They must have been knackered. By June 1976, The Rolling Stones had just finished their gigantic tour of Europe, which took in shows from then-Yugoslavia to Spain. It had been a huge success, with over 500,000 tickets sold. So when the organiser of the 1976 Knebworth Fair needed a headline act to replace Queen (who had dropped out at the last minute), he went to The Stones knowing that they would bring in streams of punters.
So on August 21st, just after Mick Jagger’s 33rd birthday, The Rolling Stones returned to the stage for what would be their biggest show since their 1969 concert in London’s Hyde Park.
The festival’s organiser, Freddie Bannister, must have known he’d made the right call booking The Stones. On the day, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 fans waited in line to gain entry to Knebworth Fair, paying £4.50 for a ticket.
That money gave attendees the opportunity to watch performances by Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, The Don Harrison Band, Hot Tuna, 10cc, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But the main attraction was always going to be The Rolling Stones, who had just released their 13th studio album, Black and Blue.
But, as seems to be the case with all legendary festivals, the Stone’s performance was preceded by a multitude of technical issues. The problems wreaked havoc with the supporting band’s sets, leading to The Rolling Stones going on much later than fans had anticipated. As a result, many of them had grown impatient. But at 11.30 pm, The Stones finally walked on stage. The crowd did not look happy, and the band knew they’d need to work to get them back on side.
The Rolling Stones went on to perform one of their longest set’s ever, playing for over three hours – until around two in the morning. Bannister would later say: “We were supposed to finish by midnight, and it eventually ended at about 2 am. I think David (now Lord) Cobbold, who held the licence, got fined £2,000.”
The Stones opened by ripping into ‘Satisfaction’. A song they knew would win the crowd’s favour. This set the tone for the rest of the set, which spanned the group’s entire career thus far, starting with songs like ‘Little Red Rooster,’ ‘Route 66,’ and ‘Around and Around’, which were then followed by classic tracks like ‘Get Off Of My Cloud,’ ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together,’ ‘Honky Tonk Women,’ and ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’.
For many, The Rolling Stone’s performance proved that the group still had “power and relevance”. Classic stadium rock was becoming a thing of the past, something which belonged to the old and leathery, and was increasingly shunned by young people searching for something with more intensity and grit.
Indeed the year The Stones performed at Knebworth was the “year zero” of the punk movement. But, on that day in 1976, with the burning summer sun beating down on them, The Rolling Stones were king.