1985. Deep Purple are back – and so is rock at Knebworth.
1980 had seen Santana and the Beach Boys play at the Hertfordshire pile, then came two years of jazz / blues – including Ella, BB and Dizzy – before a couple of years of the Christian Greenbelt Festival including, erm, Cliff Richard.
Fortunately, in 1985, normal service was resumed.
Paul Loasby, who had promoted the Donington Monsters Of Rock in 1980 (Rainbow, Priest, Scorpions) that we talked about a few weeks ago, was among the organisers of the 1985 event.
In some ways, it was more of a Deep Purple gig than a festival as such: the main aim was a showcase for the reformed band, back now with their classic early-Seventies line-up of Ian Gillan, Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord, Roger Glover and Ian Paice.
Those personnel had released Perfect Strangers the previous October, while not being a totally successful return to their former glories, it was still an album filled with killer Blackmnore riffs such as Knocking At Your Back Door, the album opener and standout track, and it had whetted UK appetites for more from this definitive Purple line-up.
They embarked on a reunion tour that began in Australia and went to Europe and the USA, making a lot of already rich men even richer and what better way to do it? But, strangely, they chose to play only one UK gig that year: at Knebworth. sujrely they would have cleaned up in the UK where, thanks to tommy Vance's Friday rock show, their flame had been kept well and truely alive. Hairies everywhere then and noe still gobbled up everything they put out and every gig they played.
A licence was obtained for 100,000 and a truly astonishing PA was set up – capable of belting out 250,000 watts! The Who had set the record for the loudest British concert ever with Charlton 1984 and Purple were determined to break it.
“No camping, no bottles, no cans, no cameras, no tapes” proclaimed the flyer for the one-day event in June. And you thought you were here to have fun! In addition, there was no booze licence for the event. Thankfully, people managed to smuggle drink in. Naturally, this was consumed with the minimum delay possible, which meant that everyone was steaming early doors, which in turn lead to the old “piss in a bottle and chuck it” manoeuvre that was a staple of lots of outdoor rock events, but not so much in keeping with previous vibes at Knebworth.
But there was a problem besides being hit with a bottle of wee: it was raining. Really chucking it down. The weather was so awful that only 80,000 turned up, and it poured almost all day. Not for nothing did they call it ‘Mudworth’.
The first band to play, on stage about 11am, were Alaska, remember them? Like a more northerly Asia I seem to recall! They made for a quiet start, which no one could ever accuse the next band on of doing; Mountain – who had been supporting Purple on their tour.
As I write this i've just seen Mountain supporting Joe Satriani, with Corky back on the drums and am happy to report Leslie West is as loud and bone-crushingly heavy as they ever were. I still love mountain but i feel they're at their best when they had Brian Knight on keyboards. He fleshed out the sound on Nantucket Sleighride etc and gave it all more texture for the guitar to pound through.
The highlight of their set at Knebby in '85 (and last night as well) was Jack Bruce's Theme From An Imaginary Western - I came to the original after hearing Mountain's version - its on Songs For A Tailor and it is probably Bruce's finest vocal; epic stuff from a much under-rated singer if not bass player.
Drummer Corky Laing battered the hell out of a large black box for reasons that remained unclear at Knebworth
Mama’s Boys - who were going to be the next big thing if you recall - they were Irish weren't they? Well they played a short, loud set next – unfortunately so loud that it blew out a third of the PA system! The Who’s record would stand. The Southern boogie of Blackfoot was next – they played a grooving, fun set and the sun shone for 40 minutes, the only time it stopped raining all day. Ricky Medlock now sings for Skynyrd but Blackfoot were an awesome band in their prime capable of out-booginig everyone.
A set from NWOBHM stalwarts UFO – featuring new member Atomik Tommy on guitar – came next - this was a bit of a quiet time for UFO who had risen so high in the late 70s and early 80s.....if you;'ve not checked out 2004 You Are Here then do so, it's killer stuff and their best for a decade.
Then it was time for the strangest booking of the day: Meatloaf. The Loaf got a pretty iffy reception from a crowd unhappy with the rain and his music. And the poor bloke had a broken leg! To his credit, he made a decent fist of things, including a commendably surreal rant about the crowd reaction which likened it to drinking a kettle full of boiling water but urinating ice. If only he had soared to those heights of imagery on I Would Do Anything For Love.
The final support act was The Scorpions, who played one of the gigs of their career. Onstage from 6.30, they defied the rain with their World Wide Live Set and closed with a blistering version of Still Loving You. They were at the peak of their powers and were a real joy: a right rocking effort from the Hanover lads.
But the main event was Deep Purple.
This was not a love-in of a reunion, by a long chalk. The tensions that split the band up were already back to the fore, leading to one of the great rock and roll tantrum stories. Unwilling to socialise with each other backstage, the band had individual portacabins. But legend has it that they took it one step further – insisting that the cabins be turned around so as to not have to look at one another when leaving or entering!
Still, they all made it onto the stage one way or another – Ritchie famously shielding his guitar with an umbrella. Have their been any other instances of the lead guitarist of a major group taking to the stage in a pair of Wellington boots? Let us know if you can think of any! Mind you given a choice between 250,000 volts shotting through a wet stage and into your legs and wearing non rock n roll wellies i know which I'd take!
The ill-feeling between the band, and the general annoyance about the crappy weather, seemed to charge Ritchie’s playing with an urgent, driving anger. He’s fast and furious throughout, really hammering on the guitar and beating the notes out of it like a man possessed. His solos on Highway Star (the opener) and Smoke On Water (the closer) are crackers – even on the smoother numbers like Lazy he is still tearing into it.
Blackmore is an astonishing player. A revolutionary who I feel is sometimes held in less esteem than the likes of Pagey and Beck...but they things he does are jaw dropping. That arabesque tendency he has is all his own and the way he could wrestle noise out with the whammy bar before slamming back into a riff has always been masterly. Even going back to Black Night, the solo on that - a number 2 hit - was incredible.....starting with howling noise and finishing in a blues scale...I fimd his work tirelessly fascinating and there's a good argument to say he was the UK's all time riff-meister. From 1970 to 1985 he didn't make a bad record and wrote a whole canon of riffs that have stood the test of time.
They played a weird and wonderful take on (Rainbow’s) Difficult To Cure where Lord chucks in some of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy on the organ and Ian Gillan – whose voice was in fine shape – breaks out into Jesus Christ Superstar on Strange Kind Of Woman. Check out the ‘In The Absence Of Pink’ live album for a fine record of the day.
For many of the fans there, who had got into the band post-1976 break-up, seeing the classic line-up together was a dream they thought would never happen, and for that reason this has rightly gone down as a seminal, and much loved, Purple gig – even in the pouring rain.