It was different back then. Pre internet and social media, the music press was the sole source of information and gig news, none of the nationals had entertainments sections which covered rock music. NME and Melody maker were the musical bibles, to be bought, weekly, on the day of issue, with postal applications only required for any gigs that caught your eye, unless you were lucky enough to live close to the venue.
The band had made a big UK impact when they first appeared at the Hammersmith Odeon in 75, followed by a triumphant appearance at Knebworth the following year. I had hesitated when Springsteen played his much hyped Born to Run show at the Hammersmith Odeon, and missed out. I was not going to make the same mistake again.
The Rainbow, Finsbury Park, always competed with the Ham Od as London’s premier rock venue. It was a fabulous theatre, a converted cinema, now tragically the home of an obscure religious cult. Looking back I am amazed at how easily I was successful in my postal applications, but it is also easy to forget how young rock audiences were back then. Almost all were under 25 years old, no-one over thirty would be there. The audience was so much more niche. Now, you can often see two generations, sometimes three at gigs. And with ticket prices low, even at the tender age 0f 18 I had already ticked off artists like Santana, Eric Burdon, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Boz Scaggs and Rod Stewart, as well as a multitude of club gigs. I was by no means unusual, gig goers were young, knowledgeable, loyal, discerning and enthusiastic.
Keith, one of my gig going friends elected to join me, much to the later chagrin of another gig going pal , Pete, who gave it a miss. But that is was it what it was like then, the sheer volume of so many exciting gigs meant you had to pick and choose. Honours were made even when Pete caught The Tubes at the Hammersmith Odeon, and I didn’t.
I977 was a pivotal year for music. Punk, which had emerged in 1976, was gaining traction not only in London, but in the provinces. Hitherto my tastes had focussed on rock. But I was tiring of concept albums (Yes), gross musical self -importance (ELP) and the creative desert that the likes of The Who, Stones, Led Zep, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple were in. Obviously the new fashion for trying to play gigs at the likes of Wembley Empire Pool, Olympia, and Earls Court was ridiculous too- who wanted to see a band in a giant shed? So Lynyrd Skynyrd arrived with great press, but with the musical tide on the ebb. Their triumph was no foregone conclusion, with the musical excesses of American rock bands the source of particular ridicule.
The cusp of the moment was reflected by the support band, Clover. Ten years in they were vastly experienced musicians who had achieved nothing of note in the charts, the archetypal bland Yank County rock outfit. Out or respect Keith and I heard them out, but wished that we hadn’t. They epitomised why the Punk revolution was necessary, and why heads needed to roll. Ironically, it seems that Clover understood that. They played as Elvis Costello’s backing band on his debut album and then disbanded for different members to form Huey Lewis and the News, and Toto, and play with the Doobie Bros and Carlene Carter.
I had bought Skynyrd’s much praised recent release “One More From the Road” and was bursting with excitement, the band obviously had so much more than just their two “hits”. That excitement went off the register when we took our seats in row cc of the stalls, three rows from the front, with only a narrow photographer’s pit protecting the stage, Steve Gaines, Alex Collins and the Honkettes were our side of the stage – what a result!
As the house lights fell at 9.15 the band sauntered on stage in darkness, no backcloth, no recorded overture, no stage announcement. Then in perfect synchronisation, the stage lights blazed, Ronnie Van Zant howled, and the band tore into “Working for MCA”.
Three guitars may seem excessive, but live, Skynyrd gave them a symphonic quality. It was not just for show. Solos would be traded around, a rhythm guitar would underpin a lead duel, sometimes they would harmonise and on other occasions would take different parts. Simultaneously you had these symphonic chunks comprising intricately prepared instrumentation.
They played the “One More From the Road” album plus “Simple Man” and the brand new unreleased “That Smell”, which sounded fabulous immediately, and was introduced as a Steve Gaines offering. Van Zant, bare footed, clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels, didn’t speak to the audience other than a cursory “Good evening London” four songs in and the obligatory ”What song do you want to hear” for the encore. Neither was there a break between songs, one just started after another as though they were a continuous piece.
No-one had sounded quite like Lynyrd Skynyrd before. The guitar outro to “Hotel California” and the guitar break in “Don’t Fear the Reaper” showed what duelling guitars could do, but only Skynyrd mainlined on that formula. The rightly hyped Springsteen had discovered that there was an opera out on the turnpike, and a ballet being fought out in the alley. In Van Zant’s world there was the frontiersman attitude of the free spirit and the Saturday night special to resolve any dispute, a lifestyle which Bon Jovi captured in one song “Wanted (Dead or Alive)”. Not that this approach was musically crude. Classically trained, and a music theory student, Billy Powell was as crucial to the band as Roy Bittan was to the E Street Band, or Benmont Tench to Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. “Tuesday’s Gone With the Wind” was his showcase, but it is his intro to “Freebird” for which he will always be remembered. Skynyrd embodied a redneck, but decent, outlaw chic. No frills. They were Southern Man in a way that superstar contemporary Tom Petty never chose to aspire to. The South’s answer to Bruce’s Brooklyn Blue Collar grit.
Have I ever seen a better concert? No. I remember coming out with bruised hands from clapping, sore feet from stamping, and a hoarse voice from cheering. It had been the complete show, where band, audience and music joined in magical musical alchemy, and I couldn’t wait to see them again.
When the news broke of the air crash I was shocked, consoling myself only in the knowledge that something very special had been preserved as a memory, never to be disturbed. When the band was revived by surviving members I did not approve. It could only sully something which had been perfect. And as, sadly, the tragic, roll call of subsequent deaths unfolded, I became even more certain that the memory should be left alone. Billy Powell, Alen Collins, Leon Wilkeson all have died after the loss of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and his sister.
And so I approached York based Ayn’t Skynyrd’s Derby Demo show with some trepidation. I had not seen the songs performed for almost forty years. I was expecting very little other than to hear some very familiar songs, and smile nostalgically. How those expectations were exceeded. For a start, the sound was spot on. Close your eyes, and I was back at the Rainbow. Mike Sawyer convinces vocally as Van Zant absolutely, the band’s attention to detail at musically reproducing the sound is obsessive.
Visually, I have never felt that tribute bands need to be too slavish to their heroes. Here, the band’s catalogue is almost half a century old, most of them are dead. What exactly needs to be copied? Instead they wisely recreate the spirit of the band and the music. A wise friend recently pointed out that you don’t go and see the Berlin Symphony orchestra play Brahms, then rubbish the evening because Brahm’s wasn’t playing or conducting. It is about the music, and that is what they do so well. The entire set was flawless, but I would pick out two moments. During “Simple Man”, which is anything but simple to play, the band started exchanging glances. They said; “Hey, this is really working tonight, isn’t it?” And during a smouldering “That Smell”, restrained, powerful, baleful.
Afterwards I had the pleasure of talking to a number of band members, thanks specially to Mike and Angela for being so generous with their time. What struck me was that they were the biggest fans of all, performing because they enjoyed it, but also aware of the responsibility they carry for keeping the name alive. Although Swinegate in Race Week is the closest that York ever sees to an Atlanta Saturday night their dedication to the spirit of the band overwhelms.
I can’t wait to see them perform again.