By Marci Cohen, Assistant Head, Music Library, Boston University
May 20 and 21 mark the second installment of the Cruel World Festival in Pasadena, following last year’s premiere, postponed from 2020 due to COVID. While better-known festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza have taken a big tent approach, booking acts across many popular music genres to lure large audiences in a competitive marketplace, Cruel World is decidedly niche, with a focus on a subset of music predominantly from the ‘80s.
What to call that niche is up for grabs because there is no definitive name. The 1960s had what is now commonly labeled garage rock and proto-punk. The ‘70s saw the punk explosion. Jumping ahead to the ‘90s, Nirvana and their ilk were dubbed “alternative,” a term often accompanied by an eyeroll at the time, but the name has stuck. The umbrella designation in the current century has been indie rock. The first name for this brand of music in the ‘80s was New Wave, coined by recently-deceased Sire Records head Seymour Stein as a way to destigmatize punk and make it more marketable. Considering his label’s success with the Talking Heads, this was an effective strategy. “Post-punk” is now often used but wasn’t in common parlance at the time and isn’t an all-encompassing description. Slicing Up Eyeballs, the popular website covering this music, uses the phrase “college rock” that was also floated in that era. The goth subgenre of the ‘80s has been renamed darkwave to incorporate both newer bands and rope in industrial music.
Whatever you call it, Cruel World has it in spades, starting with the two headliners, who have much in common, starting with being identifiable from a single name. Siouxsie Sioux is just billed as “Siouxsie.” Iggy Pop has his last name on the banner, but there is no other Iggy. Though Siouxsie & the Banshees were part of the original London punk scene, she emerged as the undisputed queen of goth for both the band’s sound and her oft-imitated visual style. Iggy’s band the Stooges had minimal commercial impact when they started in the late ‘60s but are now widely recognized as a crucial proto-punk band, and Iggy is rightfully lauded for his energetic, confrontational live performance. Even in his 70s, he still leaves it all stage in ways that youngsters could learn from. The question on many minds is whether they will collaborate on “The Passenger.” It was a standout track from Iggy’s 1977 album Lust for Life that Siouxsie & the Banshees put their own spin on a decade later, the biggest hit off their covers album Through the Looking Glass. Siouxsie closed her set with the song on the first date on her current tour, so the Cruel World audience may hear it twice in the weekend even if the stars don’t pair up to sing it together.
Rounding out the bill are many iconic names in regular rotation on SiriusXM’s First Wave station. Early MTV staples Billy Idol and Adam Ant continue to have thriving touring careers on their strength as vivid performers, and Idol has gotten a bit of radio traction with his current single “Cage.” Bauhaus played last year’s Cruel World, but the band ended the subsequent tour early due to Peter Murphy’s health issues. The rest of that band, Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins, are back together as Love & Rockets for this year’s festival with their own set of hits for an audience primed for far more than “So Alive.” Gang of Four, a band that forged the path from punk to post-punk, will perform with original members Jon King and Hugo Burnham, Sara Lee, who was a member in the ‘80s, and guitarist David Pajo, formerly of Slint, replacing Andy Gill, who died from suspected COVID. Ian McCulloch is still delivering the soaring vocals with Echo & the Bunnymen.
Casual listeners may have written off Gary Numan as a one-hit wonder for 1979’s synth-pop breakthrough “Cars,” not unlike Animotion known only for “Obsession.” Cognoscenti know he’s a synth-pop pioneer with his earlier band Tubeway Army, who topped the U.K. charts with “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” But those focused only on his past may be unaware of his resurgence. His more recent albums have acknowledged his influence on industrial music by paying back the favor. He has also belatedly developed into a charismatic performer, justifiably playing arenas in the U.K. It’s the rare instance for a vintage act where the new material is more exciting than the early hits that brought him fame.
The lower rungs of the roster are filled with newer bands within the darkwave wheelhouse such as Molchat Doma from Belarus and Boy Harsher. The latter are playing the Dour Festival later in the summer, an event named for the Belgian city that hosts it, not the mood they exude. Twin Tribes draws inspiration from the Cure, while Aurat sounds more like Siouxsie & the Banshees. Although none of these or the handful of other younger acts have the name recognition of the original bands from the ‘80s – The Human League, ABC, The Motels, The Vapors (“Turning Japanese”), and Modern English (“I Melt with You”) are also on the bill – their presence is a win for everyone. The promoter doesn’t have to shell out the big bucks for these lesser-known artists, and the bands get to connect with a potential new fanbase already primed for their sonic aesthetic.
Finally, a word about the expected audience. It would be an oversimplification to say that the target demographic for this is only middle-age white people. While the genre holds a strong nostalgic appeal for white GenXers who eschew sunlight, that is not the only market segment likely to turn up. As Richard T. Rodríguez explores in his recent book A Kiss across the Ocean: Transatlantic Intimacies of British Post-punk and US Latinidad (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), this music also holds a strong appeal with a young Latino audience, particularly Mexicans and Chicanos (Mexican-Americans). And the attraction is for post-punk in general, not just the specific British bands of that era. Interpol, the 21st-century New York band that draws heavy influence from Manchester’s Joy Division and the Chameleons, held the press conference for the release of their 2018 album Marauder in Mexico City and filmed the video for “The Rover” there, including throngs of local fans chanting the band’s name. (Interpol isn’t at Cruel World, too recent for the upper bill and too popular for the early timeslots). Holding Cruel World in Pasadena is not just a reflection of the legacy of KROQ, the Pasadena-based influential pioneer in the “modern rock” radio format (yes, another genre name!), it’s the demographics of the Greater Los Angeles area that will attract fans across age and race.