Words by Adam Hammond, Pictures by Adam Hammond & Guy Christie
For the second year Butlins have arranged three music weekends that matter. Perhaps only two of these will develop strong identities given that the Skegness punk weekend will always lie in the shadow of Rebellion. With Shiiine On focussing on Britpop and the more conventional side of the indie spectrum, Rockaway Beach has the chance of developing into something very special indeed. Don’t throw that chance away…
It took a lot of persuading before we ventured out to the first Rockaway Beach back in October 2015. There’s something about the words ‘alternative’ and ‘festival’ that cause us wobbles at an existential level. After all, we are of the generation who rejected mainstream culture and the pathetic hopping around from one fad to another, be it mod, new romantic or whatever. Music was too important to be juggled around with the latest fashions. It was the central part of our lives and we looked for more than throwaway moments: experimentation, daring, intelligence, poetry and, above all things, integrity. For the die-hard indie-kid (for want of a better term) the greatest crime was to sell out, to prostitute your art for commercial and financial success. Them was the rules and you lived or died by them. So, an indie festival at Butlins sounded like something out of our worst nightmares. For us, music is a living thing; it can never be nostalgia and can never be pedalled as such by any corporation.
Aside from this (very important) point, there was no reason why such an event, done properly, could not be a major success. For our culture was not some flash-in-the-pan fad but a way of life for a vast amount of people over very many years. We had three national weekly papers writing solely (and often brilliantly) about our music and they sold tens of thousands of copies a week. We were legion, and though our musical obsessions largely dictated how we dressed, how we thought about the world, and who were to be our friends, it was a culture that was surprisingly widely based and inclusive. You could share the vision yet listen to disparate bands, from St Christopher to St Etienne, and The Birthday Party to Dead Can Dance. No indie band drew the same scorn as any from the hated mainstream. This meant that the numbers for such an event were certainly there, and the question for the organisers was how to lure in a group who could be alienated very easily.
For us, there were two major stumbling blocks. First, this event could in no way be anything like the corporate hippy wank fest at Glastonbury, and secondly, any old bands had to be relevant and still making music, and they had to be joined by new bands who were keeping the flame alive. Most of us think of Butlins as the last resort of the fat and faded stars of yesteryear, trying to eke out a living on the holiday camp circuit. It was vital our bands were not being used as a sideshow for half-enebriated holidaymakers to leer at, staggering around the dancefloor in a grotesque pisstake when a song was played they half remembered. The bands had to be centre stage and all vestiges of holiday camp life eradicated: no stag parties, no screaming kids, no muscle-flexing adolescents. And certainly no attempts to herd us into groups of happy campers and corporate playthings.
In many ways the first Rockaway Beach was a success. There were no intruding sponsors, there were no tents and mud, the bands were largely still relevant and played in decent venues with good sound systems. And though it is probably ingrained in the Butlins’ psyche, attempts to push the attendees into one happy herd were fairly easily repelled. The question was whether Butlins could build on this first venture and make the second Rockaway Beach a bigger success.
The proper kind of marketing was crucial for this and, for many, it left a lot to be desired. If we had not been present at the first outing, we doubt very much whether we would have been persuaded to turn up at the second. Why would anyone describe the event as its ‘sophomore’ outing? The word is not even British and only serves to conjure up visions of over-privileged American college kids and their fraternity larks. It was a given this weekend would largely attract the 40- 50- and 60-year-old original indie-kids, so why paint pictures of everything they would hate? And would those with the remotest knowledge of the alternative music scene describe a 2,000 capacity venue as ‘intimate’? For us, intimate is fifteen people in a front room, fifty in a grotty underground cellar or maybe a hundred in some pub’s back room. You could go to twenty indie gigs and not see enough people to fill Butlins Centre Stage. Nice as it undoubtedly is, the room is at the smaller end of a large venue, or a top-of-the-range medium-sized venue, the sort of place you may go to once in every fifty gigs for a major act. Little points, perhaps, but certainly ones that could affect a touchy audience, as were publishing lists of bands you must not miss. As well as list journalism being laziness disguised as inclusivity (and a large part of the downfall of the great music papers), being instructed always raises the hackles and the inevitable response was the potential audience pointing out they would miss exactly who they wanted. Yes, write about the bands and tell us why they are good, but do it for all of them. Remember you are aiming at probably the most musically-educated audience in the history of popular music, able to make their own decisions.
Small things, perhaps, but things that grated with us and others we spoke to at Bognor. Why market anything in a way that is going to piss off your potential audience? How many people didn’t come to the second Rockaway Beach because the promoters blatantly failed to point out the things that really mattered: decent rooms you could fall into in the early hours without a long journey; clean sound and venues; and decent bars to meet up with friends you haven’t seen for ages. Let’s face it, Rockaway Beach is an amazing place for a social weekend with your mates. It’s almost as important as the music. But the music … “Rockaway Beach, just look at the fucking line-up”. Surely as a strap line it would have worked better? The marketing obviously failed and places were not completely filled as evidenced by a number of stag parties traipsing through the venues, laughing at people for wanting to attend a music weekend. Some of these people were dressed as penises….
If they cocked up in some ways, you could not fault Butlins for the line-up, a great selection of bands and a good mixture of important old hands and rising stars. Personally, we could have done without the electronica, but the inclusion of a reggae act was a good move; the alternative scene always having a high regard for such music. This year only two venues were in operation and the number of bands had been halved. This meant there were fewer clashes (one of the pains of 2015) and though some bands overlapped in playing time, you could generally get to see at least half a performance if you could not make it all. Both the Centre Stage and Reds are decent venues with good sound systems and generally accessible bars. Reds has roughly half the capacity of the big stage, so it was still capable of hosting a large amount of people, and The Skyline Pavilion was used only for showing films.
Our weekend began early, departing our home in north-west Wales at half past five and making Butlins around five in the evening following a couple of decent breaks. Check-in at the Ocean Hotel was easy, the staff helpful as ever, and our room (pictured) similar to last year’s, with a balcony, double and twin beds. It really is everything you could need for the weekend; you drag yourself out of it in the morning after a hot shower and don’t see it again until you roll in after two the following morning, collapse into the comfortable bed, and attempt to watch the annoying television that seems determined never to switch on. All the rest is bands, mates, booze and laughter.
The music begins for us on the Centre Stage with Nottingham’s Kagoule at five o’clock. It’s a big arena for the three-piece we had only witnessed before in a tiny room at Southsea and we are interested in seeing how they perform with a decent PA on a large stage. One surprise as we walk to the front is that the metal platform of the stage barrier is already sticky to the feet though no bands have yet played. It is a surprise it had not been cleaned before the event got underway for generally Butlins is spotless, though the stickiness did bring back memories of a myriad of tiny venues from past adventures where the flooring was little more than reeking flypaper.
We couldn’t have wished for a better start. There are few bands as gloriously awkward as Kagoule and the large injection of American influence into their naturally jagged sound has led to some tastily rough and robust songs. There are big Nirvana opening chords, some Smashing Pumpkins rhythms and Fugazi stutterings, all unusual at the current time when most new bands are delving into the post-punk and shoegaze archives. Kagoule’s 2015 debut album Urth was a bit of a stunner, but the band are already moving on with the inclusion of some new songs, and it appears to be not before time as bassist Lucy Hatter complains of the brilliant ‘Made Of Concrete’ that “it seems like I have been playing this my entire life.” There is no doubt that Hatter is the main focal point of the band’s live performance, with vocalist and guitarist Cai Burns chained to the microphone, and despite only just coming off crutches following a badly sprained ankle, the bassist throws herself around the stage with reckless abandon. She protests she is usually more mobile, but runs up more miles than most other musicians manage over the weekend.
There’s other things to do, but we are here to enjoy ourselves and our small band of mates pass some time in the pub before heading out again to Reds to catch The Wedding Present at nine-thirty. It would take a hard-hearted person indeed not to enjoy The Wedding Present and the added bonus is that this performance comes on the back of a fine new album release and the set includes a pretty splendid mixture of tunes from the band’s very first single, ‘Go Out and Get ’Em, Boy’, to their latest, ‘Bear’, which sounds fantastic and is surely one of their greatest ever songs. The venue is packed but the audience is full of first night excitement and there is a lot of chatting going on. Perhaps singer David Gedge picks up on this as he asks the audience how he is doing and whether they are enjoying the set. Halfway through, the whole back section of the crowd peels off and heads out of the door to catch St Etienne and the atmosphere immediately improves, left as it is with the diehard Weddoes’ fans. Gedge responds and the last half of the set is blinding, with the singer lost in the moment as he hammers at his guitar strings and narrates his tales of heartache. He’s certainly fond of Butlins as he tells us his parents met in such a holiday camp and he wouldn’t exist without it, and as the band launch into a mammoth, breathtaking rendition of ‘Take Me!’ you start to ponder whether there is anything better in this world than the never-ending rush of clattering guitars.
We may have seen the Weddoes countless times, but we still leave the venue fully charged as we head upstairs where St Etienne are already halfway into their set, apparently the final ever live performance of debut album Foxbase Alpha. The Centre Stage is nicely crowded and the sound is great, yet we find it difficult to get as enthused as much of the audience. This is not a riveting live band, so enjoyment stems from the music more than the performance and we never really fell for their dance, ambient house, indie hybrid sound. Of course the album was recorded before Sarah Cracknell was an official band member and she sits out half of the tracks leaving even less of a focal point. We wander out before the end, leaving the grooving masses to it.
The socialising continues, so we are still awake by half past midnight when we head back to Reds to catch Black Honey. It looks as though they will be hitting the stage late as Multibird are still playing and it takes a lot of will not to head off to bed to avoid having to listen to their dreadful country-folk poison. Thankfully they finally stop and the latest bright young things take to the stage. We were surprised to see the band had been given the graveyard slot on the first night, but the venue fills up nicely and is surprisingly full as the Brighton quartet kick off. We feel they are slow off the mark tonight, but they soon warm up and it is easy to see why their melodic, slightly angular, guitar pop is so appealling; their songs are simple at heart and decorated by flashes of inspirational guitar from Chris Ostler that build on the appeal of Izzy Baxter’s just left-of-centre vocals.
Saturday’s events begin in the Skyline with the screening of Suede’s Night Thoughts film followed by a Q&A with director Roger Sargent. It seems a strange place for the film as the Pavilion is so light, those of us at the side can barely see an image on the screen, the film shot as it is in fifty shades of grey. In a darkened cinema it would have been terrific; as it is we enjoy listening to the grandeur of the album in all of its epic, orchestral glory.
At half past five it is time to head over to Reds to catch Clinic and once again applaud whoever it was who put together the weekend’s line-up. Clinic’s quirky electronic rock is just the ticket for getting the juices flowing for the day, and for a band over thirty years in the making, the Liverpool quartet still put in a terrific shift, visually startling in their hospital scrubs and sonically intriguing in the myriad of small and mysterious instruments they employ. The band swap instruments as a matter of course, yet maintain the same cutting sound with Ade Blackburn’s burning vocals rooting you to the spot.
It’s a struggle to tear ourselves away, but we are hoping to get a good spot for Wire at the Centre Stage and nip out one song from the end. Wire, of course, are a band who understand exactly how to respond to an indie festival and play a set of uncompromising songs, many of them new. The band who famously pissed off John Peel by recording a fifteen-minute dirge instead of four listenable tracks for one of his sessions, now piss off most of the audience by again neglecting to play anything most would have heard before. “Hello campers,” exclaims Colin Newman before the band launch into what is a loud and blistering set. He’s dressed for the seaside in a kiss me quick hat, but the brass band on the prom are unlikely to be playing covers of these songs, which range from frantic punk blasts to slow and sinister killers. It’s loud and venomous and quite staggeringly good. That a band of their pedigree are busy producing some of the best music of their career is heartening to see and also says a lot for the input of Matthew Simms, the new boy who taps away at a myriad of pedals and lays down waves of sonic abuse on which old hands Newman, Graham Lewis and Robert Grey build their art.
As we emerge from the Centre Stage we bump into Inca Babies main man Harry Stafford who has turned up to play the following day with The Membranes as regular guitarist Pete Byrchmore has not been able to get away for the gig. We find Membranes’ drummer Rob Haynes nearby and head off for some drinks, food and socialising which means we miss Jah Wobble and only get back to Reds in time for Lee Scratch Perry at half past nine. The legendary reggae man is now eighty but looks the business and the audience enjoy the set, though we find it a little dislocated and so head off back to the Centre Stage to grab a good spot for Suede.
Since their reformation in 2010 Suede have worked hard to develop their live act and though they have always been a fine watch it has been obvious over the past couple of years that they have become the best show in town. We urge our non-Suede loving companions not to miss this moment and to a man (and woman) they admit to being blown away. Suede are immense. In the two years of attending Rockaway Beach they are the only band who have made the Centre Stage look small and (rather harshly) rub it in by comparing it to a Student Union venue. There are certainly more people in attendance than we have seen before and there’s little doubt it is this band who have brought in more women and more youth than any other on the bill. It’s a great testament to a group who disappeared for so long that they are attracting a growing following and, unusually, they have retained their alternative credibility despite notching up three number one albums. To their followers, Suede remain fellow outsiders and the bond between them is strong.
The set, as always, is an immaculate choice of new and old, fast and slow. Brett Anderson is such a captivating frontman he can hold an audience in his pocket even in the slowest of songs and disappears into the crowd on a regular basis in the faster numbers. The rest of the band run through the set with easy grace: Mat Osman holds some fine shapes as he poses with his bass; Neil Codling captures the essence of a young Paul Kossoff as he strums along, all long hair and myopia; and Simon Gilbert lays down the beat with an unconcerned air. Only guitarist Richard Oakes is animated as he flays, pokes and caresses his instrument. He’s a terrific player and how lucky were the band to find him after the loss of their original, errant tunesmith.
It is easy to forget just how many great singles Suede have to their credit and the venue erupts to each one: ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘The Drowners’, ‘Metal Mickey’, ‘So Young’, ‘Filmstar’, ‘Lazy’, but as always it is ‘Trash’ that moves the audience like no other and the venue rocks to its foundations. As the band emerge for their encore they state this will be their last gig for a long time as they will be taking two years off. It’s a terrible shame, but another album is promised and it will take some work to truly better Night Thoughts.
There are bands still to play and we had thought of doing more, but how the hell could anyone follow such a performance? It isn’t for us so we hit the bars and chat, eat Prague burgers and eventually roll into bed.
We leave the bar early Sunday afternoon to dine at Turner’s and enjoy a terrific Sunday lunch. Butlins provides mainly pub food or TV dinners, so it is good to enjoy some decently cooked vegetables and some great wine and company. Some of our group dash off to see the opening of the Killing Joke film ‘The Death & Resurrection Show’ while others eat dessert and take things more leisurely. It is easier to make out the film in the Skyline as it is shot more boldly and vividly than the Suede picture and it truly is a remarkable achievement, immensely detailed and never once letting your attention drift. We can’t sit and watch it in its entirety, however, as there are bands to see and Joanna Gruesome are kicking off at Reds at four o’clock.
The last time we had tickets for a Gruesome gig, it was sadly postponed so this is the first chance we have had to catch the band since the departure of singer Alanna McArdle and her replacement with Kate Stonestreet and Roxy Brennan. We haven’t realised that time is getting on and have just ordered a pitcher of Mojito at the bar when we see we have only five minutes to get to the venue, so we charge down to Reds with pints of cocktails in our hands which certainly helps liven us up after the heavy lunch. It’s delightful to say that JG are as brilliant as ever, bouncing round the stage infectiously and creating one hell of a racket. The guitars are way too loud, making the vocals virtually inaudible, and most of them are sung with backs to the audience. Gruesome’s performances so capture the essence of punk gigs of old, it is truly heartwarming, and guitarist-joint vocalist Owen is brilliant to watch as he looks as though he is on another planet entirely. A major highlight of the weekend, without a doubt.
Six o’clock is time for The Membranes on the Centre Stage. Last year the band played a storming set at Reds and were happily called back for a second go this time around. It is incredible the impact made by Dark Matter/Dark Energy, the band’s first new album in some twenty-five years, as it has taken The Membranes from an entertaining night out to major players on the alternative music scene. Such is the scale and ambition of the album that it lends itself to all manner of interpretations, with a double album of remixes on its way, and performances across Europe in the company of choirs behind them. Tonight the band are joined by singers from the British and Irish Modern Music Institute and though this means the guitars of Nick Brown and stand-in Harry Stafford are slightly toned down, the combination works extraordinarily well. The scope of DM/DE is staggering and it is a testament to the blind stupidity of the Mercury Prize judges that this album did not make the shortlist of finalists. If it is not there to celebrate innovation and ambition, then the award is a pointless heap of junk.
Membranes’ singer John Robb is a born showman and, despite his punk credentials, a little bit rock and roll. He likes to chat a lot and involve the audience in proceedings and they join in willingly as the choir warbles, Brown and Stafford wreak hell with six strings apiece, and Rob Haynes calmly keeps everything in check behind the drums. Robb barely looks at his bass, though its heavy lines define the shape of the music, so at unity is he with his creation. It’s another terrific set and the inclusion of a new song shows that The Membranes, with their most accomplished line-up to date, appear to be in it for the long haul which is good news for all.
We remain glued to the front of the stage for the final band of the weekend and if there was ever an answer to the thorny question of how on god’s earth anyone could follow Suede, about the only band capable of doing so are Killing Joke. Back with their original line-up for a while now, and some thirty-six years since they unleashed their powerful eponymous debut album, the band are making music as harrowing and spellbinding as they ever did and their dark warnings seem even more relevant in a world tottering on the brink of the abyss. They are certainly riveting to watch.
Singer Jaz Coleman stalks the stage in a puppet dance, eyes black rimmed and staring. He’s lost in the music that engulfs him as he calls out his vocals and cuts a perpetually menacing figure. The audience are held in his grip, singing with him, chanting with him, and calling out at his will. The band’s formula may appear deceptively simple: huge bludgeoning guitar riffs with funky bass accompaniment and chanted lyrics that drag people in, but it’s all far more complex than it first appears. Geordie Walker, dressed in grey like a Victorian prisoner, weaves all manner of intricacies into his guitar work, and does it with such deceptive ease that he appears to play as simply as he breathes. Paul Ferguson builds the tribal rhythms on his drums and Youth reinforces their power by gracing them with reverberating, black melodies. The sound is huge, yet Coleman is forever the focal point, singing, calling, threatening and cajoling.
The set list contains a long line of favourites, including the singles ‘Empire Song’, ‘Eighties’ and ‘Pssyche’, along with ‘Beautiful Dead’ from the great Extremities album and recent favourite ‘I Am The Virus’ from the band’s 2015 release Pylon. It all ends in a blistering finale with three tracks from the first two albums: ‘Unspeakable’, ‘Wardance’ and ‘The Wait’, all still cutting deeply despite being recorded nearly four decades ago.
And so Rockaway Beach comes to an end. We stay up chatting until security throw us out of the Skyline at half past two in the morning and stroll back to our rooms. One last attempt to rouse the television ends in failure and we awake Monday morning, meet for a last (distinctly average, self-served) breakfast, and plan the mammoth journey home.
It’s been a fantastic weekend, one of the best we have ever experienced, and that is down to two things. First, the stellar line-up of bands Butlins have managed to put together and, secondly, the social side of meeting up with old and new mates and enjoying the music together. For Butlins, the task is a relatively simple one: provide the facilities and leave the rest to us. Hopefully Rockaway Beach will continue in 2017 and hopefully this time the marketing will attract enough numbers so the pricks can be left outside the doors. Or perhaps Butlins are more comfortable with that brand of punter, for as we leave our hotel room we see stacks of Bibles outside every room. They had obviously been removed for us ungodly bastards and are now being returned to service the normal people. And we thought we were the ones touched by grace.
Previously published at Isolation Records here
: The Sussex, UK-based Independent record label (2005-2010) now operates as a totally independent comprehensive music web resource featuring (largely) independent music, past & present, highlighting the best of new releases & important reissues from any era and any genre of music (and live / festival reviews worthy of a jaunt.)
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With thanks to Adam Hammond and Guy Christie