“That rock ‘n’ roll, eh?”, Alex Turner once spoke; his hair full of Brylcreem and his mouth sounding as if it was full of Werther’s Originals. Whilst this phrase at first glance may simply appear as the vague ramblings of an over-indulged rockstar, it is in fact a rather accurate summary of the current state of bass, drums, guitar and all of their various formations. Rock music’s contemporary condition raises far more questions than it does answers (a bit like Turner’s speech). Many have been quick to decry a lack of riffing in the charts and an absence of bands being tipped in “Sound of” polls as the death of “guitar music”, that it has lost its way; blinded by viral spectacle and the flashing LEDs of Calvin Harris stage shows. To a degree they’re right, although not to the doom-saying magnitude some would like to predict. Guitar-centric music is currently facing a trough in mainstream culture, descending from the peak we experienced during the indie boom of ’04-’08. However, things could be worse; Travis used to headline festivals. Like with anything as expansive as rock music, or music in general, it all depends on where you look.
Camden Rocks, with its plethora of over 200 bands across 20 venues lying on a mile-long stretch of road in North London, illustrates that the appetite for chest-beating anthems, head-banging grooves and visceral chaos is still very, very much alive. As the wristband exchange for the sold-out event opens at 11am inside the borough’s landmark The World’s End pub, the queue is already streaming down the road, however is dealt with speedily by the organised team working away indoors. The 2,000-strong clientèle begins to take shape; a mix of old Camden punks, floppy-haired teens and average-Joe-looking rock fans, converging on the same area to revel in their mutual passions. As soon as the doors have opened, attendees start flocking to the bar; initiating a process that will be repeated on many occasions before the end of the day. With a large mass of the days entertainment occurring in the back rooms of some of London’s most endeared drinking establishments, offering an exhaustive array of ciders, spirits and ales, to finish the day not crawling back to Mornington Crescent station on semi-functioning limbs almost feels like a slight against the area’s reputation.
After a five-minute walk accompanied by a new, securely attached wristband, I reach The Beatrice to see my first act of the day, the Kentish indie outfit Get Inuit. A somewhat unconventional way to commence an event that’s esteemed for its array of hardcore and metal, the band’s combination of Vampire Weekend-y idiosyncrasies and FIDLAR-ish surf-punk certainly delivered. Summery and energetically jaunty, the four-piece were the perfect soundtrack to the bright midday surroundings.
Following their set it was time to journey back up the road to Dingwalls, the streets now bursting to capacity with the usual horde of tourists and the extra 2,000 revellers also present. This made travelling from venue to venue at times a tad uncomfortable, although considering that there is nowhere else in the UK, or probably in the world, where there are so many highly-regarded gig rooms concentrated in such a locale, it really is a meagre price to pay.
Upon arrival to the underground space I was greeted by the presence of the bluesy, Bristol-bred Tax the Heat. Excitedly trawling through a collection of singalong choruses, clap-your-hands bridge sections and riffs Jack White would be happy to call his own, the group received a warm reaction from the early afternoon crowd.
Moving up towards Chalk Farm station, it was soon enough time to stop by Barfly to see Pontypridd’s Straight Lines. Appearing on stage marginally later than billed, the band took full responsibility for their tardiness, admitting they had only been in Camden for 10 minutes. With the horror stories that usually plague small festivals of timetables developing their own life, leaving everyone involved meandering in a state of confusion and frustration, this was about as nominal as it could get. Nevertheless, all was soon forgotten as the band’s professionalism was reaffirmed through their tight, faultless playing. Breezing through intricate, desert-tinged guitar work, the group performed a set of angular alternative rock songs with a persistent gloomy undercurrent; if At the Drive-In’s favourite band had been Black Sabbath, this would have been near the end result.
The next show of the day takes place at The Good Mixer, once the pub of choice for members of Blur and Suede. With the performance area about the size of a larger-than average living room, it seemed like the perfect setting for a rough-and-ready punk gig, and that is exactly what The St. Pierre Snake Invasion brought. Like if the MC5 had been fronted by Andy Falkous, vocalist Damien Sayell snarls sardonic lyrics against the backdrop of a bruising garage rock attack, slaying through tracks such as “Last Words of a Bent Cop” and set-closer “If the Only Way is Essex You Can Kill Me Now”. Cynical, outspoken, exceptionally funny and really fucking angry.
As my friends and I made a return to the Barfly to catch Max Raptor, one of my mates stopped outside The Monarch to have a chat with Baby Godzilla, a headliner performing later in the evening (more on them later). This communal atmosphere was possibly the greatest strength of the festival; the barrier between bands and ticket-holders practically non-existent. They traversed the same pavements, they ate from the same greasy chinese food stalls, they drank in the same pubs, and when they weren’t performing they were watching the same bands. For a festival taking place in the heart of London, in between KFCs and Starbucks outlets, the sense of being a part of something relatively close-knit was palpable; far more than one would feel at Reading Festival, per se. Considering metropolitan festivals are usually full of disinterested journos, this spirit of genuine enthusiasm was a welcome departure.
Max Raptor’s goal of topping St. Pierre would be a pretty ambitious feat if asked of many other acts, however the band comfortably succeeded by a country mile. Equipped with an arsenal of politically-charged anthems performed water-tightly, intensely and with searing conviction, there is absolutely no reason why the band should not be the size of an act such as Billy Talent aside from cosmic injustice. Playing to a crowd that hung on vocalist Will Ray’s every word, it was the first set of the day which truly felt headline-worthy. Gripping, smart and fantastically fun.
Following their impressive set it was a very brisk walk to Electric Ballroom to watch Turbowolf, who ten minutes in to their set had already packed out the 1,100 capacity venue. Sublimely executing their blend of hard rock stoner-psychedelia, they garnered some of greatest crowd appraisal of the day, the pits to the front of stage looking particularly lively as I viewed them from the safety of the balcony.
Next it was to The Black Heart for hardcore parody act The Hell. Donning bandana face masks and equally ridiculous detuned guitars, the band played through a series of juvenile tracks such as “Groovehammer” and “Shit Just Got Real” whilst taking every possible opportunity to antagonise the audience through the flipping of birds and incessant cursing. Puerile, yet unabashedly hilarious.
With the day drawing to a close it was finally the hour to voyage to The Monarch and experience one of the most acclaimed live rock groups in the UK today, Baby Godzilla. Performing with a manic exuberance, it only took two songs for a chandelier to be damaged, a ledge to be broken off a wall and vocalist/guitarist Matt to be hanging off a wooden beam, upside down, screaming. So, business as usual. Possibly the only time the security have been more concerned with a band’s behaviour rather than an audience’s, the event was on occasion hysterical, on others terrifying, but always thrilling.
Concluding before any long-lasting structural damage to the venue had been committed gave time to skip to The Hawley Arms to catch the final moments of Slaves. Authentically menacing, with a drum-circle level of primal ferocity, the duo’s frenzied conduct was matched only by the crowd’s frenetic reaction.
As Slaves departed the stage and the swarm of people began to escape the sweat-permeated room to the semi-fresh air of the venue’s smoking area and the Camden streets, no one cared what was number one at the time. No one cared what was the biggest-selling rock album of the year. When you’ve got an underground scene this vibrant, this vast and this bloody good, why would you?