I’ve been asked by GhettoRaga – the Third Ear Band’s Official Esoteric Archive – to write about my encounter with the band. Having written this, I thought I’d share it with you. GhettoRaga is a fabulous collection of material if you feel drawn to explore more, and you’ll find plenty of Third Ear Band tracks on Youtube. I’ll paste in one example at the end of this post.
On May 3rd 1970 I was initiated into a magical Druid group on top of Glastonbury Tor. After several years of apprenticeship, and shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I was formally inducted into The Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids in a ceremony that included music from The Third Ear Band.
My Druid teacher and the head of the Order, Ross Nichols, had managed to get the band to play at the ceremony, and the event was announced on John Peel’s radio show on the BBC, which meant a record attendance: 250 people came to watch.
I recently looked up my old teacher’s notes on what happened, and he writes that in addition to the Mayor of Glastonbury being in our circle, there were band members Paul Minns on oboe, Ursula Smith on cello, Richard Coff on violin, Glen Sweeney on drum, and their manager Andrew King.
I’ve even found a record of what he said by way of introduction. We processed up from Well House Lane to the field at the foot of the Tor. There we all stopped and the old Chief addressed us:
Friends and Companions – Before we start our preliminary ceremony here, I wish to express the thanks of us all to the Mayor of Glastonbury for his kindness in coming to visit us here at the beginning of our ceremonial.
What we are about to do is to declare our purpose, which is to contact the old wisdom of spiritual knowledge which has been communicated to mankind here, in Glastonbury, in a special way. It is between two pillars, one of lifted stone signifying air and intelligence, the other of water meaning cleansing and sensitivity. Later on we show the other two elements, earth and fire, in the cave and the dragon, thus completing the four elements and then adding a fifth, the sword Excalibur of Spirit, thus completing the divine pentagram…
Suitably enlightened, confused or intrigued, we then proceeded up to the summit of the Tor. To give you a feel for how this looked, here is archive footage of Ross Nichols leading fellow Druids up to the Tor, taken at a different Beltane between 1965 and 1969:
After I was initiated, the Chief spoke to everyone again:
Companions and friends: This is the fifth time that at this season we have tried to bring here the message of May. Sometimes it is the eve of May called Beltane, sometimes being a few days into May it is the May festival. Blossom should be fully out in all its legendary and magical power, and operated through our May Queen of the blossom and her family of the sky and earth.
But we have lacked something – music. We had poetry – dancing is difficult up here, and a maypole seems impossible – and poetry is good and uplifting – but music gives us the lilt of life.
I don’t need to tell you about the very well-known Third Ear Group, with their gentle and very different music, belonging I think to our purposes of linking with the natural rhythms that are basic. There are times of day and moments in the year that really mean something and seem to give power, and there are chords and notes that mean more than words and can reverberate with almost infinite power. Links of this kind we all need whether we know it or not. You have just seen and heard us admit a New Bard who we feel tunes in with us and will go on tuning in, and that is why he is admitted. He was ‘tuned’ upon some of the older wisdom sayings just now: but these restated are new not old for they are permanent. Music is like that – eternally new and old.
Those who want to know about us and link with us, should come afterwards to the Tor Guest House in Ashwell Lane, where we have all literature, etc., and will be glad to contact – we will be rather busy immediately after the ceremony.
The Third Ear musicians are now going to give us – The Tor Raga.[He later wrote: ‘This lasted some 10 minutes, with four instruments’].
Three things strike me about this event: firstly, how very ‘switched on’ Ross was to the Zeitgeist. Even though he was of another generation, he was passionately interested in what was happening culturally and amongst young people. He wrote for the hippie International Times and was an enthusiast of John Michell’s work. And he recognized in the Third Ear Band music that was progressive, original, and yet – unlike much other contemporary music – completely in tune with Druidic and spiritual ideals.
Secondly, how canny he was to actually get hold of a band which was a rising star at the time. John Peel was championing them, and had been part of the band for a while. Their first album Alchemy, released in 1969, had Peel playing jaw harp and harmonica on it, and included tracks with names like Druid One, Stone Circle, and Dragon Lines. They had played at the famous Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park the year before, in July 1969, and in the following year, when they played on the Tor, they went on to make a second album: Third Ear Band – Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, as well as composing a soundtrack for the film Abelard & Eloise. The year after that they collaborated with Roman Polanski on the soundtrack for his film Macbeth. They produced one other album, in1972, but this was only released many years later under the title Prophecies, then later still, Magus. The band disbanded, and their percussionist, Glen ‘Zen’ Sweeney, went on to become a Druid in the Ancient Druid Order, whose chief, David Loxley, had designed the cover for their first album. You can read an interview with Loxley here, where he states that ‘the cover represents the real mysteries of Sex or creativity.’
The third thing that strikes me about what happened that day on the Tor is this: they chose to play Tor Raga, which illustrates perfectly one of the most fascinating features of Druidry: its potential connections with the Dharmic traditions of India. The Third Ear Band were playing World Music long before it became a phenomenon. As Loxley says in his interview, their music was a fusion between freeform jazz, indian music, meditation and folk music played on classical instruments. It was designed for altering consciousness, for engendering mystical states. The fact that connections can be traced between the spiritual traditions at either end of the Indo-European arc is a subject for another discussion, but if you want to explore this further see the Order’s section on this on their website.
To my 18 year old self, the fact that my initiation ceremony included the Third Ear Band didn’t seem particularly significant. Now, almost fifty years later, I find this fact moving and inspiring. Foreshadowing the music of the Afro Celt Sound System and Celtic Vedic, which both have Druidic connections, the Third Ear Band allowed two streams of spiritual tradition to meet in one of Britain’s most sacred places – where the waters of the red and white springs flow together beside the Tor.
And now for a glimpse of the band! I wanted to show you ‘Druid Grocking’ or ‘Druid One’ but this video is more pleasing (to my ear at least!) and you get to see the band playing live: