Having fun between fine leg and silly mid-on

Rock at The Oval?! I rejoiced when I discovered that the 1972 Readers’ Poll Winners Concert for my favourite weekly music paper Melody Maker would be rocking The Oval Cricket Ground in South London on September 30th.

A motley bunch of us from school all readily agreed to get tickets and go together – Steve Colley, Kevin “Tosh” Regan, Chester Kamen, the inseparable Anne Moffat and Mary Rocks, and yours truly. We’d all been following small local concerts, but here was an all-star lineup at a venue only a 60-minute journey from Harlow. How could we miss that?

My Dad was rather more puzzled. Why was this concert was taking place on the hallowed ground between the Pavilion End and the Vauxhall End where batsmen and bowlers had been facing off since 1845?

Healthy Lunch Box

The night before, I had packed a few sandwiches and maybe an apple, a packet of biscuits and some crisps into my trusty canvas shoulder bag. Flask of tea? That would have been made at the last minute. We’d be going as a group, so no worries about going without. Just had to be on time at Harlow Town station, which was only a 20-minute walk from home.

No particular memories of the train journey, but it was certainly overground before it went underground. The passenger profile changed as we got closer to Kennington. Dress code, hair length, and a certain seriousness about music in the conversation indicated that we were all heading in the same direction. As we walked out of the tube station in South London, we had no trouble finding our way, and were soon part of the flow of people moving purposefully along the same songlines. We were part of something bigger, drawn by unseen forces.

"Unless the finances are radically and quickly improved the club will not exist two years hence. The very survival of the club is in doubt."

“Unless the finances are radically and quickly improved, the club will not exist two years hence. The very survival of the club is in doubt.”

Maurice Allom

Although I was not aware of it at the time, the Melody Maker Poll Winners Concert 1972 was actually the third in a series of similar musical events to take place at The Oval over the previous 12 months. The series had started shortly after Surrey County Cricket Club found itself close to bankruptcy, in April 1971, pushing Maurice Allom, the Surrey Club President, to send a letter to members warning them : “Unless the finances are radically and quickly improved, the club will not exist two years hence. The very survival of the club is in doubt.” The club needed cash fast, and pop and rock music were massive money-spinners in search of new public spaces to fill.

Source: theprogressiveaspect.net

The first event, Goodbye Summer, held on September 18th 1971, turned into a battle of the bands at the top of the bill between The Who and Rod Stewart and the Faces. The weather was great, an amazing 40,00 people came, and Surrey earned a welcome £4, 210 for hosting the day’s festivities. Goodbye Summer was also a charity concert to raise money to aid war victims in Bangladesh and, thanks to a major donation from The Who, £18,336 went to the fund created by ex-Beatle George Harrison and Ravi Shankar.

In the end, 1971 turned out to be a great season all round for Surrey, who not only won the County Cricket Championship and avoided bankruptcy, but also managed to breathe new life into The Oval as a rock venue. They would be champions again the following year, and September 1972 would see two more weekends given over to music entitled Rock At The Oval.

Source : ukrockfestivals.com

The batting opened on September 16th, when Frank Zappa played his first concert in London since spending 6 months in a wheelchair after being pushed off the stage in December 1971 at The London Rainbow by an angry fan whose girlfriend said she loved Frank. This return of the fallen hero, which had Jeff Beck’s new group Beck, Bogert & Appice on the same bill, along with Man, Linda Lewis, Sam Apple Pie and Brinsley Schwartz should have been attractive, but the 30,000 tickets moved slowly until Hawkwind, riding high on the success of their first and only chart hit, Silver Machine, were added to the lineup at Zappa’s request. Unfortunately, the weather was awful and, while rain didn’t exactly stop play, it was blamed for the disappointing numbers of people who felt unable to wait around for Zappa’s set.

Just two weeks later, on September 30th, we found ourselves at the gate for a much sunnier, more upbeat day for the second round of Rock At The Oval sponsored by Melody Maker. I seem to remember a queue of some sort, but certainly none of today’s metal detectors or body searches with unsmiling personnel in white gloves. You simply showed your ticket, somebody tore off the stub, and you were in through the turnstiles. And there, somewhere towards the Vauxhall End and its famous gasholder, there was a helpful sign saying “Melody Maker Poll Concert 1972” in large letters over a stage which would not have been immediately visible otherwise.

There was live music already playing when we entered. No large screens to level up your concert experience, however, because, back then, those were only to be found in cinemas. It took me a while to get my bearings. This was my first open air concert, and I had been used to small indoor venues where the stage generally spanned one side of the room. At The Oval, my first impression was one of looking through the wrong end of a telescope. It was a question of getting as close to the stage as you could to get the best view possible, which we tried to do as it was early, and the place was just beginning to fill. Sound was not a problem, the massive speaker system being on full throttle. The closer you got, the louder the sound, and the better the view.

Historically speaking, The Oval was more than just a cricket field. Thanks to Charles W. Alcock, the father of modern sport, the archives reveal it was the venue for almost every FA Cup Final between 1872 and 1892, plus international and club football matches, and Varsity rugby. But by 1972, rock music was threatening to eclipse cricket, football and rugby for a whole generation of teenagers and young adults. Documentary images of Woodstock had made the mass gathering of the tuned-in and the spaced-out in open fields the norm, so our group of friends felt purposefully cool as we took up our positions between silly mid-on and fine leg ready to watch the day’s play. The organizers behind Rock At The Oval and Goodbye Summer, were Rikki Farr, Ron and Ray Foulk, who had successfully run three open-air Isle of Wight Festivals, so we were in good hands.

Who were the musicians playing when we arrived? Apparently, it was the Irish band Fudd (ex-Elmer Fudd), who got to play because they were managed part-time by Ron and Ray Foulk. Well, somebody had to test the equipment, didn’t they? I have no memory whatsoever of Fudd’s set, but it was their 15 minutes of fame, and clearly the high point in their career. Unfortunately, their managers were just too busy with umpteen other projects to take a serious interest in the band’s development, and they split the following year.

Next up were Focus from Holland. This four-piece Dutch band had been voted Melody Maker International Brightest Hope with their extraterrestrial mix of jazz and classically influenced progressive rock firing on all cylinders. The group had recorded Focus II : Moving Waves, their masterful second album, in London with magician producer Mike Vernon, famous for his work with blues artists young and old. Released in October 1971, and increasingly popular through 1972, the album showed just how strong the band were in all registers.

The range of styles they played during their live set showed how they were able to come up with UK chart hits which crept up on you and stayed in your head – Thijs van Leer‘s flute-driven House of the King which was a hit in 1971, and the pure guitar lines from Jan Akkerman on Sylvia which would follow in 1973. Thijs Van Leer was one of a kind, combining keyboards, flute and whacky vocals. I have always been a fan of accents, and I loved the way he spoke English between songs, with that bright way Flemish speakers have of making the language their own. But the imperial force in the band’s sound at The Oval was unquestionably Akkerman’s guitar. Hocus Pocus, with its contagious riff and, yes, Van Leer’s mad yodeling vocals, still sounds good 50 years later.

While the set by Focus was intense, it was followed by one of the long waits which would characterize the whole day’s proceedings. Records were played during these intervals and compere Rikki Farr informed us of the passage of various poll winners who came to pick up their Melody Maker Awards far from the madding crowd in the Oval Long Room. Farr had a way of teasing us with famous names of people – I remember him mentioning Rod Stewart and Maggie Bell – who were there, somewhere, just out of reach. His control was perfect, and he was certainly less over-stretched than he had been at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.

Finally, Genesis came on. The Melody Maker Poll didn’t give them an award that year, only putting them 6th as British Brightest Hope – the top spot that year went to Roxy Music, with Lindisfarne as runners-up and David Bowie finishing third. With Peter Gabriel as the lead singer, Phil Collins was still hidden behind a hefty drum-kit from where we were sitting, and probably helping out on backing vocals. I remember Gabriel’s quirky sense of humour, which he used to entertain us as we waited through umpteen technical hitches.

Genesis seemed unhurried. Their time had come. They would play a phenomenal 222 gigs in 1972 alone, mostly in the UK. At The Oval, the band were clearly on the cusp of something much bigger, and would become a global name in the coming year. The setlist and an audience recording of what they played that day can still be found on line. They featured songs from their upcoming album Foxtrot, released the following week, on October 7th. One of the new tunes that day was Get ’em out by Friday, which I had already heard on a BBC radio session. The story it tells is set in Harlow New Town, and hearing Gabriel name-check Harlow from the Melody Maker stage tickled us no end. I saw them twice more in the years ahead, at Reading Festival in 1973 and 1975, and they were deserving headliners on both occasions.

More waiting. When did Jack Bruce play? It may have been after Genesis, or perhaps some time later. He wasn’t announced until the last minute. In my memory, it was in the middle of the afternoon somewhere, but I didn’t make notes or keep specific track on timing. Bruce had won the MM award for Best Bass Player, and appeared onstage for a longish jam with Jan Akkerman and Peter van der Linden from Focus on guitar and drums. The music wasn’t particularly structured to my ears, but the musicians were clearly having a great time. I must confess that I had no grasp of Bruce’s importance or the Cream connection at the time, but there was an authority in the way he sang and a reverence to the way he was received which awed me. Looking around me at the enthralled faces, I had a sense that there was much I still had to discover about rock music.

More announcements from the stage plus records followed, until it was time for some more familiar pop stars to provide me with relief after the Jack Bruce experience. I felt I knew Argent because I had seen them more than once on Top of the Pops performing Hold Your Head Up, which was one of the hits of 1972. The song had given Argent their ticket for The Oval, having come second in the Readers’ Poll for Best British Single behind Lindisfarne’s Lady Eleanor. While the group took their name from organ player, Rod Argent, who had already tasted success in the sixties with The Zombies, it was Russ Ballard, on guitar and vocals, who did all the talking on stage. Ballard gave his best and was in good voice, but he seemed to really want more of a reaction from the crowd than they were getting. I remember thinking the musicians were great, but the songs lacked that extra something which would trigger what Ballard was looking for. Maybe the artists who’d gone before had raised our expectations? Whatever the truth of the matter, they finished with a great version of Hold Your Head Up, and the joy of hearing it was genuine. But it left me meditating on the pitfalls of trying to build a solid set from original songs, when everybody is really just waiting to hear one song.

More waiting, as more and more gear was installed on stage. We continued to prove ourselves to be pretty resourceful at finding things to talk about. I remember the hilarity of listening to our friends Mary Rocks and Ann Moffat, who were David Bowie fans at this time. The Harlow Playhouse had hosted a legendary concert by Bowie on April 20th 1972 as part of his first Ziggy Tour. The Moff-Rocket sisters, as they were also known, reminded us of all we had missed by not going, because they had been right at the front, and recalled every moment in all its sweaty, noisy glory. The girls also told us stories of writing fan letters to David asking him to shave his legs in order to be more androgynous close up, to which they actually got handwritten replies from Angie Bowie explaining how complicated it was keeping male body-hair trimmed. There are sadder ways of passing the time as top of the bill Emerson, Lake and Palmer set up their equipment.

Keystone / Getty Images

Emerson Lake and Palmer were a progressive rock trio riding on the crest of a wave in 1972, and they won no less than seven awards that year : Keith Emerson won Best Keyboard Player; Greg Lake won Best Producer, and was well placed as Best Bassist and Best Singer, but didn’t win either; Carl Palmer was Best British and World Drummer; Lake and Palmer were Best Composers; and finally ELP were Best British and World Group. That clean sweep put them top of the bill.

I had been drawn into their music when Pictures At An Exhibition was revealed to me by my dear friend Chester, one unforgettable lunchtime at his house where we used to go occasionally to skip school dinner in favour of tea, toast and music. I would later realize the classical origins behind Pictures, and its transformation from Mussorgsky’s piano suite into Ravel’s orchestration, but back then it was just another of the many times when twinkle-eyed Chester said “I really think you should hear this.” He was already the wide-ranging listener, interested in a vast array of musical styles, which would take him into such a full career as a professional musician. Needless to say, the dinner money went into a numbered Swiss account.

As for Emerson Lake and Palmer, the music press would ultimately give them the cold shoulder as the seventies wore on and punk came knocking at the door, questioning the need to play bigger concerts, with more technology and make longer concept albums. But at The Oval, none of that was perceptible. They were promoting their third album, Trilogy, and their version of Aaron Copeland‘s Hoedown was a great start to their set which lasted a very full 90 minutes – a complete setlist and recording can be found on YouTube. As daylight faded, it was easier to see details of what was happening on stage, and Greg Lake was the ever-composed romantic singer, Emerson frantically stabbed his keyboard, and Carl Palmer’s drum solo seem to roll through the twilight, bringing on the night. By the end of their set, I was dizzy on all the fresh air, sunshine, sights and sounds.

Night had fallen as Wishbone Ash came on stage. You may need to think for a minute to remember who they were. While you’re doing that, just let me underline the fact that they won the Melody Maker Award for Best British Album 1972 for their LP Argus ahead of some hefty competition. The titles of the runners-up speak for themselves : Thick As A Brick, Pictures At An Exhibition, Imagine, Exile On Main Street, Led Zeppelin IV, Meddle and Machine Head.

How did that happen? It could be a case of faithful British fanbase voting for a hard-touring British group. But they did have a sound all their own, partly due to the interwoven delights created by twin lead guitarists Andy Powell and Ted Turner, and partly due to the fact that bassist Martin Turner and drummer Steve Upton loved to play upfront while juggling around with unusual time signatures. The result was music with a definite blues rock appeal, which was both British and American, while being cleverly experimental. It was a little too squeaky clean for me, but they wrote their own material, and their commitment on stage was unquestionable. It was a shame they came on so late – in having the Ash play after ELP, the organizers had clearly learnt their lesson from top-of-the-bill Zappa’s playing in front of a dwindling audience two weeks earlier. It had been a long day of music, it was starting to get cold, and you could feel people were beginning to leave. Not far from where we were, somebody lit a fire – an incident which would rule out any future rock concerts on The Oval’s sacred turf. Wishbone Ash were still playing when we left. The embers of the day would soon be ash.

I must confess that this was also the date of my 16th birthday, so the perfect timing of Rock At The Oval with my friends was made in heaven.

I am surprised so many details are still there 50 years on, as this is the first time I have actually tried to recall what happened. It was certainly a watershed moment for me because, after this experience, I started getting out to more and more live gigs, using The Rainbow in Finsbury Park as my local venue.

Rock At The Oval was the event that made me want to be there in the crowd when things were happening on stage, living the moment.

Still want more?

Here’s a nice blog with a long chat at the end where people chip in with their own memories of the event :

Very complete account of the whole day and source for some of the photos for this post:

A cricket blog which is good on the history of The Oval in general, and also carries a series of articles on Rock at the Oval in particular:


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