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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?