THE LITTLE INTERVIEW – JOHN HEATON, DISCO PANTHER
GIG REVIEW – THE VIM DICTA, MOOK, GREENMAILER, FLUFF TONGUE
HOWARD MARKS OBITUARY
THE LAST WORD: HOW THE MANICS 1996 ALBUM, “EVERYTHING MUST GO”, CHANGED WALES AND WELSH MUSIC FOREVER
Hello and welcome to Jack Sounds #3. As usual, I want to start by thanking everybody who has got in touch. I’ve had very kind feedback regarding the long, mad gig reviews, and I’m glad people are enjoying what I write. This month I’ve gone for two long-form pieces as I’ve been unable to get out and about much – but worry not, because next month normal service will resume…along with the announcement of something rather special.
In sadder news, following on from the death of Howard Marks in early April, I heard last night that another one of my absolute heroes, Prince, was found dead at Paisley Park, leaving an unbelievably funky, Prince-shaped hole in the universe that I doubt anybody will have the chutzpah, talent, energy and brain to fill ever again. If you watch nothing else in the inevitable sea of tributes, watch the half time show he did at the Superbowl. It’s the absolute business. In a little over 12 minutes Prince showed us exactly how you do this “music” thing…and he also did it COMPETELY LIVE, in the slashing down rain, wailing like Jimi Hendrix on the most phallic guitar ever made…just like the pansexual, pint-sized genius that he was. RIP (Rest In Purple). JS
THE LITTLE INTERVIEW – JOHN HEATON (DISCO PANTHER)
Tom Heaton is the lead singer in the many-legged funk monster that is Disco Panther. If you’ve never seen a Panther gig, I can only ask what the hell is wrong with you! They place a huge emphasis on showmanship, entertainment and making sure everyone has a damn good time. And there are millions of them, too…at least 10 of these maniacs, in red, frilly shirts, playing anything from crazed funk to soulful slow jams. These kitties only wish is to make you want to get down! You can catch them at Balter Festival on 3-5th June, playing on the Balkanical Circus stage.
1) Who are the best band/act ever?
Having seen countless bands, artist and performers in a plethora of places over the years, it really is impossible to say who the best was – or is – without being completely reductive. There’s obviously some stand-out ones I could mention, but there’s also many great acts I’ve seen, from street performers to those euphoric bands in random festival tents I’ve stumbled into and can’t recall the name of. So, I’d rather resist the urge to name-drop and instead urge everyone who isn’t doing so already to go out and support their local art and music scene, and if that ain’t floating your boat, then hit the road Jack (no pun intended) ‘cause there’s always something good going on somewhere, albeit a ‘good’ that is subjective.
2) Best song ever?
The music of the spheres; or, in other words, life…although to be fair, it can go on a bit at times.
3) Best album ever?
4) If you could be in any band, alive or dead, what would it be?
Okay, forget what I said, time to name drop! Performing with James Brown and his band in Zaire, 1974, at the Rumble in The Jungle Festival – as featured in the awesome documentary, “Soul Power”. Failing that, maybe Rage Against the Machine, Earth wind & Fire, Glen Miller Orchestra, Pussy Riot, Milli Vanilli…ha! The list is endless, although to be honest I can’t imagine myself being in any of the bands that I love without completely fucking them up. So I guess it’s fair to say that I’m already in the best band I could wish to be in, and with the best bunch of cats, too; Disco Panther!
5) Is it true that (Panther percussionist) Jon Cole is the sexiest and most extravagantly moustached man on earth, both now and for all times?
Jon Cole, aka “Johngo” is the latest addition to the D.P’s, and a very welcome one at that. As you say, that ‘tash man…even Charles Bronson is jealous.
6) Tell me a joke.
Seriously, you interviewed the wrong Panther…some of the funniest guys I’ve ever known are in this band. Our bassist (Andrew Baldwin) especially, comes out with some killer one-liners. I, on the contrary, am a more sentimental soul. Still, I’m willing to give it a go. What’s green and invisible? (proffers empty hand)…this cabbage! Sorry! I did warn ya!
GIG REVIEW: THE VIM DICTA, MOOK, GREENMAILER, FLUFF TONGUE
THE SCENE, Swansea – Thursday 14th April
Well, here we all are and here we go again. Listen now: I’m acutely aware that the last two months worth of “gig reviews” have been more of a series of object lessons in drunken foolishness than actual examples of Proper Music Journalism, so – although I’m supremely comfortable with the stench of failure rising around me like a swarm of hungry blowflies – I’ve resolved nevertheless to try and elevate standards to something approaching a professional level, despite a primal, overwhelming fear of what may happen should I start taking myself too seriously…because that way trouble lies, I’m sure of it…but, on the other hand, I do have a responsibility to my readers (both of them…Hi Mam! Hi Dad!) – as well as to the musicians I’m covering, so I might as well get proper involved. If you’re going to swim in the pool, let go of the side, innit?
So, anyway, without further ado:
It was a warm spring evening in Swansea town, and as I bounced out of my front door into the world my heart was light and the night felt full of hope and promise. The last rays of sunshine were dappling through the trees like the ghostly remains of an inconceivably massive, life-giving explosion far away in the sky, and the faces of the people on the street were bright, friendly and full of good cheer; being as how I live in Uplands, many of them were carrying boxes of lager and green bottles of sticky Jaegermeister, too – but not me! Nope, not me Butters; I had obligations to fulfil and a reputation to build, and I wasn’t going to be distracted by the beguiling aroma of sweet, sweet liquor. That’s right, kids: the liquor works for ME now. I’m right in the slot, Bo-bandy. Ah, “Trailer Park Boys”…best show on TV.
Obviously and as usual I was running late to the gig (professional?) and still had to make a quick call on the way to see a fine fellow of my acquaintance about a personal matter. The gentleman concerned works (or perhaps “worked”) in a pub, but I’m afraid I can’t name the pub or the person for a series of very good reasons that will soon become apparent…same story every month, right? Anyway, I walked in the door to see my mate stood behind the bar on his own wearing a look of fizzing, bubbling anger on his chops. Glasses were being slammed down around him and his attitude and general demeanour would be best described as “surly”. I knew he’d been having a bit of trouble of late with his boss being a useless get, so I assumed – correctly as it turned out – that that was the issue now. Our conversation ran a bit like this…
“Alright man, what’s happening? You look like a seagull pinched your last chip.”
“That useless [expletive deleted] hasn’t [expletive] paid me. What do you want to drink?”
“Nothing, mate; I’m taking her easy. Got work to do, haven’t I? Going to The Scene now.”
“What, for that Jack Sounds thing?”
“Yup. I’m trying to be professional.”
“No, honestly I am. Besides that, I’m skint. Dim arian. Bad times bud.”
“Fair enough; allow me to rephrase my question then: what would you like to drink if you did have money and weren’t being so [expletive] professional?”
“That’s easy: a large glass of the old vino rouge, as big as your head and as heady as a Bangkok night.”
“Sound. On the house.”
“100%. I’ve had it up to the eyeballs. You can have it on the house, with my pleasure. I’ve just worked out how much that [expletive] owes me, down to the last penny, and I’m going to take it out the till later on and leave him a note.”
“What? Like an invoice in the till? Nice. He’s going to lose the plot, mate.”
“Fair enough. He knew the risks.”
“Exactly. He hasn’t been taking care of business. Therefore, in my eyes, he’s neglected his professional duties and deserves all he gets. Consider it a morality tale. Put it in the magazine. Anyway, here you go; look: filled up to the top and all – not even a legal measure.”
After I’d concluded my social business I pushed off towards St. Helens Road at a serious pace. I was late! I whizzed past the delicious smells coming out of that fine establishment, Exotica, and quietly mourned the loss of the Transport Club while swearing I’d try and take my good lady to that nice-looking French restaurant next-door-but-one to where it used to be. Then I ran into the Spar for some Vera Lynns (that’s “skins”, or cigarette papers, slang fans), cursed the lights opposite the Potters for being useless sons of bastards, legged it through the car park by The Grand – dodging cars while smoking furiously, and shot round the corner towards The Scene like an out-of-shape, thirty-something, heaving, wheezing pinball…with legs. By now I was close enough to hear the loud and weird noises already emanating from The Scene. The walls seemed to pulse and a sound like some kind of spaceship being launched split the air like a neutron bomb. Sounds like Fluff Tongue to me! Yes!
Let me tell you about Fluff Tongue, ladies and gents: I sometimes genuinely think that they’re the best live band I’ve ever seen in my life. I kid you not; they’re that good. They are wholly and richly deserving of a far wider audience and far more attention than they’re ever likely to get round here, and it pains me to the point of embarrassment to attend one of their gigs and see them hammering out their amazing brand of fascinating, funny, cynical, complex, intricate post-rock to half-a-dozen boggle-eyed musicians and no bugger else. It’s a damned travesty, because I know for simple fact that people would (well, providing they could look up from their phones and stop adjusting their hair for long enough) fawn over these boys if they were playing in some vile, hipster enclave in North London…well, maybe the band themselves wouldn’t dig that kind of thing, but put it this way: if Fluff Tongue were supporting Mogwai, nobody would think them out of place. How’s that scan? Chew on that, Swansea! In your very midst there’s a group of musicians with huge technical ability, a rare swagger and a hard-fought talent! But, still, there’s no bugger here watching them. I felt privileged, angry, sad, happy and disappointed.
But there is always hope, and a quick check over my notes reveals where it may be residing – no, really – because shortly after getting a drink and sitting down at the back to happily watch the rest of Fluff Tongue’s set, I was tapped on the shoulder by a very pretty, very young girl of about 18/19 who wanted to know if the chair next to me was free. I looked around the almost empty room and nodded my assent, wondering where the hell this was going. I’m almost married and exceedingly happy, but I’m very aware that I have a “If you’re crazy please talk to me!” sign, only visible to crazy people, hovering above my head at all times, so I tend to be a bit wary of strangers. I gave her a friendly-enough “I’m old enough to be your father” smile, and turned my attention back to the band, who were now shape-shifting into some seriously funky, Mr Bungle-esque psychedelia, while their singer and guitarist had left the stage and was flopped over the back of a settee, giving it the full beans.
My new friend tapped my shoulder again after a couple more songs (each containing approximately 75 different riffs and at least two minutes of glorious, shiny, 4-part vocal harmonies that would put a barbershop quartet to shame) to ask another question of me; it was a good one, too.
“Do you think they’re going to play any Nickleback or any Linkin Park?”
Well, shucks, what can I say to that? I explained as nicely as I could that Fluff Tongue are an original band so would only be playing their own songs, and that she should give them a fair crack of the whip because they were ace. I told her I’d seen them many times and thought they were brilliant, but “you know, it might not be your type of thing”. She thanked me and turned her gaze back to the stage, where the band was deep into some heavy-ass riff that still managed to be incredibly melodic.
Ten minutes later she tapped me on the shoulder again, this time to ask me if I could write the name of the band down for her, because she thought they were amazingly talented and wanted to hear more. Totally won over, she was. See? It can happen! There is hope! But enough about Fluff Tongue; I could eulogise about them for another 1000 words, and I still wouldn’t get across how amazing they are…just go and see them if you like music – and, please, take all your friends.
Next up were another noisy-ass band in the form of Greenmailer. I reviewed their album last month and proclaimed its virtues at great length, and they did nothing tonight to make me change my mind on that score. The songs that I loved on the album (“Catalina”; “Liquorice”, et cetera) all sound huge live, and singer Steve Ahearns’ voice in particular sounds gargantuan. The fella can come across as little shy onstage, but there’s nothing shy about his singing! I imagine recording him must be a producers dream, because he’s got one of those voices that will just cut through everything like a diamond-tipped chainsaw; it’s a tremendous thing, and rather sexy too. Steve sings like Mark Lanegan would if he was fully awake, and that voice, coupled with the grungy riffs and huge drums make Greenmailer a highly entertaining and powerful live band. The bass sounds like a prelude to Armageddon too, which is a crucial element of their sound. That bass hits ya right in the belly!
After they’d shambled off to rejoin the audience, and while the next band (Mook! I love Mook!) were sound-checking, I went outside for a quick smoke and got deep into conversation with the boys out of Fluff Tongue and several members of another great band (sadly now on indefinite hiatus), Sump. We were talking about how there never seemed to be anyone apart from musicians at these gigs, and what could possibly be done about it. I’m not a pessimistic kind of dude, but even I can sometimes succumb to negativity and burning rage, and…well – let’s just move on, shall we?
Inevitably, because of my talking, I missed out on the beginning of Mook. Ah, Mook…where would we be without these boys? I could talk about Mook all day. I can’t really explain their music all that well, apart from “3-piece space rock ‘n’ roll at its absolute finest” but, as far as I’m concerned, they’re one of the best bands to come out of these parts in the last decade or so, without question. Look them up. I’ve never seen them do a bad show, and I don’t expect I will, because they’re all pros. Their songs have odd interludes, weird riffs and decidedly off-kilter melodies that get stuck in your head like a squatting Buddha, while – as musicians – it’s harder to think of a tighter, more punishing unit. These boys can PLAY.
Watching Mook is a bit of a rollercoaster ride, to be honest. They’re similar to Fluff Tongue in that regard, because you don’t really know what’s coming next – but, whatever does come next (a thrash metal section; some Jamaican dancehall rhythms; a call-and-response part reminiscent of Duran Duran; a Beatles-esque descending section that sounds like it’s about to take off in search of Alpha Centauri) it’s sure to be a) unexpected, and b) awesome. But, to be fair to the guys involved, it’s not like they haven’t got history of doing this kind of thing.
QUICK HISTORY LESSON: Two of my absolute favourite Swansea bands of all time are Chunderchod and Goatboy, both of whom were lucky enough to have Mooks Mr. Andrew Baldwin (also of Disco Panther, Swiss FX and others) holding down the bass duties with funky aplomb, so I guess he’s a common factor in all of this. I’m just a big Blod fan, really. Anyway, the Goatboy albums “Superlube” and “The Gospel according to Goatboy” are very much on my “Best of…” lists, and – if there was any way to get hold of them – I’d strongly suggest you hear them…but there isn’t. I’m thinking of – as long as I can get permission from the people who made the tunes – making up a soundcloud page with a selection of tracks from current, vanished or indefinitely suspended Swansea bands….because how else can I explain to you how good Salad Days, Taint, Chunderchod, Calmus, Chip Run Roadkill, Sump, Adam Went Home and The Groundnuts & Independents are without anything to back it up? I’ll get on it. Watch this space.
BACK TO THE GIG: After Mook had graced us with their unique, hard-edged space-rock, there was a lull before the headlining act took the stage. I’d been watching them all night, hanging around, and I was really looking forward to hearing them. They were very cool people, of that there was no doubt, and to hear a thick American drawl coming from a natty-dressed dude with a huge head of curly hair, on a spring night in Swansea, always has the hint of glamour about it. And – goddamn – we could all do with a little glamour at times.
The Vim Dicta hail from Los Angeles, Californ-eye-eh, though they picked up their drummer in Chicago. Their music was a swirling mix of freak-out blues jams and tightly organised, sleazy rock. They remind me of a cross between the John Spencers Blues Explosion and The Mars Volta, which is high praise indeed. Their drummer (Chris “Fuse” Infusino) was fantastic; I found out later he was a session player with a decade plus of club gigs behind him, which surprised me not a jot. You can always tell a good drummer, because they do the fundamentals well. From rudiments come everything, and there’s nothing worse than hearing a really flash player who’s neglected the groundwork…you think to yourself, “God…dammit! This beaut would be flying like a unicorn if they’d paid more attention in Backbeats 101…but, by then, it’s too late.
On lead vocals and bass was a lady called Cori Elliot, who’s possessed of a huge, soulful and operatic voice that reminded me a bit of Shirley Manson with more gravel and more range, who nailed down the bottom end like a pro while the guitar player and vocalist (Matt Tunney) did a funky, riffing maniac thing over the top, stomping on a huge board of effects pedals, some of which were surely labelled “crazy shit”. They were fucking immense as a unit, and as I watched them work through the set they’d been hawking up and down the UK for the last 3 months, I felt a tug at my heartstrings, and I remembered just why I love all this, despite all the bullshit that comes along with it.
Here were three people who’d chucked all their stuff on a plane in LA and buggered off to the other side of the world to try their music out on total strangers. Don’t worry about the money, man – it’ll all work out. I heard later that they’d had to extend the tour many times, because they kept meeting people and getting offered more shows, which is only right because they’re a brilliant band, superb musicians and good people, too. I went to see them again a couple of weeks later, and bought their album. It’s brilliant. Keep an eye on these ones; I suspect they might really mean it.
I wish I could write more about their music on the night, but sadly I missed the last 20 minutes of their set because I had to get home while I could still walk. Turns out I’m not that professional after all. Oh, well. JS
HOWARD MARKS – (13/08/46 – 10/04/16)
I woke up today to the sad news that one of my absolute heroes, Howard Marks, has sadly snuffed it at the age of 70 from a dose of what my Dad calls “the old Bengal Lancer”; in the belly he had it, the poor get, and now he’s brown bread, cheery bye, finito. Nos da Howard, bach – mind how you go. Damn, there’s something in my eye…
Good, old Howard…Narco Polo…no one could say that he didn’t live his life to the full, eh? From Kenfig Hill to Garw to Balliol to Majorca to Terra Haute Penitentiary to theatres and concert halls and festivals and raves and university balls, Howard gave good value wherever he ambled up, and he always had something to bring to the party. Regardless of what you think of his choice of “career”, I don’t think it’s possible to argue that he got to the top (or, depending on your point of view, the bottom) of it.
Apart from being at one time Europe’s biggest dope smuggler (in the 1970’s he smuggled – in one single boat-load delivered to a remote Scottish beach – enough hash to get every adult in the British Isles simultaneously stoned), Howard was also an Oxford scholar (BA. Phys and M. Phil), a successful businessman (travel agent and drinks importer), a parliamentary candidate, a bestselling novelist, a newspaper and magazine columnist, a musical collaborator and performer, a tireless activist for the legalisation of his beloved smoke and a true Welsh prince. We shall not see his like again. Mr Nice, I salute you.
THE LAST WORD: “HOW THE MANICS 1996 ALBUM, “EVERYTHING MUST GO”, CHANGED WALES AND WELSH MUSIC FOREVER”
Picture the scene: It’s 1996 and I am 14 years old and unable to grow a meaningful beard. I live with my family in a little bungalow at the very top of the village of Plasmarl, which tumbles like a stack of dropped plates down a steep hill from Morris Castle to the banks of the River Tawe – which back then still oozed rather more than it flowed. It was a sluggish and discoloured waterway, as I recall, pouring its daily measure of human effluence and raw industrial poisons directly into the sea – still a long and smelly way from its early noughties clean-up. We still used to swim in it every summer of course, getting some truly spectacular rashes and burns for our troubles. But we were young, stupid and practically invincible.
There was a Tory government in power (which was all I’d ever known; an experience I share with all the poor schmucks that have popped down the chute in the last 10 years or so), but they were tearing themselves apart over Europe (sound familiar?) and the winds of change were definitely in the air; rumour had it that some glib-faced, thoroughly modern, populist, centralist, man-child named Anthony Blair was next in line for the big job, but there were doubts over his fresh-faced and innocent demeanour, with many people feeling he lacked the experience, gravitas and the statesmanship to lead a country. We would soon learn different, and then learn some more later on. But, for now, thiiiiiiiings can only get better.
Britain hadn’t been officially at war with anybody since the firepower orgy of Gulf War I, and there didn’t seem to be much chance of a war happening anytime in the near future…except possibly in some obscure place called the Balkans – but as far as we’re aware Slick Willy Clinton is dealing masterfully with that, in between his other hobbies. The internet barely exists, hardly anyone (who isn’t a total wanker) has a mobile phone, and there are 4 grocers, 3 butchers, 4 bakers and a supermarket on Woodfield Street in Morriston. Tescos own one scabby shop on the Kingsway, and good enough for them, too.
Buses are green and fags are cheap. Litter is everywhere and cars are few. Pubs close on a Sunday, and Castle Gardens is still a garden. Football is enjoying a renaissance, and the jingoistic tub-thumping of Euro 96 would prompt a speedy detoxification of the both the game and (not coincidentally) the St Georges flag, which led eventually to the almost universal acceptance in Britain of the idea that football is A Very Good Thing and a Nice Day Out for All The Family. This change would open up the game to the middle-classes, who’d been frightened off for years by all the maniacs with tattoos on their faces screaming obscenities, and these well-heeled punters would eventually morph into the much-maligned “prawn sandwich brigade” and, for better or for worse, serve as a symbol of the riches and excesses of the modern game. It all began here, kids.
In short, it was a very different world, one that now seems like a small serving of pre-millennial tension before the abrupt coming of an era that the academics whose job it is to name these things are starting to refer to as the “Information Age”…20 years ago, friends…and it seems like 20 weeks and 20 centuries all at the same time. It was a different time in so many different ways. It was an era of mix-tapes and borrowed CDs; of ripping off Brittania and taping albums you’d borrowed from the library…yup, 20th century piracy was always much more hands on. It required moving parts and, occasionally, lubrication.
The best audio equipment you could possess was a double tape player/recorder wired into a good amp, with an excellent CD player and an FM radio on the same system for taping singles and radio sessions. Singles were still bought in huge quantities back then, but only on CD or tape because vinyl had pretty much disappeared…forever, it was assumed. Wrong again. My own father – usually a reasonably astute fellow – gave away his entire, expansive, 30-year old record collection around 1988, displaying a catastrophic lack of foresight I’ve struggled since to forgive him for…after all, who would think all those pristine Beatles 7” singles and painstakingly looked-after gatefold albums would be desirable or worth anything?
I was fairly lucky when it came to music growing up anyway, mind (despite my fathers’ decision-making regarding 25 year-old copies of “Revolver” in absolutely mint condition) as my parents listened to a lot of different stuff, and we had a good sound system and stacks of tapes and CD’s to get into. Amongst others, in my house we listened to: The Beatles (never the Stones; my old man thought Mick Jagger was a [strutting pea] cock), Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Jackson Brown, Vangelis, Michael Jackson, ELO, Genesis, Simply Red, Simon and Garfunkel, ABBA, Tracey Chapman, Jean Michelle Jarre, Dire Straits, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley…and many more besides. I can’t complain, really, can I?
But, aside from Terry Williams in Dire Straits, can you see a Welsh artist in that list? Forgive me for it, but I honestly didn’t think we did much music in Wales. I didn’t think it was one of our strong points! Up until about 1993 at least I thought Welsh music was hymns & arias, Calon Lan and – at a push – Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey; Bonnie Tyler; Bryn Terfel, maybe; Max Boyce. I’d never heard of Datblygu or The Alarm, or even the first couple of Manics albums.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d seen plenty of Welsh musicians and bands. As a young kid I was taken many times to see local acts play, in the Cardiff Arms or The Adam and Eve or The Coppermans. I saw Spiv and The Barrow Boys countless times, along with The Karrots, The Hoggs and the man, the myth and the legend that is Brian Breeze…they were wild boys, all, but they played American music as far as I was concerned. Most of them played rock and roll or the blues, which – at the age of fourteen – felt to me like an elderly relative that was held in far too much reverence by a nostalgia-obsessed generation obstinately refusing to move on…and, furthermore, I maintained that this reverence was effectively holding music BACK…yes, I really did think like that! God, what a self-righteous little bastard I was!
Bastard or not, my contention was that – with the new millennium looming over us like some kind of vulgar hotel in Las Vegas – it was time to let go of old certainties and embrace something new, and this idolising of old bluesmen from an entirely alien culture was as absurd as it was limiting. I did learn in later years the value of knowing where ideas originate from, and I came to love what I could absorb from this seemingly inexhaustible well-spring of pure music that stirred itself up on the plains of Africa and the cotton-fields of Louisiana, before rolling out across the world like a great, billowing rag-rug of truth and sorrow and sex and soul…the sound of innocence and experience…a heady brew that transcended continents and bestrode the world…but it still wasn’t the music of MY country, sorry; I had yet to experience that. It was coming, though. It was in the post. And not a minute too soon…
See: I couldn’t at the time relate to what I can only describe as the “1970’s version of Welshness”. You have to remember that that sort of “pints of heavy, boyo, Myfanwy, Grand Slam, coal-mining and rugby tours” vision of Wales really meant little or nothing to a lot of the generation who were born into a dependent Wales during the early years following all our industry going kaput – especially round here away from the rugby heartlands…because, after all, how could you be proud to be from a country that you were taught in school wasn’t really a country at all, and which – as you’d been told for as long as you could remember – was dying on its arse? When the Queen visited in 1988 (I think) they gave all us schoolchildren little union flags to wave. That would never happen now, would it?
Our rugby team were shit, the national football team had taken years off my life in 1990, and I had no idea at the time that a rich cultural tapestry going back thousands of years under-laid the fabric of Wales like the roots of an industrial-sized leek. I was resentful at being raised in a place that seemed so backwards-looking and so dour and so insignificant. Besides that, I just didn’t feel welcome here. Too many people would abuse me in the street for the unforgivable crime of dressing like an eccentric, dandified tramp, (a practice I maintain to this day and recommend highly). Basically, underneath it all, I just think I didn’t feel Welsh.
In hindsight this was probably because I was raised and educated at a time just before the resurgence of what I like to call “nationalism-lite”, which took place around the time of the 1997 devolution referendum that led to the formation of the Welsh Assembly. Incidentally, this has also inadvertently led to the creation of a political, Welsh-speaking middle-class that continues to dominate thinking in Cardiff Bay to this day – seeing as how being bilingual has now become a pre-requisite to working in politics…which is pretty heavy, eh? Don’t worry – I’m going somewhere with this, and I don’t really want to get too much into the politics here anyway, because I like to think of these columns as pub monologues – and you know the Universal Rules Of The Pub, right? No? Well, it’s simple:
1) No religion.
2) No politics.
3) Stand your round.
#1 and #2 can be suspended by mutual consent, of course – but #3 is inviolate and immutable. That means you don’t fuck with it.
So in 1995/6 I had no mainstream Welsh musical heroes to aspire to and admire while, at the same time, Them Lot Over The Bridge were having a massive laugh, with the whole world flocking to That London to hear a load of pilled-up art students pretending to be working-class heroes…sorry, just slipped out of character there…floppy-fringed chancers,…but at least Oasis were the real deal, right? Them, The Verve and Pulp, and no other fucker…my point, in amongst all this jabbering and foul language, is that I didn’t have a big-time band in Wales to look up to during my early teens, and I think this contributed heavily to my lack of a sense of national identity, because, being a music obsessive, music was the prism through which I saw the world.
Now, whilst still at a very impressionable age, I had heard and become reasonably obsessed by (third Manics album) “The Holy Bible”, because it at least gave me the idea that we did more in this country than choral singing and bawdy songs about Ivor having a big ‘un and one more Barry John. But…well – “The Holy Bible” was then what it is now: a bleak, vicious, brutally intelligent masterpiece that alienates as many as it entrances…it was certainly never going to produce anything approaching a hit single; critically acclaimed, yes; worshipped by the fans, 100%…but it didn’t make much inroads into the popular culture at the time. No, when you’re singing songs about anorexia and the holocaust, with titles like “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart”, “Archives of Pain” or “The Intense Humming of Evil”, then you’re not exactly going to be challenging the Spice Girls and All Saints for the all-important teenage girl market, are you?
Then came the spring of 1996, when everything changed. There had been a rumour in the music press that the Manics, sidelined for the last few years as they struggled to get over the disappearance and probable suicide of guitarist and founding member Richey Edwards, were sitting on a new album, and the first single was due out shortly. Apparently, the new album was a much more lush and orchestrated affair than its predecessor, with the consensus in the industry being that the band would alienate their core audience and foul up their careers forever. Mind you, this is the same music industry that a year later dismissed Radiohead magnum opus “OK Computer” as “proggy, unlistenable, commercial suicide”. But I digress.
So the first single, the anthem that is “A Design for Life” is released, and everything goes completely insane. The single sells 200,000 copies and charts at number 2. That’s two hundred THOUSAND singles. The album, to date, has sold 2 million copies and eventually spawned 4 top 10 singles (“Design for Life”; “Everything Must Go”; “Kevin Carter”; “Australia”). It also won every award going and was critically lauded across the globe, with the band embarking on a sold-out world tour that seemed a worthy reward for all the grief they’d suffered just a few years earlier.
But it’s not about the numbers or the money, really. Something about that album just….resonated. It was like church bells ringing to mark the end of a war. I really do believe now that the release of “Everything must go”, and its subsequent success, helped create and shape a new vision of Wales and Welshness, just in time for the millennium. We needed a different way of seeing ourselves, and the Manics sound-tracked our voyage of reinvention. Thing is, too…the New Welsh weren’t grumpy or dour or backwards-looking or insular. No, we were Europeans; we were internationalists AND patriots and, most especially, hedonists; we were loud, proud, vocal and unashamed. We embraced our history and refused to mourn it or wear it like a burden. Wales was ultimately the best place to be, and if you didn’t believe that you’d obviously never been here…but we were still interested in what Wales had to say for itself. We hadn’t heard our own stories before. We wanted to feel our culture reflected back at us. Enough of this “British music” stuff; what about “Welsh music”?
Stereophonics would take this idea to its logical conclusion with the release of “Word gets around” in 1997, which was basically of a series of masterfully-crafted vignettes about village life in the valleys, but the Manics, inadvertently or not, became the touchstone around which this new generation of laughing, drinking Welsh people congregated. They were OUR BAND, and their successes mirrored our own. We might not win a grand slam anytime soon (2005 was a great year, by the way), but by Christ we can drink while we lose! And we can sing, too. We took our voices away from the chapel and put them to better use at the game and at the gigs.
And all of a sudden there was a NEW Welshness for me to relate to, one I’d never experienced before…and it was proud, it was defiant, it was romantic, it was political, and – most of all – it was unashamedly intelligent and informed. It also spoke in English, like I did…or at least Wenglish, anyway…and The Manics didn’t write songs about drugs or girls or machismo either, like the 80’s rock stars I despised. No, they wrote songs about political thought, about identity, about writers, poets and artists; about history and longing and absurdity and destruction and brutality and what it is to be human and scared and alone…“Cigarettes and alcohol”, this certainly was not…but the choruses on “Everything must go” still soar like eagles, tugging your heart along with them. The strings swoon. It works on so many different levels, which is why it crossed over to the mainstream so well. Even if you weren’t moved by the words, the tunes would have you bouncing up and down like a grinning lunatic.
The Manic Street Preachers gave me hope of a new Wales, one hopefully that I could belong in, and I can’t thank them enough for it. The Manics made me proud to be Welsh for the first time in my life, and since then I’ve never looked back. I discovered our history; I fell in love with our rugby, our songs, our quick wit, our incessant lying and bravado. I learned what hiraeth means and I feel deep shivers of joy and belonging every time I come back over the bridge and see the hills of Wales in the distance, shepherding me home to cheap beer and easy humour. I love it here, and – in the right sort of frame of mind – I can feel generations of my family looking down at me, longingly and lovingly, thinking about saying hello and tapping me for a pint and a fag.
The actor Michael Sheen tells a story about when he was driving back home over the bridge and “Design for life” came pouring out of his radio, all huge guitars and rolling strings. Upon hearing the first line he says he became incredibly tearful and moved by the thought that his beloved, tiny, little country had produced something of such intelligence, beauty and defiance, and It seemed so appropriate and so important to him that such a huge and successful band had still managed to retain a sense of where they came from, and for it to shine through in their music. It just seemed…right, and fitting – and it brought tears of joy.
And I know exactly how he feels. One of my favourite memories of my entire life is of standing outside my mates’ house in Port Talbot one night a few years ago, having a smoke. This was during the Port Talbot “Passion” play, which of course Michael Sheen was the instigator of. I’d seen a few of the things that had happened during the day, but it wasn’t really my thing…too much religion for me…but, whatever it was about, it was still a grand spectacle. Anyway, at the end of the road (Golf Road, in case you’re wondering) stands a little club, and from it suddenly erupts without warning the sound of an incredibly tight, incredibly loud, clearly amazing band warming up. Boom! Like an explosion. Whatthefuckwasthatman?!? For a few seconds I thought I was hearing things, but I then realise it’s the Manics, playing “Design for life” in a little hut in the middle of a housing estate in Port Talbot. Course they were! I stood and listened, watching the mist roll down the mountain towards the rows of little houses, and I thought of all the people living in them, and the lives they lead…and I felt profoundly moved at the elegance and appropriateness of such a thing occurring, in that time and in that place. It’s all about hope, see? And I knew, above anything else, that this was home.