Rock Doc Spotlight: “Glastonbury Fayre” (1971)

Director Nicolas Roeg was famous for his masterful and idiosyncratic films, often using subversive themes and cryptic imagery. In fact, he already had two of his better-known movies under his belt (“Performance” and “Walkabout”) when he directed the filming of the second ever Glastonbury music festival, an event that has gone on to become a beloved UK institution. Unlike some auteurs (like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme) who would make several music films along with their features, Roeg was not known for his affinity with the rock culture, though he had worked with Mick Jagger in “Performance” and would later direct David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

There was an unworldly aspect to this early edition of the festival that suited Roeg’s sensibility. Consider the esoteric interests of the approx. 15,000 in attendance (the modern Glastonbury has a cap on tickets of about 140,000), which largely consisted of the vanguard of Britain’s hippie/new-age population. Roeg (along with director of post-production Peter Neal) emphasize this “gathering of the tribes” as much as the music up on stage. We also get to see the construction of the first soon-to-be-famous Pyramid Stage. And consider the location, one those vast, tree-dotted English fields and in the immediate vicinity of Glastonbury Tor, the conical hill topped by the surviving tower of what was St. Michael’s abbey. It’s a place important in Christian, Celtic and pagan mythologies. There’s a lot to point a camera at and Roeg’s highly developed visual style is a strong selling point.

The musical selections are a bit of a mixed bag. It starts strong with a couple of numbers by blues-rocker Terry Reid (dueting with soul singer Linda Lewis on the second); great stuff from the guy who almost became the singer of Led Zeppelin a couple of years before. The 1971 edition of Fairport Convention was whittled down to a quartet, but their vivacious brand of homegrown folk-rock fits the occasion perfectly. Led by fiddler/singer Dave Swarbrick, they do “Angel Delight” and the high-wire instrumental “Dirty Linen,” which inspires a mass freeform jig in the crowd.

A lot of the rest will be take-it-or-leave-it for many viewers. Melanie, already a festival mainstay due to Woodstock, does one of her rooftop-shouting anthems. There’s rare live footage of Family, but one’s appreciation of this may depend on how well you can take Roger Chapman’s eccentric vocalizing. Gonzo acts of the day like Gong and Arthur Brown also figure prominently. Brown’s face-painted and (literally) fiery act, rich with occult craziness, extends well into the audience. There’s also a bit from folk-proggers Quintessence, but mostly as background to the antics of the yoga-crazy, mud-bath loving, tribal-drumming, twirly dancing and meadow-frolicking half-naked (sometimes all-naked) attendees. Roeg shows us a crazy patchwork of both hedonistic and religious/spiritual practices, and organized services by groups ranging from Hare Krishna to the Church of England.

But all these disparate elements come together in the rousing musical finale with Traffic performing that old party favorite “Gimme Some Loving.” This is the extended line-up of the group, with an extra drummer and a percussionist as well as co-founder Dave Mason who had briefly rejoined. Behind the urgent lead vocal of Steve Winwood, the band work the audience into a state of jubilation, many of them climbing onto the stage to dance. It’s a celebratory scene of the kind that would be hard to imagine in today’s over-scaled festival landscape of security and stage buffers. There seemed to be less distance between bands and fans back then and “Glastonbury Fayre” is a valuable window back on the beginnings of the festival sub-culture that plays a huge part of many people’s concertgoing lifestyle today. (Available on DVD and in whole or on YouTube)

–Rick Ouellette

I am the author of the 2016 book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. There are still several copies available (only $12), if interested, let me know in the comments section.

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11 comments

  1. Great review; thanks Rick.
    I have the extraordinary 3 LP set, released in 1972, like the film. It’s an odd beast as some of the audio comes from other performances and some is not live.
    Bowie appeared, I believe. Does he appear in the film? The one song on the record is not live.
    And of course, the record has a side by The Grateful Dead, which is rather nice as they did not actually appear.
    All in all, a record as shambolic as the event, I imagine. But wonderfully packaged!
    -Bruce

    1. I’ve heard some of that record online, pretty rare I think. And a lot of 20-minute numbers, those were the days. For whatever reason, Bowie is not in the film for whatever reason, that would have been great to see!

  2. Lovely review. How things have changed over the years though. It’s all glancing now and people being ferried in by helicopter. What would the hippies of 1971 have thought.

    1. Thanks, Alyson. Yeah, never mind copters. In the film one of festival guys tells Melanie’s handler over the phone that if she is coming to perform, she better get some ‘wellies” first. 🙂

      1. Ah yes, the ‘wellies’ that name taken from the footwear worn by the Duke of Wellington. Even the wellies have become glamourous in the 21st century but still a Glastonbury staple.

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