Some things just have to be done.
For the second year running I couldn’t resist the lure of EXIT, and above all the superb hospitality and thoroughly uplifting company of George and Sandra Almosthole down in Novi Sad. After last year’s experience, which was not only extremely enjoyable but bordering on life-transforming, I was nevertheless initially sceptical about the prospect of another festival, all the crowds and horrendous July heat of last year having led me to thinking that maybe I’m getting a bit old for this sort of thing, added to which is the obvious fact that you can’t lose your virginity twice. But then that’s no reason to stop having sex, izzit? In the end names like Roni Size and the Sex Pistols clinched the deal for me, so another series of long train rides beckoned.
Last year I made the cretinously naïve mistake of stopping over in Budapest, largely due to fear of getting mugged on the night train, and going down to Novi Sad on the claustrophobically rammed afternoon train on the day before the festival. This year I considered myself a great deal wiser, but even so was lucky to get a seat on the night train, itself packed out by almost solidly British Exit-goers. Not much sleep there then, but plenty of time to recover before the festival and the next onslaught of sleep deprivation.
The first thing that strikes me on the first day of the festival is how few people there were compared to last year, though thinking about it that’s not so surprising – last year the magnificent Prodigy headlined the main stage on the first day, whereas this year all we get is the paltry offerings of the execrable Nightwish, followed by N*E*R*D (who the fuck are they? We don’t bother trying to find out), plus Sven Väth in the dance arena, which is ok for those on mind-numbing drugs but fucking tedious for the rest of us. In retrospect maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to open with a whimper and build up to a bang, since the Prodigy last year ensured that it was more the other way around, and with the pleasant and unexpected freedom of movement around the site on the first couple of days I wasn’t complaining. In the event the first day is spent having a few relaxing drinks in the secure knowledge that we’re not missing anything on the main stage, checking out some thumping drum n bass on one of the smaller stages and wandering the fortress looking for the relocated Elektrana stage, a process which mostly due to my own blindness and stupidity takes a matter of hours.
Next night things are warming up nicely, starting out at Elektrana to see local boy Mika Technika produce, as his name suggests, some (hugely impressive) techno. After that there’s a gap to be filled before Roni Size, during which I’m dragged, mumbling foul oaths to myself like the sulky teenager I’ve abruptly and horrifyingly mutated back into, to see the first half hour of my teenage bête noires Primal Scream, who at least do me the favour of confirming all the prejudices I’ve always had about them. Has there ever been a more offensively superfluous band in the entire history of music than Primal Scream? Don’t answer, it’s a rhetorical question. Surely even by accident a band ought to be able to produce something more original and vital than this. For the first few songs they rip off the MC5 before reverting to their favourite pastime of ripping off the Stones. Then they rip off the Jesus and Mary Chain for a bit – and no, the fact that you played drums for them doesn’t make it all right, you wanker. I’m guessing here, but later, just to show they’re abreast of the times, man, they probably switch to ripping off Leftfield or somebody with some generic, lukewarm dance piffle, but thankfully by that time George has come round to the same conclusion as me and we’re long gone. And my ears are still smarting from the days when they used to rip off the Byrds and the Pastels. Fucking cunts.
On the way to get a much needed drink we see about 30 seconds of Sham 69 performing “The Cockney Kids are Innocent”, which is no less rubbish than I expected it to be. Stupid bloody band. But all this is of no consequence, because Roni Size and Reprazent are up next. Though not alone in this, this bunch pretty much personify what’s meant by intelligent dance music, incorporating both avant-gardism and soulfulness, managing to be both tough and tender, as well as, in a good old fashioned showbiz spirit, demonstrating an accomplished capacity to work and respond to a festival crowd, bewilderingly small in number though it is. Hard workers too, since Roni Size, who almost enjoys hero status among locals as an Exit-lover from years past, plays two sets, the second of which is from 5 to 7 in the morning. Shit, wish I had more stamina, or drugs. Whatever, the first set was masterful.
By Saturday the weather’s getting truly unpleasant, for the second year on the trot I’m in Novi Sad on the hottest day of the year so far, though considering it’s July that’s hardly miraculous and I’ve nobody but myself to blame. Due to leisurely afternoon drinking we miss Gogol Bordello, who were in any case playing ridiculously early, and arrive at the main stage later, partly due to misinformation and partly egged on by the suave but inscrutable Boris, to catch Juliette and the Licks, about whom I’d previously known nothing. Wait a minute… fuckin ell… isn’t that… Juliette Lewis? By god it is. Oh dear. Damn my ignorance of popular culture. Because this is without doubt the worst gig I’ve seen in the last five years at least, and one of the worst I’ve seen in my life. Having got away with marketing herself as the bad girl of cinema by appearing in frivolous, bombastic wank like Natural Born Killers, she now thinks she can market herself as the bad girl of rawwk. Joan Jett she ain’t. Not even Suzi Quatro. More like Roxette with bells on. Indescribably dire.
A colossal waste of time too, because I want to get to the bar to get tipsy in time for my Exit faves Lollobrigida, another major draw of the Elektrana stage. Over the last twelve months Lollobrigida have evidently built up quite a following in these parts on the punk-pop-electro-trash scene, and deservedly so. Last year I remember comparing them to Fuzz Box at their peak, but Fuzz Box were a mere flash in the pan, whereas this is the real thing. This year they are even more blinding than I remember them from before, their live sound much more abrasive and invigorating than their studio recordings, with the added advantage that once again the exquisitely entertaining Filip is on hand to provide translations of their lyrics, which, if what he says is true, are absolutely fucking filthy. Naughty, naughty girls who evidently relish the prospect of a damn good spanking. As nasty as they wanna be, and without seeming to try either. For the second year running, Lollobrigida blew the roof off Exit.
It’s going to be hard for anyone to beat that, but on Sunday the place has filled up properly and is buzzing with anticipation of the Pistols, with plenty of drunken cartoon punks hanging around the streets for several hours beforehand, sweating in their studded leather jackets. First though, somewhat despite ourselves, we go to see Ministry. I hadn’t had any great expectations of Ministry before the gig, which is a good job, because they’re boring, unspeakably bloody boring. Although I can’t really claim to be disappointed, I am still left with a vague feeling of embarrassment and shame, haunted as I am by the memory of those youthful university days when I used to think the sun shone out of Al Jourgensen’s arse. And there’s still no doubt in my mind that in their heyday Ministry, Revco etc. were genuinely great, seminal bands, and the Land of Rape and Honey is probably the industrial rock album, a glorious marriage of viciously punishing electronica with thrashy, venomous, Killing Joke-inspired guitar. But to be honest, looking back, even at their best they were a bit of a cheap thrill with their soooo dangerous image as rock outlaws, twisted up with malevolent rage, randomly spewing out bile against convention, the system and yeah, you too man, who might just taunt and swear at you but might also rip your head off, shit down your neck and then laugh like a motherfucker simply because you're there, as well as which they’re all really fuurked up on druuggs. All this is ok for 18 year olds, but the adult in me (believe it or not, there is one) has to acknowledge their gaping inferiority in comparison with other, less childish rock bands of the time, and here it’s impossible for me not to mention the Young Gods, Cop Shoot Cop and Thin White Rope, as well as their also childish but nevertheless superior predecessors Big Black. Still, they plugged a fairly radical, or at least diverting, gap in the market for a while, and all would have been fine if they hadn’t so quickly degenerated into a mediocre heavy metal band, and that, folks, is all that’s on display tonight. Everything sounds the same, there are no discernable tunes, just a lot of turgid, thudding fuzz and lamentably empty pseudo-biker posturing. Highlight of the show comes when George tells me they’re packing it in after this tour, which is at least 15 years overdue but cheers me up anyway. Much more so than when they finish with their only decent tracks of the evening, “Just One Fix” and “Thieves”, which as George succinctly puts it, is “too little, too late”. Awful.
The first Yugoslav punk band from way back in the 70s, local legends Pekinška Patka (Peking, or should I now say Beijing Duck), pass by in a blur. It ought to be a momentous occasion since they haven’t played here for 27 years, and are responsible for Novi Sad’s reputation as the capital of Balkan punk. They sound quite decent and a few of the locals get excited, but if the truth be told even they are just here for the Pistols, and so, a little unfairly, the band are greeted mostly with mild impatience. Unlucky there, chaps.
These days the re-reformed Sex Pistols can’t afford to take themselves too seriously, and are really laying it on thick with the theme that they’re now grand old English patriots (Lydon’s Irish roots no longer worthy of mention), purveyors of a distinguished tradition of cheekily lampooning but essentially loyal, complementary rather than revolutionary counterculture in the spirit of Noel Coward, taking to a stage decked out in St. George’s flags to the strains of Dame Vera Lynn’s “There’ll Always Be An England”. No doubt Roger Scruton would be nodding sagely in approval, although that other great Englishman Orwell might be wincing in his grave, recalling the moment in Animal Farm when the pigs walk on two legs. Of course it could be potentially alarming, suggesting an obsequious eagerness to prove that they’ve matured sufficiently to find an accommodation with the establishment and/or a bellicose pomposity in trying to imply that the establishment has been forced to accommodate them, but their humour is their saving grace. And to be fair to them, with Sex Pistols T-shirts having been sold without irony next to Princess Diana mugs in souvenir shops on Oxford Street for the last 25 years or so, they probably have little choice other than to present themselves as one of our great national institutions, which frankly, they are. What the fuck, it’s a festival, and Ministry and Primal Scream notwithstanding, I’m in indulgent mood. The main problem with the Pistols is that they’re simply not loud enough, but with “Stepping Stone” they seem to hit their stride a bit more, and pull off a pleasing, if not astonishing performance. Again it’s nice to see a band who haven’t got so above themselves as to disdain their role as mere entertainers, and so they bring out all the classics, performing the whole of Never Mind The Bollocks plus a few more anthems to boot. If I’ve been unkind to Lydon in the past then I take at least some of it back, we all have our moments of insecurity-fuelled silliness and Johnny is on form tonight, unlike the lobotomised-looking Steve Jones he seems to be having fun, which he generously transmits to the audience, although he then almost blows it with some unimaginative between-song banter vis-à-vis US foreign policy, going on to chant out “Allah be praised” – which though surely meant ironically, is perhaps not the cleverest thing to shout to a crowd in Serbia, some of whom clearly don’t quite pick up on the irony. Well, at least the Pistols can still be controversial. They encore rather playfully with a slightly unexpected cover of “Silver Machine”, as well as “Road Runner”, after which I’m well satisfied. Seeing the 50-something Pistols play a festival in Serbia in 2008, so long after the death of punk, could have been the most excruciating kitsch, but it wasn’t. Cheers boys, Rule Britannia. Or something.
After that there’s little left except to get shitfaced and at the very tail end catch the excellent Dilinja & MC Jakes crank out some absolutely storming drum n bass before walking back to town in the blazing sunshine. For the second time in as many years Exit was a roaring success from my point of view, and compared to my admittedly long distant experience of British festivals, seemed extraordinarily well organised. Somehow this fact, coupled with the obviously vast numbers of people at the festival who were off their heads on alcohol and drugs, with all the attendant dangers therein, made it seem all the more cruelly ironic when disaster struck this year in the form of a freak accident, a woman on the campsite killed by a branch falling from a linden tree. The festival organisers seem to have taken every possible precaution to avoid such occurrences, and have been exonerated, but still, that can’t detract from the tragedy.
How many more festivals like that I’ve got left in me I don’t know, but experience teaches me never to say never, although I suspect that next year at least I’ll be giving Exit a miss. What is certain is that I will return to Novi Sad, and hope to get the opportunity as soon as possible to return the favour to my first rate hosts George and Sandra here in Olomouc, and that offer extends to all the other Novosadians I’ve met down there. I also intend to keep my promise, however rash and inebriated, as well as somewhat defiant it might have been at the time, to learn some Serbo-Croat before my next visit, indeed considering the fact the next visit will be my third, and my sixth to former Yugoslavia in total, it would be a bit rude not to at least make an effort.
All good things must come to an end, and I can’t deny that the whole Novi Sad experience left me feeling pretty drained, and so after the madness had died down a bit I managed to catch up on some much needed sleep on a very reasonably priced and comfortable night train down to Montenegro, where I enjoyed a pleasantly much less eventful few days, for which I bow down to the divine generosity of Ivona and Reluška, who ensured that as well as delightful company I also had yet another free place to lay my head.
Naturally there’s less to say about Montenegro than Exit, but my main impression was that, apart from its spectacular mountains, which made for an even more impressive train ride than that through Bosnia last year, Montenegro has one advantage over Croatia – that it’s cheap. Which for Czechs on holiday, is a pretty fundamental advantage, and an excellent opportunity to gorge on fantastic fresh seafood. In other respects however, and I hope I don’t offend anyone here, I have to concede that Montenegro came a decidedly poor second – it might have sand beaches, which some may consider an advantage in comparison with its rockier northern neighbour, but this has to be balanced against the fact that I have never before seen beaches so utterly filthy and litter-strewn. Not only that, but whilst the sublime, crystal-clear sea off the coast of Hvar for example offers wonderful opportunities for snorkelling, in the Montenegrin Adriatic, for the first and I sincerely hope the last time in my life, I encountered not only toilet paper but human shit. The ocean may be vast, but that soiled feeling is difficult to wash off. Needless to say, I kept my mouth firmly closed and my head above water the whole time while swimming. Ugh! This though was certainly not enough to spoil a holiday, which in fact after the exertions of Exit was more or less perfect, even if, probably as a direct result of those exertions, I came down with a cold (in temperatures of 40°C!) during my stay. Nose still running I bravely subjected myself to a gruelling journey home, starting with a 10-hour bus ride (would have been 8, but it broke down) up to Split, where, a couple of days after the capture of Radovan Karadžić (I’m sure Randi would have something to say about him posing as a doctor of alternative medicine), it was depressing to see T-shirts on sale promoting the Croats’ very own indicted war criminal Ante Gotovina. What with that and Croatia being so shockingly expensive (yeah right, try spending a few days in London) I didn’t hang around, and after a last seafood supper caught a refreshingly empty night train home, making the trip a total of over 36 hours since getting on the bus in Montenegro.
All in all, without a doubt the highlight of the year so far, as it was with last year. And once more, I feel a spiritually replenished but physically decimated version of my former self.