Disclaimer : as always I will try to be objective – as always I will fail. I blame Morley/Burchill/Parsons and Savage. It is impossible to write about Welsh Pop Culture and not succumb to Morley/Burchill/Parsons/Savage-isms.The Face was my Bible, these writers both informed and inspired.
I am currently writing a Welsh Language book on North Wales Archaeology and associated walks, which has none of the influence or style of the above. I then have another book to write, a psycho-geographical journey around the village of Pant Glas in Eifionydd – again with none of the above influences. But, on any detour to Welsh Popland it becomes impossible not to revert to type.
It is becoming increasingly tempting to not even go there, if you pardon the pun, if I’d made enough money from what is discussed below I would love nothing more than to take a huge chunk of time out – to create and to re-discover, as it is, we have to pay the bills and earn a living so we do what we have to do :
I was recently interviewed by Clancy Pegg for a forthcoming book on what is best described as an account of the ‘social history of Welsh Pop Music between 1979 and 1997, or thereabouts, with an obvious emphasis on Welsh Language bands in the earlier period...... or something like that. It’s Clancy’s book, go out and buy it when it comes out. I am not going to spoil any of her research.
Clancy and I originally met in the early 90’s, she was the keyboard player in an early phase of Catatonia before forming her own band Crac, who produced a wonderful slab of 7” pink vinyl 'Cracyr EP'. What’s interesting here is that she is a Londoner looking in, she has a perspective which may differ from those who were in the thick of it, this probably gives her the objectivity which we all lack, but it’s rare for anyone to actually look at all this from a social history perspective so I welcomed Clancy’s invitation to be interviewed.
John Robb has touched on some of it in his book 'The 90’s What The Fuck was that all about ?" http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nineties-What-F--k-That-About/dp/0091871352/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1377948745&sr=1-6 and Neil Crud has documented tonnes of stuff on www.link2wales.co.uk but this book will be the Savage/Reynolds style account. It’s a book that should be written.
Aspects of what Clancy is discussing / analysing have obviously been touched on in my autobiography ‘Cam o’r Tywyllwch’ (Lolfa) written in 2006. When we met, Clancy suggested that some of my rants were tinted with bitterness but I hoped that my book was an account that set the record straight (obviously my version of the truth) but at the time of writing that was how the book came out – a full throttle, foot-down account - part manifesto and part fuck you to anyone who I felt had done the ‘boy Mwyn’ wrong in some way, yes, but more than that it was an account of Welsh Pop Culture or at least the alternative / underground culture at certain points in time and an indication of some of the characters involved.
Today, that book could never be written in the same way or same tone, I am not in the same place, but it needed to be documented – if only because no one else ever will – so at least I have a version there of events – on record, online and in libraries. Then, in the future it will be up to students of Welsh Social History in the late C20th to decipher and make up their own minds – it exists as a document of a period of Welsh Pop Music written at a certain point in time.
Something that Clancy did touch on during our long interview was the question of the “recognition” that people get or more to the point probably ‘don’t get’ and it’s this aspect that I want to try and explore in this blog.
First of all you have to ask the question of what you mean by “recognition”. Is this a respect thing, a financial thing or is it something else ?
I have touched on something similar within a Blog on art and more specifically the Futile Gestures – see http://louderthanwar.com/futile-gestures/
Many of the arguments are probably to be found here.
Creating and forming bands in Wales, and certainly singing in the Welsh Language, is rarely done for financial reward. Whatever economy exists for Welsh Language Music it’s not that extensive, it’s probably below minimum wage, it’s subsistence at best for most, it’s a hobby for the majority paid for by the other (proper) job. The ones that make a living from Welsh Culture usually work for Public Funded bodies, “do you wanna make tea at the BBC” style career opportunities. I ran a management company for several years before the money basically ran out. I am either a very poor businessman or living proof that the catalogue that we created in the 80’s and 90’s is economically worthless.
Obvioulsy we all started out to “save the Welsh Language” and certainly to push the boundaries in the sense of let’s have some Welsh Language post-punk culture if you consider bands such as Datblygu, Fflaps, Igam Ogam, Llwybr Llaethog or Traddodiad Ofnus. None of us started out to make money. We created because we had no choice. Not pushing the boundaries and not facing up to the Welsh ‘Denim Dinasours’ was not an option.
But if you look at these characters today, Datblygu have actually come out it credibility intact. They remain both seminal and legendary and the recent 30th anniversary brought a smile to many a face when we realised that those championing Datblygu within the Welsh Language intelligentsia today would surely have at one point, been the same type of people, in theory at least, that would have been the subject matter of Datblygu songs – surely these were the frequenters of Llydaw "byth yn mynd i Ffrainc". (Failed – could not resist that one).
I smiled for sure, but in all honesty I also felt that Datblygu deserved and indeed should have some critical acclaim and recognition. To deny Datblygu the deserved acclaim makes no sense and serves no purpose and now funnily enough, to recognise the initial reluctance of BBC producers in Wales to support not only Datblygu but most of the new bands in the mid 80’s is something that we now fully expect to be included in any retrospective – you know how they all did Peel Sessions but were not played on Radio Cymru – it’s now part of the myth – and some of it is true …….
Datblygu made great records and as a social commentator and lyricist, it’s questionable if anybody else (apart from Mark Cyrff in a different way) has matched David R Edwards’s talent as a Welsh Language social or political poet – here is a man who’s talents of observation match those of Dylan Thomas, but Dave did it in Welsh which brings us back to the question – what level of recognition do we expect for Datblygu ?
Traddodiad Ofnus made great records, they signed to Constrictor Records, a German Label run by Philip Boa, now then, on the ‘recognition scale’ Traddodiad Ofnus hardly register. They are rarely played on Welsh media today. They were rarely played on Welsh media then. If they reformed tomorrow who would give them a gig, who would turn up, who would care ? Good question, and yet, this is a very important band, they pushed boundaries and banged metal in Welsh.
If you are ex-members of Traddodiad Ofnus what do you do, you can sit at home and listen to your own ‘great’ records, you could moan that Datblygu or Llwybr Llaethog get all the praise (albeit relatively limited praise) but it’s arguable that Traddodiad Ofnus are a great forgotten band, one of the great lost Welsh bands – it’s to our shame that we do Welsh Pop History such injustice.
Gareth Potter, lead singer of Clustiau Cwn, Traddodiad Ofnus, Ty Gwydr and currently DJ and actor I regard to be a survivor. He’s still there. No sell out. He’s produced his own play about all this Welsh Underground thing, called ‘Gadael yr Ugeinfed Ganrif’'– which is a brilliant monologue with music – it’s another document – critically acclaimed – but is that enough – is that OK for Potter I wonder? Potter is a man of immense talent, a visionary, a raconteur, a mover and shaker and certainly at times a man who has the talent to sieze the opportunity – but from the outside one has to ask the question – does he have a successful career ? Maybe the DJing pays the bills but from my viewpoint here is a character that is sidelined by mainstream Welsh media – again arguably to their shame.
Potter had a brief flirtation with fame (probably not fortune) as an actor on Eastenders. When we did gigs with Traddodiad Ofnus in venues like the Fulham Greyhound in the late 80’s Potter was easily the most recognisable person in that room. I remember well members of the Newtown Neurotics being chuffed to meet ‘Harry off Eastenders’. Today, is that just a line on his CV ? Should it be more ?
Llwybr Llaethog have and continue to make great records. They are the true survivors in the sense that they are probably the only band from that period who are still going. I have reviewed their dub 12” album recently and many of the points that I wish to make about Llwybr Llaethog can be found here http://rhysmwyn.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/llwybr-llaethogdub-cymraeg-welsh-dub-12.html
But again back to the question – what do we expect for Llwybr Llaethog, too old to be part of the current hip Welsh scene. Too dub for most Welsh audiences. Too obscure for the ‘arrivistes’. Unlikely to grace a stage at the hip Welsh Festivals. Victims of a scene dominated by, well just too dominated for it’s own good – let’s not go down that route – but just to point out that nothing is expected – not now, as it was not - then.
Financially, even a well paid gig would be appreciated I’m sure – but we end up back in square one, the economic value of Traddodiad Ofnus or Llwybr Llaethog in terms of ticket sales would be negligible – we are not talking about PIL reforming or the Gang of Four reforming – we have huge talent and no audience – huge cultural importance but no cultural recognition in any real meaningful sense.
An audience even, would be appreciated, sod the money, but this year’s Welsh cultural highlight will be Edward H at the Eisteddfod, 4,000 punters for the denim dinosaurs and the status quo (riffs) maintained. I have long buried my issues with Edward H, bless them, they also totally deserve their gig and recognition but my point today as it was then – is it not possible to do this for more than one Welsh Language band – obviously not.
As Clancy asked this question about ‘recognition’ I have to confess that my initial response was – there is no such thing in Wales – we deliberately and willingly went into this – because we had no choice – we had to create – maybe it’s our fault for being crap at marketing our talents. Maybe in the rural environment there are just not enough ‘hipsters’ as Y Cyrff referred to some of the Welsh audience. Maybe we are all equivalents of Frank Sidebottom or the Durutti Column, critically respected but it’s not really worth releasing the box set collection.
I have no answers, we are survivors. Those who got out, got out by being part of ‘Cool Cymru’ and at least had a taste of better things. Some of them did well, had careers and I guess Cerys and Gruff were shrewd enough to broaden their horizons. Neither Cerys or Gruff with all their talents combined could have done it in Welsh. Neither of them would pull 4,000 that’s for sure – so they got out, became ‘Cool Cymru’, moved on, travelled and every now and again they can almost afford to do things in Welsh for the few that actually care …. It’s a funny situation. I’d like to say typically Welsh but it can’t be can it ?
So back to Clancy’s interview, I’m almost surprised that anyone cares enough to write a book about all this. I have long accepted our fate, when she asks why such an such a thing does not happen – I answer “because they would never ask”. We were always D.I.Y culture anyway, self-released and self-promoted, usually self-managed – real subsistence culture. We of course also know what we have done.
The cast of thousands, people like Alan Holmes of Central Slate, Third Spain, Fflaps, Ectogram – again no sell out and certainly no pay day. Fflaps got licensed by Probe Records and recorded several Peel Sessions – as cool as any obscure Liverpool band – but we had no-one shouting about all this so it remained underground. At least in the wider world they have things like Meltdown where someone like Patty Smith or Yoko Ono curates and gives a platform to highly obscure post-punk bands from Sheffield or wherever but to paraphrase Datblygu –“never from Wales”.
So put on your own Meltdown I hear you shout, oh yeahh and lose shit loads of money. Curate a stage at Festival No6 – but they will never ask. It’s not easy. I have no answers just a frustration that this land of talent (and song) has been so glaringly and obviously lacking in any cultural vocabulary and maturity to appreciate and deal with all this. Datblygu and Llwybr Llaethog are certainly not recognised in any meaningful sense, not in any business sense that’s for sure – so what do they want ? What do you want ?
One of my punch lines in ‘Cam o’r Tywyllwch’ (the book) was “respect don’t pay the bills”. We are the £50 generation, that’s the basic rate for giving a good quote. Used when required, mostly ignored, but enough £50’s pay some of the bills, vicious circle, it’s almost prostitution, no wealth distribution. A decent career for all those characters, a half decent career, something more than this ......
On a personal note, I just moved on,(don’t stand still / don’t stop), shifted, detoured, ambled (back) to archaeology, Welsh History, the Welsh landscape and a broader culture than pop music – it’s the same mission – but I cannot be in the same room as the ‘arrivistes’ - it’s not for me the token Welsh (bilingual) band thing at Welsh (location) Festivals or wherever. I genuinely loved the new Llwybr Llaethog 12” and felt passionate enough to write a review that maybe no one will read. That’s how it should be.
It’s probably true to say, today, as I write this, I stand in as much total opposition to what they have done with and to Welsh pop music as I did when I first started in 1979. The problem I guess is we can’t start all over again, you can’t start a pop revolution at 51, but the politics have not changed !
I do believe that we should, must and will still create. It will be done mostly DIY with occasional main stream media / Welsh cultural organisations involvement. It could all be done DIY of course and many accept that method and indeed advocate that method but there is an argument, the Robin Hood argument, for some wealth distribution of the Public money pumped into Welsh Culture – I have never shied away from that debate and have never been against engagement with the mainstream. The Pistols went on Top of the Pops. The Clash chose to make a stance. Both won.
I end, half-jokingly, by suggesting that the whole cast, from David R Edwards to Potter, from John and Kev’s, to all the Cyrff and Fflaps and all the rest of the fellow travellers should be invited to become members of the Gorsedd y Beirdd. That would truly fuck up the whole thing (for everybody) – just imagine the backstage conversations and arguments with the 'real' poets and the 'real' cultural contributors, the riders with the green Smarties taken out, the diva strops about wearing robes and not wanting to look too much KKK – that’s the only recognition worth having in Wales and (as great situationists) that one they all truly deserve – and it is by definition also the one recognition we must not accept.
There are no answers, or none that I have for you Clancy, we’re all in the words of the great, late, Tony Wilson ‘fucked’ (just fucked in a peculiarly Welsh style), but I do genuinely appreciate Clancy's invitation to be interviewed for her book and wish it every success - it's a story un-sung heroes and uncrowned bards, of real talent and maverick records, of the last true underground in Europe as the headline by Steve Kingstonon on Welsh bands in 'Elle' once read.
We should print up some T-shirts “Should have sung in English”. Not such a bad idea actually – we could have some great images, a bit Welsh-Not post-ironic. That's one for www.futilegestures.com even ......
Final Disclaimer :
The usual self-doubt about publishing. The slightly un-nerving feeling of having to go back over all this, I am so tempted to stop and yet this historian/archivist in me obviously can't stop while the creative side just wants as much distance as possible from the whole thing - but then no dissenting voices means the bastards have won and the rats have reclaimed the ship. Did we fight in the (Welsh) Punk Wars for this ?