Today we are taking a journey down the Far Out vault to a time when Led Zeppelin were still at the pinnacle of their game, just a year before John Bonham’s sudden death which would tear the band apart through grief. In the summer of 1979, this performance of ‘Kashmir’ showed that whilst Bonham was in the band they were truly an unreckonable force that had decades of dominance left in them.
Their two momentous shows at Knebworth were poignant for a number of reasons. The most significant reason was that it marked the first time that the four cornerstones of rock had played in public together in almost two years as Robert Plant mourned the death of his son who died in 1977 while the band were touring the States.
Their return to the live arena would also be the first time that they had performed on home soil in four years, to say the show was highly anticipated would be an understatement of the highest order. This was the return of their ‘Rock Gods’ to their rightful throne.
These shows are also notable as they marked the advent of true stadium rock in the form we know it today. Arriving at a groundbreaking time for the band, Led Zep decided to opt against performing a longer residency in London at a venue like Earls Court. Instead, they chose to perform two much larger shows in Hertfordshire and host their own festival of sorts.
It is alleged that the fee they commanded for their comeback shows was the largest ever paid to one single act at that time. They wanted their return to be as grandiose as possible so, with 210,000 people in attendance, the band went ahead and delivered one of the most iconic rock performances of all time.
To add some context into the scale of these evenings is this statement which is taken from the Knebworth House website which goes into detail about the 1979 festival: “The largest stage ever constructed, 570 loo seats, 750 feet of urinals and the biggest rock band in the world. Led Zeppelin played their last ever concerts (in the UK) at Knebworth, and it was the end of an era for the Knebworth shows.”
It continues: “Both concerts overran, noise complaints were received from 7 miles away. The rubbish team struggled to cope with clearing the arena between the shows. The police believed that 200,000 people had turned up each night, Sainsbury’s lost 150 trolleys and Tesco 75% of their stock, and Lord Cobbold [owner of Knebworth House] ended up in Court.”
Despite the iconic nature of the event, there are still some regrets from Robert Plant about whether this was the right way for Led Zeppelin to announce their return and if they were match-fit enough to deliver a show like this. He later would say: “Knebworth was useless. It was no good at all. It was no good because we weren’t ready to do it, the whole thing was a management decision,” he once said on reflection. :It felt like I was cheating myself because I wasn’t as relaxed as I could have been. There was so much expectation there and the least we could have done was to have been confident enough to kill. We maimed the beast for life, but we didn’t kill it. It was good, but only because everybody made it good. There was that sense of event.”
In 2005, the vocalist would elaborate further on whether this was the right decision for the band at that moment in time: “I was racked with nerves. It was our first British gig in four years and we could have gone back to the Queen’s Head pub. We talked about doing something like that.” What a show that would’ve been.
That wasn’t really very rock and roll though, not in 1979: “But instead, we went back in such a flurry and a fluster to 210,000 people in a field and 180,000 more the next day, surrounded by Keith and Ronnie and Todd Rundgren. Nobody’s big enough to meet those expectations. But because there was some chemical charge in the air, it worked. It didn’t work for us. We played too fast and we played too slow and it was like trying to land a plane with one engine. But it was fantastic for those who were there.”
Perhaps, that was just Plant being the perfectionist he is because looking back on the performance over 40 years on, especially on ‘Kashmir’ which captures the moment of over 200,000 adoring fans soaking up the moment which many thought may not have ever ended up happening following the tragic event in 1977.
Soak it up for yourself, below.