The Great British Alternative Music Festival took place at Butlins, Skegness between 5th and 8th October. Billed as Alternative, in reality it was dominated by punk and bands that declared themselves punk, even if that self-declaration was stretching it a bit for some.
We drove up from the West Country and eventually arrived with minimal drama. It is a bit of a trek but ultimately well worth it and the resort is just north of Skegness by the beach and easy to find. After the usual chase around from A (“go to the drive through reception”) to B ("try Customer Services”) to C (“I think it is in Green Baize”), we got booked in, found the apartment and went for a wander. You can book in from 1300 but not access your rooms until 1500 when they activate your key cards. With the first band at 1600 it makes it slightly tight but do-able.
For the rest of the weekend organisation is pretty slick as you would expect from Butlins, nothing is seemingly left to chance and nothing is missed. The accommodation is of a very high standard and the resort itself has all the usual stuff ranging from Burger King to bowling alleys. The resort and the staff can’t really be faulted.
The event was running two main venues, Reds and Centre Stage, which were two very large nightclub type rooms that saw the main bands. In the centre of the resort under the permanent tent structure there was a smaller stage hosting an “Introducing” stage. This was a chance for bands to win a slot on the main stages next year. The bands were not necessarily unknown, some dated from the 70’s and 80’s so can’t exactly be called new.
Friday started at 4pm with 4 bands on the Introducing stage playing 40-minute slots. The Lengthmen, Jack The Lad, Blue Carpet Band and the Reletics gave it their best. The stage had a small standing area in front with serried ranks of tables and chairs behind on raised sections. The majority of the punters during these sessions sat and drank. A lot. The small supermarket behind the stage provided cheaper drink in quantity and the punters chose to make full use rather than use the main bars. I thought the price of the bars was OK, £3.70 for a Black Sheep, but 4 cans of Carling for £6 quid makes better value. Add bottles of wine and the job is indeed a good ‘un.
At the end of the 4 bands the audience could get a small token if they wanted and post it in the box of their chosen winner, democracy works and other competitions could use this as an example. It ensured the audiences favourite got the win as far as possible. As largely the same crowd seems to come each year it makes sense to let them chose.
At 8pm the main stages opened, three bands each stage programmed before close, directly timed against the other stage to split the by now large crowds. I am not sure what the capacity was but both venues were busy without being full, bars coping without being swamped. Hands off Gretel were a winner from last year and opened Reds followed by Eddie and the Hot Rods. I did half of Eddie (good without being great) followed by second half of the Blockheads (very good, on top of their game as usual and loving it) in Centre Stage. Headliners for Friday were UK Subs and Bad Manners. I went to the UK Subs who were on form and as good as I hoped, my other half went to Bad Manners and said similar for them, reporting that Buster Blood Vessel was far slimmer than the majority of his audience. Both sets finished at 1am and apart from BK and the Chip shop, everything was closing or closed. And so to bed.
Saturday started with a leisurely breakfast and appalling weather so we holed up until one when Reds started. Slightly different timings for Saturday and Sunday, first off were 2 bands on each main stage, then the same format as Friday with the Introducing stage followed by main stages again. The first two bands were staggered by 30 minutes so you could get 45 minutes of each. No Thrills were ok, Midlife weren’t really. I have no objection to covers bands at all, but these were not that good. Some people seemed to enjoy them but the cover of the Primitives was enough to cause us to evacuate to the bar. Next up were GBH, proper old school and possibly my favourite set of the weekend, fast and spikey. These two main stages then closed until later and we were back out for the Introducing stage, complete with tables and industrial quantities of booze.
Pete Bentham and the Dinner Ladies were first up complete with two women dressed as dinner ladies who spent the set in the crowd mopping and polishing the punters, or dancing on stage with cakes or props. It made it an entertaining set but the songs were good and didn’t really need the gimmick. The songs subject matter ranged from Marcel Duchamp, Yuri Gagarin and a Goth Postman. Bus Station Loonies followed, Delinquents and Witchdoktors completed the foursome. I understand Pete Bentham was the chosen winning act and that would have been right from the performances.
Main stages opened again for 1930 and the Rezillos battled multiple technical issues to deliver a good set, the first time I had seen them and one I had been looking forward to. My slightly more objective partner thought it was slightly disappointing and she may be right. I had a dilemma for the headliner bands, it was Sham 69 vs the Boomtown Rats and it was all about which front man was less objectionable to me. I went to see Sham who were in the original line up, and was pleasantly surprised that Jimmy Pursey can be OK as long as he stops talking, the set was good. Boomtown Rats were very good according to the other half who went to see them. The last band in Centre Stage was Dirt Box Disco, new to me but clever and talented stuff. We watched 45 minutes of them and went for 45 minutes of Salford Jets as to finish. They played another good set that could have been better attended, people missed something there.
Sunday was very much rinse and repeat, same format with different bands. Opening in Reds were one of last years Introducing picks, Hung Like Hannratty. There were a reasonable number of their merch t shirts around all weekend and they had brought a crowd. The set whilst musically competent was sixth form puerile, songs about “Danny the Tranny”, sex abuse by Bishops and dog dirt. They even had their own dancing dwarf in a PVC French maids outfit but definitely not in a Spinal Tap humorous way. They did the “PC brigade hate us”, “We’re punks so we say what we want” etc but it was just childish. I suppose they would call me PC for thinking that. The Transmitters saved us on the other stage.
Second up were The Members, whilst looking their age it was a great set, they do songs with tunes as well as intelligent lyrics. I have always had a soft spot for them and this reminded me why. The Truth were sparsely attended in the other venue, they were really good and it was a shame that more people didn’t see them. There did seem to be a tendency for those not labelled punk being not that well supported.
Back outside for four more bands Verbal Warning (1980 Nottingham), Desperate Measures (1981 New Zealand), Drongos for Europe (1979 Birmingham) and Vomit (1977 Birmingham). None of them could possibly claim to be unknown but all were good in their own way. Verbal Warning had brought 500 plastic ducks and handed them out to be thrown back at the band at one point in a song. Different and enjoyable. They won the day according to their website, back again with ducks next year then.
Last sessions in the main venues opened for me with Spear of Destiny, still surprisingly very good and Kirk Brandon still looking far younger than he is. Maybe there is a painting in an attic somewhere that is getting older. My better half went to the Lambrettas for a bit of a mod revival and really enjoyed them. Second up was Anti Nowhere League, they played the usual professional set even if Animal appeared to be unwell and New Model Army brought the weekend to a close and provided a fitting end to proceedings.
It was a very well organised weekend, Butlins do these very well, as you would expect. I have nothing but praise for the set up. Bars, food, service, and venue are all excellently handled. The line-up was good without being outstanding, but there are a finite quantity of punk bands of the original era still going to lead the line and the majority of the rest of the line-up featured band members of 40 plus playing standard stuff. There were few younger acts (Hands off Gretel being an exception) which is a shame because areas like the North London DIY punk scene is thriving. It would be good to see someone like Wonk Unit playing to shake it up a bit. The punters were largely old punks or old skins and you wonder where the new blood is. This demographic has disposable income, they wouldn’t be at Butlins if they didn’t, and it is a well targeted audience who get what they want.
They announced a new event during the weekend, same thing but at Minehead next March. They need to generate a crowd for Minehead, Skeggy has repeat offenders who come every year but it is new to Minehead and it will be interesting to see who comes. There is a bit of a punk scene in Bristol, but old skins are rare. Minehead is bigger and I would hope that the band list increases for that venue. The initial drop seems to be much stronger than this weekend so far and is more on the alternative side with some punks, and there are more to be announced. There were 5 working stages last time I went to a Minehead event, and it was excellent. I am sure Butlins can pull it off, they are deeply professional and make these weekends work well.
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