By Lee Gale
Seagulls pinching chips from kids is one thing but swiping a cheese-and-onion sandwich from the hand of a ravenously hungry adult is a dangerous new development. A flash of feathers and a flap of webbed feet and it’s off. To add insult to injury, a punch aimed at the departing bird goes wildly astray and for a moment, I am an unwitting and unpaid comedy act at Brighton’s Great Escape festival. Naturally, titters follow from lunchtime drinkers. The seagull flaps its mighty wings just twice and lands on the roof of a nearby Pizza Express: job done.
It’s a whopping seagull, like a Short Sunderland, no doubt stuffed to the gunwales with a full morning’s stolen delights. It’s a menace, yet we shouldn’t be surprised by these sights. A modern seagull’s varied diet is roughly the same as a human’s. The human brain grew on meat and two veg and the same is happening with seagulls. Each generation has a slightly larger brain capacity than the last. In the not-too-distant future, a seagull will peer into a puddle and say, “Bloody hell, that’s me!” – in English! Then we’ll have a job on our hands.
Friends arrive and bird-shredded nerves are gradually unjangled. Jayne is a band and festival PR, while her pal Debbie acts as an unharried sidekick. Stoic in the extreme, Debbie worked a night shift in her regular job and is in her second day of wakefulness. We’ve all been there and it’s not easy but Debbie is bearing up and finding her second wind. Rather than darting off to watch the latest hot band, we people of advancing years instead stride to Poundland, allowing the purchase of seaside rock at minimum price. Rock… rock’n’roll – it’s a dubious link in a music-based article.
In truth, I’ve never been in a Poundland and am mildly surprised by the sheer choice on offer… dog toys, chocolate, party supplies. I spend time studying the DVD and Blu-ray shelf. If you’re a fan of Jason Statham, your luck is in. However, the bargain price of 100 shiny pennies still isn’t enough to convince me to watch The Transporter (2002).
Relaxed now, we dink through streets of buses and shoppers, passing a variety of acts including a vaguely gypsy sounding ensemble with an accordion and a man walking on a tightrope and playing the fiddle. Whether these are festival-affiliated acts is anyone’s guess but a dash across a busy road brings us to the circular Spiegeltent venue, with its Great Escape branding, in the middle of what appears to be a bus terminus.
British Ideas Corporation is making a debut of sorts here: I’ve been invited to join an evening pub quiz as part of a journalist “top table”. So knowledgeable is the top table on all rock, pop and indie matters that the aim is for regular punters to form teams and attempt to beat us. Like walking out at Wembley before an FA Cup Final, I wander the venue and find hundreds already drinking beer and soaking up the sporadic sun. It’s like a real festival! Beer… sounds like a good idea.
While the Spiegeltent and surrounding pubs are bursting at the seams with young bands dressed head to toe in black, the Royal Albion Hotel on the seafront has the best, most underused bar in the city. I always drink here when visiting Brighton. The hotel is one of the less tatty stopovers in the Britannia-hotel portfolio and although it is still rough around the edges and frequented by stag-do and hen-party heathens, its bar delivers on every level. With supremely large windows overlooking the pier and English Channel, an hour spent here is true calm. Even yobs who enter the room realise the serenity of the place and sip their pints in hushed reverence. Ahhhhh.
Back at the pub quiz, tables are laid out and rapidly occupied. The famed top table reveals recognisable faces. Simon Price is a former Melody Maker staffer and has horns for hair – two triangles of coloured strands on the corners of his cranium. It’s a non-standard hairstyle but he’s had it for decades and possibly since birth. Years ago, I played five-a-side football with Price’s colleagues on Tuesday dinnertimes at IPC Magazines. We run through a list of Nineties journo names and discuss their relative values not as writers, but as footballers.
On the other side of me is Andy Fyfe, a New Zealander who writes serious music pieces for the likes of Mojo and Q. I first met Fyfe four years ago at Jayne the PR’s house – it’s a very intimate community is Brighton. I was rather tired that evening for some reason and firing into the red wine. Upon hearing that Fyfe was a Mumford & Sons fan (I’d just banned the playing of Mumfords in the GQ office where I worked; Alt-J, too), I conducted a courtroom drama with the intention of forcing Fyfe to apologise and admit his band of the day were merely 19th-century canal workers who’d walked through a wormhole and had ended up in 2012 by mistake. Fyfe was not to be moved. I still maintain my point of view was sound but if I ever buy a DeLorean time machine, I’ll call back at that party and lock my slightly younger self in a cupboard – with a bottle of red wine. I remind Fyfe of this and he graciously reveals, “Mumfords’ second album is terrible.”
Alexis Petridis of Guardian fame doesn’t turn up… although I don’t think he responded to the original invite so we can’t feel too let down. With the might of Mojo and the defunct Melody Maker here, how can we lose?
John Robb,the mohican-topped writer, musician and gaffer of music website/magazine Louder Than War is our question-master. Robb is unique in that he’s an indie celeb who’s as interested in you as you are in him… which basically means he has manners. He’s a gentleman in the traditional mould and pretty dapper with it too. He also has a voice that’s seemingly sampled from a bulldog that is barking upon seeing a postman.
I’d spotted Robb earlier in the day while walking past a café and noticed he was folded in two over his iPad. Having only met him once at the Sziget festival, in Hungary in 2011, I decided against rushing towards the table exclaiming, “Remember me, John?” In the café, Robb was actually double-checking the answers to the quiz on his tablet so I’m glad I didn’t disturb him.
Between questions, Robb swings his mic around like he’s fronting a famous band. He’s performing and you have to assume this sort of behaviour comes naturally to him. Our rotund sound engineer is quick to point out that the mic is an antique and could easily fetch £600 on eBay. “If you’re going to swing my mic round much more, I’d better give you something else to use,” he declares. The rest of the quiz is carried out with non-vintage, more basic equipment.
In my team, I take hold of the pen. This means I can effectively hide my lack of knowledge simply by conferring with my genuine music-journalist teammates and write down their answers. I know maybe five of the questions, one of which is: “Which Inspiral Carpets roadie ended up being in a more successful band?” But everyone knows the answer to that! (Noel Gallagher)
At the interval we’re in a respectable second place but the moment of truth arrives when Price has to bugger off ten minutes before the end to interview Suede. Bloody Suede? Suede should come here, this is important!! It’s tantamount to an airline pilot grabbing a parachute, opening a window and saying: “So long, suckers!” As no questions on Mumfords or my own specialist subject Factory Records wriggle their way into Robb’s closing questions, we find ourselves in a fix. We hang on for second, a feat Tottenham couldn’t manage, but it is a close-run thing.
You’re probably expecting at least a review of a band that played at the festival, but, due to time constraints, we didn’t see a single guitar being strummed. With the growing arrogance of Brighton’s resident sandwich thieves, if we were here for the weekend, we’d have attempted to forge links with Howling Owl, The Parrots and Eagulls. As it is, an iPod on the 9.20pm train to London Victoria with two M&S Harvey Wallbangers completes the day, where it’s decided in a slightly sozzled state that “Untouchable” by Girls Aloud is one of the most epic tracks ever recorded.