The first record I ever bought was Teenage Rampage by glam rockers Sweet, in 1974. Well, it was either that or Long Haired Lover from Liverpool by Jimmy Osmond and I know which version of history I’d rather believe. Back then, no one would have imagined that more than 40 years later I’d be watching one of Sweet’s founder members belt out the same song in the latest incarnation of the band. And it would have been even more inconceivable to find Hawkwind (founded 1969), Blue Öyster Cult (1971), or Martin Turner from Wishbone Ash (1969) on the same bill.
Yet there they were, along with a dozen or so other acts with similarly long histories in front of 2,500 fans gathered at the three-day Giants of Rock festival last year. They were not camping in a muddy field in summer, but staying in the chalets of a rain-lashed and windswept Butlin’s seaside resort in February.
Big Country and Whitesnake
This year a fresh crop of big names will again head off to places such as Minehead and Skegness. Names such as Nazareth, Caravan, Dr Feelgood, Slade, Marty Wilde, Manfred Mann, Edison Lighthouse, the Black Star Riders (reformed from Thin Lizzy) – the list and genres grow every year. Butlins now runs nearly 20 ‘Big Weekends’ a year, from the Fifties and Sixties Rock and Roll Experience to the Great British Rock and Blues Festival. Rival Pontins also runs several similar events, including the Rhythm Riot and Northern Soul Weekenders.
It’s fair to say the resorts make unlikely rock meccas. For all their mod cons, the rows of chalets still have the whiff of army camp. Nor does the spirit of Woodstock sit comfortably alongside Splash Waterworld or adventure golf. But for the bands and their fans – no problem.
‘To me it’s four walls, a big PA, a big stage, a proper gig,’ says Big Country’s Bruce Watson. ‘You’re not outside in a field getting bottles chucked at you by people lying half-unconscious.’ Neil Murray agrees. He played bass in Whitesnake in the late Seventies and got together with fellow original guitarist Micky Moody to form Snakecharmer in 2011. ‘There’s nothing like playing if it’s really happening,’ he says. ‘To be on stage in front of people, directly connecting with them – that can be addictive as any drug.’
It’s the reason why many bands are still touring and recording decades after their first hits. Bruce Watson recalls a time when ‘most bands had a seven-year shelf life, but it’s all changing now. Everybody’s having a 30th or 40th anniversary.’ Unlike reggae, country and jazz, it’s the first time in its short history that heavy rock has had a generation of elders – and that’s changing the nature of age as much as rock and roll first changed the nature of youth. Pete Townshend’s line ‘Hope I die before I get old’ has been confounded as the credo of his generation
'Excess all areas'
throughout its 45-year history. In fact, the band always avoided hard drugs in the first place, ‘otherwise we wouldn’t be fit and healthy doing what we’re doing now,’ he says. That’s why Lemmy, no stranger to drink and drugs, was kicked out of the band. He continues to defy medical science in Motörhead.
Despite the hot dogs, burgers and pizza slices that sustain them over this weekend, the fans – in their fifties and beyond – generally follow suit. Sure, the beer flows all day long, but slowly. That’s not to say that it’s all sensible sobriety. Just before noon on Saturday, tables in the smaller concert hall have already filled up with pints and punters, ahead of the first act. The prevailing look of the mostly male audience is the uniform of tour T-shirts, denim and leather – now vintage chic.
Heavy metal kids
The classic bands circuit is often accused of being nothing more than nostalgia, pure and simple. Murray acknowledges that there is a lot of pressure to play the older songs, since ‘that’s what the audience seems to want, unfortunately, or fortunately. If you happen to play music that reaches people’s ears when they are teenagers, it’ll be really special to them.’
But like the bands, the audience aren’t there simply for the nostalgia or to recapture their youth. They are there because they love music – the scene, the energy, the fun. They have all found the time to get away and have a good time with people of their own age, like they always did. Before life got so busy. Nostalgia is a way in, but it’s far from the whole story. ‘I’ve always liked the same music; that’s never gone away. If it’s in you, it’s in you,’ said one.
That said, no one understands the absurdities of heavy rock like its fans and practitioners. Sweet’s Andy Scott raised a huge laugh when he told the crowd: ‘It brings tears to my eyes to see men in heavy metal T-shirts singing along to Wigwam Bam' – one of the band’s early bubblegum pop hits. And the ‘mockumentary’ This is Spinal Tap is so loved by the rock community that the eponymous spoof band has ended up playing many real festivals.
Monsters of rock
All the fans I met loved new bands, as testified by Andrew’s denim jacket, covered in patches, including ones for newer bands such as Orpeth, as well as vintage examples from the 1981 Monsters of Rock Festival – all alongside his numerous military medals (he spent 25 years in the army). I met him reading the paper one morning over coffee in the open space of the resort’s Skyline Pavilion. ‘I tend to come on my own now rather than with a group of mates,’ he says. But such is the warmth and friendliness of the weekend that it isn’t a problem. ‘I find it’s full of people you can talk to because we’re all there for the same thing, for the bands.’
Andrew’s life is typical of many of the fans, one of youthful exuberance giving way to responsible parenthood, followed by a realisation that some of the things that once got you excited still do. Andrew is typical in seeing no reason ever to stop. ‘I think I’ll do it more when I’m retired,’ he says. As Hawkwind’s Brock puts it: ‘Why should everybody feel that when they get to 60 or 70 they’ve got to stay at home, put their slippers on and watch telly?’
None of the bands from last year’s Butlin’s is staying home; each is touring the country in 2015 – many with plenty of new material alongside old faves. ‘Otherwise you become a tribute band, a tribute to yourself,’ says Brock. ‘If you’re an artist, you’ve constantly got to do different things, whether the audience like it or not.’
The Minehead audience don’t just like it, they love it. At 1am on Sunday morning, the main hall is still bouncing, the energy palpable across the dark hall pierced by the light show. If they’re anything like me, their ears will be ringing for days, but they won’t care. Music is in their blood. ‘I can’t hardly move now,’ says one fan happily, one hand on the handlebar of his mobility scooter and the other wrapped around a pint. ‘But it won't stop me coming. I don't care if I were in bandages, I’d still come. I love it.’ Silver-haired Penny, 58, sums it up. ‘I wouldn’t give anything to be 20 now. But enjoying the stuff that you did enjoy when you were young, it’s got to be good for you.’
For more details, visit bigweekends.com or call 0845 070 4734