Monday, September 28, 2009

Billy Sproud

I noticed this Billy Sproud YouTube, recently. Pioneer rock'n'roller Sproud, in case you were unaware, grew up in the shadow of the East Moors Steelworks at 168 Carlisle Street, Splott, Cardiff. His dad, John, was a coaltrimmer who also played baseball for Wales. At school Billy began to play the clarinet, saxophone and piano. Before carving out a career for himself in the music industry he repaired wirelesses for Tuckers' Electrical Company in Splott. In his spare time he played at various Cardiff dancehalls for a local ensemble called Murray's Band.

Just before WW2 he passed an audition for Hughie Green who was appearing at the New Theatre, Cardiff - this was his first big break in showbiz. After the war he formed his own band at the 400 Club. This Leicester Square cellar was a favourite haunt of Princess Margaret and her filthy rich cronies. Madge's table, which was situated near the bandstand, was nicknamed the Royal Box. Dancing, there, rarely stopped before 4am. From the 400 Club Sproud moved on to the exclusive Embassy Club where he wielded his baton for many years.

In 1957 he cut Rock Mr Piper for Columbia records. If you listen closely to the lyrics you can hear that the song is based upon the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. As well as writing the tune, he arranged it, sang it, and that's him you can hear playing the tin whistle, too. At the time it received excellent reviews and even today the ditty often turns up on those British rock'n'roll anthologies. The flipside is If You're So Smart (How Come You Ain't Rich). Both songs are fairly shameless imitations of Bill Haley and the Comets, who were all the rage at that time.

Nevertheless, Sproud - along with Morgan "Thunderclap" Jones, from Llanelli - was an interesting Welsh figure on the British rock'n'roll scene during its pioneering years.

Friday, September 25, 2009

RS Thomas and the Hell's Angels

I've mentioned before that esteemed Welsh poet, RS Thomas, occasionally crops up in popular culture. Perhaps the most unlikely reference to him occurs in Mick Norman's trash fiction, cult classic, Guardian Angels (1974) (see pic).

Published by NEL, Guardian Angels, is the violent story of a gang of Hell's Angels who emerge from their Llyn Peninsula hideaway to provide security for a touring American rock band. The bikers are made up of a renegade English chapter, The Last Heroes, and a Welsh chapter, the Wolves. A certain amount of anglo-Welsh tension exists between the two factions.

This is not a political novel but Norman (an English writer) comments on (sympathetically, I'd say) nationalist issues. How, for example, the indigenous Welsh-speaking population has declined, and given way to middle-class, English, holiday home-buying incomers.

There are Welsh characters such as Gwyn, Cyllell, Bardd, Ogof and Deintydd. Reference is even made to The Welsh Freedom Society - a fictitious cross between the Welsh Language Society and the Free Wales Army.

Then a local poet-priest from Aberdaron is mentioned – a certain RS Thomas. One of his poems, Welsh Landscape (you know the one – an impotent people/Sick with inbreeding), has been scrawled onto a wall and extracts are actually quoted in the text. It’s kind of a surprise but, to be fair to Mick Norman, his trash fiction is a cut above the usual NEL fare.

*I'm grateful to Rhys Wynne for alerting me to the fact that S4C recently did a documentary on a group of north Wales bikers known as The Wolves (Y Bleiddiaid). Wonder if Mick Norman's Welsh outlaws of the road were based upon these same bikers?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gene Latter

In Welsh musical history Gene Latter is the nearly man. During the Sixties and early Seventies he released numerous singles but never managed to attain that elusive hit record. His career encompassed beat, r'n'b, soul, freakbeat, psychedelia and even disco.

Latter's real name was Arthur Ford and he came from South William Street, Butetown (Tiger Bay), Cardiff. In Cardiff he had been a member of a local band called The Alley Cats before leaving to seek out his fortune in London. In the Smoke he hooked up with a Rhodesian outfit called The Shake Spears who were quite popular in Belgium (see pic: Gene is the one wearing shades). He stayed with the band from 1965 to early 1966 before deciding to pursue a solo career.

Amongst his many solo singles are his version of the Rolling Stones' Mother's Little Helper (1966); the self-explanatory A Tribute to Otis (1968); the storming northern soul classic Sign on the Dotted Line (1969); a song about his childhood Tiger Bay (1969); freakbeat rarity The Old Iron Bell (1969); and a cover of Marvin Gaye's Too Busy Thinking About My Baby (1971). Latter also found time to front The Detours who released My Life Ain't Easy (1968) and Pieces of You (1968).

That wasn’t all. In 1978 he put out a single spectacularly entitled, John Travolta, You are a Superstar. Basically, my life will not be complete until I’ve heard this record. Any more info on Gene Latter would be much appreciated.

*Also check out another northern soul favourite, Gene Latter's Funny Face Girl, on YouTube

Thursday, September 17, 2009


It is surprising how often miserable, but great, Welsh poet RS Thomas turns up in popular culture. The latest person to reference him is David Sylvian on his newly-released CD, Manafon. Thomas was rector of Manafon from 1942-54. It was there that he began to learn Welsh and where he published his first three volumes of poetry: The Stones of the Field, An Acre of Land and The Minister.

Here's what Sylvian says about the eponymous track in a press release: The closing track, Manafon, depicts the British poet RS Thomas. Sylvian explains that it is "a description of a man of faith, who struggles with that faith, who imposes an order on the external world in the hope of finding it internally. A man who embraces the morals and values of his faith and lives by them but who also struggles with the silence that burns inside his own heart and mind. God’s silence. He’s a man out of time who begins to look, on the surface, more like some tragicomic figure as time passes. While he seems to be an insufferable individual in many ways there’s a quixotic element in his quest for knowledge, for upholding morals and values that even he struggles with when it comes to believing in their efficacy."

I've not heard the CD yet but I understand it's quite bleak.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lacey Lynne

The picture caption reads: Lynne Jones, the 28-year-old scantily clad mother of three from Ogmore Vale does her utmost to promote the widely-made Welsh lace.

The photo comes from a defunct weekly newspaper called the South Wales Mirror. It was active circa 1970-1. In each edition a lightly-clothed Welsh model would disport herself. As well as Lacey Lynne there was Annie Davies, an unarmed combat specialist from Porthcawl; Lena Owens, a cabaret artiste from Bridgend; Maria Heape, mother of twins from Swansea; Annette Jones, a salesgirl from Newport; and so on.

Of course the pictures are unforgivably sexist, and the captions ridiculously naff. But, aesthetically, there is a kind of retro charm to the images. And how odd to see a series of "page 3" type photographs in a Welsh newspaper.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Interview With Jon Langford 2005

Another interview (from 2005) rescued from my old website. This time with Mekon, Jon Langford, who discusses his career as a musician and artist. He also tells me what is was like to meet William S Burroughs.

Jon, you are officially "the saviour of American Roots music" whilst your brother David has turned out to be a renowned sci-fi guru - were the Langfords of Newport a talented but eccentric family?

No we were brutally normal... my dad was an accountant and my mum worked in the bank and they met at a rugby match. Dave was always into science and blowing things up. I liked football, art and later glam rock but we both retired from the rat race in our mid-twenties to pursue our selfish creative desires. Now we are more similar than I would have ever imagined - medium-sized fish in weird ponds...

At art college in Leeds one of your lecturers was Tim Clark, the only British member of the Situationist International in Paris (1968). What kind of influence did he have on you?

He used to laugh at me when I was hungover! He was very supportive of us doing the Mekons back in 77/78/79 and had a nice chat with my mum when I dropped out of art school to be a pop star on Virgin records... when we crept back with our tails between our legs 18 months later he'd gone to Berkeley but we still keep in touch - we had a few drinks and a chat after the Mekons show in Berkeley on the 25th anniversary tour. He's from Bristol and so were some of my family so we always got on. He is a really great writer and just the tone he set at Leeds Uni back in '76 was a big deal for us and the Gang of Four...

Was there a particular person or incident that inspired you to form punk band, the Mekons, back in the late Seventies?

Our mates the Gang of Four had a rehearsal room above the Fenton pub so when they were taking a break we'd run up and play their instruments for a laugh... the Pistols played Leeds Poly and then everybody had to be in a band. We thought the Gang of Four were a real band and we would only ever open for them... when we got a record deal with Bob Last's Fast Product we were really embarrassed and forced him to put the Gang of Four out.

You moved to Chicago in 1991. From an artistic point of view what are the good and bad points of living in the Windy City?

Chicago's probably the only place I'd want to live in the States - it's got that north of England blue-collar fuck you sort of attitude that made me feel right at home - the music biz is largely absent so the clubs (Fitzgerald's, Louge Ax, Schuba's, Hideout) are run by enthusiasts and although I didn't move here with any intention of getting into a new band the climate and the opportunities made it inevitable - I've met amazing people here and while Touch & Go gave the Mekons a home, Bloodshot Records started just as I was getting the courage up to sing country songs to real Americans...

When did you first become interested in Country music?

Heard Merle Haggard and George Jones in 1983 on a casette tape given to us by a Chicago college dj called Terry Nelson and it blew our minds... classic '60s honky-tonk is just punk rock for old people - I was 26 at the time and my life revolved around the same things as Merle and George... drinking & cheatin'!

You are regarded as a central figure in music. Has the outsider status of being an immigrant made it easier for you to take on the sacred cow of American Country music?

Everyone's an immigrant here - I did my trial by fire out at the Sundowners Ranch playing with a real country band to real mean drunk rednecks so those alt-country twerps never scared me - I did a gig at the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame last November and was introduced by Robert Plant(!) who having forgotten his bi-focals, mis-read the auto-cue, and described me as the root of all American music... true. I just always felt comfortable with 3 chord country songs and while some people hate my guts for it, being American they tend to be too polite to mention it to my face.

On your first solo album, the excellent Skull Orchard 1998, you harked back to Newport and Wales for inspiration - why was that?

The eyes of the exile - a lot of time spent on my own - weird songs about Newport just started popping out. I missed Newport, I missed the stinkin' muddy river and the transporter bridge and the sea and the docks and my dad and my happy childhood running amok up the Gaer and getting underage pints in the pubs down Pill. I hated what Thatcher did to South Wales. Now I have my Goldie Lookin' Chain cds so when I get maudlin I just crank 'em up and I'm fine in a jiffy!

In 2002 you put together an anti-death penalty album entitled The Executioner's Last Songs. You've always been a political artist (I remember you doing gigs for the striking miners in the '80s) but why has the capital punishment issue particularly engaged you over there?

Mainly 'cos it was so strange to me to be somewhere where something that barbaric still went on - just after I moved here they executed John Wayne Gacy - a revolting serial killer - but there was no debate - the protestors outside the prison were filmed in slow-motion and their faces weren't shown - it was bizarre and I realised I was one of those faceless fringe loonies! Met Steve Earle and did some shows with him to help support the campaign for a moratorium on executions in Illinois and was really impressed with the people I met who were defending death row inmates and in an amazing 16 cases getting them out of jail. I thought I have kids now and they're Americans and I should be doing everything I can to civilize this sorry place... raising money thru the music seemed the obvious way to go.

On that particular record you performed Judgement Day with the wonderful Johnny Dowd. How was it for you?

He just sent me a tape with his vocal panned to one side and a drum machine synth track on the other so I had to put that whole crazy arrangement together with a bunch of serious musicians who thought I might have gone a bit mental... it worked out great and when Johnny did it on his album it had turned into salsa! He opened for the Mekons on tours of the States in 2000 and 2004 and we had a lot of fun. I've been playing guitar with him a bit too...

Can you tell us a bit about Great Pop Things: The Real History of Rock and Roll from Elvis to Oasis (1999) your subversive collaboration with cartoonist and fellow Welsh person Carlton B Morgan?

He lived across the road from my grandmother up in Croesyceiliog and we met on the bus one day (I was asleep and he kept dropping things to try and make me wake up) - I produced an album called The Devil's Music for him back in 1981 and we sat in a lot of pubs together and found the ways of the pop star split our sides. Record Mirror asked me to do some cartoons in the late '80s and it sort of emerged with Carlton sending me long stream of consciousness rants and fake history and puns etc which I had to condense down into little amusing black & white nuggets. At its peak it ran in about 5 papers at the same time but after 10 years and 2 books we got a bit bored and kept missing our deadlines and fizzled to zilch... the better version of the book is still available from Verse Chorus Press in Portland, Oregon - Carlton is one of the funniest people I have ever met and a hugely under-rated songwriter and performer. He also emits sexy rays.

In recent art works you have been depicting Country greats like Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams etc. Is this straightforward iconography or are you having a satirical dig at today's Nashville?

I started getting obsessed with classic country and western imagery in the mid-80s when I went to Nashville and saw how they'd paved over their past... the paintings are part tribute part futile bitter attacks on the corporate music row monolith... they are mostly based on songs and usually include lyrics and now the singers have become anonymous and usually carry guns and wear blindfolds or have skulls for heads... I have a love-hate relationship with America - love George Jones and George Clinton - hate George Bush.

Not content with being an artist and musician, you're now on the wireless! How are you enjoying your burgeoning radio career?

WXRT asked me to do a show about 3 years ago and it finally came about - it's a big corporate rock station with pretty rigid parameters so it was great to be told I could play anything I like - I have tested this out and they are as good as their word - as long as I don't cuss it's cool - I've also had really great guests (Robyn Hitchcock, Greil Marcus, John Doe, Graham Parker, Jon King) and we just play records and talk bollocks and everyone seems to love it so I'll keep doing it 'til I am told to stop - dj is best job in the world. I liked the idea that it was 10-12 on a Monday nite... the old John Peel slot - I think about him a lot while I'm putting the shows together - what would John Peel do?.

Finally, is it true that you once met William Burroughs? What happened?

Me and Goulding and Alan went down to a big Burroughs weekend in Lawrence, Kansas in 1997 with Kathy. We played on the Saturday night and the next day we were invited to go round to his house. I knocked on the door and frail old Bill opens up saying he's expecting visitors and he can't talk to us right now so almost relieved we start backing away down the drive then he shouts "Langford? Are you Langford?" We were the visitors. We go in and it's like a weird dream. Ginsberg is eating grits and eggs in the front room and jumps up to make us all a cup of tea. We are lost for words but Alan's wife Pony (RIP) starts chatting away with the 2 old Beat codgers about her dad exterminating cockroaches and Burroughs wants to know if they use powder or paste. Later he takes my wife Helen on a tour of the house - I have a great photo of me and Burroughs in the backyard where he's gesturing with his hands like he's clutching some invisible orb and I'm looking at him incredulously as if he's telling me the secret of the universe but in reality I've just asked him if his fishpond froze in the winter and he's telling me that a goldfish can survive for months frozen in a block of ice: "I have never seen it but I believe it to be true!" amazing day...

You can keep tabs on Jon's latest musical projects at Bloodshot Records or pick up some of his excellent paintings here.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

William Burroughs's Welsh Nanny

Any book that's half-decent soon gets nicked from my local library - it's the equivalent of a 5 star review. Over the years every single William Burroughs book that has ever been stocked there has mysteriously vanished from the shelves. It's a measure of his greatness, I guess. Anyway, in one of those missing tomes (My Education: A Book of Dreams), Burroughs talked about his childhood and his relationship with his Welsh nanny.

She was called Mary Evans and they became very close. Apparently she taught him occult curses, offensive rhymes, and incantations. They lived at the Burroughs' 3-storey house in Pershing Road, St Louis. However, when he was about five-years-old she suddenly departed the family home under something of a cloud. Burroughs never understood why this had happened and it psychologically scarred him. Retrospectively - as an adult - he suspected that he may have been sexually molested by Mary or one of her male friends. He even sought psychiatric help to retrieve this supposed buried memory. The therapy, however, proved to be unsuccessful and this dark formative experience remains a bit of a mystery. What became of Mary Evans, nobody knows.

Swansea Moon

Talking of things lunar, some of the earliest ever photographic shots of the moon were taken at the Penllergare estate in Swansea. It was here that John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-82) lived. He was at the centre of what has since become known as the Swansea Circle - a group of landed gentry from Glamorgan who were pioneers of photography.

Dillwyn Llewelyn was also related by marriage to William Henry Fox Talbot, the so-called inventor of photography. And it was through this familial link that he first developed an enthusiasm for the practice. A keen botanist, Dillwyn Llewelyn, brought an experimental ethos to his photographic work. After dabbling with daguerreotypes he progressed to calotype and wet collodian negatves. In 1856 he began using his own oxymel process.

He took his pictures of the moon from the Penllegare observatory in about 1857. You can see more of John Dillwyn Llewelyn's pioneering work here.