Monday, December 25, 2006

Homage to Blaenau Ffestiniog

I don't know about you but whenever I think of Christmas it isn't Santa who pops into my head but Arthur Koestler and George Orwell.

For three years Koestler (see pic), author of Darkness at Noon, lived at a cottage in Blaenau Ffestiniog. Biographers often describe his abode there as "bleak" which is code for: outside London.

In 1945 Koestler invited his friend George Orwell to spend Christmas with him in Wales. Orwell took the train from Paddington. Also present at the cottage were Koestler's wife Mamaine and her twin sister Celia. Orwell fell in love with Celia that Christmas but she would later turn down his proposal of marriage.

I like to think of them all together in Blaenau Ffestiniog discussing matters of great importance: history, politics, the very existence of mankind itself. But the big question is... who got the sixpence in the Christmas pud?

Nadolig Llawen.

*The above picture shows Koestler in his Welsh cottage in early 1948.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Communist Cremation in Pontypridd

Today is the 75th anniversary of Britain's first communist cremation. Naturally enough it took place in the Valleys, at Pontypridd Crematorium in 1931.

The dead communist in question was one David Evans - manager of the Porth branch of the Mid-Rhondda co-operative society.

Left-wing mourners followed the funeral procession from Porth to Pontypridd. It was a good turn out - over 200 communists from all over the Rhondda wearing red rossettes. As for the coffin itself it was draped with a red flag, a gift from the women of Karkov in Russia bearing the inscription: "Presented to the fighting British miners and their wives".

At the church adjacent to the crematorium, in accordance with Evans' wishes, a non-religious service was conducted. Instead of a clergyman or minister invoking God, leading communists took turns to make speeches in memory of Mr Evans. It was an historic occasion.

Pontypridd, as it happens, was a fitting location for Britain's first ever communist cremation, for it was here also that cremation pioneer and all round eccentric Dr William Price for many years lived.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Lost Welsh Sex Pistols Interview

The Welsh music magazine graveyard is densely populated. One of my favourite extinct mags is Buzz (1977). Published in Penarth, it specialised in rock music - the hairy variety. It cost 10p. During its brief life the Sex Pistols turned up to play in Caerphilly. Buzz grudgingly covered the punk gig - though you get the feeling they would rather have been at a Sensational Alex Harvey Band concert instead. But credit where it's due, they managed to speak to John Lydon and Paul Cook. So here it is - the lost Welsh Sex Pistols interview:


One cold Tuesday evening last December, the Anarchy in the UK tour consisting of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers came to the Castle Cinema, Caerphilly. Inside the cinema were several TV crews and dozens of newspaper reporters, outside were over 300 people singing carols in protest at the concert, large numbers of police and almost 100 kids who had come to look at the whole spectacle. During the six hours we were at the Castle we recorded over an hour's worth of conversation with various parties; for our part we're not going to pass an opinion on the concert except to say that we didn't enjoy the music - the rest is up to you.

Scene: Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistols' vocalist, and Paul Cook, drummer, before the start of the concert.

BUZZ: How do you feel about all this? (pointing towards carol singers).
JR: Well I'm just surprised that so many grown-up adults can behave so ludicrously childish. Don't they know their papers tell lies, I don't think they do - they live in a twilight zone. That's alright, they can be happy in their own way, but I don't think they've got the right to interrupt my way; each to his own, God loves all kinds.
BUZZ: That's the only reason that these council officials want to stop this? I mean, they just don't know.
JR: No, it's probably because they don't offer the young generation of Caerphilly anything. They offer them nothing and along comes an alternative and it makes them look foolish. While they've been in office they've done sweet FA for anybody except themselves. There are people getting blown up and they have the nerve to come and complain about this - ridiculous.
BUZZ: How do you feel about the reaction you've had from the national and musical press?
JR: I don't really care what they get up to. I mean, I've known for years that the national press is squalid and that any cheap rumour - they just love it. Yes, and the music press is even worse. Hypocrisy? They live for it. Well good luck to them, that's fine, they can play their games all day and night. It's when people start taking notice of them it becomes offensive.
BUZZ: How about the Bill Grundy affair?
PC: We just done it on the spur of the moment, it wasn't premeditated or anything it just happened, you know? We forgot about it the next day, but I couldn't believe it when I woke up.
BUZZ: Does the fact that a lot of universities, who are supposedly open-minded people, pulled out of dates surprise you?
JR: Oh no, universities have proved to be the worst. They went on about us being fascist and rubbish like that. Students have proved that they're not open-minded, they've got closed minds; they're a closed shop.
BUZZ: Do you think of yourselves as part of a passing phase?
PC: People can say that - we're not worried, we're not in it to make thousands of pounds, we're just in it 'cos we wanna do it and we're doin' what we wanna do.
BUZZ: Where do you get your roots from as a rock band?
JR: Just basic honesty. There's been no honest bands for years, it's all big moguls and twenty thousand tons of equipment.
BUZZ: What do you think of Clapton and Townshend?
PC: They're finished.
BUZZ: Some bands are doing things by Townshend, things like Substitute for instance.
PC: Yeah, it was alright then.
BUZZ: You think they should have packed it in then?
JR: No, they could have have carried on but they just covered it up in bullshit and hype. They became out of touch, and you can't like go up to Pete Townshend and say "Hello Pete", he's become distant, he's not even a human being anymore. I doubt if it's him on stage, he's like a puppet in the distance.
BUZZ: Do you think there's a lot of snobbery in rock music?
JR: Yeah, there has been for centuries. Some of the biggest snobs are rock musicians.
BUZZ: Is it all that important that you can play really good music?
JR: No, I don't think it's essential, it's your attitude that counts. If you can express something to someone, that's it, you've got it.

BUZZ: How do you feel about the concert?
AW: It's proved the Council and the people wrong. I don't know what they were expecting, I mean, I've seen the band before, I know they're just a rock band. I think Caerphilly will be exactly the same tomorrow morning; nobody will be fallen dead in the street, the town won't be running amok with lewdity and things.

BUZZ: What made you come to see the band? Have you seen them before?
Fan: No, I read about them in Melody Maker and all that. I thought they were right in what they say in that Zeppelin, the Stones and all that have come to be gods. They come here for two tours, they have all their money and big mansions, they're out of touch with the basics, and that's what this group's all about.

Only 60 people attended the concert and the police who were out in force had more trouble with onlookers than the real fans. The following day all the local papers and television reports declared that the evening had been a success for the carol singers. I'm more inclined to leave the last word with Johnny Rotten: "Ignorance is the greatest enemy."

Note: All conversations printed word for word. There has been no censorship whatsoever.

*The above interview by Bob Priddle is taken from Buzz (Issue 2) February 1977. The magazine was co-edited by Bob Priddle and Steve Rees. Thanks to Bob for the additional information.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Dylan Thomas and Oswald Mosley

When posh English fascist Oswald Mosley held a rally at the Plaza cinema, Swansea, in July, 1934, it was of cultural significance. For in the audience that day was a certain Dylan Thomas. It’s worth pointing out that the Welsh poet was not there as a supporter of Mosley – in fact, he was very firmly in the anti-fascist camp. The above picture shows Mosley in Swansea.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

This Town Ain't Big Enough For The 22 Of Us

This Town Ain't Big Enough For The 22 Of Us is a compilation CD showcasing 22 of Cardiff's emerging indie bands. Which, if you consider the size of the capital, is one helluva lot of indie bands! And hence the title.

In his sleeve notes Gary Anderson of Twisted by Design firmly locates Cardiff's vibrant alternative scene in Womanby Street (pronounced warm-bee incidentally) one of the city's more intriguing thoroughfares.

Dempsey's and the City Arms which bookend the street have been - through Twisted by Design's sterling efforts - providing musical sustenance to the city's floppy fringed community for the past 7 years. Situated between them Clwb Ifor Bach takes care of all the live action.

Womanby Street as indie HQ is a pleasing concept as it has so far escaped the kind of gentrification that has blighted so much of Cardiff. Heartening that while vampiric property developers are busy sucking the soul out of a city and leaving behind a corpse that looks not unlike Swindon, there are kids with guitars and interesting haircuts trying to breathe some life back into it.

What of the CD itself? Considering its indie-specific nature this musical offering is surprisingly diverse covering all angles from the fey to the furious. Personal highlights include Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks by mucho-hyped Los Campesinos! How can a bunch of students who don't know the correct day on which to put out their rubbish bags write such a great song?

Then there's The Unfilmable Life & Life Of... by the Spencer McGarry Season which makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and I don't even have hairs on the back of my neck. It's glorious and worth the entrance fee alone.

Invincible by Shake My Hand is an amusing slice of life about the disappointing schedule on Grandstand and being, ultimately, invincible. The lyric: "Do you fancy a cup of tea? Fuck, we've got no milk. Ben do you fancy going down the shop? No, you're lactose intolerant. Fuck it," has been swimming around inside my head like a demented neon tetra all week.

And there's plenty more where that came from. In fact the quality of tunes throughout is consistently high and proof that Cardiff's indie scene right now is in very rude health indeed. And if you needed another reason to put this in your Christmas stocking it costs only £5 from Spillers, the world's best record shop. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Junk Shop Discotheque

It's that time of year again and you're probably wondering what to buy me for Christmas. Well listen up, don't embarrass me with anything too expensive ok. Just get me Junk Shop Discotheque by Swansea popsters Helen Love. Not the digipack CD version - I already have that. I'm talking about the super 7" on pink vinyl.

And why not get a copy for yourself too? Go on, you deserve it. It'll help you forget about all this dreary weather. Just switch on your Dansette, close your eyes, and it'll be summer again, and we'll be dancing in the junk shop, punk rock, glam rock, discotheque. Which is how it should always be.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Welsh White Panthers

When I eventually set up my alternative grand tour of Cardiff one of the addresses at which my bus will stop will be 23 Piercefield Place. In the early '70s this was the Welsh HQ of the White Panther Party.

The Cardiff chapter of the MC5-inspired White Panthers had about 18 members who were busy working on plans to abolish money and set up free music festivals on Caerphilly mountain.

But it wasn't all idealistic fantasising. When racist graffiti suddenly began appearing in Cardiff circa 1972 the Panthers sprang into action by er, asking the council for permission to paint over it. The council refused point blank saying such work had to be done by "corrosive experts".

Frustrated by council bureaucracy the Panthers decided to take matters into their own hands. 11 of them went ahead and painted over the offending slogans on Crwys Road bridge which read: "National Front" "Bring Back Hanging" (no really!) and "Keep Britain White". Job done.

Unfortunately for the Panthers they were caught in the act and arrested. They were charged with: "damaging 2 brick walls valued at £30 belonging to British Rail without excuse, and having in their custody or control 14 tins of paint and 10 paint brushes."

Tried and found guilty under the Criminal Damages Act they were fined and bound over to keep the peace. Undeterred by this genuine injustice they vowed to carry on their fight against racism.

Heaven only knows what eventually became of the Welsh White Panthers but every time I stride across Crwys Road bridge I hum Kick Out The Jams by the MC5 (see pic) and think of them.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Where is Wales?

For me the lowest point in the entire history of Welsh popular culture occurred in London in 1956.

Screen goddess Marilyn Monroe and new hubby Arthur Miller had just arrived in Britain to begin work on The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier.

When asked at a press conference if she'd be visiting Wales, the geographically challenged movie legend replied: "Where is Wales? I only have the weekends off."

Always preferred Elizabeth Taylor myself...