Rockaway Beach Bultins
´╗┐Butlins has been arranging a whole series of alternative music weekends this year, with Skegness hosting the punk-themed Great British Alternative Music Festival, Minehead about to hold the Britpop/Shoegaze influenced Shiiine On weekender and Bognor celebrating Rockaway Beach. With an impressive line-up and less than an hour down the road, of course we were there...
Well, of course we had our doubts. With Butlins more renowned for screaming infants and rowdy stag nights than alternative music, we thought long and hard about whether their Bognor site would be a decent venue for a music festival, but a quick chat with Membranes' drummer Rob Haynes puts our minds at rest; the bands find these to be good events with decent stages and sound equipment, comfortable rooms and plenty of time for rest and recuperation. With an age limit in force and the whole site reserved for Rockaway Beach, there really isn't anything else holding us back, so tickets are promptly booked and the stage times awaited with interest.

Arriving Friday at around six o'clock, we check into our room at the Ocean Hotel which is very decent indeed: king size bed with super comfortable matress and an abundance of pillows, a bathroom with disco lights, and a balcony with views of the sea and the site (our view above). An added attraction is the superb weather; the sun shines all weekend without any sign that we are now in an English autumn. Checking out the info booklet, it seems that most of the site's attractions will be available for the guests, with the funfair open from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, the timings obviously set not to clash too much with the bands, who are due to begin half an hour after noon. In fact, the whole weekend appears to be pretty immaculately planned and if it had not been for a couple of annoying technical problems on stage, it all would have been near-as-dammit perfect.

The biggest downside is trying to eat remotely healthily. There is pub food and diner food and bar food and burger stalls and pizza parlours, so if we had been staying for a week we probably would have died, but a dash to a decent restaurant in town on Saturday evening helps us to struggle through.

There are three main venues on site, all within a short walk of each other, with the Centre Stage hosting the main acts. This is a cavernous area, one floor up, apparently holding 2,500 people with comfort, with bars all along the back wall surrounded by tables and chairs on a raised platform and a huge standing area lower down in front of the stage. There are plenty of toilet facilities and, like the rest of the venue, everything is working and spotlessly clean. The second venue is REDS on the ground floor, with a capacity of 1,200 and bars either side of the stage. This has a more familiar feel to it, with the carpets sticky with drink and sucking your feet to the ground in time-honoured fashion. It is probably the one place on the whole of the site that doesn't have a polished sheen to it, which somehow makes it feel more like home. The Skyline stage is in the centre of the venue's main Pavilion, surrounded by bars and cafes, amusement arcades and children's play areas (thankfully closed for the duration). Bar Rosso, also in the main pavilion, hosts some DJ sets into the early hours of which we attend zero.

By some quirk of fate, most of the bands we want to see are playing on Friday night. REDS is hosting The Telescopes, The Membranes, The Fall, and Flowers, whilst Echo and the Bunnymen are the headliners on the Centre Stage. A group of us meet up at the bar, say hello to The Membranes as they arrive, and then head off at 7.45 to catch The Telescopes, who at the current time are main man Stephen Lawrie accompanied by Glasgow rockers St Deluxe. With fine new album, Hidden Fields, released in August we are keen to see how this translates into the live arena and we have to say it does so very well indeed. Lawrie is an enigmatic performer. He sets his mic stand just lower than nipple height and thus has to bend down to sing. With his long dark hair, his face is largely invisible as he howls almost silently amid the maelstrom of noise being crafted by his musicians. He takes off his jacket and shoes as he walks on to the stage and spends most of the set on the floor, lost in concentration as the storm envelops him, seemingly making infinitessimal adjustments to the sound that are heard in his head alone. St Deluxe have adapted incredibly well to take in The Telescopes' new sound, which is some way removed from their usual style, and they slowly build great temples of noise, impressive in thier immensity and attention to detail. At times, the whole band are on the ground, bar the drummer, as boxes and instruments are twiddled, shaken and stirred into submission. We like it a lot and it's a fine start to the weekend's campaign.

The Telescopes live at Rockaway Beach
The Membranes are on a high at the moment, reaping almost universal acclaim for their Dark Matter/Dark Energy album, and deservedly so. Live, they have always been a good watch, with singer John Robb a natural showman and guitarists Peter Byrchmore and Nick Brown no slouches either as they tease out the band's own brand of punk-post-punk that veers from crashing chords to sawing strings, rasps of feedback and carefully picked notes. Robb breaks the strap of his bass halfway through the set but manages to play a whole song while he waits for a replacement, and it doesn't hinder his mad dance around the stage one little bit. As usual he's chatty in a showbizzy kind of way that shouldn't fit in at all with the band's punk ethos, but somehow it never seems to grate, possibly because his livewire performances, inspired by the driving urgency of Rob Haynes' drums, are seldom less than astounding. As with The Telescopes, it is amazing how the band manage to capture live the nuances of the record; it's a real talent and one that makes The Membranes one of the most impressive live draws around. Pleasingly, the band attract the biggest audience of the day at REDS, with 1,100 crammed into the hall.
The Telescopes live at Rockaway Beach
Whilst The Membranes tug at boundaries, re-shape the familiar and happily parade vaulted ambition, fellow punk-era survivors The Fall gnaw away at your soul like a parasitical disease that drains the life force out of you without ever finishing you off. Watching them live is choosing to torment your soul, and for many present that is what makes them so special. Detached misanthrope Mark E Smith prowls the stage spewing out his incomprehensible rants while his latest crop of musicians continue to go through the motions just waiting for the day of their inevitable sacking. It really is like wacthing death warmed up and it is too much for many present who turn and head for the Centre Stage in order to secure a decent vantage point for the day's headliners.

There are six members of Echo and the Bunnymen on stage, though in essence the band revolves around original duo Ian McCullogh on vocals and Will Sergeant on guitar. Six appears to be the perfect combination, as the band's sound is near-on perfect and they proceed to play as good a set as we have ever heard from them, from the choice of songs to the accomplishment of the playing. It really is staggering to feel the presence the band has on stage; they emanate a power and assurance that sweeps away the years and makes you forget that this is Butlins in Bognor. In 2015. This is a timeless performance from a band at ease with itself and its place in history. There's little action on stage, no leaping around, no hysteria; in truth you would barely know the musicians were alive but for the stirring depth of the music they produce. All of the band's best known singles are played, along with many of the best album tracks up to and including 'Market Town' from 2014's Meteorites, and there is no denying that the Bunnyment at their best are nigh-on untouchable. Is there a better alternative hymn than the sublime 'Killing Moon'? And how many bands could simply drop 'The Cutter' or 'Never Stop' randomly into their sets and not save them until the very end? This is a perfect reminder of just how good The Bunnymen are and it rounds off an impressive first night for Rockaway Beach.

Saturday offers more sunshine and brunch is taken at the pub before the bands kick off at 12.30. In truth, this is the least exciting day of the weekend and other priorities take over. We capture The Cherry Wave at REDS mid afternoon, intrigued by their 'punk-shoegaze' tag which pleasingly appears to be quite a snug fit, and we enjoy their set a lot. We were looking forward to seeing their fellow Glaswegians St Deluxe on the Skyline stage but get called away soon after they play their first chord and only arrive back as they play their last, though all reports state they were as impressive as we had hoped. We skip the evening sessions and are rather pleased that we did as major technical issues hinder the night at REDS and the bands are enormously delayed.

Having largely missed a whole day of the festival we are obviously feeling guilty and keen to make amends for the final day. Breakfast is taken at the American Diner which is a mistake as Americans can't do breakfast and it is all a bit of a disappointment. The funfair is then sampled with rides on the dodgems enjoyed and games of crazy golf and air hockey won and lost. Lunch is a sandwich from the Spar shop before we again enter music mode and head off for Brighton's Prince Vaseline at REDS who put on an enjoyable set of pop-rock which at its very best conjures up memories of Felt's spacier moments, every bit as rocking as bathed in dreamy Moog refrains.

Prince Vaseline
We head off to the Skyline for Walleater, a five-piece from Leeds who have recently become the first non-American band to sign for US indie label Tiny Engines. You have to feel sorry for them as they play out their pretty decent, rocking, Shoegaze set, in many ways reminiscent of early Swervedriver, in front of a bare handful of people, many of whom are enjoying drinks at the cafe or bar. It looks as though this stage at this specific time represents the graveyard shift and no doubt there are some worried glances from next-on Skinny Girl Diet as they wander past to take in the (lack of) atmosphere. The London trio needn't have worried though as the area in front of the stage fills up quickly as they get underway and they receive one of the best receptions we have heard all weekend, and one of genuinely heartfelt admiration. It is great to see as SGD had impressed us playing at the 234 Festival at Brighton's Green Door Store a few weeks previously and we had been delighted to see them on the bill. We like bands that look like bands and Skinny Girl Diet have the perfect image to match their grinding, front-on aural assaults, loaded with attack drums, thumping basslines, squealing guitars and in your face vocals and screams. Mix together an uncompromising approach with confidence, sparkle and excitement and you can't go far wrong. The band seem pleased with the reception they receive and even come back for an encore which the crowd were most certainly demanding. A highlight of the weekend.
Skinny Girl Diet at Rockaway Beach
We hit the pub again for more unhealthy fare before the evening kicks off and this time we settle in at Centre Stage for Pinkshinyultrablast. Such is the popularity of Shoegaze across the globe these days that Russian bands have embraced the genre and the St Petersburg five-piece play out their 'thunder pop kung-fu-gaze' (their words) in front of a relatively sparse crowd which is a shame as their music is lit with some beautiful touches and no little power. Their album, Everything Else Matters, released in January this year is a very pleasant listen and though the never-changing vocal approach can get a little wearying in a live context, it is but a minor grumble.

Next up are Londoners Lola Colt, a band who confuse the hell out of us. Their debut album, Away From The Water, sounds fantastic at one listen and awful at the next, and seeing them live only serves to underscore this indecision. Their music is vaguely alternative, vaguely psychedelic, undoubtedly hypnotic, but also has roots in traditional rock and the appearance of long hair and beards is disturbing. That said, it isn't long before we fall under their spell and by the end of the set we are near the front of the crowd roaring approval. Don't worry, we'll hate them again tomorrow.

Lola Colt at Rockaway Beach
And that concludes our weekend. The gremlins have struck again which means that Lola Colt's performance has been considerably delayed and Spiritualized are due to appear far too late in the day to have embraced with any degree of confidence the possibility of being conscious for a six o'clock morning call.

It was a shame these problems arose over the last two two days, severely messing up the schedule, for otherwise Rockaway Beach would have been an undoubted triumph rather than just an enjoyable weekend. But enjoyable it was, and certainly enjoyable enough for us to return next year. Well done, Billy Butlin, now just build a restaurant that serves vegetables.

Words and pictures Adam Hammond
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