Rockaway Beach washes away the post-Christmas blues

Rockaway Beach 2023 review

By Steve Collins / Marie Magowan | Published: Fri 29th Dec 2023

Site photos

Friday 6th to Monday 9th January 2023
Butlins Resort, Bognor Regis, West Sussex, PO21 1JJ, England MAP
currently from £99 per-person for the weekend
Daily capacity: 4,000
Last updated: Tue 3rd Jan 2023

Wet festivals - if you’ve ever had to experience one, you’ll know what a pain they are. Trudging through the mud to stand for several hours in the rain, only to trudge back to your tent again to curl up in your sleeping bag feeling damp, only to repeat it all over again.

Fortunately there is a solution - go to Rockaway Beach at Butlins Bognor Regis! Instead of trudging through mud, it’s only a short walk down the path from your warm and dry hotel room to covered, heated and dry venues. Then if you’re feeling a bit damp at the end of the day a quick shower will sort you right out before you retire to your warm bed. It’s a tough life!

Rockaway Beach is an odd thing - occurring only a week after New Year in the middle of winter; and set at a semi-decommissioned holiday park (Butlins are doing a lot of work on the the site, so you’re regularly walking past mini building sites and semi-dismantled rides, and only a fraction of the restaurants and shops are open). Add this years storm and rain and you’ve got a pretty bleak location exacerbated by a gravelly beach which is relentlessly beaten by large waves, while the wind howls round the site.

Despite this (or maybe because of this) the main areas feel pretty welcoming, there’s plenty of space to sit and soak up the atmosphere while watching films broadcast on a large screen; taking part in the daily quizzes, or listening to the interviews with acts through the day. Sadly due to flooding this year, the bowling alley and some of the arcade machines were out of order - particularly disappointing for us were the decommissioned 2p shove machines, my own favourite way to kill half an hour or so.

The music is set in two locations - Reds Bar providing the bulk of the entertainment from midday onwards, while the Centre Stage opens in the evening for the headline acts. This year for the first time Reds and Centre Stage overlapped with both venues open in the evening. On the down side this meant that clashes were a thing, but the positive was that it made moving between the stages a far more pleasant experience - as you no longer had to join the exodus from one venue to queue for the other.

Rockaway bills itself as an alternative music festival and the lineup leans heavily into punk, new wave, and electronica - although it’s also capable of throwing in curveballs too - such as Self Esteem’s triumphantly unashamed pop performance on Friday evening. Self Esteem’s Rebecca Lucy Taylor is an artist on top of her game - choreographed routines give the performance an air of a girl group, but the lyrics show a maturity and intelligence far more than the latest reality show production.

Self Esteem performs at Rockaway Beach 2023
Self Esteem


Self Esteem was placed between two great acts - Billy Nomates, whose performance brings to mind Chrissie Hynde - both vocally and in her performance. And the living legend that is Peter Hook. Following a well publicised split, Peter Hook left his bandmates in New Order to form The Light. His greatest hits set comprising of both New Order and Joy division songs was a great way to spend an evening, and while his voice isn’t as strong as Bernard Sumner’s, he has a joy in his performance that is missing from New Order. This is probably the best way to hear these songs these days and I would recommend anyone to see him if you get the opportunity.

One thing Rockaway is good at is spotting the future stars (Self Esteem were an unknown mid afternoon act way back in 2019), And this year several bands stood to attention. Panic Shack are a boisterous punk act from Wales - with some great riffs and clever lyrics. They stormed both their sets over the weekend - having got the weekend off to a great start on Friday, they then returned to cover a cancellation on the Saturday. On Sunday Dream Nails pulled the same trick, with frontperson Leah Kirby tearing up the stage (and the crowd) with a lively set covering political and queer identity topics.

Less riotous but just as fun was Hamish Hawk – one thing the UK has always been great at is producing eccentric musicians, and Hamish’s set brought to mind Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon in the best way. Clever, occasionally surreal, lyrics over a pop/rock soundtrack that just shout of a legend in the making. Much like Jarvis and Neil, Hamish is an unlikely pop star and seems genuinely confused by the reaction to his performance, but I suspect that he will be with us for a while to come.

Saturday night headliners OMD are one of those bands that seem to cross genres seamlessly. They appeal to both fans of pop and the underground and alternative music fans too. Recorded they are a great band. Live they are a brilliant one. Andy McClusky’s performance is energetic and warm, and despite coping with a broken rib which curtailed some of his signature ‘windmllling’, he still managed to move around the stage and dance through the set - thanking the mix of Cocodomol and vodka for allowing him to do so. Classic hits sit alongside the lesser known ones, and  the bands ear for a lyric means the crowd sing along to them all, no matter how unfamiliar they are with them.



Legends seem to be a thing that Rockaway always finds a home for - with excellent performances from The Primitives, The Futureheads, and The Beat across the weekend, while The Undertones tore up the penultimate slot on the Sunday with a hit-filled set - they’re one of those bands that you forget how many great songs they’d done. I think for a lot of people they were the Sunday Night headliner, and the exodus was noticeable. Which was a shame as it meant they missed what was probably the best show of the weekend.

Panda Bear and Sonic Boom only came to my attention a few months ago with the beautiful ‘Edge of the Edge’. The duo are Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), and Spaceman3’s Peter Kember (Sonic Boom). While the band won’t win any awards for stage craft - for the whole 90 minutes they sat resolutely behind their instruments and barely spoke to the crowd,  the music was on another level – mixing 60s Americana inspired harmonies with modern electronica and ambient sounds – what they produced was at times powerful, other times delicate - sometimes both at the same time. In a world where music can often tend to be an identikit assembly of acts building on others creations, Panda Bear and Sonic Boom have managed to create music that sounds utterly new. Hopefully this collaboration will continue for a long time.

Once again Rockaway manages to hit all the right notes – its size means that almost every set feels intimate - even for the big acts you can usually get close to the front without difficulty. The timing means it’s the perfect way to fight off the post Christmas comedown. The bands are well chosen – it’s rare to go to a festival where there isn’t a bad act on, but this year Rockaway managed it. The venue is unconventional but feels such a natural place and you’re left wondering why this festival didn’t happen decades ago. The side entertainment is a welcome diversion when you need a break (if more curtailed than normal – I’m still sore about the lack of 2p shove machines!), and the Q&As mean you get closer to the artists than at any other event. Its been a great weekend, and we’re already looking forward to next year.

review by: Steve Collins / Marie Magowan

photos by: Steve Collins

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