The first annual Darker Waves post-punk festival took place Saturday, Nov. 18, literally on the sands of Huntington Beach, Calif., taking up two sprawling seaside blocks of the famous surf city’s Pacific Coast Highway. And yes, the juxtaposition of New Order playing Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”; Echo and the Bunnymen’s laryngitis-stricken Ian McCulloch rasping through the Donnie Darko-popularized “Killing Moon” and his band’s Lost Boys soundtrack cover of the Doors’ “People Are Strange” with surprise guest Robbie Krieger; Soft Cell screeching through the electro BDSM fantasy “Sex Dwarf”; and tunic-shrouded, kohl-eyed Philip Oakey intoning Human League’s proto-synthpop 1978 classic “Being Boiled,” all against a backdrop of swaying palm trees and crashing ocean waves, might have seemed surprising to the uninitiated.
But the truth is, sunny Southern California has always had a dark side.
In the ‘80s, there was the L.A. deathrock scene, inspired by Old Hollywood’s decaying glamour and pioneered by bands like Christian Death and 45 Grave (both of whom played Darker Waves this weekend). In that same decade, KROQ was the first American radio station to play and champion the above-mentioned British new wave acts, all of whom still have devoted audiences in Los Angeles and Orange County. (In fact, bands like Depeche Mode and the Cure can still sell out multiple consecutive nights at the Hollywood Bowl as direct result of KROQ’s decades of unwavering support.) These days, Goths from all over the globe descend upon Disneyland, not far from the O.C.’s Huntington Beach, for the yearly Bats Day celebration, while Los Angeles is home to a thriving post-punk/industrial scene, led by Darker Waves acts like Cold Cave, Drab Majesty, and Mareux.
L.A. has also hosted two successful years of the post-punk festival Cruel World (which this year featured the first U.S. concert in 15 years by Goth icon Siouxsie Sioux), and as 25,000 black-clad, pancake-faced, SPF 100-slathered fans flocked to Darker Waves this weekend, it became clear that SoCal is the Goth capital of the United States.
The 30 acts who played on across Waves’ three oceanfront stages during the day’s 10 hours, with barely five minutes of turnover between sets, ranged from the classic L.A. punk of X and T.S.O.L.; to the nervy college rock of Violent Femmes; to the early-MTV new wave of the Psychedelic Furs and the English Beat; to the mood music of Clan of Xymox, London After Midnight, and Chameleons; to even the peppy twee pop of ‘90s Swedes the Cardigans and (fresh off their all-Smiths Glastonbury set with Rick Astley, who sadly was a Darker Waves no-show) U.K. buzz band Blossoms. The biggest standouts, of course, were the bands that wisely played the hits, and nothing but hits.
Soft Cell frustratingly didn’t play what would have surefire crowd-pleasers like “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye,” “Insecure Me,” “Bedsitter,” or, well, “Frustration,” and Tears for Fears devoted way too much of their headlining set to their excellent but largely unfamiliar 2022 album The Tipping Point. But when Andy McClusky took the stage, he immediately announced that his synthpop duo OMD would be “relentlessly” cramming their too-brief 40-minute set with “10 singles” — and much to the crowd’s delight, OMD proceeded to do just that, not letting up the energy from “Electricity” through “Enola Gay.”
McClusky and Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal both shouted out Devo as their favorite act of the day, and judging by the large number of energy-dome hats spotted in the crowd (along with one boiler-suited, spiky-haired fan in full “Beautiful World” cosplay), this was an opinion shared by many. Devo, who were one of the standouts of Cruel World 2022, thrilled with several costume quick-changes and ahead-of-their-time classics like “Peek-A-Boo,” “That’s Good,” “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Jocko Homo,” “Gates of Steel,” and, of course, “Whip It,” with frontman Mark Mothersbaugh even tossing a few red souvenir Devo hats into the crowd. Devo’s fellow quirky mavericks, the B-52’s, also played a nonstop greatest-hits party out of bounds, climaxing with the most beach-appropriate song of the day, “Rock Lobster.”
“To everyone whose shoes got f***ed up, I hope it was worth it,” Mareux quipped at one point in the afternoon, shortly before he covered the Cure’s “Perfect Girl,” as he looked out at all the concertgoers trudging through the sand in their heels and pointy boots. Perhaps more practical footwear and even higher SPF will be in order next time, but fans are surely already looking forward to revisiting America’s Goth capital for Darker Waves 2024.
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