Words by Gareth Thompson
American author Justin Hopper once attended a May morning ceremony at Chanctonbury Ring on the Sussex Downs. In his mystic travelogue The Old Weird Albion he wrote, “It was raining, chilly… almost no one was watching. By earthly standards, not a great gig.” Hopper, though, knew this wasn’t the point. The purpose of tradition, he concluded, is to be enacted over and over again.
We humans have been enacting summer solstice customs since the Neolithic times. Honouring our great sun god (the ancient Chinese made the sun female) the festivities were based on fire and feasting, dancing and drumming. Only when Christianity trespassed on formerly pagan ground did these rites become opposed and oppressed. A new notion of ‘One God’ worship drove the former revelry underground, where you might say it has remained ever since.
Resistance lingers today in the shape of state51 Conspiracy who celebrate the solstices each year. A creative if clandestine enterprise, they teamed with Ghost Box Records and the Trunk label for 2019’s midsummer veneration. The event was essentially private, with no rigid rules or even official tickets, expect those bought for the price of an event poster – and they sold out within two hours. Doubtless the sun god was waxing lyrical about all this on his/her cosmic network.
We lucky few with admittance made for Rhoda Street, east London. On the wall was a Jim Vision spraycan painting of the Grim Reaper amid sea serpents and dystopian skies. Further down, barbed wire and corrugated iron revealed a legacy of Shoreditch from twenty years ago, before the artists moved in. A garden and courtyard led to the state51 Factory, a building that expresses much about what the collective stands for and has been its HQ since 1999. The concepts and mechanics of A Midsummer Night’s Happening were put together by state51’s own team.
Oddly for a celebration of radiance, the inside lighting was more darkling than fluorescent and further obscured by black drapes. There was a TV Room containing two old Pye fatscreens, a stained mattress, one red lamp and a grubby clothes line. Mmmm, severe hedonist bedsit vibes – part Tracey Emin, part Marc Almond. Both tv sets were showing identical footage, mostly vintage stuff, from rural magazine programmes to supernatural dramas. Then out in the concrete-floored Youth Club, under mirror ball and searchlights, you stumbled into an aged Hotpoint washing machine, a Zanussi fridge and John Lewis freezer. Next door was Pan’s Garden, with whimsical greenery lit up festively, two record decks and a stage.
Onto this platform came the aforementioned Justin Hopper alongside Sharron Kraus, to perform their Chanctonbury Rings record based on Hopper’s writings. A hefty crowd shuffled forward, curious as to what they might be getting. But what followed outdid all expectancy as the night flamed into being with spectral folk music and spooky storytelling. Kraus worked near miracles with her vocals, dulcimer, recorder and singing bowl, all looped up so she could play duos and trios with herself. Hopper narrated his fragments with uncanny growls and studious diction, like Captain Beefheart meets John Malkovich. Nicely cued, Wendy Pye’s backing film showed aerial views of the Ring, its twilit interior and misty morn mystique. Performed with the wyrdness of an Acid Test gig from the 60s, it made for a spellbinding opener.
Keyboard whizz and impressionist Wisbey became merry prankster for the night, taking requests for film soundtrack and tv tunes. Jonny Trunk spun a Wheel-of-Fortune to decide the genre, resulting in Wisbey and his home organ turning out the ‘Ski Sunday’ theme in reggae style, ‘The Incredible Hunk’ played bossa nova and ‘Match Of The Day’ done as lounge jazz. Hilarious if nostalgic, there was also a ‘Star Wars’ send-up for the throng of comic geeks.
Serious stuff back in the Youth Club next, with previously unheard recordings from sound pioneer and archivist Basil Kirchin, fed through a quartet of reel-to-reel tapes. Robin Warren (aka Robin The Fog) was calm at the controls whilst piano legend Steve Beresford added noirish thumps and flurries. Kirchin’s whistling electronica, booming undertows and guttural moans made for some beautifully mangled ethno-psych. Vibrating patterns sang out like tuned metal sheets, as if Kirchin had once scored Quatermass And The Moshpit. Onscreen at the rear were stills of saucer-eyed men and women, their expressions frozen, perhaps watching their lives flicker past. And female dance troupe Pan’s People, the essence of 70s pop frivolity, assumed a goddess-like glow when shown over this cryptic soundtrack. They’d never looked so folk-horror when cavorting to Boney M.
Back to Pan’s Garden for The Soundcarriers, creating live improv to a Julian House film that was in itself an evocative composition. The band soon found a loose and funky reverie made from bass, guitars, drums and congas, as fireballs and stone circles were projected behind. More mesmeric than melodic, the set was a tangerine dreamscape to wallow in, a warming starburst of joy.
Dry ice now seemed to be rising through the Youth Club’s floor in this polysensory world. But you could spot physical reminders of the site’s former use, with pulleys and winches in the ceiling suggesting an old garage or metal workings. Then another creative in tandem with machinery appeared when Pye Corner Audio took us into the night’s chillout zone. Martin Jenkins, aka Pye, performed his throbbing cinematics to a minimal backdrop, with scant lighting, his features hidden, quite devoid of ego. For him the sound is everything. It’s music to rock a humanoid to sleep with. Music born under a wandering starship. Primal subsonic rumbles. You could be floating on a free cloud or walking on alien soil with Jenkins.
There was even free beer generously thrown in, so MOOF remembered it’s important to be a good guest and duly indulged. Thus by midnight the outdoor Portaloos bore a suitably medieval form, but to quote Aldous Huxley, the event had made this trivial world sublime. A Midsummer Night’s Happening was a near orgiastic celebration of sight and sound. By earthly standards, or any other, it was a great gig.
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