Deep Purple

Knebworth Fayre

22 June 1985

(Thirty Years Later)

I didn't really go to see Deep Purple. I didn't really know much about Deep Purple. I didn't really know much about rock music at all.

It's 1985. Thirty years ago today, as I write this. I'm a student in Sunderland and I've just passed my 20th birthday. And I have only recently been introduced to rock music by the people I'm living with. I grew up without much knowledge of contemporary music at all. I listened to my parents' music. My sister bought all the pop records in the household, and I didn't think much of most of them. I listened to classical music, some folk, some jazz, and mostly what these days they would call the "Great American Songbook". So I'm only just starting to listen to rock music, and deciding that while a lot of it is rubbish, some of it might not be bad at all. The first rock LP I buy is something called Bat Out Of Hell, and I think it's incredible. My friends go up to rock gigs in Newcastle every few weeks and come back telling me it was the best concert they've ever seen (which seems a silly thing to say; how can they always get better and better?) but I never want to go with them. It doesn't seem like it would be my kind of thing.

So there's suddenly this buzz about an old band called Deep Purple who have reformed and are going to be playing a big show in someplace I've never heard of called Knebworth. I've heard Deep Purple: a friend loaned me a compilation called Deepest Purple last summer, and some of it is not bad at all. More intriguingly, Meat Loaf, the Bat Out of Hell guy, will be on the bill.

I don't know why I went. It wasn't my kind of thing at all. I'm a timid, stay-at-home person, I don't like crowds and I don't like being outside my comfort zone. I don't go on my own to who-knows-where to stand in a field of 80,000 people and listen to music that maybe I might like a bit.

But I did.

I left home on Friday night, getting the overnight train (remember those?) from Newcastle towards wherever Knebworth is. I watched the sun coming up from the train on Saturday morning. It was a beautiful morning. I got off the train at ... Stevenage, maybe? ... and followed a stream of people who seemed to know where they were going. Walked quite a long way. Queued, got in, found a massive field filling with people, with a stage at one end and rows of food vans at the other end. Bought a t-shirt because I knew from my concert-going friends that that's what you're supposed to do. Bought a brown, tea-flavoured drink. (That's all I had to eat and drink for the rest of the day.)

Knebworth t-shirt front
Knebworth t-shirt back

Then I stood quietly and waited, because I couldn't see what else you were supposed to do.

At around midday, two things happened. The first band came on stage, and it started raining.

It rained, and it rained. And it rained. I think it is supposed to have been the wettest midsummer weekend in recorded history. I'm wearing a sensible coat so I don't mind too much, but I'm sinking slowly into a muddy field while the whole crowd slides slowly down the slope towards the stage.

But this is a concert review, not a weather report. So let's talk about the music.

The first band was Alaska. I'd never heard of them (and never heard of them again since). I think it was Bernie Marsden and Don Airey but if anybody had told me that at the time I would have said, "Who?" I think I can kind of hum the chorus of one of their songs now, but maybe not. So I can't really say anything about them.

Next was Mountain, and I remember they had some great songs and got the crowd singing along to them, and there was some amazing guitar playing. I liked them enough that I've since bought their albums.

Mama's Boys were an Irish band, I knew that as some of my friends really liked them, but again they were unknown to me. None of their songs stuck in my mind, but I do remember being very impressed that the guitarist also played violin and also played a long solo on guitar synth, which sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before.

Blackfoot were a kind of American southern rock band (I'm not sure if I knew what that meant at the time) but all I remember of them is the crowd singing "Train! Train!" to one of their songs.

UFO was probably a name I knew, and I maybe even knew a couple of their songs, and I thought they were the best band on the bill so far. Their songs all had catchy hooks and choruses you could sing (I wasn't singing, you understand; I don't sing in public). I think I really enjoyed their set. Well, I've bought some of their albums since then, so they must have made an impression.

The next band was the one I really wanted to see: Meat Loaf. And ... what a massive disappointment he was. His band was loud and unsubtle, the song arrangements had none of the beauty or grandeur of those on the LP, and he quite frankly sang terribly. I can't think of any part of his set that I thought was worth the trip.

Next on the bill was the Scorpions, and apparently this was a Big Deal, because they were big favourites who hadn't played in the UK for a while, and some in the crowd around me were confidently predicting that they would put Deep Purple to shame.

Well, maybe so. I didn't know what to expect; I had never heard of the Scorpions.

I can recall nothing of their set at all. Now, thirty years later and with a slightly better knowledge of the band, I can't tell you what they played. It was just loud rock music. I do remember a sort of human pyramid of guitarists on stage. I think the rest of the crowd liked them, but I just didn't get it (and still don't, really).

There was a long wait while the stage was set up for Deep Purple. A long, long wait. It's still raining, we are still sinking into mud. I'm tired and cold and wet through. I've gone a night without sleep, a day without food, and stood for the last 16-odd hours. Now I look back on it and I remember the circumstances, but I can't really recall my feelings. Was I happy? Was I regretting the whole thing? I don't know.

I do know that at around 10pm, the announcer (Tommy Vance, I believe) announced the "Greatest Rock Band In The World."

There's a pause.

Then there's Jon Lord, playing Bach.

Bach! Nobody told me that rocks bands played Bach. But here's a guy with a keyboard of some kind (I was so ignorant, I had no idea what a Hammond Organ was) playing, unmistakably, Bach's Toccata and Fugue. And then the drums started ... and the bass ... and the guitar ... and I recognised the song as Highway Star (one I actually hadn't thought much of when I heard the Deepest Purple album!)

The Knebworth set has been bootlegged and then released officially, scrutinized, and picked apart by fans in the intervening years, and the general agreement among the connoisseurs is that it really wasn't a great Deep Purple performance at all.

But for me, at the time, it was the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I don't know how to put the feeling into words, but at that moment in a muddy field in God knows where in southern England, Deep Purple literally changed my life.

I recognised many of the songs they played, but they didn't play anything "properly". They added bits and changed bits, and messed about. The guitar player makes bits up at random. The singer faces him and screams back exactly the notes he's playing. It's mad. At one point they all leave the stage except the drummer, who carries on playing on his own! I mean, what??? A bit later the keyboard player is alone on the stage and spends ten minutes playing bits of classical music. Not to be left out, the guitar player gets a solo bit where he makes his guitar howl and scream like it's not a musical instrument at all, and the sound passes around the quadraphonic speaker stacks in the field and I feel like I'm in the middle of The Lost World with dinosaurs fighting around me. Sometimes the band seems to lose its way and a song devolves into random phrases passed around the instruments until one of them starts playing Teddy Bears' Picnic and they all join in. It's just...

I didn't know rock bands did this.

And Ian Gillan tells us he's heard the weather report and the sun is coming out in about ten minutes, and I absolutely believe him because anyone who can do what these guys are doing can do anything.

And when he says "How are you doing over there?" I know he's talking to me personally. I'm actually not really aware of the crowd. Or the weather. Or anything except the stage and the sound. And oh my God the sound is loud. Louder than anything I've ever heard before. My ears will be buzzing for a couple of days afterwards. I don't just hear it, I feel it. (It turns out later that Deep Purple failed in their effort to recapture the title of world's loudest band that night. To be honest, I'm kind of glad.)

And there are lasers. Lasers! Shooting through the rain, scattering off mirror balls, sweeping through the crowd. Through my raised fingers.

Sitting here now, I can still see it all. I can still hear it. It will never leave me.

And after the encore, they leave the stage but everybody seems convinced they'll come back for another encore, though I don't know why they think that. Then the stage fills with more dry ice than I've ever seen, an absolute wall of smoke, and from within it comes three guitar chords that kind of go "dern dern dern", and the whole place goes bonkers and I don't know what I'm doing but I'm singing along with everybody because it seems like you have to. And Ian Gillan stops the song and thanks us. Us! Then he says, "Let's lift these clouds." And we do. I'll keep singing for as long as he wants me to. I will sing this song for the rest of my life.

But it has to finish, and there are fireworks, many, many fireworks, but honestly I don't think I'm paying much attention by that point. I'm just looking at the empty stage and promising,

"Next time."

And there have been lots of next times. This year I will see my 38th Deep Purple concert, the next leg of a journey that has taken me to dozens of cities and several different countries, made me many friends, real and virtual, and, literally, in more ways than I can list, changed my life.

I don't know why I went to Knebworth, but I'm glad I did.

Because it was the best concert I have ever seen.