KEITH PAYNE sighs when you ask him about the Rolling Stones. It’s not that he doesn’t have a soft spot for them, having toured with the band for years, but at 73, he doesn’t have time any more for all the fuss and the idolatry and the hunger for scandalous stories.
“Look, Mick [Jagger] is a very intelligent and professional performer, and very bright and likeable,” he says. “Keith [Richards] is very serious and a big reader and thinker with his own philosophy in life and is probably the most honest person I’ve ever met. Ronnie [Wood] is everybody’s mate and Charlie’s [Watts] a complete gentleman. They’re a wonderful group of people and the rest is just… shenanigans.”
A painter and sculptor who specialised in inflatable stage sculptures and worked with the Stones, Pink Floyd, AC/DC and many others for 30 years, Payne now lives in Schull, West Cork with his wife Miranda, where he paints and co-owns the Blue House art gallery.
This year, Payne will judge Electric Picnic’s ‘Far-fetched Caravan Challenge’, which is held by the organisers of the Trailer Park area of the festival. It’s a “metropolis of tiny venues, interactive cultural outposts, fun-clinics and oddball theatres” curated by Roz and Hugo Jellet; every year they award grants to 15 artists, designers and builders for the wildest and most inventive caravan conversions to add to the area. During the festival, they judge an overall winner.
With his background in set design and rock ‘n’ roll, Payne is well qualified to judge the caravans. “I suppose I’ll be looking for the theatrical first and then the minutiae,” he says. “I‘ll be looking at good paint jobs and innovative ideas. I don’t know what to expect quite frankly; last year I saw pictures of a double-decker bus that was half buried in the ground, so who knows what this year will bring? I think there’ll be a lot of interesting people coming out of the woodwork for this one.”
Payne has another qualification for the position of judge: he started out as a wheelwright and builder of horse-drawn vehicles. “I know a bit about trailers, having lived in one for years,” he says. “When I first came to Ireland I travelled from Cork up to Donegal in a horse-drawn wagon.” His fondness for the peripatetic life may be why he was able to tour life for so long.
“Touring is very tiring: you don’t know whether you’re on a plane or a bus, or what country you’re in. You’re like a zombie. You finish the show, have a beer and a pizza and next thing you know you’re back at work. You only get a sense of the city you’re in by the people streaming past you in the stadium.”
Payne’s big break in the set design business came when Pink Floyd approached a friend of his , Rob Harries, to build a giant inflatable pig to shoot the iconic cover of their 1977 album, Animals, at Battersea Power station.
The publicity that ensued when the pig broke loose and sailed into Heathrow’s airspace has gone down in rock’n’roll history and helped generate business for Payne and Harries’ company. “I think a stoned roadie cut the wires or something; anyway, it flew off and then after that we got lots of telephone calls from all over the world from rock bands asking for a fifty foot this or a sixty foot that.”
He may prefer to keep schtum about wild rock adventures, but is happy to share stories of professional mishaps, and laughs heartily as he relates an incident on one South American Stones tour, where one of the famous 60 foot inflatable Honky Tonk Women misbehaved spectacularly.
“There had been an incredible thunderstorm that afternoon and there was a tonne of water in it. As we blew it up and Mick came across the stage, the whole lot cascaded down on top of him.”
- Electric Picnic takes place in Stradbally on September 2-4