Butlin’s Alternative Weekender

4 stars (out of 5)


Alternative music title10pm Friday is always a tough gig on a Butlin’s Music Weekend; most folks cover some distance to get there, and most folks come from work earlier in the day; so your Friday night crowd is normally enormous (here we are now – entertain us!) but are a bit stunned either due to the aforementioned circumstances (or they’ve been heavily pre-loading, or both).

So in the Centre Stage venue, The Damned. No, I can’t pretend I’m a diehard fan but they will always be the band who arguably got the first punk single to the pressing plant in ‘New Rose’ – and I will always remember the thrill / shock of hearing those over-amplified and some might say ham-fisted chords hammered out on a limited edition Stiff 45 with a groove so thick it virtually ate any stylus you dared to wave at it. We are talking real pioneers here and whereas it would take someone with serious recall problems to describe them as the best of the class of ‘76, they did plant the flag. Respect Due.

Enormous crowd, thousands strong, but somehow not quite up for it yet. On troop The Damned. Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible – originals, of course – shared the pre – song raps and crowd orchestration ( ‘And now it’s time for Singalongasensible!’) and they burst through two well- chosen set openers; “Love Song” (etc) and “I Just Can’t be Happy Today”.

The mix is muddy, and whereas Dave Vanian has rarely been described as the strongest voice of his generation (more sort of Tony Hadley meets that bloke from The Cure via Max Bygraves) he can barely be picked out. Fortunately about three songs in, the sounds starts to come around and the Sensible guitar starts to chime with a bit more conviction. The true believers down the front are loving it but to be fair they aren’t reaching the far flung recesses of the room particularly effectively.

They do “Eloise” with a sort of embarrassed aplomb – but later in the set comes an absolutely blistering “New Rose” and a spirited dash through “Neat Neat Neat”. But the sound and histrionics are very, very rock’n’roll; and the emerging theme of the weekend seems to crop up. This is a very successful touring rock band, with an established repertoire and fan base. Nowt wrong with that of course – but it’s all a few squillion miles from the ‘Alternative Music’ ethos of yore. And I don’t blame them at all. They got their break, as hundreds did before and since, when your jib had to have a particular cut, or you’d spend the rest of your life playing for fifty quid in your local. And they grabbed it with both hands and never looked back. So yes, they were fine, the people who turned up to see them enjoyed them; what more do you want? It’s only rock’n’roll. And I have to say it was a hoot seeing hundreds of middle – aged Captain Sensible lookalikes in the bars around the venue all signing fake autographs etc, etc. And ‘middle aged’ assumes everybody’s going to live till they’re 110 or so.

Quick dash across to Main Stage 2, Reds, to catch UK Subs but Charlie and Co had already done thangugudnite and disappeared. So the choice you now have is the Anti-Nowhere League’s orchestra and chorus, or Bad Manners.

Bad Manners it is then. Oh come on, don’t be like that. Peter Powell once said to me when he was presenting Top Of The Pops, whilst I was watching a fat bloke in a dress and Doc Martins, dancing and miming and sticking his tongue out to a hundred or so year old French music hall tune, that ‘this what the British pop music scene is all about’. And who am I to argue.

Because at the time me and my brother were working six nights a week as party DJs and as the very 80’s conclusion to the evening’s entertainment we’d let off pyrotechnics which these days would get you Health and Safety’d out of existence whilst totally pissed audiences leapt all over each other to this slab of vinyl, which had itself been liberally pock-marked with blast marks due to same. We’d spend a happy three minutes with our fingers crammed under the turntable mountings till they bled, yelling at each other to grab that Frankie 12 inch or whatever. So I’ve got a soft spot for Bad Manners. Bear with me.

As show time approached, the audience raised the endearing chant of ‘You Fat Bastard’ until the band rumbled onto the stage. I very much doubt any of the other original Manners are present with us this evening, but Mr Buster Bloodvessel very definitely is. The band blasts its way through “This is Ska”, which, well, it is and it isn’t, and the Large One then launches into a melange of greatest hits; and he’s had loads. “Lorraine” gets an airing, as does”My Girl Lollipop”, “Just A Feeling”, “Special Brew” etc, etc. He wisely takes a two song breather – the guy must be about 60, and has lost A LOT of weight since the glory days – but with intelligent timing, a classy enough bunch of musicians and an audience prepared to sing the bits when he wants a few gulps of air – he makes it through to a deserved encore of “Lip Up Fatty” and “The Can-Can”. Band were perhaps a bit more individually talented than the sum of their parts, but hey, they more than did the job. There is something about his voice as well – it is ludicrously well suited to the angular Ska sound and phrasing. And actually to paraphrase another of Peter Powell’s favourites, ‘Just for fun – it’s too much!’ Served up between a couple of intelligently chosen 2 Tone / Trojan / Ska / Mod DJ sets, this was a whole bunch of that Fun stuff. Also – where else could you find yourself dancing on a sticky carpet to Toots and The Maytals at two in the morning and the bar is still open north of the Watford Gap?

Saturday is all about The Boomtown Rats. You could hang about all night and listen to The Chords UK, The Rezillos and a Jimmy Pursey-less Sham 69 if you felt the need, or indeed cop a bit Ed Tudor-Pole around half eight if that floats your boat. Or you could take your pick of first sitting Rats at 4pm, or second sitting Rats at 10pm. 4pm Rats meant a leisurely evening and a rather nice Italian meal, so that won hands down. 4pm in Reds it was on Main Stage 1 for The Boomtown Rats.

Bob Geldof spent about 3 years as one of the most famous people in the world. He probably will grace the history books in a few years as one of the most influential people of the previous century. That really does not seem to be an outrageous statement having written it.

So you’re kind of a bit surprised to see The Man Himself bound onstage of a Saturday tea-time at Butlins. And to be fair, they absolutely rip into the audience with a real intensity, which goes up a gear when the band kicks into “Like Clockwork” as third song of the set. Geldof prowls around the stage in a circular motion and the Rats go through the kind of slick, polished set you only get when a band has worked hard rehearsing up front of a tour – and has resolved to tour itself silly, which they are doing. At one point Geldof laughingly accuses the audience of ‘Alternative Music’ supporters of using it as an excuse for a weekend piss-up at Butlin’s – quickly adding ‘and we have no problem with that!’

The hits come thick and fast. Given a life – and by anyone’s standards not always a happy one – lived largely in the full glare of an unforgiving media, “There’s Always Someone Looking at You” sounded a difficult song to sing. “She’s So Modern” hasn’t aged well but at some point during the set they were going to have to launch into “Mondays”. And they did and from spooky piano intro to theatrical hand claps to eyes – closed power vocal, they nailed it and the audience loved it. But that’s not what The Rats were there for – they wanted to rock and whilst wild applause was still hanging in the air Bob is declaring his intent to ‘play some rock n roll’……l refer you to my previous comments regarding The Damned.

And rock’n’roll they did, and extremely effectively. They did a great – and I mean great – version of “Mary Of The Fourth Form”, where the band used the structure of the song to allow ‘Mary’ to chuck a few shillings into the jukebox and say rude things about Mud and The Bay City Rollers, but selecting a few rock n blues classics which enabled the band to noodle along on a very entertaining blues groove, until she finally hit on something by The Boomtown Rats……

“Looking After Number One” is probably the only out and out ‘punk rock’ song in the set. The first hit single, it concludes with ‘I wanna be like me….’ which is very Bob Geldof. Must have been very disappointing for him to hear the crowd sing ‘I wanna be like you!’ More Jungle Book than determined personal statement but hey, that’s not his fault. And so on to a show stopping “Rat Trap”, which is a truly great song, and a real grandstanding anthem in anybody’s language, and a richly deserved encore which featured “Diamond Smiles”. And off they went to get ready for second sitting. By the sounds of it plenty of folks were considering coming back for another helping of the same.

Now as I’ve alluded to before, given his personal circumstances Bob Geldof is unlikely to ever be ‘happy’ in conventional terms. But he did seem very much at ease with his current role as enigmatic front man and talented lead singer with a very, very successful and powerful rock band with an established following and the sort of song book most of their contemporaries would sell granny for. And maybe in musical terms that was all he ever wanted. And if so, relax Bob, you and your mates finally cracked it. You can repeat that whenever necessary and there aren’t many who can say that. And that’s me for the day and I’ll have extra parmesan on that, thanks.

Sunday, on the other hand looked like a bit of a marathon. The Blockheads were due on main stage 1 at around 4pm, followed by The Lambrettas at 8 and From The Jam at 10. Unfortunately this clashed with John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett on Main stage 2 and later, Big Country. I was never not going to see The Blockheads – having seen them a few years back in London, I’m having some of that – but what do you do? Big Country without the late lamented Stuart Adamson, or From The Jam without The Modfather?

It’s a big decision in a town called Skegness. I’ve seen John Otway twice in recent years and he’s great fun but I hadn’t clocked The Lambrettas before and, well, I had heard pretty damn good reports of Bruce Foxton’s return to treading the boards and well, I’d somehow contrived to miss the Jam live first time around so…..

The Blockheads were awesome. They were a great night out in London last time we saw them and they’re actually a lot better now. Sunday afternoon virtually anyone who is about piles into the venue but it takes some performance to have people staggering out claiming they’re the best musicians they’ve seen for years. Chas Jankel, looking very much the elder statesman these days, sort of cajoles a range of great performances out of this outrageously talented bunch of players with “Wake Up and Make Love” and “I Wanna be Straight” from the kick-off; followed by a trip down memory lane with a variety of supple and funky versions of “”What a Waste”, “Reasons to be Cheerful” with, I seem to recall, a smattering of “Jack Shit George” hurled into the mix, “Sweet Gene Vincent”, dedicated to Wilko Johnson, “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards” and a couple of what appeared to be new tracks to my ears, all rounded off by a triumphant blast through “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and an encore of “Blockheads”. You could spend ages waxing lyrical about the individual virtuosity on display from all areas of the band; indeed, you’d have all on trying to marshal all that talent into the discipline needed to play such a tight, targeted set; but if one band member deserved a gold star in his exercise book it was Norman Watt-Roy. If a funkier, more fluid, and downright filthier bass player exists anywhere else on this planet I have yet to hear them. I doubt I’ve ever heard an audience sing the praises of a band so genuinely on the grounds of pure musical ability whilst filing out at tea time.

And thence to Mod Night. Queuing up outside I could hear Big Country tuning up and they sounded positively majestic and I started to have second thoughts about From The Jam. However. You’ve made your bed, you better lie in it. The Lambrettas are an interesting one on paper. Vanguards of the ‘Plastic Mod’ mini-movement in about 1980 or so, they had it mercilessly ripped out of them by the music press at the time. They signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records and recorded two albums, the rather dated but quite tidy ‘Beat Boys in the Jet Age’ and another one, and had two full-fat UK hit singles, an outrageously catchy cover of “Poison Ivy” and an original in “D-D-Dance”.

Both of these were staples of the school disco circuit of the time along with the 2-tone / ska revival stuff;dozens of kids discovering parkas again, and then by the back way, rediscovering great Atlantic soul and Motown tracks which would stay with them for life. So they might not be musical heavyweights in their own right but pretty much like the Merton Parkas, Secret Affair and to an extent and but briefly, The Jam, they put their handprints in the concrete mix marked Great British Popular Music under the sub-section ‘mod revival’.

On they bounced, kitted out in a selection of shiny suits, skinny ties and Fred Perry. The first two songs were ritually murdered by the mixing desk guy, a recurring theme this weekend, but things were turned around by a very sporting version of the Small Faces “All or Nothing”, largely led by the enormously enthusiastic guitarist / second voice guy. Wherein lies part one of a two-part problem. The main man who fronts the band is an original Lambretta (great name, by the way, I honestly wish I’d thought of that one) but he is also of indeterminate age and struggling a bit – at one point he asked to borrow an inhaler from a member of the audience. He is also clearly quite worn down with the constant battle required to stretch two hits out over a whole set – having made the decision to bung them in right at the end – and spent most of the evening pleading with the audience to show a bit of patience as he will Definitely Be Playing That One Later. Consequently he introduced the songs almost apologetically and without conviction. Come on, if you want me to believe what I’m going to listen to for the next few minutes is worth the time then please sound like YOU think it is.

Part two of the problem this band has is accepting what it is. The cover of the Small Faces song – and the later Sam The Sham cover – went down well enough. If you want to go down as well as some of the acts this weekend – have a look at the set. By all means do Beat Boys etc. Title track from the album, which is about to be pushed out again, by all means play the two hits, keep the two killer covers and by all means play a new song especially if you have or are thinking of recording again. Rest of it, mod / 60’s cover versions. Why not try a Motown / Soul Medley. Didn’t hurt The Jam any as a live feature back in the day. The Jam also did a killer version of the original 60’s Batman Theme……get the idea? As it turned out, despite a lot of huffing and puffing, they did OK but not great, got a predictably cheerful response to The Hits and the cover at the end, and earned a deserved encore for effort and sticking to the task. But it could be shed loads better for the same amount of effort, lads.

Main feature of the evening – From The Jam. Bruce Foxton must have reached the point where being introduced as …..’From The Jam’ to the point of cliché, decided that inevitability is well, inevitable. Now there’s two ways of doing this; he could either trot out and ‘be’ Bruce Foxton, From The Jam, with the best bits of a competent The Jam tribute band, possibly called Jamnation or some such thing, take everybody’s fivers and laugh all the way to the bank. Or he could, out of respect for, the music, the people who love the music, and The Jam’s legacy, do it seriously. And from the opening bars of ‘Going Underground’, it is pretty much apparent which it is going to be, played with attack, verve and total conviction, followed by a vicious ‘David Watts’. Foxton looks in great nick, completely unfairly denying the passing of so many years, and his other two Jammy Dodgers are more than up to the task; The drummer has the metronomic accuracy of Rick Buckler replete with that 100 ton thwack which some of the songs require, whilst Russell Hastings is a revelation; got the phrasing, is a phenomenal guitar player – hasn’t quite got the angry snarl of Weller but then again who has? “Start”, “The Butterfly Collector”, “Strange Town” and “Eton Rifles” all whizz past and, if you shut your eyes, please complete the sentence. A new tune which fits in well in context with the hits, “Beat Surrender” and an electric arrangement of “That’s Entertainment” cause near-pandemonium and then – “A Town Called Malice”, complete with the squeaky ice-stadium-stylee keyboard figure. Off they go, absolutely spent, and come back after a short recovery time for a killer version of Martha and the Vandellas “Heatwave” and “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” complete with backing vocals from a few thousand of the assembled.

Mr Foxton, not seemingly one given to overt displays of emotion whilst onstage, admits at the point of exit that they’ve really enjoyed the evening and find such events ‘very worthwhile’. I’m not surprised. It seemed to me he’d spent the entire evening barely able to suppress his glee at the way in which hard work and a sound plan had come together. Again. They’re off to Australia but are back to tour next year. Go and see them, I implore you. Just because the esteemed Mr Weller seems to have no further use for these songs doesn’t mean you should be debarred from hearing them played live again – especially played by a bloke who has every right to play them.

And that was about it. And what have we learned, if anything? Well, from the stadium-sound drums virtually all the bands adopted as the default position down to the rock n roll theatricals, to describe this as ‘Alternative’ is having a bit of a laugh. I heard around fifty hit singles and classic album tracks which had shifted millions over the weekend. Most of these bands have long since joined rock’n’roll’s merry mainstream, and most at least had the decency to own up to it, whilst at the same time saying ‘fuck’ quite a lot. But then again, that was always going to happen. And from the point that single hit the charts at 18 with a bullet and Top Of The Pops came to call, you were always going to be playing Butlins one day. Ask Robbie Williams. He knows this and has publically admitted as much. But as Hunter S Thompson once observed, ‘when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro….’ Not trying to cause a big sensation. Just talking about my generation.