40 years of Knebworth: The riffs, the rivalries and the rock icons

From heavy metal to Cool Britannia, Knebworth has been hosting open-air monster gigs for 40 years.

On-stage masturbation, Liam Gallagher joyriding a golf buggy and tidal waves of bellowing rock’n’roll fans encapsulating eras: gigs at Knebworth are never pedestrian.

The Hertfordshire home of the open-air mega-concert this summer celebrates 40 years of seminal rock gatherings that have defined the illustrious careers of everyone from the Rolling Stones and Oasis to, erm, Chas & Dave.

Its hosts will turn up the volume on its historic past with an exhibition featuring everything from Mick Jagger’s underpants – left in his bed after their 1976 performance – to a giant aerial photograph of Queen’s helicopter from Freddie Mercury’s last ever concert in 1986.

The the story of the unlikely transformation of the sleepy, 300-acre lush park, featuring the grandiose house which dates back 1490, into a riotous music mecca is an intriguing one.Legendary promoter Freddy Bannister had originally intended to emulate a Renaissance festival he’d visited in San Francisco.

“They had a symphony orchestra playing in a beautiful glade with a choir, offered half-price entry to those in Elizabethan dress and had minstrels walking around playing music,” he says, adding that classical music, stained-glass making and tie-dye had been the intended quaint feel.

But on approaching the owner, Lord David Cobbold, Bannister spotted a natural amphitheatre of hill within the park and couldn’t resist hosting a louder and more expensive affair. Just 20 miles from the centre of London, Knebworth was too hard to resist.

Blues rock group The Allman Brothers headlined Knebworth’s debut, with 60,000 people turning out for the monster gig. Over the next decade, crowds swelled as Captain Beefheart, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and Ella Fitzgerald enjoyed the park life under various festival monikers including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Jazz Years and Oh God Not Another Boring Old Knebworth. Avid attendee Len Batty, who still hoards Knebworth tickets and programmes, says: “We always made a weekend of it, a van full of us would go down – there was a great atmosphere, loads of campfires and bands playing, I remember Hawkwind once just pulled up and played in the grounds.”

Liam Gallagher performs with Oasis in 1996 (Getty) Liam Gallagher performs with Oasis in 1996 (Getty)
The Rolling Stones’ gig was seen as a landmark. Jagger had had a request to roller skate down the stage – with an 18ft drop below – denied, the bands’ signature tongue was re-created in a bouncy pumped-up form and sound issues delayed the gig for hours.

“Mick was stressed about delays and shouted to me, ‘Get all these people off the stage’,” remembers Bannister. “I pointed to Paul McCartney and said, ‘Even him’? He said, ‘No, just put him somewhere out of sight’.”

Batty adds: “They were delayed for hours. I remember this guy came on stage and masturbated in front of the whole crowd.”

But it was Led Zeppelin, Oasis and Robbie Williams whose careers were defined by Knebworth. Led Zep’s appearance in 1979 was the band’s first since the death of Robert Plant’s son Karac two years earlier but arguments over the enormous gig cost and the number of attendees – reports claim 200,000 turned up – caused Bannister to quit and landed Cobbold in court.

Plant later said he didn’t enjoy the concert as the band didn’t fully hit top form but it made an impact. “We maimed the beast for life, but we didn’t kill it. It was good, but only because everybody made it good. There was that sense of event,” he explained.

For Oasis, Knebworth is seen as a pinnacle in the Britpop stars’ influence. An eye-popping 2.6 million people applied for tickets to the two heady August nights where 165,000 a night watched the brothers Gallagher define Cool Britannia.

The gigs were enough to rile adversary Robbie Williams who, determined to top Oasis, sold out three nights at Knebworth and allegedly sent Noel Gallagher a pair of tap dancing shoes and a sarcastic offer to support him. Some 3.5 million watched Williams shows on TV and he released them as a live album.

Today, Knebworth’s standing may have slipped as big-name festivals including Glastonbury, Isle of Wight and T in the Park host the largest crowds. But the park is still providing something different.

 

In July, rock fest Sonisphere will host Iron Maiden and Metallica on the same UK bill for the first time and the latter is allowing fans to vote for the setlist. Chas & Dave will even return to play, 35 years after their Knebworth debut.

The house itself – still in the Cobbold family – plays hosts to day-trippers and car rallies as well as film crews with Harry Potter, The King’s Speech and Jonathan Creek creators among its recent visitors.

Knebworth’s status as a pint-swilling, guitar lick-filled host to rock’n’roll’s icons is cemented in history. Quaint, it ain’t.

Sonisphere festival takes places at Knebworth Park on 4-6 July. The exhibition runs from 8 July-31 August at Knebworth House at 12pm-4pm daily, £12 admission

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits