You rarely get a festival with a more apposite name. Moved from the gentle quirkiness of Camber Sands Pontins to the glitzy, tacky environs of Butlins at Minehead, the increase in size and complexity has proved to be The Nightmare Before Christmas’s downfall.
Long treasured by fans who come year after year, despite the changing musical theme – this year noize, old punk and American Indie, a mix of mature bands you’ve never heard of and old stalwarts like Iggy Pop, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth (whose Thurston Moore is curating this year’s event) – ATP events have always been an opportunity to explore new sounds, gain accidental introductions to bands you’d never otherwise see, and immerse yourself in a world where everyone, from hairy teens to lumpy 50-year-olds, share the same love of music as you do.
The festival began to unravel before we’d even arrived, with news that the headline acts would be performing twice, and only certain coloured armbands would be allowed in (as you’d already booked, which night you’d be able to get in was already decided for you, whether you liked it or not). Half way through the evening the halls had to be emptied to ensure only the right armbands could go back in, creating more chaos.
Journalists, we were latterly informed, might not be allowed in either show, depending on demand, despite the fact that we’d all paid half the ticket price anyway, and had no accommodation provided. Honestly, would readers of the Manchester Evening Post have much interest in The Haters or 16 Bitch Pileup? Offered refunds on press tickets, we moved heaven and earth to get regular entry to guarantee seeing the bigger bands – or so we thought
The new venue provided a choice of three stages which, on the surface, looked like an improvement. Friday night offered a choice of Sonic Youth, Bardo Pond and Charlalambides, and all were reported to be excellent. However by 8pm you realised choice wasn’t the problem because the massive queues to enter the various rooms meant that if you stepped out for a few minutes you were unlikely to be able to rejoin your friends or see the next band, such were the waits involved.
Unless you stayed put in one room all night you were doomed – effectively reducing choice to nil. If you wanted to see Dinosaur Jr late on Saturday you had to get in for the first or second band of the night or you were unlikely to squeeze in – despite the fact that the venue seemed comparatively empty compared to usual festival venues.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that taking money from 6,000 people but having a maximum capacity for your headline acts of 2,800 is going to leave a lot of disgruntled punters roaming around. Worse still, queues formed at the smaller halls too, as people turned away from one performance looked for somewhere to go.
The organisers did try to adapt to the problem by persuading bands to play a second set (Melvins, Deerhoof, Gang of Four and Dinosaur Jr) but that still didn’t mean that everyone got to see who they wanted. In the end they were reduced to issuing tickets to the queues, but frankly, we don’t go to festivals to queue up for a couple of hours each day. That’s what bus stops are for. The unspoilt kids from outside London seemed to take to it better, as they felt anything was worth it to get to see the likes of Sonic Youth in the flesh.
But on to the good stuff. Paying for the plethora of interesting American acts to fly over may have been what led the organisers to expand the event in the first place. Acts like New Zealanders The Dead C (18 albums and 17 years old) are rarely seen on these shores, at least out side of London, and the bill was characterised by long-lasting old punks like Flipper, joined by ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Noveselic – which led an excited Jenni Cole to push to the very front of the stage, a mere four feet away!
Our party split over several bands seen live for the first time. Fiona thought Melvins, with their two Sideshow Bob-lookalike lead singers/guitarists were a fantastic blend of the Dead Kennedys, Black Sabbath and Metallica, featuring the hardest-working twin drummers in the history of rock, but hated Deerhoof, who everyone else seemed to find whimsically entertaining and not, as she thought, silly and shambollic.
Jenni admits they were silly and shambolic, and sang like the Tellytubbies on Special K, but loved them none the less. Other standout performances came from Nurse With Wound, who opened the event with a single improvised piece which, to everyone’s surprise, moved from elegent electronica to funky bass.
Sun City Girls, a slightly frightening mix of performance art, poetry and punky noisescapes, did a protest rap about how to save the world over looped James Bond themes, and The New Blockaders were joined by Survival Research Lab offshoot The Haters to produce a truly ear-splitting but none the less subtle layering of almost painful noize over a single 3/4 hour performance.
The better known acts provided a mixed response also. Iggy’s first festival of the weekend was lively but rather predictable, Mr Pop hurling himself into the crowd then dragging shellshocked listeners up on stage to dance with him, but offering little new. Gang of Four, on the other hand, were good enough to see twice, belting out old favourites, displaying a Kraftwerkesque precision, musicianship tight, light show extremely effective.
There were people who we’re sure would have been brilliant, if we’d dared leave the queues to catch them, like Max Gustaffson & The Boredoms’ EYE. Tonight we face the difficult decision of whether we dare duck out at the end of the Nels Cline show and catch half of Wolf Eyes knowing we may never get back again. Had we been willing to miss the second Dinosaur Jr show to queue for tickets to see the MC5 we’d also be looking forward to that. As it is we’re considering heading back to London early with the news that Jackie O Motherfucker have cancelled, and the spectre of spending another evening hanging round in a queue.
An altogether unsatisfactory experience. Sure, the chalets were warmer and cleaner, and there were more opportunities to play Air Hockey and buy fluffy nik-naks and fudge, but this is not what you come to a music festival for. If you can’t watch the bands, it’s simply not worth it.
Words by Jenni Cole and Fiona Jerome