The legendary All Tomorrow’s Parties Weekender is drawing to a close, and Sunday will be the last party for the music event that changed festivals forever. Boy, what fun we had. ATP – the acronym it became better known by – was set up in 1999 by Australian Barry Hogan, but there was something very British about it at first, thanks in part to its location at the Butlins holiday camp in Camber Sands. The juxtaposition of some of the world’s most cutting edge avant-garde musicians set against the spectre of fusty 1950s light entertainment somehow worked, and you’d sometimes wonder what would happen if a family seeking Redcoats, unseeded Snooker has-beens and the Kid’s Club pitched up during a set by Sunn O))) or Wolf Eyes. Alas, never the twain shall meet now.
Instead of traditional mud and tents, we had chalets and self-catering. On top of your very own TV there’d be an incredible programme of cult films so you could come down to the Decline of Civilization Part II: The Metal Years and rise to The Holy Mountain. There was an arcade at Camber Sands, which worked well as a distraction during alt-rock events, but became a foe during the Autechre-curated spectacle of 2003 as there was nowhere to escape from the bleeps and the SKREEEEEEEEE when it all got a bit much. As a first timer I remember being up most of the night and overdoing it after sublime sets by The Fall and Public Enemy, and the following day, having foolishly booked a guest house in Camber instead of a chalet, I found I had nowhere to go on site to allay my throbbing head other than the freezing Crazy Golf course outside. Eventually a spot was found at the back of the upstairs ballroom to curl up in during a pulsating Aphex Twin set.
It would be nice to think that lessons were learned, but the Nightmare Before Christmas event curated by Britart enfant terribles Jake and Dinos Chapman turned into a financial nightmare for many of my friends who blew all their Christmas money at the early December event. Bad habits didn’t necessarily improve when it relocated to Minehead in Somerset, and how I broke my ribs during the Dirty Three-curated shows (which included two performances of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds and two from Grinderman) I’d probably rather not know. In 2009 My Bloody Valentine made our ears bleed, and it was the year everyone seemed to be sweating and imbibing something called plant food. It’s difficult to shake the memory of walking in to see The Horrors and being hit by a pungent smell of fish wafting from the assembled spectators, most of whom were gurning. Home Secretary Alan Johnson soon put his foot down on what would later be nicknamed miaow miaow, and a good job too, the stench was unbearable.
For all the self-inflicted chaos, All Tomorrow’s Parties was an incredible way to discover new music and have the best time without getting too battered by inclement weather or frisked by boneheaded bobbies or over-officious security guards. It was also a community, like a small city, so you’d run into Vincent Gallo in the cafeteria hitting on girls or Lydia Lunch losing it at a barman. Plus everything ran like clockwork and the promoters clearly knew their shit, both where music is concerned and how to promote and organise festivals. It’s not a given that promoters always get this right.
There was often overlap between bills that made you wonder how much the curator curated and how much the big cheeses at ATP had an influence, with some acts such as Shellac becoming known as an “ATP band” such was their frequency on lineups, though there was plenty of diversity too. A Thurston Moore-curated event in 2006 was one of the most challenging and enlightening events this hack has ever been party to, while The Melvins and Mike Patton in 2008 brought some of the finest leftfield hip hop you’re ever likely to see under one roof.
If there were mistakes, and there were plenty, one of the biggest appeared to be over-stretching. One weekend a year became four, and soon there were events on both coasts in the US, in Australia and this year Iceland (where there will be a further event in 2014). When the economic downturn hit hard in 2008, punters didn’t have enough money to go two or three times a year, or even once a year come to that. In September 2012, The Stool Pigeon newspaper ran an investigation into the finances of the organisation and discovered the company had been liquidated in June of that year with debts of over £2.6m and then reborn in July with the support of some creditors. Hogan admitted that “promoting concerts is like going to the races” and eventually you felt his luck would run out.
And now we find ourselves on the home stretch, with All Tomorrow’s Parties established back at its original home of Camber Sands appropriately enough, with core ATP bands like Mogwai, Slint, Shellac and The Magic Band performing this weekend for one last time. It might be the end of the road but the legacy Hogan has left has redefined the way we watch music. There are plenty of imitators out there reaping the rewards of his innovation, and the I’ll Be Your Mirror gigs – in which bands play classic albums sequentially – has become a staple of the live circuit. Acts are also inclined to play a new album in its entirety these days, which maybe wouldn’t have happened had ATP not come up with the idea in the first place.
We will probably look back at the 00s as the internet decade, and nowhere did things change more than in the music world, but if the internet gave us more esoteric choice then fans of alternative music may look back fondly and remember the All Tomorrow’s Parties decade. And why not? ATP, from small beginnings, infiltrated the mainstream by subversion much like the artist who wrote the song that inspired the event, Lou Reed. It’s appropriate then and a tribute to Reed that the event passes on not long after the legend himself, having changed the way we do things by being so very different.