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LIVE REPORT: Rockaway Beach Festival 2020
Patrick Clarke , January 15th, 2020 11:32

The Jesus and Mary Chain, John Cale, and an array of young guitar talent take over Butlin's for the first festival of 2020. Photos by Tony Jupp.

The Jesus and Mary Chain

I have been to Bognor Regis’ Rockaway Beach Festival three times now, but it has not lost that touch of the surreal that comes from it being held in an out-of-season Butlin’s. Wandering past an empty go-kart track, empty children’s play areas and the terrifying 15-foot clown’s face whose teeth form the doors of an empty Sir Billy’s Playground, and then through the giant central entertainment tent with its dizzying arcade, bowling alley and Burger King populated only by music nerds in Half Man Half Biscuit, IDLES and Jesus and Mary Chain merch, everything feels just that little bit off-kilter.

There's no denying that Rockaway Beach is a festival that relies on the legacy status of many of its bookings. There’s more anticipation for the Mary Chain, who headline on Saturday, than anyone else, and the vast majority of the crowd are middle-aged. Nostalgia is part of the appeal – there’s a David Bowie disco where punters can get Ziggy Stardust facepaint – yet it would be unfair to lump the festival in with the straight-up retro events like ‘90s Reloaded’ and ‘Ibiza Legends’ that Butlin’s also hosts in the off-season. One of the headliners is the much-hyped Dublin newcomers Fontaines D.C., for whom there’s plenty of enthusiasm, while beneath the bill-toppers is a healthy influx of young and breaking bands.

They are, for the most part, guitar bands, but a satisfying enough bunch of them. Relentless Rotterdam noise-merchants The Sweet Release Of Death are among the best with a ruthless and energetic attack of noise, while Eyeseore & The Jinx prove worthy representatives of a particularly fertile Merseyside scene. Their music is at its best they slip slickly into a tightly wound and springy bassline, with squalls and scrapes of scratchy guitar filling the spaces in the groove. Brighton’s Our Girl, meanwhile, are for the most part a solid-enough indie band, but every now and then they turn up the fuzz, ramp up the tempo and hint at something far greater.

Black Country, New Road

What’s particularly heartening is that all the above are treated to a receptive crowd. The way in which Rockaway Beach staggers its two stages so they run consecutively, rather than concurrently, means that just about everyone gets their due attention. Black Country, New Road, for example, one of the most forward-thinking bands in Britain, open the larger Centre Stage to a substantial audience who for the most part seem well-convinced by their swarming and labyrinthine music.

That said, there’s a marked difference between the way the crowd watches the likes of the above, and the way they whoop with recognition and rush from the bar when, for example, The Only Ones frontman Peter Perrett plays the muted chords that begin ‘Another Girl Another Planet’. That song still sounds great, but Perrett proves that he always had plenty to offer beyond that one hit. The romance of his set is infectious – it’s his fiftieth wedding anniversary today, he announces on stage before the unabashed love song ‘Troika’ – and his prodigious backing band bring out the best of his melodic touch.

Some of the legacy acts are happy to rely simply on nostalgia. Late 90s indie act Melys, for example, literally open their breezy half-hour by saying ‘Hi, we’re from the 90s’, and are eager to remind a crowd of (one assumes) John Peel devotees that their track ‘Chinese Whispers’ topped his Festive Fifty in 2001. John Cale, in contrast, plays a Friday night headline set that feels almost like a deliberate rebuke to that kind of thing. Much of it is long-form and slow, sometimes meandering and sometimes incredibly beautiful, and when he finally plays something people recognise – the opening chords of ‘Fear’ – as soon as it gets to the chorus he wanders off into a classical piano solo then cuts the song altogether. It’s the only set of the weekend that feels properly divisive, at least until he finally relents and plays a version of ‘Waiting For The Man’ that’s so steam-train psychedelic it heals all schisms and then some.

John Cale

Of the legacy acts, The Jesus And Mary Chain prove the most enjoyable of the lot, thanks in no small part to William Reid’s guitar playing. The band’s significant amount of very good songs is well-established, and they’ve still got heaps of that dark and edgy charisma, but it’s still brilliantly shocking when a well-timed blast of face-clenching noise is hurled forward in a chorus, hitting you straight in the core. In many ways, they are the perfect headliner for this kind of festival, playing to their strengths, and then playing beyond them.

There is only one band, however, who truly capture the essence of Butlin’s, and that is the International Teachers of Pop. With frontwomen Leonore Wheatley and Katie Mason arriving as Red Coats and Adrian Flanagan trading barbs and off-colour jokes with the crowd like a sordid 1970s club comedian, they embody the same off-kilter charm of the holiday camp around them. By inhabiting their space with such mischievous glee, their pumping, wonky pop becomes more irresistible still, that unique combination of rock-solid songwriting and complete daftness finding its perfect home by the sea.