James Woodall

1976 and all that

Some make claims for 1966 and 1971, but James Woodall thinks the seismic shift took place 40 years ago, the year he saw the Rolling Stones at Knebworth Festival

Forty years ago, I spent 14 hours in a large field near the A1 in Hertfordshire.

I had just taken my O-levels, liked Be-Bop Deluxe, Genesis and Rachmaninov, and often danced my head off to The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. I was confused about girls and worried that I’d chosen one wrong A-level (Ancient History).

In the nation at large, Harold Wilson had resigned as prime minister in March. Under James Callaghan, Britain would wobble further into a strife that marked the late 1970s like a purulent eczema. Pop music would start, rather violently, to reflect it. In the polity these were not confident times.

Friends had persuaded me to go and see The Rolling Stones, headlining at that year’s Knebworth Festival, a rock jamboree that had begun in 1974. In mid-1976 the Stones had completed a two-month tour of Europe and agreed quite late in the day to play Knebworth. I wasn’t a fan but seeing the legend live seemed an appropriate rite of passage.

In a crowd of over 100,000 and in roasting sun — that summer Britain experienced the driest spell in decades — I enjoyed, moderately, the five pre-Stones acts (one of whom, Lynyrd Skynyrd, a storming American heavy-guitar band, was largely destroyed a year later in an air crash). Dope was everywhere.

The Stones arrogantly delayed their appearance until well after sunset. Just before Mick Jagger pranced down a catwalk with a beaver hat on (ludicrously, given the heat), the compère bellowed, ‘What’s the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world?’ A bloke right next to me bellowed back, ‘The Who!’ I still laugh at how right he possibly was.

We all have our tastes and memories. Music obsessed over during youth marks us like no other. Sometimes this gets turned into books.

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