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May 23, 2007

Harry Phibbs goes to the most civilised of gigs - Countryside Rocks in aid of the Countryside Alliance

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Countryside Rocks
Highclere Castle
Saturday 19th May 2007

It was the most civilised gig I had ever been to. There was none of the edge, illicit drug taking or muddy squalor that is synonymous with Glastonbury, the Big Chill or the Tribal Gathering. The event took place in the grounds of Highclere Castle, home of The Earl of Carnarvon, and although around 10,000 people had turned up there wasn't a sense of crush.

As with all Countryside Alliance event the organisation was smooth and everyone's manners impeccable. A vast sensibly dressed array settled down with their rugs and hampers and delicious home made food. Those in the minority who had not prepared their own food were perfectly well catered for organic burger bars, Champagne tents and so forth. Then there was a fenced off area near the stage for those who had actually come along for the music. The code for this was: "No glass beyond this point".

Many I think regarded the occasion as an agreeable opportunity for a picnic next to a castle and the opportunity to provide the Countryside Alliance with 75. These people were ideally place to be able to hear the music going on in the background (and see them on stage in the distance) but without the conversation or eating or drinking being interfered with. Certainly there were many others who were locals happy to have the chance to come and hear pop stars on their doorstep.

Whether those present had a social or musical motive for turning up they were given gentle reminders of the political purpose behind the event. Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Vauxhall and Chairman of the Countryside Alliance, served as an unlikely Master of Ceremonies. Her role is much valued by the Alliance who are keen to stress they are not party political. Their mission is to decriminalise hunting rather than secure the election of a Conservative Government - although awkwardly for Hoey the two causes do seem pretty directly linked. The event was interspersed with some less than generous acknowledgements of the Prime Minister's impending retirement.

Musicians performing included Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bryan Ferry and Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel.

Let's hear it for Knight Frank,
bellowed Hoey in appreciation of the estate agents who had sponsored the event.
Ten years ago the Countryside Alliance was formed and Tony Blair was elected. Ten years on the Countryside Alliance is still going strong. Where is Tony Blair? I would like to thank all the artists for performing free of charge today because they love the countryside. We are now fighting to overturn the hunting ban under whatever Government.
TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson also served as an MC. He roared:
Blair has gone. I've just been up in the North Pole filming something for Top Gear. It's pretty cold up there and you certainly need your 4 by 4s.
Clarkson then introduced Winwood:
A great guy. Who runs a great shoot in Gloucestershire.
The references to Blair were so frequent that it meant one still contemplating his legacy as the musicians performed. The opening verses of Come Up and See Me Make Me Smile, sung with timeless verve by Cockney Rebel's Steve Harley seemed apposite.
You've done it all, you've broken every code

And pulled the rebel to the floor

You spoilt the game, no matter what you say

For only metal - what a bore!

Blue eyes, blue eyes, how come you tell so many lies?

There's nothing left, all gone and run away

Maybe you'll tarry for a while

It's just a test, a game for us to play

Win or lose, it's hard to smile

Resist, resist, it's from yourself you have to hide.

Harley's interest in rural matters can partly be easily explained. Racing is his main pastime. He says:
It's my therapy. My hobby. I only wish I could have ridden a big, good steeplechaser over the Cheltenham course just once in my life.
There were not just old stagers performing. Proceedings got under way with a band called What Next? formed by old Harrovians Nick Herrtage and Peter Fricker - although they sang famous hits from the past four decades rather than coming up with their own songs. They were followed by Mike d'Abo formerly the lead singer with Manfred Mann. His is the voice from the number one hit The Mighty Quinn. As a song writer he was responsible for Handbags and Gladrags and Build Me Up Buttercup and then went on to come up with such TV advertising jingles such as A Finger of Fudge.

The most exciting performer was Bryan Ferry. He sang all his best numbers including my favourite Love is the Drug. The picnics were temporarily abandoned (quite safely nobody in this crowd was going to steal) and the surging throng went up by the stage. The crush gave the gig some authenticity.

While Eric Clapton might be considered a bigger star he was less of a crowd pleaser due to his reluctance to include all his greatest hits. Layla, howled the farmers and huntsmen and their wives but to no avail. I suppose Clapton gets fed up singing it all the time, was performing for free and thought to himself: "What are the yocals going to do? Not invite me back next year?"

As Blair searches for his legacy and ponders inclusion of the hunting ban it was announced that ten years ago there were 417 packs of hounds hunting in Britain and today it is exactly the same number.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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