Geeks, freaks and sausage meat at the Canterbury music fest.
It was the trench foot that did it.
The last time I attended the Glastonbury Festival, I spent four days with my feet underwater or deep in mud. My feet swelled into grotesque shapes rarely seen by nurses since the Second World War. I vowed never to go to Glastonbury again. So how was I going to get my annual fix of loud live music this year?
I accompanied my father, a devoted record collector, to Glastonbury’s mutant second cousin, the Canterbury Fayre. Every year in August, a motley assortment of stoners, drunks, punks, hippies, freaks and geeks, ranging from children to the elderly, descend upon Mount Ephraim Gardens near Canterbury for three days of music.
Some go to recall their misspent youth – others go to misspend their youth so that they can recall it fondly in future.
At the Canterbury Fayre, you strike up conversations and make new friends through the t-shirt you wear. T-shirts are a code for the bands that you like – and the more obscure the band, the better. My father’s t-shirt featured a band so obscure that he’d had to make the t-shirt himself at home.
When we got there, the stall selling drugs was also the only place selling waterproof macs. So anybody caught unprepared in the rain had to walk around in a mac advertising various highs. I didn’t bother with the drugs, and found my home in a tent that sold Somerset cider in two-litre plastic containers.
The food stalls were mostly vegetarian, with the exception of a lonely truck sporting the defiant sign: ‘Real Meat Sausage Company.’ This truck always had a long queue, suggesting that not all music geeks have gone green. Among the varieties of sausage available there was ‘pork and chillies’, which, while deliciously spicy, had unfortunate consequences in the Portaloo toilets.
The event was something of a timewarp. The Electric Prunes were playing in the UK for the first time in 35 years, while festival MC Arthur Brown was best known for having set fire to his own head on Top of the Pops in the 1960s (sadly, he didn’t repeat the trick).
Many of the acts were made up of the reheated leftovers of old bands – such as Fish (ex-singer with Marillion), Jack Bruce (ex-bassist with Cream), the Muffin Men (who play Frank Zappa covers), the 21st Century Schizoid Band (ex-members of King Crimson), and Space Ritual (ex-members of Hawkwind) – but were none the worse for that.
Space Ritual were especially fun. They had manic dancers onstage, including a man in a leather skirt and stripy tights, and a girl whose bare breasts kept flopping out of her dress. Band leader Nik Turner, dressed head to toe in red and yellow rubber spikes, played for a good 10 minutes before realising that his saxophone wasn’t plugged in to the PA.
Then there was Space Ritual’s ongoing feud with their former bandmates in Hawkwind, who currently own the Hawkwind trademark and tour under the name. Poor Nik Turner kept asking the audience whether they were confused about which band they were watching, and begged us to sign a petition declaring that Space Ritual was in fact the one true Hawkwind. After Space Ritual’s set, MC Arthur Brown threw caution to the wind and referred to the band simply as Hawkwind, eliciting a loud whoop from the pro-Nik Turner contingent in the audience.
Not every act was as riotously shambolic. Jack Bruce, the 21st Century Schizoid Band and Ozric Tentacles displayed virtuoso musicianship. And there was some audacious mixing of incongruous bands and styles, such as when flower power band Love were followed immediately by punk legends The Damned.
The Damned’s Captain Sensible knew how surreal the whole affair was, telling us that where his band once ‘gobbed on life’, now they are ‘a national institution, heading for the bus pass and the Zimmer frame’. Maybe, but they still played one hell of a set.
If a once-famous band wants to find its old fans, it should go to the Canterbury Fayre. That’s what makes the event so great. Every act on the bill has its own cult of devoted followers that it loves playing to and hanging out with. The Electric Prunes and the Muffin Men stood around selling their own albums, Space Ritual’s guitarist could usually be seen boogying in the middle of the audience, Captain Sensible let his fans buy him beers, and – the highlight of the festival – Arthur Brown climbed down from the stage into our midst and blessed us.
It beats Glastonbury hands down.
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