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.


YEAH YEAH YEAH by Bob Stanley

In noting the death of my old friend Jerry Hopkins two weeks ago I mentioned that Jerry’s biography of Elvis, published in 1971, was the second rock book I ever read, after Hunter Davies’ Beatles book. The third was Rock From The Beginning, aka Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, by Nik Cohn with whom I became friendly when I lived in New York. Like his books, Nik was loquacious, confrontational and great company, and also slightly unnerving to be around. He didn’t hesitate to snort up cocaine from tables in restaurants and I still recall watching aghast as he was thrown out bodily from a party hosted by Atlantic Records to celebrate the success of the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever, his crime a witheringly merciless putdown of the Rolling Stones in New York magazine. There was also an unpleasant altercation at a Stevie Wonder ‘listening’ event in a recording studio where, at Nik's suggestion, he and I opted to play pool instead of joining in with everyone else sitting immobile while all four sides of Songs In The Key Of Life were played at deafening volume.
All of this came back to me as I recently read Yeah Yeah Yeah by Bob Stanley, published in 2013, which I came to a bit late. A work of enormous scholarship, as readable as it is informative, it is without doubt the grown-up son of Nik’s book, perhaps a shade less provocative with more attention to detail than outright judgement, but Stanley’s style is very similar to Cohen’s – free flowing and wonderfully descriptive with the odd throwaway gem of fascinating trivia and reference to some obscure but brilliant record – and the subject matter is the same, of course, albeit in Yeah Yeah Yeah’s case much updated and far more comprehensive. The comparison is meant as a compliment.
Subtitled The Story Of Modern Pop, Stanley’s book takes as its starting point the first ever UK singles chart, as published in NME on November 14, 1952, thus skipping over the earliest years of recorded music that Peter Doggett covered in his similarly ambitious (and similar-sized) book Electric Shock. It ends around the turn of the century, when ‘modern pop’ succumbs to the digital era, singles sales fall dramatically, the charts cease to be relevant and the music press, no longer influential, caves in to competition from the internet. Like Doggett, Stanley is so displeased by subsequent developments as to ignore them completely.
Yeah Yeah Yeah is less academic and more playful than Electric Shock. Who else, for example, has noted the similarity between Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone From The Sun’ and the theme from Coronation Street? He’s no snob, championing unfashionable acts like The Sweet and The Bee Gees who, along with Abba, get a chapter of their own, unlike heavyweights Led Zeppelin, U2 and Bruce Springsteen. Spector shares one with Joe Meek, a shrewd pairing, Bowie with Bolan, which might have vexed The Dame were he around today, and Prince with Madonna, all their accomplishments neatly summarised and placed into historical context. Footnotes often draw attention to links between eras, many of them surprising but always insightful, chapters often begin or include lists of best-selling records to illustrate where pop is at, as do illustrations at the beginning of each, and I was impressed that every time a single, successful or otherwise, is mentioned it is followed in brackets by its chart position in both the UK and US. It is, after all, the story of modern pop, not rock.
I preferred Yeah Yeah Yeah’s early chapters, the investigations into rock and pop’s past, boogie-woogie and skiffle, and from the tone of the text I suspect the author enjoyed writing these more too. I was a bit surprised that Stanley didn’t dwell on attempts by the music establishment – the BBC, record companies and (shamefully) Melody Maker – to suppress American rock'n'roll, which as Pete Frame points out in The Restless Generation, his book about pre-Beatles UK rock, was like King Canute and the tide. Once we get into the eras with which I am more familiar, there are fewer surprises though Stanley is terrific at terse descriptions: Neil Young, ‘peeking out from beneath curtain hair like a cross between a startled deer and an eagle-eyed Action Man’; Elvis Costello ‘[wearing] a surgically enhanced eyebrow and [writing] pun-packed songs while singing as if he was standing in a fridge’; Madonna ‘like Margaret Thatcher who, as prime minister, never allowed another woman into her cabinet, [she] acted as if she was the only woman allowed in pop.’
Bob Stanley is one-third of the immensely likeable indie-dance group Saint Etienne and there are photographs of him on line standing in front of his record collection, 20,000 LPs or more. Yeah Yeah Yeah is ample proof that he’s listened to every one, even the prog rock and heavy metal, both of which he dissects, albeit with less enthusiasm than Brill Building pop, the Beat Boom, Glam and what he calls New Pop in the eighties. This was another aspect of his book that reminded me of Nik Cohn’s thesis in Rock From The Beginning: that sinking feeling that the best is past.
By the way, you will be pleased to know that the name Cowell does not appear in the index. Highly recommended.