Lime green leather biker jackets, red rubber platforms, Nepalese paper light shades, 1950s prom dresses, antique books, a £46 million house: you can get anything in Camden. Since Dickens immortalised its oldest, dingiest places in his stories this labyrinth of decaying, workhorse Victoriana has layered itself in paint and legend. And, once a year, it throws back its head and roars to its very own rock festival.
Camden hasn’t changed much since I first came here in 1989. I’m sure Bowie and other now-greats, who played here when the bars were more famous than they were, would all recognise it too.
Despite the inevitable property price hike and designer brand creep – a multi-storey All Saints now glares snootily at Dingwalls across the lock, for instance – Camden remains truly schizophrenic.
Market sellers brazenly pitch stalls practically in the doorways of emporia; and emporia is really the only word that does these art installation / wild frontier trading posts any justice. The merchandise is a beguiling stream of dichotomies; lacy dresses and nose rings, tattoos and tattoo removal, tutus and novelty sweatshirts, ball gowns and bovver boots. It’s a mix that shouldn’t work but does, attracting 100,000 perusers on a normal weekend. On Camden Rocks weekend, you can easily add another 80,000 on top.
While I’m still searching my over-stimulated mind for the perfect description for this place I almost, quite literally, trip over it: a street entertainer dressed as Tim Burton’s Mad Hatter, complete with tea party and man-sized white rabbit.
Camden is Wonderland.
On Snakebite and Black.
Amy Winehouse lived here, wrote her heart-wrenching songs here, drank in a local pub like she wasn’t famous, fell in love with a bad boy, whose name she tattooed across her heart, and she died here – at the rock-tragedy age of 27. It doesn’t get much more Camden than that.
Awesome Bands, No Wellies
The best thing about going to a rock festival in the middle of London is that there is no mud and no camping. We found a great canalside apartment on AirBnB, that cost us less than staying at a Travelodge. The next best thing after that was a toss up between a gazillion food choices, loos with brick walls that can’t be pushed over, decent alcohol and – at around £35 each – pretty cheap tickets.
The line-up this year was extensive but I’d never heard of most of them. First act we stumbled upon was soulful, country rock singer, Kerri Watt, in the emerald green basement of BrewDog. It must take proper guts to get up on stage with just your guitar and sing your own stuff to a room of tiddly strangers – and she did it beautifully.
Next up was Dingwalls, named after a bloke called Mr Dingwall, whose name has stayed painted on the wall for about 150 years. Girl fronted rock dub ska band, Lips, were on in the upstairs bar. Very cool cross-genre stuff. Singer, Natalie, practically rattled the windows with a voice that seemed far too big for such a small body to produce.
A stroll up Chalk Farm road took us to Barfly for Under The Influence. Heavy rock mixed with rap lyrics and soulful, banging choruses, a bit like a young Rage Against the Machine. They tarnished their angsty vibe a tad by flogging CDs for a fiver out of a sports bag at the end of their set, but we loved them anyway.
Worst band award goes to: And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. We caught them at Electric Ballroom. Ridiculously long name aside, I lasted for about five minutes before their noise forced the will to live out of my body. I followed it back onto the street shortly afterwards.
Skindred was the band my man really wanted to see. We got to The Underworld very, very early to secure our place in the pit. It was so hot and dark and oppressive down there that we couldn’t handle it and went for a burger at Haché instead. Imbibing nothing but beer and vodka all day with no food is clearly a practise handled better at 23 than 43. Something else that the years have changed: a crap venue means a crap experience, regardless of who you want to see play.
The Main Event
The queue to get back into Underworld was four-deep. It wobbled all the way around the building and half way back to BrewDog. First non-booze-induced hiccup in our day; it didn’t take a sober genius to realise we were very unlikely to get in. Even if we did, it was going to be hell in there.
Our burgers blotted the alcohol pickling our brains just enough for us to formulate a plan. My man and I left our mate hedging the Skindred queue while we checked out the other venues: seeing any band now was preferable to spending the 9pm slot on the street.
The queues to every major venue were as bad as the one we’d left behind. Back at Dingwalls, however, the rock Gods were on our side. For the 500 capacity downstairs venue there was absolutely no queue. It was un-claustrophobic, had great visibility with the floor sloping down towards the stage and room at the bar. A quick call and an unsteady sprint for our mate later and we were all in. They shut the door behind us. It was a rock ‘n’ roll miracle.
So circumstances decided that our main event would be Modestep – I even knew who they were. Bonus. They sound like all the best bits of hard core house and hard core rock, and they definitely metalled it up a bit for this set.
The drummer is insanely good and the singer infected us all with the same dark electricity that binds the band together. We went mental from the moment the guitarist sauntered on ten minutes late swigging from a bottle of rum, til the masked synth man finally pulled the plug.
After Party Anticlimax
It wasn’t possible to top Modestep but we had tickets for The Underworld after party, so we went. This time it was empty but still oppressive. I got glared at by an archetypal rock chick in black fishnets, blacker hair and blackest eyeliner; my noncommittal jeans, boots and shirt clearly offended her. When a very shouty trashy thrash band came on we left.
We ended the night in a cheesy cocktail bar drinking espresso martinis and talking shite with people I will never meet again.
Cheers Camden, you twisted nutter. We’ll be back.