. 4 and 161 minutes from Aug. 11. Led Zeppelin used seven songs from Knebworth on the band's official DVD released in 2003, and the video footage comes almost entirely from what TV International shot.

Other disputes with Grant went unresolved, says Bannister, for a fear of the potential for violence. At Grant's Horselunges Manor house on Aug. 7, Freddy and his wife, Wendy Bannister, were discussing with Grant and Atlantic Records executive Phil Carson the number of tickets that had been sold for the first performance. The Bannisters maintained only 104,000 had been sold, while Grant and Carson insisted a quarter of a million people had been in attendance. The ticket sales would have determined how much money Tedoar had earned.

Bannister claimed ticket sales weren't enough to cover paying Led Zeppelin in full for a second concert, while Grant accused the promoters of lying to withhold profits. Bannister writes: "At one point when Wendy, close to tears, tried to explain something to him, this 20 stone bully lunged at her, waving his fist a foot away from her face. 'Don't get smart with me,' he snarled. That was it. There was no point in trying to reason with him so we left. He did have the good grace to apologise to Wendy when he walked with us out to our car. However, it was too late."

Whatever Grant told the band about the Knebworth attendance debacle stuck with Jimmy Page, as evidenced by comments made to journalist Mick Wall years later. Page repeated the assertion that more people attended Knebworth than however many tickets were declared as being sold and, therefore, "we were partially paid ... Peter Grant told me and the rest of the band that Freddy Bannister reneged on it."

On Aug. 8, the Bannisters were visited by "an American calling himself Herb Atkins" who "was wearing an over-smart, cheap, dark suit, dark shirt and dark glasses" and drove "an equally sinister dark Volvo, fitted with tinted glass. ... If he wasn't ex CIA, I thought, he obviously fantasised that he was. ... It was clear that he had been sent to intimidate me. He ... was accompanied by a rather seedy looking Englishman in his fifties who was introduced to me as a former Metropolitan Police superintendent." They spoke to him of super-high-resolution aerial photographs -- the kind that were "so detailed you could read the time on watches that members of the audience were wearing." These photos, they told him, had supposedly been analyzed by NASA to reveal the number of audience members present on Aug. 4 was more to the tune of 250,000.

Bannister told them he couldn't even imagine how that many people could fit onto a plot of land 36 acres in size. Citing a 1976 report on the same staging area when used for a previous event he promoted, Bannister notes that 4.5 acres of the 36 acres contained "medical tents, caterers, entertainers, lavatories, lighting towers and trees." Further, he says, three or four other acres of the original 36 also "contained the stage and backstage area."

Bannister does credit the Led Zeppelin organization with one concession, however, and it is the important one that is the subject of the letter appearing in the Oct. 6, 1979, issue of the Melody Maker. As Bannister explains in his book, on the evening of Aug. 9, Peter Grant and the aforementioned Herb Atkins met the Bannisters at their home, this time accompanied by "a great bull of a man" they said was their driver. Finances was naturally the topic of conversation as Led Zeppelin and the supporting acts -- the New Barbarians (featuring Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards), Todd Rundgren & Utopia, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, and Chas & Dave -- were scheduled to perform the second Knebworth show two days later. "After a great deal of discussion, Grant told us that although he still didn't believe the figures we had given him, he was prepared to reduce Led Zeppelin's fee for the second show, to enable us to pay the rest of the bands." Bannister says Grant's operation became more interested in ensuring the security staff and supporting acts were all paid for the Aug. 11 date before Led Zeppelin's own fee would be collected.

The second concert took place, and the U.K. music press had its say. Bannister writes that he evaded questions from reporters who sensed a juicy story about Tedoar's financial struggles. Also during the week Bannister called a "nightmare," he says, "Herb Atkins had made it fairly clear, with his talk of people from Miami, that there were American interests who could be something of a problem if we, to quote him, 'misbehaved ourselves.'"

One final encounter with this intimidating figure took place in September, Bannister writes. After "a phone call instructing me to meet him at The Dorchester in Park Lane and to come alone," Atkins presented Bannister with a typewritten and undated letter addressed to Peter Grant and from none other than Frederick Bannister. There was no signature on it. That's what Atkins was there to obtain. The letter read, in full:
To Mr. Peter Grant

There has been some misconceptions reported in the press concerning the Led Zeppelin and Knebworth which, as concert promoter, I would like to clarify. First, before anyone knew what the total ticket sales for the two concerts would be, upon my request, the Led Zeppelin voluntarily reduced their guarantee by a substantial amount and were willing to accept an alternate arrangement in order to help insure the best possible concert for the patrons and payment to all concerned in the event there was insufficient funds to pay everyone in full. Mr. Peter Grant, Manager of the Led Zeppelin, was particularly concerned that all acts appearing at the concert be fully compensated. Unfortunately, because of a huge increase in production and staffing costs, increased V.A.T., among other reasons, this very substantial guarantee reduction by the Led Zeppelin, while very helpful, was unfortunately not sufficient.

Second, at all times the Led Zeppelin, their Manager and his staff have been completely co-operative, the group's performances at Knebworth truly outstanding and their popularity, as evidenced by their number one album throughout the world speaks for itself.

Finally, it would be a privilege and pleasure for me to promote another Led Zeppelin concert in the future and hope to have the opportunity of so doing.

Signed Frederick Bannister
Director, Tedoar Limited

Bannister's immediate take on it? He writes, "It appeared Grant wanted me to absolve him and the band from any of the bad publicity the festival was getting and wanted me to sign a letter to that effect."

Bannister also realizes the extent to which Led Zeppelin's ability to work again in the future rested in his hands, as evidenced by his recollection of the violence backstage at Oakland Coliseum in 1977 and the subsequent arrests and sentencing of Grant, along with John Bonham, Richard Cole and John Bindon. "In view of this conviction," writes Bannister, "it wouldn't be that easy for them to obtain American work permits."

However, Bannister knew no other reaction than to sign the letter. He explains in his book: "If I made too much fuss about the way I had been so unjustly treated, it would probably aggravate an already delicate situation. I was not exactly thrilled with the request. However, after all the unpleasantness and worrying innuendo, I was scared for the safety of my family. I just wanted to put everything behind me and get on with my life, so I agreed to sign the statement."

Bannister says it was also during this final meeting with Atkins that the mysterious man claimed his colleagues had decided the Bannisters "weren't worth bothering any further" based on their apparently dire financial situation. The news was little consolation to the promoter, whose company was now beginning to enter liquidation.

Herb Atkins took the signed letter back to Peter Grant. It was given the date of "Sept 20 1979" and retyped using Times New Roman with some accents in an Old English font. The words underwent some light editing -- such as "Led Zeppelin" instead of "the Led Zeppelin," "firstly" and "secondly" instead of "first and second," the correct "ensure" instead of the misused "insure," and so on. Aside from some capitalization alterations and comma shifts, other notable edits were made as follows:
  • Gone was the salutation at the top that had read, "To Mr. Peter Grant."
  • The grammatical error in the first sentence was corrected to read, "There have been some misconceptions..."
  • In the revised letter, Grant was concerned not that all acts be "fully compensated" but merely that they be "paid."
  • The band's Knebworth "performances" changed to "performance."
  • That singular performance was labeled "really tremendous" rather than "truly outstanding."
  • As if to emphasize or single out the point of Led Zeppelin, the manager, and the staff having been "completely co-operative," that sentence was given its own paragraph.
At the bottom, just above Bannister's name, was his signature. This was submitted to the Melody Maker, as a full-page ad to appear in the Oct. 6 edition. Bannister writes that the Melody Maker's advertising manager called Wendy personally to ensure she was OK with it being printed. Freddy quotes his wife as telling the advertising manager, "Go ahead. If Grant feels the need to publish the letter in this way no one is going to believe it anyway. No one who knows Freddy would believe that he would write such formal crap."

In closing Tedoar Ltd., Bannister effectively ended his career in music promotion, and he and Wendy lost their livelihood. He says their fear of Grant was not the only motivating factor that made them quit. He explains: "For some time I had been growing disillusioned with the greed and general unpleasantness of the contractors that provided equipment and services for the events, and also by the way the police and council, using moral blackmail, were driving up the cost of these events with their ever more unrealistic demands for money. Finally and perhaps more importantly, I could at last see from the way that the music scene was heading that the days of the commercial mega shows were basically coming to an end, at least for sometime to come."

Bannister, in his book, says he believes 150,000 attended the Knebworth Festival over Aug. 4 and 11, 1979. He calls this "a very impressive number to draw over two consecutive weekends." Other points he maintains: "We did not cheat Led Zeppelin out of a penny, quite the contrary, as we not only lost money on the promotion but we lost our livelihood as well. We certainly would not have lasted over twenty years in a business as competitive as the music industry if we had not enjoyed a solid reputation, nor would we have ended up running large outdoor shows. I can honestly say over the whole of this period, we never cheated or failed to pay a band."

He concludes: "Do I miss the music business? Of course. I miss the people, the humour, the camaraderie. Above all, I miss the great music, but come to think of it, doesn't every one?"

Bannister's 2003 book does not divulge what he'd been doing for a livelihood in the 24 ensuing years. Quite possibly, that's for the best. On the other hand, his book certainly does detail many enthralling stories from the years he and Wendy spent laboring in the music business. The chapters on their early successes are a joy to read, and there's a lot of territory to cover before they moved from promoting weekly shows at a club to promoting larger outdoor music shows.

The book is now available as part of a limited-edition commemorative boxed set that also includes:
  • ticket, program and flyer reprints from the Bath festivals in 1969 and 1970 and the Knebworth Festival in 1979
  • a set of 20 glossy 6x8" photographs taken at the Bath and Knebworth festivals
  • three T-shirts (select three from among three Knebworth designs and two designs displaying the poster art from the Bath festivals)
  • two poster reprints (select two from among the 1969 and 1970 Bath festivals as well as the 1979 Knebworth Festival)
  • a DVD containing 100 photographs of Led Zeppelin at Knebworth, plus an interview of Robert Plant and John Paul Jones conducted by J.J. Jackson
  • a 60-minute DVD called "The Spirit of Knebworth" that overviews the seven Knebworth festivals held between 1974 and 1979
  • a signature of the promoter, Freddy Bannister
The boxed set is limited to 200. Visit for ordering information.

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