Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: A Postcard From 1976 Pt.2

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to another edition of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays – our occasional Campari and soda drenched probe into the rainbow and glitter world of artistes who are quite simply fabulous, darling.

Tonight, dear reader, as we travel back in time for our second visit to 1976, we must once more set aside the strictures of the Trades Description Act, because the music of ’76 was neither louche nor fey, neither limp of wrist nor light of loafer, and in short does not meet the usual puddle-jumping criteria for a fabulously flamboyant Friday. My musical tastes back then were hirsute of chest, smelly of denim, stained with engine oil and soaked in Newkie Broon – and probably garnished with a side order of Hai Karate and Brut as well. It was ’76, the skies were blue, the land was scorched and the music was loud.

In part one of this article I made brief mention of my trip to see The Rolling Stones play at the now near-legendary 1976 Knebworth Festival and – oh, my days – what a whopper that festival was. There wasn’t sufficient room in the previous article to do justice to that event, so this week’s missive will take a closer look at that wonderful day via the tattered remnants of my (then) chemically altered and quite probably deeply unreliable recollections.

A group of us had managed to get hold of tickets for the event and we decided to meet up on the night before the festival at a pub in Southend-on-Sea called The Carlton. We had originally planned to beat the masses by setting off at about 4am, but of course we all got hammered in the pub and overslept. However, by about 7am, the more compos mentis amongst our group had managed to cajole and berate our rag-tag bunch into a semblance of consciousness and we all stumbled, blinking and bleary-eyed, into the bright and relentless morning sunshine. It was already hot, even at this early hour of the day. It was August ’76, we were in the middle of a long, hot drought and clouds, it would seem, had decided to play very little part in our blistering summer.

We had organised a small and suitably battered convoy of semi-legal cars to ferry us to the festival, and one of the girls had drawn up a seating schedule to make best use of our limited resources. Accordingly, I soon found myself clutching one of the day’s short straws – shoehorned into the middle of the back seat of a tiny Triumph Herald. One of the lads next to me had pupils the size of saucers. He was, I soon realised, tripping balls. We would later discover our driver had also “dropped a tab”, but happily, as we set off, I was still blissfully unaware of this fact.

There was of course no M25 back in ’76, but bits of it were certainly under construction. However, I seem to remember we planned to make our way to Stevenage via Chelmsford and Harlow – and it was somewhere around Harlow that we discovered the unfortunate altered state of our driver’s consciousness.

We pulled into a petrol station for a routine fuel stop and most took the opportunity to stock up on confectionery to assuage the dreaded munchies. As we emerged from the shop (doubtless clutching handfuls of Bar Six, Old Jamaica, Swisskit and Aztec) we couldn’t help but notice our driver was convulsed with laughter, tears streaming down his face, leaning heavily on his car for support. He was completely helpless with near-hysterical laughter and one look at his pupils told us why –  the acid had kicked in and he too was tripping balls.

We discovered the source of his mirth was a directional sign with two things printed on it. The first was “Way Out” and underneath that was printed “Fuel”. In his deeply altered state this had incapacitated him with uncontrollable mirth. In between explosive outbursts of laughter he informed us that 4 star petrol was no longer an option and we should all fill up with some of that “way out fuel”. We assured him this was all very amusing and deeply insightful but, wisely, we relieved him of his keys, relegated him to the back seat and replaced him with a much safer driver – one who was merely hungover and stoned.

As it happens, we didn’t have far to go. We soon found ourselves, still several miles from Knebworth House, stationary and caught up in complete festival gridlock. We made a few half-hearted attempts to escape and approach the venue from another direction, but people had already started to abandon their cars by the side of the road, so we eventually decided to give up and follow suit. Accordingly, we grabbed our supplies, abandoned our cars and set off on foot.

It didn’t take long to find the back of the queue, but the entrance gates were clearly inadequate as it took us well over three hours of shuffling along in the blazing sun to get in. By the time we reached the arena we had already missed the first two bands: The Don Harrison Band and Hot Tuna – which, if I’m completely honest, didn’t trouble me greatly. However, what did stop us in our tracks was the sight that greeted us – a veritable sea of humanity that seemed to exceed the horizon.

We simply could not believe the size of the crowd. History records about 130,000 tickets had been sold (for the princely sum of £4.25, I might add) but on the day the crowd was estimated to be around 200,000. We later discovered a section of perimeter fence had been flattened by the huge mass of punters still queuing for the gates, so I’m sure this free entry route added substantially to the numbers.

Later analysis of aerial photographs would suggested a quarter of a million punters might be nearer the truth. Whatever the actual size of the crowd, I can personally attest to it being the biggest mass gathering I have ever experienced and at times feeling as if I had been completely engulfed by a sea of humanity.

In 1976 The Rolling Stones were still billing themselves as the biggest rock n’ roll band in the world. Many of course, at that time, would claim Led Zeppelin had thoroughly usurped that position, and indeed it was Led Zep that Freddy Bannister, the festival’s promoter, had wanted as his headliners.

Bannister was a major music promoter in the 1970s. The Bath, Lincoln and Knebworth festivals were all his babies, and he promoted a great many UK tours by US artists, including Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, both of whom featured at Freddy’s Knebworth festivals. Sadly Freddie is no longer with us, but he released his autobiography, There Must Be a Better Way, back in 2003 and I’m happy to recommend it to the house as a thoroughly entertaining tome. Anyway, once it became clear his efforts to land Led Zep would fall on stony ground, Freddy turned to Queen for his headliners. They agreed, but were quickly and rather unceremoniously dropped when the Stones expressed interest in a festival appearance to wrap up their ’76 European tour promoting their Black & Blue album.

The Stones had already played string of summer gigs at the very large (and much missed) Earl’s Court Arena in London as part of their European tour. These shows had sold-out in double quick time and my travelling companions and I had failed miserably to secure tickets. Knebworth, it would seem, would therefore be our last chance to see the band on their current tour. Additionally, demand for tickets was very high because of the persistent (and ever-so-convenient) rumours that the band were about to announce their retirement from live performance. This would mean Knebworth could be their last ever show, so even those unable to secure tickets were determined to attend. As a result, it was a bloody big crowd.

We started to make our way through the throng to find the beer tents. The day was punishingly hot and our journey had been long and arduous. Therefore, after gasping in disbelief at the festival’s beer prices (possibly as much as 30p a pint), we settled in and set about recreating the famous bar scene from Ice Cold In Alex.

Suitably refreshed, we headed towards the stage, picking our way unsteadily through the crowd. Todd “Todger” Rundgren was on stage. He and his band (Utopia) seemed to be going down quite well with an appreciative (but clearly extremely “relaxed”) audience. To be fair to the crowd, it was a beautifully hot and hazy summer’s day – one perfectly suited to *ahem* chilling out. Our avowed intent was to settle in, skin up and join them in this lazy, hazy, foggy brain state as soon as possible. The music gods, however, had other ideas.

Onto the stage wandered Lynyrd Skynyrd – a bunch of good ol’ boys from the southern US of A – who promptly set about writing themselves into festival folklore. They delivered a sensational performance, a blistering performance. They dragged the somnolent crowd to its feet and got them dancing, screaming and howling with approval. The music journalist, Ian Fortnam would later note he had never witnessed a crowd react to a support band in the same way that Knebworth did to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I had already seen Skynyrd in ’75 and been largely unimpressed. They had delivered a perfectly competent and workmanlike performance, one which I had quite enjoyed, but their Knebworth set was quite simply on another level – it was a completely different beast. It takes some effort to captivate a huge festival crowd, the vast majority of whom are not there to see you. But Lynyrd Skynyrd did just that, with a barnstorming and thoroughly magnificent set that left us all baying for more. Freddy Bannister later noted that everyone backstage seemed to be taken aback by the quality of the performance – “we all wondered how anyone could possibly follow them”. Happily, their entire set was captured for posterity in excellent quality audio and reasonable quality video; but sadly, just a year later, a tragic plane crash would bring the band’s career to a grim halt. Nevertheless, on that beautiful summer’s day at Knebworth, they were utterly magnificent.

10cc had the unfortunate task of following Skynyrd, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) they didn’t seem overly keen to take the stage. Bannister’s biography notes technical problems for 10cc, but after 90 minutes he claims he told the band to play or go home. They played, but Bannister remained convinced they had induced their audio problems to delay their start time. 10cc were ok, but after the highs of Skynyrd and the tedious 90 minute gap that followed, the bored and restless crowd were now in a less than welcoming frame of mind. Additionally, 10cc were clearly using a lot of backing tapes and this was not greeted with universal approval by the Stones fans. I suppose they delivered a pretty decent set and they did win the crowd over by the end. However, it would prove to be our last chance to see this original line-up of the band, as 10cc would split up only a few months later, with Godley and Creme departing for pastures new.

And so onto the Rolling Stones… Well, no. At least not immediately. Sadly, we were in for yet another interminable wait. The delays, we were assured, were due to more technical issues, but Bannister’s biography notes “the Stones delayed things [because] they were too busy posing and acting like rock stars.” Whatever the cause, we had a lot of time to kill, so we shall now take a short narrative detour to consider the medieval horror of the near-legendary Knebworth Festival toilets.

It has to be said, festival facilities in the ’70s were not generally good, but Knebworth’s appalling sanitary arrangements plunged new depths to achieve subterranean levels of grim. The facilities were entirely unplumbed. Each consisting of a large circular metal tank (about 10 foot in diameter and about 2.5 foot high), covered with plywood, into which a series circular holes had been cut (for aiming through or sitting upon, depending on your requirements). A series of wooden dividers provided about 16 wedge shaped cubicles (open at the front) around the tank.

Most of the tank structures were inside a simple tent, others were surrounded by screens. The temperature inside the toilet tents was staggering, flies were everywhere and the stench was indescribable. Due to the oversized crowd, the tanks were soon full to the brim with steaming effluent and gently bobbing accoutrements. As they were never emptied, they simply began to overflow. There was no power or lighting, so once darkness fell you had absolutely no idea of what you were wading through or stepping in.

Most, wisely, gave up on the rancid tanks and went elsewhere. By morning around a quarter of a million people had made multiple contributions to the lakes of urine and piles of excrement that surrounded the facilities. It was truly grim. When I returned to Knebworth in ’79 to see Led Zeppelin (a gig that sadly bankrupted Freddy Banister and ended his association with the festival) I was less that amused to note the dreaded khazi tanks were still very much in use. Happily, by the time I returned in ’85 to see Deep Purple (one of the wettest festivals I’ve ever attended) the bogs from hell had been banished to the underworld pits from whence they came.

And still we waited for the Rolling Stones. The time at which the festival was supposed to close was now fast approaching. Festival infrastructure like bars, food vendors and merchandise tents were being closed, dismantled and packed away. And as the delays continued, a bleak mood descended as we began to contemplate the possibility of the Stones not playing. Happily, at around half past eleven, their Satanic Majesties finally got their arses into gear, arrived on stage and the party began.

And what a set we witnessed. They were very late, but we were not short changed. This was right at the end of their European tour, so the band were match fit, battle hardened and ready to rock. They played for almost two and a half hours, delivering what Bill Wyman later confirmed was the longest set of their careers. Throughout their performance, Jagger pranced and galloped around the stage in a pair of tights that left very little to the imagination and which (according to the Daily Mirror) made him look like a gay Richard the Third. By the time the band stumbled off stage, I felt as exhausted as Jagger looked. “We were supposed to finish by midnight”, Freddy Bannister would later recall, “but it eventually ended at about 2am”.

Once the stage lights were out, we all began to make our way from the arena to the many campsites and car parks around the venue. Only one problem – no lights. This was 1976 and festivals didn’t have any audience lighting or illuminated signage to guide you on your way. Around a quarter of a million tired, stoned and intoxicated people simply stumbled around in the dark, fell into ditches, tripped over the unconscious and wondered where on earth they had left their tent. It was utter bloody chaos.

I guess it took us around four or five hours to find our way out of the venue, work out where we had parked and track down our cars. It was hot and sunny again by the time we managed to find our abandoned transport and make sure we hadn’t left anyone behind. Tired but elated, our recreational pharmaceutical supports long since exhausted, we piled into our battered cars and set off on the long and weary journey back to Southend-on-Sea. As far as I can recall, we all made it back in one piece.

Knebworth ’76 really was quite an experience. I’ve seen the Stones several times since. I’ve even worked on a few of their live shows and video shoots. But I’ve never seen them deliver a performance to match the one I was privileged to witness on that long hot day in August. As I’ve already said,  Knebworth ’76 really was quite an experience.

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s episode of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays. TTFN Puffins – Not ‘arf!

Featured Image: A Rolling Stones Crowd – 1976 – Knebworth House B&W – Sérgio Valle Duarte  Wikidata has entry Sergio Valle Duarte (Q16269994) with data related to this item.

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