Published Feb 01, 2000Ten years ago, you'd have been hard-pressed to name a famous Welsh musician - after Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, John Cale and Badfinger, the pickings get slim: the Alarm? Bonnie Tyler? But recent music history has seen an explosion of aggressive young Welsh bands making waves - chart-toppers like Catatonia, up-and-comers Super Furry Animals and Stereophonics and indie darlings Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. They're no doubt helped by the impressive achievements of their forerunners, the Manic Street Preachers, but it would be foolish to assert that this ragtag collection constitutes a "scene" - the music these bands create is a diverse range of catchy pop, straight-ahead rock and kooky experimental psychedelia.
What holds them together is a new attitude - a pride in Wales and its culture, and a desire to defend it against the common misconception that it is a close-minded environment. According to the Manic Street Preachers bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, "At the start is was difficult for us, because there was no real music history in Wales - your Tom's or Shirley Bassey's and Alarm were treated as a bit of a joke, really. It was really hard, so we took an immense amount of stick. It took a lot to get over that." Accomplished Welsh musicians achieved fame long after leaving the homeland; heritage, when it was mentioned at all, was a biographical footnote.
"There were only two forms of expression in Wales- kicking a football, or picking up a guitar."
- Manic Street Preachers' Nicky Wire
Recent Welsh history is like a petrie dish for rock'n'roll genesis - a young population coming of age, coupled with a high unemployment rate and little in the way of indigenous alternative culture. Nicky Wire sums it up: "There were only two forms of expression - kicking a football, or picking up a guitar. Coming from our area, that's a classic cliché. You've got those, or you become a violent alcoholic. We were just lucky enough to pick up a guitar."
Kings of the Road
In 1986, teenage friends James Dean Bradfield, his cousin Sean Moore, Nicky Wire, and a boy named Flicker, fuelled by the media attention given to the Sex Pistols 10th anniversary, started playing punk rock in the Bradfield's front room in Blackwood. Inspired by a love of music ranging from the Clash and the New York Dolls to Joy Division and the Smiths, the Manic Street Preachers released their first single, "Suicide Alley" in 1989, and replaced Flicker with fellow gang member Richard James Edwards. Ten years later, they are the reigning ambassadors of Welsh rock - their song "A Design For Life" is now used by the Welsh National Tourist Board as an anthem to encourage visitors.
From the start, the Manics developed a reputation of being a tough-talking, dangerous group of anti-socialites. As is often the case with driven young rock bands, environment, and a desire to escape was a strong contributing factor - Blackwood is a small, tough mining town. "I think the identity we had was one of being working class," Wire says. "That's more than a nationality. You could put our area into Manchester or Newcastle and there's not much difference except for a nationality. Back in those days, when we went up to London, it gave us a huge amount of strength, because we felt harder, fiercer and angrier than any of the people we ever met."
The music press in the UK was distrustful of this tough reputation, and when BBC music reporter Steve Lamaq challenged the band on this point in 1991, Richey James carved "4 Real" into his arm with a razor blade. Publicity stunt or not, it demonstrated the callous attitude the band had towards the standards of the music business. They held nothing back in interviews - Richey once said the band Slowdive offended him more than Adolf Hitler, and he told teen music magazine Smash Hits that their readers should all die before they reach 13. Nicky Wire stirred up trouble by saying that he hoped Michael Stipe (who at the time was defending against rumours he had AIDS) "goes the same way as Freddie Mercury pretty soon" before a crowd of 2,500. Coupled with their tendency to dress in fatigues (including face paint) and smash their instruments (sometimes injuring others in the process), the Manics did indeed seem for real.
Hard living took its toll. Guitarist and co-writer Richey James started to deteriorate, mentally and physically. Although the band initially denied it, there were rumoured suicide attempts. On tour in Thailand, Richey slashed his chest repeatedly with knives given as a present by a fan. Richey lost more and more control until finally, on February 1, 1995, Richey left his hotel room in London, and has never been seen since - although his body has never been found, he is now presumed dead.
After losing one of their chief lyricists, the rest of the group originally intended to disband, but after much soul searching, continued on as a three piece. Their next album, Everything Must Go , earned them the two biggest British Music Awards: Best Band and Best Album. Their latest effort, This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours repeated the feat.
Unlike their forebears, the Manics continue to drape themselves in the Welsh flag. According to Wire, "It was a tough way to grow up - there was a lot of unemployment - but we kind of cocooned ourselves. We made our own little world, really. It was a nice place to grow up in a lot of ways, because it was just so out of the way - you could develop at your own pace. If you grow up in London, there's such pressure on you to be different, new and exciting. We didn't have that pressure, we were just allowed to do whatever we wanted. London just gets so much attention - that's where the resentment comes out. When we go to Scotland or Liverpool, we never felt any different really. I think your environment plays a massive part in you life. There's no doubt that our environment really forged us into the people we are today."
We're Not From London, You Know
Welsh bands, like the Scots and the Irish, are happy to take sporting shots at London and its fickle music scene. Catatonia's latest release, Equally Cursed and Blessed , contains a track called "Londinium," in which raspy-piped singer Cerys Matthews pulls no punches: "London never sleeps, it just sucks / The life out of me / And the money from my pocket / London always creeps, showbiz hugs / The life out of me / Have some dignity honey."
The quest to artistically distance themselves from London also resonates with Guto Pryce of the Super Furry Animals: "We're definitely not a London band. All the Welsh bands are good anyway, no matter where they come from - as long as you had the same record collection, you could have come from anywhere. The good thing is people who aren't part of the London, centralised music scene getting recognised because they are doing original stuff."
"I love all the fuckin' London bullshit. It's incredible for a few days, but then you want to leave."
Stereophonics' Kelly Jones
Stereophonics singer/songwriter Kelly Jones adds, "In early interviews, when people asked us where we were from and we said Wales, they always asked us: 'Are you ever going to move to London?' 'No.' I've had some brilliant times there, I love going there, I love the people there, and I love all the fuckin' bullshit that goes on there. It's incredible to live that bullshit for a few days, but then you want to leave.
"To actually do that full time would be an incredible nightmare. Some bands don't like to leave - they like to live that life and they think that's what it's about. But I actually know that the point of this business is that you write songs, and if you can't write 12 songs every six months, then your fucking business is over. If you don't have some reality to go back home to, then you'll never be able to keep on doing that."
The stabs at London are not surprising when one considers the political history of Wales. Aside from a brief period of rebellious independence five centuries ago, Wales has essentially remained under the thumb of the British Empire since 1282. It's a situation that has only recently begun to improve. That consciousness has informed many current Welsh bands. Steeped in their own history, Super Furry Animals' Guto Pryce and Stereophonics' Kelly Jones are both capable of discussing the state of parliamentary politics at length - not exactly a classic rock'n'roll stereotype - and both Nicky Wire and Richey James of the Manics studied politics at Swansea University.
Another key to the Welsh puzzle is the unique role played by language. The existence of poetry dating from the sixth century gives Welsh the distinction of having the oldest vernacular literature in Europe (surviving literature from England is in Old English and thus not in the vernacular, i.e. only scholars can understand it). In fact, Welsh has the greatest number of speakers of the surviving Celtic languages. This historical, linguistic bond contributes to a strong sense of pride and community, fuelling the struggle to maintain a unique identity.
The use of Welsh among the current cadre of bands is varied - the Manics and Stereophonics, for example, do not speak Welsh, while Catatonia, the Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci record songs in their native language, and happily bounce between Welsh and English.
"Wales is a pretty fucked up country in terms of the language and cultural divides," Wire says. "There is a certain element of 'Why are you guys singing in an American accent,' but we grew up loving music. James wanted to sing like Joe Strummer, and Joe Strummer wanted to sing like Eddie Cochrane. It's all part of history. Music is the international language - that's why we do what we do."
Princes and Princess
Dubbed in the UK press as the "Princes of Wales," the Stereophonics, who hail from Cwmaman (one of their largest concerts was titled "Cwmaman feel the noize") are definitely not trying to create new sounds. Instead, they favour the more straight-ahead approach of classic acts like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, who were strong influences. After slowly building a fan base in Wales, the Stereophonics started to break not only in England, but around the world on the strength of their latest album,Performance and Cocktails .
It could be the biggest sign of life in the Welsh music community that Stereophonics recently nabbed the dubious distinction of being first to partake in some Welsh rock piss-taking. When asked about the Manic Street Preachers, Kelly Jones told stalwart UK music magazineNME : "I never really listened to them. I heard some stuff the other day and I thought it was fucking atrocious. Their first record was shit. And I listened to The Holy Bible and I thought it was the most depressing record I'd ever heard in my life."
On a cell phone while he wanders through the Cannes Film Festival, Jones is clearly proud of their achievements: "Coming from Wales, it was difficult way to signed. Coming from outside of London six years ago was difficult anyway. It's turned around a great deal at the moment. I think a lot of it was because we came from Wales, we didn't fit into any of the NME /Melody Maker categories - Brit pop this, Brit pop that. We just got ignored for a while, but all of a sudden, they realised, maybe there didn't need to be a category for this. Britain's like that - very fickle. It likes to create things, but because we created our following by touring, they didn't like that, because they were weren't the ones. We did it on our own."
"Every day when I wake up, I thank the lord I'm Welsh."
- Catatonia's Cerys Matthews
If the Stereophonics are the Princes of Wales, there's no question who the Princess is. Cerys Matthews is no stranger to UK magazine covers. Yes, she's a looker, but Catatonia's strength comes from her voice and attitude. Add to that her remarkable stage presence, which is almost overshadowed by the fact that she'll out-drink most of her fans. Their latest album, Equally Cursed and Blessed , is topping UK charts and gaining momentum on this side of the pond, but they can only hope to reach the breakthrough success of their sophomore effort,International Velvet . The title track from that album, sung in Welsh, contains but one telling line in English: "Every day when I wake up, I thank the lord I'm Welsh."
Kelly Jones best sums up the attention now being directed at Welsh bands: "Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton. All these major stars, who are Welsh, are always classed as being international artists, and as stars, but not Welsh. I'm very, very happy to be Welsh at the moment - like I've always been - and apparently all these newspapers think it's cool to be Welsh now. We've always thought it was cool. It's never been any different to us - we're Welsh. Kids are making an effort to actually do something because they believe they can achieve something. It's great because for years, it did literally feel like a brick wall was up against us, and that we couldn't do anything. It's great that we've got that confidence again."
That confidence has given rise to a new league of bands already bubbling up to the surface. Thanks to the hard work and determination of the first big wave, we can look forward to hearing from band like Scuba, Oxygum, Cartoon, or Melys. Y Ddraig Goch Ddyry Cychwyn! - The Red Dragon Leads the Way.