Rockaway Beach Festival
Butlins, Bognor Regis
7th-10th January 2022
We ventured to Bognor Regis for Rockaway Beach Festival, our first festival of 2022
There are enough reasons for the return of Rockaway Beach to not happen. Omicron surging. 30% of the line-up having dropped out. A sense of disgust from colleagues and acquaintances that we’d even dare go to a music festival in this climate. The journey down to Bognor Regis for the first Rockaway Beach festival is filled with talk about how the festival might not happen and maybe should not happen.
Arriving on site is, for those who have attended before, like a homecoming; the bleakness of the out-of-season Butlins on the south coast elevated by mask-wearing, distancing and a strange feeling that a party might not be right, right now. But for better or worse, that strangeness dissipates by the first acts of the weekend and Rockaway’s usual sense of musical exploration and fun takes over.
Pandemic or no pandemic, the passion is there to enjoy ourselves in the face of adversity. And it feels like a victory of sorts for the 2,800 festival-goers, with all the arcade machines, go-karting, pool parties and eclectic bar DJ sets thrown in.
In Reds, the smaller venue of the festival, things get going with October Drift who play with serious energy (guitars swung, overblown rock gestures) that seems at odds with the sound they create packed with intricate walls of guitar noise and crushing bottom end. It makes for an off-kilter visual spectacle, the band thrashing like they are all big riffs rather than complex, shoegaze inspired anthems.
Next, forsaking complexity for pure gut-punch simplicity is the riot grrl revivalism of Grandma’s House. Rough round the edges and raw, the Bristol queer-punk trio play a fast, loud and uncompromising set that recalls the grungier end of feminist punk. They scorch through their material to date from early tune Devil’s Advocate right to their latest music, without relenting in pace. As they continue to find their feet, they should become a vital, vitriolic live prospect.
Occasionally, an act somehow escapes your attention. Wu-Lu is one of those bands. While the name caused sparks of recognition, and a few tunes had caught my attention, they have remained largely off my radar. That all changes with a life-affirming set in Reds, a standout of the whole festival.
With a sound originally rooted in alternative hip-hop, the South Londoner and his band journey through jazz, metal, alt-rock, punk and electronic music to create a woozy concoction. The slow build beginning of the set, all louch grooves and downbeat funk in swirling repetition, doesn’t fully indicate the sheer power of the final tracks. With powerhouse drumming (from interchangeable drummers), precise percussion, big bass and crushing swirls of guitar, it is played without a single drop in quality. Tunes like South and Times recall Deftones through a trip-hop filter, the call and response hip hop of Times like an angrier Wu Tang Clan. It all ends in a haze of noise. You don’t get more vital than this, and with Warp records having signed him back in November 2021, it feels like something even more special is on the way.
With Futureheads being one of the Covid casualties, it is left to punk legends Buzzcocks to stand in and save the day, which they do. How could they not with those songs? Classics like What Do I Get?, Autonomy, Orgasm Addict and Ever Fallen in Love (with someone you shouldn’t have) prove why they are revered as one of the greatest all-time bands, if not the greatest for singles. Sure with the absence of Pete Shelley some of the wry charm is missing, and with Steve Diggle now at the helm it is a slightly different live prospect, but it is still Buzzcocks. Some of the new material, Destination Zero especially, feels a bit like a punk cliche, but that is a minor niggle when a set is as precise and as fun as the one Buzzcocks always deliver. Changes may come but this is how you do punk…
“Is he even on the fucking stage?”, rants on perplexed punter during another enigmatic Tricky set. The trip-hop legend is doing what he always does, ignoring the rules. Renowned for his “difficult” live performances, Tricky is more a conductor than a performer. Rockaway is treated to more a “show” than usual, with a whole two songs with the stage lights on, the rest is performed in a cloak of darkness, the crowd having to focus on the sub-bass and hypnotic downbeat wonders emanating crisply from the stage. Idles’ Joe Talbot even joins the fray for a performance of his collaboration Post War Tension, not that anyone can see. Tricky exists on his own terms, simple as that.
Playing further with expectations, Talbot returns for a closing DJ set which he opts for run of banging techno cuts, which bemuses a part of the crowd expecting punk rock tunes. Defying what is expected is a Rockaway trait, and this is the perfect end to the return day.
Our Saturday starts with something more expected, the snarling post-punk of Italia 90. Wonderfully-named vocalist Les Miserable, looking like an extra from This Is England, stomps the stage like preparing for a scrap, no subtlety in his voice. While his voice is too loud in the mix, often drowning out the Gang of Four like rhythmic pulse, everything comes together of the infectious New Factory.
Both members of the excellent Sink Ya Teeth released worthy solo albums in 2021, and the Rockaway stage is taken by Maria Uzor. With a minimal electronic setup, Uzor delivers her captivating tunes that run a line from techno through 80s soul and into synth-pop, all with a dark edge. She looks completely natural and captivated by her own creations and it shows; Uzor puts in a commanding performance.
“This one isn’t on the triple album we released last year”, says one of Moderate Rebels alluding to the fact that this group is prolific. It also becomes apparent that what we are seeing here, a well-played, fairly melodic indie sound, only represents part of the band’s output. “This isn’t what they were like last time”, says a friend. It turns out the line-up is not a set thing and neither is the sound; this set is one I enjoy, but I like the idea there is a universe of music to explore from them even more. One to explore.
The next act also isn’t easy to pin down. As we enter Red’s, Nuha Ruby Ra is thrusting at the front of the stage, howling like a banshee, her howls bathed in echo. She has complete stage presence and is brilliantly confrontational. Her gothic RnB driven by attacking bass and vocals contrasts dark and light (she also has sweet harmonies and spoken parts). Performing with two mics and a backing track, she has as much power as any other act on all weekend.
Bringing the “rock” back to Rockaway, Imperial Wax (an act released on Louder Than War records) put on a kinetic performance that performs the neat trick of being nothing less than breakneck in speed but with audible nuances in the sound (dancing rhythms, deep in the noise). The talking point might still be that three quarters of the band were the last line-up of The Fall, but musically they more than match that pedigree. Despite the on-going drum kit issues, parts falling off and over throughout, drummer Kieron Melling delivers flawlessly while frontman Sam Curran is a ball of energy. They fit no scene, play no one’s games and are one of the best rock bands in the UK right now.
Moving into Centre Stage, the larger venue used for the evening, the proofreader’s new nemesis TTRRUUCES are beguiling and bewildering with serious summery vibes that offset the day’s torrential rain and general bleakness. Just eight shows into their live career, this is an exceptionally slick affair, taking a loose idea of psychedelic pop and drawing in everything from disco and freak folk to out-and-out pop. There’s something of the B-52s in their playfulness, and there is a violin, which always adds a different dimension. Each tune is slightly different, but all have the same interlocking vocal harmonies and sense of fun. They do end of a slow number which sees the set fizzle out in a way that doesn’t fit the vibe, but that is a minor down-point from a set from a great new band.
Indie nostalgia is rife with an hour-long set from pre-Britpop hitmakers Thousand Yard Stare proving they still have the chops, but everyone is in the room for JARV IS. “We are JARV IS and I am Jarvis, you can see what we did there,” says Jarvis Cocker, the living legend, in one of his moments of charming inter-song banter. Still one of the greatest ever frontmen Cocker struts, pulling his trademark shapes, and wins everyone over with his wry humour; the consummate everyman, if the everyman was also the most intelligent person in the room. Focusing on the house-inspired new album Beyond The Pale, including an excellent rendition of House Music All Night Long, we are also treated to a smattering of Pulp tunes from deep in the catalogue. My Legendary Girlfriend from 1992’s Separations album is a rare treat from that dance-inspired era and the moment where what they would become started to show, and His N Hers deep cut She’s A Lady also fits the bill wonderfully. In a week where the lying of our leaders hit obvious new lows, Jarvis leading a sing-along to Cunts Are Still Running The World, feels vital and joyous. This is, as always, exactly what we need from Cocker, and the room falls in love with him all over again.
The night ends with rushed set of indie classics from Steve Lamacq, as social distancing becomes a dream from another time. Rockaway at the end of day two feels like an absolute triumph.
As is often the way, the start of Sunday is a bit of a blur. A seafront walk blows away the cobwebs as much as the post-Idles, post-punk of TV Priest who blast from the stage with rhythmic nouse and walls of noise. Charlie Drinkwater is a commanding performer who really shines when stepping away from the tropes of the “genre” the band have slotted into. WunderHorse’s apping of classic rock and alt-rock stereotypes produces some genuine moments of brilliance but these are largely lost in what seems like a well-orchestrated pastiche. It is still nice to see some riffs with bite and an unashamed love of rock indulgence.
New, vowelless, shoegaze heroes Bdrmm have been a buzz band around the Butlins site all weekend and their Red’s set is packed with expectant gig-goers. They don’t disappoint, providing the expected classic indie tunes swimming in cascades of guitar sound. There’s a CAN t-shirt worn on stage, and while there aren’t the same deep grooves and sonic exploration on show, there is clearly the ambition (and the skill) to deliver on these ideas. It feels a little lost in a slightly muddy stage sound, but enough of the textures and songwriting skill shines through for it to be a worthy set.
From the new of shoegaze to legends House of Love, who weirdly end the day on the Reds stage rather than a “main” stage set. It is a set of contrasts. When they play the classics they prove there are few indie bands who can touch them, Christine, Shine On, Destroy The Heart and I Don’t Know Why I Love You are joyous fuzz-filled wonders, but the new material feels pedestrian and drowning in the rock cliches they dismissed at their height. The strange choice of returning for an encore of a new tune that doesn’t cut it, after letting half the audience leave, feels like an anticlimax for a classic act that has always deserved more praise.
Continuing the shoegaze line as the night moves to Centre Stage, is The KVB who temper the dreamy guitar with electronics that draw from the history of the style from the Berlin school to post-industrial techno. The duo creates a sound bigger than their number suggests and Kat Day, as well as live electronics, runs the set’s hypnotic visuals as well. It seems strange that I have missed them till now, especially as a signing to the almost flawless Invada records. But this is what Rockaway does on a yearly basis; while providing the best of what you know, it regularly educates you as to the best of what you don’t.
The main event (sorry Porridge Radio) is Manchester’s A Certain Ratio. Admittedly you don’t get a lot of funk at Rockaway but, with their pedigree as Factory Records mainstays and originators (one of them at least) of the punk funk sound resurrected by the likes of The Rapture, they fit the bill. They run through a set of pure funky tunes, running through jazz, funk, British 80s soul and more contemporary RnB vibes that gets the biggest party feeling of the weekend, bar none. The constant instrument-switching (at one point they have three members on bass), and the musicianship that can only come from decades of experience, make it impossible not to love. Shack Up initially gets the biggest response, but it is the instrumental breakdown of the last track with the whole band taking up various percussion instruments, including the weekend’s only cowbell and whistle, that lifts the carnival vibe to incredible heights. If things had ended there, the high would have floated through till Monday morning, but there is a headliner to come; Porridge Radio.
While the Brighton favourites have garnered worthy praise for their knife-edge emotive take on indie, and Rockaway do an exceptional service in elevating newer acts to headline slots, something doesn’t connect. The raw emotion and downbeat style feels a little out of place at a time when what is needed it energy. The performance is great, the songs also, but the placing is wrong. A moment where Dana Margolin leaves the stage for five minutes when a guitar string snaps, while the band mill about awkwardly, suggests they are maybe not there yet in terms of headliner status. But this is a chance, a door opener to other headline slots that they more than deserve to grow into, in the way that Rockaway clearly intends.
Over in Bar Rosso, Dom Gourlay and John Lynch, the manic dancing DJs who are celebrities on the Rockaway site, close everything with another epic Closing (Covid?) Party, playing a mix of unquestionable classics and rare cuts that deserve a dance. As it has other years, Super Furry Animals’ The Man Don’t Give a Fuck causes a near riot before the night is ended by Spaceman 3’s Revolution.
At this moment, gathering to have fun and feel a sense of community, feels slightly revolutionary. Rockaway came back and I didn’t know how much I had missed it.
Words by James Thornhill