Barely a week and a half into 2019, and festival season landed on the Sussex coast. Rockaway Beach returned, taking over Bognor Regis’s actually-quite-boujee Butlins for a weekend of breakthrough alt-rock interspersed with go-kart races and way too many Slush Puppies…
Now a trip to the seaside at five degrees may not be an obvious cure for your January blues, but it’s a fun little world Rockaway Beach have built over the past four years. The festival’s made a knack of booking promising emerging talent, and with few punters around in the off-season there’s plenty of space for music and mischief. Not much is looking promising for the UK in 2019, so heading to the coast to bury our heads in the sand seemed like a pretty welcome start. What we found was a stack of exciting British artists ready to flip the narrative.
London’s Benin City kicked off proceedings on Friday night, with a captivating set that highlighted the need for safe spaces in a city upended by gentrification. A spoken-word eulogy to Plastic People teed up the polished trap of ‘All Smoke, No Fire’, with vocalist Joshua Idehen delivering bar after bar of boisterous shutdowns. Squid also marked themselves as ones to watch for 2019, with a late contender for set of the weekend on the Sunday morning. Slick, funky and bold, they ripped through a wave of disco-punk freak-outs with impressive agility for a band who are yet to release a debut. I’m calling it now, they could just be the UK’s best new party band.
Breezier than any Stereolab but kaleidoscopic as ever, Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble were the perfect soundtrack to Saturday’s Gin O’Clock slot. Their Godard-hued Tropicália slowly builds, a rich textural web that invites you to dive into its composite parts. For this the moments of silence are more striking, a tool to entertain and absorb. Then there was Madonnatron, whose delirious vocal harmonies offset their smoggy riffs to bewitching effect. It’s muddy and spunky and gloriously kitsch, a band to slam Mezcal to in an intimate venue.
Facing a sea of Just For Men-tinted feather-cuts, Gary Numan served up a lesson in reinvention for Saturday’s headline set. His stage show was a league above anything else we saw all weekend: a sort of Resident Evil noir, topped off by his band of brawny goths lurching in the background. ‘Cars’ and ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ got an industrial rework, much to the excitement of the audience, but they sounded almost pedestrian compared to ‘My Name Is Ruin’ from 2017’s Savage (Songs from a Broken World). Numan prowled through strobes and dry ice like a sort of GHB-fuelled Ziggy Stardust, and a camp dystopia emerged. Admit it, if Blade: The Musical was a thing, you’d go and see it, right?
Still, the prize for Rockaway’s best booking must go to Goat Girl, who weaved and rollicked their way through their catalogue with wry assurance. Wonky country jaunts switched to punk shreds in the bat of an eye, all whilst singer Clottie Cream dished up barbed delights like “How can an entire nation be so fucking thick?”. It’s 2019 and the entire country’s gone insane, but Goat Girl know what’s up.
Where programming and format are concerned, Rockaway Beach are onto a good thing. At just over £100 a head for a hotel room and a festival ticket it’s good value by anyone’s standards, and by trusting their instincts on less-established acts there’s plenty of quality to go around. Going forward it’d be great to see the festival push this approach further, focusing less on legacy acts and securing just one or two completely necessary A-Listers to help ticket sales. Judging from the number of Idles T-shirts on display across the weekend, there’s one obvious starting point for 2020.
In any case, it’s a wonderful world Rockaway are building down at Butlins, and they’ve excelled at showcasing artists who aren’t afraid to reimagine and keep pushing forward. Thumbing 2p coins into the penny pusher and pondering a spin on the go-karts, I was struck to see that this helter skelter relic of homegrown British tourism breathed new life too. What better way to kick off 2019?
Photo credit: Grace Hartley