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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.

Alex Lawson
Wednesday 28 May 2014 11:15 BST
Mick Jagger on stage in 1976
Mick Jagger on stage in 1976 (Getty Images)

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) (Getty Images)

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’.”

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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

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