AUGUST 11, 1979 – Led Zeppelin played what was to be their last ever UK show (with drummer John Bonham) when they appeared at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, England. It was the second night of two shows at the venue (the first occurred on Aug. 4th) and Led Zeppelin had accepted the gig because Jeff Lynne, leader of the Electric Light Orchestra (or ELO), turned down the invitation to headline, despite the band having a top 10 album in both the U.S. and Europe at that time with “Discovery”.
Zeppelin had not performed live for two years since the death of Robert Plant’s son during the band’s 1977 North American tour, and they had not performed in the United Kingdom for four years. Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, decided that the band should perform at Knebworth instead of embarking on a lengthy tour.
The demand for tickets for the first date was enormous, leading to the second date being added. The band’s fee for performing was reportedly the largest ever paid to one single act at that time.
In the lead-up to the concerts, Led Zeppelin undertook extensive rehearsals at Bray Film studios in London, and attended the venue at Knebworth in order to inspect the site, complete a publicity photograph shoot and perform a soundcheck. In addition, they performed two low-key warm-up shows in late July at the Falkoner Theatret, Copenhagen, Denmark.
According to the official website of Knebworth House, the 1979 Knebworth Festival involved: “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 U.K) at Knebworth, and it was the end of an era for the Knebworth shows. 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, Sainsburys lost 150 trolleys and Tesco’s 75% of their stock, and Lord Cobbold ended up in Court.”The two concerts were professionally recorded on the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio (engineered by George Chkiantz) and also filmed, with live images beamed directly onto a giant screen behind the stage. The filming was done by the TV International company under the direction of Chris Bodger. There was a plan for the footage to be used on a television special (this is one of the reasons the band members wore the same clothes on both nights) but this idea was never realised. Only short clips of some of the songs were used by Atlantic Records for promotional purposes.
Following the event, a dispute arose between Grant and promoter Freddy Bannister about the attendance figures at the event. A query by Grant over ticket sales for the concerts resulted in him sending aerial pictures of the crowd to a monitoring laboratory in Nassau, New York, in order to establish the extent of the attendance. He claimed that some 218,000 people were at the first concert and 187,000 at the second. However, the license was for only 100,000 and Bannister claimed that only 104,000 had attended in the first week. For the second show, Grant brought in his own staff to man turnstiles and count tickets.
This disagreement eventually forced Bannister’s concert promotion company into liquidation, which allegedly left unpaid bills of £50,000 for the police and £2,000 to the local borough council.
For many years, bootleg copies of this audio and video material circulated amongst fans. The first audience recorded bootlegs became available in early 1980. However, aside from the promotional snippets, Led Zeppelin never officially released any of the recordings until 2003, when parts of the footage were digitally remastered and included on the Led Zeppelin DVD.
Just for the Knebworth event, a unique Led Zeppelin t-shirt was printed in a very limited quantity as a unique way to replace conventional backstage passes at the show. On May 11, 2011, one of the rare shirts sold for $10,000 (£6096.00) on e-bay, the largest sum ever paid for a vintage t-shirt.
The seller was Kyle Ermatinger who bought the shirt for $123 from the family who originally printed the 1979 tees. “At the time, I thought I may have overpaid, until I got back home, looked it up online and noticed it was ranked #1 as the rarest Zeppelin t-shirt,” he recalled.
A representative from Defunkd.com, one of the largest online retailers of vintage t-shirts, insisted that the Zep shirt sale is a record-breaker on eBay. “Other t-shirts have been priced higher on eBay, but never sold,” said Defunkd.com’s James Applegath. “We’ve documented eBay’s highest-selling t-shirts on our blog for years and nothing has come close.”
The unidentified buyer, who declined to comment on the purchase, was located in Australia.
1) The Song Remains the Same
2) Celebration Day
3) Black Dog
4) Nobody’s Fault but Mine (Blind Willie Johnson cover)
5) Over the Hills and Far Away
6) Misty Mountain Hop
7) Since I’ve Been Loving You
8) No Quarter
10) The Rain Song
11) White Summer/Black Mountain Side
13) Trampled Under Foot
14) Sick Again
15) Achilles Last Stand/Guitar Solo
16) In the Evening
17) Stairway to Heaven
18) Rock and Roll
19) Whole Lotta Love