Fairport were a bunch of teenage friends who played for fun in the Sixties. Together they invented folk-rock and lived in a commune. After a flourish of success and some obligatory rock-star doses of personal tragedy (the deaths of singer Sandy Denny and drummer Martin Lamble), the band seemed washed up in the late Seventies, when a lot of us were thumbing through punk LPs, working out what to buy with our first record tokens. But they re-formed soon after and are still on stage 30 years later.
Next weekend, in a field in Cropredy, a village north of Banbury, they will once again host their annual summer festival - a date in every folky's diary since as long ago as 1979. This year 18,000 people are expected, and Fairport will be playing on both nights (not just headlining the second) in order to get through as much as possible of the mass of material they have churned out during the past three decades.
Over a breezy lunch in the garden of the Mason's Arms in the Cotswolds, outside Chipping Norton, the band's kingpin and laconic bass player Dave Pegg attempts to sum up the band's history. "I was trying to work out the other day what our combined age is now. It's about 225. That's a bit scary, isn't it?" he says, devouring a king prawn. "Thirty years," he muses. "So many things happen to you." He lights a B&H, scratches his stubble and tries to remember some. How about the commune where the band lived at the end of 1969 with their various girlfriends and an ever increasing number of road crew?
"It was an old pub, The Angel in Little Hadham in Hertfordshire, where the band could rehearse and live. There were about 18 of us in there in the end, with one kitchen and one toilet. The kitchen was occupied 24 hours a day, as was the toilet."
One afternoon the band were relaxing in the back garden with various mind-expanding substances, when they had a visit from five of Little Hadham's boys-in-blue who had been watching the commune for several weeks. "We all thought, `Oh, Christ, it's a bust'," Pegg recalls. "But they'd come to ask if we'd play at the Police Dance in a field opposite the Nag's Head. It was our first outdoor gig, it cost six shillings to get in and they gave us a washing machine as payment."
This has always been the point of Fairport - it's a bit of fun. It is not uncommon to see the band incoherent with laughter on stage at some witty aside. Since their first gig at St Michael's Church, in London's Golders Green, on 27 May 1967, the Fairport concept has always focused on having a good time rather than spinning huge amounts of money. The band's vocalist and guitarist Simon Nicol says the marketing men did grapple with them, but "they fairly soon gave up on us". They live comfortable rural lifestyles and drive powerful cars but there are no mansions in the Caribbean or private jets. There was never any desire for stadium extravaganzas or hotel wrecking. It was only ever meant as an elaborate jam session that began among teenage friends and went on rather longer than planned.
Fairport are unique. Of all the bands that have been going for 30 years, while the others have had a major amount of mainstream success, they have relied on treading the boards, often in small venues like the Stratford- Upon-Avon Civic Centre, to pay the bills. "If we had had the success of, say, the Stones, I think we would have gone our separate ways by now," says Pegg. "As it was, we had to carry on working and for us it became our own kind of little art form."
And there is no sign that they are slowing down. Cropredy takes almost a year to plan, courtesy of Pegg's wife, Christine. Each winter there is a UK tour, often at least one foreign tour, and many one-off gigs around Europe. In 1996, Nicol logged 140 hotel rooms and 43 plane tickets. The only time he starts to feel old is at the Cropredy bash when fans queue at the guest tent for autographs, weighed down with scores of Fairport album covers, and he realises just how long the band has been around.
"The age thing really isn't a problem," he says. "I hope I'm doing my job better now at 46 than I was at 18. I don't see why music should be solely the preserve of young, inexperienced kids. It's good to have them around but when it comes to craftsmanship you need experience."
Fairport have been through many personnel changes over the years (Pegg is the only one never to have left), but the sound has remained constant and is as strong as ever on their new album, out this week. Its title? Appropriately enough: Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
Cropredy is on 8, 9 Aug; tickets available at the gate