As the July heatwave peaked, tickets for Penn festival sold at the gate as fast as the dairy ice creams available beyond it. The festival site on parkland in the Chiltern woods bustled with folks of all varieties who enjoyed festival's blend of 80s ska and pubrock with 90s dance acts. Saxes glistened in the sunshine and glowstix light the balmy night.
Brtitish Ska royalty were out in force. Original rudeboy Neville Staple with his band, the stunning Pauline Black with The Selecter as well as Rankings Junior and Senior with The Beat. For me The Selecter's set was the highlight. Songs like 'On My Radio' and 'Too Much Pressure' have stood the test of time, the look is still razor sharp, Pauline's voice holds strong and on Penn's PA the band sounded great. To judge by the number of 2Tone and Trojan records T-shirts, slightly greying black & white get-ups and Trilby hats covering balding heads a good proportion of the crowd were long-term fans of the genre. There were plenty more getting down, singing along and loving the music’s energy.
Pub-rock-wise The Blockheads were my pick of a bunch which included the exuberant Eddie and the Hot Rods, super quirky Ed Tudor Pole and local boy John Otway. The Blockheads declared they would add Penn festival to their list of reasons to be cheerful; 1,2,3. Were they sincere about that? I think they probably did mean it. It's hard to imagine a better audience for their music - not too many, not too few, just about the right age and well up for a singsong. The band's quality shone though as they rocked out their famous grooves like 'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll' and 'Billericay Dickie'. Opening Sunday’s roster John Otway drew a sizeable crowd for what might otherwise have been a graveyard shift. His humorous set was peppered with references to local landmarks and featured a variety of wacky technologies – double headed electric guitar, human drum machine – all kept going on stage by Deadly the Roadie. It might not be sophisticated but Pub-rock certainly can be entertaining
The same might be said of Saturday evening's line-up of faded stars of 90's Pop-Dance took. Folks who had skanked it up during the day worked through their ‘Big fish, little fish, cardboard box' routines to the sounds of D:Ream (sadly without Professor Brian Cox), Alison Limerick, Baby D, SL2, Angie Brown (of Bizarre Inc fame) and Black Box. After the live acts finished at 10pm, DJs took over for the an hour spinning yet more half-recalled dance hits. Fortunately the closing tune – a version of 'Walking in Memphis' – left a lyrical earworm which thankfully dislodged 'Let Me Be Your Fantasy' and 'Things Can Only Get Better'.
Penn's 80s and 90s revival line up was clearly aimed at the thirty-plusses – Kids from back in the day, now with kids of their own. With a under 12s go free policy and with plenty to interest younger children; from bandana workshops to circus skills, temporary tattoos or storytelling, the kids area was alive with the sounds of kids happily at play. Family size tents were very well represented on the campsite, self-contained geodesic complexes with troops of lads chasing footballs in and around the guy –lines. Penn is a good festival to bring the brood to.
The stage finishing times suited parents of younger kids. The main bands all had afternoon slots, Saturday's ska extravaganza was over by tea-time so mums and dads took the chance to get the little ones back to their tents and to bed. Perhaps dad was allowed out to and bust a few moves or sink a few more jars, but by 10pm the acts were over anyway. Sunday closed off even earlier with Nick Heywood done before the sun had gone down, leaving enough time to get the nippers home and ready for the last week of school.
There was a distinct day and night contrast at Penn festival. During the day people poured in through the gates and the Festival was alive. Drinks came from the bar non-stop and the best bands on were on stage. Even Doctor and the Medics, resplendent in goth gear and make up, had a mid afternoon set. Happily, their crowd pleasing prowess was undiminished by exposure to the sunshine. The day trippers made all the difference to the vibe.
As the day wore on the site filled up nicely, which generated that buzz an event needs. On the downside the influx overwhelmed the portaloos. Thirty cabins, with no urinals for several thousand thirsty punters was obviously inadequate and a huge queue crew formed, to rival even that for the ice cream stall! The queue subsided as evening drew in the families and day trippers drifted away, and gradually most people congregated around the stage. Many had such a great time during the day that the organisers could have just put Mix 96's club classics show through the PA, the content and effect would have been much the same.
The day trade really boosted Penn festival, and after last year's near wash out it was pleasing to see a park full of people getting their groove on in the sunshine. Yes the bands were nearly all from days gone by, there was little that was challenging or fresh, but it was clear the organisers have tapped into the strong demand for revivalist festivals. This one represented the 'alternative' youth cultures of the 80's and 90's. The local towns Amersham and High Wycombe having had thriving skinhead scenes in the 80s, and it seems many have kept the faith. Well, Penn festival was their reward.
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