Queen rocking all over the world
“It was a dream come true to actually play on that stage,” recalled Queen’s guitarist Brian May, who had booked legendary performers like Jimi Hendrix to play there for his fellow students. “It used to get packed in there, so it was a major stepping stone for us.” Queen’s combination of raucous rock with witty, quirky songs would go on to have global appeal, making them one of the world’s best-selling bands with 300 million records sold, including 16 number one albums and 18 chart-topping singles.
The summer of 1970 was set to be a very rich season for British rock that dominated the airwaves both sides of the Atlantic.
The UK hit pop single of the year was Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime.
The catchy song spent seven weeks at the top of the charts and goaded a 22-year-old hippy singer called Marc Bolan, with a similar sounding voice, to get serious and write his first hit single.
“It killed Marc that Mungo Jerry got a No 1 with his voice,” said his manager at the time.
Ray Dorset of Mungo Jerry had lost his sideburns by the time this photo was taken
Recorded on July 1, 1970, Ride a White Swan slowly ascended the charts to reach No 2.
Throughout that month, Marc Bolan worked on T Rex, the album that helped change his image and make him a star.
Swapping his kaftan and acoustic guitar for electric and feather boas made him the harbinger of Glam Rock, racking up four number one singles and three number one albums in short time.
Whereas Bolan would be mainly a UK success before his untimely death, heavier, more blues-inspired British rock bands hit a rich vein of popularity in the US.
Rock star Marc Bolan on stage with his band T-Rex
In July 1970, British group Free topped the charts with their album containing the rock anthem All Right Now that would be a number 1 hit in 20 countries, reaching No 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
Free’s previous albums had not sold very well, but Fire and Water changed all that and catapulted them to the top level of rock, with more than 20 million albums sold by the time they disbanded.
Lead singer Paul Rodgers, below, went on to front Queen after Freddie Mercury had died.
The Beatles and the Rolling Stones may have opened up the US market for British pop music in the 1960s but it was louder, harder British rock bands that kept the door open for UK talent in 1970.
Paul Rodgers rocked with Free and later Queen
Led Zeppelin’s powerful guitar riffs, pounding beat and Robert Plant’s soaring vocals made them an almost instant hit in the US, where they built up hordes of devoted fans.
By the time Whole Lotta Love reached No 4 in the US charts at the beginning of 1970, selling more than one million copies, they were superstars.
Earning $100,000 a show and with substantial royalties coming in, 1970 was the year they started to enjoy the extravagant rock star life, buying farms and mansions.
Having conquered the US, they retreated to a cottage in Snowdonia, Wales, where they worked on Led Zeppelin III, which would showcase British folk influences, and shoot to number one in both the UK and US charts.
It was while in Wales that summer that guitarist Jimmy Page began writing the song that would become Stairway to Heaven.
Robert Plant added the lyrics and though it was released a year later, it would become their most famous song, continuing to top radio lists as one of the greatest rock compositions of all time.
Back in the USA for a tour in August 1970, playing to packed sports stadiums, they were hailed as “bigger than the Beatles”.
The tour culminated in two sold-out concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
It was the beginning of a decade in which Led Zeppelin became a byword for rock debauchery, travelling in their own jet airplane nicknamed the Starship and renting out entire wings of hotels where they held orgiastic parties.
Drummer John Bonham rode his motorbike along hotel corridors.
Now ranked fifth best-selling album act of all time in the US, the only other British act to do better than them was the Beatles.
Total record sales for Led Zeppelin have been estimated at 300 million worldwide.
Led Zeppelin’s stratospheric success was an inspiration to other British rock bands in 1970.
Pioneers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath used to lie on the floor of their recording studio listening to their albums, with bassist Geezer Butler claiming that their most famous hit Paranoid was just a “rip-off” of Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown.
In truth, Paranoid has a genius riff and is now regarded as one of the greatest guitar tracks of all time.
Recorded over the summer of 1970, it reached No 4 in the UK charts and helped launch them into the US, where the album of the same title sold over four million copies.
British rock was definitely on a roll, with Deep Purple joining the trinity of mayhem.
The cover of their album Deep Purple in Rock showed no lack of ambition, featuring the five members of the band carved in stone on what looked like Mount Rushmore, famous for its colossal portraits of US Presidents.
The album projected a much heavier sound than their previous work and consolidated Britain’s grip on the best-selling loudest music of the era.
The golden summer of 1970 had another highlight for rock fans and that came with the Isle of Wight Festival in August of that year.
Attracting 600,000 people over five days, it became the largest rock festival of all time. Headliners included Jimi Hendrix—just a month before he died—the Doors, the Who and Free.
The organisers had sold some tickets in advance to the event, but overwhelmed by the numbers arriving at the poorly planned show they declared it a “free festival”.
Some bad weather and poor sound made it a challenge for fans and performers.
“It was a total disaster,” recalled singer Kris Kristofferson.
“At the end of the night, they were tearing down the outer walls, setting fire to the concessions, burning their tents, shouting obscenities. Peace and love it was not.”
Despite that, Somerset farmer Michael Eavis pressed on with his first music festival near Glastonbury a month later on September 19.
Marc Bolan stepped in when The Kinks pulled out of Glastonbury
Led Zeppelin’s thunderous performance at the nearby Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music had triggered him to promise free farm milk and The Kinks at his show.
But when The Kinks realised how small the event was they declined, allowing Marc Bolan to take the top spot.
Singing Ride a White Swan, the rest was rock’n’roll history in that gloriously riotous summer of 1970.
Fifty years later we’re still listening to that golden age of British rock.