BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

All Tomorrow's Parties

Potins Holiday Centre, East Sussex, UK

BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 06 JUN 01

I never thought I'd see a line from a Velvet Underground song on a road sign, but there it was: a helpful, yellow motorist's friend showing the way for 'All Tomorrow's Parties'. I also never thought I'd hear Warhol's favourite Velvet's song name-checked in the same breath as that locus of British holiday nostalgia - the Pontin's Holiday Centre. But, here I was, invoking Sun Ra's name alongside Billy Butlin's, and discussing the relative merits of 1970s New Wave legends Television and self-catering chalets.

'All Tomorrow's Parties' is an annual three-day festival that started life in 1999 as the brainchild of concert promoters Foundation, and fey indie band Belle and Sebastian. Each year, Foundation invites a different band to help 'co-curate' the musical line-up. This year was the turn of Chicago-based Tortoise, whose musical selections further served to emphasize the surreal disparity between the location and the soundtrack.

These days the British holiday camp is an institution infused with doleful melancholia. The first one was set up in Skegness in 1936 by South African entrepreneur Billy Butlin, the idea being to provide affordable, entertaining holidays for low-income families. His formula proved a success, and soon Butlin's, alongside its rival Pontin's, had holiday camps around the British coastline. Reaching their heyday in the 1950s and 60s, the rise of the cheap foreign package holiday subsequently drove the once meteorologically stoic British holidaymakers away from bracing English beaches and camps to more temperate Mediterranean climes. Though a few still run today, their names and locations - Prestatyn, Bognor Regis, Minehead - evoke lonely seaside resorts firmly written into the liturgy of British literature's nostalgic sociologists such as John Betjeman, Phillip Larkin and Alan Bennett, even Morrissey.

In holding the festival at a holiday camp, 'All Tomorrow's Parties' acknowledged often unspoken misgivings many festival-goers have. Namely, that the cynical Glastonbury rhetoric of back-to-nature hedonism, and the barely sublimated aggression produced by sharing a glorified trench with 100,000 chemical casualties may not be as much fun as the 1960s would have us believe. Although the pinball shenanigans of The Who's 1975 rock opera (surely the next stage for post-rock?) Tommy could be cited as the first holiday camp/rock fusion, it's surprising no one came up with the idea before. Slightly shabby chalets, which spread across the site like a miniature housing development by Le Corbusier, the beach, an in-house TV channel broadcasting round-the-clock film classics, and the all-night pub gave 'All Tomorrow's Parties' the air of having chanced upon an architectural ready-made which was better than anything the promoters could have dreamt up.

Take the first night's performance by the Sun Ra Arkestra: like all of the bands, they performed in a windowless room usually used for Pontin's cabaret or the Saturday night talent shows. Clad in their customary star-spangled uniforms, the Arkestra played beneath cheery signs reading 'Pontin's: Fun for Kids!', and churned out a kind of bland cocktail jazz better suited to the more MOR frequencies of local radio. Despite the best efforts of the assembled chin-stroking crowd to pretend they were enjoying the performance, one couldn't help thinking that since Sun Ra's death, the Arkestra are happy to no longer play free jazz wig-outs.

Each night's line-up was a small and carefully chosen affair, with bands playing unhurried sets for over an hour each, after which DJs carried on through until dawn. Boards of Canada and Autechre, both usually sonically stunning, lost the finer textures of their recorded sound and proved themselves disappointingly adept at mediocre live performance. Tortoise, who replicated their latest album note-for-note in their set, managed to liberally pepper the weekend with a few treats. Mike Ladd and El-P from Company Flow kept the leftfield Hiphop flag high, whilst Lambchop and Yo La Tengo soothed the multitude with soft, bittersweet sets. Broadcast, despite being carbon copies of The United States of America circa 1968, were thunderous openers on the final night, proving that there's life in the Theremin yet.

By Sunday night, most festival goers had started to go a little stir-crazy. Wire-reading musos, who on Friday were arguing over the semantics of Tortoise bass lines, could now be found playing shoot-em ups in the arcades room; once fresh-faced hipster kids had become zombified crazy golf addicts and groups of journalists could be found engaged in serious air guitar contests. All of which went to make Television's closing performance the more mind-blowing. Having reformed especially for 'All Tomorrow's Parties', many feared a replay of the Velvet Underground's 1990s comeback gigs - all mullets and stadium-rock mannerisms. Not Television. Impossibly cool, they went at their old favourites knowing they had something so good it just couldn't be improved upon. Now, as Glastonbury swells and lurches closer to corporate oblivion, and free parties dig themselves underground to the point of invisibility, 'All Tomorrow's Parties' is as its name suggests. As Television brought Marquee Moon to a revelatory close, Tom Verlaine whispered into the microphone and summed it up best: 'this case is closed'. 

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).