Return To Rockaway Beach
Rockaway Beach Festival is into its second year, back at the seaside holiday village of Butlins in sunny Bognor Regis. Having attended the first weekend a year ago, and been excited back then by the clever mix of well-known established artists and yet to be discovered new music, I was very keen to have a return visit.
What I also remember from last year, amidst the haze of hedonistic music greats, was the attendance of a particular cohort of festival-goers. The first Rockaway had attracted men of a certain age and a certain hair/dress code, mainly men who had maybe been born of the 60s or 70s and who were still not quite bang up to date and on target with post-millennium music. This year’s demographic seemed of a similar ilk, but with the cosmic line up of bands who first came to fame in the 80s and 90s that was probably unsurprising.
This year, the foremost attraction for a large proportion of the 'Beachgoers' was the lure of Saturday night's headliners Suede, which did even out the gender divide a tad. In the months leading up to the big weekend there were all sorts of excitable forum posts relabelling the weekend Suedemas, Suedecamp, and Brettlins-on-Sea... but of course that was only one tiny piece of the eclectic Rockaway puzzle.
Additional features for this second event included big screen documentaries alongside Q & A sessions, silent cinema screenings, daily competitions to win band related items, a punk disco, and an increased amount of resident DJs filling the gaps during band changeovers. On top of all this, there was of course all the fun of a Butlins holiday resort, including the pool aka Splash Waterworld, the spa, restaurants, arcades, ten pin bowling, go-karting, and a funfair!! And if by any chance that wasn't enough to fill your days and nights, it was a mere two minute stroll to get to the beach.
But for the majority of music lovers in attendance, there was no reason to leave the resort. Friday's proceedings kicked off with a bang and with a convincingly robust line-up, including Bill Ryder-Jones, Blanck Mass, We Are Scientists, Saint Etienne, Black Honey, and Don Letts. This collection of talent made for some hard decisions about which venue to be in at which time. This year there were only two to choose between, the Centre Stage and Reds nightclub, with the Skyline used only for the film screenings. Luckily, there was also time in the scheduling to ensure that gig clashes weren't too problematic.
One of the highlights of the first day for me was hanging out in the arcades for some afternoon playtime with the awesome threesome We Are Scientists, who were at the starting point of an extensive UK tour. They'd succeeded in winning first prize in a competition to meet one of their fans and play some video games. Which they thoroughly enjoyed and seemed to have had prior experience of, somehow dominating the leader boards on every game that was suggested. They also managed to completely nail their mid-evening set, with some of the sharpest suits and the funkiest moves I’ve seen in ages, and a frontman who thinks nothing of dancing his way through the audience with a gigantic cone perched upon his head.
Prior to that, and slightly more downbeat but nonetheless terrific, Bill Ryder-Jones (previously with The Coral) put in a great appearance. Described by some festival attendees as the male Courtney Barnett of northern England, he wears his heart on his sleeve and delivered a typically low key performance of his tales of the everyday. I think the general reaction to him was ‘awwwww’ (in a good way) and not just because he looked a little like a twelve year old who’s just woken up from a deep slumber with full-on floppy bed hair, wearing his big sister’s checked shirt.
Later on I caught St Etienne's mind-blowing performance of Fox Base Alpha in its mesmerising entirety, which 25 years after its release sounded as beautiful and spellbinding as ever. It also turned out to be the last ever time that this would ever happen (ever), and there was a collective spine tingle repeatedly running through the audience as Sarah Cracknell in a sparkly silver two-piece calmly, mindfully and full of a quiet serenity, made her way through the album.
Black Honey were next for me, down in Reds nightclub, which seemed the perfect setting for their grungy pulp pop. Having just returned from shooting their first video, they exuded an air of insolent insouciance and totally rocked their late night ‘last man standing’ timeslot.
My night (and final festival of the year) was completed with the ever reliable dance-a-thon of a Don Letts set and a good few hugs from his seriously safe hands in between the familiarity of his reggae dub mash up. I acquiesced before my knees did and headed to bed in an actual bed (size: king, sheets: satin-soft, pillows: dreamy – you get my drift, it wasn’t a sleeping bag in a cold damp tent) to recharge for the next day.
Day Two of Rockaway and after a quick refuel in the hotel restaurant with a wide range of continental and cooked breakfast choices, it was time to check out the bits of the festival that weren't musically based. I had my first go on a go-kart track and lashed round those hairpin bends like a wizard on whizz. It was total epicness and actually a lot easier than I had anticipated - two pedals: green for go/red for stop. Definitely worth the small additional charge. From there it was time for some more ‘driving-round-in-circles’ fun with extra wheel spins and a couple of cheeky bumper bumps. The dodgems remained free of charge for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and were a great way to lose the hangover in an instant.
There was no avoiding the fact that Saturday was the big day of the weekend for most, it seemed the Insatiable Ones of the Suede fan club had come well prepared, and dotted around at regular intervals were little notes and posters with witty ripostes reminding us all of the countless Suede hits and the undying love of their fan base. It was all very well done and made for some amusing moments – even the 'Trash' signs stuck onto a couple of the waste bins. There was a hard-core group of barrier babes queued up outside Centre Stage from just after lunchtime and they pretty much stayed on the barricades from the moment doors opened at 3pm through til the close of Suede's set. But more of that later...
They first had to endure the loudness of Bloody Knees who gave it all the hair-swish and all the guitar and were possibly not best suited to open up the main stage. They seemed a little lost amidst the neon and I think would have been better received in the smaller venue at a later hour.
Later on that evening, the king of dub, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry made his presence felt via massive vibrations of love and bass blasting through the airwaves of Reds, before the main event of the evening for a load of excitable Suedeheads. An amazing set from Suede blew everyone clean away. Brett did the thing that only Brett does best, those 49 year old hips still snaking around the stage like the hypnotically seductive Kaa from The Jungle Book. Anderson gripped his fans fingers between his as he sung every word like it was simultaneously the first and the last time. He wriggled free of their clutches and slipped round to the side of the throng for his customary dance through the audience, returning to the stage with his shirt not completely ripped to shreds. The performance was their last UK appearance until some vague time in the long distant future of 2019, so there were more than a few teardrops shed by the hardcore fans present.
Batuk lifted things to the max down in Reds afterwards, frontwoman clad in a ‘leave nothing to the imagination’ red pvc catsuit, and full of bounce and energy. Their highly charged South African techno hip hop jumping and juddering inspired some mega moves from the dancefloor.
Sunday dawned and it was hard to believe that there was still the treat of a full day of music. The sun continued to shine on and at times it felt that the little enclosed resort of Butlins had been completely cut off from the rest of the world for the whole three days, in its own perfect little toy-town bubble of musicality, friendship and appreciation. Being inside an indoors festival - with no tents and no grass -did feel a little bit odd at times over the weekend, because it had the festival ‘feel’ but without all the usual accoutrements. It was slightly harder to build those festival friendships, without the enforced close proximity of tripping over neighbouring guy ropes, or early morning bleary eyed stumbles to the festival loos, but we found a way to share some magical moments - mainly via some loud eighties music pumped over the balcony walls.
The first act of the final day for me was the ever fabulous Membranes backed by a choir who had been pulled together (as last minute replacement for some who couldn’t make it) from local BIMM students and who had rehearsed the songs that afternoon in the Membranes chalet! If you haven’t spotted it yet, check out their awesome video clip of the rehearsal taking place. They kept it tight during the performance and their wide eyed ‘can’t quite believe I’m doing this’ ooohs and aaahs added a magical touch of tenderness to the occasion.
The big headline act of Sunday night on the main stage was Killing Joke, a band whose name I knew but who I’ve never had the pleasure to witness live before. These fans seemed even more fanatical than the Brett babes but in a more indestructible and rigid manner. Whereas the Suede lot had baked cookies, and decorated their rooms and corridors with arty posters, the Killing Joke contingent had painted leather jackets with the name of the band, eyeliner sweat and tears running down their faces, and probably a few with Killing Joke permanently inked upon their bodies somewhere or other. On this occasion, having been advised by a couple of the Killing Joke hard-core to go into it with totally fresh ears and eyes, and knowing nothing of the sound beforehand, I was met with an irrepressibly and irresistible regime of militant marching madness.
The fans loved every minute, and I must admit even I got swept along on the wild wave of it all. Before the intensity of it all overtook me and I ended up with an impromptu Jaz tattoo, I made a quick dash to catch some of Cat’s Eyes (with Faris Badwan from The Horrors). The final couple of songs sounded very pretty in a chimey and xylophoney kind of way, and exactly as I would have imagined. I shot straight back up to the DJ set from Chris Geddes (Belle and Sebastian) and a little bit of a dance off with some familiar faces from the first Rockaway Beach last year. Final band of the festival Man of Moon closed things up with a welcome kick up the backside for some of the older demographic. This Scottish two piece rock of the indie variety had all the reverb and sonic sounds, and gave a final assurance to everyone there that there is life and music after the year 1998. Then it was time to finish the weekend in style with some Mario Kart gaming and a bit of pool (as in billiards not swimming… I think that would have been ill advised and a dangerous way to end what had been a stunningly good weekend of indie-tastic fun).
Rockaway Beach is due to return for its third year some time, some place in 2017, and let’s hope that the good ship Rockaway continues its voyage for all the mis-shapes, mistakes, and misfits out there who were raised on diets of broken biscuits and who can’t find their lipgloss anywhere… hint hint… can we have Jarvis and a Pulp reunion next year please?
Photos by Tony Jupp