The Rolling Stones' tour of Europe in 1976 began at the end of April in Frankfurt, West Germany and finished in the third week of June in Vienna, Austria. On the 22 city, nine-country tour, during which they played in Yugoslavia and Spain for the first time, over 550,000 fans watched them.
Two months later, on Saturday 21 August, after Mick celebrated his 33rd birthday with a party in Montauk, Long Island with Andy Warhol, before going to watch the Montreal Olympics, The Stones were back on stage for what was their biggest show in the UK since the Hyde Park concert of 1969, and it was in front of their biggest paying crowd ever…somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 people.
Fans paid $4.50 each for the concert at Knebworth Park, in Hertfordshire, dubbed at the time as The Glyndebourne of Rock, where The Stones were supported by the Don Harrison Band, Hot Tuna, Todd Rundgren's Utopia, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and 10cc. Skynyrd played a blistering set with their classic, ‘Freebird’ at its heart. What’s long been forgotten by many is that two members of Harrison’s band were Doug 'Cosmo' Clifford and Stu Cook, two of the original members of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Backstage in the artistes' enclosure, Moet and Chandon hosted a champagne party for guests including Jack Nicholson, Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, Germaine Greer, Traffic’s Jim Capaldi, John Paul Getty III, John Philips, Ian McLagan from The Faces, Van Morrison, and Paul & Linda McCartney. For the audience they had to make do with tea or coffee at 12p a cup and a chicken curry costing 55p.
Technical problems dogged much of the show, resulting in The Stones going on very late, but this did not deter them from playing an extremely long set that helped make up for some earlier unrest among the crowd. Finally getting on stage at 11.30pm, 30 minutes after the concert was due to end, they played until just after 2am. Besides, Mick, Keith, Ronnie, Charlie, and Bill Wyman, the band was augmented by the brilliant American keyboard player, Billy Preston and percussionist, Ollie Brown.
The Stones’ 30 song set that opened with ‘Satisfaction’, was a run through of almost their entire career. It included ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘Route 66’ and ‘Around and Around’ from their earliest days, through classic singles including, ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’, ‘Let's Spend The Night Together’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’ as well as a short set within the set by Billy Preston who played, ‘Nothing From Nothing’ and ‘Outta Space’.
Their set featured album tracks from the band’s ‘classic quartet’ Beggars Banquet (‘Stray Cat Blues’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’, their closer), Let it Bleed (‘You Can't Always Get What You Want’, ‘Country Honk’ and ‘Midnight Rambler’), Sticky Fingers (‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Wild Horses’, ‘You Gotta Move’, and ‘Dead Flowers’) and Exile On Main St. (‘Rip This Joint’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, and ‘Happy’), right up to their latest LP, Black and Blue from which they played, Hot Stuff’, ‘Hand Of Fate’, ‘Hey Negrita’, and ‘Fool To Cry’. There were also tracks from their previous two albums, Goats Head Soup (‘Star Star’) and It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (the title track, ‘If You Can’t Rock Me’ and ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’).
The BBC’s Listener magazine said of the show, "Charlie Watts looked very neat and as like Bertrand Russell as ever: one's feet were with him and one's pulse with Bill Wyman. " While The Sunday Mirror said, “Scores of girls went topless as the scorching sun sent temperatures soaring in mid-afternoon. Some plain-clothes policemen mingled with the crowd, but only one arrest was made for an alleged drugs offence - even though 'pot' was said to be on sale."
Perhaps The Melody Maker summed Knebworth 1976 up best of all, "The Rolling Stones drew a vast crowd estimated variously at between 110,000 and 250,000, to an exhausting, drawn-out event, at it showed once again that they still have power and relevance."
Some things never change…