Ah, memories. Standing in the interminable, drizzle-soaked queue at Pontin’s holiday camp in Camber, excitedly clutching our tickets for the Bowlie Weekender, THE festival event 1999, and the whisper went round… “oh my god… Belle and Sebastian… are BUSKING by the entrance!”
Never before had indie kids been nearer to their idols (bloody hell, there’s Jon Spencer, just walking along the road, like a normal person!) Never before had the acts been chosen by a curating band, bringing the music home to us in the most direct way possible; never before had punters been treated to such luxury (showers! A proper pub! A fucking toaster! Who cares if the chalets are just this side of being condemned?) And the all-new festival format proved a success. Ten years later, the name and the location have changed but All Tomorrow’s Parties (now held at Butlin’s in Minehead, Somerset) is still going strong, with two or three events held every year and transatlantic offshoots.
All Tomorrow’s Parties (the film) is not so much a documentary, more an extended montage. The bulk of the footage here is contributed, appropriately enough, by festival-goers, which lends some nice intimate moments to the proceedings. The oddness of the holiday-camp-as-festival-venue is played up, with one voiceover describing it as, “Auschwitz with good music” and one overseas musician delightedly commenting on the lack of corporate sponsorship in evidence. Footage abounds of seagulls, confused ducks and amusement arcades, interspersed with vintage clips of holiday camps of yore — think redcoats, knobbly knees competitions, ‘dummy pensioners attacking ice-creams… so far, so Hi-De-Hi!
All of which forms a delightful contrast to the resolutely-leftfield music on offer. Bands making an appearance range from chart-botherers The Gossip and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, via indie darlings Sonic Youth and Mogwai, up to huge names like Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, and right hack down again to the obscure-but-influential (Lightning Bolt, Battles, Akron/Family, Daniel Johnston…).
Everyone’s having fun, and the film presents an absolutely charming vision of carefree youngsters dancing, snogging on the beach, falling off balconies, etc, but the implicit message is clearly supposed to be one of subversion —ATP does, after all, undermine the traditional notion of a holiday camp in the most delicious way possible. Perhaps it’s a shame the opportunity to enlarge upon this themes, perhaps by interviewing the organizers at more length or asking some fans or up-and-coming acts why ATP is so different from, say, Glastonbury or Reading. Any explicit questioning of the status quo is left to the old-timers like Thurston Moore who, in a slightly incongruous scene, desperately lectures a bunch of bemused, faintly embarrassed twenty-somethings about the need to smash the system and bring down the record companies. It doesn’t look good. Nor does old footage of the younger Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, ferociously claiming rock ‘n’ roll for the kids. Why not use contemporary interviews to hammer this point home, rather than relying on vintage vitriol?
It’s a small caveat, though. As a heady, kaleidoscopic portrait of one of modern music’s great institutions, All Tomorrow’s Parties delivers in (buckets and) spades. Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside.
DVD out 2 November on Warp Films. See www.ourtrueintent.com for more info.