Here's a picture of the front entrance of Pontin's in Camber Sands, a little seaside vacation village on the south coast of England, early Friday evening, April 23. The people in line have come from all over the world for the Bowlie Weekender -- a three-day, 24-band music festival/indie-rock spring break put together by the cult pop band Belle & Sebastian. (A "bowlie" is a bowl haircut. Translation: "Geeks and proud of it.") Some of the 2,600 attendees have been waiting for more than two hours, and it's been drizzling intermittently. So why are these damp, shivering people smiling?
Look in the middle of the crowd. See the lanky, red-haired guy with the megaphone? That's Stuart Murdoch, Belle & Sebastian's singer and main songwriter. He's come out with some of the band to entertain the poor drenched souls with some impromptu sing-alongs. In this picture, I think he's singing Simon & Garfunkel's "Keep the Customer Satisfied." It's a very nice and very British gesture, a tonic for the troops.
This photo shows the inside of our "chalet," which came with the $140 tickets. As you can see, the ruthless efficiency barely holds the sofa bed for two, the narrow pallets, the miniature kitchen and the bathroom. (Electricity and hot water cost extra.) On the table are the two keys provided for the four of us. Why? "That's our policy, sir," said the matron at the front desk. We can't figure out if the idea is to prevent people from hooking up or to make it inevitable.
Through the window, you can just make out one of the canopied carts that roll along the winding footpaths of Pontin's, and a few of the lovely little signs that point the way to the store, the go-karts, the pool. You can't see the razor wire that surrounds the camp perimeter, or the gate that's greased to discourage escapees, or the bright orange wristbands we have to wear at all times. As a Yank who's never experienced English holiday camps before, I can't help but think of the prison compound in the British cult TV show "The Prisoner." ("Who is No. 1?" "You are No. 600.")
Everyone's striking a pose in this one, on the foggy dance floor by the main stage at Pontin's, a bit after 11 on Friday night. I'd never seen people voguing to Pavement records before. This room is essentially a pizza-scented sauna, thanks to its lack of decent ventilation and the pizza booth off to the side. Due to equipment problems, only two bands have played so far, both Belle & Sebastian's Scottish countrymen: hot young things the Delgados, who have a nifty he-sang-she-sang dynamic going on, and rapidly cooling not-so-young-anymore things Teenage Fanclub, who do variations on the same plaintive tune they've been writing since 1991. Judging by accents, half the audience is from Glasgow and the other half is from the States. The beer is flowing like wine, the dancing is going on until 3 a.m., the DJ has figured out that the quickest way to move the crowd is to put on the Pixies' "Debaser" and everyone's having a jolly old time. The non-dancers have mostly wandered over to the cinema in the next room, where "Paris, Texas" is showing -- the beginning of a weekend-long festival of geek-chic movies from "Naked" to "Dumbo" to "Life in a Scotch Sitting-Room."
This is the same room, but it's Saturday afternoon now. The band onstage is V-Twin, more Glasgow associates of Belle & Sebastian. I'm over by the edge of the picture, hanging out with some more friendly Glaswegians and picking up some slang that describes the band: "a bit crap really." V-Twin are essentially what B&S would be like if they weren't very good. They're a big crowd of musicians playing all sorts of keyboards and strings and horns to disguise a total absence of memorable tunes. Look at that pained squint on the frontguy's face. He's emoting like he wants to be a big ol' rock star. Ugh.
Here we are down in the merchandise room, after Sleater-Kinney's strangely distracted set. (Drummer Janet Weiss and guitarist Carrie Brownstein rocked with dogged conviction, but Corin Tucker was on autopilot, letting the tremulous keening in her voice do the work for her.) Obviously, the center of attention down here isn't the T-shirts and records that are tacked up on the wall on the right. It's the message board, where we're clustered around scores of little notes that have been tacked up with poster gum: The B&S fan mailing list Sinister is having a get-together; there's an expedition to a record store in nearby Rye; the boy with the red vinyl trousers should knock on the door of thus-and-such a chalet (rowrrr!!!). The guy with the floppy hair over on the left is using the most common pick-up line of the weekend on the girl next to him: "See your name anywhere?" There was a lot of that going on. I suppose that if you bring together a subculture that's mostly defined by being Not Like Everybody Else and pour lots of alcohol and a certain amount of ecstasy down their throats, you pretty much end up with mating season.
This was taken at 2 in the morning. Those two Scottish lads on the bench were accosting everyone who walked past. "Can ye do soomthin' for us?" they'd say. "Just say 'The blues are noomber one!'" They'd picked up that catch phrase from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who ripped the roof off earlier that night. Tight as a vice, raw and hot, the New York trio didn't even pause between songs, just blasted away for a feverish hour. Meanwhile, Glasgow legends the Pastels played at the smaller stage downstairs, slowly and gropingly, as if they were trying to make their fragile, dreamy songs understood through a wall of something viscous. They were followed by the Flaming Lips, who got around the problem of not having a drummer anymore by augmenting their rhythm-track DATs with a huge gong that singer Wayne Coyne struck whenever the mood did. The Divine Comedy headlined the evening back on the main stage, and they were charming and wry and tuneful and deftly arranged and all that, but you don't go on after the Blues Explosion. You just don't.
My friend took this one on the beach Sunday afternoon, through a colored filter so it looks like the photos on the covers of Belle & Sebastian records. Those are the survivors of last night's drinking who actually completed the seven-minute stagger to the majestic waterfront: acres of fine, flat sand, extending as far as the horizon to the left and right, flickering at a distance into the water and then a sky that's obligingly cloudless for a few minutes. The revelers look even paler than usual, snacking on extra-greasy cod and chips and wondering when somebody's going to take that guitar out of its case and start a Belle & Sebastian sing-along. "This whole beach smells like vodka," moaned the one lying down on the grassy dune.
The Japanese pop star (and Anglophone-world indie fave) Cornelius is up onstage in the pizza-sauna in this one. The lighting and film clips behind him are part of his hugely ornate, perfectly synced-up audiovisual presentation, which ranked very high on the "impressive" scale but not so high on the "anything else" scale.
I took this a few hours later. It's the climax of Belle & Sebastian's headlining set: eight fragile-looking young men and women bent over instruments that are mostly associated more with chamber music than with rock, knitting modest, ringing tones into little presents for the crowd. What I caught of Mercury Rev, who preceded them, was pretty boring (and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, who was supposed to have played with them, apparently didn't show up). Before them were Stereolab protigis Broadcast, who did a nice set of organ-driven, '60s-France/'90s-clubland tunes -- mostly the same ones they recorded a few years ago.
Didn't matter. That night's audience was utterly, passionately devoted to Belle & Sebastian -- aroar as each song began and ended, silent in between (except for the people in front who sang along). The band loved the audience right back, playing with grace, fluidity and confident elegance. We got songs from each of their records, four new ones and a levitational version of their best single, "Lazy Line Painter Jane," with dynamics and an organ part that explicitly recalled the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On." Guest singer Monica Queen stepped up to sing her verse from the record, a robust, melodramatic cry that slashed across Stuart Murdoch's filmy tenor. The crowd was howling. What could follow that? Not much, as it turned out: They closed with a joyful cover of "The Kids Are Alright," and there wasn't an encore -- just four more hours of dancing and then a "Big Bowlie Bye-Bye" beach party.
One final snap: This is that early morning seaside light falling on the Bowlie Weekenders as they stumbled out of their chalets with their bags, their hangovers, their Pastels badges, their sandy clothes and their weekend sweethearts and headed back home.