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Rolling Stones at the Fair: Nuffin' from Nuffin'

October 7, 1976
Charlie Watts, Mick Jagge, Rolling Stones, onstage, knebworth, united kingdom, tour
Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger and Rolling Stones performing live onstage on August 21, 1976 in Knebworth, United Kingdom.
Graham Wiltshire/Redferns/Getty

LONDON — Mick Jagger called for closed-circuit color TV, and closed-circuit color TV is what he got: two enormous Eidaphor tower screens on opposite sides of the arena a quarter of a mile from the stage and seven cameras balanced on the PA gantries.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg, director of the Beatles' Let It Be and organizer of the Knebworth Fair video setup, leans on a barrier and looks out past the towers at the turreted 16th-century manor house at the far end of the park. "Mick really wants to use this as an experiment in communication; not just putting the show on the screen, but using the system to interrelate performer, audience – the whole event."

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Lindsay-Hogg has got the whole site wired for vision, ready to cut from Jack Flash jumping, to expressions of rapt ecstasy in the crowd or whatever is happening in any corner of the grounds. There were even plans to mount a camera in a helicopter which would skim over the crowd, but radio-communication problems proved insurmountable. So now a police helicopter flutters over the site, past the house and the fun fair and over the stage. The stage was as outrageous and unreal as the event itself: shrouded by a huge orange parabolic canopy, a 400-foot catwalk extended outward on both sides and an enormous "sticky tongue" ramp curved out from its center. Knebworth Fair: tumblers and clowns, medieval jousting, aerobatics and sky diving, 200,000 people and, ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones . . .

ALL'S FAIR

Plans for the Stones to appear at Knebworth – an annual fair held at the ancestral seat of the Lytton-Cobbold family – have been in the air for the last two years. Promoter Fred Bannister, who staged the first Knebworth concert with the Allman Brothers Band in 1974, approached the Stones at last year's bash but an American tour made that an impossibility; Pink Floyd headlined the event instead. Early this year, Bannister approached the Stones about an August 21st Knebworth appearance. Engrossed in planning a European tour – their first in three years – the Stones toyed with the idea until June, finally agreeing at a post-gig conference in a Munich hotel room, in light of the one million-plus ticket applications for the English leg of the tour.

From the outset the Stones' involvement in the planning was total, with manager Peter Rudge advising Bannister on the selection of support acts – the Don Harrison Band, Hot Tuna, Todd Rundgren, Lynyrd Skynyrd and 10cc – and taking an active role in choosing the nonmusical attractions. Rudge insisted, however, that the band was not copromoting the event as such, but working on a straight flat fee and percentage of the net.

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The Stones themselves paid fastidious attention to the event's preparation, with Jagger and Charlie Watts frequently visiting the site to check staging and sound arrangements. "They've been checking me every step of the way on everything down to audience catering arrangements," said Bannister, "making sure I'm doing what I've said I'll do."

Rudge took pride in even the most intimate of details. "You know," he enthused, "we've got the highest number of portable latrines ever brought together on an open-air site in Britain . . . ."

ONE FOR THE KIDS

They were certainly needed. By two in the afternoon, some five hours before the Stones were due onstage, police estimated the crowd at around 150,000 – 50,000 more than the site had been licensed to hold. By 11:30 that evening, when the Stones finally appeared, the crowd had swollen to an estimated 200,000, the largest crowd the Stones have played to since Hyde Park.

The first music of the day hardly matched the occasion. The Don Harrison Band was competent but dull, and Hot Tuna was every bit as monomelodic and lethargic as their recent albums. It was left to Todd Rundgren to instill a sense of drama into the proceedings, appearing chic couture in a white pleated suit to baptize the gathering as a true "New Age" event. Lynyrd Skynyrd was next, swaggering but unimaginative. Their refried boogie versions of songs like "Call Me the Breeze" and "T for Texas" sounded stilted and formularized, but the crowd seemed game and even the most pedestrian boogie was enough to stir them.

Jack Nicholson thinks Skynyrd was swell. Along with John Phillips, Jack somehow contrived to arrive with a full police escort. He spent the latter part of the afternoon promenading around the backstage area, occasionally disappearing behind the high chicken-wire-and-corrugated-iron fences and the phalanx of security guards. While Jack slumped in an ornately carved armchair in the baronial hallway of Knebworth House, Fred Bannister and Stones aides bustled through the lobby discussing travel arrangements for the quarter-mile journey to the stage. Billy Preston arrived, sans Afro, in a fawn businessman's three-piece, saying the only way anybody's going to get him through the crowd was in a helicopter.

Nobody seemed to notice as Mick Jagger languorously descended the stairs. Mick, wearing a candy-striped jump suit, shades and an expression of sublime indifference, ignored the gathering but, spying Billy Preston, asked, "What key's 'Nuffin' from Nuffin' in?" He made the question sound like a sniff. Preston said "C." Jagger nodded his head slightly and moved quickly out the door and into a waiting car. A security heavy thrust a scrap of paper through the window. "One for the kids, Mick?" Jagger signed and was gone.

ONLY A TINSEL CROWN

 While 10cc progressed through a set as stylish and exacting as ever, the Stones threw a champagne party in the stars' inner sanctuary. Paul and Linda McCartney showed up and Van Morrison, Jim Capaldi, a smattering of the English aristocracy and a financier or two. Jack Nicholson reclined on a shooting stick; Woodie chatted with former Face Ian McLagan, while Jagger and Ronnie Van Zant tussled playfully with each other for the benefit of photographers.

It was more than 15 hours since the first paying customers arrived; ten since the Don Harrison Band took the stage and three since the Stones were scheduled to appear. With singularly English aplomb, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd sat through delay after delay – all attributed to technical hitches – without so much as a murmur. This may have been the most passive rock crowd in history.

Sometime after 11, however, the atmosphere changed dramatically, as the top and bottom of the stage were inflated to resemble a huge pair of lips and the stage lights were turned down to blood red. "Atom Heart Mother" was pumped over the sound system and the air became charged with an eerie and unsettling sense of doom. But it was 30 more minutes before the "Dam Busters Theme" boomed over the PA, the stage turned black and the Stones emerged from the wings.

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As the lights went up, Jagger stepped forward, "Thanks for waiting . . . " and suddenly they were into "Satisfaction" – the anthem of mid-Sixties disaffection and anger. Jagger set off on a martial strut down the curving tongue, left arm outstretched, body bending and twisting from the waist, lights playing on a blue leather jacket, green pants and flashing off his rhinestone-studded vest and diamanté armlets; a long multicolored silken scarf around his neck, and on his head a silver tinsel contraption – a mockery of a crown – which he dispatched to the side of the stage almost immediately. Behind him, Charlie Watts and Ollie Brown on an elevated platform; to their right, Preston and Wood; to their left Keith Richards, bending slightly over his guitar, his face totally impassive, and Bill Wyman, immobile and unsmiling.

"'Ello, Knebworth!" Jagger shouted from the mikestand at centerstage, then going into "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," momentarily cradling the mike in both hands, like a flower, before setting off again down the tongue to wave an admonishing finger at the audience, wiggle his butt with provocative deliberation and twist and turn back up the tongue and around Richard and Wyman, like a petulant child out to play – the complete repertoire of mannerisms. "If You Can't Rock Me" segued into "Get Off of My Cloud," then "Hand of Fate," and for the first time the rest of the band came alive. Richard, who had been hugging close to the amps – at one point leaving the stage altogether – stepped forward, apparently defying gravity by staying on his feet, for some cutting guitar flourishes, exchanging choppy, precise rhythm chords with Wood or letting his guitar sing out on lead breaks.

For "Hey Negrita" Jagger thrust his mike into the top of his pants and massaged it with a wicked leer on his face, then turned to snatch a cigarette from Wood's lips and drape himself over the guitarist as if spent from sexual exertion. Up until now the sound had been impeccable, but "Hot Stuff" was marred by a series of piercing electronic squeals, and at the end of the song an angry Jagger shouted at the sound engineer, "You'd better get those fuckin' monitors going." The squealing continued only sporadically then, with Jagger wincing in accompaniment.

The set progressed with the Stones charting a course through their 13-year history: "Fool to Cry," "Wild Horses," "Brown Sugar," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Dead Flowers" and "Route 66." During "Let's Spend the Night Together" Jagger, Wood and Richard clustered around a mike for the chorus, and for a fleeting moment, their faces deathly white in the hard glare of the lights, they resembled ghosts. In that moment the idea flashed that what one was seeing was just the shadow of a legend. Then Jagger was gone, darting down the tongue once more to tease and tempt the crowd with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and the specter was gone.

For "Midnight Rambler," Jagger shed his jacket and then his pants, revealing blue and red rhinestone studded tights, and suddenly he became a diabolical Nijinsky, pirouetting onstage, a study in balance. On the downbeat, he brought a silver belt which he held above his head crashing down on the stage. An uptempo version of "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" followed, with Jagger rolling around the stage, then scampering to the front of the tongue to pout and pose. Then "Street Fighting Man," Jagger bare chested, and after two and a half hours the Stones were gone. Jagger remained onstage, bowing to all three sides, hands together in a gesture of supplication. A final kiss to the crowd, then he too was gone.

After it was all over, Jagger denied the rumor Newsweek had printed that this was the Stones' farewell concert. "It's not the last concert," he said, "nor is it the last concert in Britain." According to SIR, the Stones' management in New York, there are plans for more British concerts within the year. As far as comments by the British press after the show that Jagger " . . . resembled not so much the Rock Nureyev as a fag queen on his way to 42nd Street," and that "it was a shambling parody of a performance," Bill Wyman brushed aside the criticism, saying: "The English press always slated us . . . They've been doing it for the last 13 years and they'll be doing it for the next 13, too – if we last that long."

This story is from the October 7th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.


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