Monday, February 23, 2009

Sybil Burton - Disco Queen

The popular image of Sybil Burton (if there is such a thing) is of a wronged woman. She was, if you remember, the loyal but not especially beautiful wife of Richard Burton who was unceremoniously dumped the moment glamour puss Liz Taylor hoved into view. But Sybil, a miner’s daughter from Tylorstown, didn’t meekly disappear into obscurity - she instead became queen of America’s disco scene.

In May 1965, a little over a year after her divorce, Sybil opened a discotheque called Arthur on 54th Street. It would rapidly become the hottest nightclub in New York. Clearly a shrewd businesswoman Sybil raised the cash to set up the club by selling shares to showbiz pals at $1,000. These patrons included Roddy McDowell, Julie Andrews, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

The incredible success of Arthur was due in part to its fashionable mod aesthetic (see pic), which Burton had imported from such London hang outs as Ad Lib. The name Arthur is itself a jokey reference to one of the Beatles’ hairstyles. The democratic door policy also helped. Maybe her upbringing in a mining community had some influence here, for she was keen for young, hip, working people to attend her establishment. Not that this populism ever stopped the rich and famous turning up in their droves: Tennessee Williams, Princess Margaret, Lee Remick, Nureyev, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol were all regulars. In his book, Popism, Warhol reminisces about meeting Bette Davis, Sophia Loren and the astronaut Scott Carpenter there.

In some quarters Arthur has been viewed as Sybil Williams’s ultimate revenge on the ‘Burton and Taylor’ franchise. Her elevation in status to NY’s top nightclub hostess certainly gave her a glamour and power that as mousey Mrs Burton she had never previously enjoyed. She was featured in Time and Life magazines and opened up other establishments in LA, Dallas, Detroit and San Francisco. She even managed to shock everyone by marrying handsome Jordan Christopher, who was more than 10 years her junior, and the lead singer in Arthur’s house band the Wild Ones.

Arthur’s other claim to fame is that it is noted for being one of the first clubs to showcase the DJ. Terry Noel was no anonymous background figure spinning the discs but an important element in creating the club’s ambience. As in most nightclubs drugs could be purchased there - acid, coke, amphetamine and crystal meth were, apparently, the narcotics of choice, but trade was discreet and far from being Arthur’s raison d’etre. Unfortunately, toward the end of its existence, criminal elements began to move in on the scene and Arthur even witnessed a racially motivated shooting. Sybil sold the club in 1969.

Sybil Burton Christopher (as she is now known) is still very much alive and kicking and does a lot of work for charity.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wales Uber Alles 09

If you happen to be in that there London on Feb 27/28 do investigate Wales Uber Alles. This pre-St David's Day mini-festival will feature some of the cream of contemporary Welsh musical talent. Which, right now, is pretty damn creamy.

On Friday 27, at the delightfully arty ICA, you can sample the sumptuous fayre of Derwyddon Dr Gonzo, Sibrydion, Richard James, Sweet Baboo, Truckers of Husk and Colorama.

The following evening over at The Lexington, Pentonville Rd, the line-up will be just as tasty: Threatmantics, the Joy Formidable (how good is Cradle btw?), Cate le Bon, Spencer McGarry Season, Fredrick Stanley Star and Silver Gospel Runners.

Weekend tickets for both nights are available from the ICA at a staggering £11 (eleven pounds). That's cheaper than a pint of beer in the West End. Get stuck in.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Richard Burton Cufflinks

For those Welsh ladies still undecided about what to buy their man for St Valentine's Day, might I suggest a pair of Richard Burton cufflinks?

Dr William Price

Here is a newspaper account of the appearance of Dr William Price at the Cardiff Art Exhibition of 1884. Price you will remember was a pioneer of cremation who got into trouble for burning the corpse of his son Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ). He was also a Druid, nudist, chartist and vegetarian. He was vehemently against marriage, capitalism and socks. Here, amongst other things, he champions the Welsh language.

Dr Price at the Cardiff Art Exhibition

The announcement that Dr Price, of Pontypridd, would appear at the Cardiff Art Exhibition and sing and explain Gwyllis yn Nad drew a numerous gathering to the Public-hall in Queen Street on Saturday afternoon, the audience being largely composed of ladies. The presence upon the platform of a table bearing several ponderous tomes, and the close proximity of the doctor's crescent-topped staff, with its cabalistic characters, led to anticipations full of mystery before the chief actor in the scene appeared. Dr Price, who came upon the stage after a gentleman had sung the much discussed National Anthem of Wales, wore the singular costume which he traces to ancient Druidism, and with which most of the people of south Wales are now familiar. He had removed his goat-skin headgear, as well as the blanket which, in the open air, serves the purposes of an overcoat, and thus stood before the people as he appeared in the assize-court upon the occasion of the celebrated cremation trial, in a loose tunic of milky whiteness, which contrasted with green-coloured trousers of a decidedly baggy cut. The silvery locks of the doctor were twisted and tied in long attenuated wisps, which hung over his shoulders and mingled with his snowy and patriarchal beard. The famous apostle of Druidism, although 84 years of age, has a remarkably erect figure, and his appearance on Saturday afternoon was undoubtedly striking, if a little grotesque in the eyes of commonplace Britons. Holding in one hand his staff, from which was suspended a scarlet robe, and having in the other palm the egg of a goose, encircled with a narrow blue band, Dr Price proceeded to address the audience in Welsh, but afterwards dropped into the less poetic, if more useful, language of the English. It is to be feared, however, that very little of what he said was caught by the large assembly, for the doctor had not the strongest of voices, nor the best style of delivery. He was understood to remark, in the course of a disjointed and irrelevant harangue, that all children who were not taught the Welsh language would in after life curse their parents for the omission, seeing that the tongue of the Cymry was the beginning of all languages. In a manner which had about it much of the occult, the lecturer connected his earliest ancestry with the contents of the goose's egg, and declared, amid wondering amusement on the part of his hearers, that 3,700 years ago his birth was registered, and thus, he said, he objected to registration now - this remark apparently having reference to the proceedings recently taken with a view to the registration of the child which Dr Price cremated. Subsequently the doctor struck up a Welsh song, in the course of chanting which, and with his face to the ladies and gentlemen, he removed his tunic, or smock with scalloped sleeves, disclosing what appeared to be a red flannel shirt beneath, a waistcoat apparently having no place in the wardrobe of an ancient Druid. The audience laughed at the coolness and the singular simplicity which marked the lecturer's conduct, as he thus divested himself of a part of his curious costume, but they were altogether unprepared for what was to follow. In the next place Dr Price deliberately kicked off his boots, and then with an apparent unconsciousness which the alarmed looks of the audience did nothing to dispel, he removed the green-cloured trousers. The various habiliments were not discarded with the rapidity with which a circus rider will effect a metamorphosis in his appearance as he gallops round the ring, but were taken off, one after the other, with a slow deliberation. A number of ladies left the room, but whether the departure could be connected with the turn of affairs were taking is difficult to say. After divesting himself of the clothing mentioned, the doctor stood revealed in a dress even more extraordinary than that which usually makes him the observed of all observers. It consisted of one piece of scarlet cloth which covered the body and the lower extremities, fitting tightly to the skin, and being literally covered with letters worked in green. This under costume appeared to be the same as that in which Dr Price appears in the photograph contained in a book in Welsh of which he is the author, and a copy of which he presented to Mr Justice Stephen, at the recent assizes, when the cremation case was heard. After a few more remarks in the Welsh language, the doctor rehabilitated himself in the calmest manner possible, and continued his lecture, still retaining possession of the egg and the staff of mysterious omen. Having concluded, he gathered up his books, to which he had not referred, and placed them in a trunk, after which the goatskin and cloak were put on, and thus equipped for mingling with his fellow-men, the doctor went forth to defy the April weather.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mia Lewis: NME Cover

A while back on this blog I asked whatever became of Mia Lewis, Duffy-esque chanteuse from Abercraf, who released several singles in the mid-60s. Her daughter was kind enough to send me an email with some info. Mia is alive and well but no longer sings professionally. She married Vernon Mills who was once the bass guitarist in Tom Jones's band The Squires. Her best recorded song is the catchy Onion which was a b-side and should really have been released as an a-side. In the above picture, you can see that Mia even made the front cover of the New Musical Express (April 9, 1965).

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Candy Clark on Welsh National Dress

In 1976 cult American actress Candy Clark turned up in Cardiff for a press showing of her new movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. Her co-star David Bowie couldn’t make it as he had just been arrested in the US on a charge of possessing marijuana.

At the reception held afterwards at the Capitol cinema Candy was presented with a lovespoon and a Welsh doll by a lady in full traditional Welsh costume. The Hollywood star was evidently bowled over. Asked what she thought of the Welsh national outfit, she said: "It’s lovely. I would really like to wear one."

The Cramps in Cardiff

It was sad to hear of the recent death of Lux Interior, lead singer and founder member of The Cramps. In the musical universe of my youth they were the band. They seemed to transcend all the alternative youth sub-cultures of the day. Punks liked them because they had been on the periphery of the NY punk scene; flat-tops adored them because they had invented psychobilly; and Goths couldn’t get enough of their schlock-horror theatricality.

Songs like Human Fly, Garbageman and Can Your Pussy do the Dog? were dancefloor fillers at Welsh underground venues like Nero’s and the Square Club. On Saturday afternoons you could spy their logo scrawled on the back of many a leather jacket in such haunts as Spillers Records or the Lexington.

When the band did finally slither into Wales for a gig in the mid-'80s it was a really big deal. They played the Top Rank (or the Ritzy as it had by then become) on Queen Street, Cardiff. The venue was rammed with alternative types from all over south Wales and beyond. The band line-up, if I remember correctly, was Lux Interior, Poison Ivy, Nick Knox and Fur.

The highlight of the gig for me was sitting on somebody’s shoulders during, I think, Human Fly. Suddenly I found myself borne aloft on a sea of hands as I crowd-surfed in various directions. Much to my horror, with a sudden violent rush, I was propelled forward and went hurtling head-first over the crash barrier at the front, landing at the feet of Lux Interior himself. He was wearing a pair of snake-skin boots. I can remember looking up and seeing him crooning away in that unsettling, lascivious way of his.

Before I could convey my total adoration for the man I felt the brutal grip of the Top Rank bouncers dragging my already battered and bruised body off to the side of the stage. I managed to dissuade the goons from chucking me out of the venue altogether, and had to spend the remainder of the gig watching The Cramps from the relative safety of the balcony. And it was one of the very best gigs I ever saw. RIP Lux Interior.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Laugharne Weekend 09

Weekend tickets for Wales’s coolest literary festival, The Laugharne Weekend, go on sale this Friday (February 6th). Tickets for individual shows will be available on February 13th. You can purchase tickets here.

Now in its third year Laugharne has firmly established itself as the UK's least ponciest literary shindig. One minute you might be listening to the dulcet tones of punk goddess Patti Smith, the next you are standing beside Louis De Bernieres at the urinal. It's that kind of vibe. The town itself may be located at the arse-end of nowhere but that’s an integral part of the festival's kooky charm. And it’s another stellar line-up, this year – just feast your eyes on this lot:

Mick Jones & Topper Headon (The Clash), Patti Smith, Ray Davies, Irvine Welsh, Alexei Sayle, British Lions (Phil Bennett, Mervyn Davies, Bobby Windsor, Stewart McKinney), Louis De Bernieres, Mark Steel, AL Kennedy, Simon Armitage, Twin Town, Shirley Collins, Stuart Maconie, Luke Haines, DBC Pierre, Dan Rhodes, Patrick McCabe, Alasdair Roberts, Keith Allen, Howard Marks, Jon Ronson, Jon Langford, Willy Vlautin, Geoff Dyer, Andri Magnason, Tu Chwith, Stella Duffy, Niall Griffiths, Rachel Trezise, Gordon Burn, Jeb Loy Nichols, Joe Dunthorne, Charlotte Greig, Robert Lewis, Desmond Barry, Matthew Scott, Edward James Mugford, Denis Kehoe, Nam Le, Trevor Byrne, Helen Griffin, John Williams, Jonny (Euros Childs & Norman Blake), Richard James, Cate LeBon, Sweet Baboo, Threatmantics, Katell Keineg, Radio Luxembourg.