In 1989 a group of men who could not play a note of music, but learned to march in step launched themselves on the unsuspecting people of Falmouth in a bid to breathe new life into the town’s flagging summer carnival.
Twenty-five years on and Falmouth Marine Band has become a firm favourite with locals who expect to see them at the town’s major events, and visitors, who are never quite sure whether the band is supposed to be taken seriously.
As well as providing many laughs over the years, the band has also raised between £150,000 and £200,000 for a range of local charities.
The two men behind Falmouth Marine Band were Dave Spargo and Colin “Benno” Bennett, of SKB Sails, who managed to recruit a group of friends to take part in Falmouth’s carnival. Stepping out in “cheap printed tartan” that was christened the Cornish Drinking Tartan, the band were an instant hit, but the initial intention had only been for a one-off performance.
However, after “a long discussion and a few beers” at the Star and Garter pub, which became the band’s headquarters, the decision was made to create a marine band worthy of a town with a proud maritime history.
The band is generally made up of 36 members and has had three leaders, beginning with Dave Spargo, who held the post for 13 years; Jim “The Crane” Boyd, who was leader for just one year, and current leader, Paul Wickes, who is enjoying his 12th year at the helm.
Each year at the carnival, which the band has organised for the past decade, the much-anticipated new uniform is revealed. These have included Beefeaters, King Henry IX, the Egyptians with Kylie the camel, Cowboys and Indians, Mounties and this year’s Star Wars’ Stormtroopers. Members have also dressed up and led the Falmouth Pink Wiggers on their fundraising parade through town.
The band may be “musically challenged” but they have won the hearts of people. Current leader Paul said: “What is special about the band is that under any other circumstance that band of people would not be together – it is the band that brings them together and gives them a common sense of being.
“To be a band member you have to sign up to what the band is about – that is having fun, making people smile and collecting money for charities. We are living proof of what can be achieved in life without the need for talent or rehearsals. It is organised chaos – that is what is fun about it.
“We do march in step, hopefully; the uniforms are immaculate, but what you hear is just a cacophony – we are not musicians, we are a noise, but a noise that has defined us. We do have meetings and everything we do is democratic – the majority vote says what events we do and who gets the money.”
Falmouth Marine Band’s popularity was cemented in 1991 when they accompanied the Cornwall rugby team to the championships’ final at Twickenham. Members were enjoying a quiet drink in a pub before the match when they were interrupted by a chief inspector from the Metropolitan Police who had become concerned by the number of band “fans” who were blocking roads.
“Outside the pub there were 2,000 to 3,000 Cornish fans all cheering and shouting that they wanted the band,” said Paul. “The band had a police escort into Twickenham and they were allowed to march around the pitch before the game. It was a moment in history no money can buy and they instantly became legends.”
To celebrate the band’s silver anniversary, a party was held at Falmouth Rugby Club where as well as some jokes, songs and general revelry, there were some special presentations made.
Three band members, Chris Hodge, Johnny Gough and Nigel Collins, were presented with 25 year medals which are inscribed “Marine Band Legends.”
Jane Collins, landlady at the Star and Garter, was also named as a Marine Band Legend, and Dave Spargo was made honorary president for life in recognition of being a founder member. Sadly Benno died in 2001.
With their first quarter century now under their belts, members have no plans to retire. “What is wonderful about the band is that we have made so many friends and we all help each other,” said Paul. “We will keep doing it as long as people keep letting us.”