Bath Festival of Blues And Progressive Music 1970

Bath Festival of Blues And Progressive Music 1970
Authored By John Nicholson

When they played the Bath Festival of Blues in 1969 , about 12,000 saw Led Zeppelin. By the 1970, the foursome had seen their UK popularity surge, and over 150,000 came to Shepton Mallet on the 27th and 28th of June 1970 for the Bath Festival Of Blues And Progressive Music. And a hell of a lot of that number were there for Led Zep.

Lots of hairy people in a field. It was a common sight in the 70s.Bath 1970. Lots of hairy people in a field. 

Bath 1970 featured a really terrific line-up of US West coast bands and British music fans jumped at the chance to see them. Sadly, there is no footage of real quality available, and a lot of the audio out there is so-so amateur taped stuff from people in the crowd. The weather was pretty windy so the sound quality on a lot of the recordings is nothing to write home about. Various commercial disputes and technical snafus meant that such video as was taken has yet to get a commercial release. It's probably for this reason that Bath 1970 has not achieved the legendary mainstream status of the other big rock event that summer, the Isle Of Wight.

But the line-up at Bath compares very favourably to the IoW, or indeed to any Seventies rock festival you care to name. In fact, I'd say, in terms of bands who played, it was arguably the finest bill ever seen on these shores.

Atom Heart Mother was performed for the first time at Bath 1970Atom Heart Mother was performed for the first time at Bath 1970

It featured the premiere of Pink Floyd's 'Atom Heart Mother' and was the gig that Led Zeppelin themselves credited as their true UK breakthrough. Bath 1970 was promoted by Freddy Bannister (later responsible for Knebworth). The organizers had the advantage of staging the event on a designated campsite, so there weren't the quagmire-type problems associated with having things in a farmer's field. It's just as well, because the English summer was in full effect: it was freezing and pishing down. There were innovations like film tents - showing the likes of King Kong - and large scale projections onto big screens. Sadly for Freddy, the security staff had some innovations of their own: pocketing a fair whack of the door take. On the whole though, it was a well-organised, if not lucrative event.

However, there were serious traffic problems with access to the site and a lot of the bands actually had difficulty getting there on time. Fairport Convention famously got an escort by the Hell's Angels to the site, bypassing the traffic, and indeed anyone else in their path. Some people objected to being cleared out of the way by a gang of bikers; they just made sure that they grumbled very quietly. But Fairport's driving, up-tempo folky rock, on the Saturday afternoon, was the first band to get the crowd going, and the event was beginning to warm up.

Things really began to get serious with Colosseum, who played next. John Heisman's drum solo was a stormer: powerful and superbly accomplished, and was thought by many to eclipse that of Bonham himself later in the evening. The festival had caught light. Riding the wave of the previous year's Easy Rider, Steppenwolf were at the peak of their powers, going down a treat with the biker crowd and indeed everyone else. But the traffic delays and dodgy weather meant that the festival was now hours behind schedule and it was not until 3am that Pink Floyd began.

They had played it before under the somewhat less formidable title of The Amazing Pudding, but this was the first time that the Floyd performed Atom Heart Mother under their name. They had a brass section and a choir and also played Careful With That Axe, Eugene and Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.

Faced with the unenviable task of coming on after Pink Floyd at 5am was John Mayall, but those who were still awake were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime performance from something of a supergroup. Mayall had just arrived back from Morocco with all he needed to play a major rock festival...apart from a band. He quickly (very quickly) put together a line-up featuring Peter Green on guitar and Aynsley Dunbar on drums, as well as John's brother Rod on the organ. Unrehearsed, they played a great set, despite the drizzle - and even managed to get away with playing It Might As Well Be Raining!

The next morning dawned soggy, which wasn't great, but worse was the apparent absence of a lot of the due-on bands. Into the breach stepped Donovan. The Scottish folk legend was re-emerging from the wilderness and had phoned the organisers a couple of days before to say that "he might show up." He wandered onto the stage and asked the crowd if they might like to hear a couple of songs, super low-key, and after a cautious start, they warmed to him. He played some of his classics - Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow - acoustic and also showed off some new, rock sounds with a tight band. He ended up playing for a couple of hours and was a surprise hit.

Zappa and the Mothers getting up to no good in BathZappa and the Mothers getting up to no good in Bath

Back to the main events, as it were, and The Mothers were next on, playing a fine set in freezing weather. Zappa pelted the crowd with oranges during 'Call Any Vegetable' - which it has to be said are not vegetables - and they closed with a strong version of King Kong. Fellow US imports Santana and The Flock were also well received.

With the schedule now hopelessly overrun, headliners Led Zep pulled rank and went on at around 8.30pm. They were hot and heavy, John Bonham aggressive and charged, and Jimmy Page using his bow. Their legend was growing fast in the USA thanks to a series of storming live shows at festivals from coast-to-coast and the band knew this was an opportunity to bring their UK profile up to speed.

The glamorous backstage life for Led Zeppelin at Bath.
The glamorous backstage life for Led Zeppelin at Bath.

They opened with a debut for Immigrant Song and were a huge hit, playing five encores. The gig is regarded as a key point in their career, which makes it frustrating that little decent footage survives. Ironically, that was in large part down to the heavy handed tactics of their own management. Peter Grant and the boys, never ones to use a kind word when a shove in the chest would do, confiscated various tapes and pulled film out of cameras. It was a big missed commercial opportunity. However, Led Zep certainly got their timing right, as the rain was not long off.

Hot Tuna followed Zeppelin with a blinding set, notably on the wild soloing of 'You Wear Your Dresses Too Short.' Next on, Country Joe got a rousing reception for the Fish Cheer. Jefferson Airplane, on stage at about 2.30am, were 50 minutes into a superb set - 'The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil' was a soaring vocal performance and featured a killer solo from Jorma Kaukonen - when rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner got an electric shock from a rain-soaked mike. They went off, and the Moody Blues didn't come on. The Byrds, however, were made of sterner stuff and played an acoustic set - their first ever. They played for two hours-plus in the rain, classic after classic, from opener 'It's All Right Ma' through 'The Ballad Of Easy Rider' to 'Wasn't Born To Follow', they entertained until their fingers were shredded.

Those who were still awake got a set from Doctor John, and the marathon was over. For sheer quality of bands, both West Coast visitors and homegrown British talent, you could not say fairer than Bath 1970. Seminal performances from Led Zep, Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane ensure that it will be talked of for a long time yet; it is just a shame there is not more footage out there for later generations to enjoy.

There have been occasional tantalizing hints about a documentary. It deserves to have one because it was a significant moment in British rock music. No official release of any of the music has happened.

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