You’re never too old for festivals, they say, but unless you want to feel like the supervisor at the world’s biggest Kindergarten, I think you can be too old for some. Glastonbury is famously accepting of all ages, but where else, in this gap year, do you find somewhere that embraces the more mature patron? A festival for game oldsters, celebrating music from thirty years ago, is surely the obvious answer. So why do I feel just a little bit embarrassed to be attending the Norwich branch of the Let’s Rock franchise?
Much of this unease probably stems from how UK Live have chosen to publicise the event, with an exhausting, upbeat emphasis on nostalgia and a relentless insistence of dressing up in mullet wigs and ra ra skirts. Very few people did so, but the insidious implication remains - that, in hindsight, we now realise how silly we all were back then, so let’s all have a bit of self-mocking fun. All of which seems a little disrespectful to the performers, some of whom are jobbing artists making ends meet off of the back of past glories (and there’s nothing wrong with that) while others still aspire to be successful and accomplished musicians, producing credible new material. While it may just be servicing a need for variety, doesn’t putting Sonya on the same bill as Heaven 17 seems a bit peculiar? Isn’t Jason Donovan sharing a stage with OMD rather odd? Black Lace rubbing shoulders with The Human League is surely bizarre. Back in the day these artists didn’t share a fame base – far from it - so why group them all together now, just because they rose to prominence in the same decade? Maybe I’m just a snooty Glastonbury snob who has conveniently forgotten singing along to the Wombles on the Avalon stage – maybe I just need to get over myself – but it all seems so undiscriminating.
Whatever the rationale, and my misgivings, it looks like a strategy that works. Possibly given a leg up by extraordinarily fine weather, last minute sales mean that it was a capacity crowd that settled down for the day in Earlham Parkm on the outskirts of Norwich, with immediate brownie points earned by the organisers for the swift and unfussy way in which that crowd was marshalled into the arena, not least considering all the gear they were carrying. Inside, despite assuming I had arrived early, I was met by a quite astonishing sea of camping chairs, set out as far as the eye could see. I’ve never seen so many people sitting down in field, and all them neatly enclosed within discreet penned off areas, most notably a crescent designated for those that preferred to sit close to the stage. Only a relatively modest standing zone remained - the former perhaps four times the size of the latter.
If that all sounds a little sedimentary, it’s worth reflecting that this was undoubtedly due to the organisers’ sensible, and unusually generous, attitude to food and drink. Apart from alcohol, punters were invited to bring in anything they wanted, even unsealed soft drinks. No unseemly pat downs for hidden spirits, no hasty quaffing of dubious bottles of docker’s brew, no overflowing bins of woofed down cans. If it was in a picnic hamper, and it wasn’t booze, you were waved through. As a consequence, families took full advantage, brought their tuck for the day, set out their basecamps, had somewhere safe for the kids, and left the area front of stage unencumbered. All of which seems very sensible to me, particularly as there wasn’t anywhere else to go.
For Let’s Rock was not just throwback to the eighties in its choice of act, but also in its single stage configuration. Your binary choice was to watch what was on, or not to. Granted, there was a pleasing simplicity to not having to plan on the hoof but it make you wonder how the fourteen scheduled acts could possible fit into eleven hours. The ingenious, if anodyne, solution was to have the first nine acts – largely solo performers with the occasion bespoke additions – backed by a house band. This allowed China Crisis, Katrina, Toyah and Sonya to perform in bewildering quick succession, flashing past the audience in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it twenty minute sets, with only minimal change over times. This was a lot simpler than Reading’s twin stages of old, but it did lend an unfortunate homogeneity to the sound coming from admittedly excellent session musicians. That said, it was fascinating to see how each artist handled their brief moment in the spotlight. China Crisis made the schoolboy error of trying to get everyone to sing along to a hit the crowd obviously didn’t know, and floundered. By way of contrast, Toyah sandwiched the crowd pleasing covers "Echo Beach" and "Rebel Yell" between her own tunes and triumphed. Success in such a brutal regime, it quickly transpired, was as much about ingenuity as meritocracy, with running order no real indication of hits, fame or talent. Perhaps they drew straws for the order in which they played – how else to explain Katrina, in fine voice and boldly performing new material, coming on way before the sweet, but underwhelming, Sonja? Such was the ferocious turnaround on stage that by two-thirty in the afternoon, we had already seen close to a dozen performers, including the curiously named Retrobates Party Live, in which acts from yet a further down the food chain – the likes of Hazell Dean, Peter Coyote and Annabella Lwin - got to sing one song each. All these people were presumably paid, so it’s hard to fault the organisers wanting to offer variety and value for money, but it was perplexing given the penny pinching that went on elsewhere.
Why, for example, were there so few toilets? The unacceptably huge queues that developed later in the day perhaps explained why some wise heads had bit the bullet and paid out nearly twenty quid for “posh” loos. Actually very similar to the ordinary toilets (in the spirit of journalist rigour I persuaded a security guard to let me check them out) the price of admission was obviously more to do with when you needed to go, rather than what you sat on, but having to pay a premium to queue jump a deficiency elsewhere really isn’t right. Neither is it right to charge a fiver for a piece of cardboard with a list of the times the acts are on (not least when those times were not subsequently adhered to). The souvenir lanyard, as it was laughingly referred to, consisted of four laminated boards the size of playing cards, all but one of which contained ads for associated product and events. Had it been given away, it would have been a disappointing, but nice gesture – charging that much for that little was, frankly, a disgrace.
Speaking of which, though disgrace is a strong word to describe Pat Sharp, he did test my patience with his queasy patter. I get that someone has to fill in between the acts, but why this dinosaur was thought a draw, or even acceptable, is beyond comprehension. For the most part, his banter with co-host Dave Philips was merely juvenile and cringe worthy, but occasionally - when salivating over the backing singers – he took us back to the eighties with uncomfortable verisimilitude. Thankfully, there was less need for the Chuckle Brothers once the frenetic pace of the early afternoon eased up. It was disappointing that Carol Decker performed solo and looked uneasy to be doing so without her band. Despite "China in Your Hand" being the first song of the day to truly send chills up your spine, hers was a generally uninspired performance. So much better was Nick Heyward, who looked far more at ease with a take-the-money-and-run through of his infectious back catalogue, while Jason Donovan belied his mid table slot with a gender splitting retrospective of unrepentant sentiment.
The departure of the house band, to be replaced by The Real Thing (see what I did there) marked what should have been the start of the final phase of the day - proper bands playing proper sets. Unfortunately, Chris Amoo and Dave Smith had a very ordinary backing band of their own, so we had to wait for Heaven 17 to deliver the first truly great set of the day, and my first epiphany. The packaging of the festival didn’t matter for Heaven 17, or the fans that came to see them. Here was a chance to perform to them and for them, and never mind how and why they got on the bill. Showcasing both their illustrious back catalogue and Billie Godfrey’s outstanding vocal talent, they even sneaked a Bowie cover into their meagre forty five minutes. It was a great performance, as were those that followed. Which was just as well, given the lengthy delays that thereafter preceded each act, with set up times proving to be nearly as long as the time acts were on stage.
If Lets Rock are to continue with a single stage (and given the huge number of seated guests it’s easy to see why they would) it’s an issue that warrants attention. Both ABC and OMD delivering individual, high quality sets, with only personal preference being the sensible arbiter between them (my vote went to OMD) but the drop in momentum between the two was profound and impeded what should have been a rising expectation of things to come. Apart from a funfair and a kid’s zone - both parked too far away for the casual explorer - the festival had precious little hinterland to fill in for down time. A large tented venue and another open air stage looked tempting, but remained closed for business – they were apparently for an event the next day. One can’t help but think putting something – anything, actually - on at one of these venues would have worked wonders for keeping the party going.
Worse, the fenced off areas now felt constricting and claustrophobic, as more people favoured standing and struggled to get to the appropriate zone. What had been a sensible segregation became a health hazard as folk became increasingly impatient with going the long way round, and started stumbling over tables, chairs and other people. It was only as twilight fell that much of the camping detritus was cleared away, and therefore only for Human League’s closing set, that it finally started to feel like we were at (dare I say it) a proper festival. Joanne and Susan still can’t sing very well, and barring the obvious hits, their songs are woefully thin. Yet there’s no denying Phil Oakley is curiously charismatic, which is saying something for a man with such a daft beard, and it was hard to avoid being drawn towards his eccentric performance, with his striking costume changes and faux bass voice. Backed by an excellent band, the Human League defied, at least my, expectations by presenting an hour of proper stadium rock, fully justifying their headline slot.
As "Being Boiled" came to a close, a fittingly quirky encore ironically written in the seventies, I reflected on a day that had been episodic, erratic, full of great performances, yet marred by protracted longueurs. Certainly not without its teething problems, it had nonetheless been strangely enjoyable. Would I go again? It depends on the line up (which granted wouldn’t matter for a truly great festival) but I would certainly council anyone to push their pretensions to one side and give it a go, if only just the once.
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