A sprawling all-day springtime event celebrating the darker edge of ’80s music held under a brutal Southern California sun? It might sound antithetical, but the Cruel World Festival, which took over Pasadena’s Brookside golf course at the Rose Bowl this weekend, was a fitting, full-circle moment for music, celebrating and validating an often misunderstood — and even mocked — subculture. It was also a reminder that the U.S., and specifically Los Angeles, has long served as a welcoming home for gloomy post-punk — maybe even more so than the U.K.
Saturday and Sunday’s festivities highlighted the legacy of Gen-X’s dark side with a dynamic and defiant bill full of enigmatic weirdos and erstwhile rock heroes, most in their sixties or older. Indeed, all of the headliners – Morrissey, Bauhaus, Devo, Blondie, Psychedelic Furs, Violent Femmes, the Damned — have had extensive, storied careers as outsider artists who managed to break through with some mainstream hits, mainly via MTV and movie soundtracks. They are older now, but so are their faithful fans, and nostalgic allure can’t be overstated.
If Woodstock-era classic rock exemplifies anti-establishment ethos and coming of age for the boomer set, new wave and dark wave embodies a different kind of self expression and view of the (cruel) world that came after it. It might be more cynical but it’s also more theatrical.
Goldenvoice smartly saw this niche between Coachella and 2016’s Desert Trip (“Oldchella”) and, like many L.A. residents, we were excited to see them fill it when the festival was first announced a couple years ago. The promoters had to postpone both Cruel World and Coachella in 2021 due to the pandemic, and after two successful weekends with the latter in Indio last month, anticipation for Cruel World hit a fever pitch.
It didn’t hurt attendance that Coachella has consciously pivoted toward pop stars and influencer-friendly acts in recent years, and away from the band reunions and retro-rock act bookings of its early days. For those who started going to the desert fest in the early 2000s, this gradual shift was fine because it allowed for the best of both worlds — watching acts of your youth and catching new artists creating buzz. And Coachella could be relied upon for musical diversity — old and new, popular and alternative, with plenty of rock, hip-hop and dance offerings.
There’s a reason why Danny Elfman got so much attention for his Coachella set this year. An elder statesman of the scene (via L.A.’s Oingo Boingo and Tim Burton film scores), he delivered a performance in grandiose fashion, looking and sounding as magnetic as ever.
For this goth girl — who listened to Richard Blade and Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ religiously, and went to clubs like Scream and Marilyn’s (not far from the fest grounds in Pasadena) donning excessive eyeliner, fishnets and black finery — Cruel World represented a return to the grim yet glam energy that made L.A. nightlife so exciting in the ’80’s and ’90s, and continues to this day. The fest accomplished that and then some.
Still, that scorching sun was no fun, especially seeing as walking felt endless at times — like Coachella, you’re exhausted from the trek just to get in. On Saturday, temperatures hit the 90s, and all the SPF, big hats and fanciful parasols in the world could not save you from melting. Sunday was a little bit breezier and better organized all-around, but for those who attended both, there was lots of chatter about “feeling one’s age.”
Indeed, if there was an underlying theme to the weekend, it might be the dedication of those in attendance to the soundtrack of their youth. Blondie’s “Dreaming,” Berlin’s “Masquerade,” Missing Persons’ “Walking in L.A.,” Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” … these are timeless songs, even if they do mark a specific, and relatively short-lived, era.
Festival organizers Goldenvoice clearly know the signposts for this audience, as evidenced by everything from the stage names (“Sad Girls” and “Lost Boys”) to the concession stands (Tears for Beers), as well as the bookings, which included newer acts like Automatic, Soft Kill, Sextile, Drab Majesty and Blaqk Audio. Equally captivating and multifaceted, they provided the perfect balance to older gothfather / gothmother bands such as London After Midnight, 45 Grave and Gene Loves Jezebel.
It was also heartening to see so many young ghouls done up to the nines in corsets, sky-high creepers and kabuki-esque face paint — SoCal sizzle be damned.
The question on ticket buyers’ minds as the day progressed: how will the elders sound? Debbie Harry, Terri Nunn, Dale Bozzio and Richard Butler don’t exactly bear the vocals of their heydays, but they came pretty close. Their sets were exuberant flashbacks, with fans singing along to every word.
Morrissey was technically the headliner and Moz diehards were representing for sure, but many left before he even started, due either to exhaustion from the day or distaste for his politics.
Public Image Ltd. (PIL) frontman John Lydon is another contentious character, and a bit too screechy for some. Still, he was fun to watch on the main “Outsiders” stage, thanks to the more spacious and shady surroundings of the VIP area.
Other highlights included Devo, which doled out a vibrant, kooky and perfectly devolutionary set of hits, including “Girl You Want” and “Whip It,” along with their robotic but strangely groovy take on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” all backdropped by vivid and wonderfully strange visuals. The band members donned their iconic yellow jumpsuits and red dome hats during the set, but it was the charisma of Mark Mothersbaugh (pictured above), Jerry Casale and company that made for an immersive sonic experience.
To that end, Bauhaus epitomized the spirit of Cruel World. While singer Peter Murphy did not hang upside down like a bat during “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” as he did at Coachella in 2005, he did prance and croon like the beloved melodious vampire he is. (On Saturday, the singer took a minor tumble during the band’s cover of “Ziggy Stardust,” but got right back up.) Under a nearly full moon — appropriately, a lunar eclipse coincided with the festival — but often in shadow, Bauhaus’ potent set had moments of sheer macabre magic.
Here’s hoping Cruel World stays undead and returns for an encore.