04 Oct Legend #1: Skynyrd at Knebworth
A most notable example of rebels and brits colliding:
There was once a music festival at the Knebworth house in England. It was 1976, and The Rolling Stones were coming off a tour of difficulties based around poor sound quality and low audience satisfaction. Knebworth was to be planned around The Stones headling. It was home turf, and there were rumors that it even might be Mick and the boys’ last show (of course, we’d heard that before and have often since). If the festival went according to plan, it would be The Rolling Stones reparations— as if the world’s greatest rock and roll band really had anything to make amends for.
But rock and roll crowds have high expectations, and fortunately for everyone, Knebworth had been prepared impressively. The stage was the iconic red-lipped mouth and tongue that spilled out into the crowd, of which Mick Jagger requested no opening bands perform on. Stay inside the mouth, boys and girls. The tongue was for Mick.
At this time, a little known band named Lynyrd Skynyrd found themselves fortunate enough to play the slot between a spin-off of Jefferson Airplane— Hot Tuna— and 10cc, a smart, pop-rock band with a few smashing hits out on the airwaves. Skynyrd was a long way from home back in Jacksonville, Florida, but they brought everything they had with them— long hair and whiskey bottles, tough attitudes from growing up in rough neighborhoods, and the stories they’d lived to tell.
About 100,000 tickets were sold to the Knebworth festival, though estimated attendance was between 150,000 and 300,000. This combined with opening for a band that Ronnie and his southern brothers and sisters idolized, put Skynyrd in a do or die mode. They planned to leave it all on the table, as they were known to do.
If you don’t have the patience for an hour-long set (or even a thirteen-minute song) you can fast forward to the six-minute mark of the video I’ve shared to watch what is essentially the largest, spontaneous awakening (literally, since many appear to be sleeping on the ground) to a band’s sound that has ever occurred. The audience member’s eyes open wide. “Hey,” they seem to be saying, “this is what we came for.”
Ian Fortnam, a rock and roll journalist who was present at the show, said, “Thirty-one years on and I’ve never witnessed a crowd react to support a band in the same way that Knebworth did to Lynyrd Skynyrd.” The promoter of Knebworth festival Freddy Bannister, said, “Skynyrd caused a real buzz backstage. We all wondered how anyone could follow them.”
Of course, this is no ordinary live recording. This rendition of Free Bird is the most popular live recording in history behind three others— Jackson Browne’s The Load Out/Stay in ‘78, Peter Frampton’s Show Me The Way in ‘76, and Eric Clapton’s Acoustic version of Layla in ‘92. Because of that and because of its little-known historical relevance to the band, I can’t recommend starting at the 6:00 mark.
You’d miss what Skynyrd did that day besides transport a bunch of hippies and brits back across the Atlantic into the New South, besides influencing thousands to reconsider the reputation the southern states had earned as being stuck in the past. That day, on a hillside in Great Britain, they made the Rolling Stones nervous. And for good reason.
If you dig through YouTube and watch the entire day’s music at Knebworth, the crowd is seen as either snoozing on their rucksacks, or dancing lazily, looking far out there in whatever it is that they were riding into the great blue yonder. Weed. Ludes (an old-time favorite). Maybe some psychedelics. Whatever man. Maybe it was just the heat and all the beer that was being sold alongside hotdogs in the carnival atmosphere that Knebworth had been designed to emulate. Who can know?
Then, there’s the opening piano riff of Free Bird (which Billy Powell created as a roadie and was promoted immediately thereafter to band member by Ronnie Van Zant once he heard the melody). It’s slow and melodic, and at that time not recognizable by the crowd. While Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fifty minutes leading up to Free Bird were powerful in their own right and received by far the most enthusiasm from the crowd all day, the crowd is still clearly waiting through yet another opener for The Rolling Stones.
If you, like those at Knebworth, are low on patience for the finale, I’ll tell you that the first six minutes are beautiful— heart-achingly sad with the lyrics of departure and loss and loneliness. The band is tight and the blues licks are simple. There are some slow slide guitar solos and the crowd appears to sway along agreeably enough, out of boredom if nothing else.
And though Ronnie sings us through the same lyrics in the final chorus, “Oh, this bird, you cannot change,” there’s a distinct change in the storyline, done artfully with tone and key, evolving from despondency to a sort of wild and desperate freedom. It’s distinct enough that the editor of the video shows footage of the burnt-out audience members beginning to sit up and look around. Some of the girls who’ve been slowly sway-dancing begin to catch the enthusiasm and speed themselves unselfconsciously to the music.
And right at 6:45, the infamous jam begins. In the video, you see a man in the crowd who seems to realize something very rock and roll is happening. I personally wish we could see the expressions of the bands waiting backstage who hadn’t expected what was to come.
And what does Ronnie Van Zant, in true rebel fashion do? He takes his three lead guitarists by the shoulders and leads them out onto Mick’s tongue, in direct disobedience with Sir Jagger’s demands. I like to think that Mick’s fellow countrymen, Paul and Linda McCartney, who were in the crowd that day, approved of the southerner’s gall and maybe even the long hair and Jack Daniels so abundantly present with Skynyrd that day.
Just watch the video. Stop reading my blabbering and watch it. Because it’s beautiful, a glimpse into much of what the world does not know about the band. The confederate flags they often played in front of were the record company MCA’s idea to promote the band to the crowd they assumed would be listening. The stars and bars that showed up in some of the crowds actually embarrassed the band. The face of confederate leather, booze, drugs, and tough, motorcycle gang album covers was often not of the band members’ choosing. Ronnie Van Zant was known for believing (corroborated by the song Saturday Night Special) that cheap handguns, often bought at pawn shops or illegally, are key in passionate, careless homicides and should all be gotten rid of. Despite assumptions about Sweet Home Alabama, the band actually disapproved of segregationist governor George Wallace (hence the lyrics, “boo, boo, boo”).
In this live video of Knebworth, you can see some of Ronnie’s gentleness, the way he touches his bandmates and how meekly he walks around while they hold center stage with face-melting solos. Or how he laughs with Leon Wilkison on bass who wears a policeman’s helmet, somehow teasing and supporting law enforcement in the same breath.
Thoughtful, deep, and generous, he was, but Ronnie was also brawly and even mean— his father was a golden glove boxer, after all, and passion doesn’t come without two sides. Seemingly born to disobey, Ronnie holds his lead players out on Mick’s tongue, and one can’t help but feel proud of his defiance.
The crowd goes wild, and I think how it must’ve felt to assume you’ve discovered something legendary by accident. The lead guitarists, being humble country boys that they were, try to back off of Mick’s tongue, but Ronnie keeps them there, still directing this wild ensemble with gestures that you’ll see if you watch closely. The boys take turns ripping everyone’s faces to shreds, with three back up vocalists dancing around the stage.
By the time they finish the song, it appears that all 150,000 people are leaping and shouting and clapping overhead. Though Lynyrd Skynyrd directly disobeyed Mick’s orders for tongue chastity, I think they did him more service than disrespect. They woke the crowd up.
Of course, it truly was a difficult act to follow. 10cc delayed coming on stage for two hours. When they finally did, as you can imagine, it was underwhelming. Reportedly, The Stones delayed another half hour backstage, “posing and acting like rock stars.”
Audience members were getting upset thinking the whole thing had been shadily called off. So, when Mick and Keith and the boys finally came out, the crowd sighed and then howled with relief. The Stones would play their longest set ever that night, finishing Jumping Jack Flash at two a.m., three hours after the event was supposed to conclude. One can’t help but wonder why they pushed so hard into what would already have been a late night?
Perhaps, as has been speculated before about the notably vain Mick Jagger, there was a need to prove something after Skynyrd’s performance. Of course, the show at Knebworth wouldn’t be The Rolling Stones last, and neither would the next two-dozen last tours. But I speculate that Skynyrd’s performance that night is what drove the Rolling Stones to tour again the following year. And maybe for many years. Nothing motivates insufficient suspicions like being second best at your own headlining festival.
Decades later, in 2017, there were rumors that the Rolling Stones would be back at Knebworth for a new festival. Talk was all it would amount to, perhaps the shadow of Free Bird still too big, too close to the sun for Mick and Keith, wiser in their old age, to try and outsize.
Remarkably, both bands are still playing today, however broken, healed, and distinctly different— The Rolling Stones members having changed hands numerous times, and Lynyrd Skynyrd often called a cover band without Ronnie Van Zant and Steve and Cassie Gaines.
But the legend of The Rolling Stones will always be the world’s greatest rock and roll band. And while the real Lynyrd Skynyrd was lost in 1977, the Knebworth performance continues to be the day that the greatest band was rocked right off their own stage. They were out-greated.
Because of that, I think Knebworth is as significant as any other singular act Lynyrd Skynyrd imparted on the world and will live on for a very long time— maybe for as long as The Rolling Stones music is played. That is to say, forever.
And that’s the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd at Knebworth.