“It can be said very simply. On stage Lynyrd Skynyrd are as white hot as a band can get” Cameron Crowe (Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone, 1976)
I suppose we all have our guilty pleasures and Lynyyrd Skynyrd were definitely mine and in the ‘glasnost’ spirit of the Ark it seems appropriate to celebrate the fact that for a couple of years in the mid seventies Jacksonville’s pride were pretty much the hottest property in rock and I’m in fairly good company if Cameron Crowe thought as much too.
The anticipation of the bands UK tour in early 1977 was palpable with tickets for their shows sold out several months in advance, which in that day and age was the exception rather than the rule as even the larger promotions relied on a ‘walk-up’. The Birmingham Odeon was buzzing with a hirsute crowd pretty much reflecting Skynyrd’s hard drinking, hard living, hard rocking image. Their lifestyle of rucking and run-ins with the police defined them as anti-authoritarian rebels, albeit red neck ones who played every gig under the gaze of a disconcerting confederate flag. Battle lines were drawn following the single release of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ from their second album ‘Second Helping’ a stinging riposte to Neil Young’s disparaging views on the south in his songs ‘Southern Man’ and ‘Alabama’. The bands founder, self elected leader and vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, a cross between Colonel Patton and a Circus ringmaster, was aware of the possible consequences when he was quoted at the time of its release “Its either going to break us wide open or piss everyone off so bad that we don’t get a second chance”.
It earned the band a prestigious slot on an arena tour supporting the Who and there was no looking back as Neil Young was even quoted as saying “They play as though they mean it. I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs”. The first time I saw the band was on the OGWT when they performed their epic ‘Freebird’ (a homage to band hero Duane Allman) like there was no tomorrow, which Mark Ratcliffe remarked recently that there probably wasn’t as there were so many false finishes it is probably still going on. At least it amused whispering Bob Harris.
I first saw them in the flesh at Knebworth as support to the Rolling Stones at a massive one day festival (over 200,000 attended) where they unveiled the classic seven piece Lynyrd Skynyrd line-up of Van Zant, Gary Rossington (gtr), Allen Colins (gtr), Steve Gaines (gtr), Leon Wilkeson (bass), Billy Powell (keybords) and Artemus Pyle (drums) and augmented by three female backing singers including new boy Gaines’ sister. The set was played in the early evening sun and fitted the mood perfectly as the days events began to overrun (the Stones loped on to the stage just after midnight) and the crowd responded magnificently to a full set especially the three pronged guitar attack which saw the encore ‘Freebird’ eclipse over twenty minutes.
In the autumn Collins and Rossington were involved in drink driving incidents which occurred separately on the same night. Collins escaped fairly unharmed but Rossington passed out at the wheel in his brand new Ford Torino crashing into to a telegraph pole then splitting a tree in half. It almost cost him his life. Van Zant was not impressed and he and Collins penned the song “That Smell” which contained the poignant lyrics: “Whiskey bottles and brand new cars / There’s too much coke and too much smoke / Look what’s going on inside you”.
Little did we know as the band completed their set at Birmingham it would be the last time most of us would see them again. On 20 October 1977, Van Zant, Gaines and his sister Cassie perished as their privately chartered plane crashed travelling between gigs in Missouri and South Carolina. The plane ran out of petrol. Just three days earlier the critically acclaimed and fate tempting album entitled “Street Survivors” had just been released. Initial copies of the album cover showed the seven band members emerging unscathed from fearsome flames lapping around them. This cover was soon withdrawn as the album went platinum but was subsequently restored for an anniversary edition.
The band are beautifully referenced in the blockbuster movie ‘Con Air’ featuring John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi whose character ‘Garland’ says while “Sweet Home Alabama” is played in the background: “Define irony. Bunch of idiots dancing on a plane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash”. Cameron Crowe also includes ‘Simple Man’ in the soundtrack to his wonderful film ‘Almost Famous”.
Inevitably the bands name re-emerged in 1991 with new material and they continue to play to this day with a new tour starting in Hollywood on March 4th. Judging by tickets prices (they range from $55 – $105) they seem to be doing Ok. Just don’t expect to see many from that classic line-up. Still a seven piece only Gary Rossington survives – since the plane crash the other four have all died.
Loving Those Guitars!