At the Cruel World festival, artists and fans relive and revive the ’80s
Live from Brookside at the Rose Bowl, this weekend’s Cruel World music festival features some of the biggest names from the 1980s new wave and goth scenes, including honorary Angeleno Morrissey, English goth O.G.s Bauhaus and New York’s CBGB breakthrough stars Blondie, plus Devo, the Psychedelic Furs, the Violent Femmes, Australia’s Church and local legends 45 Grave and Christian Death.
Produced by Coachella promoter Goldenvoice, Cruel World time-travels back to that moment when synthesizers were supplanting guitars and rebel teens born into baby boomer hegemony were hungrily seeking new sounds, ideas and hairdos.
Today is sold out, but tickets remain for Sunday.
Times’ music reporters Randall Roberts and Suzy Exposito will be braving the heat and reporting live from the festival throughout today and tonight.
11:19 p.m. As the king faced his court, dressed in a black suit and bow tie like a host at the Oscars, Morrissey stood defiant in front of the Cruel World crowd bellowing the lyrics of “Irish Blood, English Heart,” and we believed him when he said “there is no one on earth I’m afraid of.” Though he thankfully didn’t share any of his conservative political opinions from stage, he did nearly give late-coming fans a heart attack when he said “good night and thank you” after just two songs, only to come back moments later to continue on with the strutting pop beat of “Knockabout World.” He also gave us a handful of classics many young Moz fans may never have heard him sing live, such as “Suedehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” Perennial lyrics of youthful angst and self-discovery rang true with all generations of Moz fans, from the gray-haired goths to the kids who just bought their first Smiths t-shirt at Hot Topic. His ghostly vibrato captured the crowd until the very end of his one-hour set, when the punk sneer of the Smiths’ “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” rocketed the headlining set to a close. — NJ
10:44 p.m. Sporting ginormous amber spectacles and a chunky red belt, platinum-coiffed punk icon Debbie Harry took her place front and center at the Sad Girls stage and led Blondie into a thunderous rendition of “X Offender,” from the band’s 1976 debut. Co-founder and guitarist Chris Stein had to bow out of this year’s fest — citing a heart condition called atrial fibrillation — but original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock held the line, rocking along with drummer Clem Burke as they retrofitted their sparkling dancefloor hit “Atomic” with a raucous surf-punk spiral, and spurred a singalong among the crowd for “Heart of Glass.”
Harry may be the toast of Los Angeles tonight, but she is and always will be a wise-cracking fly girl from New York City. “Dreaming is free,” said Harry, quoting the chorus of their 1979 hit. “But you know, my manager told me there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And it’s true. Come to think of it, he never took me to lunch!” — SE
9:40 p.m. During Bauhaus’ 9-minute opus “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” Peter Murphy commanded the stage, the red spotlight hitting the sparkles of his black rhinestone jumpsuit as he howled like a specter for an ocean of goths. Shadows of the band swayed in the strobe lights while Murphy’s spindly arms were outstretched in the starched position of a crucifix. It was the height of haunted heaven for those looking for their fix of the dark side. — Nate Jackson
8:40 p.m. Over at the Lost Boys stage, Berlin, who fleetingly reunited for its 40th anniversary, several months before the pandemic hit, returned to the stage for a spirited run through their greatest hits. Fronted by a fiery Terri Nunn, the band, which included O.G. members John Crawford and David Diamond, blazed between dancefloor cuts like “The Metro” and ballads like their 1986 “Top Gun” smash “Take My Breath Away.” The band closed with a punky rendition of Nunn’s anthemic “Sex (I’m A…),” a punchy, sex-positive missive that feels radical during a time when women’s bodily autonomy is under attack. — SE
8:32 p.m. A smile crept across Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler‘s face as he was singing their classic song, “The Ghost in You.” Facing a crowd who knew all the words, he looked awestruck — it was hard to tell because he was wearing sunglasses at dusk — stared down at the stage as if overwhelmed and then continued singing. The feeling was mutual. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve been in a crowded music festival in more than two years. To hear Butler and band roll through cavernous songs like “India” and wry odes like “Love My Way” felt comfortably, wonderfully normal.
As the latter song was starting, one couple seemingly done with the Furs and on their way to the beer tent stopped mid-track as the first melody rang, turned back to face the stage and started slow dancing, eagerly embracing the moment. — RR
8:10 p.m. From the start of their career in the early 1970s, Devo has done the work. Synchronized dances? Check. Philosophical treatise? Absolutely. Coordinated uniforms that have changed with each new project? Yep.
On Saturday, their de-evolutionary theories were on full display as the band wrestled with postulations. Their deconstructed take on the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” remains shocking 45 years after it was released — and they still played it while wearing yellow hazmat suits and dancing, Pips-like, in synchrony. For “Girl U Want,” singer Mark Mothersbaugh marched in place while saluting the setting sun, committed to the cause like a righteous soldier facing a firing squad. For “Whip It,” their most recognizable song, Mothersbaugh introduced it as “something we’ve been working on.” Given the energy they expended, it was hard to tell whether he was kidding or not. — RR
7:25 p.m. In 1983, Violent Femmes burst onto the scene through their self-titled debut album — and were extreme outliers. Not from New York or Los Angeles, but from Milwaukee. Signed to L.A. punk label Slash, but folky. They didn’t have funny hairdos, didn’t use synthesizers and dressed like straight-A students.
But their work was as primal as punk, focused on quotidian teenage subject matter like masturbation (“Blister in the Sun”), securing car keys from parental units (“Gimme the Car”) and begging, pleading to a girlfriend for just one… sensual moment (“Add It Up”), all of which they played on Saturday. — RR
6:40 p.m. When the Damned broke into “Love Song,” their snarky, self-aware hit about the demands of the pop-music machine, it occurred not long after Public Image Ltd. had played their equally cheeky hit “This Is Not a Love Song” on the other side of the festival. Both were confessions wrapped in obfuscation, and were delivered by the two lead singers who, in 1976 London, recorded back to back punk hits “Neat Neat Neat” (the Damned) and “Anarchy in the U.K.” (Sex Pistols).
The Damned’s Dave Vanian looks sharp and ageless, like a GQ vampire, and commanded the stage like he’d just sucked Johnny Rotten’s blood. Absent Captain Sensible, who was unable to travel because he remains unvaccinated, Vanian, drummer Will Taylor and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen tore through the band’s classic punk songs like the intervening decades had been mere hours. — RR
5:20 p.m. Remember AFI? If you floated between the punk and goth tables in your high school cafeteria, you probably do. This weekend, band members Davey Havok and Jade Puget rolled out their industrial dance-pop project Blqck Audio for a rare performance. In a scene straight out of a Gregg Araki movie, Havok led the angstiest day rave Pasadena’s ever seen. — SE
5:18 p.m. John Lydon, who as Johnny Rotten upended pop culture with his band the Sex Pistols, took the stage at Cruel World in an oversized blue and white plaid suit and clashing plaid tie. Performing with his post-Pistols band Public Image Ltd., Lydon yowled and bellowed through songs from across the band’s career, and did so with a presence that hasn’t at all diminished with age. He was a scary-looking youngster who’s become a scary old man — with a cynicism that has sharpened with age.
When, during “Swan Lake,” he sang, “Never really know / Till it’s gone away / Never realize / The silence in your eyes,” he did so with the passion and fury of a man staring at the abyss. — RR
5:10 p.m. Armed with only a microphone and a red Solo cup, Robert Alfons, who performs under the name TR/ST (pronounced “trust”), spellbound the crowd with the physicality of his performance. Dressed in a nude mesh glitter shirt, Alfons undulated across the stage as footage of concertgoers, dancing spiritedly to his fiendish synth-pop, rolled in the background. — SE
4:28 p.m. Overheard in the VIP area, about 300 yards from the Sad Girls stage, where Missing Persons’ Dale Bozzio was singing the lyric, “Nobody walks in L.A.”
“Ooh, is that Missing Persons playing ‘Walking in L.A.’?”
“Yeah it is!”
“Hmm. I’d go over there but I don’t feel like walking.” — RR
4:18 p.m. There’s a Joy Division-shaped hole in this festival — and the earth at large — but at least we had Los Angeles darkwave band Cold Cave to bring the beat to the Outsiders stage. Fronted by the enigmatic singer Wesley Eisold, the band charged through their four-on-the-floor dance cuts with the painstaking precision of the world’s gloomiest heart surgeons, including tracks from their latest EP, 2021’s “Fate in Seven Lessons.” Eisold, a published poet, had little stage banter: “See you tomorrow,” he said coolly, tossing aside his sleek curtain of hair before retreating from the stage. — SE
3:15 p.m. Is there anything more insensitive to the plight of the undead than scheduling one of their favorite bands at the brightest and hottest time of the day? Surely promoters understood that light diminishes energy in black-clothed cultures.
“All I got is a black cross and two crabs in my left eye,” sang pink-and-purple-haired Dinah Cancer of L.A. goth punk band 45 Grave on “Black Cross,” a circumstance likely exacerbated by the harsh midday sun.
She concluded the song with another rage against the here-and-now reality. “Cancel the world, erase history / There is no future as far as I can see.”
Well, except for the future that happens later today, when the sun will set, a breeze will drift through Brookside, Devo will tell us how devolved we’ve become and Morrissey will confess how miserable he remains. — RR
3:10 p.m. As far as I can see, the hottest real estate at the goth fest is in the shade, under the trees. The competition is cutthroat — but this heat is nothing that L.A. goths can’t handle. For the more photosensitive among us, the nice ladies running the “Visit Pasadena” tent are handing out free parasols. — Suzy Exposito
2:30 p.m. The vintage T-shirts were on full display at Cruel World, the new wave, goth and proto-alternative festival that just got underway at Brookside at the Rose Bowl. Fans signified their passions while preparing for a searing day in Pasadena, where acts including Devo, Morrissey, Blondie and a few dozen others will celebrate the sounds of the ’80s, in temperatures hovering in the 90s.
Ceremony, Dead Can Dance, Psychedelic Furs, Idles, the English Beat, Iceage, the Clash, X, the Smiths, Epitaph Records, Joy Division: each T-shirt a confirmation that goth and punk culture transcends age and ethnicity.
(One misfit was overheard talking about seeing Rush on the “Hemispheres” tour. Dude, you are at the wrong festival!)
Early in the day, influential So Cal goths Christian Death, whose work starting in the late ’70s focused on grim themes and anti-religious provocations, offered a sun-scorching greeting in the form of “The Alpha and the Omega.”
“Abandon all your hope, all who enter here,” sang guitarist Valor Kand. “If you’re not dead and cold, then you’re the enemy.”
As far as we can tell, we’re all still alive and we’re already very hot. — Randall Roberts
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