Led Zeppelin’s final stand and the end of Freddy Bannister’s Knebworth Festival

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin's 1979 Knebworth Festival performance would be prove to be their last. - Credit: Jim Summaria/Wikimedia Commons

The 1979 Knebworth Festival saw the highly-anticipated return of Led Zeppelin, but it would prove to be the final curtain for the rock icons in the UK, and the man who created the Hertfordshire show.

Freddy Bannister had been trying to get Led Zeppelin to Knebworth right from the very start.

He vied for Robert Plant and co. in 1974 for the debut festival, but instead had to settle for The Allman Brothers Band and The Doobie Brothers.

He tried a second time in 1976 and was rejected again, turning to Queen before The Rolling Stones offered themselves up.

But in 1979, Bannister would finally get the band he’d always wanted. It would prove to be a decision he would regret.

Freddy Bannister

Freddy Bannister (right), with his wife Wendy and daughter Henrietta. - Credit: Archant

Led Zeppelin’s Knebworth appearance would be their first UK show in four years, and their first performance of any kind since the ill-fated 1977 North American tour that ended prematurely after the death of Plant’s son, Karac.

“As Peter Grant saw it, they had to come back in the grandest style possible,” said Dave Lewis, editor and publisher of the Led Zeppelin magazine Tight But Loose.

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Led Zep would play on August 4 and 11, with the band's fee for performing reportedly the largest ever paid to one single act at the time.

Both dates would see Led Zeppelin perform their classic songs, including ‘Kashmir’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Rock and Roll’, and ‘Whole Lotta Love’, but their shows were followed by mixed reviews.

Major music publications such as New Musical Express, Sounds, Rolling Stone and The Sunday Times criticised the band for a sluggish and rusty performance, and in the wake of the punk rock revolution lead by The Clash and The Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin were considered to be obsolete.

Plant would sarcastically reference these reviews on stage during the August 11 show, but he would later express his disappointment with the gigs.

“Knebworth was useless. It was no good at all,” said Led Zep’s lead vocalist. 

“It was no good because we weren't ready to do it, the whole thing was a management decision. It felt like I was cheating myself because I wasn't as relaxed as I could have been.

Led Zeppelin

Robert Plant (left) was disappointed with Led Zeppelin's Knebworth performances. - Credit: Heinrich Klaffs/Wikimedia Commons

“There was so much expectation there and the least we could have done was to have been confident enough to kill. We maimed the beast for life, but we didn't kill it.

“It was good, but only because everybody made it good. There was that sense of event.”

While the band may not have been happy with their performance, the crowd were ‘mesmerised’, according to music journalist Chris Welch.

“Audience reaction at Knebworth had not been overwhelming and many seemed content to stand and stare, like mesmerised spectators at an alien ritual, a far cry from the hysteria of earlier shows,” he said.

“Robert Plant seemed perplexed at the silence between songs, when you could practically hear a pin drop in that vast, cold field.

“It wasn't until he led the way into ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Trampled Underfoot’ that roars of appreciation began to echo around Knebworth.”

“For many in attendance it was their first ever concert experience,” added Lewis.

“For many it would be the only time that they would get to see Zeppelin perform live.

“For that reason alone, it holds a special affection in their live history. The first show in particular, with so much riding on it, was perhaps the most important they ever played.”

While the police believed the attendance figure to be 200,000 for the first show, Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant and Bannister had their own numbers, and a dispute over money followed.

Grant claimed that 218,000 people were at the first concert and 187,000 at the second, while Bannister believed that only 104,000 had attended in the first week and half that for the second.

This disagreement eventually forced Bannister's concert promotion company into liquidation, and it would be his last Knebworth Festival.

As for Led Zeppelin, it would prove to be their last ever live performance in the UK.

Drummer John Bonham would die on September 25, 1980, and the group decided to disband rather than replace him out of respect for their former bandmate.

While Plant and Jimmy Page would appear together at Knebworth in 1990, the two-date 1979 festival would prove to be the last stand for one of rock’s all-time great groups.