I chanced upon a report in the media earlier this week that the Knebworth Festival is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year.
I have vague memories of being there at various times in the 1970s to see Pink Floyd – who arranged for a Spitfire, or rather a replica version, to ‘fly’ on a wire towards the stage over the crowd at the climax of their set – Tim Buckley and The Steve Miller Band.
I was also there in 1974 at the first-ever Knebworth to see the American blues/rock band The Allman Brothers Band as the headline act.
Then an impressionable young kid with a sadly-overdeveloped capacity for hero-worshipping the rock gods of the time, I was a big fan of The Allman Brothers. Their breakthrough double album Live At The Fillmore East (1971) is perhaps a degree too self-indulgent for modern tastes – even my own (their famous track Whipping Post took up the whole of Side Four at a whopping 23.03 minutes duration) – but in those days had been a well-worn visitor to my record player.
When the news broke that the Allmans were to play Knebworth as part of their first-ever tour outside the States, the opportunity was too good to miss and a bunch of us duly made the trek out into Hertfordshire for the purpose in my clapped-out Mini.
Part of the myth connected with the band was, of course, connected to hard times.
Against a background of the early deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison of the Doors, Duane Allman – one of the two founder member brothers in the Allmans – had died in a motor bike accident on 29th October 1971 at the age of 24. He had a growing reputation as a guitar hero, having previously played on many sessions for soul legends such as Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin and been a member of Eric Clapton’s short-lived group Derek And The Dominos on their classic Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs album in 1970, on which his slide guitar work was regarded as outstanding.
Just over a year later, on 11th November 1972, the Allmans’ bassist Berry Oakley was also killed in a similar motorbike accident a few blocks from where Duane Allman had died.
The Allman Brothers Band, now led by Duane’s younger brother Gregg and Dickey Betts – the group’s other guitarist – cemented their cult reputation by deciding to continue, replacing their lost members and then promoting their second hit album, Eat A Peach.
Hence their arrival in Britain, surrounded by an aura of drugs and a laid-back American South attitude.
I well remember how their set opened. After an inevitable 45 minutes-plus of waiting, the lights finally went down and – after a pause – the English DJ compere came out on stage in pitch blackness to a raucous audience reaction.
“Ladies and Gentlemen …” he shouted at high volume, “… will you please welcome, for the first time ever in Britain, The Allman Brothers Band!”
The lights went up and the band came on stage to a huge cheer echoing around the packed slope down to the stage. As it died down and the band began tuning up, one Southern voice said quietly:
“Yeh – and we gonna play all night loooooong … “
Which they very nearly did.
Their first song started slowly, as if all members of the band were stoned and/or playing separately on their own. To describe the results as ‘loose’ would be an understatement. To be honest, the whole sounded amateurish and just not very good. But they kept playing and kept playing. Somewhere, after about fifteen minutes, one became aware of a transformation occurring. The rhythm section (two drummers and a bassist) gradually dropped into a driving groove and – by about 20 minutes in – when Betts on guitar and Gregg Allman on keyboards took turns to solo, the results were spectacular.
It was a great night. They also kept playing until the electric power on stage was switched off, so they kept that promise too. Afterwards, still buzzing, we all trudged back to the car parks in the surrounding fields and, having queued for ages to leave, made our way home in the wee hours.
Those were the days.