W Fest in deepest Belgium, sits 30km from the French border, and now in its third year is becoming a major draw for music fans of all ages with a dark side (with a strong showing of 50-somethings). My failed attempts to land the job of stage presenter resulted in me being offered campsite manager, a role new to me but nothing ventured etc. so I accepted.
“Goths” have been picked on and derided since day-one, because basically they’re an easy target, and this undeserved vilification has if anything, just galvanised their resolve, creating a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of outsiders. Most generations believe their adolescent music was the best; the difference with this group is they know it.
Many put up tents but the majority occupy motorhomes, caravans and festihuts. it’s not glamping as such, more just common sense and for some the onset of middle-age. My role requires me to be up and at ’em by eight ‘o clock and the place is already becoming a hive of activity. At ten a DJ arrives and plays Die Krupps, Ultravox and Xmal Deutchland until the festival site opens at noon.
The feeling of inclusion and kinship is enormous. Younger festival-goers are warmly accepted, the old guard are respected, and whilst receding hairlines and ageing bodies attempt (and fail) to stem this rebellious yet benign spirit, the black t-shirt reigns glorious as the ubiquitous freak-flag code. Every band allegiance is proudly displayed, admired and acknowledged – the more obscure the better. I’m beginning to regret packing so many hawaiian shirts.
Onsite, the industrial electro-body music crowd are catered for in the Wave Cave, while the Synth Scene plays host to 80s popstars with a mostly electronic hue. Two identical multi turreted marquees nestling in the countryside. From a distance it looks like The Great British Batcave Off.
So what attracts people here from the UK, the States and mainland Europe? The bands of course, groups they saw as teenagers, who were back then as lean, taut and wickedly subversive as themselves. An eternal love-affair consumated on the ruined altar of chorus-guitar, hairspray, make-up and snakebite & black. But also for the older throng here, it’s a giant playground where they can re-live those days surrounded by like-minded people. It’s quite intoxicating, and as a Goth myself in 1981, at the age of 17, I feel like I’ve been welcomed back into the fold.
A massive coup for this year is the addition of an extra night with the stand-alone show ‘40 Years of Bauhaus with Peter Murphy and David J’. You would imagine that many would forgo this extra expense on top of the initial festival outlay, but Murphy is the poster boy of the entire movement (literally – his participation in the Memorex ad campaign – much to the chagrin of his bandmates – featuring him sat in an armchair bombarded by sound, remains hauntingly iconic even still) so the event is well attended. Despite a slightly shaky start with ‘Double Dare’, things soon pick up a gear, Murphy’s voice as commanding and timeless as the music. He’s always been a gaunt figure, and now with waxed moustache and Van Dyke beard, he comes across as a malevolent impish shaman, though he’s still surprisingly nimble despite his advancing years.
David J, in Ray-Bans and with a bass simply looks the same, but his basslines are sublime as ever. Accompanied by an accomplished guitarist and drummer, they fire through a gamut of classics, reminding everyone of just how fabulous they were. It’s hard to pick a standout track, but the stark simplicity of ‘Boys’ is majestic, and of course ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, a song like no other before or since, by anyone. It’s an electrifying performance, culminating in the covers ‘Telegram Sam’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’. They could have served up a mediocre rehash and this crowd would’ve lapped it up, but instead it’s incendiary. So, things are off to a good start.
The first official day of the festival is a real mixed bag (in a good way). My duties prevent me from seeing The Wedding Present and Wang Chung but I catch A Split Second, just in time to hear ‘Flesh’, a track that when famously played at the wrong speed (33 instead of 45), single handedly launched the Belgian New Beat movement.
What do God and Midge Ure have in common? They both crucified their only son. His version of ‘Vienna’ is butchered by superfluous guitar histrionics, and such is his colossal ego that his guitar and voice are massively over-loud in the mix, making the rest of his band sound like they’re playing in the next field. Gleefully rewriting history in his own name, he claims sole songwriting credit for ‘Fade to Grey’ (which he also mangles), and makes constant references to “really really auld Ultravox tracks”, conveniently airbrushing John Foxx’s superior predecessors out of the picture. I decide to hightail it in case he breaks into ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’
Chameleons Vox in the Wave Cave deliver a faultless set, Mark Burgess’ voice still a thing of Northern beauty, and over on the other stage DAF, now consisting solely of singer Gabi Delgado is a disappointment. The backing tracks are impeccable and his voice also, but the whole thing reeks a little of desperate cabaret.
Day two for me starts with Anabella’s Bow Wow Wow. She’s no longer 15 and we all get that, but the way she tugs nervously at her mini-skirt while voicing the fact unnerves a little. She plays too little in the way of her old group’s repertoire, instead focusing on new or solo material, and bless this crowd they give it so much appreciation. But despite her looking fab, the omission of ‘Chihuahua’ and ‘Go Wild in the Country’ is a step too far at an event like this in my opinion, ‘I Want Candy’ being her parting gift.
Slightly later,Die Krupps really bring the noise, the singer knocking the hell out of what looks like a giant xylophone made out of rusty drainpipes. It’s loud, aggressive and German and in these parts that’s a winning combination. If that’s your thing (and it seems to be most people’s thing) then I imagine few bands are better at it. My heart leaps to hear their big hit ‘Wahre Arbeit Wahrer Lohn’ as it really is the icepick in the forehead, so it’s quite a juxtaposition to venture to the other tent.
The sinking feeling of has-been indulgence could be a risk, but at the end of the day it’s anybody’s game; if they’re willing to raise it, so pleasant surprises lurk at every corner. A case in point being ABC. They could’ve gone down the “dust off an old suit and stick on a backing tape” route but instead they choose the smarter option. Namely hire top-flight musicians, rehearse ’til you drop and give those old songs the setting they deserve, so classics like ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘All of My Heart’ and ‘The Look of Love’ are magnificent. Slick is an understatement, this is masterclass.
Not long after, it’s Kim Wilde, who it’s scientifically proven it’s impossible not to love, and who like Anabella before her, is un-necessarilly apologetic for the sin of getting older. Poppycock, both ladies are like fine wine in that department. It’s a warm, genuine performance, littered with hits (‘Cambodia’, ‘Water on Glass’) and the tenner down the back of the sofa feeling that hits us all with ‘Kids in America’ is worth the ticket stub alone.
Day three I catch some Katrina (of The Waves…they wrote ‘Going Down to Liverpool’!) and a little Department S, before returning to the campsite, where lovely couples who could be my sister’s neighbours (but secretly harbouring black hearts wrapped in barbed wire) engage me in conversation about Fad Gadget, then buy me beers.
A late dash back ensues, where Heaven 17 are opening their set with The Human League song ‘Circus of Death’, flanked by two girl backing singers who dance in a strangely un-choreographed manner. Hhhhmm. Kudos for all dressing in W-Fest t-shirts however. Marsh and Ware probably thought they were doing something slick and jolly clever in 1980, pulling the rug from under Oakey, leaving him with naught but a slide projectionist and an impending breach of contract, little realising that if you look up “charisma” in a dictionary, there’s a picture of Phil. They’ve been playing catch-up ever since, and as their ex-band member tours the globe to resounding acclaim, they come across as chancers, blowing their redundancy money on booze and fags. ‘Facist Groove Thang’ and ‘Temptation’ aside, the deepest dig into their back catalogue can’t hold a candle to what they threw away. Karma’s a bitch.
LImahl looks genuinely surprised to be here, like someone’s woken him up in a mid-transatlantic flight, but he can still work a crowd. The one Kajagoogoo album and a brace of solo singles isn’t enough to carry an hour set, so raids the coffers of his 80s contemporaries, Duran Duran, Soft Cell and Joe Jackson. It’s well executed but it’s all padding until he gets to the big money shot that is ‘Too Shy’.
Over on the dark side, Turkish band She Past Away play an accomplished and melodic set, that’s musically entrenched in The Cure’s ‘Charlotte Sometimes’, and sometimes that’s just what you need. It goes down a storm and deservedly so.
They’re followed by Front Line Assembly, who should be awesome, as onstage they have enough firepower to reduce a small village to rubble. But despite this juggernaut, they never really get out of second gear, when if they’d only hit the throttle they could slice everyone’s brains into coleslaw. The lightshow and projections elevate the madness somewhat, but I leave feeling slightly shortchanged on the psychological bruising.
Sunday morning and hats off to Captain Sensible, he’s a delight as ever. Punk’s most under-rated guitarist, he’s juggling extensive tour dates with The Damned but still squeezes in this appearance, and his set features some of their numbers. Opening with the MC5 cover from ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’, ‘Looking at You’, he fires into an incendiary ‘Neat Neat Neat’, then ‘Jet Boy Jet Girl’, which of course is an anglophone version of ‘Ca Plane Pour Moi’. His shrewd morphing of one into the other wins over the Belgian crowd even further, and ‘Wot’ and ‘Glad it’s all Over’ seal the deal. He claims to have found his backing band the day before, and it’s fair to say they look a motley crew, with a Lemmy-esque bassist and foxy 60s chick on synth but they deliver the goods.
The day continues to unfold with solid sets from Marc Almond, Duel (ex-Propaganda) and Vive La Fete, and no doubt many others but one can’t be everywhere at once, and suddenly it’s all over.
W Fest is a winning formula. Either immerse yourself in leather-clad throbbing industrial beats, or bask in 80s nostalgia. Next years line-up is already semi-confirmed with equally big hitters onboard (Stranglers, Killing Joke, The Human League) so there’s a real chance in a very short time of it becoming the gothic Tomorrowland.
I could include pictures of the bands with this review, but you can find them easily online. For me the real stars of this festival were the crowd (and a tip of the hat to the organisers for creating something it was a privilege to be part of, that’s only going to get better and better).