McLean returned to London to perform a free concert in Hyde Park on May 31st 1975. Before the concert, British actress Vanessa Redgrave insisted on meeting him at his hotel. Redgrave was an active member of the Socialist Workers’ Party and a vocal campaigner. She wanted McLean to use his Hyde Park concert as an opportunity to announce that he had joined her party and to encourage others in the audience to do so. No matter how many times he refused, she kept telling him he had to do it. Redgrave has often supported unusual causes and two years later, when she received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Julia, she denounced Zionism on live television. Don later said, “I admired her devotion to principle, and I think she is a terrific actress, but I do not like being coaxed.”
Eighty-five thousand fans attended the free concert at Hyde Park. It was the second largest concert in the UK up to that time, and it was broadcast, live, on Capitol Radio, the most popular music station in London. The concert received critical acclaim, and the tour was a stunning success. But McLean describes the Hyde Park concert as torture. He regretted not performing with a band. He felt he could not get enough sound out playing solo. “However,” he said, “The audience gave me so much love it made everything okay.” Don was now moving toward using musicians on the road.
While still reeling from a nervous breakdown that had been caused, to some extent, by being in the spotlight of the world, there he was, in front of 85,000 people, with millions listening on the radio. He was at the highest level of fame a music star could hope to achieve. He loved the music, not the publicity and pressure. After Hyde Park, he vowed that he would step back from the spotlight, but he was adjusting. He says, “When an artist’s ambition is bigger than his emotions can handle, something gives way inside. I needed a ton of time away to let things come back into balance. That’s what I was trying to do, get back into balance.”Extract from Chapter 8: Homeless Brother…There’s Freedom When You’re Walking… of The Don McLean Story by Alan Howard
Reviews of the Hyde Park show
Hyde Park, 1975 – Melody Maker: ‘McLean – Spirit of Woody’
Ideals rarely work. And there were so many potential dangers surrounding Don McLean’s little dream of thanking England by giving a free concert in the open air of London’s Hyde Park on Saturday.
Yet the gods and the spirit of Woody Guthrie were with him all the way to make the concert a total and glorious success, certainly one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever seen. The weather held, the atmosphere was good and in front of something like 20,000 people, McLean played for a hour and a quarter, without ever looking like losing control of the assembly’s attention and emotions.
It was a display of charisma and command that was much more than one man and his guitar / banjo has any right to achieve, far eclipsing the fine performance he gave on the opening of his British tour at the Albert Hall last month. Keeping chat to the minimum, he whipped through his set cleanly but emotively, covering the complete span of his career from early things like ‘Empty Chairs’ and ‘Dreidel’ to more recent works like ‘Wonderful baby’ and ‘Homeless Brother’ – a song every bit as good as ‘Vincent’.
But the key of McLean’s communication and sincerity is the liberal supply of other people’s work into his act. This way his own compositions came across as all the more powerful and human, where other ego-chasing songwriters lose contact; and in his interpretations of Dylan, Guthrie and Holly is a conscious affinity with his roots and influences, and not the slightest hint of pretentiousness. There’s so much of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in him, and Dylan too, and he brilliantly captures that mood of fifties and sixties outrage while using his own superb material as a continuation of these heroes’ attitudes in the seventies, stamping it firmly with his own character. ‘American Pie’ – still the definitive summary of rock ‘n’ roll – has never sounded better than at Hyde Park, halfway through his set.
The reception was massive. “I hope the Nixons and the Kissengers and all the other Hitlers trying to * up the world are here,” said McLean as he went into “Masters Of War” and everybody cheered. They cheered again each one of his encores: ‘This Land Is Your Land’, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, and ‘Ain’t Gonna Study War No More’, and they hung around for a half an hour at the end as he drove out of Hyde Park.
COLIN IRWIN, Melody Maker
Hyde Park, 1975 – NME
The first outdoor event of the season, the free concert in Hyde Park on Saturday, passed off without major upset and despite the cold weather, could be accounted very much a success. Starring Don McLean, Caravan, Joan Armatrading, Shusha, David Lewis and Screamer, the concert was transmitted live on Capital Radio (who’d helped to organise it) though the only act that was heard in anything like it’s entirety was McLean’s.
Estimates about the attendance can only be guesswork, especially as, though thousands were clustered around the stage, thousands more were tramping around the perimeter, conceivably in an effort to keep warm; while many went for the music, there were many who went for the occasion. ‘The Observer’ gave the attendance as 70,000; Capital Radio estimated 18,000 which, considering their role as co-promoters, was amazingly conservative. Your guess is no doubt as good as mine (even if you weren’t there), though I’d suggest that the number who came along ‘in toto’ was closer to the 70,000 figure. There were a considerable number of police to bolster the attendance, although only two arrests. There were other mishaps. “Six people” intoned the ‘The Observer’ dramatically, “were taken to hospital suffering from drugs”.
The sound was very variable, probably because of the blustery conditions; the best spots were usually directly in front of hot-dog carts
. Still, few could deny the success of the venture. McLean was unquestionably the main attraction. “American Pie’ and ‘Vincent’ were both received wildly, whilst his act also included many of his more outstanding compositions, “Bronco Bill’s Lament”, “Respectable” and “Homeless Brother”.
He was called back for three more encores, all of which were missed by Capital Radio (which had to make a speedy return to base for the seven o’clock news), and all of which were well-chosen for the occasion – “This Land Is Your Land’, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, and ‘Down By The Riverside”.
It was, ladies and gentlemen, stirring stuff. Here’s to the next time . . .