Lynyrd Skynyrd – Rainbow Theatre, London, 1977.

There is always a temptation to view one’s youth through rose tinted spectacles. To be of a view that a time that was special to you, was special to everyone. Yet with live rock music, there really is a case that the late 1960’s and 1970’s were a golden era for live popular music. The tickets were cheap, accessible, and affordable. The venues were modest in size, the artists were easy to see and hear. I was able to secure a ticket for every artist I wanted to see. The audiences were young, mostly under 21 years of age with virtually no-one over 30. The live offering was staggering, surfing a wave of cultural freedom, peace, relative youth prosperity, the alchemy was right for many outstanding artists to surface.

In the same way that opera audiences were treated to the best of Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Wagner in the late 19th/ early 20th Century, so 70’s audiences were treated to Pink Floyd premiering “Dark Side of the Moon”, the Stones “Sticky Fingers” and Led Zeppelin’s “4” as they were written.

I have seen several hundreds of live gigs, maybe thousands. Some brilliant, some lousy. What strikes me is that there is often a “moment” to see an artist live, and then that moment has gone. This feature is part of an occasional series in which I look back on some of the great gigs I had the pleasure of seeing, some great moments.

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Rainbow Theatre, London Jan 28th 1977

 

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The Classic Line Up

 

New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Sounds dominated the UK music press in the 70’s, weekly publications for teenagers that covered the bands and music that the mainstream media were not interested in. All three were agreed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, an American blues rock and boogie band from the South, were hot, and they were coming to England. They had played England before in 1974, but had made no impact. Three years had clearly made a big difference and in 76 they had performed admirably as support to the Rolling Stones at Knebworth.

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They had formed ten years previously, but it took “Sweet Home Alabama” from “Second Helping” to establish them, and the word was that they were the best live rock act touring. Formed in 1964, they had thirteen years of playing together behind them. Although new to the England limelight, they were no rookies, and were touring on the back of “One From the Road”, a live album which showcased their talents. I bought tickets without even having heard it, once I had, I could not believe my luck.

 

With the benefit of hindsight, they were a band on the cusp, of greatness, and tragedy. In 75, Artimus Pyle took over on drums, a dervish like presence with a rock steady ear. In early 76, the Honkettes, three female backing singers were added, together with Steve Gaines, re-establishing a three guitar attack. But the demons were surfacing with Collins and Rossington involved in car crashes which affected the bands touring schedule. The two London shows were able to showcase some “Street Survivors” material from their new album, and the new reinvigorated line-up.

 

 
Support was from “Clover”, a journeyman outfit, notable for being Elvis Costello’s uncredited backing band on his first album and for containing Huey Lewis, later of “The News” and “Power of Love”, John McFee later of the Doobie Bros, and Jeff Porcaro founding member of Toto. After a perfunctory support set, at 9.15pm the lights dimmed, and from our third row seats the band sauntered onstage.

I have an ambivalent relationship with American Rock, at its best (Springsteen, Neil Young – I know he is Canadian) it is imperious, at its worst ( Aerosmith, Kiss, Journey, Toto, Boston) it is preposterous and affected. But us Brits WANT to buy into authentic outlaw/cowboy/ rebel chic.

 

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Ronnie Van Zandt

 

Ronnie Van Zandt seized the microphone stand as an opening batsman seizes his bat for the opening ball in a Test against the Australians. Barefoot, denim waistcoat, cowboy hat, he looked straight out of a scene from A Fist Full of Dollars or The Searchers. Then as the pounding pulse of “Workin’ for MCA” blasted out he laid into the vocals with the determination of a ranch hand holding his first bottle of whiskey after a month on the Drive.

Most rock concerts are a succession of songs, a few achieve symphony status, where a mood appears and takes hold which transcend the individual parts. This was the latter. The set list? “One More From the Road” without “Needles and Pins” and “Tuesday”, but with “That Smell “ and “Ain’t No Goodnight”. Ronnie barely spoke apart from a cursory “Good evening London” after the opener, and “what song is it you wannna hear?” for the final encore. Gaines was a visible beacon for the band, and “That Smell” smoked. Rossington and Collins traded lead parts with him without ego or favour.

 

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“Okie” Steve Gaines

 

Highlights? The opening “MCA” setting a standard below which the night did not fall. “Travelling Man” soared and told a more complete story than “Freebird”. “Whiskey Rock a Roller” emerged as the band’s theme song and “T for Texas/ Call Me the Breeze” was where the triple guitars of Collins, Rossington and Gaines were showcased at their best. Yes, they finished with “Alabama” which chimed, chanted and roared. Yes, the final encore was “Freebird” which swooped, soared and immolated in a blazing final guitar duel.

It was one of those shows which left you with your ears ringing, your voice sore, your palms tingling, as you stumble out into the dark ,stillness of the night staggered at the heights which the evening scaled. And you wonder whether you will ever see a show better? A bitter sweet reflection as nine months later that incarnation of the band would be no more.

 

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The eerily prescient cover of “Street Survivors”

 

I bought my copy of “Street Survivors” and felt uneasy at the image of the band half engulfed with flames. The album itself is not a classic, although “That Smell” as a song is. When I heard the news of the crash, that image immediately came to mind. Over the years they reformed in various incarnations with Ronnie’s doppelganger younger brother taking vocals. I never felt the need to see them again, as I would not be seeing “them” again. Some memories are best preserved, of a band of young men, enjoying the excesses of a rock n roll lifestyle, yet dedicated to the cause. Authors in “Freebird” and “Alabama”, of two of a very few rock songs which sit at Rock’s Top table. There will always be a sense of regret that they never had the opportunity to scale the heights which this line up achieved, but there again, who has?

Set list

Workin’ for MCA
I Ain’t the One
Saturday Night Special
Searching
Travelin’ Man
Simple Man

What’s Your Name?

That Smell
Whiskey Rock-a-Roller
Gimme Three Steps


Call Me the Breeze

T for Texas

Sweet Home Alabama


Needle and the Spoon

Crossroads
Free Bird

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8 Responses to Lynyrd Skynyrd – Rainbow Theatre, London, 1977.

  1. Les says:

    I was there mate. One of the best gigs I’ve ever seen
    and I saw them three times but just the once with Steve Gaines. Why am I writing this now? Well just took my granddaughter for her first piano lesson and in the next room was a guy having a guitar lesson and the tutor was playing Free Bird. I Google when I saw LS and found your excellent article. I cried when I heard about the plane crash. I loved that band

  2. shcurl says:

    Stumbled across this, and I was there too. You nailed the description. Great gig, memorable night. I was a 15 year old Yank living in London, totally immersed in the London music scene. I too went to a ton of shows in the late 70s. Mostly punk bands, Clash, Stranglers, Jam, Buzzcocks, etc. Also caught AC/DC at the Marquee Club, Thin Lizzy at the Hammersmith Odeon, Eddie and the Hot Rods at the Lyceum, Elvis at the Roundhouse….well, you get the picture. I too read all 3 music papers each week with great anticipation. Great memories! I also had the chance to see a reincarnation of Skynyrd about 10 years ago here in their hometown of Jacksonville, FL. I passed on it also, but regret doing so. My wife said it was a great show, including Hank Williams Jr. as the opener.

    My London years were awesome. In addition to all the great shows, I worked at the McDonalds on Edgeware Rd. where several musicians used to stop in, including Joe Strummer, Billy Idol, etc.

    I look forward to reading your other concert memories, I’m sure we were at some of the same gigs.

  3. malc says:

    Nice blog Gary ! – I saw both those 2 LS shows at The Rainbow Theatre in 1977 -as I was a part timer. there..I also worked at Hammersmith ODEON (& Wembley Arena )refuse to call it the Eventim Apoilo ! in the 70’s & 80’s ….check out my twitter : @MALconcerts …..great times.

  4. Nigel Pepper says:

    Hi Gary
    I came across this as I have been strolling down memory lane. I was a big Skynyrd fan and had been blown away on 21st August 1976 when, although they were 3rd on the bill to the Stones, they stole the show at Knebworth. An absolutely awesome performance, as was the whole set they played. I was just coming up to 17 years old and I was so excited as 3 of my favourite bands at that time were playing together at the same concert. The Stones were headlining, 10cc were second billing and Lynyrd Skynyrd were third on the bill. It was a gloriously hot day reaching about 90 degrees and Skynyrd went on in the evening and they absolutely blew the crowd away. They even dared to venture out on the “tongue” extension of the stage, which was said to be reserved only for use by the Stones ( the canopy of the stage later inflated into a huge pair of “Stones” lips when they went on ). 10cc were really good, and the Stones, who eventually went on about midnight, played a great set but the sound quality just wasn’t very good at all. I don’t however think that anyone could have followed that mesmerizing performance by Skynyrd to be honest. They stole the whole show, especially with that performance of Free Bird. I will never forget Knebworth 1976 that’s for sure. It’s a wonderful memory of much happier times. Like yourself, I was lucky enough to see Lynyrd Skynyrd perform again live at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park and they were breathtakingly good there too as you know. Such a tragedy when the plane crash occurred. RIP Ronnie, Steve and Cassie and thanks for the great music which I still enjoy today. Really enjoyed reading your blog.
    Nigel

    • garylongden says:

      Nigel. Thank you for your kind words.
      I share your estimation of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
      the circumstances of the crash still seem a little uncertain, and tales of valuables, cash and drugs being stolen from the wreckage while the injured and dead were unattended were pretty ghastly.
      I was and am a fan of the Stones but did not get to see them until 1999 at Don Valley, Sheffield. They were way past their best.
      In the 70’s I was deeply suspicious of 10cc who I regarded as a British version of Steely Dan, musically talented, but soul less. I was wrong, and have seen them live subsequently and they were fabulous.

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