[28 July 2010]
In this three-part series, Iain Ellis traces the recent history of rock music in Wales. Part I addresses the so-called “Cool Cymru” explosion of the mid-to-late-‘90s. Part II looks at the diversity of music produced in Wales during the 2000s. Part III critically profiles some recent Welsh wits from the current music scene.
Long known as “the land of song”, the music of Wales emanates from the very tongues of its natives. For the uninitiated, one can hear it in the speaking voices of such celebrities as Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, and Catherine Zeta Jones, from whom cadences lilt like the hills and valleys of their homeland, melodies phonetically sweep across multiple pitch changes, and notes rise and fall to the stresses of their expression. When put to the service of song, Welsh voices soar with deep resonance and clarity, such that every week sports arenas are transformed into triumphant mass-vocal events and churches echo majestically with the stirring songs of praise offered up by world-renowned choirs.
These, of course, are but a few of the many stereotypes that abound when one makes a mental picture of Wales. Yet, like many stereotypes, kernels of truth exist alongside the myths and exaggerations. Thus, when Tom Jones, Charlotte Church, or Duffy are belting out their grandiose pop songs, one cannot help but consider their vocal control, clear enunciation, and expressive authority as markedly Welsh born-and-bred.
Nevertheless, the reality of popular music at the macro level in Wales reveals a very different story. Perennial under-achievers compared with UK neighbors—England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—Wales has a largely barren rock history, one boasting few artists or innovators of note. While England was exporting The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Who in the early ‘60s, Wales offered up old-fashioned pop crooners like Shirley Bassey, Mary Hopkin, and the aforementioned Tom Jones. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, as Scotland and Northern Ireland awoke to the call of punk, post-punk, and indie rock, Wales was again looking backwards. The tame and tepid rockabilly revivalist Shakin’ Stevens was its principle contribution to British pop music, while premier rockers The Alarm represented but a contrived facsimile of the kind of anthemic (post-)punk that The Clash, The Skids, Stiff Little Fingers, and U2 had already established.
By the mid-‘90s Wales had been largely excluded from discussions about British rock, written off as unproductive, uninspiring, and unreceptive to exciting developments unfolding elsewhere. Even those few innovative rock mavericks that did originate in Wales—John Cale, Young Marble Giants, Green Gartside—had flown the nest long before their creative fruition, cognizant that their artistry would never flourish nor be recognized within the motherland. Moreover, such engaging personalities have been so few and far between, so disparate and disconnected from any indigenous rock culture, that they have been largely regarded less as Welsh artists and more as artists who happened to come from Wales.
Perhaps because of young Welsh kids’ various frustrations—over living in rock music’s odd country out, over under-achievement or unrealized expectations, over the limiting (self-)imprisonment of national stereotypes, or over the limitations of living life in life-less communities—but everything changed around the mid-‘90s. Perhaps, too, the brewing national self-confidence was a precipitating factor of change, as devolution and the Welsh Assembly finally became political realities. Perhaps, and related, Wales had just had enough of being bombarded with all things English, be it government, culture, language, or rock music.
England in the mid-‘90s was flying under the flag of “Cool Britannia”, a mass consciousness phenomenon that celebrated all things English through a lens of distorted nostalgia. Football, fashions, art and music of the ‘60s were all re-deployed by and for ‘90s youth while being given a new English branding. (Un)conscious victims and recipients of an American cultural imperialism that consisted of grunge music, blockbuster films, trash TV, and corporate presence on every high street, England fought back by turning inward, coating home-grown products with the comforting stamp of the union jack while yearning for Dr. Who’s Tardis to transport the nation to more Anglicized days of Albion. Enter Oasis, Blur, and the Spice Girls.
For Wales, though, the ‘enemy’, if you will, was not American culture, but English culture—the enemy within. Thus, just like the English seeking refuge from America, Welsh youths went further within their own culture, in an effort to produce a rock sound that would hopefully make their country proud, but more importantly, distinguish them from their English peers. Predictably, the English music institutions responded to the insurgent Welsh scene by first attempting to subsume it into its own Britpop movement and then branding it with the second-hand media slogan (or slight), “Cool Cymru”. High on a feeling of British cultural superiority, the UK press weighed in further with such choice punny headlines as “Don’t Leek Back in Anger” and “You Make Me Feel Mighty Rhyl”, attaching them to what they were increasingly characterizing as the “Cool Cymru” novelty moment.
Determined to be heard and respected on their own terms, the new Welsh bands and fans were, suffice to say, not amused.
Resentment towards the English was hardly a new phenomenon for the Welsh. Ever since Edward I defeated Llewelyn in the 13th century, England has exercised its authority over its smaller neighbor, increasingly accommodating Wales into the larger body politic. This systematic Anglicization of Wales has led to a gradual erasure of autonomous Welsh culture and customs. Today, for example, only 20 percent of the country’s three million people even speak Welsh. Periodic incidents of nationalistic uprising have done little to quash the enduring influence and control that England has exercised over the centuries.
Such has always been the backdrop for Welsh bands. Stuck between two languages and two cultural pulls, they have faced the perennial dilemma of whether to withdraw into a nationalistic enclave of Welsh-identified music, or whether to by-pass the roots, tags, and stereotypes of the past, to essentially avoid the pressures of—or their inclinations towards—musical separatism.
The ‘90s bands oscillated between these two poles, as different bands responded in different ways. Largely, though, they fell into two general camps. The self-consciously Welsh acts—Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, and Catatonia—though ambitious beyond their borders, asserted national identity by integrating Welsh language songs into their repertoire. However, the second camp, represented by bands like Manic Street Preachers, Stereophonics, and Mclusky, saw its identity more through musical genre than geography. Neither eschewing nor overtly celebrating their Welsh roots, these bands implicitly looked beyond their borders, indeed any borders, as they pursued their ambitions to be successfully regarded, not as Welsh-designated bands but neither as British bands.
Super Furry Animals were the heart and soul of the “Cool Cymru” movement. Their innovative fusions of indie rock with psychedelia and electronica earned them the curiosity and support of a broad base of alternative rock fans. Embraced by the London-based Britpop movement and its attendant media, Super Furry Animals consistently defied the kind of standardization of sound and structure that defined that genre’s key bands.
Moreover, their first released track, “Dim Brys: Dim Chwys” (1994), gave warning that Welsh identity was going to be a proud part of the band’s make-up. The follow-up, “Moog Droog” (1995), showed that they were also not above having a wry laugh about the language idiosyncrasies of their work. While the title words—to an English speaker—referred to the name of a synthesizer coupled with the slang term for “friend” in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, “moog droog” was also a Welsh slang term for “wacky baccy”. Such puns and cultural in-jokes have pervaded the band’s work, and though they have faced backlash from the Welsh media whenever they have recorded English language albums, even then the band has consistently reiterated its cultural identity by providing sleeve notes in both Welsh and English.
Welsh language recordings have always spelled commercial suicide, thus when Super Furry Animals released the all-Welsh collection of acoustic songs, Mwng, at the height of their popularity in 2000, the courage of their convictions could not have been made clearer. The album ended up reaching number 11 on the UK charts, an unprecedented achievement for a Welsh language record. The band was even commended in parliament for their efforts in keeping the indigenous language alive.
Manic Street Preachers and Stereophonics may be less Welsh-identified than Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, but their influence upon and inspiration for recent Welsh rock and its regional movements have been far greater. Both products of the bustling Cardiff hard rock scene—then tagged “The New Seattle”—the Manics and Stereophonics have gone where no Welsh rock bands have gone before. The former has had eight top ten albums and 15 top ten singles (including three number ones), while the latter has topped the UK charts with five of its seven album releases. Both festival headliners, Stereophonics once played to 50,000 people at Swansea’s Morfa Stadium, while the Manics showed their international outreach by being one of the few western rock bands to ever perform in Cuba.
Both Welsh with a small “w”, these bands represent what Welsh music has become today: ambitious, driven, and worldly. Often born into villages and valleys that offer little employment and even less excitement, many Welsh kids are choosing to head to the cities—whether in Wales or beyond—to seek a different future. For them, and unlike some of their forebears, uncompromising nationalism is a personally compromising cause that they are unwilling to subscribe to.