The sound of the city

Two events in Cardiff this October, the 5th Sŵn new music festival and the inaugural Welsh Music Prize (won by Gruff Rhys), give me the excuse to raise the subject of music for the first time on this blog.

Cardiff is today the epicentre of Welsh music in all its many forms, from the triple-harp to trip-hop. The city is now virtually a conveyor belt of interesting bands and an ever-growing crucible of interacting musicians. And so it should be, given the unique advantages music in Cardiff enjoys. Firstly, devolution brought long-overdue support for the country’s creative industries via bodies such as the Welsh Music Foundation, Community Music Wales and Trac. Secondly, the gradual accretion of media to the Welsh capital means it is second only to London in the UK as a broadcasting and production centre, with music at the centre of it. Thirdly, the mushrooming of record labels, studios, rehearsal rooms, promoters, fanzines and webzines galore gives the scene a self-sustaining momentum of its own. And fourthly, Cardiff has accumulated tipping-point quantities of human resources in a blend found nowhere else: earlier generations of Welsh bands who stayed on to become wise elders and mentors; a student population of over 30,000, 10% of the entire city; the Wales Millennium Centre with its magnificent auditorium and permanent homes for Welsh National Opera and the Ty Cerdd music centre; and, most crucially, the chance gathering of youth dissent, underclass rage, outsider lunacy and underdog insight.

The best Cardiffians will listen to anything from grime to Gregorian chant, so long as originality is in there somewhere, refusing to be corralled into the ridiculous “my generation” trap most find themselves in as soon as their formative listening years (between age 12 and 25) are over. This trait is a general Cardiff characteristic: an eclecticism born of the outward-looking port, plus a disregard for ephemeral trends born of a contempt for authority. Whatever the reasons, the story of music in Cardiff has this defining thread of bloody-minded independence running through it, and now the combination of rising Welsh self-belief and alienating urban life has cranked output up another gear to bring critical mass to the city’s music scene.

It has been a fascinating, convoluted journey for Cardiff to arrive at this exciting place. The full story, from the wandering balladeers singing emotional Welsh-language melodies in the inns and waysides accompanied by the crwth and the pibcorn, right up to the present dizzy kaleidoscope of practitioners in all genres and none, can be read when Unofficial Cardiff: Music is eventually completed. To whet appetites, here in rough chronological order are 10 milestones in that journey, 10 times when music changed Cardiff and Cardiff changed music:

Cardiff Arms Park, 1905: Wales 3 New Zealand 0, the game that would establish rugby as the touchstone of both Welsh and Kiwi identity and write the blueprint for all future international sport. On a fine winter afternoon just before Christmas, the Arms Park was shrouded in a haze of pollution from the steam-driven town’s ships, factories and engines, a static high pressure system providing not a breath of air to clear the mists away. In only the 12th international played at the ground, the all-conquering All Blacks were hot favourites to beat a Welsh side on the cusp of its ‘First Golden Era’. The Arms Park, even with temporary stands on the cricket ground, was full to its 40,000 capacity hours before the 2.30 kick off. Many more found vantage points at the river end or scaled walls on Westgate Street to take the unofficial gate beyond 50,000. The drama started with Wales’ first experience of the Maori war dance the Haka.
The puzzled crowd watched the strange, exotic ritual in respectful silence and thundered their approval at its close. Then, from high up in the South Stand, a male voice choir began to sing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. The Welsh players on the pitch stood to attention and joined in. As if from some subterranean depths, a deep swell rose inexorably to roll around the terraces. Conducted by the ozone and accompanied by the distant hoots of ships waiting in Penarth Roads, 50,000 voices synchronised as one. When the heart-strirring ‘Gwlad! Gwlad!’ of the chorus arrived, the volume had become a wall of sound, trembling the pavements in St Mary Street and drifting with the Taff down to the docks. For the first time a national anthem had been sung at a sporting event. The culture of world sport and the dynamics of mass crowds were changed forever as the Welsh propensity for a group sing-song went global. 

The incredible career of Ivor Novello (1893-1951) took off in 1914 when he wrote Keep the Home Fires Burning, a song owing much to his knowledge of old Welsh folk melodies gleaned from his beloved mother, director of the Welsh Ladies Choir, Clara Novello Davies (1861-1943). It became the wrenchingly optimistic hymn of hope through the WW1 years of slaughter and was so ubiquitous that even today, 100 years later, the tune is instantly familiar. Huge sales of the sentimental tear-jerker’s sheet music established Novello’s knack for touching the popular imagination and effectively launched the concept of the mass ‘pop’ hit. After this breakthrough he went on to multi-pronged superstardom as a composer, film actor, stage actor and playwright, invented sexual androgyny half a century before David Bowie squeezed into spandex, set the gay template of glamour and camp for generations, and, along with another Cardiffian Binkie Beaumont (1908-1973), indelibly defined London’s ‘West End’ as the glitzy habitat of escapist candyfloss. Today the Novello Awards are the songwriters’ Oscars – and all because the most famous male Cardiffian of all time longed for a cwtch with his mam in front of their old Riverside hearth.

Ivor toying with his extra-long cigarette holder

In late 1917, as WW1 ground towards its climax, the US Navy set up its European HQ in the Angel Hotel to bring yankee know-how to the vital shipment of coal to France. 1,700 commissioned officers and 4,000 enlisted men flooded into Cardiff, including the Navy’s usual large contingent of seamen from America’s biggest ports on the Louisiana coast. The Angel was dubbed the ‘USS Chatinouka’, and some evenings bandsmen from the Marines would sit up on the porch roof and give impromptu concerts to Cardiffians gathered below in Westgate Street and Castle Street. Here, one night, the musicians broke into that blend of ragtime and blues that would come to be called jazz, but at this juncture had barely broken out of Dixieland to the rest of the USA let alone cross the Atlantic. Among the thronging crowds the seeds of Cardiff’s attachment to the off-beat and the improvised were sown.

Long before ‘World Music’ was codified and categorised, a gumbo of global sounds was being stewed into new recipes down in Cardiff’s docklands. At first Tiger Bay’s favoured instrument was the guitar, brought home by sailors returning from Bilbao, Buenos Aires or Batavia. A host of talented, creative jazz guitarists emerged, like brothers Frank and Joe Deniz, prodigiously gifted Vic Parker, dextrous Gerald Ashton, and the expressive Ray Norman,  men in the vanguard of black musicians in Europe. Then in the 1950s, in the nightclubs of south Cardiff such as the Pineapple, Frenchies, the Casablanca and the Rainbow, there was an extraordinary flowering of young, black, Welsh women singers who melded jazz, calypso, gospel and blues into a distinctive sound entirely made in Cardiff. None made it bigger than Shirley Bassey, who has survived to reach Living Legend status, but there were many others just as special stymied by the recurring Cardiff problem of being ahead of their time: Mahala Davis, Maureen Jemmett, Rohima Ali, Rosie Roberts, Selina Duncan, Irene Spettie, Patti Flynn and Humie Webbe were all unjustly neglected coming from an unfashionable Wales without its own music industry, but they were musical geniuses when set against the feeble, synthetic postures of today’s two-a-penny r’n’b singers. Of course it is Bassey who has come to personify that Cardiff sound. The most famous Cardiffian of all time has managed to do what few singers ever achieve and create her own genre. Her repertoire, often denounced as dated kitsch, is in fact a daringly indiscriminate garnering of influences, drawing on everything from European operetta to American razzamatazz and then injected with the unmistakeable vowels, highly-attuned self-mockery and melancholic melodrama that are Cardiff stock-in-trades. When she topped the bill at the concert to celebrate the opening of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, stunning in an off-the-shoulder Draig Goch gown, belting it out over the transformed docks of her childhoood, she somehow completed a circle began long ago, and transcendentally rose into the pantheon of all-time Welsh greats.    

Strangely, at the height of their powers both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones would encounter portents of their future in the Capitol Theatre, then Cardiff’s main concert hall. The Stones played an incident-packed gig there in 1964, during which an airgun pellet fired from the audience hit drummer Charlie Watts. This turned out to be a dry run for a far more serious assault five years later when a spectator was murdered by Hells Angels at the front of the stage while the Stones were performing at the Altamont Free Concert in California – violence that came to symbolise the death of the hippy pipe-dream. The Beatles gig at the Capitol in 1965 was equally significant as their last ever UK concert. The cacophany of screaming from the uncorked pubescent energies of hysterical suburban Cardiff rent the air down Queen Street and made it impossible for the boys to even hear their own instruments. The Fab Four vowed never again; it was the beginning of the end.    

Like so many of the first wave of post-WW2 teenagers exasperated and bored by monochrome 1950s Cardiff, Dave Edmunds from Orbit Street, Adamsdown, looked for his freedoms in the intoxicating American Dream. Inspired by Buddy Holly (1936-1959) and Elvis (1935-1977), the young Teddy Boy taught himself guitar and paid his dues in a series of local blues bands, including The Raiders, the first ever group to feature just guitar, bass and drums, before having a breakthrough hit in 1968 with psychedelic trio Love Sculpture, in which his dazzlingly dextrous 7-minute interpretation of Aram Khachaturian’s (1903-1978) Sabre Dance took the concept of the rock guitar work-out to new extremes. Going solo in the 1970s, Edmunds continued to alter the history of pop by laying the groundwork for pub rock, new wave and rockabilly and resuscitating rock’n’roll with Nick Lowe and Rockpile. His cool, sharp attitude, gritty, stripped-down sound and indifference to the vagaries of fashion helped keep rock alive for new generations to tinker with long after other 1950s’ tastes were dead and buried. What’s more he set up Wales’ first cutting-edge recording studio at rural Rockfield in Gwent, so indelibly associating Wales with the Spinal Tap cliché of wasted urban drop-outs “getting it together in the country”. Cult status, immense wealth and the LA pad duly arrived: the dream came true for Dave Edmunds. But in semi-retired ill health he is more and more drawn back to Wales, and whenever he embarks on his increasingly infrequent tours he makes sure he plays his home town. You can take the boy out of Cardiff…

Love Sculpture 1968, Dave Edmunds centre

In 1969 Huw Jones, a Cardiffian who had got into music through the Urdd youth organisation, Dafydd Iwan, folk singer and fervent Welsh republican, and Brian Edwards (1934-2002), Plaid Cymru’s treasurer, founded the Sain record company after a boozy night in the New Ely pub, Coburn Street Cathays (nowadays the Vulcan Lounge). Tryweryn had been drowned, Gwynfor had been elected, Charles had been invested, English road signs were being painted red, and Wales was suddenly in tune with the prevailing mood of belief in progress and freedom. Welsh language music was galvanised by the radicalism and Sain was born in this ferment to reflect what London record companies ignored. From their first office in the front room of Edwards’ house in Ninian Road and their first successful albums by the Godfather of modern Welsh music Meic Stevens, Sain paved the way for the Welsh musical revival that has continued unabated to this day, growing to become Wales’ biggest record company with a burgeoning back-catalogue of unique nonconformity, happily experimenting in punk, acid folk, breakbeats and sampling years ahead of their time, the boundary-free epitome of what an independent label should be. Their move to Caernarfon from Cardiff in 1975 was an early example of internal Welsh devolution which had wonderful consequences for Wales. Cardiff could actually now look within Wales for inspiration and ideas, a process that has continued to this day, binding the Welsh and English-language scenes together with the capital as natural hub and gestating both Cardiff’s best venue, Clwb Ifor Bach, and best festival, Sŵn. Thanks to Sain Wales today has over 50 independent record companies and Cardiff alone nearly 20, and musicians take it for granted that where it’s happening isn’t elsewhere, but right here. Route 66 and the North Circular Road have faded from the Welsh imagination; now the A470 is our muse. 

Cardiff’s first big pop festival was a fundraiser for Chapter Arts in Sophia Gardens in 1970 (Pink Floyd topped the bill with Black Sabbath and Quintessence in support). South Wales Echo correspondents, suitably outraged by the bohemianism on display, ensured nothing similar was permitted by the puritanical Council until the Castle Festival on the Castle Green in 1975, featuring Steeleye Span, 10cc, Thin Lizzy and Welsh band Man. The local favourites, exponents of mind-blowing acid rock, came on in drenching summer rains and, as Merthyr’s Micky Jones (1946-2010), carved his liquid, soaring, atonal solo on Bananas into the warm drizzle and clouds of marijuana smoke wrapped themselves around Lord Bute’s patrician towers, something shifted in the city’s power base. The grip of the stern Victorian fathers was loosened at last; Cardiff’s hedonistic young would henceforth call the shots in the city centre. Nobody imagined that, 40 years later, music would have been co-opted by big business as a marketing tool, depoliticised by the crushing power of there-is-no-alternative global consumerism and handed down from above as soporific showbiz and retro retreads by the controlling authorities. Many were called, but few got up…

In the desolate provincial wasteland of Cardiff in 1979, where disco and pub rock still ruled the roost, three brainy, pissed-off students sharing a shabby rented house in dirt-poor Adamsdown formed Young Marble Giants. The group only existed for two years, but in that time they initiated the next musical leap forward. The cool, clear vocals of Alison Statton hovering over the soft, clicking rhythms and melodic fragments summoned up by gaunt, reticent brothers Phil and Stuart Moxham out of guitars, drum machines and synthesizers anticipated the minimalist, rave, ambient, electronica and grunge movements yet to come. Their first and only album Colossal Youth, released in 1980, set trends for the decade ahead and much later Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) would cite YMG as a key influence.

YMG on Roath Park Lake

Cardiff could not be immune to the shifting musical landscape through the 1980s into the 1990s when the march of technology brought new formats, multi-channel TV and the internet. Instead of being something one unearthed through exploration, music was laid on a plate, an Orwellian mood-controller spoon-fed direct to brain synapses and hopelessly contaminated by commercialism. The modernist imperative – Make It New – no longer prevailed. Now the post-modernist cop-out – Make It Again – set the agenda. But Cardiff had inbuilt advantages as the only bilingual Celtic metropolis on the planet, as the urban centre for the valleys, officially recognised as the most poverty-stricken area of Europe, and as the capital of a disparaged backwater where music-biz Svengalis never came calling, giving the city an edge and an originality lacking elsewhere. The Manic Street Preachers from Blackwood, a boarded-up ex-mining town in the Sirhowy valley, had grown up during the Miners Strike and imbibed primitive Marxism with their mothers’ milk. Thus their angry post-punk rock, honed by busking on The Hayes, had a veracity other bands couldn’t match and, in case there were any doubt about their authenticity, guitarist and principal lyricist Richey Edwards (1967-c1995) carved ‘4 Real’ into his forearm with a razor-blade after a gig in Norwich, trumping the mimsy efforts of pioneer self-mutilator Iggy Pop and ensuring the London music papers sat up and took notice. Edwards had time to deliver his magnum opus, the bleak, dark poetry of 1994 album The Holy Bible recorded at Soundspace Studios in Cardiff, before plotting the perfect rock’n’roll death in 1995. He disappeared off the face of the Earth, his passport and money left in his Cardiff Bay flat, his car found at the motorway services by the Severn Bridge (he was eventually declared legally dead in 2008).  With one bound he joined the A-listers who died before they got old. The Manics survived, even thrived, as a threesome, swimming against the tide with their big cultural scope, political preoccupations and symphonic rock to become the biggest-selling Welsh band of all time. Moreover, their success brought Welsh music into the mainstream and, as the London media ‘discovered’ more and more Welsh bands, a catch-all phrase under which they could all be lumped was needed: ‘Cool Cymru’ was born (alliteration: the last resort of the jejune journo). Today the charabanc has moved on to other distractions; but Cool Cymru was never just hype, more a grudging acceptance that Welsh music could no longer be snubbed. Having learnt their lesson, record company executives now trawl Wales for talent and it has become the norm for the download charts to have a permanent Welsh presence. The Manics, now rock royalty fussing about their toilet facilities at Glastonbury, are ripe for taking down a peg or two – but nobody can deny their pivotal role in Welsh music history. And, at the close of the millennium, with Wales basking in its first glimmers of autonomy for 600 years, the opening concert at the just completed Millennium Stadium had to be topped by the Manic Street Preachers in front of 70,000 deliriously happy Welsh kids. At the finale a new generation took Welsh mass communal singing into the next thousand years and the chorus of Design for Life shook Cardiff to its foundations.  “We don’t talk about love, we only want to get drunk…” – James Dean Bradfield’s lament was turned into a cheerfully unironic anthem as Richey’s bones bleached deep in the oozing Severn muds. 

*note: the birth/death years of the deceased are not included in this item, since not all are presently known 

Pictures: Players; Myspace; BBC