“This is the end…
…of our elaborate plans, the end
of everything that stands, the end
no safety or surprise, the end”
Jim Morrison of The Doors wrote these words about a failed relationship 50 years ago but he could just as easily have been speaking about the demise of All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP). The organisation that had made its name by staging a series of often quite incredible festivals in holiday camps has now surely run out of road. Paying punters were in the process of handing in their chalet keys following what was ultimately the successful completion of ATP 2.0 April 2016 curated by Stewart Lee when news broke that next weekend’s event – curated by Drive Like Jehu – had been cancelled.
The news came as no surprise. For years ATP has been plagued with organisational difficulties, mounting financial problems and reports of extensive unpaid debts. In 2012 the company went into voluntary liquidation apparently owing £2.6m to creditors. That same year a dispute with the Butlin’s holiday camp chain ended with their six-year relationship being terminated.
Two years later, and after re-emerging in the interim in a different guise, ATP cancelled the Jabberwocky festival three days before it was due to take place; it had previously jettisoned a show at Alexandra Palace at which Grizzly Bear were to headline. And then only last month the Stewart Lee curated event was thrown into confusion after ticket-holders were advised by the Pontin’s venue that it had been cancelled amidst suggestions of non-payment by the promoters.
ATP said that a “miscommunication” had occurred between them and Pontin’s and the event finally went ahead as planned on Friday. The gates to the North Wales holiday park had barely been opened, though, before it was revealed that the weekend’s headliner John Cale had pulled out. In a deeply embarrassing development for ATP, the founding member of The Velvet Underground – whose song ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ provided ATP with their brand name – blamed the event organisers for “letting us all down”. As the afternoon progressed further rumours circulated the site. There were very strong indications that Friday night’s bill topper Roky Erickson had followed Cale’s example and withdrawn from proceedings too – he was, however, to eventually play – and then there was a swell of opinion that the plug might even be pulled on the entire festival before the weekend was out. Suddenly the small matter of there being no hot water in our chalet did not seem quite so important.
Early Friday evening, in his first scheduled appearance of the weekend, the English stand-up comic Stewart Lee tried to draw the sting from what was fast becoming a very palpable concern amongst the crowd. In a hastily prepared skit – he had even written prompts on the back of his hand – he explicitly acknowledged the rumours with jokes about the organisation’s sister event ATP Iceland being relocated to Greenland; ATP’s head honcho Barry Hogan having been seen counting out money back stage; and anyone who grew a beard over the weekend being asked to hand it in to ATP’s London office afterwards to assist the company with further fund-raising. In conversation with Lee a day later he said that he “had been trying to calm everyone down”.
And things did calm down and despite repeated stories to the contrary nobody else did pull out. And for those of us that remained – and compared with the poorly attended Nightmare Before Christmas in December, there were plenty of us – we could only marvel that despite ATP’s rapidly deteriorating reputation as a promoter (and this was even before the Drive Like Jehu announcement) it still had the capacity, against all odds, to pull something rather special out of the hat.
To be greeted on entry by a Police sniffer dog and car searches was rather over-zealous at best. The dilapidated infrastructure of this sadly jaded Pontin’s site – characterised by the vagaries of its push-button showers and those electricity guzzling payment cards – did leave much to be desired. Much of the organisation was consistent with the traditional ATP behind-the-scenes chaos and the loss of the much-loved ATP TV channels must surely be attributed to the organisation’s dire financial straits. And whilst John Cale’s absence did see The Fall promoted to Saturday night’s headline slot – an honour that they just about managed to fulfil despite Mark E. Smith’s best efforts to derail the process through his customary unpredictability – it left a huge gaping hole in the afternoon schedule.
But for all of that, and once the immediate anxieties had ceded, the ATP ethos of producing a quality, varied programme of predominantly alternative music to be enjoyed in a warm, friendly communal atmosphere was maintained.
From the Australian experimental jazz trio The Necks, who commenced proceedings proper early Friday evening with their breath-taking display of dextrous musical virtuosity, to the multi-dimensional sonic grooves of the Sun Ra Arkestra late on Sunday night, there was pretty much something for everyone. Sleaford Mods – one of many artists who in contrast to the more popularised view of ATP spoke warmly about their host’s hospitality – go from strength to strength. Age may have withered Roky Erickson – a man who is no stranger to having faced difficulties of his own – but here he rolled back the years as he trawled through The 13th Floor Elevators back catalogue. With his by now cracked country croon, ‘I Had To Tell You’ reaffirmed the fact that this man is a genuine piece of psychedelic history.
Not everything turned to gold; Giant Sand, in what is their farewell tour, sounded laboured and disinterested for the most part and whilst this will be a view at stark odds with most everyone else in Stage 3 on Friday night, the three-piece nucleus of Liverpool’s Ex-Easter Island Head failed to properly engage this listener. But the Geordie songwriter Richard Dawson later that night was a revelation. Performing what he himself describes as “ritual community music”, his music was accessible, engaging and underpinned with more than a hint of Daniel Johnston-like vulnerability.
The Blue Aeroplanes produced what was probably the highlight of the entire weekend with “a carefully contrived mix of the old and the new”. With singer Gerard Langley looking like Tom Jones’ more louche younger brother and dancer Wojtek Dmochowski defying age, gravity and reason, their set was all bristling energy and pizzaz. Running them a very close second was Dave Graney. A regular presence over the festival’s three days and nights, the Australian maverick illustrated another fine ATP principle that of the ordinary punter being able to literally rub shoulders with the performing artists. His two sets – the second of which where he was joined by the legendary former Orange Juice guitarist Malcom Ross – merely begged the question why this man is not a huge international star.
Somewhat unfathomably given the apparent leeway with the schedule John Cale’s departure afforded, The Bellrays were listed to play at the exact same time as The Fall. They won that particular battle, punching a huge, visceral hole in the heart of Saturday night. And the following night and despite some early sound problems Flamin’ Groovies achieved much the same end and in so doing showed why they are fully deserving of the epithet seminal.
If this was to be the last such ATP event then in many ways it was a fitting finale, demonstrating that if you are able to put all of their financial chicanery to one side the organisers were still able to put on an event that merges the experimental, the legendary and the downright weird (ergo Sing-Along-A-Wickerman, hosted by Dr. Bramwell and fellow musician, Eliza Skelton). But maybe the strangest moment of all was suddenly realising that the very last performance in ATP’s incredibly chequered holiday camp promotion history should be a showing of the 1973 British comedy film Holiday On The Buses. In it the principal character – played by Reg Varney – is sacked from his job for reckless, negligent behaviour in which he placed others at considerable risk. He ultimately finds redemption of sorts at Pontin’s in Prestatyn. The ATP story is not destined to have a similar ending.
ATP 2.0 curated by Stewart Lee was held at Pontin’s Holiday Park in Prestatyn between 15th and 17th April 2016
Photo credit: Simon Godley
More photos from this event can be found HERE