Butlins wasn’t a holiday destination ever considered by my parents when I was growing up in Plymouth in the late ’60s/early ’70s. My Dad had been an Army artillery officer, my Mum an Army nursing officer and Butlins didn’t form a part of their world, just as ITV was seldom aired on the wood veneer television set in the sitting room and ketchup never allowed on the breakfast table.
There was a slight frisson of rebellion, therefore, as I drove through the gates of the Bognor Regis Butlins last weekend for the three-day Rockaway Beach festival. In my 60th year, I still feel the disapproving glances between my two late parents as I queue up to collect the key for our Seaside Apartment.
As I look around, I recognise kindred spirits. It’s a long time since any of us have tried to provoke our parents, and it looks like most of us are now the other end of the generational seesaw, with kids of our own no doubt shaking their heads with bemusement at what the old folks are up to this weekend. Traces of teenage rebellion remain as a spiky-haired old boy patiently unpacks Sainsbury carrier bags filled with booze from a Vauxhall Nova and crimson-dyed punkettes smoke roll-ups and talk about retirement options.
This impeccably curated festival brings about two and a half thousand music lovers down to Bognor in the chill of early January to share war stories and survival strategies. It feels like we’ve all been through it: successes, failures, joy, heartbreak. We’ve done plenty of time and there are heartwarming nods of recognition between 50+ strangers: yes, we’re still going; no, there’s nothing wrong with opening the Jack Daniels at tea.
One of the first bands on are the Cambridge art setup Black Country, New Road, whose David Byrne meets Captain Beefheart arrangements see saxophonist Lewis stare at us with cocky insolence and keyboardist May look satisfyingly bored as she rests her chin in her hand. They are perfect in every way, a glorious reminder that this whole rock ‘n’ roll thing is in fine hands still.
Later that night, the 77-year-old John Cale rips through an almost two-hour set, indulging us with White Light, White Heat along the way. Halfway through, the plaintive organ chords of Hedda Gabbler remind me of the summer of 1977, when my father’s achilles heel accident had required me to drive my parents and their caravan to south west France, a couple of months after I’d passed my driving test. I’d managed to broker an agreement with them earlier that year that I’d come on no more family holidays, but Dad’s accident meant there was no-one else to drive. Filled with teenage angst and resentment, I insisted on sleeping outside in my own tent, and one night was interrupted as I sang Hedda Gabbler by Cale on my acoustic guitar.
‘It’s two in the morning,’ he pleaded, standing outside my tent in his jimjams. ‘No-one can sleep.’
I’d just got hold of a copy of Animal Justice, Cale’s new EP with the Jill Furmanovsky cover, and was indignant that anyone should consider my weedy-voiced cover of the gloomy masterpiece anything other than artistic boldness:
She’ll go down in history
Down in all her misery
The following night, when they were tucked up in bed, I crept out of the campsite and hitchhiked to the nearest town where I spent a couple of hours wandering around the streets, trying car doors and finally finding one that opened. I sat in an unknown French car for half an hour, wondering what I was doing. After a bit, I hitchhiked back to the campsite, getting a lift from a cool drunk couple in a Citroën DS Estate who thought it was funny that this unhappy, skinny little ginger-haired English kid was walking around on his own in the middle of the night. I got back into my tent just as I heard Mum put the kettle on inside the caravan.
Sleep… sleep…. sleep, Hedda Gabler.
We dance to Debby Harry in the late night disco in Bar Rosso in the Skyline Pavilion and then we play on the amusement arcade machines which bleep and rattle under fluorescent lights. It’s two in the morning and the Pavilion echoes with old punk songs and ska. The arcade reminds me of Las Vegas: the sticky carpet, the endless rows of clattering machines, the pasty faces of us middle-aged punters as we triumphantly indulge ourselves way beyond our bedtimes.
Mum would have hated this place. I went with her to see Ralph McTell in the Guildhall in Plymouth in the early ’70s and I was impressed by the way she could pronounce Einer Kleiner Nachtmusik, which she always used to say was her favourite Mozart. She and I tried in vain to find an appeasement, and by the time the Ramones brought an unknown band called Talking Heads as their support to the Top Rank in Union Street in Plymouth in that summer of 1977, we were leagues apart. I think about her as we walk back to the seaside apartment under a glorious full moon:
As the weekend continues the sense of tribal familiarity grows and I sense that I’m not the only one who is touched by music’s ability to join the decades together. Peter Perrett on Saturday and The Wedding Present on Sunday remind us of past glories, but then the timeless rock braggadocio of young Dublin poets Fontaines DC with their thrash metal reinventions blow away any sentimentality. ‘Is it too real for you?’ yells singer Grian Chatten but looks almost startled himself as the 50-something-plus crowd starts a manic phase of crowdsurfing towards him from the mosh pit.
In the early hours of Monday morning we’re all still going, knocking back shorts in Bar Rosso, throwing our shapes with Butlins bravado. A few hours later, we’re obediently honouring the 10am departure time, blearily trudging back to our cars with stunned faces and smudged make-up, heading back to post-Christmas work schedules and family commitments. It’s been glorious, a genuine privilege to spend time with such companionable strangers and amazing musicians. Good night, campers.