Camden Rocks Festival 2017, London

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13,785 steps, 250 bands, 24 venues, 1 ticket. Camden Rocks 2017

The heart of London’s music scene beat a powerful united rhythm on Saturday 3rd June as thousands came together to enjoy the sound and spectacle of the annual Camden Rocks Festival.

On any given night in Camden you’re hard pressed to stand on the street and not hear live music free-wheeling down the pavement. The place is littered with venues and there are few places anywhere on earth that can boast the heritage and alternative stylings that Camden has on offer. On one day every summer, Camden comes alive as practically every venue throws open its doors and attracts some of the finest new (and not so new) bands around. Camden truly Rocks and this year I was lucky enough to snap as much of it as I could get my hands on.

I say ‘as much of it as I could get my hands on’ because Camden Rocks offers logistical challenges on a par with some of the biggest festivals around. To the north, you’re actually rocking out in Chalk Farm; to the south, you’re practically in Euston – and there’s a hell of a lot of walking in between. Try and take in too much and you’ll spend most of your time pounding the pavement. Your best bet then is to accept that you can’t see it all, that you’ll almost certainly miss some stuff you’d have liked to have seen. On the flip, revel in the fact you’ll almost certainly get blown away by somebody you’ve never heard of.

I decided to concentrate my efforts in the heart of Camden Town – right by the tube, the market, the lock – and my first port of call, the famous World’s End pub where a photo pass with my name on it was residing. There was another reason for starting here. The Underworld is right next door and I had an appointment with soon to be megastars, Yorkshire alt-grunge four piece, Hands Off Gretel. For somebody who spends a lot of time snapping bands in Camden back rooms, I must confess that this was my first time taking pictures at The Underworld. It has a dubious reputation for serving up some of the worst lighting in London and I have to say it didn’t disappoint – assuming that having the talent lit up like strawberries and gooseberries is your thing.


Lauren Tate fronts the band and she cut an arresting figure with her black and blonde plaits whirring about like the rotors of an over-enthusiastic helicopter. I say black and blonde – it’s actually hard to tell when everything is lit exclusively in red and green. To be on the safe side I converted my pics to black and white. You know where you are with black and white. HOG are big favourites at FOTF Towers and it’s not hard to see why. Tate is compulsive viewing, the rhythm section of Joe Scotcher on bass and Sam Hobbins at the back leave no trouser unflapped and guitarist Sean McAvinue expels a lot of energy. I stayed for a few songs and turned to leave as I had appointments elsewhere. Only then did I appreciate the crowd that HOG had accrued. For an early afternoon slot, it was immense. The Underworld was packed, testament indeed to the pulling power of this band. After what seemed like a thousand excuse me’s and apologies I made it back to street level. It was kind of sad to leave HOG behind – I liked them – a lot, but there was other stuff to see and not enough hours in which to see it.


Next stop, across the street at Simmons bar, Plastic People were preparing to play to a swelling audience. Simmons was everything The Underworld was not: light, airy, no sense of malevolence. Plastic People – another twin guitar, bass and drums four piece were everything Hands Off Gretel were not: light, airy, no sense of malevolence. They were perfectly fine, but didn’t make it onto my ‘must see again’ list I’m afraid.


I moved on to The King Blues at The Electric Ballroom. What’s the capacity of this festival? Every venue so far has been rammed and it’s only 2.30pm. I guess the weather helps – it’s horizon to horizon blue sky outside and the perfect temperature for drinking beer. Whilst the roadies do their stuff, we alternately hear nasty bass followed by George Formby ukulele. It’s going to be an intoxicating mix, and it started with some arm round shoulders a capella and ‘If I Had A Coin’. Gary Barlow would have been proud. The Ballroom is a great venue with true heritage and an absurdly high stage. Sight lines from the pit are not helped by stage monitors that look like they were designed in the USSR. Only photographers in excess of eight feet tall should expect to see anything below the knee, though Itch did allow us sight of his lower extremities with a brief excursion onto the barrier. I left after three songs, was chucked out of the emergency exit (a manoeuvre perfected at this venue) and headed up and over Camden Lock for my next appointment. I never got to hear the uke in anger.


Next stop: The Black Roses at The Hawley Arms – another venue new to me and one with which I was soon to fall in love. The upstairs room for music was further light relief from the oppressive darkness of the EB and had some classy wood paneling on the far wall. It wasn’t that full when I arrived: “Go on, smash it Rich”, shouted a mate of the band as The Black Roses prepared to start. It made a refreshing change to the corporatised vibe at the bigger venues. The Black Roses played bouncy indie rock that I enjoyed very much. Their self-funded EP ‘Utopia’ is on SoundCloud and well worth a listen. In what was by now becoming a common theme, the pub was rammed by the time I finished.


I moved a little further north to Proud Camden. An art gallery by day and music venue by night, there’s a slightly schizophrenic air about the place but nobody inside cares about that as once again, a venue is heaving – this time for a performance by hard rock four-piece, Stone Broken. With lighting to rival The Underworld and a smoke machine operator that was clearly on piece rates, nobody can see the band and photography is nigh on impossible, but hey, who cares about promotion anyway? Probably not Stone Broken in all fairness, as the band seem to be doing very well anyway, thank you. A support slot with Cheap Trick at The Forum in June and main stage performance at Ramblin’ Man Fair in July are testament to that.


I’m shortly back in the gloom at The Electric Ballroom for three songs of thrashing angst in the company of Leeds band Pulled Apart By Horses. Sadly, the smog seems to have followed me from Proud but I can just about make out Tom Hudson peering through his blond thatch, Kurt Cobain style. Pulled Apart By Horses are promoting their latest album release ‘The Haze’. Much like this afternoon’s performance, it is very, very loud. It’s an engaging show, but after three songs I am once again thrown out of the side exit.


Back over the canal now and to what must be one of the nicest venues anywhere – Dingwalls Canalside. Oak beams abound and with the view outside it actually feels a little like being in a narrowboat. Only faces peering through the windows and an absence of the outside moving at 4mph give the game away. Flight Brigade are the band and they make a great sound; sweeping, anthemic indie rock soundscapes with occasional alt-folk underpinnings. A violin makes for an interesting dynamic and the male/female vocal arrangements are superb. The band are a very tight knit unit and that’s hardly surprising given that guitarist and vocalist Ollie Baines is married to keys player Miriam, who is a sibling of classically trained violinist Dorry Macaulay. The rest of the band are old school friends. I really enjoyed what I heard and hopefully Flight Brigade are destined for deserved big things.


Whilst here, I crossed over to the main Dingwalls venue and caught a few minutes of The Main Grains – vocalist and bassist Danny McCormack sat on a stool singing into a vintage mic – which apparently, he always does. The Main Grains are a Punk ‘n’ Roll band, and given that the genre exists, I’d say it was a fair enough moniker based on the small amount I heard. The most notable thing about Dingwalls was that there was a barrier and a photo-pit (there isn’t usually) and this was going to come in handy later on. I didn’t hang around as I wanted to get back to The Hawley Arms to see London/Belfast duo REWS, a band who have been making some waves and whose pop/rock sound is wildly infectious. REWS didn’t disappoint; guitarist/vocalist Shauna Tohill and drummer Collette Williams have great chemistry together and put on an excellent show to another wedged crowd.


Back to the Electric Ballroom and its ankle defying stage next for The Professionals, a band that gets everybody in punk-laden Camden excited because of their connection to The Sex Pistols. The connection might be pretty tenuous these days (original member Steve Jones quit and the band dissolved in 1982, making drummer Paul Cook the only direct link to the Pistols for this new 2017 iteration); but they come out to the theme music from the ‘70s hit TV show and strut about like the good old days. It’s still all a lot of fun.


I return to The Hawley Arms. I can’t get enough of the place. I find a musician staring at a Marshall head atop an 8×10 cabinet that is feeding back. He appears to be turning the amp up. I’m not an audio engineer, but…

It turns out the musician is Tom Bellamy, ex of The Cooper Temple Clause and a talented multi-instrumentalist. He obviously knows what he’s doing. In fact, it was a metaphor for what was about to happen next. Bellamy’s new band is called Losers and they were about to assault the senses with apparently insane music that somehow also managed to make perfect sense. Front man Paul Mullen yelled into two mics at once, occasionally hit a keyboard, regularly battered some electronic drum pads, and frequently operated guitar effect pedals with his hands.


The pedals appeared to make no discernable difference to anything. It was compelling stuff and made for great photography. Sadly, I had to leave as I’d allotted time to check out female garage rock band The Franklys at The Fiddler’s Elbow – the most northerly venue on the map and a fair walk as it transpired. What can I say about The Franklys? Three minutes of my life and around a dozen shutter actuations I’ll never get back. And that’s pretty much all I can say about the Franklys.


To be fair, I should have given them more time, but I had to get back to The Camden Assembly to see The Blinders. ‘The Camden Assembly’ is what we all used to know and love as iconic music venue, The Barfly. Sadly, the nineties and noughties seedy vibe that saw some of the most significant acts of those decades pass through its doors has been swept away in favour of a glitter ball and understated cocktail bar lighting. Millions has been spent on the place but that doesn’t necessarily buy you class – as Donald Trump would testify, were he capable of understanding what I’m on about. The Blinders are favourites of FOTF – indeed they are one of the artists who appear on the FOTF ‘Soundcheck’ album and they’ve been reviewed before by us. Following the lead established by fellow Manchester based alt-punk heroes Cabbage, The Blinders wear their hearts on their sleeves – or chest in the case of front man Thomas Heywood, who had the word ‘Labour’ smeared across his otherwise naked upper torso. The music is loud, the atmosphere intense – not helped (or I suppose, helped) by lighting of the sub-candle variety and smoke of the Chinese heavy industry genre.


I hang around for a while and then head back to Dingwalls to see Milburn. En Route, I pass The Hawley Arms again and can’t help but get sucked in. I’m so glad I was. Southend four-piece Asylums were coming to the end of their set and the place was going wild. The band were in the audience (one bemused audience member ended up holding front man Luke Branch’s guitar), the audience were in the band; everyone was in the moment. I’ve since been listening to the bands’ debut album ‘Killer Brain Waves’ and it is excellent – a wonderful mix of glassy pop-rock and nasty grunge. I guess I’m kind of describing Biffy Clyro there, only rest assured, I’m not. Asylums and REWS were my picks of the day.


OK, onto Dingwalls. Milburn, another band that are back together after a prolonged absence played to a crowd dining out on mid-noughties nostalgia, their name being chanted ahead of the performance and between songs. Having just filled Sheffield’s Don Valley Bowl, Dingwalls must have seemed intimate indeed.


I stayed for my three songs of jangling indie rock and headed in the direction of my final appointment at The Electric Ballroom, where The Damned were waiting to play the headline slot.

If you’re going to run a festival littered with punk overtones, you might as well have the grand-daddy of them all headline one of the biggest stages. Whilst there have been multiple personnel changes since 1976 (yep, that’s 41 years ago), the current lineup has been consistent for an impressive 13 years and as it still boasts front men Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible, you’d be hard pressed to expect a great deal more. Much of the set was harnessed from ‘Damned Damned Damned’ and ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’, the two albums that cemented their role in history and the crowd were unashamedly nostalgic. As I left for my last appointment of the day, Captain Sensible was urging everyone to vote Labour. Now, that’s real nostalgia.

I left through the familiar side exit to discover that having had beautiful blue skies all day, it was now hammering with rain. I decided to take the tube to my final venue, KOKO – right at the southern tip of the festival strip. This was a good idea as it’s quite a walk and along with most, I had no coat. It’s a very short one stop-hop to Mornington Crescent, or at least it is if you get on the right train. If you get on the wrong one, you end up at Euston, struggle to find the northbound platform, wait ages for a northbound train and finally arrive at KOKO in twice the time it would have taken you to walk. Schoolboy error.

I got to the photo pit only just in time for Feeder’s headline performance. It was good to finish here. KOKO is by far one of the nicest venues in London. I’ll confess my knowledge of Feeder pretty much starts and stops with the hits ‘Just The Way I’m Feeling’ and ‘Buck Rogers’ which get played on Absolute Radio/Radio X etc. approximately every 15 minutes. Whilst it must feel great to be financially secure off the back of a couple of songs, I imagine people like me must irk the band and their true fan base. I didn’t get to hear either of those songs – they came later in the set – though the band sounded quite a bit heavier than I expected. Whether this was due to the live context or because Feeder actually are quite a bit heavier than I expected is something I intend to discover through the joys of the back catalogue in the coming weeks – and that, after all, is part of what an event like this is all about.


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Live music or photography? Photography or live music? Sod it. Let’s do both, frequently. I cover venues from London to the south coast.

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