Memories of a Germ-free Festival.
An affectionate salute to ATP’s seaside weekenders.
This November, if the lord spares me, I’ll be attending my twelfth All Tomorrow’s Parties seaside weekender. Now, that’s nowhere near all of them – there have been over thirty in the UK alone, originally at Pontins in Camber Sands (or ‘Camber muthafuckin Sands’ as Flava Flav taught us to call it) then its slightly posher west country cousin, Butlins in Minehead. I didn’t go to the first one, or the second one, just looked on enviously as what seemed like all my favourite bands convened in the unlikely setting of a holiday camp for the enjoyment of those lucky sods with the money, organisational skills and/or geographical proximity to take advantage. I had none of these things at the time, and had to wait until 2003 for my turn. The phone rang one afternoon and an acquaintance – no more than that at the time – asked if I’d be interested in going on a boozy weekend to see The Fall, Public Enemy and The Magic Band among others. Acquaintances like that quickly become firm friends, and so began my habit of attending at least one such event each calendar year. That pattern is about to end, though. It has to, because after the two festivals later his year there will be no more.
I won’t dwell on the reasons why. I can’t, because I don’t really know them, and nobody likes a rumourmonger. It’s safe to assume, though, that the economics no longer stack up. ATP underwent a restructuring a year or two ago which effectively conceded as much. There’s no shame in that. I’m sure the organisers could have taken some serious sponsorship dollar down the years, but such a move would have lost them the very credibility among artists, agents and punters that’s enabled them to mount such an impressive series of events. Make that ‘Events’ with a capital E. Springboard shows for returning heroes like Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, The Stooges and Television surely qualify as that.
It would be extremely unfair, though, to present ATP as an oldies festival, trading on ‘heritage’ (puke) acts like those above. ‘We take Viagra, and go to Camber Sands’ growled Mark E Smith over the opening bars of Mod Mock Goth, no doubt setting his sights on the perceived vintage of the demographic. In fact, while the top end of many bills has been weighted towards the classic and the reformed, for obvious reasons, I’ve also stumbled upon countless great newer acts that would have remained hidden away to me without ATP. I gained my first exposure to Deerhoof, Afrirampo, Beirut and Future of the Left, among dozens of other favourites, while enjoying a pint in the surreal confines of Hi-de-Hi holiday hell, or ‘Auschwitz with good music’ as Nick Cave memorably called it.
The pint, it has to be said, was always a prominent attraction among my group, based as it was around a rotating group of Stoke City fans (plus honorary members) from around the country enjoying an annual get-together. This was never truer than during the Minehead days when the mighty Exmoor brewery would set up stall to a roaring response, the Gold in particular usually selling out at some point around Sunday lunchtime. Good taste in music seems to extend to beer. Twenty-four hour drinking, to paraphrase the Membranes, although sadly not at northern prices.
And on the subject of sociability, that’s also helped to make these weekenders unique. There are two factors at play here. Firstly, a holiday camp is essentially a village, in this case one where the performers are generally happy to hang out and watch the bands alongside their fans. Fancy wandering over to Ian Svenonius and gushing drunkenly about how Weird War were the band of the weekend? Go ahead, make a tit of yourself. I did. He was charming, by the way. Want to attract the Dirty Three’s attention in a sports bar? Simply bellow your delight in unison with a couple of pals as Thomas Sorenson wins two points for the Potters with a last-minute penalty save against Wigan. It worked for us. Basically, everyone’s cool with each other because you’re all happy campers together. You might well live next door.
Which brings me to sociability point two. Much is made of the wartime spirit to be found at traditional muddy rock festivals. You know, chomp on mung beans in the yurt then shit them out into a stream. Now imagine how much less irritable you’d be at a festival with little houses for everybody. And beds. And showers. And bathrooms. And fridges. A festival with fucking fridges!! Well, you don’t have to imagine it, because that germ-free festival exists. Well, it did. Man, I’ll miss it.
The bill for that first weekend of mine in 2003 was pieced together by electronic adventurers Autechre. It was fascinating to survey the variety of acts and form a picture of how each had contributed to the curators’ musical universe. I have occasionally wondered quite how seriously to take this ‘curatorial’ conceit. Were all these line-ups really wish lists, enthusiastically compiled by the lucky invitee, or just an imaginative branding device? Well, former curators like Warren Ellis and Matt Groening insist it’s the former, and it’s certainly true to say that the most memorable weekends have been those with a strong organising principle, whether based around the alumni of Steve Albini’s recording studio or a trawl around Belle & Sebastian’s favourite Glaswegian cafés.
Now I have catholic tastes. All I ask is that you put something of yourself into your music and, unless your self is clearly that of an arsehole, I’ll happily pay attention. Thus, ATP has been good to me. From the sunny pop uplands of Camera Obscura to the cavernous, bowel-itching bleakness of Sunn O))), I’ve been delighted, disturbed and disorientated but rarely ever bored. .The scary psycho-panto of the Residents. Edwyn Collins with Teenage Fanclub as his backing band. Boredoms and their genuinely awe-inspiring ten-drummer line-up. Shellac’s hilarious onstage Q&A sessions. Reconvening at the Magic Band’s performance after a fire evacuation, just in time for Big-Eyed Beans from Venus. All-time favourite memories, all thanks to ATP. One last blowout in November (Tickets). Let’s hope somebody picks up the crown.