Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Hindenburg Over Wales

This footage of the Hindenburg catching fire and exploding at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, and its harrowing commentary never fails to horrify.

Almost exactly a year before the disaster the Hindenburg flew over Wales. Already world famous as an aerial marvel its appearance in the Welsh skies caused tremendous excitement. En route from Lakehurst to Frankfurt the airship was carrying 53 passengers. The first sighting was at Haverfordwest at 9.30pm where it cruised at low altitude. It was, by all accounts, a magnificent spectacle. Later the roar of its engines brought Carmarthen residents out of their houses as the dirigible sailed directly over them. Heading eastwards it appeared for a moment as if the airship might not clear Llangunnor Hill but at the last moment it elevated itself over the mound. In the Amman valley it was observed from Tycroes Hill near Ammanford. Next the drone could be heard approaching Brecon, but when it flew over the town itself some of the engines had been switched off. Quietly it proceeded towards Abergavenny. At Abergavenny hundreds of locals were out enjoying a fair. In the distance they spotted a searchlight beaming down from the sky. As the airship approached, its searchlight picked out the assembled throng. At 10.20pm the Hindenburg passed directly over the fairground as it headed towards the border. It was by now brilliantly lit-up and illuminated the night sky.

The tragic fate that would befall the Hindenburg a year later would destroy all public credibility in airships as a means of travel. This along with the emergence of international passenger air travel, and the arrival of Pan American Airlines meant the end of the line for Zeppelins.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Charles Manson on Fierce Recordings

Fair play, if you’re going to start up a record label you may as well do it in style and reissue a Charles Manson LP. That’s what Swansea’s Fierce Recordings did in 1985. Thanks to them Manson rarity, The Love and Terror Cult, was once again available to a grateful world. What an impossibly cool debut. Two other Manson bootleg releases followed: the single, Sick City (see pic); and the cult leader's spooky version of Helter Skelter. Nice. You can read an excellent article on the subversive antics of Fierce Recordings here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Operation Julie

These days Llanddewi Brefi is probably best known for being the home of Dafydd, the only gay in the village, from the Little Britain TV series - but back in 1975 it was the world centre of LSD production. In his new book, Operation Julie: The World’s Greatest LSD Bust, Lyn Ebenezer re-examines the extraordinary events that inextricably linked a small area of Wales to the psychedelic underground.

At the time Ebenezer was a journalist in situ on Welsh-language paper Y Cymro. He recounts how Llanddewi Brefi was then a favoured haunt of pop stars who wanted to get away from it all. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and members of the Rolling Stones were all visitors. He even suggests that Bob Dylan might have stayed there for several weeks after the Isle of Wight festival.

The book’s main focus, however, is on the fabled Operation Julie drugs bust which took place in March, 1977. 6 million tabs of LSD with a street value of approximately £100 million were unearthed, and 120 people arrested. 800 police officers were involved in the raids. Suddenly the sleepy villages of Llanddewi Brefi, Tregaron, and Carno were thrust into the harsh glare of the media spotlight.

Ebenezer examines the political dimensions of the case and how it was reported in the press. He also gauges the effect that Operation Julie had on the local community. The traditional view of the LSD manufacturers is that they were torn between hippie idealism and a desire to make a buck. Interestingly, the author infers that the production of LSD in the area wouldn’t have been so successful if it hadn’t received tacit approval from locals.

Operation Julie: The World’s Greatest LSD Bust is published by Y Lolfa at £9.95. The book is also available in Welsh.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The House on Dragon's Rock

External representations of Wales in popular culture always fascinate me. In 1968 an episode of The Saint was set in Wales and was titled The House on Dragon’s Rock. Unusually for The Saint it is a sci-fi story and was located in the entirely fictional town of Llanfairtraws Sychnant.

Simon Templar turns up in the village to find a shepherd (I swear!) rendered speechless and traumatised by some gruesome sight he has just witnessed. Other strange events have been occurring there, too, such as a lorry being mysteriously overturned and trees uprooted. What’s going on? Well, basically, there’s a giant ant on the loose.

Why would a giant ant be on the loose in Wales and not England? I think it has something to do with that quaint notion of our English neighbours that crossing the border is somehow like going back in time. In this case that means Wales has the atavistic potential to nurture a giant insect.

Strangely enough there is a scientific laboratory in the village, situated in the big house on Dragon’s Rock. The establishment is run by Dr Sardon, who turns out to be a bit of a mad scientist. He has created a giant queen ant who has just laid some eggs. Apparently rugby balls painted white were used to represent the eggs. Templar shoots the deranged ant with a rifle and thereby saves the unsophisticated Welsh locals from a fate worse than death. Hey, thanks.

The episode was first aired in November, 1968, and was based on the Leslie Charteris story, The Man Who Liked Ants. See also The Sixth Finger for another odd manifestation of Wales in popular culture.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fabulous Katherine Jenkins

Cards on the table - I'm not a huge Katherine Jenkins fan. All that operatic warbling does my head in. I do, however, really like this cover - and the accompanying spread - that she did for Fabulous magazine in March this year. Jenkins has a rather saccharin, goody two-shoes image so I guess the idea was to uncover her bad self. Vamped up in a black dress, leather studded gloves, and wearing a peroxide wig, the dark Katherine is depicted pulling the hair of her more familiar angelic persona. It's a cool photoshoot. Fabulous, you might be suprised to learn, is a fashion supplement of the News of the World. More typically, a couple of weeks before she did this shoot, that same newspaper was drawing the world's attention to an incident at a show in Manchester, during which Katherine's left boob popped out, revealing her charms to an unsuspecting world. The article entitled, Jenkins Goes Popera, is accompanied by a candid picture, complete with a red ring around the liberated nipple.

Humber Dogger Forties by John Mouse

Now that Spillers Records has reopened I’m able to buy music again. First purchase in their new locale: Humber Dogger Forties by John Mouse.

This is an album that exhibits a keen sense of place – that place being south Wales. Langland, Trecco Bay, Rhondda, and Cardiff central station all get a mention. And those utterances are often delivered in a fruity Valleys accent. You could say that this record wears its provincialism on its sleeve but I think its ‘Welshness’ is really no more than an expression of the personal.

Childhood, in particular, is a landscape that is richly mined. If I Were An Oyster, Corney Island and Shinobi vs My Little Pony all recall bittersweet infant memories. Mouse’s taste for the naive, though, is often adumbrated with darker moments of death and loss.

But this is far from being a melancholy work. There are many instances of drollery here, such as the fabulously titled Got You Shaking Your Head (like David Gray) and The Last Great Rhondda Romance which has Steve Jones, off the telly, guesting on vocals. Mouse’s lyrics, thankfully, are too clever and too witty for the album to ever stray into novelty record territory.

Although essentially a pop album, other styles and influences do lurk beneath the surface. Roman Numerals For This Year has an early ‘80s feel; Another Number has a touch of country and western about it; and A Misrepresentation Of The Facts is an interesting hybrid of gospel and human beatboxing.

With strong melodies throughout and Mouse’s lyrical assurance Humber Dogger Forties is an absolute delight. Anchored it may be in the landscapes of south Wales, this record’s focus on human relationships ensures that it transcends mere geographical boundaries and hits you straight in the heart, wherever you're from.

*Humber Dogger Forties is available now from the Crocfingers label.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

John Grant's Cardiff-set Video

Saw this YouTube over at Y Twll and it's fab. It's a video for Chicken Bones, latest release from cult American singer, John Grant (formerly of The Czars). Directed by Casey Raymond and Ewan Jones Morris it is set in downtown Cardiff. Great to see Bessemer Road market getting the cinematic treatment, and you'll probably recognise other spots in the capital such as Clwb Ifor Bach. The video's narrative is basically this: a down-on-his-luck superhero goes on a psychotic revenge trip after necking some drugs. Chicken Bones is taken from Grant's Queen of Denmark album.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Lorne Lesley

These days she is perhaps best known for being the wife of TV antiques expert David “cheap as chips” Dickinson, but Lorne Lesley, from Cardiff, was once a cabaret star and recording artist.

Lesley hailed from Cardiff Docks. Her real name is Irene Spetti. Before taking up a career in showbiz she was a presser in a garment factory. Like other black female singers from the area she hoped to follow in Shirley Bassey’s glittering footsteps. Lesley, however, was keen to distance herself from the whole Tiger Bay mythology. Rather than adopting a ‘sex kitten’ persona emphasis was, instead, put on her strong sense of humour. In fact, during the early part of her career she was promoted as a comedienne/singer.

Between 1959-1966 she released a string of singles (on Parlophone, Polydor and Philips) none of which did anything spectacular in commercial terms. Part of the reason for this was because Lesley had moved to Scandinavia and was unable to properly promote her material. She lived in Copenhagen and worked as a cabaret singer on the continent.

That said, she did make occasional appearances on British television. She was interviewed on Top of the Pops in 1964; later that year she stood in for an ill Cilla Black on Sunday Night at the London Palladium; and in 1965 she performed on Thank Your Lucky Stars. You can see the YouTube here.

The above YouTube, I Don’t Know, is taken from a 1959 single. It was actually the b-side but it is a pretty cool rendition. Her recording career never really fired but you can hear the potential in this song. After she stopped making records she continued her career as a cabaret artist, appearing in clubs in the UK and on the continent.