Rockaway Beach 2020, Bognor Regis, UK, 10-13 January,
Jan 19, 2020
Photography by Shaun Gordon
When picturing your perfect location for a festival, Bognor Regis Butlins on a cold, wet and windy weekend in January might not be your first choice. But somehow the odd mix of family friendly holiday chalets and truly alternative music makes for an incredible weekend, recapturing the magic of the fabled All Tomorrow’s Parties to become the essential way to start the year. The very first major event in the music calendar, this year the headliners included John Cale, The Jesus And Mary Chain plus Fontaines D.C. topping a high-quality list of acts of cult favourites and the new generation of rising stars. A perfect balance of the old and new, ensuring that both quality and vitality are in abundance.
Rockaway is the perfect platform for relatively unknown acts to get a foothold, and the first half all three days starts downstairs at the Reds stage with carefully picked names you might not know yet before moving upstairs to the Centre Stage for more established players. And what better way to start the weekend than with something dark & beguiling in the form of Indian Queens? The East London three-piece thank the swaying spectators for coming down early and play a compelling set of swirling songs awash with delay and gorgeous vocal harmonies which is both energetic and satisfyingly dense. No doubt we will be soon seeing the crowds to Indian Queens exploding in size. Following them was alt pop in the form of Bellatrix who certainly brought plenty of passion, but the ambition didn’t quite match her ability as none of the songs seemed to quite work. Certainly, a lot of thought had gone into her stage presence and she did make a connection with the crowd, so it could just be she needs more time to develop her Latin rhythms into something more cohesive.
I first had the pleasure of seeing the wonderfully idiosyncratic Trupa Trupa in their native Poland just last summer and they were a treat then too. Conjuring shades of 60’s psychedelia but a bit more ragged and tapping into post rock, the Sub Pop signing dive into frenetic wild rushes of angular riffs and walls of sound before occasionally easing off into cool oasis of soothing calm. It’s always good sign when a band better the longer they play and 30 mins wasn’t really long enough to get their full effect and it’s a bit of shame given how far they’ve come for today, but it’s always better to leave the stage with the audience wanting more.
Young Knives (late) appearance wasn’t entirely convincing, and it was a surprise to hear that they’ve traded their former upbeat indie feel for a hard-electronic sound with a bit of psyche thrown in. They hint that they’re having problems with their label in getting their next album out which doesn’t come as a huge surprise given that they don’t really seem to understand the new direction that they’ve taken.
And so, we move upstairs for the first performance on the Centre Stage of the night; Black Country, New Road. The young sextuple have come a remarkably long way in a short space of time and this was my first time to catch them live and it was pleasing to discover that they do match up the hype. Mesmeric, gentle but unsettling intros glide into frequent flashes of controlled brilliance underline pained stream of conscious lyrics, hammered home with savage stabs of guitar and frenzied saxophone. Perhaps a wee bit solemn and too introspective for Friday evening but it’s damn compelling. And it’s the same with SOAK; Sure, the prodigious Northern Irish songwriter is one of the youngest ever musicians to receive a Mercury nomination and she paints a truly vivid picture with her music but it would have been a real treat to hear her on a chilled Sunday – though that would prove to be the rowdiest day of the weekend!
Black Country, New Road
The first headliner of the weekend is none other than the legendary John Cale and fans rush up the stairs after attentively listening to a Q&A hosted by John Robb Rockaway always does well with their big names and it’s always slightly surreal seeing those who have shaped the cultural landscape in their own image on stage at Butlins, and combined with his understated manner it’s easy to forget just what a tremendous impact he’s had. Apparently, Cale doesn’t plan his set until the day of performance, highlighting the sheer talent of his band that can play any song from his truly seismic back catalogue who expertly accompany his elegant voice and songs that are each followed by polite but enthused applause. Whilst being best known for being in The Velvet Underground it was perhaps best that we weren’t bombarded with their songs and being given a solitary gem of “I’m Waiting For The Man” near the end. The night ends with the truly bizarre and beautifully amateurish appearance of Princesteen (Prince Bruce Springsteen – geddit?) on stage with International Teachers Of Pop kicking off the disco in Bar Rosso downstairs.
The second day starts with strong performances from West Bromwich based dub collective The Pagans Shepherds of Humanity and snarling post punks Scrounge, helping shrug off the excesses of the night before. But Saturday really begins with the arrival of indie pop fourpiece Penelope Isles. Joyous and bouncy, punctuated with cute lullaby keys and with a satisfying bit of crunch. Loved their bit of Red Coat banter, getting the crowd into the spirit of things with a shout out of “I say Bognor. You say Regis“. It’s a shame that they lose some of this momentum when the tuning between one song seemed to take forever, but it was worth the wait as they really come into their own towards their finish, ending on with some shoegaze resplendence celebrated by an inflatable shark thrown off the front the stage and the singer forced by the guitarist to follow it crowd surfing. If you want a bit of lad rock, Rascalton have it in spades. Seemingly having recently discovered The Libertines and The Clash but missing out of the mid-00’s heyday of NME declaring a new saviour of rock n’ roll every week by being too young, they stick out for all the wrong reasons. But they’ve got a decent crowd who seem to be into them and least it’s a bit raucous, I guess.
But if you really want to see how it’s done, then look up The Sweet Release Of Death. Already been tipped as one of the surprise highlights of the weekend, the no wave troika squeal with pained guitars, tight drum rolls and rapid boss riffs that threaten to level the entire holiday camp. Stabbing at the strings and then unleashing insurmountable levels of distortion fury; this is the no bullshit aural assault that you can’t help but love and the rapturous applause keeps getting louder after each song as guitarist Martijn Tevel high fives his new fans. If you don’t know them yet, go check them out and thank me later.
The Sweet Release Of Death
It would be easy to pack up and go home after that, but thankfully The Sweet Release Of Death are followed up by Our Girl. While nowhere near as abrasive, they can certainly hold their own when it comes to driving guitar riffs with confident swagger. Led by Soph Nathan of The Big Moon, the trio are pouring every drop of passion they have as they play what she informs us is their first gig of the year (they’d be hard pressed to play many earlier!) before ripping into “I Really Like It” which is just such a killer single. Notes hang perfectly in the air before becoming a maelstrom of sound then immediately following up with “In My Head”. It’s sweet to see Nathan touch foreheads with bassist Daniel Fox in an emotional display as they finish.
It’s about time for some pop and the revellers are excited for a bit of Self Esteem, one of the best breakthrough acts of last year. Arriving stylishly late and flanked with backing singers with t shirts declaring “Squirt Isn’t Pee”, the anticipation has been risen even higher and on walks Rebecca Taylor who certainly doesn’t fail to match expectations with a fiery delivery and clearly loves every second on stage as much as we enjoy watching her. Tight dance routines are combined with powerful and affirming songs including a beautiful a Capella delivery of “She Reigns” and when Taylor finishes with “The Best”, Butlins erupts.
It’s the changeover to Centre Stage and at any other festival Peter Perrett would be a feasible headliner. It’s a testament to the sheer amount of talent on offer that he’s actually kicking off the evening following a chat with John Robb. The room filled early and devotees were not disappointed with a set full of classics including “How The West Was Won”, “Another Girl, Another Planet” of course and even ending with a Velvet Underground cover of “What Goes On”. Next up are Nova Twins who are the rock pairing of Georgia South and Amy Love plus a drummer who truly brought the excitement and attitude needed for a Saturday evening. Frequently stripped down to just implementing bass, drums and vocals down and fucking going for it – including Love jumping off stage to mingle with their fans, getting everyone to crouch and then leap around during the closing song.
I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing The Jesus & Mary Chain and so I am the absolute opposite of the consummate cool of Jim Reid and his post punk pioneers as they arrive and begin with “Amputation”. It’s a wise move to begin with the lead track from their latest LP Damage and Joy, the record that heralded their return and proved they were still a force to be reckoned with, to prove they aren’t relying on the past and it lends an extra punch to classic songs “April Skies” and “Head On” when they did immediately follow. True, it was a bit quieter than I had expected and I would have loved them to reach the dangerous sound levels of their heyday but when they play such nasty tracks as “The Living End” it cuts like a rusty razor. Reid stalks the stage in quiet confidence, clearly relishing the attention and is that a smile I see as he looks out at a sea of arms in the air when they begin the encore with “Just Like Honey”?
The Jesus And Mary Chain
I must confess, I just missed Welsh harmonious indie rock three-piece Adwaith, which is a real shame as I had been enjoying their dulcet tones in the run up to Rockaway. But I was ready and waiting for the quirky and erratic Merseyside trio Eyesore & The Jinx whose almost nerdy take on post punk injected some much-needed vigour to the beginning of the final afternoon and what would prove to be the wildest day of the three.
Having won Best Live Act at the Scottish Alternative Music Awards plus releasing their impressive debut album Poor Girls Broken Boys just last year, The Vegan Leather are all set for even bigger things in 2020. They just look like the full package as they start with stomping single “The French Exit” and Rockaway is probably the perfect setting for them (despite their 12.5-hour drive from Paisley to Bognor). Live, you can hear just how good the basslines are, especially on closing number “The Hit” and I’m really hoping it helps spread their name as their bouncy indie pop needs to be spread across disco floors far and wide.
The Vegan Leather
Next up, it’s LIFE who are the first band of the day that I really want to see and a definite high point of the whole weekend. A Picture Of Good Health rightfully appeared in many Best Albums of the Year lists and the singles are still on heavy rotation on BBC 6Music and as a lad from Hull, it’s been with immense pride that I’ve been watching their rise. Our hometown is often the butt of many jokes but for the political post punks it almost works as a seal of authenticity and its pleasing to see the rising numbers gathering whilst drummer Stew arranges the mics around his drums, Lydia tuning her bass and Mick plays with the settings on his guitar pedals. With a faux sense of nervousness, suited singer Mez strolls onto the stage and says hello with a cheeky grin before running around the stage, working the crowd and treating us all to angular interpretative dances to their anthems about the realities of working class life such as “Excites Me”, “Never Love Again” and “Half Pint Fatherhood” as Lydia spins and his brother Mick gets some impressive air scissor kicking. Playing like a headliner rather than a band that has been scheduled to start at 15:00, “Bum Hour”‘s chant sweeps around the room. Mez spots me in the crowd and summons me to the front to sit on my shoulders as I run around the pit, spinning the singer round as they close with their frenetic early single “Popular Music”. He thanks the audience and I go collapse in exhaustion at the bar.
It would be hard for anyone to follow that and Welsh psyche tinged indie pop quintet Melys honied tunes are truly wonderful and a real delight to sink into. However, the earlier acts have definitely put myself and most in attendance in the mood for something with a bit more grit and we certainly got that from Bristol based garage rock noise terrorists Heavy Lungs. Led by a howling Danny Nedelko, the havoc they unleash with tracks like “Jealous” and “(A Bit Of A) Birthday” is akin to the sound of a nuclear explosion; and probably twice as deadly. Playing up to the Red Coat entertaining traditions, Nedelko announces “Welcome to Butlins. What a show!!” whilst drummer George Garratt laughs at the slight absurd nature of appearing on stage more used to presenting saccharine sweet pop covers to families; “Never thought I’d say I was playing Butlins. Hey mum, I’ve made it. Look at me.” It ends with the mandatory glorious implosion of distortion and hopefully next time we see them, it will be touring a debut album. International Teachers Of Pop were the very last act to appear at Reds and the disco revivalists are normally the feel good fun that makes them perfect for any festival. But this time round for some reason Adrian Flanagan chose to make tasteless jokes referring to Hillsborough, strippers and orgies that drove many onlookers away.
International Teachers Of Pop
And so, the final evening on the Centre Stage begins with Brix & The Extricated. It’s not uncommon to hear criticism of them being little more than a cover band of The Fall but that really does underestimate the impact Brix had on pushing the Manchester mavericks into the mainstream and just how much creative freedom Mark E. Smith did actually allow in the creative process. It’s a suitably messy set and who doesn’t go crazy when they knock out “Totally Wired”? Hats off to The Wedding Present for being the only act to play Rockaway Beach this year that actually does the Hi-de-Hi! shout out. Again, any other weekend the Leeds legends could have topped the bill as their gorgeous guitar melodies shine out. I lost my shit to “Kennedy” which came towards the middle of the set, and given the rollercoaster pursuit to the close of their biggest hit they probably should have finished with it. But the second half of the set was hardly a slog, with crowd pleasers “Brassneck”, “Flying Saucer” and “Heather” all towards the end.
The Wedding Present
And so, it’s down to Fontaines D.C. to wrap the whole thing up. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding the Dublin lads and while Dogrel was the Album of the Year for many in 2019, including iconic label Rough Trade and BBC 6 Music, I’ve yet to be convinced as the variety of genres and disparity of styles were too incohesive for me and felt like a band being pushed too fast before they were ready. “Hurricane Laughter”, “Chequeless Reckless” and “Sha Sha Sha” is the boisterous beginning that has echoes of the post millennium garage rock revival, then we have the more morose middle section including “The Lotts”, new number “Lucid Dream”, “TV Screens” and “Roy’s Tune” during which each band member seems to look towards each other uncertainly, appearing to rely on the other for a confidence boost. Until now they certainly haven’t been bad, but it’s nothing you could really call exceptional. It’s only when they move to the third act of guttural post punk that they really start to become impressive. “Too Real” inspires a fair few crowd surfers who continue through “Liberty Belle” and “Boys In The Better Land” much to the anger of the security who didn’t see it coming. There’s a moment of relief during the swaying shanty “Dublin City Sky” but the kids are climbing onto shoulders once again for the very last live song of the weekend “Big”. Many people came to the weekend because of Fontaines D.C. and their devotees certainly got what they wanted. I’m still holding out to see how they tackle the difficult second album. And bringing yet another marvellous weekend to a close are Dom Gourlay and John Lynch from vital psyche band The Telescopes who have been DJing between bands throughout Rockaway Beach, and causing quite a stir on social media owing to their ace dad dancing. Fluctuating between soul classics and indie bangers, it’s a riotous end in Bar Rosso. What a way to start the year!