It’s been a long, beautiful and tangled journey for ATP. From the highs of early success with their weekenders at Camber through to their glorious early days at the larger Minehead venue and their subsequent expansion as an international promoter putting on city events in London, Japan, New York and Melbourne things haven’t always been fun or simple; Their monetary problems; a series of ill-attended events and a growing online reputation for unreliability; shows cancelled or postponed with little to no explanation; then the company’s much-publicised name change last year (from ATP concerts to Wilwal) following some severe financial peril. Regardless, as the brand was stretched and over-extended to breaking point one thing remained consistent – the UK holiday camp weekenders were about as much fun as a music fan could reasonably expect to have with their Sonic Youth ‘Goo’ t-shirts on.
An idiosyncratic blend of returning, reformed 90s names (Pavement, The Breeders)striking new talents (Battles, STNNNG), baffling ATP favourites (the abysmal Yuck and Factory Floor) and the occasional stretching of the “underground rock” mindset (De La Soul, Neurosis) these were weekends engineered for genuine enjoyment, for a real experience. You could bounce from stage to stage, careering from bar to bar, pinballing between groups of grinning friends, discovering the bold and new, rediscovering old delights, mocking the terrifyingly fashionable, nipping back to your chalet for a shower and a bite to eat before heading back into the fray, whipping your mates at air hockey and screaming along to Dinosaur Jr like there would be no tomorrow.
Well, after 14 years there will be no tomorrow – at least for the UK holiday camp ATP festivals that were not only the basis of the appeal of the brand but also among some of our favourite live music memories of the last decade and a half.
This weekend is a hell of a send-off if a truly bittersweet one. There are the usual offering of returning heroes to witness the door closing – on Friday we have Shellac in tuxedo t-shirts (and Bob in PVC pants) slamming out peerless, grinding, addictive rock, the legendary Steve Albini summing up the moment simply and without nostalgia – “It’s an honour and a pleasure to play here for you” he says coolly. They are always powerful, always without affectation and tonight there is something even more special for me personally – stood at the barrier, seeing the band for the 12th or 13th time over the last decade I wonder if this isn’t a little bit what my idea of heaven would be – stood with your friends watching a glorious band, the promise of more to come, the real world too far away for reasonable consideration – forever.
Yet at the same time, I’m 35 years old. This decade of taking enjoyment from these events, from them being the highlights of my social calendar, ATP eventually dragging me everywhere from Barcelona to New Jersey, has just been the ultimate expression of an obsession with music, live music in particular that I’ve not been able to escape since I was 10 or 11 years old. I stare at Shellac and I wonder what it is about seeing them so many times over so many years appeals. I wonder about the distance between myself and reality in that moment, and I suddenly find myself questioning my position, my priorities. But we’ll get back to that.
Earlier on Friday we find Fuck Buttons, who are a real rock n’ roll band – challenging, tuneful, forward-looking and transportive – but their lustre doesn’t stretch to an hour. We’re impatient and a discussion over whether what they do classes as a ‘performance’ or not renders them without further appeal and I slip downstairs for Follakzoid who are playing pounding drone of the type you can taste on your teeth when stood next to the speakers. It’s easy to lose yourself here.
Much later Slint play to a capacity Stage 1. Everyone at the festival must be there. But everyone at the festival is talking and Slint, the inventors of post-rock (if you must) are very, very quiet. The vocals never reach above a whisper, the stabbing, lancing guitars never at the same volume as those of the other guitar bands that fill the stage this weekend. They are an understated, intricate band. I wander around in my Slint t-shirt, (yeah, I’m that guy), annoyed at being unable to find a single spot where the mix sounds right and I admire them quietly for, after all these years, not conforming to any kind of standard or expectation however credible the rule makers may be.
More on-message on the Saturday are the much-missed Loop (25 years away) who headline with a bold, pulsating set of groundbreaking shoegaze that I can’t get comfortable with. I know it’s good, I respect the band and damn, it sounds hefty but it seems to be missing depth – maybe it’s the mix, maybe it’s my shattered ears, they send me back to the chalet, then to the beach where we discuss the excellence of the earlier performance by Comets On Fire. From their excellent, frenzied albums you’d expect a pretty raucous live outing but this is something else. A friend of mine describes them as “just like Hawkwind”, to me they sound like the end of the world if the apocalypse was brought about by killer trees, or maybe dolphins with effects pedals. Either way it’s overwhelming, headbanging, kneck-cracking gear that leaves me head down, eyes closed, imagining possibilities.
These are possibilities I’m picking up on from earlier when we’re laid flat out on the floor at Stage 1, A Winged Victory For The Sullen playing a glorious cascade of gentle, moving orchestration, a cover of Sparklehorse’s ‘Spirit Ditch’ rolling over me and I feel sad for Mark Linkous. I describe how he died to a friend. Then I feel sad for myself and I remember that, as the set hits its peak, we all get that phone call about a loved one eventually. I picture myself and my fiancée and a young baby in a beach hut somewhere sun-drenched as I drift into the music. These are good pictures that I can use to cover up the sadness of inevitability.
We rock the fuck out to Hookworms. They charge through their set like fucking brilliant bastard maniacs. It’s brutally loud, it’s unrepentantly aggressive and it’s unequivocally brilliant. My neck still hurts as I type this.
Yet Saturday didn’t start with unbearable feedback, nor worry, or a dread of mortality. Saturday began with The Dismemberment Plan.
How can a band be as good as The Dismemberment Plan? They’ve been around for about twenty years and I’ve never heard or seen them before today. Every song is an anthem, every tune a beauty, every expression on singer Travis Morrison’s beaming face as he tells us we look like delicious sausages. As they pour forth pure, glorious, unfettered college-pop I can’t stop smiling either and the question Shellac posed is partly answered – if I wasn’t here right now, for what feels like the thousandth time, I wouldn’t be experiencing this for the first time.
What happens on Sunday is that we watch the sunset from the dunes of Camber and dance to music from our ‘phones. There are people riding horses on the beach. Stevie Nicks is stood atop the dune next to us. At least I assume it’s Stevie Nicks. It’s a beautiful moment, augmented with Daft Punk, bittersweet for me because, again, I’m missing my fiancée, I’m missing my family. This is the part of me that wants everyone I love together, everyone happy, preferably with many, many bands to see. Is this a music fan’s version of a mid-life crisis?
Il Sogno Del Marinaio have Mike Watt on bass. This is later on the Sunday and their compelling, awkward, jazz frenzy is as beautiful as it is demanding, Watt’s presence as always evoking the spirit of the great D Boon. I dodge another moment of melancholy to embrace the extremely New York greatness of Girls Against Boys. They are abrasive, tuneful and grateful to be here – “It’s been too long” correctly notes vocalist Scott McCloud. It’s an interesting, accidentally multi-layered sentiment.
Mogwai close the evening and the festival with a marauding beast of a set – soaring guitar lines shatter eardrums and poke souls, the ebb and flow of the Mogwai sound so satisfying, so all-consuming, so brilliantly joyous and overwhelmingly dark. As ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ tears out through the night with it’s multiple climax finale the exhaustion hits almost immediately. Sonic Youth’s ‘Teenage Riot’ is blasting through the speakers (keep in mind the age of many of the punters here) and we’re dancing and then we’re just chanting “ATP! ATP! ATP!” to no-one in particular, probably just for ourselves because it’s the best we can do to express how we’re feeling right in that moment when the light narrows and finally disappears.
We talk about our highlights and eat curry on the pavement, and we talk with faces that jump from joy to dourness in seconds. I talk about Superchunk a lot. Earlier in the day we meet Jim from the band and we talk briefly – he’s a genuinely nice man who gives me a great bear hug after I mumble something about Superchunk being my favourite band (no hyperbole here – there IS no better band than Superchunk).
An hour or so later their set begins and I’m a little sad that Laura’s not on bass (her hearing problems have gotten the better of her recently it seems)and then we get an hour of perfection. Pure, blasting, emotive pop music without reasonable comparison and with endless energy and heart. I dance and I smile and I scream along and it’s like Christmas morning every time they strike a fucking chord.
That Jim gives me a shout out right there as “my new friend from the bar, Mike” gives me a teenage feeling it’s hard to remember having before. It’s a shiver of pubescent pop thrill that I’d perhaps forgotten about, or maybe meant to forget about. I’m in rapture as the set thunders to a close with ‘Hyper Enough’. I want it to go on forever – just as we’d said about psych-hippies OM earlier in the weekend, for very different reasons.
The weekend is done, ATP, in its most perfect and accessible form is over and we’re left with thousands of vivid, glowing memories. Every time I was down on the front left, nodding, eyes closed as some band hypnotized me, every time we danced in the pit and shouted the words back, every moment where time stood still so that we could enjoy ourselves more than we thought possible we were reaching for the antidote to the poison of life.
These hours of transcendence, the images we scorch into our minds – for me that possible future image of myself, my fiancée and a baby in a hut by the beach – these are our defences against the shit of the world, the banal, the cruel, the baseless. I take my music so fucking seriously it’s embarrassing, I know. This is probably a fucking tough read. But hear this – I know the difference between real life and ‘entertainment’ and I know the difference between adulthood and fantasy. But in MY heaven, where Shellac have just kicked into ‘Steady As She Goes’ and the weekend sprawls out in to infinity those differences are irrelevant – there’s just joy and togetherness and you’re all invited.
Fuck you ATP, in my heart you can’t stop the party and a big fuck you to my wandering mind too – death may be inevitable but GODDAMN it’s gonna have a fight on its hands. I think we can beat it with joy.