Monday, September 4, 2017

Starburst 76 - Lynyrd Skynyrd at Knebworth

Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, Knebworth Festival, 1976

Been recently reading some very well-researched and humorous overviews of solo Beatles material on the Holy Bee of Epheus blog. The rollercoaster quality ranging from I Found Out to The Luck of the Irish, Junior's Farm to Wonderful Christmastime, I'd Have You Anytime to Ding Dong and It Don't Come Easy to No No Song. The same author has also recently put together some sound reviews of the post-Exile on Main Street period of the The Rolling Stones' career which covered the three often overlooked mid-Seventies albums Goat's Head Soup, It's Only Rock n Roll and Black and Blue.

Some months after the latter release the Stones appeared at the 21st August 1976 Knebworth Fair in Hertfordshire in England. This was the third major concert to be held on the grounds of Knebworth House - in July 1974 the Bucolic Frolic drew a 60,000 crowd to see a line-up headed by The Allman Brothers Band while the following July 100,000 attended the Knebworth Festival to watch Pink Floyd and others.

In 1976 five acts supported The Rolling Stones who appeared very late in the evening and would not finish their set until 2am - these were Todd Rundgren,  Jefferson Airplane offshoot Hot Tuna, 10CC, The Don Harrison Band whose rhythm section were Creedance Clearwater Revival's Stu Cook and Doug Clifford and of course Lynyrd Skyrnd.

The seaport of Jacksonville in North Florida would steal the entire day from surburban Dartford Kent on the River Derwent - Lynyrd Skynyrd performed third in the bill before 10CC and their eleven-track Southern Rock set makes for extraordinary viewing to this day. It has never been forgotten in British rock history as one of the most amazing live superstar performances ever - and by a support act at that. The electrifying picture of singer Ronnie Van Zant punching the air at the lip of the stage with guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins - with a Confederate battle flag to the forefront amongst the ecstatic 120,000 crowd - remains perhaps the most instantly recognisable image of the group for tens of thousands of music fans over the world to this day.

Growing up in Belfast in the Eighties - long after the 1977 Mississippi plane crash that killed three of the band's lineup - I had a double album compilation of the group but at the time never really got fired up on their music beyond the classic rock station stalwarts of Freebird and Sweet Home Alabama. In recent months however Lynyrd Skynyrd's music has really came together for me over the course of some prolonged listening and it is quite clear that - like Little Feat - they represented an unparalleled fusion of incredible individual virtuosity, raw passion and deep soul on both album and stage.

Between 1973 and 1977 the group released five studio albums - Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, Second Helping, Nuthin Fancy, Gimme Back My Bullets and Street Survivors. The existent fanbase seems to have certain qualitative reservations about the third and fourth albums though I personally cannot hear that significant a downturn - from the pallid and bereft perspective of 2017 anyway. Tracks such as Simple Man, Poison Whiskey, The Needle and the Spoon, The Ballad of Curtis Loew, Saturday Night Special, On The Hunt, Every Mother's Son, Searching, One More Time and That Smell are utterly magnificent - driven, thoughtful, exciting and intelligent by turn. Workin for MCA may indeed be the most underrated Seventies hard rock song in the entire genre - check out the cool Hamburg concert footage of this track from 1974 on youtube for original guitarist Ed King's smokin' smoking alone.

Soberingly of course, if one looks at footage of the Knebworth concert from that endless summer of 1976, seven members of the ten musicians on stage have now passed on. Beyond Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his backing singer sister Cassie - who all died in the crash - four others are no longer here. These are bassist Leon Wilkinson, guitarist Allen Collins, keyboardist Billy Powell and backing singer Jo Jo Billingsley. The original drummer Bob Burns was killed in a car accident two years ago as well.

After 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd under various lineups have produced nine further albums to date - the two original guitarists also put out a pair of albums as the Rossington Collins Band in 1980 and 1981 with a further short-lived Allen Collins Band releasing one more album in 1983. I know little about the later Lynyrd Skynrd material so far though have found the three other albums mentioned very listenable.

Gene Odom's biography of the band from 2002 - which includes a fantastic black and white picture of Rossington, Collins and Powell strutting down a dreary British high street that is worth the price of the book alone - also lists fairly comprehensive tour information. With other dates and venues gleaned from online it appears Skynyrd played 48 gigs in the four years between 1974 and 1977 in England, Scotland and Wales.

In 1974 the group played in Glasgow November 14th, Edinburgh November 15th, Newcastle November 16th, Liverpool November 18th, Bradford November 19th, Birmingham November 20th, London November 23rd, Leicester November 26th, Manchester November 27th, Brighton November 28th, Bristol November 29th, Southend-on-Sea November 30th, Bournemouth December 1st and London December 2nd.

For 1975 the venues were Portsmouth 25th October, Birmingham 26th October, London 27th October, Brighton 28th October, Liverpool 30th October, Sheffield 31st October, Glasgow 1st November, Oxford 3rd November, Cardiff 4th November and London 5th November.

In early 1976 they played in Bristol on 10th February, Manchester 11th February, Glasgow 13th February, Leeds 14th February and London the following day. In August two days before Knebworth they performed on the 19th in Hemel Hempstead.

Finally in early 1977 a British tour incorporated London on the 27th-29th January, Bristol 31st January, Portsmouth 1st February, Birmingham 2nd February, Manchester 4th February, Sheffield 5th February, Liverpool 6th February, Newcastle 8th February, Glasgow 9th February, Lancaster 12th February, Leeds 13th February and their last ever British concert was at Leicester on the 14th.

Other European countries that the band performed in over these years included West Germany, Holland, Belgium and France - Lynyrd Skynyrd never appeared to have played in either part of Ireland. The specific venues for the London gigs over the four years were at Finsbury Park's Rainbow Theatre in 1974 and 1977 - long gone as a concert venue - and the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975 and 1976. Their famous performance for the Old Grey Whistle Test was recorded at the BBC Television Theatre Shepherds Bush Green on November 11th 1975.

Many of the memories and reminiscences of the group at Knebworth 41 years ago that can be found across the internet appear of similar dumbfounded regard to seeing Georgie Best's explosive breakthrough into public consciousness in the September 1964 midweek match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge - this from the ukrockfestivals website will suffice entirely:

Then Lynyrd Skynrd hit the stage in mid afternoon and the whole place just lit up. They played that incredible, now legendary set. Great, good times boogie rock n roll with lashings of rich guitar playing. Lanky Alan Collins was a very striking figure, dressed all in red like the stage, he became the focal point visually. Huge flares, impossibly long hair and a jutting Gibson Firebird. "Freebird" was the greatest moment of the whole festival and perhaps the greatest of any live performance I have ever seen, for the generosity of the musicians and the sheer joy of the crowd.  Thousands of people jumping around and cheering in unison. As the barefoot Ronnie Van Zant sang the last refrain, he threw his mike and its stand over the back of the amp stacks, took Collins under one arm and Rossington under the other, and led them down the sloping stage to the crowd, as the two began their furious soloing, it seemed to last forever, coming to a long drawn out final crunch in front of a standing ovation. An impossible act to follow.

This year I have been properly reacquainting myself with the music of Lynyrd Skynrd having left London permanently and taking a few months away from that rank madness in a truly beautiful North European country. At the start of the summer on some days here I even saw a real life Freebird eagle type thing flying over the next field to where I am staying - no shit.

Listening to the lyrics of the band - which cover a lot of ground within the human condition as regards kinship bonds and life priorities alone - they reflect such a contrast to the times I left behind in Britain. The Ponzi greed that has toxified the soul of London and much of the country, a Kafkaesque job market which seems to offer up the polar opposite of everything libertarian souls claim to aspire to on social media, rundown and seedy public infrastructure, mainstream media silence on both historic demographic shifts and their even more sobering secessionist consequences, the cultural marxist remodelling of every complex historical issue under the sun for peurile adolescent mindsets and the general air of sadness and directionless. 1976 was a long long time ago for all its own godawful problems with bogeymen unions, butcher dentists and damp sparkplugs in the winter.

The folk tales of Lynyrd Skynrd of course recall communities forged in financial hardship and want
but also flag up the positive aspects of a simpler and less cluttered life away from the speed, harshness and fetidity of modern urban existence. The appeal this offers to so many of my own middle-aged peer group today - our future security clinically betrayed on every socio-economic front imaginable by pure short-term venality - is now overwhelming. Ironically the very same future in fact that four generations of my own family fought and put their lives on the line for I assume.

Much of the social culture of the American South of course - and indeed the blood composition of its now vilified military formations who fought bravely from Manassas through to Appomattox Court House and right up to Stonewall Jackson himself  - originated geneologically from the historic Scots-Irish Presbyterian footprint that arrived in British America from Ulster in the 18th Century. The irony is not lost on me - and many contemporary visitors alike  - how in the modern United Kingdom that Northern Ireland is one of the few regions to have retained a deep rooted sense of place, moral decency, spiritual faith and individual warmth for all the bad history the country has had to work through together.

From their very early material recorded in 1971 at Muscle Shoals Alabama such as Comin Home and Was I Right Or Was I Wrong and through to I Never Dreamed and What's Your Name on the final Street Survivors album the vista of Lynyrd Skynyrd's music touchs upon loss,  regret, love, lust, brotherhood and ethics - the common sense fundamentals of life and how to live it well.

Truly in our beginning is our end.

Every time you feed that face
Do you look around
For somebody right in your own neighborhood
Sleepin out on the ground
If you've ever felt the pain inside
I know you'd understand
When you see somebody who's down and out
Lend a helpin' hand

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