Welcome to the end of the fear show! After everyone was grounded in 2021 Bognor braced itself for the return of the Rockaway Beach Festival.
In the middle of a continuing pandemic? Really?
As an idea it seemed crazier than the competitors in the notorious Bognor Birdman contest – a true leap of faith!
During the run up to the festival some acts took flight and failed to make it to Butlin’s. Juniore said au revoir, The Futureheads said ta-ra and Working Men’s Club were redundant – all thanks to Covid. As more acts dropped out, Rockaway Beach was in danger of going viral. Would beach buskers be getting the call?
Would Rockaway 2022 suffer Sugababes syndrome and lose its original line-up?
Organisation and timing is everything though and by Friday lunchtime Rockaway is as ready as a seagull outside the chip shop. The efficiency of the wristband and chalet key collection process gave a false sense of calm because the sharks of October Drift were primed and set to attack the festival. Patrolling the stage in the Reds venue they seized Friday afternoon with breath-taking ease. Their brand of powerful rock, led by engaging and charismatic singer Kiran Roy, ripped through the crowd. Kiran kicked off a new Rockaway routine and was the first performer of the weekend to climb, crawl and sprawl over the strategically placed monitors. It’s an incredible opening but did the rockaway wave peaked too soon?
No. Butlins barely had time to recover before Grandma’s House came along to kick sand in your face with their raw – and roaring – brand of femme punk. A set so fierce drummer Poppy spoke of her severe hand cramp.
By now the surge was relentless. Wu-Lu – aka Miles Romans-Hopcraft and his band – dipped their toes into a maelstrom of rap, dub and punk and occasional grunginess to emerge as one of the most popular bands of the weekend.
Rhoda Dakar then mellowed the mood, The 2 Tone legend and former lead singer of The Body Snatchers bounced through Bognor with a smile and charming radiance but her conversational, laidback manner seemed lost on some of the crowd – probably preparing for their Butlin’s fish and chips before heading to the main Centre Stage venue around the corner.
The Futureheads had already dropped out, but never mind, the Buzzcocks came to the rescue on the Centre Stage to make old and new punks alike all teary eyed, Everyone fell in love with the veteran punks. Steve Diggle’s banter and audience participation on Harmony In My Head was so joyous, A spine…or rather, spike-tingling moment!
A storm was quickly approaching though which would baffle any coastguard and much of Bognor Butlin’s too. The stage darkened. Standing in the shadows a lone man stood smoking. The sunny sing-along shores of Buzzcocks seemed far, far away. A brooding menace had made landfall – Tricky had arrived. The Bristolian mood-meister crept into Bognor with an uncompromising set of sinister songs somewhat delayed at times by inexplicable and painfully lengthy gaps in the set where he seemed to jump ship and leave the stage. The audience were cast adrift. The set was about as coherent as a Boris Johnson speech but witnessing Hell Is Around The Corner – with its instantly familiar Isaac Hayes sample – just about made up for the sour times during the rest of the set. Rockaway Beach has always been eclectic.
It was left to Nottingham’s Do Nothing – (late replacements for Working Men’s Club) to salvage some Friday night festival fun but it was a struggle. Chris Bailey seemed more preoccupied with adjusting his hair than creating a festival vibe. Their time will surely come but they seemed to be lost on the large stage and made little attempt to engage with an audience yearning for some late-night fun after the trip hop pirate had stolen their spirit.
An early Saturday set at any festival can often be filled with comedown calm and midday at Rockaway was no exception. I See Islands braved the hangover hour to present an acoustic set of outstanding beauty – delivered with a Bon Iver-esque elegance to a surprisingly busy Reds venue. Roscoe Roscoe followed and supplied some psyched-up grooves to further fuzz with the heavy heads.
Reds really kicked off when a skinhead in bovver boots and red braces strutted into view. An imposing figure, Les Miserable is lead singer with London punks Italia 90 – but he is truly one of the good guys. Clad in a Dead Kennedys inspired t-shirt proclaiming Nazi Punks F*** Off Les led out his philosophical band of cultured anti-fascists to huge applause. Les admitted to forgetting to add their most popular song to the set-list – the shiny, radio-friendly Borderline – but nobody really missed it. Songs like Stroke City with the haunting mantra “you never thought that one day they would come for you you’re not a criminal and politics ain’t what you do…” and New Factory are such outstanding ant-fascist, anti-corporate anthems. Italia 90 are cooler than the Butlin’s ice-cream parlour. This is a band to have a pint with…whilst plotting the revolution. Hell, even bass player Bobby Portrait was sporting a beret!
Maria Uzor, as a solo live performer, is something of an unknown quantity. As half of electro groovers Sink Ya Teeth with Gemma Cullingford she’s gained critical acclaim from the great and the good and been championed by 6 Music presenter Amy Lamé. Accompanied by just a table laden with a laptop and a busy effects soundboard she was in danger of being lost on the stage which had so far accommodated so many fully-equipped bands. Yet she was incredible. Imagine the soaring spirit of Unfinished Sympathy soaked in a soulful infusion of euphoric joy along with much Maria arm-waving, You’d certainly want Maria at your party!
London ice cool collective Moderate Rebels soon wanted to gate-crash that party. They threatened all sorts of mischief on God Sent Us as they chanted – “we’re here to wreck your house and ruin your life…”. A song which was only played as they didn’t have a spare capo to do their first choice track. The anti-establishment sentiment was accompanied by a display backdrop featuring the text of their latest triple album If You See Something That Doesn’t Look Right. Driven, repetitive and looking nonchalant Moderate Rebels could soundtrack the next dystopian blockbuster, if they cared about such things. Which they don’t.
Engagement with the audience can be everything at a festival. Butlin’s may at times look part 1980s shopping centre, part airport departure lounge but punters have come to expect and respect the accessibility and intimacy of the Rockaway Beach festival. So the immersive commitment and determination of Nuha Ruby Ra was just perfect for Bognor. Having supported a diversity of acts – including Life (sadly another Covid casualty) and Amyl & The Sniffers – the East London siren has steadily been expanding her fanbase. After gleefully warming up with jumps and stretches she was festival fit and up to giving the performance of the weekend. Nuha Ruby Ra was spellbinding. The larger stage and handily positioned monitors provided the perfect scene for her strutting, her intimidating stares and her lithe, almost balletic movement and shape. The controlled anger and dark humour of her songs is unsettling and intriguing. Time stopped and we were all enticed into the depths of Nuha Ruby Ra world.
Imperial Wax – made up of former Fall bandmates of Mark E Smith with the addition of vocalist Sam Curran – certainly lived up to their self-styled “noise rock” moniker. Their brand of pounding, unrelenting post-rock only intermittently lightened by the amusing sight of parts of the drum and cymbals kit falling from the platform. Visually underwhelming and at times sonically overbearing they nevertheless remained a favourite with the musos in the room for their technical prowess.
PVA couldn’t make it to Rockaway so Crows stepped in to change the pecking order and headlined at Reds with their urgent, repetitive wall of sound. More noise rock for the boys and it was rather too one dimensional at times in spite of James Cox dramatic and passionate performance.
Meanwhile over at the Centre Stage Anglo-French duo Natalie Findlay and Jules Apollinaire aka Ttrruuces travelled from their strange psyche pop universe and ended up in Bognor. Cheerily stepping into the void after LIFE had to cancel, Tttrruuces trippy candy floss world and kaleidoscopic amusement arcade sound was a welcome distraction. Just fun and thoroughly life affirming.
Thousand Yard Stare relished being switched over to the larger stage after Big Joanie had to miss the party. Stephen Barnes pacing, restless performance made good use of the space that he wouldn’t have had over at the Reds venue. Sounding like the missing link between baggy and Brit-Pop they offered the perfect blend of old and new songs while Stephen even managed to consume his trademark apple during the set!
So to Jarv is…the anticipated highlight of the Rockaway Beach Festival weekend. Seconds before gracing the stage photographers were ushered out of the photo pit – Jarvis wanted an audience with the common people without any snapper chaps ruining the view. The unspoken wish for some Pulp nostalgia was instantly granted as Jarvis launched into, She’s A Lady. The stage banter and chatter often lacking elsewhere throughout the weekend flowed freely from Jarvis as he described how he’d chatted to his family over Christmas about the Butlin’s bash and nobody – including him – expected it to actually go ahead. Then again when you have almost two hours to play you do get time to talk. After launching handfuls of chocolate sweets at the crowd a typically Cockeresque debate ensued after someone criticised Bounty bars. Of course, Fat Children inevitably followed on the set list! Jarvis is proud to announce House Music All Night Long as being written prior to any Covid lockdown was imposed but it will always be a sublime pandemic anthem. Sporting a 1970s brown suit all the familiar shapes were pulled as Jarvis made use of the monitors to address fans like an avuncular history teacher. So suited to the role he even recited facts about what happened on this day in history. Jarvis wondered if the Butlin’s swimming pool would be open at midnight so he could take a dip after the gig. Most of the Jarv is…album Beyond The Pale is played including the adorable Must I Evolve which inspired even more audience participation with cries of “yes, yes, yes, yes…”. Jarvis, philosophical as ever, pondered how it’s important to understand and embrace change and how everyone has evolved even since he first stepped on the stage. Talking of change, the rendition of C*nts Are Still Running The World seemed very appropriate in these times where the privileged are launching class war on the poor and powerless…yes, the common people. There was still time for Jarvis to orchestrate a singalong for the cover of Christophe’s French classic Aline and an encore featuring My Legendary Girlfriend. Jarvis is still like that comfortable old friend you rarely get to see but is always engaging company when you do.
Sunday lunchtime beside the seaside starts with cynical songs of praise courtesy of TV Priest. By this time of a festival weekend it’s usually only the devout who are about but Reds is full of fervour for Charlie Drinkwater and his punchy post punk sermons. They’ve been at this for a couple of decades now and their perfect performance converts more disciples to their cause.
Lonely Tourist provide more worldly wisdom but temper it with laugh out loud witticisms covering everything from biographies of rock stars to phone calls to monosyllabic dads -“hang on, I’ll just get your mother”. All delivered in Paul Tierney’s calming Glaswegian brogue. Accompanied throughout by guitarist Chris Webb this acoustic troubadour had some of the best tunes and patter of the weekend. Tierney even joked “I know, you never paid to see two buskers!”
Those lightweights who missed the explosive festival opening set from October Drift on Friday had another chance to check them out. Already travelling home, they got the call to return to reprise their energetic, attacking shenanigans after Odd Morris were forced to pull out of the festival.
The shoe-gazing, sonic meanderings of bdrmm followed. This was atmospheric yet more than a little monotonous and they appeared to be playing for themselves. Well as long as they were having fun…
Wunderhorse looked nervous as the unlikely replacement for the wonderful Sinead O’ Brien who was another Covid no show. Vocalist Jacob Slater needn’t have worried because the melodic indie rock was captivating throughout the set. A nice alternative to Jacob’s day job fronting The Dead Prettys Made all the more impressive after learning that the guitarist had only joined Jacob in the band the previous day!
The first nostalgia slot of the day was given over to The House Of Love who headlined on the Reds stage. Now a veteran performer, Guy Chadwick gave a consummate lesson in how to build that aforementioned wall of sound without it being impenetrably self-indulgent. Christine, and of course, Shine On were especially enthralling.
Nick Wood and Kat Day of The KVB began the final set of gigs over at the Centre Stage. It’s a sound that would sit comfortably on the classic Creation Records compilation Doing It For The Kids from back in 1988. Accompanied by Kat Day’s abstract audio-visual backdrop film they were definitely worth rushing dinner for.
Old musos will appreciate the vital part A Certain Ratio (ACR) played in the development of the post punk scene. Scholars of the Simon Reynolds book Rip it Up and Start Again will also know why the Manchester band still remain influential and retain cult status. Bognor is blessed to have them play as the penultimate act of the festival. Stretched across the stage this latest incarnation of ACR is a tight, full band – a band that most importantly, look like they’re having fun. Bassist and vocalist Jez Kerr was really ready for the party with his carnival whistle and elsewhere an impromptu drum and bongos battle was taking place without a single misplaced beat. The Rio groove finale showcased exactly why A Certain Ratio were a cut above their post punk contemporaries who favoured a narrower, angular rock sound. Jez Kerr also referred to the band as A Certain Radio wittily acknowledging the headline act to come.
Porridge Radio seemed somewhat flattered to be headlining at Rockaway. During an awkward broken guitar string moment Dana Margolin admitted to being unprepared for their headline position on the bill. A male performer would be unlikely to be so self-deprecating and apologetic. Hopefully more festivals will follow Rockaway’s example and give headline slots to artists like Porridge Radio so the industry glass ceiling might crack a little. Make no mistake though, Porridge Radio are worthy headliners. Dana Margolin puts such passion and heartfelt energy into her songs. The festival finale was an emotional rollercoaster. The new songs had even more raw content and Dana leaves you feeling privileged she’s shared such intimacy.
Like a good page-turning novel left in a seaside boarding house the denouement of Rockaway Beach 2022 isn’t what matters. It’s the journey, and the context of the story. Rockaway Beach 2022 succeeded because it happened during extremely difficult circumstances, and most importantly, managed to retain its eclectic essence. The pandemic may not yet be over but this Butlin’s bash signifies the beginning of the end of what has been a challenging time for everyone. Roll on Rockaway 2023 and who knows, Kiss Me Quick hats may just be back in fashion by then…
More information about the festival and tickets for 2023 festival available here