The Great British Alternative Music Festival
Butlin’s Skegness, Ingoldmells, Skegness, Lincolnshire, PE25 1NJ
Friday October 5th – Sunday October 7th 2019
As a young child in the late 70s – forget Disneyland or Legoland, where I really wanted to go to was Butlins! I’d watch the adverts on telly and send off for the brochure, but alas, my parents could barely afford the essentials so it was not to be. By the time I was working and could afford to go I was no longer interested in funfairs, ice creams and sooty, I wanted to listen to bands, drink and generally have a good time – now Butlins caters for that too!
Butlins music weekenders are a brilliant idea – they make use of the camp’s facilities off-season and offer a music festival without camping or long walks to your hotel. They are generally themed on decades or musical genre, meaning most people can find something to suit their tastes. Tempted as I was by the Cheeky Girls and a Bruno Mars tribute act at the ’00s weekend in Bognor Regis, I figured Alternative Music is more my thing (joking about the Cheeky Girls, erm honestly! 🙂 )
The initial attraction to any festival is of course the lineup, and it isn’t rocket science to figure out whether the bands are your cup of tea or not, but it’s all the other stuff that can make or break the weekend for you. Accommodation, food/drink, scheduling/clashes, and even something as mundane as the car parks can make the difference between a memorable weekend for the right reasons, and a memorable weekend for the wrong reasons. For example a couple of years ago when the car parks flooded at Festival Number 6 some people had their cars written off – that kind of thing can put a bit of a dampener on your weekend no matter how good the lineup!
Hands off Gretel
Before I go into details, let me just say that in my opinion Butlins have got all the important stuff right. Looking through social media, yes of course like with any large gathering, people have some niggles, more on them later, but the overwhelming opinion is of a great weekend and looking fwd to doing it all again next year!
One thing I will say about the lineup, it was even better than I thought! Being aged 8 in 1976, a lot of these bands bypassed me and I only knew their hit(s). Some of them were a revelation, for example I didn’t think I’d be that fussed on The Boomtown Rats, but I was wrong – they were great!
Like I said, it’s the lineup that attracts you to a festival, but it’s the people and the vibe that make you want to go back – safe to say I want to go back next year, regardless of what bands are on!
Blue Carpet Band
Pete Bentham and the Dinner Ladies
Pete Bentham and the Dinner Ladies
After the lineup, the crowd who attend a festival is probably one of the most important factors.
I was too young to go to punk gigs in the 70s, so whether the image of people spitting everywhere and fights breaking out was real or just the tabloids doing what they do – find the extremes and present them as the norm, I’ve really no idea, but it was nothing like that, and I didn’t see any trouble all weekend. The crowd were absolutely brilliant!
There’s a real community spirit with punks from all over the country meeting up with people they know from the circuit, yet they were very welcoming to strangers. There’s me with a press pass hanging round my neck – for all they knew I could be writing a “Filth and the Fury” follow up about how the scourge of punk is ruining our middle aged and OAP population, but everyone was friendly and chatty regardless! I felt completely safe walking around the site with my cameras out, from early in the morning until late at night.
One of the great things about a themed lineup is that you already have something in common with everyone else in that you like similar music, so even if you’re not great at striking up conversation with strangers or suffer from social anxiety, you’ll get talking to someone.
I remember meeting our tent neighbour at the end of the night one Glastonbury, he was buzzing having seen Mumford and Sons, I can’t stand them, but was buzzing having seen some band I like, so whilst we were both merrily buzzing on cider and music we enjoyed, it was hard to know what else to say, “did they, erm, play that fiddly diddly one from the advert?” to fake a bit of interest! But at this weekend, whilst not everybody liked all the bands, we probably all had bands in common.
I didn’t fully appreciate just how good having a chalet is until I arrived! With camping festivals it’s a means to an end, I’m not into camping for fun, carting about a massive tent and setting it up/putting it away sometimes in the wind/rain. But I do enjoy sleeping at the actual festival because it is a break from the stresses of the outside world, and I tend to find when I go to city-centre festivals and stay in a hotel, once you’re offsite the magic starts to evaporate and real world worries start coming back. (I’ve never been to Rebellion, so perhaps with so many punks descending on Blackpool the festival vibe continues even away from the festival – it’s on my to-do list to find out!).
Drongos for Europe
Eddie and the Hot Rods
Spear of Destiny
At Butlins you’ve got the benefit of not needing to leave the festival unless you want to, and you don’t have a half hour walk to your B&B, you can literally be back in your chalet in minutes meaning you can nip back between bands if you want to chill and have a cuppa, there are even cooking facilities and a fridge if you want to make a snack! There are tellies in the chalet’s too, though why you’d want to put on x-factor or something when all these awesome bands are on I do not know!
I had the food package and was suitably impressed. You get 2 buffets a day – one for breakfast and one for evening meal. I’m a big fan of buffet breakfasts when on holiday – there is something great about being able to throw some clothes on (well I don’t want to put people off their breakfast 😉 ) be at the buffet in minutes, and take what you fancy without having to wait for it to be cooked or decide in advance how much you want to eat.
With budget hotel chains, the buffet breakfast is convenient, but not always the best ingredients and you can tell it’s been lying around for a while. At Butlins though, they obviously use good quality ingredients and prepare little and often as the food tasted like it was cooked to order. I particularly liked the fried bread and the eggs, and the hash browns were the best I’ve tasted. If fry-ups aren’t your thing, there was a vegetarian option plus you are spoiled for choice with pastries, cereal, yogurt and fruit on offer as well as a wide selection of fruit juices, tea and coffee.
There is something surreal about being in a holiday camp canteen surrounded by punks, with punk hits playing in the background, in a good way!
Likewise the evening buffet was thankfully not pretentious Michelin starred nonsense but good honest top-end pub food, with choices of Indian, Chinese, English and so on, and burgers cooked to order. Buffets make even more sense at that time of the day since the bands have started so you don’t want to be hanging around waiting for your meal.
My only real complaint about the food was that the desserts were too damned tempting! Some of us are on a diet, what were they thinking 😉
Beers at the bars cost around £4.50 a pint, so not quite as cheap as Wetherspoons, but normal city centre pub prices. You can bring a reasonable amount of beers to your chalet, and I think you can probably take them to the introducing stage, but not into the main stages.
There are even tables you can sit at to watch the band, though obviously as the day goes on they are like hens teeth.
Jack the Lad
New Model Army
The Complete Clash
In terms of stages / scheduling / clashes, it works something like this:
There are 2 main stages, Reds and Centre Stage. They are literally about 2 mins apart. In the main tent with various food stalls, bars and souvenir stands, there is a big seated area in the middle and the Introducing stage where lesser known bands play, and a big area for dancing.
The first bands of the day perform on the main stages around 1pm and 3pm. Then from 4pm-7pm there are bands on the introducing stage on the hour, and finally 3 bands on each main stage at around 8pm, 9:45pm and 11:30pm. (The Friday schedule is similar but starts at 4pm).
Perhaps information overload there, but what it means is that there are never more than 2 bands on at the same time, and if you want to see a bit of both, the stages are close enough together to do so, assuming one of the venues isn’t full, in which case they operate one in – one out policy. The only band I saw a queue for all weekend was the one and only tribute act on the bill – The Complete Clash.
For me the schedule works really well – as I was reviewing and photographing the festival I was trying to catch as many bands as I could. If I were there as a customer and I was feeling a bit hungover in the morning, and if I didn’t know the first bands of the day I’d be tempted to chill in the chalet until later. But with how it works, the better known bands get you out of bed and sorted, then by the time the introducing bands start you’re ready for them, whether you prefer to dance down the front, or sit at a table with your mates and a few pints.
I saw a few people on social media complaining about the long gaps between bands at night, obviously you can’t please everybody, but for me it works well. I remember my first festival which was also my first Glastonbury. I was like a kid in a sweet shop running around trying to catch as many bands as I physically could, getting stressed about what I’d missed, but when you see 12+ bands a day back to back , they all blur into one and you can’t even remember who you’ve seen half the time, so these days I try to pace myself a bit more.
I appreciated the gap, giving time to have a drink, chat to people, or even go back to the chalet for a cuppa and charge my phone! It also means that there is plenty time for changeover, so bands generally ran to time. But equally I understand if you’re desperate for the next band you could get fed up waiting.
If you’ve overdone it and fancy a walk, the beach is just a short walk away where you can clear your head with some sea air, there is also a swimming pool, though I didn’t check if it was open. There is of course an amusement arcade too.
With a lot of the bands having formed in the late 70s and early 80s, and indeed Eddie and the Hotrods playing one of their last gigs as they are retiring, the bands on the introducing stage are literally the future of the festival, and on this evidence I’d say punk is far from dead – in fact it’s only just getting started!
The only frustrating thing was that I kept thinking, right, I’ll take photos at the first couple of songs of the next band then I’ll go and get something to eat! But the buggars all hooked me in and leaving wasn’t an option! With no “better known” bands competing on the main stages, it gives the introducing bands the largest possible audience.
There was an incredibly high standard with 12 bands over the 3 days that are every bit as good as the better known acts on the bill. Commitments and logistics permitting, I’d go and see any of these bands again if I get a chance.
A voting system is in place where you get a plastic disc and put it in a letter box for one of the 4 bands who played that day. The daily winner opens one of the main stages on the same day next year.
This was one of the more controversial aspects of the festival gauging by social media, with some feeling it makes the whole thing a bit x-factor, and accusations of cheating going on.
Personally, I think it’s a bit of fun, whilst the winning band will open a stage next year, I’m sure the other bands will be back before long, they seemed to do well on the merch stand, and earned themselves a lot of new fans. I didn’t detect any animosity between bands despite the healthy competition.
The actual definition of “Introducing” is a bit loose. It conjures up images of bands who are a bit wet behind the ears playing their first gig, but I first saw Liverpool legends Pete Bentham & The Dinner Ladies about 10 years ago and I don’t think they were new then! Desperate Measures from New Zealand formed in 1981!
I think in this context it really means “lesser known/deserves to be better known” everybody recognises names like UK Subs, Boomtown Rats, Blockheads and so on in or out of the Punk Scene, but unless you have your finger on the pulse of the modern punk scene then you probably wouldn’t know (m)any of the bands on that stage – I didn’t, but I’m glad that I do now!
I’ll leave detailed band-by-band reviews to other blogs, but if I had to pick a band of the weekend, for me personally I’d have to say The Rezillos – a stunning performance! However, by far the most popular band with people I spoke to, and gauging by social media, last year’s Sunday winners Hung Like Hanratty. With wholesome tales about dog turd, Jimmy Saville and so on however they weren’t universally popular and have probably blown their chances of playing the Manchester student union Christmas Party!
Other top picks for me would be Spear of Destiny, Blue Carpet Band, New Model Army, Hands Off Gretel, Pete Bentham and the Dinner Ladies, The Professionals, Desperate Measures, The Blockheads, The Transmitters, Boomtown Rats, No Thrills, Sham 69, Delinquents, Verbal Warning, Drongos for Europe, Ed Tudorpole, The Lengthmen, Dirtbox Disco….
I honestly couldn’t fault the festival, but for the sake of balance and so that I don’t sound like an employee of Bourne Leisure’s marketing department, I had a look on social media to see what criticisms people had, and there was nothing major.
Obviously with any lineup people argue, some say there should be more punk, some say less. Not everyone approved of having a tribute band on the bill in the shape of The Complete Clash, I’m not keen on tribute acts myself, but they were a good band, and the only queue I saw of the entire weekend, so having 1 tribute act on a bill of 38 bands isn’t too excessive in my book.
The pit at the main stage is so big you could probably get a bus down there, great for photographers, not so good for audience who want to get close to the band.
The first band, The Lengthmen was at 4pm on the Friday, but you couldn’t book into your chalet until 4pm, so a lot of people missed the start of the band.
And the voting system as mentioned early. but that was about it! Not bad going!
It was an incredible weekend which will live long in the memory, and I can’t wait to do it all again next year!
If you like the sound of Butlins Great British Alternative Music Festival, but don’t want to wait for the next one at Skegness next October, then the good news is there is one in Minehead March 2019. Full preview coming up soon, lineup looks great – go here for more details.
And to book for Skegness next year, go here.
To see video of the bands taken by the legendary Punk Rock Sal, take a look at her playlist here
Words + Pictures: John W. King
Also appears in Live Music Reviews