There’s a warm welcome from efficient and friendly staff on a grey day, after a grim drive in the middle of winter. This festival used to take place in October, but here we are now, with the fading memories of Christmas, crumbling resolutions and half-empty pockets.
There are so many great things about winter music festivals at holiday-camp sites, and people seem to be losing their snobbishness about going to Butlin’s. The facilities are now top-notch, whether you stay in one of the on-site hotels or in one of the well-kitted-out self-catering apartments. The hotels on this site are newly-built, multi-storey and in the Art Deco style. This is not like the holiday camps of the sit coms. There are good restaurants, a traditional-style pub, a traditional-style fish and chip shop (the chips come wrapped in fake newspaper), a sports bar with big screens, pool, snooker and ten pin bowling, a lounge bar, a supermarket, shops and a cinema. The fairground is closed.
The swimming pool is open, but only for a single session over the weekend. From 11am to 2pm on Saturday there’s a pool party, with beach-balls and inflatable bananas provided, and music on the PA from the likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Darkness and Kasabian. There’s free use of the chutes and slides, the wave machines and fountains are in full operation, and there are plenty of lifeguards to stop anyone trying to take a photo. It’s a lot of fun.
All through the weekend, the lounge bar, Bar Rosso, plays classic albums in full, and they’re advertised, so you can time your visit for refreshment with your own musical preferences. Choose from Talking Heads, David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, T Rex, The Specials, and many more. And you can read the papers while you’re listening and sipping. They also do music quizzes, and there’s a Q&A with the music journalist, John Robb.
It’s also very pleasant in the cinema, which is in the Odeon style. There are showings of classic and popular films throughout the weekend, including Natural Born Killers, Grosse Point Blank, American Graffiti, Back to the Future and True Romance. You can wander in and out as you wish.
On Sunday at noon, the cinema screens a documentary about one of the weekend's bands, Koyo. The film follows the band on their tour of the UK in the autumn of 2017. It’s only half an hour long, which is just as well, because at 12.30 they are on stage at the venue opposite, Reds. They are a five-piece, two guitars, drums, bass and keyboards. They are young lads, four of them look like gentle, long-haired hippies from the 1970s. They could be brothers. The other one, a guitarist, has short hair, turned-up jeans and Doc Martin boots. He looks like a skinhead from the 1970s – he could be the foster-brother from a troubled background. Having seen the documentary, we feel like we know the band already. We also know that Koyo is Japanese for the changing of the colours of the leaves on the trees in the autumn. (From this we can surmise that Japanese is a very economical language.) The band’s music is pounding but dreamy, with effects, wandering off in different directions to satisfying destinations. The keyboardist could be mistaken for Hugh Banton of Van der Graaf Generator, except that he’s much better looking and he moves better. This is great music anytime, anywhere, but it’s absolutely perfect to listen to after a rushed breakfast with a slight hangover. The foster-brother introduces a song: “This is our last number, but it lasts 20 minutes, ‘cos this is fucking prog, innit”. And it’s brilliant – a great crescendo of chest-thumping, brain-melting beauty.
Note to Stuart Maconie – get these boys on the Freak Zone.
Reds is the smaller of the two venues, though there’s plenty of space and it’s never crowded. There’s a big stage, a raised area for DJ’s, two long bars left and right, seating areas with tables left and right, a row of seats along the back, and a big dance floor. There’s a light show behind the bands on the stage, which is usually customised by and for each act. The smoke machine is over-used.
The larger venue is almost next door, called Centre Stage. Reds is open early, and Centre Stage is open late. There are no clashes, so, theoretically, you could see every band that’s on at the festival. Diligent reporting makes for a long review.
Better get started...
Crosa Rosa start off the whole thing at half past three on Friday afternoon. A young three-piece, they start off with a one-minute shouty punk song, but through the set they become more measured, laid-back and thoughtful. When he stops shouting you can appreciate he’s got a good voice, and the drummer’s good, too. The set is only 25 minutes long – nowhere near enough. Like Sean Connery said to Harrison Ford, “as soon as you got interesting, you left”.
This is one of the small criticisms of the festival – the sets are too short and the turnarounds are too long.
Band of Holy Joy are interesting. They sing lyric-driven, heart-felt songs about sleazy cities and ugly politicians, and there’s a particularly poignant-sounding song that appears to be about a dead cat (although it might be allegorical). They also sing a version of “Weela Weela Walya”, an old folk song about a woman who stabs her baby to death (but in a comic way). There are shades of Echolocation and shades of Echo and the Bunnymen, with lots of echo, and strong keyboard. The band are sending out lots of love to the audience, and it’s reciprocal. During the last number the singer packs his cowbell and stick into a rucksack and leaves the stage, applauding the audience, while the band finish. It’s kind of moving.
Audience interaction can be just as important in the enjoyment of a set as the music, and another band that do it well are Eyre Llew. They tell us it’s their second time here, and they asked to come for the full weekend, ‘cos they fucking love it. They play proggy, ambient, soundtrack music with sparse vocals and a huge sound. The vocalist can sing falsetto as well as baritone, and at one point the guitarist uses a bow. At the end of their set, the front man organises the audience into a giant group hug. Spread the love!
At the other end of the spectrum, and probably on some sort of spectrum, are God Colony. They are two blokes who keep their coats on and twiddle about with computers and keyboards, with samples and loops. They have a diverting light show, and they wobble their heads to the 2/4 beat. They don’t talk, and no-one claps. People who don’t understand this kind of music might say it’s all a bit pointless.
The larger venue, Centre Stage, is up at first floor level in the Butlin’s Sky Pavilion. There’s a huge dance floor, with tiered seating behind and long bars right and left. All pints of beer are £4.40, there’s a good selection at the start of the weekend that gradually diminishes to a choice between Carling and Stella by Sunday night. Service is not that good, although there is never a really long wait. At some indoor festivals some people will claim a seat in the venue, and a few extra for their friends, and hang onto them grimly for the duration of the show. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen here – there are plenty of seats for everyone, and nobody is territorial. These are good, intelligent people listening to good, intelligent music.
The Horrors play Centre Stage on Friday night. The singer, Faris Badwan, wears a shiny top and leather trousers, and has Milton Jones hair. His voice is similar to David Bowie, but at the start of the set it’s turned down to 5, so that the keyboards and the rhythm section are in charge and take things forward. That makes it sound introverted and Goth, but it’s also spacey and 1980s futuristic. The dance floor is packed. Now we have a discordant guitar break, now a repetitive keyboard, now mournful vocals. Suede played here last year. They were excellent, and there are strange similarities. This is music that says “come with me”, but cries for help at the same time. It drags you along, half crawling, half dancing. Compelling. The vocals are louder later, not that he’s singing louder, he’s been turned up. He allows himself a little scream. When they leave the stage, after doing a bit of pop, he says, “Thank you very much. See you soon. Goodbye forever”, which is kind of cool.
As an illustration of the musical broad-mindedness of the people here, between sets at Centre stage by The Horrors and The Orb there’s lots of happy dancing as the DJ’s play ska, rocksteady and two-tone. And the dancers are the same crowd as for the Goth before and the Ambient after.
The Orb do space, with trumpet, bass, harmonica, flat cap, elbow patches and waistcoat. They do minimalism and reggae. It’s a beautiful noise. It’s art. The sound quality at both venues is excellent.
Lower Slaughter are named after a village in Gloucestershire, but behind them on the stage is a Worthing FC football scarf. Worthing is in Sussex. They do punky, short songs, belted out by a female vocalist with an angry, shouty voice, about matters such as drowning in shit. The voice and the lyrics don’t match the look; all the band members look fairly content and placid.
Moderate Rebels also have a female singer, and a female keyboard player. In fact the proportion of women on stage at this festival is relatively very high. All five members of this band are dressed in black with white armbands. The music they produce is both hypnotising and haunting; psychedelic and driving. In some ways they sound like Savages and in other ways like Metronomy. They are measured and thoughtful, art school, but the bass makes your trousers shake. The singer is unsmiling and barely moving. They do a version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, that comes across emotionless, tired, deadened. It’s an amazing interpretation. Their last song is called “God Sent Us”. It is absolutely brilliant, again playing on the theme of emotionlessness, but in this case a group of dead-eyed fanatics who have come to wreck your house and ruin your life because God sent them. It repeats and repeats; we wish it would go on forever. This music is really quite difficult to describe, but the set is possibly the highlight of the weekend.
Desperate Journalist are more animated, with vocals something like Garbage and something like The Cranberries, strong but controlled; tight but energetic.
She Drew The Gun are the Chumbawamba de nos jours, political, thoughtful, intelligent and funny. They have revolutionary and left-wing images projected on the screen behind them, including poems, cartoons, slogans, maps and an image of Che. It’s a bit heavy, but this stuff needs to be said, and the sets are too short to allow for more light-weight stuff to be added in to lighten things up a bit.
Butlin’s Bognor is only a ten minute walk along the promenade to the town centre and the pier. If you’re really lazy you can pay £1.50 to be taken most of the way on the little train thingy, which is still running in January. There’s a steep, pebbly beach, kiosks – some open and some shut, chip shops and tat shops, but it’s nice to get out and blow the cobwebs away, and there’s something atmospheric about British seaside towns in the winter.
Melt Dunes are first up on Saturday, at Reds. They are young lads with a small but enthusiastic and appreciative following. Driving and rhythmic with dreamy, low-key vocals. And, again, they finish too soon – they’d only just got going.
Soccer Mommy is an American singer-songwriter. She’s on on Saturday afternoon, which means she’s up against Jeff and the boys on Gillette Soccer Special at the Sports Bar, so there’s a clash for football fans. She’s a bit dreary, to be honest.
Sometimes you can make a decent guess about the type of music you’re going to hear from the name of the band. This does not apply to the band called Snapped Ankles. They take to the stage following a Public Service Broadcasting type announcement, all in shaggy fur coats with faces that can’t be seen. One of them is wearing antlers. This is not going to be dreary. There is strange percussion, xylophone sounds, didgeridoo sounds, echo. Word has obviously spread and they have a big crowd. The vocalist sings, “So many trees out there/But they aren’t real/Go and find me/A metaphorical tree.” They look something like the creature in Donnie Darko, something like Robinson Crusoe, something like the witches in Macbeth and something like The Wombles. People are dancing. This is a really good festival band, a bit of fun. A lot of fun. Is it just a band with a gimmick? No, it’s unusual and interesting. It works if you close your eyes and listen, as well as if you watch the weird stuff on the stage. It’s not just dressing up, it’s experimental music and stage-craft of the highest order.
Another band that have dressing up as part of their act, only they don’t do it so well, are British Sea Power. They play Centre Stage on Saturday night; they have bears in the audience and a yeti on stage. They’re National Treasures and the fans love them, but they’re really quite mainstream and soft, like the Manic Street Preachers on Mogadon. The brass and violin makes things a bit more interesting, but really, they don’t seem to be trying. Yan, the front-man makes a series of unfunny jokes, including that one of their songs is a Wurzels cover, and that his new moustache is a result of the batteries of his shaver running out. At the end of the set he says, “This is the last song. This one’s for you!” Well, of course it is. We’ve paid for it. And anyway, who else would you be playing it for except the audience?
Honeyblood are the first band on the Centre Stage on Friday night. They are a guitar and drums duo, both female. They’re both good musicians, and they’re doing it their way. They’re not trying to be the White Stripes, or Royal Blood, or the Black Keys. They’re laid back, with something of a country sound, with gentle chords and sometimes just a base line. A guitar tuning issue leads to a short bossa nova drum solo, which leads to cheers. They are going down well. And they can do more thrashy stuff – the song, “Why Won’t You Grow Up?” sounds exactly like The Lovely Eggs, who are also a guitar and drums duo.
Yonaka are from Brighton, and they have a very attractive female singer who wears a rather eye-catching costume, with a leather cap and space age hair. But she’s also got a very good voice. The band play short, poppy, new wave songs. Nothing particularly deep here, but then too much deep can be drowning.
There’s not much depth about Helen Love, either, and again that’s not necessarily a bad thing. She sings Ramones-style light punk to backing tracks and a light show of images from the 70s and 80s, including the famous Bill Grundy interview.
Helen Love is the penultimate act on Reds on Sunday, and she’s followed by Gang of Four, who, unusually for this festival, are 20 minutes late on stage. This causes some difficulty, because the acts on at the Centre Stage have been brought forward. They have the biggest Reds crowd of the weekend. Sweaty and intense – both the music and the punters.
Here’s a great link. Talking of sweaty, Sweaty Palms play Reds on Sunday afternoon. They’re Scottish, the front man wears a shirt and tie and the bass player wears tartan trousers and no shirt. They do pounding blues-rock, honest, gritty and loud. Later on in the set they do some more proggy instrumental stuff, but it doesn’t really work to well. The lad-music is their forte.
There is a really good mix of musical genres, and the audience have their ears open to enjoy new and challenging material. The age range of the punters is quite heart-warming. Like most of these holiday camp festivals, this is over 18s only, but every age between 18 and late 70s is represented here. All have equal ownership of the music, and equal enjoyment.
It’s a great shame that Wild Beasts are splitting up, but that fact certainly adds to the atmosphere of their set here. They headline on Saturday night, with pounding tom-toms, falsetto vocals and irresistible rhythms. At the start of the set they are a bit disco, and they could be Bronski Beat. But they exchange instruments, and vocal ranges, and styles, and become atmospheric and grown up. Sinful, beautiful truth. Not so much Matisse as prog-disco. They will be missed.
Wild Beasts are about to call it a day, but Drug Store Romeos are just starting out. They are a young trio with a female vocalist, who also plays keyboard and flute. She sounds like Julie Cruise, and the music is ethereal and beautiful, a melancholy soundtrack to a weird David Lynch film. She drifts away into a world of her own as she sings, unaware that we’re listening. But the guitarist breaks a string. They’re trying to deal with it, but they’re inexperienced. An arsehole at the back shouts, “Get on with it!”. The spell is broken, and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. They have lost their confidence, they slink off stage and it’s over. Don’t let the pea-brains put you off. You’re good. Keep at it.
Another band whose name confounds expectations about their music are Warmduscher. Kraftwerk, perhaps? No. The band are on stage earlier than scheduled on Friday night, and we’re not sure if they’re performing or sound checking. The singer has a cowboy hat and an American accent, and he’s wearing shades with jewels dangling in front of them. He introduces the band and tells us we’re going to get some cold, hard music, Motherfuckers. He has a moustache and a bottle of tequila in his hand. There’s a bald, bearded bloke playing something that sounds like a Theremin, and a tall, lanky folk-capped guitarist. The bass player and drummer look almost normal. This is actually really pretty good, driving riffs with an echoey voice over the top. At some points he sings, shouts and gestures at the audience with the mic away from his mouth, so we’ve no idea what he’s on about. The music is ear-splitting, something like Alabama 3 and something like the Urban Voodoo Machine. There’s a Fat White Family connection.
Just by the way, there’s an excellent service culture at Butlin’s. If you have problems with your toilet, just let them know at reception and John the maintenance man will be straight round to fix it. Not only that, but he’ll leave you a note wishing you a good weekend.
The Alabama 3 are definitely like the Alabama 3, and they’re on the Centre Stage on Sunday night. Larry Love bounces onto the stage and they start up with “Hypo Full of Love”, it looks like they’re on top form. They no longer have a beautiful black female sing, but they do have a new beautiful black male singer. D. Wayne Love starts his patter. The most appalling, bad taste, offensive jokes – they are on top form! Bad taste is good. Appalling is good. Long live sweet, acid house, country music!
Peter Hook and The Light bring the proceedings to a close on Sunday night. He tells us it’s his first gig of 2018, and wishes us all Happy New Year. You get the idea he’s just a really nice bloke, the kind you’d like to spend time in the pub with. There are two bass guitars, and drums and a drum machine, but they make a great sound, and his singing voice is really very much like Ian Curtis’s. They start with “Day In, Day Out” and “Isolation”, which feel slightly rushed, but they soon settle down, and by “Transmission” everything’s perfect. They are bringing the songs to life, not just copying them, and the crowd love them. They sing, “dance, dance, dance to the radio”, and they dance, dance, dance, even though it’s nearly midnight on a Sunday night, and there’s a long drive home in the morning.
It’s been a joy. A truly great festival, at a lovely place. Happy New Year to everyone! There are catkins on the hazel – can spring be far behind?
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