22nd June 2010 marked the 25th anniversary of Deep Purple's sole UK show from their first reunion tour. I guess the event is / and was, viewed as more infamous than famous, in part due to the lousy weather. As a Deep Purple fan it was magical to simply have been there to see them perform, and I was largely able to airbrush the rain, mud, and the rest of sometimes rather grim day in my memory. So, it's interesting to read the thoughts of Chryssie Lytton Cobbold, owner of Knebworth House, whose account of the 1985 Knebworth Fayre closed her long deleted "The Knebworth Rock Festivals' book, published less than a year after the event.
"In 1984, still reeling from the noise and disorganisation of the 1983 Christian Green Belt Festival, we took a year off, but in 1985 Don Murtlet. who runs 'Artist Services'– the security firm responsible for the stewarding of all the previous big Rock Festivals at Knebworth – put together a consortium to run another major rock festival at Knebworth.
Known as 'The Knebworth Fayre' and with Deep Purple heading the bill, the line-up also included The Scorpions, Meat Loaf, UFO, Blackfoot, Mountain, Mama's Boys and Alaska. The date was June 22nd and tickets were £14.00. It was to be Deep Purple's only 1985 appearance in Britain since reforming the previous year.
We got a licence for 120,00 people. The licence was conditional upon all the local authorities being satisfied with arrangements and the biggest obstacle to the feasibility of the concert was a police hill estimated at £60,000. The police argued that they now had 'hands' — fixed charges for varying attendance levels in Hertfordshire —and tor 75,000 to 120,000 people the number of police needed would cost £60,000. We argued that there had never been any trouble at Knebworth Festivals in the past and few arrests, and that Artist Services would provide 300 men to look after security within the park and arena. We didn't need 450 policemen as well, and we certainly couldn't afford to pay that much for them. It also seemed very unfair as no other county charged such high sums tor police attendance.
In spite of numerous meetings, neither side budged and in desperation we took the police to Court, nine days befofe the Festival was due to open. The Judge, summing up, fully sympathised with our point of view, but decided that on points of law the police won. Our existing licence was therefore invalid, so there we were, eight days before the concert, with no licence. A hurriedly called Council meeting took place the next day, and our licence was returned to us on the condition that the police were paid in advance. By this time the attendance looked to be under 75,000, so the police dropped their charges to £30,000, which was an improvement but we still thought it too expensive. They also expected marquees, food and their own toilet facilities. At first they demanded a contraflow system on the motorway with signs costing £7,000 but in the end they used cones.
Another condition was that only 105,000 tickets could be sold in advance, at which point the concert would be advertised as "sold out". There would then be some room to accommodate those who turned up on the day. We tried hard to get a drinks licence, but were turned down. I felt that fans would drink less if they could buy alcohol on site. When they bring it with them by the bottle, they feel they have to drink it all so as to avoid carrying it home again. If drink is provided on site, they have to queue and then buy it by the glass, and are therefore less likely to get drunk. But the officials don't think that way.
Advertisements and posters read 'No camping, no bottles, no cameras, no tapes etc'. I felt like adding 'no fun'. It was a bad omen, I thought, and sounded negative. My son, Peter, and some of his friends were roadies for the festival, and worked on the fences and loos. There was a campsite inside the park but we hoped not too many would turn up. The first fans arrived on Monday before the concert and found the best spot to camp. By Friday they were pouring in despite the damp weather. The arena was opened at 10 a.m. (as agreed with the police in case the campsite became too full) but few bothered to go in until morning.
We erected a tent near the front the night before and I went down around 7 a.m. to find a couple of thousand damp and cold fans sitting in front of the stage. I handed round some brandy and asked some fans to keep an eye on our pitch for me. We sat down there from about 9 a.m. until midday, but as soon as the first group, Alaska, came on everyone stood up and remained standing for 12 hours. They also threw bottles continually (I saw now why glass wasn't allowed) back and forth. To start with, the bottles had remnants of beer or cider in them; later, when people found it difficult to get out of the tightly packed crowds, they contained pee, which was very unpleasant. With bottle throwing and permanent standing, we gave up the arena. For the first time in eleven years it had become thoroughly inhospitable. The fans were nearly all male and there were certainly no children around. Also, for the first time, there was a guest enclosure with a good view of the stage. I retreated there, and was invited to a few private hospitality tents for drinks.
Backstage was less colourful than usual on account of the rain. There were Portacabins for all the groups: one each, with two for Scorpions, and five for Deep Purple. Not only did they need one each but two members of the group had a row and one of the cabins had to be turned round at the last minute so they couldn't see each other. There had even been requests for the cabin to be wood panelled but this extravagance never happened.
The weather went from bad to worse, and the mud was a nightmare but the fans kept arriving. Despite U2 playing at Milton Keynes and the Glastonbury Festival the same weekend, the numbers eventually topped the 75,000 mark. The police expected most of the traffic to come from the south, but, in fact, more fans arrived from the heavy metal heartland in the north.
Meanwhile, Blackfoot, Mountain, Mama's Boys and UFO played on stage. All seemed to go down well, but it wasn't until Meat Loaf arrived that things began to liven up. There was speculation as to whether he would be fit enough to play as he had recently fallen on stage in Australia and broken his leg. I stood at the side of the stage and watched him limp on; it can't have been easy for him. The performance was out of tune, out of breath, and eventually out of favour with the crowd. The songs they played came mostly from `Bat Out Of Hell'. It seemed to me that each time Meat Loaf shouted "fuck" –which was fairly often – a shower of mud and bottles came hurtling on to the stage, splattering everyone and making the floor so slippery that Meat Loaf fell over. I feared for his broken leg. It was the most aggressive set I have ever watched. I was amazed.
I made my way back to the guest enclosure for the rest of the concert, and found a table with its legs sunk in the mud to stand on so as to get a better view. Scorpions, heavy metal's answer to Bucks Fizz, gave an over the top performance and looked as if they were enjoying themselves as well. Colourfully dressed, they were led by the power and passion of guitarist Rudolf Schenker and balding vocalist Klaus Meine. They played some fine rock and benefited from the first decent sound mix of the day. They literally threw themselves around the stage and were superb.
After a cold and wet two hour wait and a lot of mopping up on stage, Deep Purple – Roger Glover, Jon Lord, Ian Paice, Ritchie Blackmore and vocalist Ian Gillan – arrived. Since they disbanded ten years ago their prolonged absence has elevated a respectable reputation into a legend. Perhaps predictably, the unrealistically high expectation for this first British appearance since their re-grouping last year resulted in disappointment. They had planned to play at 120 decibels but were ordered to keep within the legal limit of 90 decibels. It did creep up a bit, allowing the full impact of such Deep Purple gems as 'Highway Star', 'Strange Kind Of Woman' and 'Knocking At Your Backdoor'. After two encores Gillan announced "You're amazing, you really are" and all went into a 75,000 strong sing-a-long version of 'Smoke On The Water'. The highlight of the day was a stunning light show, lasers and spotlights, and a climax with £15,000 worth of fireworks. It was the most spectacular firework display I ever expect to see: it went on and on. Neighbours thought a war had started.
There followed an exhausting night, trying to get everyone out of the mud. Farmers came with their tractors and worked until morning, pulling cars and coaches out of the quagmire. We had angry letters from coach companies the following week, claiming recompense for the state of the inside of their vehicles, as fans had tramped through the bog before getting into them to go home.."
(from 'The Knebworth Rock Festivals" by Chryssie Lytton Cobbold, Omnibus Books, 1986)
See also our Knebworth 1985 memorabilia page, and Deep Purple : The Absence Of Pink discography
Deep Purple : The Absence Of Pink (live at Knebworth 1985) is still available to buy from the DPAS online store