Fifty years ago today I was at the Bath Festival, the biggest assignment I covered during my first summer on Melody Maker. Compared to the National Jazz & Blues Festival at Plumpton in Sussex that I’d attended the previous year, this was just huge; perhaps as many as 150,000 people stretching all the way up a hill for almost as far as the eye could see. The reason was that Led Zeppelin was appearing, taking pride of place on Sunday, the final day. It was their biggest show yet in the UK, an important step in the upward momentum their career was taking.
Having driven down from London I got snarled up in traffic and didn't arrive until quite late on the Saturday afternoon, my portable typewriter in the boot of my car, all set to report this major event like the trusty reporter I’d trained to be. I parked my car backstage, hooked up with Chris Welch and photographer Barrie Wentzell, then wandered around, eight weeks into this job and feeling unusually privileged to be inside the inner sanctum at a major festival. The weather was fine, though it wouldn’t stay that way, and for longer than seemed necessary I was entertained by a chap with a guitar called Joe Jammer, evidently someone’s roadie, who was filling in while Frank Zappa readied himself to face the crowd. Frank came and went and was followed, curiously, by Maynard Ferguson, an ageing (by Bath standards) big band leader who’d taken a left turn into jazz rock to appeal to a younger audience. I also watched It’s A Beautiful Day whose singer Patti Santos had made an altogether pleasing impression on me earlier in the week when I’d collared her for MM’s ‘Blind Date’ feature in which we played records without saying who it was and inviting comment.
The highlight of the evening, though, was Pink Floyd, whom I was seeing for the first time, premiering their new work, Atom Heart Mother, the album with the cow on the front. They went on very late, set their controls for the heart of the moon and played until the early hours of Sunday morning. I listened to them in wonderment and awe, then retired for the night, driving to Bath and a nice warm bed in a B&B, unlike so many others who slept beneath the stars.
(Photo by Terry Farebrother)
The next day I drove back to the site around midday and was astonished by the scenes in the village of Shepton Mallet. There was a phone box with a queue that stretched for over 100 yards. I calculated that if there were three people in the queue for each two yards, there were 150 people waiting, and that if each call lasted ten minutes, the last person in the line would wait for 25 hours before making their call. There were similar queues for toilets and food on the site; indeed, the contrast between the conditions endured by the fans and those enjoyed by the artists and their guests brought a sharp intake of breath. Huge tepees had been erected backstage to serve as private quarters for artists while a big marquee served as a dining room in which waitresses dressed in traditional black dresses with white aprons served three course meals and a selection of fine wines.
In the adjoining bar I met the members of Led Zeppelin for the first time, introduced by my new colleague Chris Welch. Jimmy Page was dressed as a yokel in his grandad’s old coat and a scarecrow hat, Bonzo was wrapped up in a leather coat with fur trim and John Paul Jones, who arrived later by helicopter, kept his thoughts to himself, as he always would. Robert Plant, bare chested, hair aglow and by far the most affable, autographed a pink backstage pass for me*, and later in the day I passed this memento on to a girl I knew who was in the crowd, a big Zep fan whom I hoped would grant me her favours as a result. I actually got DJ John Peel to make an announcement from the stage: “Would Lorraine meet Chris by the backstage gate in 15 minutes.”
It was also my introduction to Led Zeppelin as a live force. They appeared 30 minutes after an American group called Flock, led by violinist Jerry Goodman, and - though I didn't know it at the time - Led Zep’s crew, led by their formidable manager Peter Grant, had hustled Flock off the stage with undue haste in order that Jimmy and his merry men could perform just as the sun was setting behind them. Mighty impressive they were too, even though my view was restricted by being so close to the high stage that I had to crane my neck to see what was going on up there. I couldn’t see Bonzo at all, and if the other three stepped back they too were out of my sight line. But I could certainly hear them. Good grief!
They opened their set with the hitherto unreleased ‘Immigrant Song’ which they attacked with all the ferocity of the marauding Vikings Robert was singing about. Drums and bass reverberated like cannon fire, and Jimmy Page’s guitar cut through the twilight like a broadsword. Every other band on the bill sounded decidedly limp dick compared to this onslaught. The reception was phenomenal, song after song greeted with wild applause, and they returned to the stage for multiple encores. It was a coming of age for them, their first really huge British show, a triumph, and there I was lapping it all up. Serious competition for my beloved Who, I remember thinking.
“Led Zeppelin stormed to huge success at the Bath Festival,” Chris Welch and I wrote in the following week’s MM. “As about 150,000 fans rose to give them an ovation, lead singer Robert Plant told them: ‘We’ve been away a lot in America and we thought it might be a bit dodgy coming back. It’s great to be home!’
“They played for over three hours – blues, rock and roll and pure Zeppelin. Jimmy Page, in a yokel hat to suit the Somerset scene, screamed into attack on guitar. John Paul Jones came into his own on organ as well as bass, and John Bonham exploded his drums in a sensational solo. And the crowd went wild, demanding encore after encore... a total of five!
“They kicked off with a new riff from their next album called ‘Immigration Song’ [sic]. They actually took some time to warm up the crowd, but this may have been intentional as they built up to a fantastic climax with an act lasting over three hours... They had made all the hang-ups worthwhile and given the crowd a night to remember – whatever else happened. In their final minutes, they paid tribute to the Masters of Rock and Roll with the songs of Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.”
In fact, the encores included snippets of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr. Soul’, Muddy Waters’ ‘Long Distance Call’, Big Joe Williams’ ‘El Paso Blues’, Elvis Presley’s ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’ and a final blast through Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ included Gene Vincent’s ‘Say Mama’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’.
Aside from the mighty Zeppelin, Sunday’s stars were Donovan, Santana, Flock, Hot Tuna, Country Joe, Jefferson Airplane (whose set was aborted amid pouring rain due to fear of electrocution), The Byrds, who played a truly delightful all-acoustic set, and, closing the show early next day, Dr. John who tripped the night away as it finally turned to daybreak. Sunday’s music at Bath that year started at midday and finished at about 6am on Monday morning. I saw it all and in the misty dawn light drove immediately back to London, parked my car behind Fleet Street, rode the elevator to the MM office and wrote my story.
It wouldn’t be the last night without sleep that I willingly endured in seven years’ service on Melody Maker.
* I hadn’t been on MM long enough yet to realise it was dreadfully uncool for rock writers to ask for an autograph. Now I wish I’d asked them all, all the hundreds I eventually met, for their autographs.