Skip to main content

Collapsing stages, Hell’s Angels, and a band called Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin onstage at the Bath Festival, 1969
Led Zeppelin onstage at the Bath Festival, 1969
(Image credit: Michael Putland / Getty Images)

The husband and wife team of Freddy and Wendy Bannister had been involved in promoting small club shows in London, Oxford and Bath for many years before conceiving and promoting the Bath Festival Of Blues in 1969 and 1970 – the first self-consciously ‘rock’ festivals of their kind in Britain, and which would inspire another local west country figure, Michael Eavis, to start his own copycat festival in the 70s: Glastonbury – or “son of Bath” as Eavis originally dubbed it. 

On Saturday June 28, 1969 the inaugural Bath Festival Of Blues took place at the Bath Pavilion Recreation Ground. On the bill were Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin, The Nice, Chicken Shack, John Hiseman’s Colosseum, Mick Abraham’s Blodwyn Pig and at least 10 others. Nobody, not least the promotors themselves, knew what they had let themselves in for…

Freddy Bannister: We had been promoting Monday night shows at the Bath Pavilion for the previous five years, putting on everyone from The Beatles to Jimi Hendrix. Then the Bath Festival Society – who’d been accused of being rather elitist – asked us if we would like to run a festival for the kids on the recreational ground which adjoined the Pavilion. 

So we did a deal, gave them a percentage, and ran the first [Bath] festival with Led Zeppelin fourth on the bill and Fleetwood Mac headlining. It went very well. It was profitable, it was fun. One of those wonderful 80- degree days, sunny all day. Everyone had just discovered dope so they were very placid, a great audience.

Wendy Bannister: We had a trestle-table by each of the gates where we took the money, and that was our security. I used a borrowed bicycle to go around to the various gates and collect the cash, then take it back to the Pavilion to count it. I just had it in a satchel. It was such a relaxed time, I’d ride over somebody’s legs and they’d apologise to me! 

FB: Tickets for the all-day event were 18 shillings and sixpence [about 92p] and 14 shillings and sixpence just for the evening [65p]. Everything was cheaper then, of course. Led Zeppelin cost us £200 – probably the least they ever got paid for an outdoor event. But [manager] Peter Grant did push me up to £500 before they’d signed the contract. We booked most of the acts through the Chrysalis agency. And we had it all booked in a day. The ground cost us 40 quid! 

WB: It was all worth it though because the event attracted in the region of 30,000 people. It completely took us by surprise. We were worried that we weren’t going to cover our costs. Most people didn’t know what festivals were, as such. There was no guarantee anyone would turn up at all. But I rang the ticket offices around the country after the first week and they’d all sold out their allocations. 

That’s when we first became excited. We built the stages on the Friday, and put up some screens to stop outsiders looking in, some sound and some basic lights. The night before, we stayed with friends about 100 yards from the site. We were woken up on the Saturday morning by the sound of all these kids descending on the site.

Festival posters

(Image credit: rockmusicmemorabilia.com)

FB: We used the Pavilion as our backstage area. There was a car park for the artists and staff, and inside we had table-tennis and stuff like that. The dressing rooms and loos were all in place, so it worked out really well. Not all the bands stayed around, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were working elsewhere that night so left pretty quickly after their set had finished. But all the bands just mixed in together, playing darts, and we had a bar going as well. They all had to pay. 

I think we bought some of them a drink, there was some hospitality, but there was no such thing as a rider then. I just wish we’d taken photographs! We had two stages, although the stages themselves were only about three feet off the ground, and a row of normal-sized crash barriers in front. We also had our own security but people respected the stage and the only problems we had were halfway through the set by The Nice – one of my favourite bands. 

They had four brawny bagpipers, just for the Bath show, and when they came on and started marching around, the stage started collapsing! So I got four of my very largest stewards to lie under the stage holding it up while The Nice did their thing. When Nice had finished, the second stage opened up and Zeppelin came on, and while that was happening I got the carpenters to repair the stage ready for Ten Years After, who were next. 

WB: We were surprised by how many people came. The town was also taken by surprise. They were used to the Bath Society Festival, but that was so elitist with chamber music, and only attracted small crowds. Suddenly here were all these young people, sleeping on the roundabouts and things. And we didn’t have any toilet facilities for the crowd, we just gave them readmission passes, so they could go out into the town, which was about 200 yards away, and use the public conveniences. 

Afterwards, a few people complained to the local paper about overcrowding and long-haired layabouts – all the Colonel Blimps – but nothing serious. In the aftermath of the first Bath festival, others got in on the act – it gave us Woodstock, the Isle of Wight, Altamont  and the sudden explosion of rock festivals across the globe. 

As a result, Freddy and Wendy were determined to make the next Bath festival an even bigger, more glittering occasion. The following year the festival underwent both a name and a venue change. The Bath Festival Of Blues & Progressive Music took place at the Bath & West Showground,

Shepton Mallet on the weekend of June 27-28. The bill had expanded from a primarily British affair to a fully fledged transatlantic line-up. Canned Heat, Steppenwolf, Pink Floyd, Johnny Winter, Fairport Convention, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, Moody Blues, The Byrds, Santana, Dr John and many more were invited to join the fray…

FB: We tried to do it again the next year and the town council was very much on our side. The chamber of commerce thought it was great for Bath because it brought in all this money, but they were worried about that many people descending on the centre – and they were probably right. By that time, Led Zeppelin on their own would have drawn more than 30,000. 

WB: We sold the house and a lot of our possessions to pay the bands in advance for the second festival. Crazy! It was a hell of a gamble but I think people did take more chances in those days. 

FB: We had to grow in size to compete with the Isle of Wight and I’ve always gone in for overkill. So I put together a programme that I thought would draw a lot of people – which it did. 

WB: It was a bit of a panic by then because we’d already signed a contract to have Canned Heat and we hadn’t anywhere to put them! They were big back then and we were determined to get them. But things had changed immensely between ’69 and ’70, because of Woodstock

It became a free festival because they knocked the gates down. The feeling between ’69 and ’70 was totally different. The kids in ’69 were so nice, so relaxed. By 1970 they’d become, you know, ‘music should be free!’ and we had old Edgar Broughton singing outside – “Out demons out!” 

FB: Political militancy had grown enormously in just 12 months. And there were all these ‘revolutionary’ hippies from France there stirring things up. The Isle of Wight festival also got a lot of trouble that year from the French revolutionaries. But they went the whole hog and took on the kids. They put up corrugated iron fences whereas we, like idiots, trying to be nice to the audience, just built up the perimeter fence – two miles of chain-link fence. 

WB: The majority were American groups that people in this country just hadn’t seen before – and a lot they haven’t seen since. People like Flock and It’s A Beautiful Day. We had also become very friendly with Bill Thompson, who managed the Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. It was a very druggy scene but terribly middle-class and correct in other ways.

FB: We also put in an offer for Frank Zappa, who was enormous at that time – as big as Led Zeppelin. But, typically, we didn’t hear any reply to our offer so we assumed he wasn’t doing it. Then the day I collected the posters his manager, Herbie Cohen, rings up and says: “We’ll do it!” We had to reprint all the posters. 

WB: All the bands’ fees were much higher for the second festival because we were now competing with the Isle of Wight and we wanted the biggest names. Led Zeppelin’s fee went up from £500 the previous year to £20,000. And Peter Grant insisted their name was double the size of anyone else’s on the poster. 

FB: As I’d already given my word to Bill Thompson that that wouldn’t happen, he was very cross with me. But Zeppelin were making it very big in America and we had to have Zeppelin. 

WB: They were simply so enormous by then we knew that they’d bring in all the people. The sum of £20,000 was the equivalent [then] of the price of a house in Knightsbridge, I can tell you that! 

FB: The first festival had been fun. I enjoyed it enormously. The second festival was no fun at all. It was a horrendous gig for us, we hated it, which is why we never did a multiple-night outdoor event again. 

WB: Because it became a free festival. They knocked down the gates just like that and walked in. There were other problems, too. Most of the bands had to drive down some quite small country roads to get there, and a lot of them simply got stuck in traffic. At one point we had Donovan on stage filling in for about four hours – and he wasn’t even billed! 

Bath Festival 1970 Poster

(Image credit: rockmusicmemorabilia.com)

FB: Fairport Convention were stuck in the traffic, but some Hell’s Angels appeared and they got on the backs of their bikes and escorted the band into the festival. And then they promptly took over our security in front of the stage and started beating people up. In fact the only time I went into the stage area in the whole 48 hours was to go and sort the Hell’s Angels out. 

I’m not sure how tired or how stupid I was, but I did that on my own. I went and bought them off! I got them all backstage and I said: “Hey, this can’t go on. You’re being an absolute pain. I don’t want you here, I want you to leave. I’ll give you money.” 

I forget how much it was but something like 400 quid, I think. “Otherwise,” I said, “I’ve got two or three hundred stewards here,” there were like 40 or 50 Hell’s Angels there, “and I’ve got a team together and we’ll come and sort you out and we’ll sort your bikes out as well, and there’s going to be war here. Or you can take the money and go.” So they took it and went. But, to be fair, they weren’t the American west coast Angels. I wouldn’t have dreamt to take them on. 

WB: These were from the west coast of England. With the appropriate accents – “Ooh-arhh!” Subsequently we’ve seen some film [of two of the Angels being interviewed at the festival] and one, halfway through, pops his false teeth out and waves them. 

The other is the Hell’s Angel’s leader who turns out to work as an engineer for Rolls-Royce in Bristol, and he actually built his bike by hand. So that partly explains why Freddy didn’t have his head beaten in. What happened next? The phenomenon of the outdoor rock festival continued to grow but the Bannisters, disillusioned by their experiences in 1970, only put on one more, low-key oneday event in Lincoln, in 1971, before temporarily retiring from promotion. 

That is, until Freddy “discovered this natural amphitheatre” on the grounds of Knebworth, in 1974. Suddenly they were back in business promoting a series of outdoor shows that would become some of the most famous in the 1970s, headlined by the biggest bands in the world, including The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Memorabilia from the Bath and Knebworth festivals is available from www.rockmusicmemorabilia.com