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Things Learned At: Rockaway Beach
Patrick Clarke , October 21st, 2016 13:02

At this year's annual Bognor pilgrimage, Patrick Clarke finds a Suede on compellingly romantic form (even for Suede), a rampant Killing Joke (accompanied by rampant Killing Joke merchandise), and a strange reverence for Butlin's tradition. Photographs by Maria Jefferis

Killing Joke own the show from day one

After checking in to the surprisingly agreeable Ocean Hotel in Butlin’s Bognor Regis resort on Friday afternoon – and admiring, aside from the complementary ‘build your own towel crab’ set and colour-changing bath lights, our view of the park’s slightly-faded funfair – out of the early-comers meandering around the attractions about a third don Killing Joke t-shirts. Though the band aren’t due to play until Sunday night, it’s the de facto dress code for the festival throughout the next three days, no two tour shirts exactly alike, and even those draped in the merch of other heritage acts are quick to proclaim their undying love and affection for the group, spinning yarns of the band’s manic sets in days past.

As for the Killing Joke of today, it’s fair to say the group are entering something of a renaissance since the reformation of their original line-up in 2008. On stage, a boiler-suited Coleman prowls, marches and salutes with those unhinged eyes as wide and feverish as ever, commanding an enraptured throng into ferocious pumps of the fist as they hurtle through a good old-fashioned bludgeoning of a set. Opening with arguably their two biggest hits, ‘Love Like Blood and Eighties’, the rest of the show remains at the heaviest end of the spectrum, Geordie Walker’s hallowed hollow Gibson pummelling through renditions of ‘Requiem’, ‘Bloodsport’, and an explosive ‘Wardance’ with the same essential sense of vitality as he lends ‘Dawn of the Hive’ and ‘I Am The Virus’ from last year’s Pylon LP. It takes the edge off a little that only a select few of the crowd are prepared to go quite as feral as they once might – one of whom is spotted slumped against a Rollover hot dog stall by midnight – but Coleman and co. play nothing short of a blinder.

And they’re inviting us all on a fishing trip

As a warm-up for the show, on Sunday morning punters were treated to a screening of long-awaited documentary The Death and Resurrection Show, a superbly made journey through Killing Joke’s headspinning history of occultism, genius, insanity and power, and subsequently a Q and A with Coleman himself. The interview is as engaging as their headline set, with the frontman offering sage advice for the young: “If you want to be a writer then just get the phone numbers of your ten favourite authors and harass them until they speak to you”; the revelation that the band had spies in the press to tip them off about narrow minded hacks: “when we felt there was [a journalist] being insincere towards us they used get the full works, a nice little reception waiting for them. I can’t really mention what we did in public”; and proclamations that “we’re moving into tyranny, an electromagnetic prison close to absolute technocratic fascism.”

Perhaps the highlight of the conversation comes at the very beginning, however. When asked about finally finding an ending to some years of film-making, Coleman explains that the cameras will keep rolling throughout next year. “We’re starting the Killing Joke fishing club in June, which I’d encourage you all to join. We’re going to the Azores and the masterplan is we do three days of fishing and then and have fish and chips for the DJ,” he says with a smile, but what seems like sincerity, as well as a communal experience in India scheduled for November. Any potential attendees are asked to message the band through Facebook.

It’s the last we’ll see of Suede for three years

Thanks to an influx of Hawaiian-shirted stag dos and day-ticketers, Suede’s Saturday set is similarly greeted with an eager sea of spectators. The hits roll with the same anthemic glamour of old, but it’s the sets more poignant moments that shine more than any other. “It reminds me of when we used to play student unions… like It’s nice to look back sometimes,” says a wistful Brett Anderson of the venue’s décor as he takes a breather, and even for Suede there’s an added edge of romance to this particular set.

Stunning, tender renditions of ‘By the Sea’ and ‘My Dark Star’ are show stopping, the latter dedicated to the band’s hardcore travelling fans who’ve laid claim to the front row, until the frontman drops the bombshell that this is likely to be their last show until 2019. The dismay in the crowd, by this point in love for the umpteenth time with the group, is more palpable than the usual pantomime boos that often greet such stage patter, and it lends an edge of glorious melancholy to the remainder of the set. The good news is that the break is to create space for a brand new studio album. Should it be as good as January’s Night Thoughts, the accompanying Roger Sargent-directed film of which was screened earlier that day, it’ll be well worth the wait.

Damo Suzuki’s soundcheck is a set all in itself

As Sunday evening grinds into gear, a sizeable crowd flock to the Reds stage to catch the masterful Damo Suzuki’s ‘Network’ show, an uninterrupted and entirely improvised piece in collaboration with Glasgow’s St Deluxe. At their scheduled 7pm arrival the group stand on stage, immersed in a hypnotic low drone that’s enough to entrance much of the crowd, though after 15 minutes there’s a murmur of concern as Suzuki exchanges words with his band and they promptly down tools. ‘I was enjoying that…’ grumbles one man to another in the crowd as they withdraw to the smoking area, vapes aloft, before the singer returns to quickly remind us that the stage is running behind schedule, informing us with a nervous grin that ‘that was just a soundcheck, we’ll be back in ten minutes.’

If the preparation for the set was pleasant hypnosis, the gig itself is a thing of pure magnificence, Suzuki’s meek words to the audience earlier juxtaposed with a monolithic presence at centre stage. St Deluxe, though half the Can legend’s age, match him on every level, unravelling fluid, biting rolls of ceaseless, heady abstraction that it’s a heartbreak to depart for Killing Joke an hour later.

Butlin’s live venues are a hidden gem

Though something akin to a colossal motorway service station from the outside, complete with Burger King, arcade machines and super-sized Spar garage, the two stages at Butlin’s Bognor Regis are blessed with flawless acoustics, cheap(ish) pints and that elusive middle ground between intimacy and openness amid bands and audience.

In the smaller Reds stage Blanck Mass’ superb Friday set is lent all the ear-splitting volume it deserves to cause permanent eardrum damage, while upstairs at Centre Stage Bill Ryder-Jones opens our festival with an extended set of sweeping melancholia that’s perfect for the room’s widescreen aesthetics. In the same room on Saturday, Wire’s steadfast refusal to play anything the majority of the crowd have heard of is validated by the soundsystem’s extra edge of icy brilliance to their matchless musicianship, while Jah Wobble’s Reds performance quickly becomes the talk of the weekend amongst those attendant.

Without Butlin’s there’d be no Wedding Present

Without any under-18s permitted at the festival, the Butlin’s bubble can be a bizarre place to spend a weekend, with a mixture of ironic appreciation for the camp’s uniquely English seaside charms and Stockholm syndrome in the air amongst the attendees. The bands too are keen to address the setting; “forget where you are” says Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman in what feels a veiled reference to the venue, while Suede’s rendition of ‘By The Sea’ is granted an extra ring of significance by the Bognor beach outside.

The Wedding Present’s David Gedge, however, is ready to remind us that the holiday camp holds a special place in his heart, telling us “my parents actually met at Butlin’s. Not this one, the Skegness one, but it was a Butlin’s,” before returning to a strong, if not quite remarkable set that’s heavy on the hits, notable too for the sight of a satanic-looking Killing Joke diehard being told to tone down the one-man moshing to ‘My Favourite Dress’ by security.

Cat’s Eyes could be the greatest cover band in the world

It is perhaps Rockaway Beach’s major downfall that once the headliners have finished, usually by midnight, the atmosphere takes a sharp decline. After hours entertainment is scant and poorly attended as the crowd return to their chalets, and on Friday and Saturday relatively unremarkable in the form of straightforward rockers Black Honey and revivalists Yuck respectively. The committed few who defy Monday’s 10am checkout deadline and stay late after Killing Joke, however, are rewarded with a stormer from Cat’s Eyes, resplendent with Spector-esque backing singers and infinitely pleasing stage patter between an acerbic Faris Badwan and a mischievous Rachel Zeffira. The band’s set is more than enough to get the drunken stragglers dancing, before the band slip into the quite preposterous spectacle of a caustic cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ that’s probably the most entertaining single performance of the weekend.

Glasgow’s motoric duo Man of Moon follow for the final set of the festival, and despite the even scanter amount of punters in front of them make it clear they deserve far more with a pounding performance of whacked out guitar-and-drums kraut to ensure Rockaway Beach closes with a bang. It’s just shame not many are there to see it.

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