A punk and goth trip down memory lane only reminds us how great these bands really are
By Liza Carbe and Jean-Pierre Durand
Pictures by Jean-Pierre Durand except where otherwise noted
So many black fishnet stockings and skirts. Women wore them too.
When one walked into the Cruel World Festival in Pasadena, it was probably best to check one’s sarcasm at the door. How does one respond to one festival attendee’s description: “gothin’ to the oldies”? This two-day event was marked generally by two types of concert-goer: the t-shirted middle-aged fans who remember and love the bands from when they first came on the scene in the 80’s, and the under-25 set who inhabited the clothing, hairstyles and attitudes of the original new wave generation. Fashion and music as political statement were offered in contrast to the homogeneity of the current pop trends. How would the bands react? What kind of show would they put on?
One answer was posed onstage by Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons – “we should do one of these festivals a month”. Under a warm but inviting California sun, the bands had to balance nostalgia, newer material, newer members, and a rigid timeslot. But many of these “vintage” 80’s bands have been playing regularly for years – they are professionals who would not miss the opportunity to put on a GREAT show. And that’s EXACTLY what they did.
Earlier in the day, a few notable acts performed that take their cues from the classic acts that came later in the day. The KVB and Soft Kill most excellently explored some of this territory. After a LONG walk from possibly the furthest parking lot, we finally entered the venue to the strains of the Meteors, sounding great, not unlike the Cramps. Upon checking in at the media area, the first throwback act of the day was the English Beat.
Dave Wakeling has flown the flag for this band for years, through breakups, through his later hit band General Public, and even through the tragic cancer death of his onstage toasting partner, Ranking Roger. And today, the 66-year-old Wakeling channeled his youthful energy and demeanor to lead his crack band through a brief but fantastic set, which hit upon “Mirror in the Bathroom”, the perennial “Save It For Later”, and even a romp through his later band General Public’s “Tenderness”. The huge crowd was swaying, a lovefest and harbinger of things to come. And Ranking Roger’s younger successor, Antonee First Class, worked the audience with a stage veteran’s aplomb.
The remainder of the day consisted of bouncing between three stages (titled, of course, “Outsiders” stage, “Sad Girls” stage, and the “Lost Boys” stage). Most of the English Beat’s crowd went to an adjacent stage to see an act that possibly was not as well-known as some of the later bands, but nevertheless enjoys a reputation as the original first “deathrock” or horror punk bands.
The group, 45 Grave, was led by singer and only original member Dinah Cancer, who fearsomely led these marauding bandits into some rock-meets-goth shenanigans – they poured tremendous energy into the Rose Bowl crowd. I hope the band has more opportunity to continue and expand their reputation as one of LA’s most important and seminal punk bands.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that there was no studied journalistic distance involved in covering the band that followed 45 Grave. A friend joined the band a few years ago: Prescott Niles, who was also the original bassist for the Knack. In 2018, we went to go see Missing Persons at an LA club, with Niles in the lineup. It was not the slick grooves that original members Warren Cuccurrullo, Terry Bozzio, Patrick O’Hearn and Chuck Wild had conjured, but rather an earthier and more muscular experience. This band tore through the catalog, charged by the energy of Nile’s Entwistle-style chops. It was almost like the little club couldn’t contain the energy at the time. That was NOT a problem at Cruel World Festival- the excellent sound system was dialed in from the get-go to properly translate the current lineup’s snarling takes on these new wave classics. And bless her, original vocalist Dale Bozzio was spot on, losing none of the odd loopiness and total control she displayed early on, despite not going for the high yelps in “Words”. The clarity and power of the PA accentuated the intensity of the group – I am so happy I got to see them this way. And Dale was so warm and inviting to the audience. She and the band rocked, with Karl D’Amico playing some great guitar.
From there, we made our first trek up to the main stage, a considerable distance from the two adjacent south stages, to reach Public Image Ltd. John Lydon reminded us that “anger is an energy”. Preening, preaching, and snarling at the audience, it was clear that Lydon has lost none of his explosive delivery.
The last few years have been difficult ones for the man: his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2018 and he has been caring for her; he lost a recent court fight against his ex-Sex-Pistols bandmates regarding their limited TV series on the band; and his political leanings regarding the US elections have been every bit as contrarian as his history would suggest. Given all that, his performance was committed and frankly awesome. Great to hear “Rise” on a giant stage with a madman at the helm.
We made a quick run to the media tent to recharge, and we found ourselves back at the Sad Girl stage for the Damned. I was so looking forward to their set, hoping to see Brian James, Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible, and jam out to “Smash It Up”. Alas, this was not the lineup that took the stage. The band was rocking, no doubt, but I have not been able to track down who the members were before we had to leave to another stage.
They were tight for sure, Dave Vanian fronting in his “benevolent vampire host” vibe. At least we got to hear “New Rose”, and it was fantastic. The original lineup tours the UK in the early summer, followed by a US tour with fellow Cruel World act Blondie, so we should be able to see the band soon in its original glory.
Between the heat, carrying the camera, and the fact that photographers were only allowed for the first three songs of each set, it became apparent that we weren’t going to make it to every stage that we had hoped – a decision was made to stay at the main stage. We made the hike back to catch most of the Church’s set.
This set featured only Steve Kilbey as the lone original member left – all the others, including Marty Willson-Piper, have moved on in the last few years. But Kilbey had more than his share of classic songs to sing and play bass on, and an appreciative audience responded accordingly. Yet again at this festival, a new lineup rose to the occasion and delivered a crowd-pleasing set.
At the end of their show, the red energy domes began to gather. Devo was to take the stage and the crowd swelled. The seventh-grader in me who joined their fan club upon the release of “Freedom of Choice” was thrilled. In the intervening years, I learned so much about the band – that bassist Gerald “Jerry” Casale was at Kent State in 1970 and was friendly with two of the four students killed by the National Guard, which activated his political leanings and helped fuel Devo’s “De-evolution” concepts.
I learned that Mark Mothersbaugh had taken his considerable musical skill and built the Mutato music empire from the cool circular building in Sunset Plaza, making music for innumerable movies, TV shows, and commercial interests. Along with his brother Bob (guitarist brother of Mark) and Gerald, they comprise the three remaining original players. The fantastic drummer Josh Freese (who also plays with Sting and played with Guns and Roses in the Chinese Democracy album years) played in place of the late great Alan Myers, and Josh Hager played in place of the fine keyboard and guitar player, late original member Bob Casale (brother of Gerald).
Man, they just killed. I liken them to an American Kraftwerk – iconic early synthesists and early experimental-art-film guys who innovatively combined visuals with their music early on. The set visited quite a few eras: “Gates of Steel” and “Whip It” from Freedom of Choice, “Secret Agent Man”, “Uncontrollable Urge”, and the classic social commentary and sarcasm of “Mongoloid”. Playing with righteous but controlled anger, in the sad realization that their half-joking “De-evolution” premise might have actually come to pass in modern culture, the guys put on probably the most energetic, compelling, and informed set of the day.
After Devo, the energy domes left the area, giving way to a sea of black goth gear and eye make up. The original kings of British goth were to take the stage. The historical import of this band to the goth scene (which included spinoff groups Love and Rockets and Tones on Tail amongst others after their first breakup in 1983) cannot be overestimated. Their emergence amongst like-minded dark visionaries Joy Division, Pere Ubu, and Cabaret Voltaire secures their bona fides in the genre. And, this represented another of their sometimes-star-crossed reunions. The band started with the unmistakable distorted bass of “Double Dare” from their debut In A Flat Field, with singer Peter Murphy offstage singing in close-up into a camera. His image and that of the band remained in black and white on the giant screens for most of the set, an effective and arresting visual component to the music. Straddling the line between tribal and industrial, one can hear the seeds of Nine Inch Nails, Coal Chamber and countless other bands from Tool to Soundgarden that list them as influences. Daniel Ash’s cool-primitive guitar work, with signature slashing feedback, was astounding. And when they hit their classic, “Bela Lugosi is Dead”, the crowd swooned and teared up – as is fit for a goth band, their fans churning within, in beautiful dark withdrawn angsty splendor. It was wild.
So, while the band switched over, the crew at the south stage kicked in the sound system and Blondie could be heard quite clearly and sounded fantastic. She did not allow pictures to be taken close up, and we were at the north stage anyway, but from what we could hear, the band killed – how could they not with Clem Burke on drums? Based on videos from Saturday’s night one, I wasn’t sure if Debbie Harry was in great voice, but she pretty much sounded on point for her Sunday set.
So to close, the man who was an involuntarily ubiquitous part of my college years via the Smiths was going to take the stage. Anticipation for “Moz”, as he is known, was at a fever pitch – so many had waited all day for a glimpse of their hero, their muse. The singer is quite aware of his cult, and more so than any other act, the show took on the aspect of an obsessive lovefest. The band really knows how to provide him a bed of beautifully thick, doom-laden groove for him to lay down his dramatics. At times slightly raspier than I think he intended, Moz nonetheless delivered an intense and compelling set, including a new upcoming single “I Am Veronica”. Morrissey takes literary cues and punk rock ethos to deliver often hilariously bitchy lyrics (listen to “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” for a taste of his classic sense of humor). Great set for the initiated, and for the newbie, much to enjoy.
We walked back in the cold of the Rose Bowl evening, so glad that we had taken a trip down memory lane with bands who still felt passionate enough about their own music and legacy to deliver the goods. A great day and fantastic music!!