"The lights bathed the band in clear vision and the audience went crazy," writes Stuart Whitehead about seeing Led Zeppelin during their last U.K. concert series, the Knebworth Festival 30 years ago this summer. "When things settled down you could sense a newfound confidence. They knew at this point they were still the biggest and best band in the world, and here were a hundred thousand fans agreeing, and at the same [time] giving punk and the U.K. music press an almighty one-fingered salute."
Whitehead is one of over 30 festival attendees whose firsthand accounts are carried as the centerpiece of the forthcoming book compiled by Tight But Loose fanzine writer Dave Lewis. "Then as It Was: Led Zeppelin at Knebworth -- 30 Years Gone" is soon to be released as a 270-page hardcover book in a limited edition, with a launch party taking place near the festival site next month. Lewis has announced ordering information for the book and provided a preview of some of the contents.
He reproduces his original review of the gigs published in Tight But Loose plus the transcript of an interview recorded by future MTV veejay J.J. Jackson, who was then an on-air radio personality for KLOS in Los Angeles, with Robert Plant and John Paul Jones after Knebworth. Along with the firsthand accounts, the new content in this book includes, the author says, "an engrossing view of the whole Knebworth episode from the perspective of an American fan, Larry Bergmann."
Lewis explains, "Zep was still a massive deal over there in the late 1970s -- there was no punk rock explosion to harm them and 'In Through the Out Door was a massive seller and No. 1 for weeks. It was cited as being something of a savior to the flagging U.S. music industry at the time. So it's good to gain a view of how it all appeared from across the water."
But of course, for Americans, most of the book is from the point of view of those on the other side of the Atlantic, including the introductory material. Jimmy Page's photographer of choice, Ross Halfin, contributed the foreword, which details what it was like shooting the Aug. 11 show. Former Melody Maker editor Chris Charlesworth has also lent his words to the project, penning what Lewis describes as "a very perceptive opening preface overview."
As a journalist, Charlesworth enjoyed close access to Led Zeppelin and published his interviews with the various band members in the '70s, but he held off for nearly three decades in reporting the full stories of everything he experienced and witnessed in the band's midst. He has written with a new level of unbridled frankness since the turn of the century when recounting, for instance, Zep manager Peter Grant's dealings with some limo drivers in Greensboro, N.C., and an eventful flight aboard the Starship from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1975. Charlesworth no doubt brings the same welcome candor in his preface to "Then as It Was," a lot of which centers on the press coverage afforded Led Zeppelin in their home country at the end of their four-year absence from the British concert stage.
"This was a period of big upheaval," says Lewis. "Punk rock had arrived, and out of it grew the new wave. This movement was set to render dinosaur bands such as Zeppelin redundant. So what you have is the situation of Zeppelin attempting to reconnect with their audience again, in the face of much derision from the press and media. How they coped with that is an interesting story in itself."
Lewis acknowledges the band's awareness of the pressure on them to present a worthy show. "I think they found it hard to ignore, particularly Robert Plant," he says. "In the book I summarize both the press reaction to the Knebworth shows and the 'In Through the Out Door' album. They did suffer some highly critical reaction -- Plant himself made comment to that onstage during their second appearance. They were very sensitive to it all.
"Taken as a whole though, there were some very balanced views. To quote Phil Sutcliffe in his review in Sounds at the time, 'How would you feel if you saw a dinosaur coming down the street? Surprise, fear, fascination, awe. All of these things. It's by no means all bad to be a living fossil.'
"The fact is, Zeppelin was still a very powerful musical force, and I think journalists seemed to have a job admitting that without losing face. In his foreword in the book, Ross Halfin makes a good point that the press didn't really dislike Zep that much -- not in the same way they derided, say, ELP or Yes."
Lewis doesn't gloss over the controversies the Knebworth Festival portends. As to the disputed number of attendees present, the quality of the performances particularly on week two, the less than stellar supporting lineup assembled for both weeks, or even the suitability of a two-show stint on such a large platform, Lewis addresses it all.
And he does so in a much more objective manner than he did writing for his fanzine at the time. As for his original review, published in full in the book, Lewis admits, "There's no denying it's a rose tinted view, but maybe that's not too surprising. Back then I was 22 years old and my whole world revolved around Led Zeppelin. I lived and breathed it, so Knebworth was in its infancy, and obviously I wanted to offer extensive coverage in the next issue."
Thirty years of retrospect have allowed Lewis to take a more reasoned reflect on the circumstances of the time. He now believes the Knebworth setting made Zeppelin "quite remote from their audience." By comparison, he points out that the Who in 1979 combined smaller shows at the Rainbow Theatre and the Hammersmith Odeon with a larger performance at Wembley Stadium. The Who, Lewis opines, "seemed more in touch with the musical climate of the time."
Despite any flaws in either the conception or the undertaking of the concert series, Lewis says that overall, "Knebworth was a triumph, and it put Zep right back in the spotlight." This is evidenced in some of the photographs from the shows, including ones taken both weeks by Alan Perry, which are used extensively in the book. In all, the book includes over 100 black-and-white illustrations and 16 color pages.
The shows certainly have also inspired collectors of both bootlegs and memorabilia alike, as some appendices in the book attest. One, a detailed Zep Knebworth bootleg appendix, is the work of contributor Graeme Hutchinson, who Lewis says "logs over 80 different vinyl, CD and DVD unofficial releases." In another appendix, U.K. collector Nick Anderson "offers a comprehensive and fully illustrated worldwide 'In Through the Out Door' discography" that "includes details of the differing promo pressings that came out and the singles that were issued from the album." An appendix on Knebworth Festival memorabilia draws mostly from the Brian Knapp collection, including a handwritten set list, various backstage passes, the shirt off of Page's back, the violin bow he used, a prototype bow he discarded in rehearsal, and fiberoptic cables that were used in conjunction with the laser sequence, to name a few items.
Lewis says he hopes the book will appeal to new fans and old. "On a nostalgic level, it's an affectionate reminder of the way things were in that field all of 30 years ago," he says. "For Zep fans that have come on board since, or were elsewhere at the time, it provides the opportunity to find out what it was all about." He says it "all adds up to what I hope is an engaging read that chronicles the final days of Led Zeppelin and the simpler times of the last great festival gatherings of the 1970s.
The first run is strictly limited, and each book will be individually signed and numbered by the author. Books will be available to those registering ahead of time at www.tblweb.com to attend the Aug. 8 gathering at the Lytton Arms. Books may also be ordered online via PayPal (see www.tblweb.com for details) or from the Wymer UK book site.
Lewis is scheduled to appear on the Nicky Horne Show on Planet Rock Radio on Sunday, July 19, after 8 p.m. GMT (4 p.m. Eastern).