The grounds of Knebworth House have played host to some huge rock concerts over the years. This British venue was where the re-formed Deep Purple first played in 1985.
A year later it was where Queen played its final live show (with Freddie Mercury). In 1979 it was the scene for two Led Zeppelin shows, the band’s return to the UK stage after four years. The often-bootlegged shows are the stuff of legend. Jimmy Page could hardly stand; he wears a blue shirt that changes colour mid-gig due to his sweat-flow.
Erm, yeah, anyway…
My introduction to Knebworth was the 1990 charity concert featuring the Silver Clef Award winners. It was billed excitedly as “The Best British Rock Concert of All Time” and though nearly 30 years on it could be easy to laugh at the line-up of dinosaurs, this was a formative experience for me.
The concert was shown on NZ TV. Later it was released in a series of VHS tapes (I snapped them up from the Warehouse – even though I had the TV broadcast recorded to tape). I also had the double audiocassette – it was reissued on CD. I don’t hang on to a lot of CDs these days, just a few favourites and anything I like from local artists, soundtracks, compilations and a few things with sentimental value. The Live at Knebworth CD is a classic. Check out the lineup and you’re either right with me – or you might laugh heartily at how obvious and awful it sounds: Tears for Fears, Status Quo, Cliff Richard & The Shadows, Robert Plant, Genesis, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd.
I don’t listen to a lot of the music from these artists from this time – not anymore. But it’s about context. At the time I was the biggest Eric Clapton fan on the planet (it seemed like it anyway). Ditto Dire Straits. I could take or leave Elton, Cliff, Genesis and Tears for Fears – arguably I’m more likely to cherry-pick from their careers these days than Clapton or Dire Straits – and I was (and still am) a fan of McCartney, Plant and Floyd. And Status Quo – well, can’t say I was ever a fan but I enjoyed their Knebworth performance. In fact I liked it, I liked it, I la-la-la-liked it, la-la-la-liked it.
So a mixed bag – both then and now. But as a selection of artists – and the actual selections on offer (song-wise) this was (and is) hard to beat.
I’ve no doubt there are eye-rolls still happening as you wonder the worth of this. And I’m certainly sure that my interest in this concert is because of what it used to represent to me – but looking over the CD cover I fall very easily in love with the memory of so much of this music.
I would race home from school, 13 years old, 14 – and then when 15 and 16 too – and watch a few performances from this tape. Weekends too. I would have the drumsticks out, smacking along on the pillows to everything from Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants To Rule the World and Status Quo’s Dirty Water through Robert Plant’s Hurting Kind, McCartney’s live rejig of Coming Up and finally Floyd’s Run Like Hell. Sometimes I would drum through the whole performance. Other times I would be on the phone to friends, talking about whatever I used to talk about – with this music on in the background. (Actually, that probably meant, sad as it is, that I was ringing people and telling them about the concert.)
I remember showing several people this video. If in the right mood, mum or dad would sit for a bit of it – the McCartney section or the Genesis medley of Motown tunes. But I don’t think anybody had the staying power for this concert quite like I did.
It was one of the most important gateway-drugs for me, in a musical sense. It was my introduction to some of the artists – or my first chance to watch them perform (on video).
Listening to the CD several years on the live sound is stunning. No doubt it was touched up with all sorts of studio trickery, overdubs and sticking plasters – but it sounds amazing.
This was the concert experience that taught me to appreciate the support-players; the extra hands in the band that help to make it all sound so good. Check that Collins clip above to see Lee Sklar and Chester Thompson; a sublime rhythm section. Watch the horn section too. Or the backing singers with Floyd. And the percussionist – allowing Nick Mason all the time he usually takes but filling the sound and space, colouring it in without crowding his style.
No matter what you think of Tears for Fears (and I think they’re a more than decent band; I don’t listen to them often but I’m always happy after I do), you should listen to this live clip of Badman’s Song. It’s a revelation to me – still. The stars of this are the percussionist and the pianist. You can laugh all you want at the awful fashions and haircuts (in fact that’s the case with this whole concert; hey, it was 1990!) but the performances are stunning.
Robert Plant was working in support of his Manic Nirvana record. I liked this album a lot – and his Liar’s Dance was, to me, the best trace-around of some of the Led Zep ideas that Plant ever offered. It stands on its own as a strong song. He also teamed with Jimmy Page to rip through Wearing and Tearing. Fantastic.
The Dire Straits performance features a version of I Think I Love You Too Much – a song that Mark Knopfler had given to Jeff Healey. And though it doesn’t appear on the CD, there’s a killer version of Tearin’ Us Apart by Eric Clapton and his band. Originally a duet with Tina Turner, this live duet from five years after the studio version, features Clapton’s then-backing singer, Katie Kissoon. And what a great band he had at that time. They inspired some of his best playing.
So many memories – but the song that I was most infatuated with was the version of Sunshine of Your Love featuring Clapton and band (obviously) augmented by Elton John and Dire Straits. Clapton is on fire, quoting Strangers in the Night as part of his solo – but it’s the band that takes this to another level. Drummer Steve Ferrone has a moment to shine with a Latin-inspired groove as part of his short solo but it’s the mad antics of journeyman percussionist Ray Cooper that make this performance. I must have watched this clip over a hundred times – now I can revisit it on the YouTube. And I often do.
Some of you might rave about The Arms Concert or Live Aid (or Live 8 for that matter). But to me the 1990 Knebworth concert was the one; the concert that made me fall in love with music-as-performance. I enjoyed everything that happened on that stage – separated it out from my own collection. It didn’t make me rush off to buy Cliff Richard & The Shadows or Status Quo – but I enjoyed what they offered as part of this show. It did make me further investigate Robert Plant’s solo career (something I’m still interested in to this day). It kept the fires burning – for a time – for heroes of mine (Floyd, Clapton) and it made me wide-eyed with wonder at how it all fits together; how every little part makes a song when it’s performed. Kissoon is better than Tina Turner here. Ray Cooper steals the show.
Pink Floyd’s closing set is epic – they were the rightful closers, making the most of the light and laser show.
I learned so much from that show – as well I should. I spent hours and hours of my time watching, re-watching, picking out personal highlights. I’m reminded of so many good times and such powerful music. Music that shaped my mind.
What recorded concert opened your eyes and ears to live music in a technical and visceral sense?
And am I alone with my love for Knebworth 1990? Or are you/were you a fan of this show also?
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron