Knebworth ’79 ...and all that
August 2009 - Issue 120
One week apart, Led Zeppelin’s two concerts in Knebworth Park 30 years ago this month marked not only the last truly legendary live events of the seventies, but also the last time the original quartet would grace a British stage. Mark Cunningham reviews the magic with Showco founder Jack Calmes, lighting tech Gary Carnes & journalist Mel Lambert...
Throughout the ’70s, Led Zeppelin had maintained their status as the world’s leading stadium rock’n’roll band but when punk came along to tear up the rule book, there was every chance that Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham would fall victim to the new regime and be classed as dinosaurs.
Strategically, what was to become their final studio album, In Through The Out Door, was a more synthesiser-led affair that was mostly bereft of the heroic guitar solos for which Page had become famous.
But the masterstroke that would guarantee Zeppelin’s legendary status for all-time was to coincide the album’s summer 1979 release with two enormous live shows — their first in the UK for four years — at Knebworth Park in Hertfordshire on August 4 and 11.
Although arguably not their greatest-ever musical performances, the shows set the band apart from their fellow ’60s survivors and gave the young punks a timely reminder of how to move an audience.
The concerts — which also featured Fairport Convention, Keith Richards’ & Ron Wood’s The New Barbarians, Todd Rundgren, Commander Cody, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and the ever-so-slightly unsuitable Chas’n’Dave — were the last open-air events promoted at Knebworth by Frederick Bannister, who had presented festivals there since 1974.
A major dispute over recorded audience numbers between Bannister and Zeppelin’s feared, larger-than-life manager, Peter Grant, was so fierce and damaging that the promoter’s company, Tedoar Ltd, was left with huge debts and was forced into liquidation. Bannister would never run a show at Knebworth again.
One person who remembers those two weekend shows well is Jack Calmes, the founder and president of Led Zeppelin’s production vendor, Dallas-based Showco, before establishing automated xenon lighting systems manufacturer, Syncrolite, 25 years ago.
Showco handled sound, lighting, effects and staging for Zeppelin from 1969, supplying its all-proprietary equipment. Over the years that followed, Jack Calmes had become accustomed to the cloak-and-dagger business dealings with Peter Grant, tour manager Richard Cole and the band.
“They were always very secretive about their operations,” says Calmes, “and Richard could be a difficult person at that stage because he was on the other side of the moon. While Peter dealt with the day-to-day business, Richard was the main interface for Zeppelin production and still regarded as the fifth member.
“He and I go back to 1966 when he was working with the Spencer Davis Group, and then he went off to look after The Yardbirds, which then featured Jimmy Page, and the story developed from there.”
When Grant asked Calmes to fly over to the UK for a meeting in the summer of 1979, it was obvious to the Showco chief that something significant was about to happen even though the advance detail was thin.
He says: “I discovered they were planning a big one at Knebworth with their old buddy, Freddie Bannister, and were doing some fancy footwork with [North Herts District Council] in order to get a licence. This was late June so there wasn’t a long fuse between the planning and the actual gigs.”
Calmes met Grant at Bannister’s London apartment where he was given a rundown on the scale of the show which, for the time, amounted to an extraordinary one-off enterprise. “I came armed with a presentation of how Showco might approach this and the associated six-figure costs,” recalls Calmes.
“Peter liked a gamble and the ritual was that he and I would play a game of cards in order for him to get a reduction of our fee. He’d never quit until he won something, and that day he managed to cut between five and 10 grand off our price!”
The equipment for Knebworth required a major freight operation from the United States, although Showco’s relationship with British vendors including The Who’s ML Executives made it possible to source some key items locally.
Showco supplied the equivalent of four to six of its regular three-way PA systems with active crossovers and large bass bins and horns. Rusty Brutsché, who would later co-develop the Vari*Lite, was Zeppelin’s principal sound mixer, working at FOH alongside Benji Le Fevre who specialised in mixing Robert Plant’s vocals and adding effects.
Donny Kretzchmar took over from the band’s previous monitor mixer, B.J. Schiller, and Showco’s own Superboard consoles were at both ends of the park. Additional sound crew included Allen Branton and Joe Crowley.
Another Showco crew member, Ian ‘Iggy’ Knight had been Zeppelin’s lighting designer for many years leading up to Knebworth.
“I hired Ian after Peter Grant introduced him to me,” says Calmes, “and he became the main designer for all the band’s tours from the early ’70s with assistance from Kirby Wyatt, Showco’s production manager.”
The role of lighting director at Knebworth would have been long-timer Ted Tittle’s, had he not tragically died in a motorcycle accident just days before the crew departed to the UK.
His friend and colleague from the previous 1977 U.S. tour, Showco lighting technician Gary Carnes recalls: “Knebworth was always the kind of show where you’d think, it can’t get any bigger than this. But when Ted was killed so suddenly, our moods went from being jubilant to depressing.
“We were handed a big problem and had to re-assemble the lighting crew and programme a new design in a very short period of time.”
Carnes, who also worked at Syncrolite for several years and is now at Texas-based Entertainment Technologies Group, Inc., adds: “Kirby Wyatt became the driving force for this new team, consisting of Tom Littrell operating the console, with Larry Sizemore and I cueing the 15 [Gladiator & Super Trouper] spotlights.
“After many days and late nights spent fine-tuning the effects in rehearsals at Bray Film Studios, we all felt we had a production that would work — one we could be proud of.”
Littrell ran the Showco pin-matrix lighting console that controlled a rig of standard theatrical fixtures including over 200 steel PAR cans, Lekos, beam lights and strobes.
Calmes notes: “At the same time as Knebworth, Showco was doing the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown U.S. tour which had one of the first programmable digital sequencers to run the dancefloor stage. That technology later evolved into Vari*Lite.”
LASERS & VIDEO
Amongst the many achievements scattered across his 44 years in live entertainment production, Jack Calmes is the man who should be credited with bringing laser technology into the rock’n’roll touring world.
In 1975, he sold The Who their first laser system, a US$36,000 purchase, that the band’s lighting designer John ‘Wiggy’ Wolff — now running Syncrolite’s UK office — went on to use spectacularly on ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
Updated versions of the laser heads were sub-rented from The Who’s Ramport warehouse for Led Zep’s Knebworth shows as it was convenient to source from within the UK. And it was this equipment that was responsible for one of the shows’ most memorable cameos.
Calmes explains: “It was actually Rusty who should be credited for designing the rotating laser pyramid effect over Jimmy Page as he slung his bow out across his Les Paul. The bow itself was a fibre optic tube. We were building our Pyramid loudspeakers in those days and it was a cool idea.”
Following the Bray rehearsals, Page and the crew had time to perfect this particular element of the production when the party headed out to Copenhagen’s Falkoner Theater in late July, to work on both the music and the show design.
Whilst there, on July 23-24, they decided to play two low key shows under the pseudonym The Melancholy Danish Playboys. As Gary Carnes remembers: “There were about 150 people in the audience for the first show and it was totally sold out for the second.”
Sound and lights aside, one of the first elements Calmes added to the Showco portfolio was video image magnification (I-Mag) — a memorable feature of Zeppelin’s Knebworth performances.
“We established a video department around 1975-76 which was managed by Phil Squires, who went on to run the technical department at Burbank Studios in the ’80s,” says Calmes.
“Showco would install several Eidophors and an I-Mag screen wherever there was a stadium big enough to justify it, and we did this for a number of the bigger Zeppelin and Who shows, employing a guy who would assemble cameras and direct.
“It was a very time-consuming process to set up the 60’ x 40’ screen and interlock those Eidophors, and get them lined up to give you a clear picture. This took a number of very skilled professionals several days to perfect it for Knebworth.”
Those professionals included Martin Bushnell and Alan Hogarth from Link Electronics, the company sub-contracted to provide the Eidophor projectors.
Also involved from the UK was SGB, who built the stage, and Tim & Hoagy Davies, whose company Hijack Productions had been hired by Freddie Bannister to supply on-stage rigging and the inflatable stage roof — originally designed by Bill Harkin for Wings’ 1976 Piazza San Marco, Venice concert.
Peter Grant’s company, SwanSong, also contracted the Davies brothers to build a curved camera track and video platforms.
As mentioned at the start of this article, audience figures across the two Saturday shows vary wildly depending on who one asks. While the licence was for 120,000 ticket holders (at £7.50 each), it is believed that as many as 200,000 attended each show — a number inflated when a gap in the perimeter fencing, enabled free entry.
There were 400 stewards on-site and 150 backstage crew; local police charged a record fee of £50,000 and the security budget exceeded the same amount. It’s no surprise that many in the business have cited these shows as the point at which the UK concert industry began to slowly change.
Far from being just another big production, Jack Calmes remembers Knebworth ’79 as a major highlight of his career. “I think that because of the size of that crowd, the climate was magical. Jimmy’s bow effects on ‘Dazed & Confused’ and all of the signature moments of a Led Zeppelin show were supersized.
“The vibe was awesome and even us old, jaded production guys were brought to our knees by that one!”
Just over a year later, on September 25 1980, the powerhouse that was John Bonham retired to bed after attending a Led Zeppelin rehearsal at Bray Studios for their forthcoming U.S. tour, their first since 1977.
John Paul Jones and Benji Le Fevre found him dead the following afternoon. The 40 measures of vodka that Bonzo had consumed the previous day resulted in pulmonary oedema.
Bonham was 32... and the song would never remain the same.