It was a surprise to everybody when Rockaway Beach festival went ahead this January. Even the main headliner didn't expect to be playing. As for us, we had to seriously consider whether we should stay or we should go.... Report and photos by Adam Hammond.
OK, we never thought this year’s Rockaway Beach would go ahead. With the Omicron variant sweeping the land, such events had already been banned in the other nations of the UK and it looked to be just a question of time before England joined suit. But, no. Loathe to impose further restrictions on the population, the government introduced no such ban and Rockaway is given the green light. That isn’t the end of it, though. For a lot of us this pandemic has not been about getting away with as much as we possibly can, it has been about taking responsibility for our actions and being considerate to other people. Legal it may be, but purely by holding the event the odds are that somebody in attendance would get really sick, hospitalised or even die. Is that a risk worth taking? Yes, it is everybody’s personal choice whether or not to attend and everybody knows the risks, but for us it leads to sleepless nights. Our journey was to be nine-and-a-half hours in a train, changing numerous times and crossing London by tube to get from Euston to London Bridge. When looked at in the cold light of day that seemed ridiculous given the levels of infection, especially in the capital. We had already decided that we wouldn't attend when the opportunity arose to get a lift by car which would be an awful lot safer both for us and consequently for the people we would meet in Bognor. It tips the scales back the other way. Just. If Butlins are serious about Covid checks then it might be possible the visitors can emerge unscathed. We were triple-jabbed, the booster taken only three weeks previously, and we had caught the virus before, so we are pretty much as full of anti-bodies as it is possible to be. Thankfully, Butlins are being serious. Passports and Covid Passes are checked thoroughly and we gain entry to the site. That part goes extremely smoothly. It seems, though, that Butlins are taking the virus far more seriously than the visitors. We remain masked for all of the gigs though we estimate that only around 2% do likewise which comes as a huge surprise.

Plague apart, Butlins remains a great venue for this sort of event. Even in January the site is largely pristine, though the outside of the Skyline Pavilion needs a good scrub and obviously some repair as there are birds flying in there every day. The Wave hotel where we have been stationed at nearly every Rockaway event is in decent order. Given the pandemic, the cafe by the entrance remains closed and the lights always off. This makes it a bit gloomy returning to your room at night and a little eerie as you walk past the brightly lit reception desk which is always empty. Again, we have booked a room with a double bed, balcony and a spare bunkbed room. These just look great for kids, disguised as a cabin in a ship, and even boasting their own television. We never use them but enjoy just looking at the octopus through the porthole on the door. The balcony isn’t so useful this weekend given that it is absolutely pissing down on both the Friday and Saturday morning. A fine reason for keeping music indoors.

Now the three days of Rockaway mean different things to different people. There are those who get into the spirit of the event and attend everything; the sort of people who would have been the life and soul of the holiday camps back in their 1950s' heyday. There are those who get to every gig and watch every minute of live music they possibly can, and there are those, like ourselves, who take the opportunity to socialise with friends, have a few drinks, enjoy a meal, play some rounds of crazy golf and catch a good number of bands as well. Being of the original post-punk generation, our experience of the mainstream is antagonistic. For all those less ancient indie lovers at Rockaway who walked the streets in their younger days without a care in the world, we were the ones who made that possible, enduring the spitting, shouting, beatings and worse that were taken for daring to look different when conforming to the norm was everything. So, yes, we are grumpy and defensive and quick to fight our corner. We believe that "indie disco" is an oxymoron and we don’t want to dance to people playing records when we could play better ones back in our rooms. We don’t want to dance, full stop. We don’t want to watch old films we have seen countless times, we don’t want to buy a t-shirt proclaiming we were there, we don’t want to have pool parties or knobbly knees contests. We certainly don’t want to see Rockaway moving towards the mainstream and still pretending it’s an alternative music festival, the way 6 Music pretends it is still an alternative radio station. We certainly never had a favourite Monkee ...

That aside, we are happy to socialise. Having lived half an hour from Bognor for the first few Rockaways, we now live eight trillion miles away in the remotest corner of north-west Wales. Coming here gives us the opportunity to catch up with friends we haven’t seen for ages and – given the pandemic – some we haven’t seen for two years. We also meet up with mates we have made over the past few Rockaways and some with whom we have come into contact through a shared interest in music on social media sites. Some of our friends barely see any bands in order to hang out and chill. For us, that is important.


Given the immense length of our journey, we don’t arrive in time to see the opening bands. When we finally get down to Reds (the site’s secondary venue) we are just in time to catch Rhoda Dakar, the former leader of The Body Snatchers and occasional singer with The Specials. We know it isn’t the first act of the evening, but it is for us, and we are left wondering why every festival doesn’t open with a ska band. There’s nothing like hitting the off-beat to get the body pumping again after hours cramped up on the road. Rhoda is chatty and beaming, delighted to be playing live again after only managing a mere handful of gigs over the past two years. She talks as much as she sings, but her personality is as infectious as the music is uplifting.

It’s the last gig of the night in Reds, so the trip is made to Centre Stage where Buzzcocks are standing in for The Futureheads who have pulled out because of Covid. Over the weekend probably a quarter of the bands withdraw and the organisers do remarkably well to keep finding last minute replacements. Sadly, only Steve Diggle is left of the original Buzzcocks now, but he looks in fine fettle and the band are tremendous. Their set is a non-stop romp through some well-know classic singles, some less well known but equally brilliant b-sides and a smattering of album tracks old and new. Of course, the band were never all about Pete Shelley, with Steve the writer (or co-writer) of such gems as 'Fast Cars', 'Harmony In My Head', 'Why Can’t I Touch It', 'Autonomy' and 'Promises'. We are treated to all of these, with the audience singing the "woo-oohs" to the latter which is quite touching. The power of a pop song resonates as the band launches into 'What Do I Get' and the room falls apart in the encore when 'Ever Fallen In Love' gets everybody singing and crying. No lie, this is emotional and it leaves us glowing inside. There’s still Tricky and Do Nothing to come, but we feel that we are on a high and don’t want to spoil the mood. We retire for the night and text friend and former PiL guitarist Keith Levene. "Blimey, just seen Buzzcocks. I never thought a non-stop hour of surging pop-punk could sound so relevant today!" Of course, he understands, "Yeah, they always were their own thing and a slice through the bollox." On those wise words we have a cup of tea and drop off for the night.

Sleep is not something we indulge in much. We’re out and about by eight but realise that nowhere is open for breakfast until nine. That’s almost lunchtime, so we grab a warm bacon roll from the on-site shop, return to our room and put the kettle on again. Unlike other years, Butlins are not servicing the bedrooms this year due to the pandemic. We have a shitload of towels, some black sacks in which to place the used ones, and more toilet rolls than we can count. On the down side, we have no toiletries. Having been used to seeing them in the room every year we, of course, didn’t bring any in an attempt to keep our luggage light for the mammoth journey, so it means using a tiny bar of handsoap for the early morning shower. Even worse is that we are given only four teabags and four of those pathetically small cups of pretend milk. Of course, these had all gone within minutes of our arrival, so the shop again comes to our rescue as we stock up on tea, milk and biscuits.

With the bands commencing at noon in Reds we are at Bar Rosso by eleven and start on the jugs of cocktails. I mean, we are at the seaside so surely pina coladas are the order of the day? Grab a pint glass and you can take enough drink into the gigs to keep you going for a little while. Everybody else appears to be still in bed, which seems to me like a waste of your life, but each to their own. First up is I See Islands with a solo acoustic set that eases people into the day and that was it for us as Palace are playing Millwall in the FA Cup and the South London derby is live on ITV. We miss Roscoe Roscoe and Italia 90, but it is worth it as Palace get the win. We return for Maria Uzor who is apparently one-half of electro duo Sink Ya Teeth. Alone with a laptop and an effects soundboard, she does her thing with much arm waving, though it isn't our thing at all and we head off for to the bar for some chat and a few more cocktails.

We arrive back in time to take in London-based Moderate Rebels whose psychedelic groove is based around rigid repetition that on occasion is very effective, but also makes their songs an over-familiar experience. It takes them a while to relax, and we are warming to them more as the set draws to a close; ending on a high note is always a positive. This paves the way for dinner at the Beachcomber Inn where we manage to find a meal with some vegetables, something that has always eluded us on previous visits.

We live in a post-Idles world where everything is shouty and average and Imperial Wax are probably the lowpoint of our weekend. The former Fall members make a huge, pounding wall of sound with very little variation or subtlety and lots of in-your-face vocals. We love a noise in general but it needs to have a purpose and we just can’t work this out. Perhaps used to being in the shadow of Mark E Smith, they never look like asserting themselves on stage; they simply stand still and protest loudly. They seem to go down well with the crowd, but generally the audience are into everything. Perhaps being away from live music for so long has gone to their heads. The last act on at Reds for the day are The Crows, a late stand-in for PVA. Now we like this band and their garagey stomps, but they are just a little too rock and roll and could do with an injection of dark subtlety. As always, James Cox throws himself around the stage and though they are the best thing we have seen so far that day, there is certainly plenty of room for a bit more guile and invention.

On to Centre Stage. We last about two songs from the Anglo-French duo Ttrruuces, standing in for LIFE, whose hippy psych melodies are not our taste so it is off to Bar Rosso for a few drinks before we head back for Thousand Yard Stare. They have been bumped up from Reds following the withdrawal of Big Joanie and certainly appear to be happy on the bigger stage. Singer Stephen Barnes achieves perpetual motion and is full of chat which we don’t remember being the case when we last saw them some thirty years before at the Zap Club in Brighton. Given such a long break it must be said they are looking in pretty good nick and they offer up some nice guitar work and decent tunes. The set is a good selection of older and newer songs, some of which send us hurtling back happily to the golden age of shoegaze whilst others make us shudder as their overly clean lines appear to herald the approach of Britpop. Those were strange days, but not as strange as these and who better to headline such an odd weekend than Jarvis Cocker?

It is difficult to describe exactly what Jarv Is is. This is neither an alternative band, nor a mainstream act. Of course Cocker is an indie hero and his show is eagerly anticipated but what we are presented with is a Vegas residency rather than a pop concert. A series of jerks and poses accompany his idiosyncratic songs which could have been written by any of Brel, Batt or Gainsbourg. Or all of them. He throws chocolates to the audience, chats amiably, opens a discourse on Bounty bars and generally comes across as your mate from the pub whilst feeling completely at home in the spotlight. Both he and his songs defy genre; Cocker has attained a status that has reached far beyond that. He is an unique artist and his performance is utterly breathtaking. The strange thing is, he could release any one of his songs on vinyl and we wouldn’t touch them. Some we may nod along to if we heard them on the radio, yet in this packed hall in Butlins, they all sound fabulous. The secret is in the presentation and that is pretty much perfect. We would go and see Jarv Is perform any day of the week and every day of the week. For the Pulp aficionados, he does play early tracks 'She’s A Lady' from His 'N' Hers and 'My Legendary Girlfriend' from Separations but the main body of the set is taken naturally from 2020’s Beyond The Pale.

More bar action follows with bed hit just before 2am. Still, we are awake as usual by six and laze about for a couple of hours before heading into town for breakfast. Fortunately, the weather has improved and it is a pleasant walk down the promenade, enjoying the air and sunshine and marvelling at the poignant sights of a seaside town in winter. It is only without the hustle and bustle of the tourists that you can capture the run-down vistas that otherwise may pass you by. Peeling paint, rusting metal and dented kiosks are all spotted as the sea lopes up and down the pebble beach with its unmistakeable call. Breakfast is taken at the Brewers Fayre pub, all-you-can-eat advertised but far from the reality. The pandemic has again intruded into everyday life so breakfasts are being cooked to order. It is standard pub fare; nothing that will make you hurry back, but nothing to be too disappointed by. Except there is no butter which just about makes having toast a useless act and breakfast without toast borders on a criminal offence. We wander further into town to the crazy golf; not to boast but four holes in one and an assured victory are par for the course.
This day’s action is already being referred to as 'Super Sunday' and it certainly proves to be the best day of the weekend. We can see Lonely Tourist’s acoustic wit making them mainstays of Sunday morning political television shows and they could probably make a decent living out of that. They are the first act we catch and afterwards we prepare for an evening where there will be little time for eating if we are to catch all the bands we are here to see. Pizza is bought and stored in our room. That will be dinner at the end of the day. Now all is set for the grand finale. We are happy that October Drift have agreed to play again as they had opened the festival when we were still on the road. Apparently they were on their way home when Odd Morris withdrew and they returned in quick time to replay their energetic and positive set. All flailing arms and over-emphasized guitar strokes, they leave the audience breathless and the heart-rate has only just returned to normal when Bdrmm arrive to send it racing again with the most electrifying offering of the whole weekend.

Some bands when they play can replicate the sound of their records to perfection and that can be a great thing. Others adapt their songs to the live arena to offer a different experience. Bdrmm take their songs, pump them full of steroids and blow them to pieces in your face. No matter how good their debut album is, it does not prepare you for hearing those songs live where they pretty much knock out your brains and dance on the mess. Bdrmm are noisy, boisterous and utterly fixating. They may dress like schoolboys who have quickly outgrown their trousers but the noise they extract from their instruments puts them in a class above. This is what makes music so gripping; that bands emerge some forty years after the post-punk revolution and still find new ways to tear things apart. And what is so apparent is their complete belief in what they are doing. This isn’t a hobby; this is life. And this is why Rockaway works so well. Half of the line-up may leave you cold, but somebody will light a fire under you to make everything worthwhile. Bdrmm burn the whole place down.

The final act of the weekend at Reds is The House Of Love. Or Guy Chadwick and three musicians who are relatively new recruits and whether any band should call themselves The House Of Love without Terry Bickers will always be open to question. That said, they are all consumate musicians, are dressed properly in black, and play some of the songs that lit up our lives for half a decade from the late 1980s. It must be difficult to have written what will always be your classic material over thirty years ago as it simply will not be possible to match the majesty of 'Shine On' and 'Christine'. Nevertheless, the band do a fine job, receive a good reception and look suitably satisfied with their night’s work.
Off to Centre Stage where KVB are well into their set. Nick Wood and Kat Day make a pretty good fist of their electro-indie teasers despite the speakers on the left of the stage failing on at least three occasions while we are there. Whether this is known on stage is doubtful as there is no reaction from the duo who plough on regardless to much acclaim. Next up are A Certain Ratio who, again, dwell on a different planet from us. Having seen them more than once before and not in the mood for groove after Bdrmm’s heroics, we retire for pizza, tea and a charge-up of the phone. Cleverly we set an alarm for an hour’s time and when it wakes us up, we don’t have the faintest clue where we are, who we are, or what day it is. Brain shaken clear, we hurry back to the main arena for the final headline act of the weekend, Porridge Radio.

There are festivals being played this year where Porridge Radio are among the third wave of bands and some people are questioning whether it is too soon for them to be headlining such an event. We don’t question that at all. Their Every Bad album was one of the brightest of 2020, they are local to the area and, most importantly, they are pretty bloody good. They may be inexperienced but so what? They have the talent and potential and are exactly the sort of up-and-coming alternative band that festivals should be promoting. Of course, it may be a good idea to bring at least two guitars with you on such an occasion as Dana Margolin acknowledges when she breaks a string midway through the set, struggles to replace it and disappears for ten minutes. The rest of the band stand around chatting for a while instead of taking the opportunity to indulge in a wild jam, but eventually keyboardist Georgie Stott begins to give us a whirl and bassist Maddie Ryall and drummer Sam Yardley take the hint. We find their whole unpreparedness highly attractive.

With Margolin back in the frame the band continue with their set, mostly playing songs from their last album, but including a handful of new tracks. After the first of these Stott is overheard saying how awesome it sounded which is both amusing and highly accurate. The new songs are stunning, in the band’s rawest style, emotionally highly wrought and musically tense. It’s great to see another young group breaking through barriers and starting to fulfil their huge potential. For us, this is the perfect way to end the weekend: a recognition of emerging talent who don’t know how to pack a bag but certainly know how to rip through your hearts.

It’s back to the bar before bed. We’re getting quite drunk and pretty much rambling. Why are all the DJs at the festival hippies with long hair and major beards, jumping up and down like odd Uncle Martin at your mum’s Christmas party? Why didn’t we spot John Robb until leaving the venue after the last band had played? His interviews are one of the highlights of the weekend, though we missed both of them on this occasion through every fault of our own. Why is Stuart drinking cooking lager?

These are the mysteries that Rockaway cannot solve. So it's back to the hotel for more cold pizza and tea. It’s late but we'll be awake at six as we are every morning. We don't bother with breakfast ... there’s the last bit of pizza and The Sweeney on the telly. Oh, and a ten-hour journey ahead.

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