The family way

Punk’s all about the snarling and the chaos and the, well, rebellion, right? But at the Rebellion festival, there are some more wholesome values on show as well

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When regular visitors talk about Rebellion, the long-running, Blackpool-based punk festival, there’s a common thread. The variety and quantity of bands usually gets a mention, as does the decidedly non-corporate feel that surrounds the annual event. But, without exception, you always hear the f-word.

And, in this case, that f-word is family.

“It’s like a big family, all punk rockers,” says Charlie Harper, vocalist for Rebellion stalwarts UK Subs, a band who’ve played every edition but one in the festival’s27 year history. “And that makes it all really exciting.”

“It’s become a family,” confirms festival director and founder Jennie Russell-Smith. “And that’s because everyone who comes has a common link with the music. People come from all over the world, meet up with their friends and make new friends. There are still a lot of people who’ve not heard about us so it’s still steadily growing. Not vastly, but we’re getting bigger year on year.”

Rebellion debuted –  although then named Holidays in the Sun – in 1996, organised by Russell-Smith and husband Darren, and has since become an institution in the punk world. It did shift to nearby Morecambe for a few years around the turn of the century but has now become firmly rooted back in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, the fine Victorian entertainment complex that, at least visually, is at odds with punk’s traditional spit and sawdust image. There are six stages in operation, from the grandiose splendour of the vast Empress Ballroom to the more intimate rooms employed as a literary stage and the Almost Acoustic area. Although the combined indoor capacity is 12,000, the festival never feels overcrowded. Mutual respect and consideration are the general order of the day – combined with adequate alcoholic refreshment and general bonhomie – which is why both bands and punters appear fiercely loyal.

Like Charlie Harper and his band, County Durham’s Trevor Howarth has only missed a single edition of Rebellion. “The selection of bands, stalls and other stuff is astounding,” he says. “There are at least 50 bands every year who would command ticket prices of £25-plus each so it’s great value for money. But, most of all, it’s like having an extra family as you meet up with friends new and old from all over the country, and sometimes all over the world.”

Above: Charlie Harper and main image UK Subs at Rebellion (Dod Morrison photography)

Since 2018 Howarth’s son, Lewis Jefferson, has also been attending the festival. “I was fairly new to the punk scene but, since then, I’ve attended every one,” he says. “Rebellion always has an excellent and varied line-up – nowhere else would I have been able to see Dreadzone and Cock Sparrer at thesame festival – so there is somethingfor everyone.”

Jefferson goes on to explain how attractive the social side of the long-weekend is, possibly the main factor that keeps him returning year on year. Pam Hardcastle, from Huddersfield, cites a similar appeal.

“It’s just four days of seeing someof the best punk bands under one roof and meeting with like-minded people.I haven’t been going that long really –I think the first one was 2015 – but I wouldn’t want to miss it now.”

One of the difficulties Russell-Smith and her colleagues face though is balancing the band selection. Determined not to become simply a heritage festival, Rebellion takes pride in booking younger, up and coming outfits to play alongside more established acts.

“People genuinely do want bands like Ruts DC and UK Subs every year as they’re part of the family,” she says. “But then we’ve got the Rebellion Introducing Stage where we have bands that are coming up through the ranks. And we’ve got a good relationship with a lot of American bands who often organise their European dates around Rebellion. Everyone appears in one big melting pot.”

Harper, now a remarkably sprightly78 years old, also believes there’s something to suit almost all musical tastes.

“Even my grandkid’s band have played there!” he reveals with a laugh. “And there are surprises here and there with old rock bands from the distant past, there’s always reggae stuff, new wave type bands, indie bands. The thing about Blackpool is it’s always much harder to find good food than it is a good band; the eateries are a bit poor compared to Brighton where we live.”

Although the culinary delights – or otherwise – offered by the English seaside town are beyond Russell-Smith’s control, the musical variety offered by Rebellion certainly isn’t. To this end she plans to broaden the outlook further this year with new offshoot event R Fest.

Taking place outdoors on the Tower Festival Headland, opposite the town’s famed 158 metre tower and within sight of the Winter Gardens, R Fest aims to expand Rebellion’s allure. Russell-Smith says: “The bands still fall into the punk or alternative genre but hopefully they’ll appeal to more of the people who live locally. There is a brilliant punk community in the town but I’d like to reach out to local people a lot more.

“We have a really good relationship with the local press – and the council are really amazing – which is why I’d like to be more inclusive. Hopefully people who aren’t quite up to seeing The Exploited might come and give us a go, come and see Squeeze, Gary Numan, Hawkwind or The Levellers.”

Harper is all for this diversification too, though in his 46th year fronting the UK Subs, he admits to slowing down a little on stage.

“Since having Covid I get a little bit breathless but people don’t expect 78 year olds to be leaping around,” he laughs. “Paul McCartney has done well, hasn’t he, with his two and a half hours. We play for an hour and then Alvin [Gibbs, bass player, “only” in his sixties] is telling me, ‘Charlie, only do one encore, I’m wrecked,’ and I say, That’s all right, I’m almost fainting as well.’ But we still love it. Basically we’re making people happy in a world of problems and a world of pain.”

And how does he counter the man in the street who believes punk’s dead, its already bloated corpse despatched sometime in the early eighties? “Fuck them!” he shoots back defiantly. “The phrase ‘punk is dead’ just means the industry aren’t making tons of money out of it. Punk is a DIY industry now, a real cottage industry where we’re making our own money and the men in suits aren’t getting any. And that’s great.”

Russell-Smith is of a similar mind. “Punk is just different now. We might have had Vivienne Westwood and Jamie Reid all over the place again during the Jubilee this year but really it’s something the mainstream media no longer care about, something that’s really vibrant with loads of new bands and even original punk’s grandkids getting into it. It’s an eco system of its own.”

And after almost three decades of booking what must be thousands of bands for Rebellion, which outfit does she see as the ultimate prize, the one who have thus far remained tantalisingly out of reach? The Sex Pistols, surely.

Nope.

“The Wombles. That is my dream. Rebellion needs The Wombles.”

Rebellion and R Fest, Blackpool,4-7 August (rebellionfestivals.com)

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