The Cruel World Festival brought nearly 100,000 fans of 80’s New Wave, Punk, early EDM, and experimental music to the Brookside Golf course at the Pasadena Rose Bowl on May 14th and 15th. Although the lineup was identical for both days of the festival, many hard-core fans attended both days to try and catch most of the 26 bands performing on three stages. Goldenvoice, the gatekeeper of the most successful music festival globally, Coachella, has created a template for niche festivals at the Rose Bowl site. In 2017 and 2018, the Arroyo Seco festival brought classic rock acts to the venue. In 2019 The Cure headlined the Pasadena Daydream festival with a similar Goth feel to this year's Cruel World. This latest festival was nearly three years in the making with the pandemic delays that affected the whole of the live music industry. At a time when many music festivals are struggling with the weather, logistics, crowd control, and Covid cancellations, the Cruel World event managed to pull off a nearly perfectly organized event. Like most Goldenvoice endeavors, the festival caters to an affluent crowd with plenty of high-end food and beverage choices and no less than three tiers of VIP upgrades. The ticket prices are kept at bargain prices for general admission, allowing young music lovers and people on a budget to attend. The beautiful grass-covered grounds feature many shady tree areas and even a tiny pond with a water fountain. The shade proved helpful, especially on the first day of the event, with temperatures soaring into the 90s. But the relentless heat didn’t stop many music fans from wearing their best Goth gear. Parasols of all shapes and sizes were a popular accouterment. Multiple generations of fans made up the massive crowd.
The festival featured three stages. The Lost Boys stage was the most modest but still featured its own multimedia show and booming sound system. The stage mainly featured vintage experimental and new wave bands. Nearby the much larger Sad Boys stage loomed over the vast festival grounds. This stage featured a variety of legacy acts from the punk, goth, and new wave genres, plus a few young musical prodigies influenced by 80s electronica. Finally, nearly a mile away stood the massive Outsiders main stage. Taking a page from the Coachella playbook, the mammoth stage featured giant multimedia screens and a multi-tiered delayed sound system to deliver impressive sound to the very back of the massive field. The stage also featured legacy acts from the punk, goth, new wave genres, and younger bands with roots in the 80s electronica sound.
The Lost Boys stage may have had the most musically diverse lineup of the three stages. Veteran English band The Meteors opened with a bang. The band formed in 1980 could be considered the godfather of the psychobilly genre. Much to the delight of the early festival-goers that had to brave the hot sun directly overhead, the band tore through 13 tunes in about 30 minutes. The set included two crowd-pleasing covers, “Rawhide” by Frankie Lane and “I Hate People” by the Anti-Nowhere League.
Christian Death took the stage next, pleasing the many Goth fans in the crowd. The Los Angeles band, first formed in 1979, was at the forefront of the Goth movement, playing their own dark brand of deathrock. Their gloomy beats and sensational lyrics were punctuated with guitar drenched jams by shredder Jason Frantz. Original bassist KOTA who left the band in 1991, has returned as an EDM wizard in the back of the group. Occasionally he would wander out front and was easily the creepiest member of the group, looking much like a living zombie. Unfortunately, the band only managed just five songs on the first day, with technical difficulties eating up their short set time. Their set on the second day was much better, with the audio problems worked out.
Another Los Angeles band took the stage next. Dinah Cancer has revived her horror punk band 45 Grave, first formed in 1979. The new version of the band features a group of punk-inspired animated rockers. The band channeled the campy horror rock of the Rocky Horror Picture Show era perfectly.
Yet another veteran Los Angeles band, Missing Persons, took the stage next. The New Wave darlings of the MTV age featured original lead singer Dale Bozzio and former master bass player of The Knack, Prescott Niles. Drummer extraordinaire Terry Bozzio left the group long ago, but the current band did a great job playing a short set of the groups big 80s hits. They had a large crowd pogoing and doing their best new wave dances. The short set included the hit songs “Words,” “Destination Unknown," and “Walking in L.A.” The band even threw in a rocking version of The Door's “Hello I Love You.”
English Goth-inspired New Wave band Jay Aston’s Gene, Loves Jezebel followed. The band was formed in 1980 but twin brothers Jay and Michael. The brothers eventually split up under bad terms, and both continue to tour with their own version of the group. Jay was eager to tell the Cruel World crowd, “These are my song; I wrote them!” The band also featured a longtime guitarist from the group, James Stevenson. The Punk rocker had impeccable credentials playing with some of the best early alternative bands before joining Gene Loves Jezebel in the mid-'80s. The band tore through a string of hits that topped the charts in the 80s.
Los Angeles New Wave hitmakers Berlin closed the stage. The set began with a nostalgic video featuring the charismatic singer Terri Nunn and the band culminating with their performance at the legendary U.S. Festival in 1983 in front of 150 000 people. Original members John Crawford and David Diamond have recently rejoined the group creating a sextet powerhouse of rock music. The band played a set filled with their biggest hits, but the steamy hit song Metro was absent. Interestingly Berlin was the second band on the stage on day 1 of the festival to cover “Hello I Love You” by The Doors along with Missing Persons. Fans of the band on day 2 had an extra song thrown into the set and a different cover of “My Sharona” by The Knack. It was too bad that Prescott Niles didn’t stick around to join them.
New York electronic music musician Chris Stewart and his band Black Audio played a short early set on the Sad Girls stage. Stewart has been making music under the Black Audio moniker for more than a decade, but his music is firmly rooted in synth sounds from the last century, much to the delight of the new wave of synth fans in the crowd. English Ska legend Dave Wakeling brought his latest incarnation of the English Beat to the stage next. Fans went wild with a pants-off dance-off featuring some of the finest dance tunes of the 80s. A longtime Southern California resident, Wakeling has been a fixture in the California music scene for decades. Recent festival appearances had propelled his classic music back into the limelight.
Goth music ruled the stage next when Los Angeles dark wave rockers London After Midnight took over the musical festivities. Charismatic singer Sean Brennan led his quartet of sinister rockers through a short but searing set. Unfortunately, on day 1, their set was marred by audio difficulties that made the set even shorter. But by day 2, they had worked out the audio issues and played a much more cohesive set of intense industrial rock. Blaqk Audio brought a new spin on synth-pop with their dark wave sounds. The band features lead singer Davey Havok and guitarist turned synth wizard Jade Puget from the Alt-rock band AFI. The music is a departure for the duo from their heavy rock sound in AFI, although that band employs layers of synth in their sound as well. The result is a fascinating performance by the animated Puget channeling the energy of Morrissey but with a darker edge. And then the iconic band The Damned took over. Much like the Sex Pistols, The Damned is an iconic English punk band that has somehow remained together since 1976. Over the decades, the band has evolved into a more Goth punk band, honing its excellent musical skills to create masterful performances. The band features three of the earliest members, including lead singer Dave Vanian, guitarist Raymond Ian Burns, known as “Captain Sensible," and bassist Paul Gray. The trio, along with newer bandmates keyboardist Laurence "Monty Oxymoron” Burrow and drummer Will Taylor, tore through one of the most energetic and entertaining sets of the festival.
In the late afternoon, the Wisconsin folk-punk band Violent Femmes brought their unique music to a massive crowd. The group's music denies any classification as a specific musical genre, moving effortlessly from punk rock, Americana, and classic country sounds. The band's well-known hit songs have become sing-along anthems, and many in the vast crowd obliged. In an even quirkier twist, the band brought out Barenaked Ladies vocalist Kevin Hearn to sing harmonies and add an accordion to the strange musical mix. British New Wave hitmakers The Psychedelic Furs came to the stage as twilight fell onto the venue. Led by singer Richard Butler and his brother Tim Butler on bass, the sextet played one of the most musically sophisticated sets of the festival. The band's melodic rock was accentuated with jazz-like melodies from longtime saxophonist Mars Williams. The band played an identical crowd-pleasing ten-song set on both days.
As the evening air cooled down the festival grounds, Blondie exploded to life, closing out the Sad Boy stage. Iconic New Wave singer Debbie Harry led them, and the band launched into a guitar-drenched version of “X Offender” from the band’s 1976 debut album. The band sans ailing co-founder Chris Stein featured a special appearance by original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, fueling speculation that he might join John Lydon onstage with PIL. Both nights, a huge crowd pressed against the stage with many singing along to hits like “Atomic” and “Heart of Glass.” The band played the same crowd-pleasing 12-song set both nights.
For most of the bands appearing at the Cruel World festival, this was the biggest crowd they had played for, at least in the 21st century. This was especially true for bands playing the largest of the three stages, the Outsiders stage. One of the newest synth bands, Automatic, played early on the stage, channeling a synth music beat that sounded like a cross between Kraftwerk and Devo. The pleasing rhythms came from a trio of young female musicians, including Izzy Glaudini (synths, vocals), Lola Dompé (drums, vocals), and Halle Saxon (bass, vocals). It is probably no surprise that Dompé is the daughter of Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins. The trio played a pleasing eight-song set and mixed a few different tunes into the second day. The young group left for a European tour following the festival and is a band worth following in the future.
EDM rockers Sextile took the stage next with some fierce dance-oriented tunes. Sextile is an American post-punk band from Los Angeles, California. The band, which consists of founding members Brady Keehn and Melissa Scaduto, would feel right at home at an EDM festival playing danceable beats. But backed by a rock-based band, the group plays more dynamic tunes than the usual EDM DJ. Cold Cave, another young Los Angeles band with roots firmly in 80s synth and goth music, played next. The band is the brainchild of Wesley Eisold. The young poet is a bit of a shoe gazer with very little emotion shown to his audience, but his dark dance trance tunes were appealing, including tracks from his latest E.P., 2021’s “Fate in Seven Lessons.” For some reason, his set was cut from 7 to 5 songs for the second day. Another young singer took the stage next under the moniker TR/ST. The project of Canadian singer Robert Alfons, the young crooner, also channeled the Goth sounds of 80’s singers like Morrissey.
The veterans took over the massive stage in the late afternoon, beginning with a rowdy performance by Public Image LTD. The band has been the musical vehicle for the English godfather of Punk, John Lydon since he departed from the Sex Pistols. Lydon’s current quartet features three musicians he has worked with since 2009. The thunderous rhythm sections feature Scott Firth on bass and Bruce Smith on drums. Lu Edmunds is a particularly fascinating band member, playing an array of oddly shaped string instruments. But there is no doubt that Jonny Rotten is the show's star. The feisty singer growls and sneers between vocals and constantly offers up the iconic death stare that has made him famous. His cartoon-like larger-than-life persona almost overshadows his immense talent as a singer and songwriter. The set featured Public Image classics and included a cover of “Open Up” by English synth-duo Leftfield. The only band to represent Australia played next. The Church is an Australian rock band formed in Sydney in 1980. Over the years, the New Wave band evolved into a more sophisticated Dream Pop group honing their talents as veteran musicians. Bassist and lead singer Steve Kilby led the band through a six-song set punctuated by their biggest hit, "Under the Milky Way.” In a sarcastic snarl, Kilby introduced the song by saying, “It’s playing while you fill your petrol pump.” The band added a new unreleased song to the set on Day 2, “C'est la vie.”
One of the most anticipated bands at the festival played next. It is hard to believe that New Wave icon Devo first formed way back in 1973. The precursors of the New Wave movement brought a multimedia extravaganza to festival-goers, complete with the campy costume changes that made them famous. The band played an identical 12-song set both days, but that would be expected from a group that performs with mathematical precision. Original lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh, who is now 71, prefaced their 1980 song “Freedom of Choice” with a surprising political vent. “From the Supreme Court to Putin, right-wing thugs have their boot in your face,” he quipped, reaffirming the band's relevance after nearly 50 years of performing. The band featured original members Bob and Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, along with drummer Josh Freese and guitarist Josh Hager.
As night fell, a huge crowd anticipated another iconic group from England, Bauhaus. It is hard to believe that the precursors of Goth music created their masterful music in just four short years, from 1979 to 1983. A new musical genre was born for many early Goth fans when the band appeared in the stylish Vampire movie featuring David Bowie, “The Hunger.” The festival performance featured the four original members of the group, including David J on bass, Kevin Haskins on drums, mercurial guitar wizard Daniel Ash and Goth singing icon Peter Murphy. Much like their appearance at the beginning of “The Hunger” film, the band opened their show with a darkened set with heavy strobes facing the audience. The deep dark vocals of Peter Murphy came out of a darkened corner of the stage while the trio of musicians laid down maniacal Goth rock drenched in strobe lights. Finally, as the band broke into the second song, the animated singer came out into the light like a slithering vampire in the night. An extended performance of the goth anthem “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” showcased Ash’s innovative guitar mastery full of carefully crafted feedback. In the meantime, Murphy, bathed in red light, crept about in character as a creature of the night. The band played the same 13-song set both nights, ending with their version of the David Bowie tune “Ziggy Stardust.” Midway through the set on the second night, a full moon rose in the tepid California sky in a nearly total lunar eclipse. Goth fans couldn’t dream of a more appropriate background.
Morrissey, the controversial English crooner and former frontman of The Smiths, closed the festival. For loyal fans, the outspoken dystopian singer can do no wrong. For others, his antics, like being the king of concert cancellations with numbers in the several hundreds of shows, are just too arrogant to tolerate. Once asked about his most memorable canceled shows, he commented on his 2009 Coachella experience. “This one the journo’s got mostly right. Yes, it’s true that I walked off in the middle of my set because the smell of burning flesh from the barbeque tent made me sick to my stomach. What the news failed to mention was that I later returned to the stage to hurl insults at the crowd and refused to leave until I got enough online signatures for my peta.org petition.” As a testament to the performer's sheer willpower, the many food booths at the Cruel World festival were converted entirely to a vegetarian menu. So it was with some trepidation, that his faithful fans waited for his appearance. Surprisingly and uncharacteristically, the iconic singer leaped on stage both nights right on time and performed masterfully with very little sarcastic banter. The first night the English singer paid homage to Tom Jones, appearing onstage to the tune of “What’s New Pussycat.” For Morrissey and Smiths fans, the performances were a dream come true. The 62-year-old crooner dressed in a black suit and bow tie led a band of veteran rock musicians through a set of some of his biggest hit tunes. The first night saw a more extended set of 18 songs, complete with three gems for Smiths fans, including “Never had One Ever,” “Half a Person," and “Sweet and Tender Hooligan.” While festival-goers were greeted with a shorter set of 15 songs on the second night, Smiths fans were actually ecstatic as the singer played a different set, including five Smith tunes. Morrissey again offered the three songs from the night before to the faithful but added two more, “I Know It’s Over” and “How Soon Is Now.” Combined with many of his other well-crafted tunes, the two-night show may have been one of Morrissey’s most nuanced performances ever in California.