Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Iggy Pop at Rockfield

I'm a big fan of Iggy Pop so it was disappointing to learn that he made his first ever bad record in Wales. Hitherto his albums - The Stooges; Fun House; Raw Power; The Idiot; Lust For Life; Kill City; New Values - had been pure genius and more or less set the template for punk. But in 1979 when he came to record Soldier at Rockfield studios in the Wye valley it all went horribly wrong.

The legendary American star would spend three tortuous months in rural Wales. For someone who is regarded as the embodiment of rock excess it must have been an odd experience. How was he supposed to conjur his trademark urban/garage sound when he was surrounded by fields? He couldn't even enjoy a proper roll around on broken glass in those verdant parts.

Having come to the studio straight off the back of an exhausting tour the mood in the Pop camp wasn't exactly great to begin with. And the American was now under immense pressure to come up with some new songs that had commercial appeal. The remit of producer (ex-Stooge) James Williamson was to create a record that would finally bring the artist some mainstream success.

Almost immediately there was a power struggle between singer and producer for creative control of the record. Cut off from civilisation as they were, the simmering tension between the two became even more intense. And unfortunately there was just nowhere to go to blow off steam. Into this poisonous atmosphere waltzed David Bowie and his companion of the time Coco Schwab. Apparently Bowie arrived wearing a cape.

Whilst the Thin White Duke entertained the rest of the gathering with showbiz anecdotes Williamson seethed at the recording desk. Things came to a head when Pop and Williamson had a disagreement over some song lyrics. A bitter stand-up row ensued. Bowie and Schwab made their excuses and retired to bed. The following morning Williamson was gone - he had had enough.

Meanwhile the sessions dragged on. And on. Rockfield engineer Pat Moran was now given the responsibility of finishing the recordings. The group though struggled to muster enough creative energy to complete the job. Pop even resorted to singing in the farmyard in a bid to nail the right vocal. The mood was apparently so gloomy that keyboard player Barry Andrews would drive off to the nearest school and stand outside the gates just so that he could see some happy smiling faces.

When Soldier was eventually done and dusted, the result was Iggy Pop's most uninspiring studio album ever. It briefly occupied the number 125 spot in the US chart before disappearing from the radar altogether. Its ultimate destiny would be as a perennial make-weight in one of those 5 crap CDs for £20 offers that you get in HMV.

*You can read a more in-depth account of Iggy Pop's 3 month sojourn in Wales in Paul Trynka's excellent Iggy Pop biography entitled (naturally): Iggy Pop - Open up and Bleed.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Once Upon a Time in Wales

The Valleys have an enduring appeal for photographers. For decades the mining areas of south Wales have been a magnet for social realist snappers keen to capture the 'authentic' or chronicle a disappearing way of life. Robert Frank’s early-fifties sojourn in Caerau being a prime example. Whilst the quality of Frank's work is undeniable, one can’t entirely eradicate the notion that many of these outsiders turned up with the specific intention of transforming poverty into coffee table art.

Such an accusation cannot be levelled at Robert Haines' Once Upon a Time in Wales, a photobook that records life in Heolgerrig and Merthyr in 1971/72. Haines is an insider (or at least he was back then) who during a college vacation when he was just twenty years of age returned home and took these remarkable pictures. Unpublished until now, the collection has the feel of a dug up time capsule.

The aesthetic here is a fusion of the nineteenth century with the questionable tastes of the 1970s. Ancient craggy-faced colliers are pictured alongside younger men who are clad in denim, sport long hair and bum-fluff moustaches. A teenage girl in a mini-skirt poses outside a cramped worker’s cottage. The area is clearly going through the painful process of passing from the industrial to the post-industrial - a process that would be accelerated in the 1980s.

Maybe it’s because Haines was so young when he took these pictures that they seem so free of any kind of cynicism or worse, patronising notions of the nobility of the poor. Often they are very funny. We find a comic-grotesque portrait of a man who came third in a world gurning championship for instance; an enthusiast of westerns done up in cowboy gear posing against what looks like an Arizona backdrop until you read that it is in fact a local quarry; and a generously bequiffed ladies man who wooed women with his rendition of Diana by Paul Anka.

Haines clearly had an impressive cast of characters to choose from. I loved the touching portrait of a young gypsy and his family. Also pictured is a local hard man who we learn was later shot to death. Mad Malcolm, another neighbour, had a fondness for cider and speed. And then there's the Brigadier - a member of the Free Wales Army.

The retrospective captions are perfectly judged. A picture of a fellow asleep on the grass with his face covered in a cloth turns out to be the photographer’s uncle. On a picnic in the Brecon Becons he had fallen asleep and to stop him getting sunburnt his wife had shielded his face. Haines completes the tale of a fretting wife by adding that she once woke up her husband to remind him to take a sleeping pill.

Once Upon a Time in Wales is excellent and should be a strong contender for Welsh book of the year (next year). It is published by Dewi Lewis and is on sale now. You can read a Guardian review of Haines’ work here and an Independent review here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Those Were the Days

There aren't enough pictures of Mary Hopkin looking impossibly sweet on this blog. About time I remedied that situation.

It's easy to forget how popular Mary Hopkin became in the late '60s after she was sucked into the Beatles' orbit. In a fairly short space of time she went from innocent Welsh-language folkie to Apple starlet to wife of American record producer Tony Visconti. Despite going into semi-retirement soon after her nuptials she still managed to do backing vocals on David Bowie's Low album in 1977. That's her you can hear sighing on Sound and Vision.

Here she is pictured on the cover of a Yugoslavian magazine called Arena in 1969.

You can find a good online critical essay on Mary Hopkin by Sarah Hill for Radical Musicology here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tom Jones Duets

From 1969-71 Tom Jones had his own TV show broadcast here and in the United States called: This is Tom Jones. Shot in Los Angeles and London it was a big success. Naturally the Welsh Elvis did a bit of singing, other musical artists were featured, and there were even a few comedy sketches. Each show concluded with a duet between Tom and one of his star guests.

Looking through the programme's schedule archive I was impressed by the stellar quality of those twosomes. During the series Jones sang with Sergio Mendes, Mama Cass, Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Wonder, Cher, Sammy Davies Jr, Tony Bennett, Nancy Sinatra (see pic), Wilson Pickett, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Janis Joplin, Glen Campbell, Joel Grey, Liza Minelli, Bob Hope, Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Liberace amongst others. Inevitably there were some duff ones too notably Racquel Welch, Harry Secombe and the Muppets but nobody's perfect.

Last year a DVD was released containing highlights of the show, including many of those fascinating duets. You can check it out here. And if you want a sneak preview take a look at this YouTube featuring Jones and Janis Joplin singing Raise Your Hand in 1969.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Congratulate the Devil

Congratulate the Devil is a delightful comic novel by forgotten Welsh fantasy writer Howell Davies. Rescued from obscurity by the Library of Wales this amusing tale of mind control proves to be something of a lost gem.

Written in 1939 it is an early example of drugs literature. A chemist gets hold of a rogue batch of mescal which he distils into mind control pills. Whoever then ingests the drug is able to project his will onto complete strangers. Each pill works over a specific range and is only effective for a limited amount of time. The results are dependent upon the personality of the drug-taker who is able to harness their power for selfish or altruistic purposes.

Bill Roper and Bert Phillips are the two main consumers of the drug. Roper is an embittered, physically ugly, scientist who has little sympathy for his fellow man; Phillips is an amiable but naive Welsh tramp who sings in the streets for money. Naturally they react to the pills in vastly different ways.

Roper falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful model and uses the mind control tablets to possess her. Phillips on the other hand sets out to make everybody happy. At one point in the plot he even constructs an hilarious Welsh utopia where Methodists, Baptists and Independents form a United Church; social hierarchies are broken down; and the pubs remain open all day.

With such a dangerous substance at large it is only a matter of time before the government attempts to get its hands on it. As Roper says: "If there's one thing the world won't stand for, it's universal happiness. They've always killed anybody with a recipe for that."

Ideas of free will and the will to power clearly interest the author. There is also a certain allegorical dimension to this novel with concerns over compelling issues of the day, such as dictatorship and mass manipulation. Also evident are more traditional sci-fi themes particularly the dangers of playing at God. Both Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are obvious literary antecedents here.

Set mainly in Hampstead Congratulate the Devil's milieu is essentially upper middle-class London but the tone throughout is mischievous. The world of gentlemen's clubs, bohemian salons and stuffy drawing rooms is gently mocked. Much of the novel's humour springs from the ironic observations of feckless bone-idle narrator Starling; and in Phillips' naivety. The Welsh tramp is both a comic figure and a tool to satirise the supposedly sophisticated world into which he has been adopted.

Congratulate the Devil is the most surprising and welcome addition to the Library of Wales series so far.

*Congratulate the Devil by Howell Davies, published by Parthian, is on sale now-ish.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Love on the Rox

Anybody recognise the Welsh cliffs visible on the cover of Roxy Music's album Siren (1975)?

The cover features a then unknown model Jerry Hall posing as a siren, a creature from Greek mythology who lured unsuspecting sailors to their deaths on treacherous rocks. It's an appropriate image as Bryan Ferry fell for the Texan beauty during the photoshoot in Wales.

Ferry had first spotted Hall in Vogue magazine and invited her over to do the album cover. She arrived from New York and spent the night in a London hotel. The following day she, along with Ferry and art/fashion designer Antony Price, took a train to Wales (the exact location remains a mystery).

Eventually they found a suitable cliff-top and Hall changed into her bikini. She attached wings to her ankles and with the help of Price covered her body in blue make-up. It wasn't a straightforward job. The hot summer sun caused the paint to run, and the glue which held her specially constructed costume together melted and stuck to her arse.

Ever the gent Ferry held an umbrella over her to protect her from the sun's rays. Apparently some local youths in a bright yellow dinghy hoved into view further complicating the photo-session. When they finally got the pictures they required the trio headed off to a local hotel to get cleaned up.

There, Hall stood in a bath while Antony Price attempted to remove the blue paint from her body. But no matter how hard they tried they couldn't scrub off the recalcitrant gunk. Ferry looked on with wry amusement. Fearful of missing the last London train they rushed to the station, Hall still swathed in towels and dripping blue muck everywhere.

Legend has it that while on the train back to London Ferry suggested she get properly cleaned up at his Holland Park house (not that cheesy old routine surely - I thought Bryan Ferry would be better than that). Hall consented and so their relationship began...

But where exactly are those Welsh cliffs upon which Ferry was smitten? For those of us who wish to cover our bodies in blue paint and re-enact the pop cultural moment it is torture not knowing. Observant geologists, your input would be much appreciated.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Last Bird Singing

To say that cuckolded Tommy Oliver is disenchanted with life is something of an understatement. So sick is he of his loveless marriage that, whilst listening to Nat King Cole croon Unforgettable, he burns down his own house. This is more than just a melodramatic gesture - it is symbolic. As a brickie he is destroying everything that he has built in life. It marks the moment when he finally loses faith in love.

The Cardiff of Allan Bush's Last Bird Singing is unapologetically old school. Working-class; masculine to the point of misogyny; alcohol-soaked. References to new technology are non-existent. The territories mapped out are traditional: Splott, Adamsdown, Grangetown. This is a world of greasy spoons, backstreet boozers and lonely men ekeing out unromantic existences in cheap bedsitting rooms.

Armed with an impressive knowledge of the building trade Bush is able to summon up the 'real' with ease. But this novel is as much about interior landscapes as the bricks and mortar of city streets. Troubling memories and ominous dreams make up much of the first-person narrative. Tommy's reality is further coloured by his obsession with the fantasy/romantic world of cinema. Tab Hunter, Dean Martin, Troy Donahue and numerous old-time film stars are referenced. "We are a family ruined by bad ideas from rotten films," he says, acknowledging the negative influence of pop culture on his life.

Although criminal acts do occur during Last Bird Singing the novel never wholly strays into the realms of crime fiction. Rather, it is a study of the existential horrors of family life. "Stand and consider the awful and alien intimacies that befall the lives of families," Tommy opines. And then later like a lowlife Leonard Cohen: "loving was always the sure way to misery."

The downbeat mood continues when the narration switches from Tommy to son Polly. Doomed, it seems, to repeat the mistakes of his parents Polly (a mother's boy) has a sexual preference for married women. In pursuit of his predilections he both repeats the sexual infidelities of his own mother and echoes the cuckolding of his father. The myth of Oedipus certainly casts a dark shadow over the unhappy Oliver family.

Whilst often being an uncomfortable read Last Bird Singing remains gripping throughout. A dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of a book it constantly reminds us that beneath the brash facade of nouveau-Cardiff a far more disturbing place exists - the ordinary, everyday world of failed love and broken dreams. Or, as Dean Martin might have crooned: sexual betrayal, suffering, suicide and murder... that's amore.

*Last Bird Singing by Allan Bush, published by Seren, is on sale now.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Stanley Baker - One for the Ladies

It was Stanley Baker's particuliar brand of masculinity that so appealed to film directors Joseph Losey and Cy Enfield. Adept at conveying working-class swagger and insecurity; he embodied both barely contained violence and vulnerability. He was the perfect antidote to all those urbane, stiff upper-lipped leading men of '50s British cinema. In fact his acting style had more in common with contemporary American tough guys like Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin. Anyway, here he is in all his bare-chested magnificence.