Monday, February 5, 2024

Cruel World 2023: Siouxsie, Iggy Pop, Human League, Billy Idol, Gang of Four, Gary Numan, Love and Rockets


director's cut, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2023

by Simon Reynolds

The day before Cruel World, the promoters tweeted out a weather advisory: “mostly sunny, high of 79, 100% chance of angst and despair. See you there.” 

In the event, the weather had other ideas. 

But on Saturday a horde of mope-rockers and Goths clad in sun-absorbing black descended upon Brookside at the Rosebowl, Pasadena. 

Quite possibly this was the densest concentration of fishnet in human history.

For many, the main draw was headliner Siouxsie, the Godmother of Goth, playing her first American concert in fifteen years. Indeed, Siouxsie merch was completely sold out by 4pm.  Other attractions for the dark-clad and doom-minded included Love and Rockets, an offshoot of Bauhaus (Goth godfathers and a highlight of 2022’s inaugural Cruel World) and Echo and the Bunnymen, who were originally lined up to play last year.

Cruel World has fun with the idea of misery as a shared alt-rock worldview. The festival’s three stages are named Outsiders, Sad Girls, and Lost Boys. There’s also a dance area, deejayed by someone called Club Doom Dave. Then there’s the name itself, derived from the suicidal kiss-off  “goodbye, cruel world”.

In Goth, the cruelty of the world doesn’t have a political dimension: it’s not a reference to economic inequality or the literally hateful policies being enacted all around this country. “Cruel” is a more timeless existentialist accusation about a sadness inherent to life itself. 

The connection between the bands and their fans was forged during adolescence, that time when sensitive souls start having deep thoughts. Yet most of this largely middle-aged crowd must surely now be well-adjusted and comfortable in their skin (not to mention comfortably off, given ticket prices that range from $159 to $799). Many even brought morose, awkward teenagers of their own.

The key to Goth’s transgenerational appeal is its odd blend of glum and glam. Before the term Goth settled into place, the emerging movement was briefly known as “positive punk.” That might seem an odd adjective given the dark worldview, but the positive part is the element of dress-up and cos-play, the sheer effort that goes into self-beautification. 

It’s a perennially seductive style whose sepulchral glamor appeals as an alternative to mainstream ideals of blondeness and tanned health—especially in SoCal.  The leather caps and steel chains, the heavy black eyeliner and whiteface make-up, the holey fishnets and ratted hair – these also serve as a beacon to fellow misfits, a way off finding your tribe while scaring off the normals. It’s a forbidding look that also suggests the forbidden –  a taste for sin and kink, with a hint of demonic cruelty. 

Yet despite the ungodly appearance, it’s probably the most gentle of youth subcultures: visually, a kick in the eye, but in truth, it’s Goths and their emo descendants who are often victims of violence rather than the other way round.

 Ironically, my favorite garment at Cruel World was a simple T-shirt bearing the slogan “No, I Don’t Want To Hear the New Stuff.” The wearer told me he’d printed it up in a special edition-of-one.

The T-shirt speaks to the expectations of the fans who attends festivals like these that are full of legacy acts.  Our beloved artists like to believe they’ve only got better with age and still have new things to say. But we just want to hear the favorites that remind us of our youth.

Gary Numan didn’t seem to have gotten the memo. Despite making his name with doomy dystopian electropop, he stubbornly treated the audience to a heaping portion of late period stuff: grinding industrial rock from a phase when he appeared to be following the lead of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. Ironically, his earliest work as Tubeway Army featured much better guitar riffs. Numan did play his classic “Cars.” And you have to appreciate the effort he’s putting into looking the same as he did in his heavy-rotation MTV days. 

Not everyone attending Cruel World was a Goth and angst wasn’t the only thing on the menu. Squeeze (a last minute replacement for Adam Ant) sounded as cheery and ebullient as ever. Still boyish-looking at 65, Glenn Tilbrook sang the group’s post-Beatles classics like “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” with ageless sweetness.

Billy Idol is looking a little craggy these days and the rebel-sneer lip doesn’t curl up like it used to. But he was in fine voice and roused the second-stage crowd with hits like “Dancing By Myself” and “Rebel Yell,” interspersed with consummate showman patter. 

ABC and The Human League also come from that early MTV moment of the Second British Invasion, what people in the UK called New Pop: postpunk artists who glossed up and crossed over. Both hail from Sheffield in the north east of England,  an original bastion of Goth, but have no truck with miserabilism, writing songs  (“Tears Are Not Enough” and “Blind Youth” respectively) that are militantly optimistic. 

Then there’s Gang of Four, whose bleakness, inspired by the ravages of capitalism, is quite different from Goth’s, and who offset it with a grim resoluteness. They were as powerful a live band as ever, with singer Jon King exerting himself so vigorously he had to sit on the monitor at the front of stage between songs to catch his breath.

Drifting nearer the dark side, Echo and the Bunnymen have songs about death (“The Cutter”) and despair (“All My Colours”). But they are delivered with such drive and dazzle, the effect is uplifting. On songs like “Rescue,” Ian McCulloch’s sonorous baritone recalls Jim Morrison at his most majestic. Most of the Bunnymen’s songs traffic in windswept romanticism full of elemental imagery (titles like “Seven Seas” and  “The Killing Moon” – the latter prefaced with typical McCulloch swagger as “the greatest song ever written”). But politics figured briefly with “Never Stop,” a song of defiance originally released as a single at the height of Thatcherism. At Cruel World, this was prefaced by caustic comments from McCulloch about the late Conservative Prime Minister and her heartless proposal of a policy of “managed decline” for his once bustling hometown of Liverpool.  The Bunnymen didn’t go in much for stage craft:  there were some thin wisps of dry ice but the video screens were off and there were no back projections;  McCulloch stood stock still throughout. But the songs and the singing were more than enough.

Among the songs the Bunnymen played  was “Lips Like Sugar”, the nearest the band ever came to a hit in America. It’s always struck me as a killer chorus looking for a verse and pre-chorus.  Love and Rockets likewise similarly feel like a great guitarist looking for a matching rhythm section and some decent tunes.  As at last year’s Cruel World Bauhaus performance, Daniel Ash’s gnarly but intricately textured racket was a highlight.  But singers Ash and bassist Daniel J, lack the commanding presence of Peter Murphy. Their T.Rex  aping MTV hit “So Alive” retains its slight charm,  but the cover of  The Temptations’s “Ball of Confusion” remains perplexingly surplus to requirements.  

And then came the promised angst and despair – Cruel Nature struck. Midway through a taut and joyous set by The Human League on one stage and Iggy Pop’s middle-schooler grandson doing a funny little dance during “The Passenger” on another, the show came to an abrupt halt. The audience was instructed to leave the festival site and seek shelter because of an approaching lightning storm. Those nearest the main exit dispersed in orderly fashion and relative good humor, but for those deeper into the Brookside grounds, getting out was a more frustrating and protracted process.

And then the even crueler twist: the threatened bolts of lightning, the thunder, rain and pea-sized hailstones, never reached Pasadena.

To their and the artists's credit, Cruel World managed to reschedule the performances of Iggy Pop and Siouxsie for the following night. But this was scant consolation for those already flying or driving long distance journeys back to their hometowns across the country. Indeed, the fact that Siouxsie and Iggy would now be able to play longer sets arguably just added salt to the wound.

 “Déjà vu, baby!”  Iggy’s dazed-and-amazed greeting to the crowd acknowledged the Groundhog Day vibe of us all reassembling at the same place the next day.   

I first saw Iggy live in 1988 and he seemed venerable even then, a rock’n’roll survivor, albeit with implausibly limitless reserves of energy.  35 years later, he’s still ridiculously dynamic for a 76-year-old. Bounding around the stage with a disconcerting lope that suggests something’s off with his hip, he simultaneously owns his ancientness and defies it. His shirtless physique is fascinating in its combination of muscle and wrinkle. The skin looks like a topographical map of the Rockies. It’s like Iggy’s been carved into rock’s equivalent of Rushmore – and then broke loose to keep on marauding stages across the world.  

It’s clear that he’s not doing it for the money, but for the sheer joy of it. Iggy also understands the strength of his own material, sticking largely to Stooges and early solo highpoints.  

He can’t quite summon the lung-power for the cyclone-howl that splits apart the original “TV Eye”, so during that section sticks the microphone into his waistband where it pokes out suggestively. 

But for the most part, ably supported by his band, Iggy powers through deathless classics like “Raw Power,”  “Gimme Danger” , “Sick of You”, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “Search and Destroy”.   Clearly, a man determined to rock until he drops.

Dusk descends and finally the Goddess of Goth takes the stage. Siouxsie relives the trauma of the previous night,  joking that she told the fire department that the lightning was “just part of our fuckin’ light show.” 

Initially cloaked in a Medieval-looking hood, she’s wearing a silver jump-suit that shimmers in the light. Her voice has grown deeper with the decades but this lends her singing even more baleful authority, evoking some kind of vengeful spirit of matriarchy. 

 The set starts with “Nightshift” and “Arabian Knights”, both from Juju, the 1981 album that is Goth’s Rosetta Stone.  Two further Juju songs, “Sin In My Heart”, for which Siouxsie straps on a guitar, and “Spellbound”, are played later, underscoring the genre-foundational nature of the record. 

It’s Siouxsie without the Banshees – guitarist John McGeoch is dead, drummer Budgie is now Siouxsie’s ex-spouse, and who knows if bassist and band co-founder Steve Severin was invited or consulted? But the Banshees-surrogates onstage do a fine job duplicating the glassy guitar, the pummel-drone of the bass, and the tumbly-tribal rhythms. 

But then Siouxsie repeats the Numan Error. Instead of using her extended set time to disinter classics from A Kiss in the Dreamhouse or play the Goth National Anthem “Fireworks,” she plays no less than four songs from the solo album Mantaray. There’s a tune off the Batman Returns soundtrack and a pair of duds from 1986’s sparkless Tinderbox. 

One unusual choice that entrances is “But Not Them” from her percussion-and-voice side project The Creatures.  It’s noticeable that the video projections oscillate in quality and imagination in parallel with the tunes – “Christine” comes with a mesmerizing psychedelic kaleidoscope, whereas Batman tune “Face To Face” clunkily deploys cat’s eyes. 

Siouxsie’s return was a qualified triumph: there was a touch too much turgid dirge in the setlist, and as her energy levels flagged, the voice grew unwieldy and the enchantress-style arm movements started to seem perfunctory. 

But with a glorious rendition of of “Happy House” and the stunning encores “Spellbound” and “Israel”, the idol earned her ovation.     

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