Here’s a question for you, you’ve reached the end of another festive season. You’ve spent the last week disposing of the leftovers (turkey and sprout sandwiches anyone?) you’ve watched all the Christmas movies and specials, eaten way too many mince pies, sung Auld Lang Syne with Jools, packed away the tree; and all that’s left of the season is the one decoration you missed and the small pile of orange creams looking at you accusingly from the Quality Street tub. Ahead of you spreads the ominous month of January – it’s cold, you’re skint, and you’ve just remembered that at a drunken party, you promised to meet up with Melvyn* – whose idea of a good time was exactly the reason you stopped meeting up with him in the first place.
What do you do?
Why not get away from it for a few days?
Why not go to a festival?
Why not give Rockaway Beach a try?
What better way to shake off the winter blues than with a blast of loud music, a few drinks and a chance to hang out with people who are far better then Melvyn***. Plus you get to stay in a warm comfortable bed with decent showers and toilets – it’s a winner on all counts.
And so we found ourselves at Bognor Regis Butlins, on the first weekend in January in an attempt to kick-start the new year the right way. Once we’d dropped our bags in the room we headed out to the main area to see what delights awaited us. This year, arriving a bit later than normal meant heading for the restaurants - while you can go self catering, being a Butlins means there’s a good selection of restaurants, and taking the words of the much missed Maxi Jazz to heart - “Strictly hot food, keep you nice and strong. So you can go on and on and last long.”
We took advantage of the main cafeteria dinner package. It’s here that you feel the strongest connection to the summer Butlin’s experience, providing a range of food including roasts, curries and vegetarian options, as well as pasta cooked fresh in front of you in no-frills mass catering. None of this would win any awards for culinary excellence, but it’s tasty and filling and you can have as much as you like – Two visits a day for breakfast and dinner was enough to keep us going through the weekend.
After that it was down to the music – on the way picking up the tail end of an interview with Bob Vylan – one of the great things about Rockaway Beach is the opportunity to engage with the acts performing. And often the Skyline Pavilion - the central area of the resort – is packed with people watching interviews with the bands, as well as watching films, or enjoying daily quizzes. I’ve always felt the measure of a good festival is that you could spend the weekend not seeing any acts and still have a good time. And in this the festival excels – I you wanted to, you could spend the whole weekend in the bars, bowling alleys, or playing on the arcade machines. We were particularly pleased to see the return of the shove 2p machines, sadly missing from last years festival. Growing up near the sea these were a regular fixture of my childhood, and the added thrill of collecting tokens to get bigger prizes is just winning ticket in my book. A collection of about 2,000 tokens across the weekend mean I’m now the proud owner of a small, yellow dinosaur money box (and the 2ps are already going in it in anticipation of next years festival).
As if this wasn’t enough, and if you can draw yourself away from these glittering and flashing delights, there’s a pretty decent music festival going on around you. Although primarily aimed around the alternative music scene it does not allow itself to be defined by this, and will step into more mainstream music if the programmers feel the act is right.
This leads you into some interesting contrasts: Friday night at the centre stage saw an awesome high-energy, raw set from Bob Vylan, followed by Ska legends The Selecter whose more polished sound was lapped up by the crowd, skanking their way into the night. Meanwhile in Reds – the festivals’ second music stage – Pale Blue Eyes bought an intense wall of sound punctuated by crashing guitars and psychedelic, proggy flourishes to the stage, before vacating for the baroque folk of Patrick Wolf, only to go back into high gear for Hinds closing set.
Saturday sees the festival start to settle into its groove, as did we - having filled up on a decent cooked breakfast, we settled into Reds to see what entertainment awaited us. First highlight of the afternoon came form Ä ENN – a band from Malta whose driving punky sound is offset by lead signer, Leona Farrugia, whose soaring vocals weave through the noise bringing it all together. This was followed by festival regular Lonely Tourist. There seems to be a rule that every festival should have a resident acoustic act, and Rockaway has done well with this act. Singer Paul Tierney’s gentle melodic guitar-work matched with a delicate Scottish lilt provides a perfect palette cleanser before delving into the rest of the afternoon.
Probably the act of the day were Big Special. There is a growing trend for stripped down bands, eschewing the usual drummer/guitarist/bassist/keyboards/vocals format in favour for a couple of really talented musicians instead. In this case it’s drummer and vocalist. They’re loud and angry, but cheeky and playful with it. “Who speaks a little French and probably shouldn’t be here?” quips drummer Callum Moloney, before revealing that due to a turkey carving incident he has a barely working thumb. Their set is full of observations on the state of our nation, and yet the humour that sits in the best punk acts is there too - you just can’t help but warm to them. Go see them if you get a chance.
As the evening draws in we shift our attention to the centre stage – it all starts off well with an energetic and tub thumping performance from Skids, Time has not diminished Richard Hobson’s voice and he belts out classics such as ‘Into The Valley’ as loud as the audience can scream it back at him. They are followed by Fat Dog, whose slightly chaotic sound and mix of styles, seems to work against all expectation – helped by an early dance-off between keyboard player and guitarist in the middle of the crowd helps warm things up, and by the end they’ve garnered a brace of new fans – myself included.
I’ve always enjoyed Sleaford Mods music – they stood out as something different from a mass of indie rock when they first started making waves, and this being the first chance to see them live, I had high hopes for the show. Sadly what we got tonight was pretty disappointing – Andrew Fearn did nothing more than press play on a laptop, then spent the next few minutes pogoing around at the back, while Jason Williamson hobbled round the stage mumbling into his mic, while much of the time his free hand was apparently scratching his bollocks – both above and underneath his shorts. If he was a dog, someone would have turned a water hose on him quite quickly.
Leaving them to it (hopefully he referred himself to a urologist afterwards) instead we returned to Reds for the excellent Dream Wife. While owing a very obvious debt to Blondie, this is not to their detriment – singer Rakel Mjöll is as charismatic as Debbie Harry, and supported by a really strong band with some great songs. A great way to end a great day.
Sunday is always a difficult day to open over a weekend, as you are often dealing with a crowd who are trying to deal with the effects of two days partying, even in a relatively relaxed festival like Rockaway, it still takes its toll. But a pretty sizeable crowd had arrived to see Enjoyable Listens. Luke Duffett’s rich vocal style brings to mind one of last years favourites Hamish Hawk. And that same idiosyncratic, slightly surreal pop is there too. Add to this his between-song banter, which is verging on the edge of stand-up comedy, and you have a great starter for the final day, dusting off the cobwebs and setting up the last day. Following Luke was Japanese Television – It’s not often you get a purely instrumental act, but it’s the occasional curve ball like these bands that makes Rockaway stand out as a festival. The weekend is often dominated by loud vocals and raucous guitars, so something retro, funky and melodious makes for a great change of pace and ticks a lot of boxes for me.
Speaking of loud and raucous, one of the standout’s of the weekend were punk trio Snayx. Loud, angry and out to entertain, this trio blew onto the stage and out into the audience in no time. Generating what may be a first for Butlins – a genuine mosh pit, complete with crowd surfing. The most interesting part was watching the security, who are usually having to deal with drunk dads at worst, trying to cope with a hundred or so punks in full flow – reinforcements were called in, but wisely they chose just to watch, and like most mosh pits, it self policed itself pretty well.
As on previous nights as the attention turned from the daytime to the evening, the Centre stage hosted performances from newcomers Deadletter – whose decision to start off with their three biggest songs to date paid off as the recognition from the audience probably doubled their crowd at the front; Desperate Journalist followed by headliners The Cribs whose typically explosive and energetic performance matched with some great anthems bought to a close another year.
Butlins clocked on to the idea of filling its off season with a series of festivals a few years ago, with something for everyone – 70s, 80s, dance, indie, and others are all represented somewhere in the UK, but Rockaway Beach has managed to pull something off that makes it stand out among all these crowd-pleasers – it has achieved credibility. Alongside the big name established acts it also provides a platform for newer bands too. Alternative music is always a difficult genre to label given the wide range it encompasses, but Rockaway Beach manages to showcase far more than just goths and punks at the centre – it provides a platform for the oddball, the quirky, and those on the fringes of music. Trying to sum it up, I keep coming back to the word ‘cornucopia’ – Rockaway Beach provides something to please every musical taste, without ever sidelining the others. It’s a rare trick these days and long may it continue to do so.
*I’ve changed the name to protect the guilty**, not that they deserve it.
**If your boring friend is actually called Melvyn, feel free to change it to Algernon.
Starting the year the right way!
Rockaway Beach 2023 review