A major part of the allure and enduring reputation of the British rock band Led Zeppelin was down to a carefully crafted blanket of privacy and secrecy woven by guitarist Jimmy Page and manager, Peter Grant. Unlike most of their rival bands who used publicity and commercialism to boost their image and their album sales, Page and Grant masterfully strode a counter-intuitive path of obfuscation and opacity in both their dealings with the media, and with the recording company that released their music. And in so doing they succeeded in enhancing the undoubted brilliance of the band’s music with an air of mystique and mystery.
Accordingly, the facts and statistics concerning their appearance at Knebworth in the summer of 1979 are hard to pin down. The main dispute was over how many people attended the two concerts? According to official ticket sales around 120,000 turned up for each concert, but unofficial estimates were virtually double that figure stating more than 400,000 people saw the two gigs (over 180,000 the first night and around 220,000 the second).
All I can say, as one of the bonafide possessors of a ticket for the second concert, was that I witnessed a constant stream of fans breaching the perimeter hedges and boundaries of the Knebworth site throughout the day and then again scaling the fence that contained the concert area itself. The exact figures, like so much else to do with Led Zeppelin became yet another element of the band’s mythology.
What was not mythological however was the fact that Led Zeppelin’s Knebworth appearance turned out to be their final concerts in the UK. Within weeks of the gigs John Bonham, the band’s irreplaceable drummer was dead, signaling the end of one of the most influential ten years of music-making of the 20th century.
My own infatuation with Led Zeppelin had begun four years earlier when my brother took me (then, a particularly callow 15-year-old) to see the band at Earls Court. It was my first rock concert of any kind and it proved to be the proverbial life altering event.
I’ll never forget, when, about six songs into the concert (it took me three or four songs merely to come to terms with the shock of the volume and the novelty of the spectacle) they broke into Trampled Underfoot and for the first time in my life I experienced something which I guess was close to religious ecstasy. Then when this was followed by In My Time of Dying – and somewhat ironically given the theme of the song – I underwent something akin to a spiritual rebirth. My life had changed for ever.
As it happened, Earls Court more or less coincided with my atheist “awakening” and Messrs Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham proved a more than adequate substitution for my previous notions of deity. Not that I ever worshiped them, but they certainly provided me with an often powerful, sometimes lyrical outlet for my youthful passions and sensitivities. My feelings for Page and Plant in particular was a kind of love or adoration which only faded when I began dating girls a year or two later.
But, if my adoration of the band members had faded by the time of the Knebworth event, if anything, my appreciation of their music had grown. My only problem was, I hated Knebworth itself; the sights, the sounds, the eternal queuing for absolutely everything, the incredible array of smells (I’ll never forget the peculiar blend of marijuana and faeces that permeated around the latrines) created by so many people in such close proximity.
Basically, I found the entire experience to be overwhelming, from the initial period of weird car-park camping, to the concert itself, which I was too weary, too distant from the stage and probably too sober to truly enjoy.
Whereas Earls Court had been intense, personal and a strangely intimate sensation (given I was sharing the space with 20,000 others), Knebworth seemed intangible and dreamlike from the start. My one consolation remains that I was one of the privileged people to witness the final act on home soil of the world’s greatest rock band. Whether or not I was one 120,000 or 220,000 remains a mystery…