words Beatrice Galilee
A mountainous plastic white tent scars the still grey Exmoor coastline, with the word “BUTLINS” emblazoned on the outside in a cheery red and yellow font. Crowds of people are standing around the entrance with headphones dripping out of their backpacks, clinging onto their umbrellas and looking a bit confused.
Through this door lies All Tomorrow’s Parties, a music festival with a big difference. The chaos of regular festivals comes from their inherent spontaneity - they are built from scratch in muddy fields. All Tomorrow’s Parties, however, is “parasitical” it takes over off-season holiday camps, and perverts them to the needs of travelling music-lovers. Gone are the Wellington boots, harrowing two-hour circular walks and battery-less torches. Instead you get cabins with beds, showers and keys, and all the bands and amenities are within ten minutes’ walk.
Butlins is something of a historic relic from Britain’s cold-war years. Pre-Spain, this was the holidaying destination of choice for the aspiring middle classes with young families. Rows of army barracks-style “cabins” complete with kitchenettes surround neatly clipped lawns with small trees. A short stroll from these are the tropicana-themed water-slides, the family entertainment, the funfair and the beach, all hosted by neatly blazered teenagers. The car park is vast, but is only for entry and exit. There’s no need to travel if you’re at Butlins.
Being introduced to this faded institution was weird enough, even without the blazers. But its transformation from family holiday to the dream weekend of the UK’s indie music community is nothing if not a stroke of genius. This is reappropriation at the highest level. It’s up there with turning banks into bars, warehouses into apartments. OK, the accommodation was cheap, ant-infested, a little stained, but there was a bath, a duvet, a heater and a TV. There was no getting lost, there was no drama about missing bands. There was no rain.
Our neighbours wore scraggy jeans and bottles of Jack Daniels quickly began lining up on their windowsills and the lolloped around totally comfortable reacquainting themselves with family living. Everything was curated down to the TV channels, which were so compelling that we missed Dinosaur Jnr because of an unexpectedly spectacular documentary on computer gamers. We finally ventured out, scuttling past the swimming pool, the crazy golf and the arcade, to see our first band in the big white tent, a structure which at best with its could have been a model for the Millennium Dome, at worst a rather extravagant gazebo.
And it wasn’t good. Explosions in the Sky, epic musicians, heirs to Mogwai’s throne, were drowned out by the sound of the queue for Burger King. Jaunty florescent coloured butterflies floated over our heads as we stood on the stained faux-grass carpet trying not to be distracted by the arcade and the Costa Coffee behind us. In terms of an experience, visually it was compelling, but musically, it was a nightmare. The worst mingling and mumbling of the John Peel stage at Glastonbury in the mid-afternoon with the misery of your favourite silent bit ruined by someone loudly enquiring which day Broken Social Scene are playing.
However, the other two stages were pretty great. They were rooms in their own right, but with the carpet thing and pancake stands and ice cream on tap. I liked going upstairs from Animal Collective to De La Soul before remembering that De La Soul is essentially a novelty band, and returning downstairs again. At Glastonbury this kind of manoeuvre would have lost you a day and at least two of your friends. Members of Ghostface Killah were selling their own t-shirts and records. They were their own “Merch Bitches”.
Other bands found it a little difficult to embrace the irony of the setting. Panda Bear of Animal Collective decided not to hide his revulsion for all who stood there. “So, who’s been on the water slides today,” he said such with obvious disdain I almost blushed.
Festivals are extreme at the best of times. The intensity, the decisions, the music the expectations, the weather. ATP is special in that it amplifies by concentrating the already subverted dreamland of a family holiday. Your requirements are boiled down to fast food, amusement arcades and a beach; the living arrangements are whittled down to a roof over your head. But, for those with a car, beyond the horror of a budget holiday camp was the rural bliss of Exmoor. Beach walks and idyllic tea rooms were just ten minutes’ drive away.
We could wax lyrical about the tragic condition of this failed attempt at hyper-reality: the fairground-like state of Butlins, the stained tent, the tragedy of the fast food and second-rate living conditions. But ATP has become an institution in the festival calendar, where those who are into music, but not into their camping, wander through pirate-themed mini golf course looking strangely out of proportion, or play air hockey hungover in checked shirts, skinny jeans and Sonic Youth T-shirts.