It's a fair old drive to Skegness; it doesn't look much on a map but as I wind my way towards the coast on another country road, I find myself wondering why I'm doing this to myself. I'm off to Butlins for a weekend of the Great British Alternative Festival. I'm partial to these weekenders that Butlins are increasingly turning to in out of season months but I'm tired and grumpy after a difficult week at work. I wonder how this'll lift my gloom. I pull into a Little Chef.
There's an entourage sat on a nearby table. I recognise Neville Staple and start up a conversation. "Are you looking forward to the show in Skegness?" I ask. He nods. "These tings are always good", says Neville. I tell him that I'll be seeing his show later and Neville emits the slightest of grumbles that he's on before The Beat, seeing himself as more significant in the 2 tone stakes. I ask Neville if he'll give a shout out to a friend, Elizabeth, who'll be at Butlins and isn't in the best of health at the moment. He says he'll never remember but gets his manager to write it down on a piece of paper.
Fast forward a few hours and I'm in one of the cavernous spaces that is one of the venues for this extravaganza. Neville has been delighting the considerable audience with his tried and tested show. The bars in this venue are heaving; this one that I'm queuing in is six deep in people. The ska has got everybody smiling and laughing. There's a few rude boys here but not the sort who are unaware of bar etiquette. Eventually, I get served and return to my gang of friends.
'Did you hear the dedication?' says Paul. I hadn't. Apparently Neville had taken that piece of paper out of his pocket and given us a shout out. What a star. Earlier in the day at the Little Chef, he'd looked older and less mobile than he now did on stage. With a tight and well-rehearsed band behind him, he was in his element and putting on quite a show. My grumpiness was evaporating.
The music at these Butlins weekenders is important but it's only part of the story. For most here, this is a chance to get away from it all in comfortable surroundings. Photographer Phil and I are staying in a 'gold' apartment and the luxurious all mod-cons we get are simply stunning. Those stories of uncomfortable beds and cold chalets are clearly things of the past.
It's Saturday lunchtime and we're playing a table tennis tournament. Phil arrives late as he's had to head into Skegness to buy an emergency supply of pants (he forgot to pack his regular briefs) but joins us just in time to show off with his topspin backhands. The music schedule isn't jam packed across the three venues here which gives plenty of time to try out these extra activities. In this room, whilst we play ping pong, an assortment of punks, mods and skinheads indulge in snooker.
On Sunday, before the bulk of the music starts, it's Splashworld that gets my attention. Phil can't join us as he's also forgotten to pack his swimming trunks. I offer him my spare pair of Speedos but he politely declines. In here, we have swimming races in the rapids and throw ourselves down water chutes, taking care not to sink as we recall all of the fine food we've just eaten for breakfast.
There's lots of food options on these weekends. Most of the apartments are kitted out with kitchens and so many punters take advantage of this, bringing food with them. There are chain restaurants and other on site provision if you want typical take-away fare. But, we've struck it lucky. The premier dining experience means that for breakfast and dinner we can relax in a fine Butlins restaurant. There's considerable choice from many serving stations; daily roast dinners, pasta dishes made fresh for you, curries, Chinese, cheese and biscuits. We put on pounds as we polish down our plates of quality food.
Quite early in the weekend and we're having a discussion about what it means to be 'alternative'. There's a definite niche here; in the most part, this is a festival that offers people who identify with a sub-culture the chance to get nostalgic about its former glories. These people are now typically in their 40's and 50's and are revelling in the opportunity to don the gladrags of yesteryear. Thus, we have punks sporting their best mohicans and safety pins and skinheads looking like extras from 'This Is England'. I don't see many goths but conclude this is no bad thing.
The punks are out in force for Buzzcocks and The Damned in particular. Both of these play evening headline sets. The venue they play in must hold a couple of thousand people but still, at times, it's a one in one out procedure. I've always been partial to Buzzcocks on record and there's no doubting their enthusiasm live but somehow they never quite make a connection with me. It's almost like they're too frenetic as they lurch from tune to tune. Pete Shelley's lyrics are indecipherable amidst the whizz. Queues when The Damned play snake around the complex so I choose to avoid them and instead watch the complete set in the other main venue from festival stalwarts, Alabama 3.
I think, over the years, I've perhaps seen Alabama 3 more than any other band currently on the live circuit. It's not that they're my favourite live band but their work ethic is such that you can't help but bump into them during a busy festival season. I've seen them when crap but I've also seen them when brilliant. Tonight, it's the latter. It's a focused, professional greatest hits set. Revd D. Wayne, not always known for looking a healthy picture, appears clean-cut and smart. I just about understand every word he says. Captivating.
Another band that create quite a stir over the weekend are Northerners, Evil Blizzard. Wearing creepy latex masks must make it sweaty work for this bass guitar laden ensemble. When blood splattered pigs yielding weapons take to the stage and interact with the audience, one could be forgiven for thinking that those fancy dress Halloween parties had arrived early. Musically, the assortment of bass guitars on stage make a sound akin to Public Image Limited if put through a Hawkwind filter. They win the award for the most theatrical, bizarre performance of the weekend. Definitely ones to watch should they come to a town near you.
Owner of the best mohican of the weekend surely goes to Ken Bonsall, lead singer with the folk rockers from Nottinghamshire, Ferocious Dog. There's is a high energy set full of fiddle and fizz that gets the party going on the Saturday night. They're never going to avoid the Levellers comparison but this is an astute booking nonetheless.
The Fall need little introduction such has been their imprint on alternative pop culture over the past decades. Their Sunday afternoon set divides those gathered here to watch. As Mark E Smith grimaces and growls with his unintelligible slur, some look bemused and leave. Nonchalant in an unironed shirt that's clearly just been taken out of its packaging, he still strolls around the stage, oblivious to the effect he's having. The band, impeccably tight as ever, play their industrial Germanic tunes with cool disregard. Sometimes they sing along when Smith thrusts a microphone into their faces. Sometimes Smith is an unlikely porn star gobbling on two microphones as if they are hard cocks. As the set draws to a close, the microphone is given to audience members who scream into it from their front row prime position. Exhiliarating.
An important work meeting on Monday morning meant that I had to wave goodbye to Skegness after my evening tea on the Sunday. I was quite keen on seeing Hazel O'Connor, Hugh Cornwell, and The Selecter do their stuff but my brief sojourn had already met a need. As I wind my way away from the coast on another country road, I know why I needed this Butlins break. My gloom has lifted and I'm no longer tired and grumpy. I pull into a Little Chef.
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