Knebworth Festival 1976

Knebworth Festival 1976
Authored By John Nicholson

The Rolling Stones were booked to play at Knebworth and entered right into the spirit of the 'Knebworth Fair' vibe. Earlier in the summer of 1976, they hired two brave souls to dress up in Harlequin outfits - the symbol of the event - and run onto centre court at Wimbledon on finals day with a banner 'Stones At Knebworth'.

Even better, they got two topless girls to do the same at a televised Sussex cricket match. That must have caused some choking on pink gins.

'I say, old boy, are those breasts?'

'I think so, Major. Long time since I've seen such a thing.'

'Does she bat, or does she bowl?'

The Stones came down to the North Hertfordshire stately home - probably quite to their taste - a few times before the August 21 event, in order to scope the venue out. They were especially keen on the idea of having jugglers and clowns around the place; and also had input into the stage design, which resembled a great big mouth with a long tongue-type walkway jutting out.

On the Thursday night, the Stones soundchecked, but were interrupted by... an irate Girl Guide leader, who insisted that she had booked part of the park and "her girls" were unable to have a camp fire sing-song due to the racket of their esteemed satanic majesties. The promoter suggested she go and take it up with Mick Jagger. So she marched down to the stage, grabbed Mick by the arm and bellowed: "Young man, this noise must stop. My girls can't hear themselves sing."

Sir Mick suggested that she "f*ck off", which seems a tad rude, but they make Girl Guide leaders out of tough stuff, it seems, as the world's biggest rock and roll band stopped nevertheless.

Knebworth crowd in 1976
Knebworth crowd in 1976

1976 was that incredible hot summer, and promoter Freddie Bannister and owner/lady of the manor Chryssie Cobbold - who has written an excellent book on the Knebworth Festivals - expected many more than the 100,000 ticketed punters to turn up to see the Stones and five other bands: 10cc, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Todd Rundgren's Utopia, Hot Tuna, and the Don Harrison Band. Queen were originally booked to headline but got shunted when Mick and Keef fancied Knebworth - Freddie and company would show they could rock it outdoors with their superb Hyde Park gig a month later.

The Don Harrison Band opened and found the crowd unmoved by their Creedence-ish bayou rock, although that summer's single 'Sixteen Tons' was a belter. Technical difficulties meant that there was a two-hour delay before Hot Tuna came on.

They didn't play many gigs outside of the US and were well received, as was Todd Rundgren, who closed with a storming take on The Move's 'Do Ya'.

At this time Todd was emerging from his dense proggy rock and into the shorter, snappy rock on Ooops Wrong Planet and the grandiose visions of Ra, both of which were to be released the following year. Todd, a still largely unsung genius of rock n roll, was to return to Knebworth in 1979 for the Zeppelin gig, wearing a banana-coloured one-piece spandex outfit which left nothing to the imagination. But the real highlight was to come next.

Paul and Linda McCartney, along with Dave Gilmour were in the audience that day

Paul, Linda and Dave Gilmour at Knebworth 1976
Paul, Linda and Dave Gilmour at Knebworth 1976

Lynyrd Skynyrd were awesome. The Knebworth version of 'Free Bird' has gone done as an absolute classic, and it's easy to see why. Check out some excellent You Tube footage from the Old Grey Whistle Test (presented by Annie Nightingale) It's just totally blinding stuff - sad and heartfelt to start, then that lovely wailing guitar.

The crowd are swaying a bit, sort of blissed out. Then it all goes off. Singer Ronnie Van Zandt, the archetype of hard-riding Southern rock in T-shirt and cowboy hat, drinking JD - takes to the front of the stage, down to the tip of the tongue bit, and apparently in direct contravention with the express instructions of Herr Jagger, who didn't want anyone muscling in on his tongue action. As it were. But no little English boy is gonna tell RVZ where to go and what to do. 

Anyway, so Ronnie goes back to the band and, arms around guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, leads them to the front of the stage for some of the most tremendous duelling, barnet shaking, jumping up in the air balls out rocking you will ever see.

Skynyrd new-boy and rhythm man Steve Gaines joins in and the three guitarists tear it up. It should be mentioned at this point that bass player Leon Wilkeson is banging away on his bass wearing a policeman's helmet. We do not believe Leon is or was an official member of Her Majesty's constabulary. Artimus Pyle's drums pound along, Billy Powell's keys soar, three hot backing singers add to the raunch.

Lynyrd Skynyrd playing FreebirdLynyrd Skynyrd playing Freebird

That passion and energy and virtuoso soloing above the chunky, totally simple blues riff... anyone who has ever yearned for a good time, or wanted someone or something really badly and been ready to fight for it: here it is expressed in pure thumping rock and roll form.

Following Lynyrd Skynyrd on this Saturday would have been a tough ask for anybody and maybe 10cc with their blend of smart, wry, poppy rock were not the best choice. Their double live album proves just what a kick ass live band they were but they were beset by technical difficulties to boot and took two hours to get on stage. 'I'm Not In Love' went down a treat, but the organisers were by now seriously nervous, as the event was badly over-running.

The Stones started playing at 11.30pm - half an hour after the event was supposed to end. The crowd were drunk and tired and rowdy, but a few bars into 'Satisfaction', it was clear that this was going to be a good night for the Stones.

Ronnie Wood, not long in the band, had given them even more impetus, driving them along and providing a sort of warmth and humour on stage that acted as the perfect foil to Mick's high-energy sex appeal. They played a long, fine show with plenty of classics - 'Honky Tonk Woman' and 'Jumping Jack Flash' were standouts.

The Stones at Knebworth
The Stones at Knebworth

Looking at the footage, it makes you think how they were playing, really, to a new generation of fans, lads who were in the sandpit when 'It's All Over Now' came out, a mere 12 or 13 years earlier. But they were still the supreme entertainers, brilliantly paced and perfectly delivered.  But excellent though the Stones were, the day belonged to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and there's not many that can say, as Artimus did, that "they blew The Stones off the stage that day". but Skynyrd did. Oh yeah.

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