Friday, August 09, 2013

Was This The Real Life?

‘If I had a time machine and could relive only one day, this would probably be it.’

Those words are not mine. The sentiment, however, might well be.

To misquote the Beatles: it was twenty-seven years ago today. 9th August, 1986 fell on a Saturday. I was a twenty-year-old undergraduate who spent most of his time listening to music and reading anything that wasn’t on the syllabus. During the four-month-long summer break, I wandered through town with my best pal who noticed a small poster in a record shop window: Queen Live in Concert £28 Including Travel (Figure 65.1). I had only £35 to my name, and he was only marginally better off. So in we went.

Figure 65.1: Advertisement for Knebworth ’86

Copyright © 1986 Harvey Goldsmith

Five minutes later, we re-emerged with tickets for the Knebworth Festival (Figure 65.2) and empty pockets. Neither of us cared about the latter.

Figure 65.2: Despite an audience of ‘only’ 120,000, I must have met twice that number over the years who claimed to have been there.

Copyright © 1986 Harvey Goldsmith

On the morning of the concert, we dragged ourselves to the bus station in time for a sleepy five o’clock departure. The journey was meant to take five hours, but that turned into seven, owing to serious traffic congestion on the A1. Five miles from the venue, there was total gridlock. What happened next still makes me smile. Four headbangers in an old Mini lost patience with the hold-up. They bumped onto the central reservation and began to overtake everyone – on the grass. On the vehicle’s roof, strapped onto a roof-rack with grappling hooks, was a beer barrel which was almost as big as the car itself. Attached to the plastic tap was one end of a length of rubber hose, while the other was being passed between the driver and his boozed-up passengers. The whole spectacle was unreal, particularly when they were finally apprehended by the Hertfordshire Police. More haste, less speed – and no concert.

Under the midday summer sun, we walked the last mile to the corner of a vast, gently-sloping field. No one seemed to have realized that alcohol was prohibited, despite it having been printed on the tickets. Consequently, just outside the entrance gate was a stupendous mass of cans, bottles, cases and crates, all abandoned by those already inside. Unsurprisingly, the rest of us took full advantage before entering the site, which, incidentally, had no toilets (Figure 65.3).

Figure 65.3: My pal and I are somewhere in this shot. More information and pictures from arguably Britain’s greatest ever outdoor rock festival can be found at:

Copyright © 1986 Henry Cobbold

The first support band, a bunch of unknowns called Belouis Some, were pelted with plastic cups, bottles and clods of turf from first chord to last. Next came Status Quo, veterans of British rock festivals, who were far better received. During their set, some roadie climbed onto the top of the stage proscenium and managed to keep his balance while miming with an outrageously large cardboard ‘guitar’. The penultimate band, Big Country, a folk-rock quartet from Scotland, were superb. Their summer hit Look Away reminds me of the day more than any other tune.

Finally, Queen appeared just before sunset (Figure 65.4). The incomparable Freddie Mercury exploded into life, covered every square inch of the stage, swore and chucked water at the audience, and, along with the other three band members, convinced all 120,000 of us that our money could not have been better spent.

Figure 65.4: Queen (Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor) never appeared on stage again. Freddie was diagnosed with AIDS the following year and died, aged 45, on 24th November, 1991. He was, and always will be, a one-off.

Copyright © 1986 Knebworth House

‘There have been some rumours,’ he yelled, ‘about a band ... called Queen ... and they say that we’re going to split up!’ Freddie paused for effect. ‘Well, fuck ’em!’ he went on. ‘I mean, really! They must think we’re stupid!’ None of us knew at the time that the gossip, tragically, was not without foundation.

After listening to, among many other rock classics, Bohemian Rhapsody, Radio Ga Ga and We Are The Champions, we shuffled out of the dark field, onto the A1 carriageway and back into town, oblivious to the fact that, somewhere in the crowd, a man had been stabbed to death and a woman had just given birth.

After a long return journey, we arrived back at square one, tired and disorientated, at 5 o’clock in the morning, exactly twenty-four hours after we had initially left.

So, was this the real life? No, Freddie, it was immeasurably better.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

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