Live Review: HITS 25 - The Winter Gardens, Blackpool
7th August 2021
Review by Dan Barnes
Photos by Dod Morrison
Seventy-nine weeks. Or five-hundred and fifty-three days. That was how long it had been since last I was in the presence of live music. Had I known back then, walking out of the Ritz into the cold January Manchester night – the last notes The Wildheart’s I Wanna Go Where the People Go ringing in my ears – that those reports of the Chinese sniffles were about to derail the entire world, I would have savoured the moment a little more.
But it’s back, baby, live music is here again and what better way to celebrate than a jaunt to the Blackpool coast and a day of summer punk rock by the sea.
Occupying the same weekend and majority venue, Holidays in the Sun is here to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary and to fill the gap left by the Covid-related postponement of Rebellion 2021, though, in reality, it is a rose by any other name.
Though Rebellion might sit atop the pantheon of Punk Festivals – the Wacken of its genre – it began life back in 1996 as Holidays in the Sun – named after the Pistols’ song, obviously – located at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, before situating itself up the coast in Morecombe from the years 1997 to 2001.
The 2002 Holidays in the Sun festival took place at Blackpool, with the final show returning to Morecambe in 2003. A change of name to Wasted and a further two years before the festival made its last move back to the Winter Gardens, with a final year as Wasted and, ultimately, settling on Rebellion Festival in 2007.
Editions of Rebellion have been staged as far afield as Australia, the USA and Japan, with it regularly having shows across Europe; 2018 even saw a London show at the Forum in Kentish Town.
The reason for adopting the Rebellion name was to show the casual viewer that the Punk scene was thriving as much now as ever – more so, even. The organisation is still an independent, family-run affair, committed to not only bringing the most established Punk artists to Blackpool every year, but also showcasing some of the best new acts the genre has to offer.
Walking around the Winter Gardens’ atrium, mingling with the mowhawks, skinnies, crusties and normies, you realise that this is a settling and atmosphere like no other. Multi-generations of families meet in the Art-Deco halls: grandads from the first wave, their kids who kicked back with the UK82 scene, only to mellow and realise the old man’s music wasn’t so bad after all; and then there’s the grandkids too, rendering it one of the politest festivals you’re likely to attend. That even spills over into the streets of the town, with Cedar Square transformed into a wash of day-glo colours and Fred Perry polos.
Walking around an elderly couple back in 2017, both wearing gaberdine overcoats despite the blazing sun and brilliant blue sky, I overheard the gentleman saying to his female companion upon seeing the Punk Invasion: “There must be a pop concert on.”
Running over four days at the start of August, Rebellion is more than merely a music festival. Alongside the seven full stages are literary stages, Punk Art exhibitions, Poetry, Vintage Clothing, Tattooists and even Healing workshops.
However, it’s the music that brings most of us back year after year, and Rebellion offer seven fully stocked stages per day so you can wonder around between stages, catching the likes of The Damned, the Angelic Upstarts, Eddie and the Hot Rods and Infa Riot as you go. You can even check out the newest bands on the Introducing Stage or have a chill in the Almost Acoustic bar.
Over the years most of the great and the good of the Punk scene have graced Rebellion’s stages - the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and The Clash being the main names absent from the roster. They have even broadened their appeal by having some of New York’s finest in town: Biohazard, Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front and Crossover Kings, D.R.I. all having shown up and torn up the venue. And how about Birmingham’s very own Napalm Death? What self-respecting music festival hasn’t had the Gods of Grind appear?
Sadly, a full-scale Rebellion will not be taking place again this year; but it is an ill wind that blows no one any good and, global events notwithstanding, the opportunity to acknowledge the start of the journey, and on its quarter-century anniversary, seems like the universe likes its Punk Rock and has aligned for the occasion to be honoured.
That first Holidays in the Sun festival took place on the weekend of 9th to 11th August 1996 and was billed as A Celebration of 20 Years of Punk Rock. Priced at £40, going up to £45 after the end of May, the first show promised 50 Bands on 2 Stages Over 3 Days and featured main stage headliners X-Ray Spex, The Damned and The Buzzcocks. Also on the bill were the likes of Chron Gen, Chelsea, The Casualties, 999 and Slaughter and the Dogs; and Sham 69, the Anti-Nowhere League and Theatre of Hate topping the second stages.
Two bands that stand out from the 1996 line up are UK Subs and GBH as both have returned for the anniversary – though would you expect anything less from the seemingly ageless and indestructible Mr Charlie Harper?
That Holidays in the Sun 25 even went ahead is testament to the dedication of the Rebellion team’s desire to get back to a sense of normality and so, on an unusually grey and wet summers day in Blackpool the punk masses descend on the Winter Gardens. Standing outside, waiting for the doors to open, there’s such a sense of relief that the slate-coloured sky and the incessant downpour are barely even noticed.
The rain has been playing havoc with more than a few ‘hawks and remedial action is definitely needed – but even a floppy mo’ can’t dampen the enthusiasm as the doors open and we all pile in. As you walk around the atrium, thankful that the sun isn’t blazing through the beautiful glass roof, you get to mingle with real people; to shake their hands, to hold a conversation in person or even to hug.
The Winter Gardens during Rebellion is an amazingly friendly place and today, more so. The limited capacity means there’s plenty of room to walk around and the venues not in use this year have been turned into seating areas with video feeds from the Empress ballroom so that weary feet and sore lower backs can rest and still watch the bands.
Rather than erect the usual stage for just on day, HiTS utilises the natural stage on one side of the room, turning the venue from portrait into landscape and making the viewing area much shorter but far wider. It’s slightly odd to see the Empress in such a way, but after a while it becomes the norm and no more thought is given to it.
Charged with getting the main stage preceding underway is Death Trails, who attract a health-sized crowd and kick things off with Animal, a banger of a tune which sits somewhere between punk and metal. The three-piece sustain their pummelling attack throughout, adding variety through the use of psychedelic moments, the odd jazzy element and some good old rock and roll. Guitarist Catlow’s ‘other job’ as an acoustic storyteller is evident in some of her vocal delivery but never enough to detract from the overall high-energy performance. We get an Agent Orange cover and the set closes with Ska-Dad and Death Trails have served up the perfect entrée.
I’d only ever heard good things about a Millie Manders and the Shutup’s live shows before and those commentators were not wrong. From the get-go Millie and her crew launch into their ska-infused punk and, immediately, skanking is mandatory. That’s probably a redundant point as there is no way anyone can hear the Setup and not have to move their body. (Note to self: suggest to the History Channel that the Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518 may have been as a result of a time-slip and a Millie Manders cd.) A good time is an absolute guarantee, yet don’t think it’s all just throwaway bubble-gum music; when needed Ms Manders can bellow with the best of them and is open to using personal experience as her creative spark. Millie is the kinda gal to open beer bottles with her teeth before laying her soul bare in an intimate ballad. It is noted MM wears a strapping around her right knee and - keep in mind the previous eighteen months – if she’s got a skanking-related injury just from practice session, then imagine the on-stage commitment.
Scotland’s Fire Exit are the first Oi! band of the day and deliver a set of abrasive and attitude-filled punk anthems, getting up in your face in the process. A few technical issues notwithstanding, the band mix older classics like Timebomb and dedicate As Long as We’re Alive to all those lost to Covid. A new song, written for Charlie Harper’s birthday last year finally gets an airing and Fire Exit are the first of the old guard to bring the punk spirit back to Blackpool.
Discounting the four main bands on today’s bill, it was the north-east trio, Gimp Fist, that I was really looking forward to seeing again. Built on a solid rhythm section and screaming guitars the band only know how to entertain. Fist in the Air is greeted with the obvious and, even though they say they weren’t going to play it, a Gimp Fist set without the cover of Perkele’s Heart Full of Pride would be close to unimaginable; the fists in the air and the singalong is all the proof of that you need. The machine gun riffing and angry vocals belie the positive message at the centre of Gimp Fist’s music, and that is one of togetherness and unity; you cannot help but think when they play A Country Divided it is more true than ever. But the show of family and connection in the room today makes one consider to what extent the past situation has contributed to that division. Regardless, Gimp Fist are always an absolute blast whenever they take to the stage.
In making an L7 comparison I do so in a musical sense rather than merely because Maid of Ace are a band of four female members and all sisters. Last year’s sophomore album, Live Fast or Die is a blistering attack, a hybrid of punk and metal, made from big guitar and pummelling drums and the band is able to bring that into the live setting. In fact, so effective are the drums that the sprung dance floor can be felt vibrating throughout the set. There are some truly ferocious moments to deal with as wave after wave of aggression pour forth from the speakers. Maid of Ace provide the day’s first guitar virtuoso moment as Anna Coral Elliott implements a policy of some serious shredding. They take a short break from the musical demolition for Forever, which settles into a more Punk N’ Roll vibe, before ending their set amid a blitzkrieg close to grinding.
In all honesty, I’ve never really been a fan of Dirtbox Disco in the past and I think that I find the image distracting. So, today I thought I’d conduct an experiment and remove the visuals from the process, focusing instead on the music. In so doing I believe I have found a new respect for the band’s ability to turn a crowd into a full-blown party. Greeted from the outset like homecoming heroes, Dirtbox waste no time in lighting the touch paper and revelling in the carnage they create. Goading the audience to come over the barrier and make the security work, new(ish) singer, Spunk, sounds in his element. “Glad to be out of your cages?” are probably the most poignant words of the afternoon, yet it does not break the momentum of the band’s easy, singalong anthems and gentle audience goading. In fact, devoid of the visuals I found myself very much enjoying Dirtbox Disco and, even, comparing their stagecraft to those early 1990s Wolfsbane shows. Plus, let’s face it, any band with a song called: I Work for Wankers can’t be all bad, can they?
I have a WFT moment when The Barstool Preachers intro tape begins, as I’m usually about to listen to something very after hearing Ecstasy of Gold. The Preachers, being another ska-inspired band, up the ante and give even more opportunity to skank the evening away. Despite the danceability of their tunes they are not without their share of ferocity, seeing frontman, TJ, bouncing about like Zebedee and spinning like a dervish. Due to recent infant arrivals the band is showing a few personnel changes, but you wouldn’t know as they go about their business of rendering the ballroom a sea of writhing, dancing, joyous people assembled for an ancient rite.
No disrespect to any of the bands that have gone so far, but the business end of the day starts when G.B.H walk on stage. The Brummies are one of the pioneering bands of the UK82 scene and Colin Abrahall’s spiked hair is as iconic to the movement’s aesthetic as is Wattie’s mowhawk. G.B.H bring with them a very different vibe than the two bands immediately preceding them; gone is the upbeat fun, to be replaced by some serious punk action. Sometimes, the direct approach is best and as soon as G.B.H start their engine it’s a pedal to the metal performance that asks – and gives – no quarter. The overwhelming majority of the set is taken from 1981’s Leather, Bristles, Studs and Acne, with only show opener, Birmingham Smiles from the Momentum album, not close to being forty. Age is just a number when it comes to music, so regardless of when they were written, Diplomatic Immunity, Give me Fire and City Baby Attacked by Rats are still storming examples of in-yer-face punk.
When it comes to punk’s most revered elder statesmen you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone held in higher esteem than Mr Charlie Harper, the only continuous member of UK Subs since their 1978 inception. In that time Charlie has overseen close to two-dozen albums and countless singles, EPs and live records while still maintaining a constant touring presence. Like G.B.H before them, the Subs take the bulk of their set from their first two releases, playing C.I.D., Stranglehold, Disease and Tomorrow’s Girls from the debut and the likes of Rat Race, Organised Crime and the obligatory Warhead from the 1980 follow-up, Brand New Age. Even though he’s now into his seventy-seventh year, Charlie is never anything but a consummate professional and leads the Subs through example, always giving 100 percent. As a veteran of the London R&B scene of the seventies before founding the UK Subs, Charlie brings a range and style that sits somewhere between the first and second punk waves – sort of punk 1.5 – being too fast and heavy for the class of ’76 but too nuanced for the UK82 scene. It is difficult to imagine any Rebellion event without the UK Subs having some involvement and, on this showing, that notion is reinforced.
Regardless of the Alpha-male nature of the Cockney Rejects music, Jeff Turner never forgets to express his gratitude to the fans for supporting the band through the years. It’s very easy to support the Rejects when they serve up a musical plater like this. Admittedly nervous after eighteen months of inactivity yet, at the same time, chomping at the bit to get back out there and play, Turner covers the stage like a prize fighter ready for war. Police Car, I’m Not a Fool, We Are the Firm and East End stir the crowd into action, raising voices and fists into the air. You can tell that the band are genuinely moved by the reaction Blackpool affords them this evening and, even though I’ve seen the Rejects in this room many times before, I think the connection between the four members on stage and the two-thousand-plus punters has never been stronger than it is today. We’re treated to a masterclass of Oi! artistry and, by the time Bad Man, War on the Terraces and Oi! Oi! Oi! have stopped ringing through the speakers, any one of us could have gone home exhausted and happily satisfied that the Rebellion team had done us proud.
But that wasn’t on the cards. Oh no, not when they saved the best for last. Cock Sparrer may well be the best punk band you’ve never heard, but after a year and a half of no gigs and standing for about twelve hours, feet, ankles, knees and lower back screaming for some relief, it takes a special kind of performance to anaesthetise those aches. From the opening bar of Riot Squad to the closing notes of We’re Coming Back, Colin McFaull leads his charges through – predominantly – the Shock Troops album. This is a fully integrated set from Sparrer and McFaull includes the audience in singalong and a cappella renditions of Because You’re Young, Running Riot, Take ‘em All and Where are they Now? Difficult to think that 2022 will be Sparrer’s 50th Anniversary as they elude youthful aggression, mixed with the pissed-off attitude only brought on by age and experience. Voices are raised even louder for the chorus of England Belongs to Me and the anthemic We’re Coming Back, taking Holidays in the Sun to a close with the promise of meeting again soon.
As the masses flood out into the dark and wet Blackpool night, exhausted but happy that we’ve had some semblance of normality returned and grateful to the Rebellion crew for having the fortitude to host such an event, thoughts begin to turn to next year and the mouth-watering early announcements already released. Not only will we see the return of the Rejects and Sparrer, but also Stiff Little Fingers, The Stranglers, The Exploited and many, many more.
A full-blown Rebellion is a wonderful festival and the bite-sized holiday in the sun was everything we hoped and dared to dream it would be. To be among a couple of thousand friends, most of whom you don’t know, for a few hours was a tonic so sorely needed. Thank you to Rebellion Festivals for having the courage to go ahead with the show, I know you’re fans first and foremost and we all needed this so very much.