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The first Knebworth festival in 1974 was the UK’s initial major excursion into the very big one-day festival idea that had become so popular in the USA. Up to this point, even the big Isle Of Wight and Bath festivals had been at least as much counterculture gatherings as music festivals, often marked by some flavour of anarchy and shambolic organisation, all of which was part of the charm, of course. The Reading Festival was an annual event but was spread over three days.
But by 1974 things were quickly becoming more corporate and the business had worked out how to make big money by pulling big crowds to a 12 hour show. 60,000 turned up to the Knebworth House stately home grounds to see The Allman Brothers Band, The Doobie Brothers, Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Van Morrison and Tim Buckley.
A damn fine bill for the princely sum of £2.75 - only about £20 in today’s money. Held on 20th July, they got lucky with the weather staying dry and warm.
Tim Buckley opened the festival. It was his first UK performance in six years and his last UK show ever as he died of a heroin overdose less than a year later. The Return Of The Starsailor bootleg captures his entire performance, much of which took place as people were still arriving on site. He played songs from his 1972 album, Greetings From L.A., with a couple from Sefronia, released the previous year.
Second band on was Van Morrison, though not, as advertised, with his Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Response to his set was reportedly mixed with some loving it and others feeling that it was all a bit of a drag. The NME was very much in the latter group, later saying in a review, “Van looked like a probationary teacher on his first day in the science department of an East End comprehensive.” Ouch.
By contrast the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, as they were prone to do, absolutely stormed it. Kicking off their set with the epic menacing riff of Faith Healer, if you wanted a front man to engage with a festival audience, Alex was yer man. Fearlessly prowling the stage, part vaudeville actor, part singer while the band, tight as the proverbial duck’s arse in a sand storm laid it down hard ‘n’ heavy.
After which it was time for some spirituality with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This was the expanded version of the band that produced the wonderful Visions Of The Emerald Beyond album with Jean Luc-Ponty playing violin in a jazz-fusion frenzy. For all they were far out and cosmic, the MO was a loud, loud band too, John McLaughlin blitzing the crowd with a blizzard of high speed soloing.
After achieving some sort of nirvana it was time for the Doobie Brothers. I’m not sure if I remember this right, but I think the Doobies were not held in universally high regard at the time by the British rock community, possibly due to not being heavy or hard enough and generally too funky, country and laid back. Anyway, whatever the reason was, they were wrong. All Doobies are good Doobies if you ask me and 1974 was a high watermark having released the epic Captain & Me the previous year.
The day ended with the Allman Brothers Band for whom a tour and a half hour set was a short set. Looking at the set list now, it is basically the whole of the Fillmore East album and the Wipe The Windows live double. Even shorn of Duane for three years, the festival was still their natural home, able to jam into the night in that telepathic hypnotic way they had. They only played six times in the UK and this the first.
And that was that. There’d be a show at Knebworth each year until 1980, and another in 1985, during rock’s classic rock era and all line-ups were superb, except perhaps 1979’s Zeppelin show, which was the one I went to where the under card was a bit patchy.
These were festivals of music rather than of anything more alternative or countercultural and set the tone for the way festivals still are to this day in the UK