LOOKING FOR A CERTAIN RATIO: The Last UK Holiday Camp All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival
Oh the weekend will come and go, but what happens to those clashing moments? What happens to your heart?
All Tomorrow’s Parties have been operating holiday camp weekend festivals in the UK since the year 2000. Now, on this December weekend on the south coast of England, we are about to celebrate the 37th, and Last One Ever. I give you advanced notice that this one-woman survey is flawed by particularity, but you can always supplement my findings in the comments section. It is thus because, one, I’m female in a great ocean of boyness, which can be a very nice place to be if you like that sort of thing (and I do). Two, I’m not on holiday here at Pontins like the rest of you, lounging around in your chalets watching Chomsky lectures on TV and eating croissants. I’m busy selling zines and books and reviewing the event for Collapse Board. For this reason I might see less bands, but I pretty much get to talk to every single one of you, and that makes my weekend.
Three, I’m upholding musical standards that some might describe as fascist; an intolerance for the undelicious, unangular, undelightfully detuned, for the predictable. In this scheme of things there is no room for the blokeish excesses of space rock, therefore most of the stupid bands playing this weekend are lost on me. Of particular puzzlement is the massive quantity of groups that one might need to be stoned to appreciate, juxtaposed with ATP’s own posters that remind us that they have no tolerance whatsoever for drugs. Surely they can take their drugs? And doesn’t everyone else here need some, to deal with Loop et al? [Amen – Ed]
Four, I might be wrong. For this reason a number of material facts will be presented along with the fragments we’re calling a review so that you may be the ultimate judge of what really went on there.
The fanzine I was selling was an advanced product of this very piece and it’s called Commemorative Plate. I write of how we’ve grown old together but stop short of morbidity. There are facts and figures for the nerdopolis, and it’s illustrated by Leeds’ newest artistic find. Essentially, we kept it nice. I only hinted at the chasm-like gender imbalances, and omitted the phrase. “Oh ATP, you succulent sausagefest”.
We begin the weekend where perhaps it should end, up in the beer-sticky carpeted hall that is the main stage, watching Shellac. Perhaps they are on so soon in order to counter our excessive sentimentality, or maybe they wanted to get their show out of the way so they could enjoy the rest of the weekend (they’ve been known to play at 1pm at these events but that, ostensibly, was to get everyone out of bed and ready for all the other bands on offer).
Shellac know they are performing at a kids’ party and are always ready with the jokes, the hats, the pantomime routines. We in turn are always prepared to be delighted. They play like treble is rationed. Sometimes they rock like Die Kreuzen, sometimes they crowdplease with live favourites like ‘A Prayer To God’, ‘Wingwalker’ and ‘Spoke’. We have lumps in our throats when Weston and Albini begin dismantling-Trainer’s-kit-while-he-still-tried-to-play-it-for-the-very-last-time-at-a-UK-holiday-camp-ATP. You see what I mean about the sentimentality; maybe it’s indicative of a human tendency to grasp at regularly repeated events and create traditions out of them. Shellac are such a venerable institution here, it can’t be healthy.
And the “last ever” ruse really worked its marketing magic on us as the event is sold out to the rafters.
Slint are on next. I’ve waited years for this; 20 of them, and it feels like too much. All that time keeping this band sequestered in my heart, mythical-through-ignorance, omitting to read anything about them and not even knowing what they look like apart from Will Oldham’s classic skinnydipping snaps.
Yawning and sore-footed – it’s almost midnight when they make their quiet entrance with the three-minute noodle of ‘For Dinner’ – we await musical redemption. There are six Slintsters now, expanded from the original four. Most stay on the left side of the stage, and Dave Pajo is all by himself on the right. Maybe he smells bad? They seem bored. And thusly they get ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ out of the way. One of the most powerful songs ever written, up there with ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ and ‘Quiet Life’, damply dispensed with. Yes, they really are dispensing tonight, casually passing out-of-date medicine into poorly hands across the counter.
Brian goofs around between songs for a while and then stops. Later he does an extensive crowd surf, all the way to the end of the room and back to the stage where the rest of the band stand and wait for him in silence. They play the hilarious ‘Ron’, a loud squirly pre-post-rock thing about shit headphones, but it just feels rude in this atmosphere of reverent attention.
Most of the time we’re craving dynamism, enduring long stretches where nothing much happens. Eventually they reach the apex of their set, which now has to be ‘Good Morning Captain’. The mounting tension in the boys around me is impossible to ignore as they wait for the special, powerful words, “I’m sorry – I miss you”, at which point there is an almost orgasmic release of energy, the suppressed emotion of boys told they must never speak of how they feel. It’s reminiscent of how Neutral Milk Hotel is beloved by boys (and some girls) everywhere for Jeff Mangum’s ability to express the feelings forbidden to his gender, producing songs that prickle like grass emerging from heavy concrete. Slint certainly carry this repressed gene but its expression is rote and passionless tonight.
Had we been content to stay at home and dust off Spiderland, we’d have been stronger for it. It’s true no one had ever made a record like it before, but retromania has never been less fun. One unreliable witness tells me that ATP paid Slint A Great Deal of Money to reform in 2005 (but they can’t remember quite how much). Such necrophiliac prostitution is troublesome to the idealistic and passionate among us, and maybe that’s why I wake in the night beholding a disturbing vision of Slint as a pair of faux fur Y-fronts. Subconscious forces supply the truth – they are fake, expensive, and pants.
Buddha teaches that everything depends upon the mind. The mental state that we bring to any circumstance determines the experience that we have. Maybe I projected my tiredness, stress and pain onto the band on the stage. There are witnesses for the defence: as the room clears, some are doing somersaults, and one chap is crying, his face glowing with astonishment. “That made my life,” he gasps.
The matter of Slint’s slintiness is a sensitive one which I therefore refer to your jury-some selves. Life-making or gross in the extreme, neither, or both?
Saturday gives us early afternoon breakfast with paper doyleys in Rye, and The Dismemberment Plan. It’s been years. This Washington DC quartet is now symmetrical; three beardy white guys and a clean shaven white guy in the middle. They emerged in 1993 and produced four LPs worth of shockingly choppy/swirly pop explosions that would have stood up even without singer Travis Morrison’s awesome lyrical contortions. In 2001 they went away. ATP got us into the idea that bands could be reanimated at will and so we put them on our fantasy ATP list. Luckily real ATP did that too, cos they never did ask me to curate.
This afternoon they appear complete with piles of juicy hits and excerpts from their post-reformation long-player Unncanny Valley. The new songs are wirey and more sparse, without enough spikey electric guitar for my taste, and linguistically simplified.
Yet they deliver a set that makes me cry – at their beauty of their anthem of inclusivity, ‘You Are Invited’, and spin so hard that strangers coats must be grabbed for stabilisation. They play ‘Gyroscope’, a song of broken hearts that may never heal, ‘Time Bomb’, with the skipping rope synth and acute screams of desperation, the magically taut ‘Face Of The Earth’, the relationship agony-fest ‘What Do You Want Me To Say?’, more loneliness and despair in ‘The City’, another great song about bad times in the impossibly brilliant form of ‘Life Of Possibilities’, the audience-critiquing ‘Do The Standing Still’ and everyone’s black comedy favourite, ‘Ice Of Boston’. The set intensifies as it goes on, and by the end we’re yelling that they make their 57-minute set up to an hour, and they’re not ready for that. Dismemberment Plan, you’re welcome back anytime. Besides, you owe us three minutes.
It’s a well-known fact that the UK currently possesses a collection of rich and fertile underground music scenes. One of these is situated in Leeds. On this occasion ATP has seen fit to include a homegrown act, thus saving on plane fares and reducing the boredom levels. They’ve booked Hookworms, and though there are discontented mutterings around the camp about why they didn’t pick the almighty Cowtown (whose guitarist is Hookworms’ drummer), we are pleased at their inclusion. They look and sound perfect for the event with lots of echo and repeating riffs. We didn’t like it but we know you did.
Michael Rother (NEU!, Harmonia, Kraftwerk) stands before a table that holds a bank of electronica and a laptop, so he can mess and play guitar too. He’s playing with a bassist and a drummer who takes the front of the stage. I wander in during a suitably motorik instrumental, but after that everything gets a bit Chariots Of Fire. It goes on a bit, this Krautrock.
Later, I think I hear a female voice behind a microphone. We rush into the second stage to find 80s/60s psyche act White Fence, four white guys livening up the proceedings somewhere with well-written pop that wavers somewhere between The Verlaines and The Vibes.
The remainder of our day is spent in these dim, languorous halls, selling zines, or getting chatted up in the suitably surreal environs of the amusement arcade. When I get to ask you individually, it turns out that many of you have glamorous jobs like journalist or working for the BBC, or at least you say you do. We enjoy the goodwill of Pontins’ staff, who serve non-nutritious filler in their quiet café. 23 Skidoo and The Pop Group take care of the 80s punk funk quota. And we go to bed.
It’s the early hours of Sunday afternoon. I latecrash a book reading about Rhian E Jones’ Clampdown: Pop-cultural Wars on Class and Gender. This slim but powerful work has been published by Zero Books, who have a presence here at the festival, and it bristles with brilliant analyses of what happened to the thing we called indie, how it and the whole of British culture allowed itself to be depoliticised over the course of the 90s in tune with hegemonic views and some really awful music, and why ‘chav’ is a feminist issue. Juliet Jacques is chairing, yet even in this two bar-tables pushed-together event, the boys in the circle seem to have taken over while the girls sit shuffling and sometimes getting the odd, bright and sharp word in.
The Pub Quiz starts and I wend my way around the bar flogging fanzines. About the best thing I hear anyone say is “Are you authorised to sell these?” to which I reply, “It’s a fanzine”. Suddenly I see that zines are beyond the law. Whoever got taken to court for pissing off pop stars?
In Commemorative Plate I complain about the sausage to muffin ratio, but sometimes when I see a guy band I want them testosterone-heavy and suave. And that’s where Girls Against Boys come in, deep. The collective sleaze of four single guys is rolled up into one big grimy rock explosion. Except they aren’t all single guys, I’m quite sure of that. They’re playing at the thing they used to do 20 years ago, and getting it just right. During their set, singer Scott McCloud(does he sing or heavy-breathe?) declares “We’re old men, but we still look damn good”. It’s true, and when they start their set it’s like someone switched the electricity on at ATP HQ. The passion is tangible, not just onstage where Eli Janney is throwing himself around all over the keyboard almost as much as he used to, and Scott is murmur-shouting into the mic. It’s the excitement down here in the pit, where people are yelling for joy and even pogoing a bit. We can’t contain ourselves, because the thing they have is contagious.
Yet I can never truly embrace the darkness at their heart. “My rockets are red,” slurs Scott, “your babies are blue. ‘How do you feel?’ WHAT KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT?” Words written a long time ago in the context of a fine song; words that, more than ever, sound like violence.
There is another side to GVSB, just as sleazy but a little bit more subtle – and very, very funky. I’m talking about earlier, quieter material like ‘My Night Of Pleasure’ and ‘Kitty-Yo’, but it seems they’re on a mission to rockthefuckout tonight and none of it comes out. This is upsetting, and causes me to spend the next two hours in a confused daze. For this reason The Best Band of The Last ATP prize goes to Dismemberment Plan. Entirely unofficially, you understand.
How do you sell zines at a show in 2013? Here’s an instructional guide. It’s best to get your buyers when they are sitting down and bored. Those standing up tend to snap shut with a defensive “no” at the threat of someone trying to breach their shell. Yet a gratifyingly significant number respond with a yes, before they even know what’s in it. They don’t care – it’s a fanzine, and they miss the times when strange strangers would come and sell them one of these at a show. Writers, there are readers out there just waiting for you to get in their faces and sell them your paper propaganda products. You ought to know this.
And when I do the rounds, these are the sorts of things that happen: A French photographer lady takes photos of me. A girl offers to make a video for me in exchange for a free copy. I meet the diehard ATPers who’ve been to most of these weekends. A Scottish guy says he’s friends with The Pastels. Turns out he did the sound for my band at the 13th Note that time Stuart Braithwaite put us on, 17 years ago, and he’s sat with Carey Lander from Camera Obscura. At the next table a chap remembers going to a party with me and Jad Fair, 20 years back. We speak of mutual friends. Then I fall into a conversation with a chap called Simon who tells me how he “survives” information overload with the dark-eyed intensity of a character from a Douglas Coupland novel. I meet more fanzine writers, and people who don’t know what a fanzine is. I meet the man who’s seen the Dismemberment Plan 63 times. And it goes on.
Mogwai are the waving goodbye band, and they proceed with stately charm, wistfully taking it down and blowing it back up one last time. Afterwards we head down to the disco, where non-white non-male musicians are represented, and we throw ourselves around. The final record played is the one the festival is named after. Everybody hugs, cheers and cries, and we are turned out into the near-frosty night.
In one of these huddles people are speaking of Chalet 169 in hushed and reverent tones. “Last night there were footprints on the ceiling.” “The actual cops came round.” “I know the guy whose credit card is on that chalet.” “Security just gave them a bottle of bleach and a mop and told them to clear it up.” I demand to be taken there immediately, but there are no messy acrobatics going on this final night, just funny tired conversations and some light south-easterly goofing off.
If I could make a list of my mistakes and regrets, it wouldn’t include missing Comets On Fire, though I heard they were like “fucking comets! On fire!,” and something about high octane guitary space rock in a completely packed out room. A squally blattery mess even. The same witness claimed that Loop were “all-consuming and wonderful, beautiful rich rolling guitar sounds” but I didn’t like them at the time and I doubt they could budge the Ablaze-ometer now. I perhaps ought to have seen Les Colettes, the only girl band amongst 30-ish boy bands, and purveyors of dainty, pretty, floaty stuff with violins (I heard it suggested that girls were only allowed on this bill if they were making ethereal sounds). And I didn’t talk to Girls Against Boys’ Johnny Temple about his fascinatingly prolific publishing company Akashic Books. Mainly though I wish I hadn’t spent so much time on all this meaningless activity, but that’s a whole other story.
By the crack of Monday afternoon Pontins’ Camber Sands site has been cleared of the sorrowful and the regretful, mourning after the last of yesterday’s Parties. Yet we think Tomorrow could have a few more up its sleeve – the only question is, who will host them? Maybe we shall have to do it ourselves this time, and then we can include all the Others: homegrowns Cowtown, The Jelas, Spook School, Esper Scout, Monster Killed By Laser, and we could ask Tunabunny, and your band, and maybe Polvo would come over too. I know it’s tricky cos we all already have lives, and you’d have to make sure not to lose your shirt. Perhaps the massed collectives of Ladyfests could combine for the Party to end all Parties? Barry Hogan and friends had a fine idea and executed it with panache. Let’s keep talking, and make this scene more vital than ever before.
About Karren Ablaze!
Karren Ablaze! is an itinerant writer. She is generally to be found in the cafés of southern Europe engaging in literary explorations of music, culture and health. Infamous for producing Ablaze! fanzine in the 80s and 90s, she has recently published her first book, a weighty tome about her fanzine adventures entitled The City Is Ablaze!, now available from www.thecitisablaze.com. (Scott Creney reviewed it here.) She is a Kadampa Buddhist, and a proponent of DIY and riot grrrl methodologies.