You only get lineups of this magnitude once in a while – Live Aid was probably the last time anything as stellar as this was put together. Nordoff-Robbins Music Trust doesn’t carry quite the same gravitas as the starving millions in Ethiopia did, but this was a much better show (better line up, longer sets, better venue, no Bob Geldof shouting ‘gemme yer fockin monaaay’).
Firstly, Knebworth has to be the best outdoor venue in Britain, it’s far superior to any stadium, and the country park setting is infinitely nicer than an industrial estate in Wembley or a suburban housing estate in Twickenham, for instance. The natural amphitheatre makes for great sound (well, great for an outdoor gig anyway) and fantastic view from almost anywhere. This was the first time I’d seen giant video screens – ubiquitous nowadays, but still an expensive novelty out of reach of all but the very largest events back then.
We arrived a couple of hours before the first act was due to come on, with the intention of getting as close to the stage as possible. It wasn’t a gloriously hot day, which was probably a good thing, because once we assumed our positions about 20 yards from centre stage, we stayed there for the whole eleven hours, meaning no beer, no food, no water, no toilet. The crowd of 100,000 meant we were a long way from any kind of amenity. Helicopters buzzed in and out all day, ferrying VIPs and bands, and the video screens were playing MTV videos so there was something to watch while we waited for kick off.
Tears for Fears were in their ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ phase at around this time, and I didn’t much care for their post-85 output. I was never as fond of them as many of their contemporaries, but some of the early more New Wave stuff was important in my musical upbringing. ‘Change’ is probably their best, in my opinion. All the hits were played, including Oleta Adams on piano for one number (don’t remember which, but one of the more recent ones) and all in all they were a pleasant enough opening act. I was slightly disappointed that Curt Smith didn’t do the funky spaz dance from the Mad World video, though.
There was a massive revolving riser on the stage, divided into quarters, on which each act’s entire gear was set up, so that immediately a band finished, the stage lumbered round 90 degrees and the next band were ready to go. Status Quo were up next and although I had liked them quite a bit when I was about 12, I admit I was only looking forward to them for the comedy value. The crowd had been a little subdued for Tears For Fears, but there was a hardcore group of about thirty or forty Quo fans (mainly women in their mid to late 30s), all denim-clad, that went radio rental when the opening bars of Rocking All Over The World cranked out of the row of Marshalls. I was surprised, in fact, how violent a Quo ‘mosh pit’ could be! They are good value for money, Ver Quo, and played nothing I didn’t know. It’s all good singalong stuff, and although it’s hardly sophisticated music, Francis and Rick do know how to chug through the 12 bar blues stuff rather capably.
Now, thanks to my dad, I have a bit of a soft spot for The Shadows. One would have to say it’s a ‘guilty pleasure’, as there are no circles known to me, in which The Shadows are anything other than frightfully uncool, even with a heavy hint of irony. However, they have written a few memorable tunes, but as they were here principally to reprise their role as backing band for Cliff Richard, they only played 2 or 3 on their own, which is a shame, because I really can’t stand the god-bothering tennis player. I would rather sand my own nipples off than listen to anything he’s ever sung, ever. However, I had a really good position just 20 yards from the stage, and it would be a good hour round trip to get to the bar, so I would have to put up with him. He came on in a shiny neon pink three piece suit, got the crowd going pretty well too. Summer Holiday, Devil Woman, The Young Ones, I knew them all, to my horror. There were a lot of Cliff fans there – his target demographic is not dissimilar to Quo’s actually, albeit a decade older, give or take. They only went a bit mental.
Then came the first act I was actually looking forward to – Robert Plant. I knew hardly anything of his solo stuff, but surely he knew which side his bread was buttered? Surely he would delve into the Zep back catalogue? He didn’t disappoint. He played The Immigrant Song early on, closely followed by Going To California and the only solo track I knew, Tall Cool One. He surrounded himself with some very capable young musicians, including Zak Starkey on drums, and a fantastic guitarist named Doug Boyle – technically very good, really tight and controlled, but lacking any kind of charisma. Then Mr Plant announced the arrival of a very special guest to help him out on the last few numbers. I had heard a rumour to this effect, but it actually turned out to be true – out came the one and only Jimmy Page, to a momentous reception. They launched into Misty Mountain Hop, Wearing And Tearing and finished off with Rock And Roll. What a fantastic end to the set! Mr Page seemed a little ‘tired and emotional’ and a bit sloppy (certainly compared to Doug Boyle) but he didn’t really have to prove anything, just being on the stage with Robert Plant was enough. He is one of the all time greatest guitarist of all time, of all time, period.
Next up, Genesis and Phil Collins. I can’t remember whether he did some solo stuff and then the rest of Genesis came out or if it was the other way round. Either way, I can’t stand Phil Collins’ solo stuff. Not one iota. No sir, it’s execrable. Except perhaps Easy Lover, but I’m sure that’s only because Vic And Bob used to sing ‘He’s a greasy lover’ to Mark Lamar on Shooting Stars. Genesis, on the other hand, I can stomach in small doses. I like some of the Peter Gabriel stuff, and I really like the first couple of albums with Phil Collins singing. Genesis (the album) is up there in my top, er, several. Which is good, because they played Mama and That’s All. I was hoping for Home By The Sea, but never mind. He might be a short arsed baldy little twat, but Phil Collins is actually a really good drummer. There was an extended solo, sorry duet with him and Chester Thompson (his solo band’s drummer) which was mighty impressive – they were basically playing exactly the same thing, with nano-second precision. Still a drum solo though, but I was not in a position to nip to the bar. The most impressive bit of the whole set was Phil Collins’s bassist, the god-like Lee Sklar. I don’t mean god-like in that he was a rock god guitar hero in front of whom we all bow down type of thing, no. No. God-like because he actually looked like God, I mean really looked like God as if drawn by Gary Larson. Massive white flowing beard and hair and even robes and sandals. OK, not robes and sandals, he didn’t need those to complete the image. Google Lee Klar and you’ll see. Absolutely the least ‘rock’ looking bassist I think I will ever see. And man he was good too. There’s a Phil Collins track that has a computerized bassline, at least I always thought it was computerized. I don’t wish to try and remember which. He actually played it live, really fiddly it was, all four fingers plucking away like a regular, um, rock god.
Eric Clapton was the next act to play, and although I wouldn’t say I am a particular fan, he’s Eric Clapton, ffs. Britain’s greatest bluesman (probably) and a true leg-end. No Layla, but a cracking Sunshine Of Your Love. And some others.
Then on came Elton John – I like his seventies stuff, but the 80s stuff is just easy listening pap as far as I’m concerned and I was fairly certain we were going to get Candle In The Wind and all that guff. All I do actually remember is Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, which apart from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is my favourite ditty of his. Eric Clapton came on to help him out on that one, in time honoured self-congratulatory ‘aren’t we all great mates’ fashion. Seven down, three to go.
Now it was dusk, getting a bit colder, and looking like it might rain. Dire Straits next. It really was guitar-hero central out there that day. When they started Money For Nothing, I half-expected Sting to come on stage with them, but thankfully he hadn’t been invited so they either used a sample, or Mark Knopfler sang the ‘I want my MTV’ bit, I don’t recall. Anyway, Knopfler is another one on my list of favourites. I don’t go out of my way to hear Dire Straits, but I always stop what I’m doing and listen, when anything from Brothers In Arms comes on’t wireless like, and Money For Nothing would definitely have been taped off the top 40 (portable cassette recorder sat next to the speaker on my radio, recording off the mike. Shhh.) back in the day. All the bands I had seen that day were long established, seasoned professionals, just such a day for the muso – all really tight, incredibly slick and fantastic at the getting the crowd going. Dem Straits wus no exception. Knopfler is such a tidy guitarist – exceptionally controlled, making very difficult things look remarkably easy. Seeing close-up shots on the giant screen brought so much more to the experience, you really notice if they’re missing these days (Big Day Out take note, will deal with you later) but they were such a novelty then, it was like standing in my own living room watching MTV, when MTV was indeed a novelty in itself.
So, last act before The Floyd, and it was Paul McCartney. Now, I’m a huge Beatles fan, well, Rubber Soul onwards, anyway, but with very rare exception, Macca’s solo stuff just annoys the bejaysus out of me. Frog Chorus, my feckin arse. Which is the sort of carry on I was mostly expecting, but he played a decent handful of Beatles and Wings tracks and he was berloody brilliant. I don’t remember if he played any of the toe-curling solo stuff, so if he did, the memory of the older stuff clearly overwrote the bad stuff. Never realized what a sing-along anthem Hey Jude is, until I heard it sung by 100,000 (by now getting a bit concerned that the clouds were going to burst very shortly) people on a hillside. I’m not interested in the early 60s moptop stuff but Can’t Buy Me Love actually sounded amazing. Even Coming Up went down a storm. A most unexpected treat, that was. All through his set, the dreaded Mexican Wave was doing the rounds, in a radius about the central sound desk.. At first it was just hands on the air and drunken cheering, but with every revolution, the amount of warm lager thrown into the air increased, then a few empty plastic cups, then a few full ones, until it was a full blown litter fight. I had never experienced one of these, but it was mildly entertaining, at least would be as long as I managed to stay lager-free (was it lager or actually might it have been piss? Not willing to taste it and see). Not sure what Macca thought of it. The daylight had pretty much gone by the time he finished up, and the clouds were looking rather menacing. I was beginning to need a piss now, but there were only a couple of hours to go, and by that point I had advanced to within about ten yards from the crash barriers, so I wasn’t going anywhere.
Pink Floyd were definitely the main reason I was there, and I was fair busting with excitement. And wee, (see previous para). The rain started, but nobody cared. The wind started to pick up, but I was close enough to the front for it not to be able to mess with the sound. It picked up to such an extent that the start of Floyd’s set was delayed while some roadies climbed up the rigging in the howling storm to take down the projection screen, essentially a 50ft sail, that was threatening to lift the whole stage off. The sounds of splashing water started to waft out of the PA, and in the absence of a screen, I had to imagine the rowing boat gliding across the lake, heralding the start of Signs Of Life. Floyd were definitely the headline act, they had a much bigger stage than the others, and a seriously grunty lasershow. Although, fair’s fair, it would have been pointless letting Cliff use that at 4 in the afternoon. This was only a year or so after the Momentary Lapse tour had finished, and they played 3 or 4 off that – Learning To Fly being the standout. I know I’ve been going on about guitarists a bit, but Dave Gilmour is really top 5 material, only one on today’s bill that is, and only the second I’ve actually seen at this point (James Hetfield being the other.) Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Run Like Hell, On The Turning Away, Great Gig In The Sky (featuring Clare Torry, original vocalist), One Of These Days, Money, Us And Them, it was pretty much a greatest hits package and it really was great indeed. In addition to Mason and Wright, this was the Guy Pratt, Candy Dulfer, Sam Brown era Pink Floyd and they were the slickest act I’d seen yet. Brass, strings, 3 backing singers, assorted extra percussionists and whatnot, they really filled the stage. Finished it all off with a massive firework display too, by which time it was pissing down and rater cold, but who cares, I just saw Pink Floyd.