This week marks the 20th year anniversary of Oasis’ legendary shows at Knebworth, which confirmed their status as the quintessential rock band of the mid 1990s in Britain. The massive gigs, played across two consecutive nights, came just two years after their debut Definitely Maybe had catapulted them into the public eye. Playing to over 250,000 people, the shows were a mass celebration of Britpop in its pomp as fans flocked to see the band that, in many ways, came to define an entire generation. With the release of live track My Big Mouth to mark the anniversary, we look back at the legendary event and assess what it meant for British music at the time.
Located just over 30 kilometres from the centre of London, Knebworth proved to be a popular choice of venue amongst rock and roll bands after its owner, Lord David Cobbald, first agreed to let The Allman Brothers play there in 1974. However, the fact that a “sleepy, 300-acre park, featuring the grandiose house which dates back to 1490, turned into a riotous music mecca” is certainly an interesting one.
After The Allman Brothers first played a show in the grounds, numerous others soon followed. Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart all played there in the early years, as the crowd numbers steadily began to swell. Rolling Stones, Queen and Led Zeppelin added their names to the extensive list too. But impressively it was Oasis’ shows that created one of the largest legends.
“Anyone who was 16 or 17 at that time- that was a gig you had to be at. I really think it was just as significant as Woodstock was for the Americans in 1969,” promoter Conal Dodds told NME a decade on from the event.
“When I signed Oasis to Creation, I thought they were going to be big. But I’d be lying if I said I thought they would get that big,” Creation Records founder Allan McGee said. “I think we should’ve just stopped after Knebworth.”
The event drew a huge audience but the whole story surrounding the weekend also added extra elements of intrigue. Just how had two working class brothers and their band from Manchester come to dominate the music industry in the space of two short years?
Noel Gallagher, songwriter, guitarist, singer and now part-time skateboard enthusiast, tapped into a common feeling amongst the youth in Britain at the time. The band’s debut album, which he wrote the lyrics for entirely by himself, reflected a desire to escape out of the places and circumstances he had been born into. It was a thought that was prevalent in Britain at the time as the restrictive government, severe lack of jobs, and the general growing pains of shifting out of adolescence and into adulthood weighed heavily.
“In my mind my dreams are real” younger brother Liam Gallagher sang on the opening track Rock And Roll Star. It was a song which was suitably full of grandiose visions of the future. This breaking out of the monotony and the familiar tales of living for the weekend (Cigarettes and Alcohol) resonated strongly with a widespread fan base, who were all experiencing the same thoughts and feelings.
Oasis ascended to the upper echelon of bands in Britain after their follow up, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? tapped into this zeitgeist too. Their Knebworth appearances proving to be the confirmation of their meteoric rise, as it completed their transformation from likely lads to fully fledged superstars.
The Irish Examiner reported that a staggering 2.6 million people applied for tickets to the shows in 1996. That was the largest demand for concert tickets in British history. They subsequently deemed it the “crowning glory of the Britpop era.”
The band members themselves had picked the bands that would feature on the eclectic bill. A Beatles tribute band opened proceedings in the early afternoon, while The Charlatans, Manic Street Preachers, The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy were also among those that appeared.
“Noel was the only one into us at the time though,” Liam Howlett from the Prodigy recalled. “All the Oasis boys had a Portakabin each. I remember Liam popping his head out of his as we came offstage shouting, ‘What the fuck was all that noise? Turn the fucking bass down!’ Knebworth was just so beautiful though. It was like a big fucking rave. There were loads of people were on E’s everywhere. It was an event never to be repeated. It was a moment in time.”
A sense of freedom and excess was epitomised not only out in the crowd but backstage too. “I used to work for a catering company based at Knebworth farms and I had to work at the VIP bar backstage,” Alex Vooght said. “It was pretty exclusive. There were sofas made out of Levi jeans, pinball machines and a massive Scalextric set.”
“When I got there the first thing I saw was Mick Hucknall trying to chat up Martine McCutcheon,” Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker added.
When the band strolled onstage the enormity of the occasion didn’t escape Noel Gallagher. “This is history right here,” he told the crowd. They then launched head on into their debut album track Columbia. The custom built stage housed the band while an incredible 11 sound towers were dotted all around the site. “Liam wanted his vocals blisteringly loud,” sound engineer Rick Pope told Sound on Sound.
Oasis played a set list packed with hits, despite only being drawn from their just two-album long career at that point. Supersonic, Side Away, Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back In Anger and Live Forever were all aired, while there was also time to bring the set to a close with a cover of The Beatles and a John Squires guest appearance, along with a concluding firework display.
“Knebworth wasn’t designed to be a historic event- it was just what people made of it,” the band’s manager Marcus Russell later revealed to NME.
Oasis would go on to release a string of albums and tour while often dubbed, either by themselves or members of the press, as the biggest band in the world. But to many the two nights they performed in Hertfordshire remains a high-water mark both for the band but also for British music.
“Knebworth was a cultural shift,” Derek Robinson stated.
“The UK was in the doldrums in the early Nineties. Oasis, and Knebworth, were instrumental in kick-starting the cultural revolution that led to the Young British Artists, Trainspotting, an explosion in literature and art, Cool Britannia 1997, and the regeneration of huge parts of London and the UK by a youth that were suddenly energised.”
Robbie Williams, former Take That member and “dancer in a boy band”, as McGee once called him, went on to sell out three nights at Knebworth. But Oasis’ two show run in August 1996 still stands as the pinnacle act at the historic site, and an integral moment in British music history.
For the band’s part, guitarist Bonehead still remembers the weekend fondly and described it as something he will “never forget”. Liam Gallagher was unaware there would be two shows and got so drunk after the first night that he barely remembered the second. While, unsurprisingly, Noel Gallagher provided the greatest moment of insight. “It felt that everything was leading up to something that was going to define not only the size of the band, but what British pop music was at that time. It all felt like it was leading to Knebworth.”
Image: Irish Examiner