Rockaway Beach 2023 is a riotous run through everything alternative culture does well

Self Esteem, Yard Act and more kick off the year with a trip to the seaside.
Photo: Jamie MacMillan

While the world creeps into 2023 like a nervous cat, things are a little different on the South Coast. Returning once again to the holiday camp shine of Butlin’s in Bognor Regis, Rockaway Beach has been firmly set on quietly becoming a true talked-about gem of the UK festival calendar. Bringing together legendary figures, trail-blazing modern titans, and some of the most talked-about new artists on the planet, its celebration of alternative culture and genre-pushing live celebrations can only be defined in one word: unmissable. Yet after its past two editions have skipped around the pandemic, 2023 at Rockaway Beach is undeniably the festival’s boldest and most brilliant edition to date – capturing the magic that comes from the sheer nonsense of a weekend at the seaside where arcade machines, pub quizzes, DJ sets, buffets, bowling and defining live moments all are a part of one irresistible cocktail. Nothing comes close. 

Words: Jake Hawkes, Jamie Muir.
Photos: Jamie MacMillan.

Immediately setting a tone of individuality and discovery, deep tan are a perfect opening welcome to the weekend ahead. Combining infectious grooves and cutting turns, they’re a band who excite, whether at their most explosive or at their most spacious. Continuing to push their sound into bold new terrains, their show is a refreshing and invigorating rush of alternative culture and razor-sharp coolness. deep tan make you want to be in a band. Likewise, Low Hummer, from the first note, run away with the spins and runs of knowing excitement. Choppy guitars smash against punk, alt-rock and more in a combination that doesn’t wait for you to dip your toe in, but pulls you into their vast ocean instead. Foals-esque licks, cowbells, grooving disco-punk, and alt-roaring eruptions of sound come thick and fast, both a party and riot in equal measure. (JM)

After having to pull out of the festival last year, LIFE take to the stage with two years of pent up ferocity. New album ‘North East Coastal Town’ rounds the band out – less the abrasive punk band they once were and more a fully formed live act who can stand with the best of them. Singer (and ex-Dork Podcast Host, btw – Ed) Mez is getting shoulder rides from crowd members and pacing the stage like a caged animal, amping up the crowd in between songs and just generally making their main stage debut seem as natural as if they’d played there 20 times before. (JH)

“Full Season Of Taskmaster When?” It’s the repeated statement tiled on screen as Self Esteem takes to the stage at Rockaway Beach, and that superstar level of an artist who can easily claim that spot as the most talked about name of the past 12 months is palpable in the air. Acclaimed not only for a jaw-dropping second album that has taken Rebecca around the world but also for a cathartic live show that pulls the idea of a pop spectacular right up to the modern day – her rise to festival headliner status is nothing short of joyous. Within the relatively intimate confines of Rockaway Beach’s Centre Stage, that slick pop powerhouse show rings loud. An all-encompassing theatre production with the spirit of being surrounded by your best mates down the pub, it’s stunning. ‘Fucking Wizardry’ and ‘How Can I Help You’ are electric in their potent power, while ‘Girl Crush’, ‘The 345’ and ‘John Elton’ whisk the Rockaway crowd across a show that demands to be paid attention to. Rich, warm and exciting, it’s an intoxicating mix from an artist speaking truth and power into a modern world full of shape-shifting unknowns. ‘I Do This All The Time’ and ‘The Best’ round out a show that’s a proper treat to kickstart the year. If it feels like Self Esteem is on another level, it’s because she is. (JM)

It’s an early-year trip on the Amsterdam-Bognor express train for Personal Trainer to kick off the Saturday. Seven of them pile onto the stage for an anarchic mix of guitars, synths and… trumpets? It should be chaotic, but they’re tight enough to hold it all together with style. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve got more energy than a toddler in a sweet shop, easily managing to blow away any early-day cobwebs among the crowd. Plus, one of them pulls out a keytar for part of the set, which is exactly the kind of nonsense we at Dork endorse. (JH) 

More fun ensues with Panic Shack, playing their second set of the festival with the same sort of feverish excitement that comes from absorbing the fun and games scattered throughout Butlin’s. Their ramshackle riffs and kicks are a jolt in the arm, complete with synchronised dance moves and the sort of unabashed joy you can’t help but fall into over and over. ‘The Ick’ and ‘Meal Deal’ signal an act who not only pack punk ferocity but also know how to embrace the sheer buzz that comes from taking to the stage and tearing it apart to fit their own image. You’d be a fool not to be on board with that. (JM)

Opening with a prolonged wall of noise more reminiscent of an artillery barrage than a band, Glaswegian electro-punks VLURE aren’t messing around. Bathed in blue light and cutting swaggering silhouettes as they smash out banger after banger, it’s hard to believe it’s only 3pm. Within minutes half the band are topless and dripping with sweat, giving everything they’ve got as they amp up the crowd. It’s not exactly standard fare for Rockaway Beach, but they soon win people over, and by the end of the set, the room is churning like someone’s turned on a wave machine. The musical equivalent of a fist through a brick wall, mid-afternoon has never felt more like midnight. (JH)

For The Goa Express, the future is now. Taking to the Reds stage with the sort of confidence that comes when a band firmly knows their sound and presence, what follows is a picture-perfect example of how to stamp your place in the minds of new music lovers. Jumping across British guitar touchstones and blending them all into one, it’s a formidable set that feels effortlessly natural and never daunting for a new gang ready to reach the biggest of moments. ‘Second Time’ is a wide-eyed summer romance akin to The La’s, while singalong refrains pour from the jubilant ‘Everybody In The UK’. It comes together for a set that feels like you’re getting a glimpse at a band before they become the talk of the town and people’s new favourite band. The Goa Express prove that and more, from a band not just content in becoming a liked new name but a sensation, fans up and down the land will be screaming lyrics back in no time. Get ready. (JM)

You can’t fault Yard Act’s work ethic. At a time of the year when most bands don’t have much booked in, they arrive for their Rockaway headline slot straight from an in-store performance at Banquet Records. Despite the tight schedule, everything seems to run smoothly, with the only pre-show drama being a missing cowbell (Personal Trainer come to the rescue with a short-term cowbell loan and disaster is averted). The band get exactly the reception you’d expect from a festival so steeped in BBC 6 Music playlists that Steve Lamacq’s DJ set is a permanent fixture, and frontman James leans into the chaos of playing a seaside resort in mid-winter admirably. “It’s the first week of January, why are we here?!” he shouts with a grin before the band dive into ‘Dead Horse’. It’s easy to forget that Yard Act’s debut album came out less than a year ago, especially when the crowd receives every song like an old favourite. Breakout hit ‘Fixer Upper’ gets a reworked airing to a predictably huge response, but it’s a mark of how far the band have come that it’s no longer the song that the set is forced to revolve around. Of course, no Yard Act set is complete without some audience interaction, and an ill-advised attempt to get a crowd member to do ‘Peanuts’ goes about as well as you’d expect at midnight on a Saturday.
A headline set after only a year or two of being a band is a tall order, especially when Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, playing one room over at the same time, have sold over 40 million records. Despite this, Yard Act play to a packed room and incite more crowdsurfing than we see across the rest of the weekend combined. “Bognor, do you feel alive?” asks James at one point. Judging by the deafening response, they most certainly do. (JH)

Rockaway Beach thrives on the sort of carefully created showstoppers that flip the script on everything around them. Scalping don’t flip the script; they pick it up, douse it in petrol, set fire to it and then dance around its embers. Bulldozing Reds with a heavyweight world of industrial-electro, they’re a band who refuse to do half measures. Drenched in darkness, it’s impossible to resist their surging euphoric sound. Tracks switch and morph into one another with ease, never pausing for breath in a full-throttle takeover that Rockaway Beach hasn’t seen in quite some time. It lays out why Scalping must be seen live, and one whose refusal to compromise makes them a party ready to put its arms in the air whether the world burns around them or not. (JM)

They help define Rockaway Beach 2023 as a riotous run through everything alternative culture does well. Melding together nostalgia and the new in the best possible way, you can see its success in the atmosphere that gathers from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. Both thrilling and ludicrously fun in equal measure, there’s no festival experience quite like it. 

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