Falling Back In Love With Live Music At Benicassim

There's a brilliant festival by the seaside in Spain and we were there. If you like sunshine and brilliant music I recommend you get there soon.
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There's a brilliant festival by the seaside in Spain and we were there. If you like sunshine and brilliant music I recommend you get there soon.

Is it possible to have a secret that’s shared by 55,000 people. 55,000 people who will undoubtedly tell another 200,000 about it, if not more?

Maybe the Fiberfib Festival at Benicassim, the annual carnival of music which takes place just 40 minutes drive north of Valencia, Spain, and plays out between the mountains and the sea isn’t so much as a secret as an experience still undiscovered by the generation that made festival going popular. My generation.

By this I mean those of us who experienced Glastonbury change from a place where Tory MPs would be lynched by the Convoy to a place where they’re happy to attend but unfortunately die in the toilets. Where the main stage seems more like a Christmas Top of The Pops than a cutting edge music event. Where Hunter wellies and gazebos have replaced burning torches and the mystical dawn call of a bagpiper in a far off field. There was a time when young Tories paid for anti-CND banners to be flown across the skies above Glastonbury, now they just pay for tickets to fly braying through the crowds. For some that might mean a victory, but for others it means a paradise has been invaded by parasites.

I know where my generation of festival goers has gone: we’ve spread out to the million events with fancy dress parades, literary bents, a plethora of different food stalls and vintage camper vans. We take our kids to the world of funny performers, campsites and liquorice stands and for those of us that can’t stand a bed of earth and grass beneath the disposable tent there’s the armchair and the BBC or Sky Arts. Giving us live action performances and interviews conducted by the modern day equivalent of Dave Lee Travis and Noel Edmonds. In fact hiring the real modern day DLT and Noel Edmonds to present TV festival coverage would in fact be more surreal and revolutionary than the supposedly cool disc jockeys and knob jockeys we are treated to.

Benicassim is hugely under-attended by people who would love it, whilst at the same time massively over-subscribed by those that definitely do.

And to get to my point, in a long and roundabout way is to ask ‘Where the hell is everyone I ever talked rubbish with backstage?’  Maybe there’s no-one left working in the music business, maybe there’s too much work to do, maybe they think it’s just for their kids but Benicassim is hugely under-attended by people who would love it, whilst at the same time massively over-subscribed by those that definitely do.

If you like festivals but hate rain, love holidays but tire of the nightlife this is the festival for you. As I type I am looking across a bay divided into wave after wave of advancing tide.  The sun is definitely suffering the after effects of a long hard weekend, maybe even a week, of fun playing out beneath its rays but it will certainly get out of bed come lunchtime at least.

Although night-time is the right-time for the greats of modern day live music to entrance their audience it is the warmth of the day that stretches through the darkness and gives a sense of timelessness.  It feels like four in the afternoon but it’s actually four in the morning.

The crowds cavort endlessly, a sea of fanaticism before the huge stages, all but a minute or two’s uninterrupted walk from each other. Masses of bars with a ticketing system means there’s no waiting for change and no-one has to wait for long to be served.

There are seemedly no casualties slumped anywhere. The energy of the event carries the audience in a perpetual state of motion from performance to performance and over the last five years the bills have, for me certainly got better and better. The link between the present and past has become more visible so whilst Britain and Spanish youth cavort to the Go! Team, Tame Impala and Beirut your reporter is able to experience the big acts of 2011 and the bands who’ve touched my life in decades gone by.

The mighty Undertones, a band so inspired, I realise I must have deliberately turned my back on, to leave them back in my painful, energetic teens

Seeing Mick Jones and the original Big Audio Dynamite finish up their set with ‘E Equals MC Squared’ was to witness in the flesh a moment only enjoyed through recorded music in twenty years. The word legend is as throwaway as a cheap flyer nowadays but there before us was one of the great rebel rousing songwriters of the late 70s and beyond. A band he formed after a divorce from his three caballeros in The Clash, and a reminder of a time when to include break beats, soundtrack samples and an MC was new and novel and not a given part of rock music.

And if I go further back into my memory and feel the lump in my throat as I watch The Undertones power through a set that whilst lacking the original frontman, is delivered by the men who wrote those songs. Northern Ireland’s own take on the boy girl love songs that turned blues into pop in America fifty years ago. The mighty Undertones, a band so inspired, I realise I must have deliberately turned my back on, to leave them back in my painful, energetic teens. Their homage to The Ramones so audible after so long without hearing them. Each morning since they played I’ve woken with their songs in my head ‘Hypnotized’, ‘You’ve Got My Number’. If ever a body of work should be further explored by teenagers everywhere, songs that detail the minute agony and ecstasy of young love these are them. And yes they do cross generations, as witnessed when the audience who weren’t born when John Peel first championed ‘Teenage Kicks’, this anthem about wanking, went ballistic.

And if I felt The Undertones were all mine it was fine to watch the headliners on the main stage and know The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys and Arcade Fire were someone else’s.  A bit of lingering class suspicion clouds The Strokes for me, I grew up thinking bands should crawl from rubble and so when they first appeared a decade ago they seemed too manicured for my liking, like Take That fed on the Velvet Underground and Television. But nowadays that’s too shallow an observation, they’ve lasted, they sound great, the singer stands like Joey Ramone, there’s a load of plus points back in their favour. They’ve maintained their detachment, their well-perfected apparent disinterest in the process, their refusal to entertain with anything but their music and micro-movements.

It’s as if they couldn’t give a fuck with the charade and yet at the same time I can’t help thinking this no-fi performance from The Strokes is somehow as exaggerated as Guns N Roses. No bad thing but what I’m getting at is that they are American. And so they have a work ethic, if they really couldn’t give a fuck they wouldn’t still make records or tour they’d just lock themselves away like Salinger and Lennon. But they did their thing and it was an impressive affair.

If there was a line drawn from the Beatles through The Undertones and on into the future Arctic Monkeys would be waiting at their stop ready to get on it.

Speaking of both Lennon and conversely understated performances brings us to the Arctic Monkeys. I watched from the stage their first Reading headline and I was stunned how similar in approach they were to the bands I’d grown up with whilst writing for the NME, the Wedding Present and co. No thrills, just a permanent thrashing of strings and the occasional drop down to reveal Alex Turner’s peculiar grip of his vocal and story telling.

Years have passed and now leather jackets and heavy rock élan has marked their appearance. A long slide across the stage on his knees whilst ripping out licks finds him at the feet of a bandmate, both laughing. Boys at the top of their game, noisy and powerful but perfectly capable of subtlety. If there was a line drawn from the Beatles through The Undertones and on into the future Arctic Monkeys would be waiting at their stop ready to get on it.

Whilst less stylistically manicured than The Strokes, Turner is a brilliant performer, seemedly unaffected by the burden of their success and happy to bring the camaraderie of the rehearsal room and the stories penned in bedrooms to a heaving crowd of fifty thousand because I can’t believe there were many more than five thousand that weren’t entranced by his game.

Arcade Fire’s appearance across the Facebook pages of friends in their teens and fifties alike has made it impossible not to know about this band’s success but you must excuse me my ignorance. I’ve been lumbering under the misapprehension that as I spent 1984 to 1992 watching thousands of bands I’d exhausted my interest in new bands. Happy to hide away in a padded cell of New Order, Rolling Stones, Clash and classical, perversely delighted in not being attached. Just fucking worn out to be honest. But at the same time missing the excitement of discovery.

There’s a beach, mountains and music, masses of great music, and an audience that soaks it all up and creates a fantastic atmosphere.

So I watched Arcade Fire as a virgin, a curious onlooker surprised by the enthralled relationship between band and audience. The double drummers, the rotation of instruments, the mighty singalong anthems, at times the pageantry of it reminding me of The band of Holy Joy and at others, the communal anthems of Mike Scott’s Waterboys. We can do an exchange here, whilst I catch up with the latest recording of the headliners, you can go off and investigate the old boys I’ve dropped here and there. Most remarkably the Arcade Fire were notably different. An alternative solution to uniting follower and performer and bringing them together in song. You know if I’d written like this at the NME I’d have been thrown out for waffling, not least by my 21 year old self.

We finish with Primal Scream, not specifically with Screamadelica, where I had a three-year blast with the song ‘Loaded’ but the added extras ‘ Country Girl’, ‘Rocks’ and two other hell for leather rock and roll numbers which whipped the audience into frenzy. Gillespie and the boys loved it, the main man in his spangly silver shirt moving like The Cramps’ Lux Interior if he had had all his bones broken and been taught to walk again.

There’s a beach, mountains and music, masses of great music, and an audience that soaks it all up and creates a fantastic atmosphere. It’s a great festival and you should book your flights for next year now.  Ah, here comes the sun.  The pool calls. It’s the sort of place that can help you fall back in love with live music.

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