WOMAD - A Tale of Adventure

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A view across the strings of a guitar.

The following is a true story. The names have been abbreviated to protect the guilty and any of the, erm, 'reckless' activity undertaken by the protagonists is not recommended.

The WOMAD (World Of Music And Dance) Festival is a fairly mellow affair. As the title implies, it's a very different kettle of fish to the metal-soundtracked, teenager-in-black-t-shirt populated Reading Festival, which is held on the same site (the Rivermead Sports Centre in Reading, England) a few weeks later. WOMAD is predominantly enjoyed by a combination of Surrey 'right-on' types (wax jackets, green wellies, all mod-con camper vans, ostensibly 'green' but probably driving their kids to school) with kids in tow, and mid-festival season crusties looking for a place to chill out for a few days. The regular crusties are in a minority and, in fact, to the regular festival-goer it's a touch too chilled: the music stops at eleven. As eleven strikes the wax-jacketed and green-wellied Surrey types retire to their camper vans with their kids and the hardcore festival goers wander about trying to find something to do. It was there that I had one of the best nights of my life.

These things start so innocently...

In July 1997, I was struggling with being four years from thirty, jobless, bandless, miserable in Margate and still getting the mud from a very wet Glastonbury festival out of my clothes. So, when a bass-playing friend of mine, 'L', said, 'Oi, Roy, we're playing at WOMAD, do you want to come along?' I jumped at the chance. When I pointed out that I didn't have a ticket, 'L' just said, 'That's OK, we'll get you in.' They'd spoken to a bloke who runs a stall on site who had 'booked' them for the gig. I was reassured. Oh, the naïveté...

'L' was in a band that played funky-jazzy stuff (think of the theme tune to Starsky & Hutch and you won't be too far off the mark). The full line up was:

  • 'L' – a great bass player, a little wider round the waist than he liked
  • 'J' – a very cool saxophonist and occasional DJ
  • 'Little J' – a trumpeter who, at the time, was still struggling with the 'orchestra, jazz or proper job' decision
  • 'M' – a stonkingly fine drummer and a lot of fun to play music with
  • 'R' – occasional guitarist (they were looking for a full-time guitarist. I didn't know this at the time) but usually a tickler of the Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer electric piano (it depended which of the beasts decided to work on any particular day)

As five of the six members were sharing a small two-bedroom flat, things could get a little 'tense'.

So, on the afternoon of Friday, 25 July, 1997, 'L' and I were picked up by 'J' in the compulsory dodgy van which, somewhat out of character, didn't break down and were driven to London. On arriving, we were informed that both the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer were having an off day. So we had to find a replacement. On a Friday night. Hey ho. Following a frantic thumbing of loot, we eventually found a dodgy man with a battered Rhodes in a run-down shed on a grim commercial estate in Stockwell. After a bit of haggling (it was in far from good condition) money changed hands and we returned to the band's very small flat to load the van and head off to Reading. During the course of the evening, somebody had asked if I fancied playing guitar at the gig. Hmm, I thought, sounds like fun, but:

  1. Although I'd seen the band play a few times, I didn't know their material.
  2. I didn't have a guitar with me.

I raised these points, but was reassured (ah, more naïveté) that they had a guitar I could use and that, as all the tracks were in D, I could just chikka-chikka along for the whole set. In my excited state, I agreed. We loaded the van with a tarpaulin (the significance of which wasn't immediately apparent), the drum kit, the Fender Rhodes, the sax, trumpet, guitar amp, bass amp, keyboard amp, bass, a couple of tents and the guitar. The guitar was a frightfully battered Hondo copy of a Les Paul, boasting several large gashes, crusty strings and a noticeable lack of guitar strap. A boot lace was located and attached appropriately. Little did I know it, but this guitar would be instrumental (sorry) in the most rock 'n' roll moment of my life.

Going commando

We arrived at the festival around midnight and drove to the car-park. It was then that I had a shocking revelation: only two of the band ('J', driving, and 'Little J', in the passenger seat) had tickets. The gig was 'unofficial' and we were, in fact, going to break in. What made me realise this? I think it hit me when 'J' turned to the four of us that were wedged between the instruments and amps in the back of the van and said, 'Right, we're coming up to the security guards, you lot had better get under the tarpaulin'.

After much shuffling, banging, moaning and shifting of equipment, tents and beer, we found ourselves hiding under the tarpaulin. This was not comfortable. It felt like being in a bizarre mash-up of The Dirty Dozen, Spinal Tap and an Enid Blyton book. Anyway, we drove slowly towards the security gate. The van stopped and an exchange could be heard between 'J' and a security guard.

Now, when you're huddled under a tarpaulin in the back of a van that's also loaded with musical equipment and trying to smuggle its way into a festival, you tend to think the worst: it seems impossible that the security chap won't want to look inside the back of the van. The guard took a wander 'round the van, shone his torch through the back window, loitered for a moment and moved back to the front of the van. We held our breath through what was a very, very tense few minutes.

Fortunately, 'J' was up to the job. He managed to convince the security dude that there weren't four drunken musicians and associated gear hiding under a tarp in the back of the van with the sole intention of breaking into the festival and playing an unsanctioned jazz/funk set the following day. Top work. We trundled on past security and set up camp.

Wristband? What wristband?

Saturday, 26 July, 1997. Morning has broken and we've got to find a way in. We tried to locate the stall-holder that had 'booked' the band ('R') but he wasn't up yet. Beers were drunk, plans discussed and, in the time honoured tradition of horror films and festival break-ins, we split up. Breaking into three parties, we wandered the site perimeter fence from different positions. 'L' and I were, I think, the first to make an entry, crawling under the fence by a stream. We then wandered the site for a few hours, trying to locate 'R', failing, watching a few
bands and completely failing to meet the rest of our posse. We eventually decided to knock it on the head and return to the van.

While we were making our exit, a security chap stopped us and queried our lack of wristbands and proceeded to 'escort' us out. 'L' told the guard that we were playing that night. The security guard responded by saying, quite reasonably, 'You haven't even got tickets, let alone a performer pass, so you've a fat chance of playing!' (his language was a little riper than that reproduced here).

It seemed that trying to walk straight back in past security with all our gear wasn't a viable option.

In Part 2: Blood, Backs and Tequilas.


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