In the 1970s, the annual Knebworth festival was something of a British institution, regularly attracting in excess of 100,000 people to the grounds of this Hertfordshire stately home to see some of the best bands in the world. The year 1978 was no exception and was billed as “A Midsummer Nights Dream.” Tickets were £5.50 in advance (roughly $8.50), which equates to around £45 today ($75). Following in the steps of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and the Allman Brothers Band, the headliner was Genesis – in the decade or so after this gig Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, and Deep Purple all played this iconic event.
Around 80,000 fans turned up on Saturday, June 24, and the first band on was Brand X who had counted Phil Collins in their lineup until the previous year. Their jazz fusion was just the right kind of music to open up the day, although to be fair many people would have been hard-pressed to tell if it was good jazz or not. They were followed by the Atlanta Rhythm Section, the one-time studio band from Doraville, Georgia whose album, Champagne Jam had been released in the spring of 1978. (They were holding down a top 10 spot on the Billboard chart with their single, “Imaginary Lover.”) Their soulful Southern rock was the perfect music to be carried along on the summer breeze.
Devo was an interesting band to put on the Knebworth bill, especially as their debut record, Are We Not Men? We Are Devo! was not due for release for another month. Most people just failed to get what they were trying to do, despite their having charted a couple of singles on Stiff Records, including a cover of the Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Sad to say they were not the ideal band for a sunny afternoon in Knebworth; a criticism that could not be leveled at Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Theirs was perfect music for the festival crowd. “American Girl,” “Breakdown,” and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” was just what the audience demanded. By the time they got to “ I Need to Know,” taken from their new album, You’re Gonna Get It, there were few in the audience that were still sitting down.
Jefferson Starship’s pedigree was unquestionable, as Jefferson Airplane they had played Woodstock, but at Knebworth, there was one missing, vital, ingredient. Vocalist Grace Slick, an icon to many, had left the tour and while the band claimed she was unwell, Slick was telling anyone that would listen that she had quit and was already back home in America. It left the Paul Kantner-led band with an uphill struggle. It proved to be a rambling set that certainly had some high spots with numbers from both the Starship and the Airplane back catalogue including the towering “Wooden Ships.” David Freiberg, late of Quicksilver Messenger Service was now in the band (he and Kantner are still touring Starship today) and he did the old QMS song, “Pride of Man.” For many, the highlight of the entire set was Craig Chaquico’s soaring guitar on “Ride The Tiger.”
Prior to Genesis, there was a brief musical interlude from Festival stalwart Roy Harper who did one of his typical sandwich sets while the stage was reset. It was getting dark as Genesis took the stage and their arrival was in keeping with their bill-topping status. Smoke, a huge battery of colored lights, and mirrors suspended above the band that made it appear, at times, like the whole band was it by an impossibly bright, white, light; it all helped to create a stunning effect on a stage that at the time was the largest ever built for an outdoor festival in the UK.
Genesis at this point was reduced to the three core members of Phil Collins, Tony Banks, and Mike Rutherford, and they had just released their album, And Then There Were Three. Much of their set was similar to the live album, Seconds Out, released the previous year with the addition of new tunes from their latest album. From their new album there was “The Lady Lies,” “Burning Rope,” and “Deep In The Motherlode,” and by the time their set ended with “Los Endos,” it was a fitting climax to a day of varied and wonderful music.