Monday, June 20, 2011

Shoulder to Shoulder

I’m not jazzed on male voice choirs. It’s all a bit naff, isn’t it? A kitsch cliché: arteriosclerotic men in matching blazers hymning their way through Cwm Rhondda, or some other chestnut from the exhausted repertoire of Wales’s moribund industrial and Nonconformist past. The musical equivalent of one of those traditional Welsh ladies made out of coal that you find in gift shops.

The recent success of Only Men Aloud in a UK-networked televised choir competition has been an unmitigated disaster. It has given BBC Wales (Only Men Aloud TV) carte blanche to foist yet more choral tripe on an already long-suffering Welsh public. To the cultural powers that be I guess OMA are viewed as giving a noble Welsh tradition a youthful injection of blood, but to many of us it’s just the same old stereotypical dross dressed up in Armani.

There’s no need either to go into the servile implications of requiring an English TV show (Last Choir Standing) to validate your own (supposed) culture. I remember a similar grovelling response when the London music press became briefly enamoured with Welsh bands in the ‘90s. It was the same also when Rhys Ifans landed the supporting role of stinking Celt to Hugh Grant’s hygienic Englishman in the egregious Notting Hill. Instead of crying Uncle Tom as they should have done large sections of the Welsh media practically came in their own mephitic pants.

For Welsh male voice choirs to have any real relevance they need new songs that reflect the concerns of contemporary Welsh life. They really ought to be singing about heroin addiction and unemployment in the Valleys; wind farms; the Welsh Assembly; and the media tribulations of Ryan Giggs, rather than churning out lame versions of Men of Harlech and Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The great missed opportunity for Welsh male voice choirs occurred during the miners’ strike of 1984. Here was the perfect moment to marry the collective vocal unit with the collective dissent of striking Welsh mineworkers. What was required was a fresh repertoire of radical political songs to articulate the struggle but unfortunately there was no modern day secular equivalent of Joseph Parry to write them.

One band who saw the potential in a politicised choir were London-based industrial noiseniks Test Dept. Their collaboration with the hastily assembled South Wales Striking Miners Choir, Shoulder to Shoulder, provides a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Clearly besotted with industrial iconography (as you can see from the LP cover) Test Dept characteristically Sovietised their material with songs such as Comrades in Arms, Comrades, Fuel to Fight and Gdansk. Other tunes included Roman War Song and Myfanwy! The recording has long-since been deleted but it’s well worth tracking down a copy. After a few listens I promise you’ll be scribbling down 5 year plans and setting about your ironing with Stakhanovite zeal.