Close your eyes if you will and imagine the perfect music festival. There would be great bands of course, with the event curated by one of your favourite artists. There will be some bands you love, but have never had the chance to see, and some you’ve never heard of, but you just know are going to be amazing. There would be no camping or grappling with tents in the rain, you’d even get your own little flat with a bathroom. The gigs would be indoors with a decent sound system. There would be no elitist VIP section, bands and punters would intermix with no sense of us and them. There would be a beach when it’s sunny and shelter when it rains. And no portaloos!
Such a festival does exist and its name is All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP). It is the brainchild of Barry Hogan, who got the idea after he promoted Belle and Sebastian’s Bowlie Weekender in 1999. And now a film has been made about it. Brought together by Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation) and music video director Vincent Moon, it captures the essence of the UK ATPs, which are held several times a year at the quintessentially British institution of ‘the holiday camp’ by the seaside, made more ironic by the fact that most of the bands playing are from the States. They probably find the whole thing even more bizarre than the Brits whose only experience of a holiday camp is from watching Hi-de-Hi!
Comprised of footage from the festival contributed by filmmakers, fans and bands using Super8, camcorder, mobile phone and still imagery, the film is a mish-mash of live footage, interviews and people just enjoying the festival. It reflects ATP’s musical aesthetic; wild and edgy, obscure and funny, capturing the rawness and the post-punk attitude of the event. Having been to many of these events myself, I felt a gurgle of joy bubbling up inside me as each frame flashed a memory, an anecdote, good times and ‘I was bloody there!’ outbursts.
The film opens with fan footage of the check-in queues on the first day of the event, interspersed with 60s footage of traditional holiday camps. It is quite surreal to be watching old-fashioned Red Coats and knobbly knees contests backed with music from obtuse noisnicks Battles, who are the first band that we see.
For fans and previous attendees of ATP, there are several fun games you can play while watching the All Tomorrow’s Parties film. The first one is to ‘guess the band’: some of the live footage is accompanied by the band name and the year that they played, but more often than not the artists are unlabeled, so knowing which is which is a real nerd’s pleasure. There’s also the ‘spot the friend’ game. I think I counted at least 10 people I know who were either interviewed or appeared in some background scene.
Or how about the brilliant ‘remember when…’ game? Do you remember the crazy Chinese guy running around in the cape? Or when Lightning Bolt played outside their chalet and people from the neighbouring houses complained? Or when David Cross (pre-Arrested Development) went down like a lead balloon during his stand-up routine? Or when Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian played five-a-side football with the regular folk?
It’s also great seeing bands like The Gossip playing the small stage at Camber Sands before they burst into the mainstream and onto naked magazine covers. I remember bumping into Beth Ditto in the loos before she went on and she had a huge chunk of toilet paper stuck to her shoe. I gave her a sideways look in the mirror and said ‘you may want to sort that out before you go on stage!’ She laughed and thanked me for pointing it out. I felt like I really contributed to the success of that particular show!
There is also some enjoyable interview footage with some of the curators (Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and Warren Ellis from The Dirty Three) as well as the organiser of the festival, Barry Hogan. There’s a great scene when he’s watching a news report about ATP on TV in his chalet and is cringing at his own interview.
This film probably won’t be of interest to those who aren’t into the bands or haven’t been to an All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, but for those who have, it is a reminder of how utterly unique and special this event is.