Shortly after arriving at micro beer & music festival Glastonwick, I bump into John (Attila the Stockbroker) Baine, the mastermind behind this event, which is now in its 24th year. He is clutching a pint of Hurst ‘Rhubarb and Custard Sour’ which I try out of politeness and can confirm tastes even more disgusting than it sounds. But then once its weirdness has settled in my palate I find myself craving some more. This really is an event like no other and John, in collaboration with beer geek Alex Hall, has created a 550 capacity celebration that truly manages to rid the festival experience of both shit music and terrible beer.
No acts are booked as a favour to record companies or promoters. John has been touring since the late 70s and fully understands the difference between real artists and also-rans. So as musical curator for this event you can rest assured that every artist will be worth seeing and drawn from his extremely eclectic taste in live music. Meanwhile, Alex would probably be minister for Real Ale in a post-revolutionary Britain, having led a people’s militia to smash & burn the factories producing artificially carbonated lager and free the oppressed masses from the hangover-inducing chemically created piss that we all get overcharged for at both similar events and city centre pubs.
More importantly, this year has the strongest ever musical line up along with 75 lovingly prepared cask ales so it would seem rude not to check it out…
First things first, the campsite setting is truly adorable. Positioned at the bottom of a beautiful valley amid rolling hills it boasts just enough facilities to keep us happy whilst still retaining a sense of wildness. Meanwhile, the performance space itself is a large cattle shed that has been transformed into a pretty impressive venue, sporting very decent lighting and sound, combined with an ale festival of biblical proportions. Result!
Sadly thanks to the corporate Brighton Friday evening rush hour we arrive in time to miss My Pet Shark and Les Carter. The latter has to pack up his kit in double time and rush off to Leeds for a gig with his other band, Ferocious Dog.
However, we do have time to sink a couple of pints of Brew Studio ‘E.P.’ and Brolly ‘Chub’ (both vegan) in time for the one and only John Otway. He has always been mad as a box of frogs, but by even by his standards this set is utterly barking. He is on a bit of a high as he is imminently releasing a new record thanks to the divine gift of crowdfunding, but still belts out a set of classics from his hard-toured repertoire. While his career may have been typified by an endless string of imaginative publicity stunts, it is his hard work on the road that has earned him a legion of loyal fans. Tonight’s show reminds us that above all else he is a master of performance. Engaging the crowd in several sing-alongs while periodically reducing the entire throng to hysterical laughter. One of my companions later remarks that if the beer had not been of a superior quality she would probably have pissed herself when he was performing ‘Headbutt’ with a modified coat hanger mic stand.
The outer reaches of insanity continue to be explored by the next act: Wonk Unit. While they may be the greatest melodious punk band on the planet they are also fronted by the thoroughly insane genius that is Alex Johnson. A man who traded his junkie-alcoholic death sentence for the punky-workaholic project that is now one of the tightest and most exciting bands on the circuit. He is relishing the challenge of playing to a largely middle-aged crowd of old punks and ale lovers who haven’t heard his music before and kicks the set off with a string of infectious hits including ‘Horses’, ‘Awful Jeans’ and ‘Lewisham’. The final track in that medley being about the notable occasion that he pissed out of a moving train and into the face of an irate platform-dweller in Lewisham station back in his drunken days. He, of course, explains the origins of the tune to the crowd in poetic detail. Which seems extremely fitting at a festival that celebrates both punk, poetry and everything in between. His spontaneous rants are very much part of the Wonk experience along with a string of utterly infectious tunes. He also has the most patient backing band in the universe, who cope admirably with whatever changes to the set pop into his head, whilst accepting endless onstage criticism/humiliation with aplomb.
Before this occasion well & truly becomes the Mad Hatter’s tea party we get brought back down to earth by the intense political landscape created by one Thomas Mensforth of the North East. Angelic Upstarts remain one of the greatest live punk bands going with none of the political ambiguity that their contemporaries are known for. Having nailed their socialist and anti-fascist colours to the mast some forty years ago they retain the fighting spirit that has seen them make enemies of both the establishment and its lickspittle fascists in equal measure. One of the few credible bands on the scene to provide a space for skinheads who believe in real class politics they’ve had their fair share of fights over the years and still deliver the goods with an absolute fire & fury like the battle-hardened players that they are.
Having said that the set is not without its lighter moments. Mensi can be the expert skinhead comedian when he feels like it as he mercilessly takes the piss out of pretty much everything especially himself. John gets invited onto the stage to sing along to the spine-tingling anthem that is ‘Solidarity’ and remains there for a further two songs. For those of us still involved in facing down the far right, it is frankly inspiring to see that this lot are still very much up for it after all these decades. We get 22 songs from the band’s 12 albums including all the hits like ‘I’m an upstart’, ‘Kids on the street’ and ‘Police oppression’ but they finally ram the point home with an encore of ‘If the kids are united’ by Sham 69. A class end to a great first day.
Saturday dawns and someone appears to have stolen my hangover? I mean how is it possible to fall into a tent after a whole night on the piss that ended with a pint of (wait for it…) ‘Team Toxic’ Waen – Snowball: Choc Orange Edition’, which is of a similar strength to Tenant’s Super but actually quite drinkable. The truth is that cask ales are so well prepared that they manage to avoid both the hangover and wobbly guts that you’d experience when consuming the gaseous piss on offer at pretty much every other venue and festival in the UK. As we’re under strict instructions to drink the place dry by the end of the festival it’s back to the cowshed for more…
First on are poetic-punk cabaret act Cherry and Peesh who are probably the newest act on the bill having formed a couple of years ago. The vocals are largely spoken and reminiscent of John Cooper Clarke along with the other John who has curated this lineup and nods approvingly from the side of the stage. They explore a range of familiar subjects like punk mums and the idiot Trump and have us all gently chuckling into our first pint of the day within a couple of numbers. Cider for breakfast is certainly an appropriate tune for many here and all of the themes covered in their set hold some kind of resonance with this crowd of punks & lefties. The most memorable bit has to be her poetic ode to the overwhelming sexual attraction she feels towards Jeremy Corbyn, for which John dons a Corbyn mask leaving you with one of those festival moments that you just cannot unsee. Great start!
Then we get the first proper musical treat of the day. Rebel Control tell us that they haven’t played together for four years. This surely seems like the greatest porkie of all time as their beautifully crafted and extremely tight reggae gets the place swaying in no time at all. There is, of course, a political edge to their music but the vibe is thoroughly chilled and sits well with the scorching heat outside which we are all now actively sheltering from. This is perhaps the point to laud the sound & lighting that John has organised for this weekend. The PA is easily coping with the sub bass & complex percussion belted out by this lot. Meanwhile, frontman Andy’s rich and impressive vocal range gets balanced perfectly with the guitar, bass & keyboards. This may be a cowshed for much of the time but the production is better than many of the so-called venues that we’re used to back in the smoke.
Muddy Summers and the Dirty Field Whores are not so much a band, but more of a firepit made flesh. Flame-haired vocalist and virtuoso double bass player Gail is a bit of a legend on the festival circuit. Only a few days ago she was organising a tea tent/unofficial venue at Bearded Theory on about two hours sleep a night. Now she is chucking out some truly angry songs with her band, comprising herself, backed by fiddle, guitar and percussion. They are one of those acts that can busk pretty much anywhere but certainly benefit from a proper rig and competent sound engineer as they play beautifully under her words of wisdom & anger. Much of her vitriol is reserved for the patriarchy and she wastes no time in reminding us all that her pro-choice tune is rightly dedicated to sisters in Poland & Chile where rights to bodily autonomy that others take for granted are being eroded by evil governments. This is anarcho-folk at its most cutting.
The Fish Brothers are a band I’ve heard much about but never seen. First things first, Martin the bloke with the microphone is fucking huge. In height, width and voice he is simply ginormous and belts out their punkish, yet strangely operatic stuff like a proper madman. He also makes a heartfelt dedication to sadly departed guitarist Dan Woods who also played in John’s band Barnstormer. Dan also has his own beer brewed in his name for this event. Did I mention that 15 of the beers that line the dance floor are made especially for and are exclusive to this event? But back to the f-bros, their inflatable lobsters and exhibitionism (I won’t ruin it if you ain’t seen them) are an absolute riot.
If a change of tempo is needed after all those theatrics then Efa Supertramp with her stripped-down, acoustic cries for freedom is just perfect. ‘They call this a fight’ is an exquisite celebration of everything we hold dear, the feelings, emotions and passion that go hand in hand with the politics. She invites us to check out tomorrow’s Sunday Times. Slightly nervous yet deeply chuffed that Rupert Murdoch’s “flagship newspaper” will be demonizing her other project Killdren in a truly desperate attempt at slagging off the Glastonbury festival. “The real blank generation’ is a screaming tirade against consumerism. ‘All my friends are freedom fighters’ is dedicated to Anna Campbell, a real freedom fighter from our ranks, who fought injustice wherever she found it and was murdered along with many of her adopted Kurdish sisters by a western-backed dictatorship. Massive lump in my throat for that one.
Too Many Crooks bring the Ska vibe back to immense effect. Their high energy blend of traditional & modern skanking gets the place moving in no time. Yet again the fabulous sound people deliver us a perfectly levelled blend of a brass section accompanied by guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards with dual vocals from two veteran front men. They are definitely a band who understand the concept of less is more with various musicians dropping in and out of the mix as their songs progress towards the finale of ‘Cry like a baby’ amongst others. They eventually leave the stage only to be dragged back on by John for a much-needed encore.
Next, we get possibly the only band on the bill that John hasn’t seen play but have come so highly recommended that he has booked them anyway. More importantly, it feels like now is the time to seriously rock out to some heavy riffs and screaming guitar solos, so who better than The Kut? Quite possibly the hardest working all-girl grunge band in the universe they have now pretty much perfected their live show. So from the opening chords of their seminal ‘Doesn’t matter anyway’ single through a thunderous set of material largely drawn from their recent debut album ‘Valley of thorns’ they absolutely smash it. It comes as little surprise that singer-guitarist Princess Maha is sponsored by Marshall Amps. An endorsement that some would say is unsurprising having listened to the recorded material but would then upgrade to inevitable having seen her play live. She gets some truly incredible sounds out of her guitar without ever straying into the territory of self-indulgent. A true guitar-goddess, fronting a powerhouse of female rock rage. Go and see this band if you haven’t already.
Three-chord melodious punk outfit Eastfield take the stage next and the place becomes rapidly rammed as they tear through their set of catchy railway-centric tunes. I must be the only person in the room that hasn’t seen this band which is in itself an achievement as they seem to gig more than anyone else on the scene. The dual vocals of Jessi & Trina add a political if slightly nerdy edge to a furious collection of tracks that has much of the place jumping and the first wall to wall mosh pit since the Upstarts last night. Definitely a band to be watched again. They also have a truly unique line of merch that brings the worlds of punk & trainspotting colliding into each other like you wouldn’t believe.
Sadly Interrobang, the band fronted by former Chumba bloke Dunstan Bruce, have had to pull out as he has done a ‘Rod Hull’ with a step ladder but with fortunately less fatal consequences. So drafted in at the last minute is Bristolian acoustic maestro Gaz Brookfield who plays with such a fire and fury that he is bathed in sweat after just two numbers and his long-suffering guitar is all but worn down to its bare bones. ‘Be the bigger man’ has to be the greatest anti-bullying anthem ever recorded. There is nothing like a bit of bruised reality to bring a complex subject crashing down to earth. It is a song of gut-wrenching defiance that should be played to every kid who hates school so they know that their torment will not last forever and they’re not alone. ‘Thin’ is an equally exquisite tune that explores those feelings of vulnerability that men try to pretend they don’t experience. There are very few touring artists who bare their soul with such blistering intensity.
Finally, tonight’s headliners are the act whose presence on the bill made me buy the weekend ticket. Never seen them play but several friends came back from a Madness gig not so long ago gushing about the girl fronted support act and they were not wrong. Dakka Skanks are probably the most original Ska band I’ve seen for literally years. There is no brass or keyboards just the chunky skanking guitar of Josh complimented by the creative lead magic of Connor. Henry & Rob provide an almighty rhythm section while Clara brings some truly soulful vocals and occasional melodica. They have the style, they have an electrifying live show but most of all they have the songs. We get all but two numbers from their jaw-dropping debut album ‘Road to Brighton pier’, a homage to both their town of origin and that Mr Orwell. ‘Money’ is a study of the misery inflicted on our lives by the poisonous green stuff. ‘Propaganda’ is an establishment tirade that delivers an up tempo assault on the world of fake news. We also get a new song ‘Mama’, a truly heartbreaking look at the Grenfell disaster that Clara delivers with impeccable dignity & precision in equal measure. Final song ‘Ain’t no skinhead’ seems like an appropriate finale as security have just dealt with the only dickhead to have caused bother at the event in its 24 year history. This band have only been around since 2017. Expect great things from them.
Sunday arrives and my hangover is still AWOL despite spending 12 hours yesterday playing cask ale bingo until the universe became a place of unbridled joy.
First act of the day is Gekko. He is part singer-songwriter and part poet, with some extremely surreal comedy chucked in. His takes on the modern world flit from the tragic to the joyous through a set that is regularly punctuated with some observational humour that the late great Bill Hicks would have been proud of. ‘iPhone, Therefore I Am’ has the crowd in fits of laughter as it lambasts the pitiful pocket-sized addiction that we all seem to suffer from these days. Though it has to be said that this is the first festival I’ve been to in a while where I’ve not had to crane my neck around phones being held aloft by that ever annoying legion of divs who insist of filming every song rather than actually experiencing the moment for themselves. A top start to the final day and it’s not hard to see why this bloke’s last release was John’s album of the year for 2018.
Staying with the eclectic nature of this event we next get treated to some country music (yes, really). Now it has to be said that for many years I considered this genre to be the only form of music that was even more unforgivable than jazz. But after being introduced by John to the god-like genius of Rory Ellis a few years back I’ve been warming to it ever since. Noami Bedford and Paul Simmonds have made three albums together. She being a celebrated folk singer and former vocalist with Orbital and he being a key member of the Men They Couldn’t Hang. Their songs drift through the venue providing a gentle form of true musical storytelling. Leaving us all aglow with their melodious, rural richness.
Then things go all surreal again with the arrival of John Hegley. His mixture of poetry, comedy and song with its wry social commentary and truly unexpected twists and turns is the perfect vehicle to get us all in stitches on a Sunday afternoon. His material turns the mundane into the fascinating and the ordinary into the hilarious. Much of his set is drawn from his own life and family history which he weaves into a barking mad amalgamation of threads that gradually join up over the course of his set. He also utilises that frankly fearless form of performance that many avoid at all costs. Audience participation. He plays the crowd with the expertise of a seasoned school teacher, even managing to source a French speaker in the crowd for one of his numbers. We, of course, get an encore of his classic ditty ‘Eddie don’t like furniture’ which is still the funniest song ever no matter how long you’ve been seeing it performed. Nearly 30 years in my case.
Then the punk thing happens again with the one and only Mr TV Smith. It may be just over 44 years since he formed The Adverts but there is little sign that the 63 year old is planning to slow down or roll back his exhaustive touring schedule any time soon. He is, of course, an established performer in his own right, and belts out a quick-fire succession of songs from his extensive back catalogue. His band ‘The Bored Teenagers’ have not been able to appear due to a double booking cock up so John joins him on fiddle for the second half of the set. We get a finale of classics including Gary Gilmore’s Eyes and ‘Bored teenagers’ but his newer material stands in its own right. Particularly the latest stuff from his 2018 album ‘Land of the overdose’.
The final act, closing this wonderful festival, are Brighton riot grrrls Pussyliquor. In recent times L7 have returned to critical acclaim and Bikini Kill have just reformed and sold out Brixton Academy in a day. A far bigger venue than they ever headlined the first time around. None of this should be surprising when you consider that the present head of the free world is a misogynist who boasts about sexual assault and one of the front runners for Tory leader openly expresses a desire to remove hard-won reproductive rights. So songs like ‘My body my choice’ and ‘Lady wank’ have just as much relevance now as when the likes of Xray Specs and The Slits were pioneering this genre many decades ago. Singer Ari struts her stuff while the band deliver an extremely tight and clean sound along with backing vocals behind her. Their sound is reminiscent of Sonic Youth but without the pretentious experimentation that blighted the New Yorker’s records. Pussy Liquor have a great selection of tunes and deliver them with a mixture of rage and precision to a crowd who are pretty much hooked from the opening number. The future of feminist punk is looking pretty damn promising.
So the end has been reached and enormous thanks have to go out firstly to John for booking such a fabulous lineup. Running the whole thing on time. Peppering the schedule with his uniquely proletarian poetry and also remaining almost sober throughout. Meanwhile, Alex has provided a range of quality liquid refreshment that has kept us all properly lubricated whilst somehow banishing those tiresome headaches to the nearest Wetherspoons. Also Mel and the rest of the team for keeping the whole thing running smoothly for us lucky punters. Next year this unique event will turn 25 and some big names are promised. I can’t imagine anything topping this, my first Glastonwick, but I’m looking forward to being amazed once more.
Word & images by Guy Smallman