Liner notes appear on the sleeve of an album or CD case and contain a
mix of anecdotal or factual information. They often reflect the
artists’ personality and contain meaningful statements about the art or
life issues. My Liner Notes is a regular feature on Music Canada that
allows people of all walks of life to share personal reflections about
Led Zepplin 1979, Knebworth
We all have memorable concert memories.…lots of them. Well, here’s mine: I was at the famous Led Zeppelin gig at Knebworth in 1979. My cousin had been hired to dig latrines by someone working for the promoter. He asked if I wanted to tag along. After the “bog” excavations, we’d be allowed to see the show for free. Who would say no to that? At that time in my life I would have agreed to SLEEP in the latrines if I could get into the Zeppelin show. On an unusually sunny English day, we drove up to the famous Knebworth grounds. Well north of London and situated in the picturesque countryside, Knebworth was the site of an old baronial home that had been turned over to the public trust. The grounds could hold over 100,000 people at a concert – and they were destined to for Led Zeppelin.
As we rattled up to the gates, it was like a scene out of some post-apocalyptic film. There was acrid smoke from campfires everywhere – it could be seen for miles. Our land rover slowed to a crawl. The countryside was filled with hippies…yes, hippies; still, in 1979. A giant tent city had sprung up – as if from the ground itself. These were the early birds - there to ensure themselves of prime seating – the gates had not opened; tickets were not on sale…and the show was days off – well OBVIOUSLY, the latrines hadn’t been dug. We entered the ground through a heavily guarded gate. It seriously looked like a barbarian horde was encamped outside the walls of a medieval castle. Menacing looking attack dogs paced menacingly inside the gate. At this point you knew this was SERIOUS. You knew it was heavy duty. You knew it was Led Zeppelin.
We drove up to the enclosure for the enormous workforce that was preparing the grounds for the show. It was like a more civilized barbarian encampment – filled with trailers and caravans as the English call them. The nerve center of the entire operation was a multi-storey industrial set of trailers – the sort you see at construction sites these days. We parked in front of this and my cousin disappeared into the maze of trailers looking for check in for our assignment. I was lazing by myself on the tailgate of the land rover when a man emerged from the HQ and barked at me. “Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?” Stories about the Zeppelin road crews were of course legendary. Peter Grant, their manager himself was rumoured to carry a gun…a GUN!!! I sat up nervously and answered that I was there to dig latrines. Who could get shot for that?!!
“Not anymore you’re not.” Shit, I thought, now what. “Get in here,” he demanded. He disappeared. Unbeknownst to me, I had just met the legendary English concert promoter, Fred Bannister. I stood up, dusted myself off, tried to straighten myself up a bit. I shambled up the steps and into an oppressively hot little room. He was standing across the room eyeing me critically. Sitting at a desk between us was an undeniably beautiful young woman operating a ham radio. She spoke with a to-die-for Rhodesian accent…
“Do you know how to operate one of these things?”, he asked pointing at the radios. Well, I thought, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I could give only one of two answers here. One might open the door, the other most assuredly would close it. I chose door number one. “You mean ham radios? Ahhh, yeah, of course, sure I do.” He shuffled his feet for a second and then pointed at the chair beside the woman. “Well, Yank, you’re not my latrine digger anymore,” he said abruptly, “you’re my radio operator. Bev will show you everything you need to know.” And with that he left the room.
Before I could assume this important new position, I of course had a job to do…to tell my latrine-digging cousin that I had been seconded to a different and slightly more interesting job. I would describe the reaction as one of disbelief – which actually mirrored mine. Back inside I went and the first thing Bev had to do was, of course, show me how to operate the radio – which was actually quite easy. My job turned out to be absolutely central to the entire event. Crew and workers and artists handlers would communicate with me by walkie talkie. Over the course of the next few days blizzards of demands and requests and questions streamed in. Southside Johnny had arrived and needed someone to escort him to his trailer -- could I get someone (How about ME I blithely suggested). Led Zeppelin’s advance team had arrived in the artist enclosure only to find there was no ice in the trailers -- and nothing to put the ice, they so desperately wanted, IN. We eventually had half a ton of ice helicoptered in. The New Barbarians needed towels…so did Todd Rundgren – a LOT of towels – we duly acquired them by calling round to the local bed and breakfasts and buying them at extortionate prices. Bands refused to go on without cash – they had learned about the dispute over the numbers. Zeppelin's percentage deal could eat up ALL the available cash for the other bands. We had to find this cash and arrange for it to be taken – in BAGS!!! – to the artist enclosure. Crazy rumours circulated – Keith Richards needed a blood transfusion before he would go on….Uh, no, at least not so far as I was aware…..they were waiting for their cash….
At one point in the evening, the night before the first show, a defining event took place. The barbarians outside the enclosure were getting restive. They wanted in. Walkie Talkie’s crackled into life. Dogs, security, land rovers were ordered to the perimeter to contain the assault. We listened to it on the radio – it was actually quite thrilling! I kept thinking it was incongruously like listening to the fall of Saigon or something. Finally the gate gave way, the security scattered and the hippie hordes were in. The turnstiles had not been erected at that time – so there was no way to estimate the numbers who flooded in and took up the prime seating areas in front of the stage. This set the stage for a massive dispute between Zeppelin and the promoters over just how many people were in attendance; because if memory serves me right, Zeppelin got 90% of the gate or something like that. 90% of 100,000 people was very different from 90% of 90,000. So how many people WERE there? This epic dispute did not resolve itself right away – possibly it NEVER resolved itself. In the course of it I had occasion to meet Peter Grant himself. Short of meeting Jimmy Page, I have to say that this fact alone has allowed me to dine out for YEARS on this story. I became enmeshed in the dispute. There were ticket counts, aerial photographs were taken of the audience to estimate crowd numbers, voices were raised; threats and more were brandished. This was not going to end well…you just knew it. But boy, was I happy sitting in my little trailer; known universally to the walkie talkie holders as the “Yank” because of my accent – sigh.
I worked for pretty much 4 days straight without sleep and not much to eat -- like the rest of the crew. I finally remember passing out just as Led Zeppelin was taking to the stage on Sunday – great f’ing timing. I woke up in the back of the land rover driving back to London in the early morning of Monday. My cousin had carried me from the trailer to the land rover – and I had not ONCE awoken. My first sight of their performance came roughly thirty years later when the Page released his epic 2 DVD collection of live performances. I remember thinking, I missed a pretty f’ing good show. My latrine digging cousin, on the other hand…well he enjoyed the whoooole thing. Therefore, the moral of this story is, be careful what you wish for; the closed doors in front of you may not lead where you THINK they will.
Music Canada Editor: Were you at Knebworth? Did you see more than Graham did of the show? Share your memories with us!
You can find more wild recollections from the famous Knebworth festival online. If Graham hadn't been confined to a hot trailer, he might have had photos of his own to share!
Graham Henderson is President of Music Canada. Hopefully he'll share a few more of his great stories on My Liner Notes. Watch next Monday for our next guest blogger!