If I hear another all male guitar band churning out material as if the only thing they've listened to is Franz Ferdinand's 'Take Me Out', I will reach for the sledgehammer (courtesy of Peter Gabriel). 'Bandit' on S4C was chock with them the other night: bands have even given up trying to imitate the Super Furries. Of course, there is some variety and the only way you're going to make it ( as in the world of literature) is to move to London.
Mumford & Sons are about as inspiring as watching Cameron jogging on tv and Laura Marling has yet to perfect her Joni Mitchell impersonation. So where are the bands for today,to rail against what's happening and to describe without being too polemical in the way that Elbow can, with subtle sensitivity and rootedness?
I had great hopes for Glasvegas, but they seem to be abandoning their native Glasgow for the world circuit after touring with U2 (more than coincidence). Remember what happened to the Stereophonics after their first and best album?
Apart from Captain Ska's 'Liar, Liar' (which conveniently left out the biggest liar, Blair), rock/folk/pop has completely failed to come to terms with today's crises. Cuts abound, factories are closed, youth unemployment is prevalent and Labour are left to pose as defenders, when they were previously friends of the rich and the banks.
Even the present intervention in Libya is opposed by 45% of the population and that could increase rapidly as UN guidelines are ignored and Britain's involvement in a Civil War becomes more inextricable. Apart from a few , isolated exceptions, the response of popular music has been minimal.
It's intriguing looking back at the 1980's and early 90's to draw stark contrasts. The 80's has become associated with the kind of bland synth-pop now aped by Le Roux and many others, yet it was a time for some of the best political songs ever. In 1980, Peter Gabriel released another eponymous album and it contained the song 'Biko', a scathing attack on the apartheid regime in S.Africa (while Thatcher dubbed Mandela a 'terrorist'), about the death in detention of activist Steve Biko. Four laters later, Special AKA got to no. 9 with their single 'Free Nelson Mandela', echoing Gabriel's condemnations and making a plea for the man's release.
In '86, there were two fascinating songs dealing with the 'Troubles' in N. Ireland. Firstly was 'Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six' from The Pogues, with the first part expressing their sadness about the war there and the second attacking the British authorities for incarcerating innocent Irishmen.
The Independent Broadcasting Authority banned the song and so boosted the fame of the band , much as the Sex Pistols had been a decade earlier!
That same year, the Irish folk singer Christy Moore released his 'Spirit of Freedom' album with the lark (symbol of hunger striker Bobby Sands) over a tricolour on its cover. On that album was the bold song 'The People's Own MP', penned by an English republican, which dealt with Sands election shortly before he died on hunger strike in Long Kesh prison.
In the early 90's, the music of Cymru began to address the situation both in N.Ireland and in Wales, where a campaign against second homes was waged by Meibion Glyndwr, which fire-bombed property. Both Sobin a'r Smaeliad and Steve Eaves brought out songs sympathetic to republicanism in N.Ireland and empathizing with the aims of Meibion Glyndwr. Sobin's singer Bryn Fon even appeared once on stage wearing a black beret and his home in north Wales was raided by police for any dubious equipment (none was found!).
At the time, I was writing rock reviews for 'Wales On Sunday', then a broadsheet edited by John Osmond. I recall that all of the political aspects of my Sobin review were edited out, while less controversial material appeared in full. The editor claimed it was because of a 'lack of space'!
Ironically, it's from veteran US singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright (better known now as dad of Rufus and Martha) that we have the most sustained, witty and hard-hitting album yet. On 'Songs for the New Depression' he returns to Woody Guthrie influences and is both highly contemporary and also historical, with references to the Great Depression of the 30's and the post-war era of Roosevelt.
The range of lyrics is astonishing, from the black humour of 'House', the overtly Obama-supporting 'On to Victory, Mr Roosevelt' , through to the highly optimistic 'Middle of the Night'. It's so ironic that it takes an ol' folkie to show 'em how it's done. As he sings - 'Times is rough / Times is hard / Take a pair of scissors to your credit card'.
REVOLUTION NOT DEVOLUTION!
take the 'd'
take the 'd'
take the 'd'
put in 'r'
put in 'r'
put in 'r'
Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain -
people on the streets
claiming them their own
know what you'll reply -
'we live in a democracy ,
no military oppressive
no money-grabbing madman
but I say
in this our Cymru today -
who voted for ConDem leaders
who are worst of cutters?
Cymru never was a Tory country,
our Secretary of State
a woman from England
who thinks us paltry
take the 'd'
take the 'd'
put in 'r'
put in 'r'
revolution not devolution!
the 'r' word no more
the dirty word of the world
rise up like 1831!
rise up like Chartists marching!
rise up like miners of the Fed!
rise up like poll-tax protesting!
Councils and the Assembly
can't blunt the machetes
as they swing and we fall
like branches of the trees
take the 'd'
put in 'r'
revolution not devolution!
make every town centre
our Tahrir Square,
a transfusion of solidarity
before our blood is lost
and we're too weak to see
take the 'd' away
put in 'r' I say.
This is the news from Merthyr Tudful. Not the news you'll see much about on tv, but nonetheless a week in the town.
A town where Prof. Gwyn Alf Williams was born and schooled before he went on to become one of the greatest historians and broadcasters of the last century. He doesn't even get a room in the Library named after him like our finest writer ever Leslie Norris, whose poems and stories deserve so much more than a single mention in Mario Basini's book 'Real Merthyr'. A town where Keir Hardie became the first ever Labour MP, till he was ostracized from that party, a fervent opponent of the 1st World War. A town which gave Westminster one of its most idiosyncratic and fascinating MP's, S.O. Davies, an ex-miner and leader of The Fed, a Cymro Cymraeg who was an early advocate of devolution.
News from Merthyr about our famous son , fashion designer Julien Macdonald, who has defended the place against bad press we constantly get for being Top of the League for underage smoking ( age 9 onwards), underage pregancies ( just a bit older), obesity, heart attacks, disability claimants........you've got the idea! A Merthyr boy through and through, he has spoken out against Iain Duncan Smith's hopeless advice to 'get on a bus' for work.
I happen to think Macdonald should go the way of fellow fashionik Galliano and make a swift exit! His continual use of the fur of slaughtered animals in his designs and his fervent support for emaciated models on the catwalk are appalling. When the sculpture of him appears in Pentrebach , I sincerely hope the local foxes get their revenge.
Above all, there's the terrible news coming from one of the town's oldest employers TBS, who make office furniture. They may be an established employer but, according to a friend who works there, they've treated their non-Unionised workforce like slave labour for far too long.
Agency workers have been brought in and discarded at will and their regular workers have been forced into doing overtime by being offered anti-social shifts if they didn't accept it.
It's not surprising that a week ago, 110 workers there were told they were redundant, without any warning! According to my friend there's little hope of a buyer, so the remaining 186 staff will soon be on the dole. These workers - many of whom having spent their whole lives working for that company - deserve much better than this callous treatment.
Yet good news was made by the Soar Theatre, a new venue for productions and meetings. It is a renovated chapel and stands alongside the Canolfan and if last Tuesday was an illustration, then things bode quite well for the future. On that evening alone, there was a meeting about the bio-mass incinerator which Covanta want to locate in Merthyr and, in the Canolfan, Cymdeithas yr Iaith met to hear three speeches about S4C. It shows that activism in the town of Lewis Lewis and Dic Penderyn is not dead and there are plenty of people willing to fight for both causes.
More positive news is the £4 million grant from the Welsh Assembly Gov. towards the complete renovation of the Old Town Hall. Of course, it will be a while before it becomes an Arts Centre, but there is lots of local talent to fill it.
This was shown once more at The Imp's Open Mic. on Thursday evening, with guest writer Grahame Davies, who once worked for the 'Merthyr Express'. Local poets John Williams, Bernard Harrington and Ceinwen Statter all contributed alongside others from the far reaches of Ebbw Vale and Chepstow.
Everywhere in The Imp were beer mats bearing the face of our AM Huw Lewis who resides, for the most part, in Penarth. I stood against him in the first Assembly election , myself for the United Socialists and Lewis as a convinced Blairite. Since then, he's had a role in charge of Child Poverty, he has transformed himself into an ever-so-slightly-left-leaning politician and no longer a total devo-sceptic. Left on the back benches, he would've remained an underminer!
In The Imp we can now see
his photo on every beer mat,
our A.M., our absentee landlord.
You can meet him more times
scattered on the tables there
than you'll ever see him in Merthyr.
And, remarkably, he has grown!
In the photo he's 15 foot nine,
standing next to Cefn Viaduct.
He's become 'y cawr' overnight,
probably holds surgeries at Giant's Bite
(maybe it was him ate the hillside).
He's moved from posh Penarth
(our Merthyr schools wouldn't suit
his gigantically brain-celled children),
to Brobdingnab......we're Lilliputian!
Perhaps he'll come and out a fire out
by urinating on one of our buildings?
'Ewge Lewis' we'll have to call him,
grown too big for our petty streets,
his size 30 feet would flatten.
Little can be done to avert the terrible tragedies caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. A great deal can be done to prevent a nuclear catastrophe however.
My friend and comrade Tim Richards of the S. Wales Anti-Nuclear Alliance e-mailed supporters this morning warning of potential meltdown of at least one of the reactors. He explained the scientific details cogently, warning us not to be duped by so-called 'experts' and that some of the control rods had failed. This makes the danger of a Chernobyl-type explosion a real possibility.
To me, there have never been any justifications for nuclear power, yet all the main parties have now embraced it and even Plaid Cymru, with an ostensibly anti-nuclear policy, have supported it in Anglesey! The arguments against are manifold : it depends on huge government subsidies, has a record of lethal leaks and near meltdowns, the highly hazardous waste is very difficult to get rid of and the decommissioning of plants is both extortionate and protracted. But, above all else, as one Guardian letter-writer puts it in today's paper - ' catastrophic failure means catastrophic outcome.'
A few years ago I visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was so moved by the exhibitions and peace parks there. I was even more touched by hundreds of schoolchildren there to celebrate peace and mourn the many innocents who died as a result of those apocalyptic atom bombs. It's with great sadness that I think of the Japanese nuclear power industry and its ticking bomb ready to go off any second after the two hydrogen explosions and serious injuries.
I know Japan possesses no oil or natural gas but still, you'd think that a country with such a mastery of technology could've devised other forms of energy-production using water, wind and the sun.
On a smaller scale, yet equally devastating for a small Valleys' community, was the Aberfan disaster of October 1966. This was just as preventable as there had been previous warnings of the movement of the large tip above Pant Glas Primary School, where coal waste was dumped. Both the Labour Council and the Coal Board ( the NCB) must share responsibility and , shamefully, in its aftermath a total inability to compensate the families of victims, which was left to charities.
My best known poem is probably 'He Loved Light, Freedom and Animals', based on the inscription on one of the children's graves. I didn't set out to write about the disaster,as I think that would have led to forced emotions.
I am not from the area and, in fact, was living in England when it happened. However, my father-in-law was visiting us from Belfast and wanted to go to the cemetery. It was a time when my wife and I had no children and had been trying for a few years. My reaction to all the gravestones was profound : there were pictures on many, which made it seem as if the tragedy had been very recent.
I was most moved by that one inscription though and the light of the gorse-flowers, birds I imagined the boy loving and the way he'd roam about the hillsides, all brought back my own childhood above Aberystwyth.
I was criticised by one reviewer for laying the blame falsely at the private mine-owners like Bute, comparing the boy dug out of the buried school to a 'child collier'. While I can understand this criticism, I feel it's harsh. My point was to link this event to the past and to suggest that little had improved and a whole community were still paying their price in lives for coal.
At the Comp. where I taught in Merthyr we studied and compared two most powerful poems about the Aberfan disaster, ''Elegy for David Beynon' by Merthyr writer Leslie Norris and an unititled one by Robert Morgan, a painter, teacher and writer who had once been a miner.
Both poems had a great resonance amongst the pupils : Norris imagining
his former school friend and fellow rugby-player Beynon shielding his pupils as the slurry came down and Morgan evoking an imaginary school register to show how a whole generation were absent.
Since writing 'He Loved Light, Freedom and Animals' I have written a number of pieces on the subject, as I've become much closer to the area and its people. 'Among the Debris' is a dialect poem which tells of a teacher suffering the after-effects of a disaster he survived, very much like shell-shock as a result of war.
The character in the poem is fictional, a composite of several I'd heard of or known, but this didn't stop the 'Merthyr Express' from refusing to publish it on their front page. It was a comemoration of the disaster and the local paper had agreed to publish it. Then I had a phone call saying they would not do so, as it was based on a particular person who they named. I insisted it was fictional, but they'd have none of it! They simply couldn't comprehend the idea of poetry as fiction.
The following is a very recent one. It came about because last week my wife decided to avoid traffic queues and take the old road, so my young daughter had a clear view of the cemetery above Aberfan.
THE WHITE ARCHES
'What are they?' she asks
(on the old route for once),
across a valley of river, road, rail, trees,
markings of a canal and a mine
long gone, the tips cleared ;
new school a boast of glass and wood.
'Those are the gravestones of the children.'
The white arches on the hillside,
clean, bright teeth in a row,
arms of 'dansio gwerin' linked;
but bones will not grow
and arms won't catch hold.
Waste piled for years above the school
shifted in heavy rain, warnings
the Coal Board and Council ignored ;
that boy with his painting of planes,
NCB on them, dropping black bombs :
stirrings or a premonition.
She's at the front, so much going on,
listening to music, playing her games,
words of her 'llefaru', tune of 'alaw werin'
competing on the stage of her brain.
Ones like her, chopsy mouths and wayward hair,
speech turned to sludge on their tongues.
Thursdays were always religiously, zealously 'Top of the Pops'. As a teenager in my girlfriend's Council house in Cambridgeshire, we would wait expectantly : she for her heroes The Small Faces and me for the likes of The Kinks and The Beatles. Even as a 6th former into Progressive Rock, I'd relish the appearance of that genre's forefathers like Jethro Tull making it into the Top 20 against all odds, I felt. When it happened it was thrilling to see Ian Anderson perform the likes of 'Living in the Past' balancing on one leg to sing and play the flute, like some hippie flamingo.
As years went by, such highlights became rarer. I was shocked to find out that another of my musical heroes Robert Wyatt had been asked to take the disco lights from his wheelchair before 'I'm a Believer' , because it was deemed 'in bad taste'!
'The Old Grey Whistle Test' took over as the most important music programme on tv and, though it could never influence my tastes like John Peel's radio show, its presenter Bob Harris did manage to play some great music and conduct some memorable interviews as well.
I always remember his interview with guitarist Paul Kossoff of a band I much admired, Free.Kossoff was a sadly underrated guitar-player, never flash or prone to over-indulgent solos; he was always sparse and emotional in style, an electric guitar equivalent of Hemingway's prose.
But he was also tragically addicted to hard drugs and Harris's interview failed to get more than inarticulate mumblings from this great musician. When people talk about Clapton and Jeff Beck, Kossoff and Peter Green ( from the early Fleetwood Mac) should be mentioned in the same breath.
Many bands made a lasting impact because of 'Whistle Test' appearances, such as Bob Marley & the Wailers, who managed to take reggae to a different plane altogether. But when Whisperin' Bob refused to acknowledge punk and it's anyone-can-play-three-chord philosophy, that was him finished. Annie Nightingale tried hard to bring it up to the times, with punk and New Wave, but its format became predictable.
I liked the anarchic spontaneity of 'The Tube' and better still, the many musical revelations of 'White Room', but until 'Later With Jools' there were no programmes which fully reflected my own increasingly eclectic tastes: from jazz and world music, to Americana and rock. Jools did introduce me to many bands and singers I might never have heard otherwise, especially in the world music area, with Mariza from Portugal (a sublime fado singer), Rokia Traore from Mali (the only African who can celebrate Zen Buddhism in French!) and Tinariwen from the Touareg tribe,with their hypnotic desert sounds.
Despite this, in recent years Jools has become increasingly frustrating.His formula is very wearing, with the same epithets applied like football manager's cliches and incredibly ordinary artists from the past dubbed as 'legendary' just because they've managed to reach 60 and still be gigging!
Above all, I keep thinking about the very greatest musicians of the last eleven years who haven't actually appeared on his programme and have produced the best albums of our times. From Thea Gilmore to DeVotchKa and from Sufjan Stevens to Tom Russell, Jools Holland has missed out on so many. Even one of the finest albums of recent years, the Super Furries 'Dark Days/Light Years' never got a look in, while Kelly and the Boyz seemed to have a residency at one stage.
All the same, when Jools isn't on there is a void. There's a pressing need for at least one more music programme, equally eclectic, but with a more flexible and dynamic structure including footage of gigs, recording news and download latest. There must also be room for innovative collaborations between music and film.
In less restrictive times, it would be wonderful if BBC Wales took the leap. Listening again to someone like Eels ( don't think I've seen him on Jools either!) makes me realise how devoid of musical imagination so much mainstream material is nowadays. We need a programme to encourage those who defy the limits, take risks, break out.
WHISTLE TEST FRIDAYS
Fridays was 'Whistle Test' day,
and after a few jars
at the Union bar
it was a procession
into the lights-out tv room.
The moustachioed pipe-smoking Zen,
the hippies down from the mountains
with their 'far out' dogs
who walked nodding, like their owners ;
the couple on everything
who had a cat called 'Man'
who clawed up curtains when stoned.
Anarchists, Trots and Commies, the lot
all silent as a congregation
as the high priest of music
Whisperin' Bob Harris was so laid back
you could see why, years later,
punk grabbed him by the goolies
and swung him senseless.
We waited for heroes or discoveries,
musicians who have long since OD'd
or resorted to Zimmer Frames
and sometimes, someone like Tom Waits or Kevin Coyne
or the crazy Captain would alter our brains
and we would utter - 'Yes! I've been saved!'
Those times music would resurrect dreary days
when lives were somebody's else's theories.
And we could hear a person whistling
outside that old Tin Pan Alley,
a doorman or janitor; a melody
to blow our minds away
like wind off the bay at Aber.