Thursday, March 29, 2007

Angus McBean - Wales' Forgotten Surrealist

In the Thirties and Forties luminaries from the worlds of theatre and film flocked to the studio of Angus McBean to be immortalised by the great master of portrait photography. Laurence Olivier, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn and Vivien Leigh were amongst his illustrious sitters.

As well as being 'portrait photographer to the stars' McBean created Surrealist photomontages making him one of the few British artists in any field to have produced Surrealist work in its Thirties heyday.

At the end of this month the National Portrait Gallery's McBean retrospective rolls into Cardiff. This is good news because he is virtually unknown in his homeland. In fact a couple of years back when I contacted the National Museum, Cardiff, suggesting an exhibition of his work they wrote back saying they'd never heard of him! A measure of just how far his stock had fallen.

McBean was originally from Newbridge and educated at Monmouth Grammar School and Newport Technical College. His father was a surveyor of mines and the family travelled all over Wales. Although his grandfather was Scottish (hence the name) McBean always identified more with his Welsh mother Irene Thomas. In London he was known as "Angus boyo" and photographed fellow exiles like Novello, Burton, Bassey and Emlyn Wiliams.

For a comprehensive (and visually quite camp) biography of Wales' forgotten Surrealist click here.

As for the exhibition itself you get to see the full range of McBean's output. There are the glamorous portraits (including the famous headshot of Vivien Leigh which helped win her the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind); Surrealist concoctions like the much anthologised Audrey Hepburn portrait (see pic); McBean's famous collection of home-made Christmas cards; and the album covers which helped revitalise his career in the late Fifties and early Sixties (these include The Beatles, Shirley Bassey and a particularly cool Johnny Kidd and the Pirates sleeve).

You'll also find examples of work he did in the 1980s. During that style-conscious decade McBean became fashionable again, coming out of retirement to photograph the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier and um, Run DMC.

Angus McBean: Portraits is at the National Museum, Cardiff, from March 31 - June 3, 2007.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

S4C Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack

Today I finally got my hands on a copy of S4C Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack Vol 1 (1995). This hard to track down Welsh-language EP is on the highly collectible Atol label and features the excellent Charles Bukowski by Rheinallt H Rowlands.

Also worth getting hold of is S4C Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack Vol 2 (1996) on Ankst - the highlight of which is David Wrench's cultic and magnificent God Is High.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Second Aeon

It was from this humble Llandaff North premises in 1966 that Peter Finch launched second aeon a poetry magazine that would acquire an international reputation. During its existence it featured contributions from Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Iain Sinclair and Paul Auster amongst many others.

I have to admit to being fascinated (and inspired) by second aeon not only for its excellent content but because its former HQ is practically on my doorstep. Hard to imagine a literary phenomenon taking place in sleepy Llandaff North!

Finch has spoken here and here about the difficulties he faced producing a high-circulation counterculture magazine from an obscure Cardiff backstreet (Maplewood Avenue). One can only wonder what he would have been capable of had the internet been available in the Sixties.

The good news is that the Poetry Library at the South Bank Centre in London have put an issue of second aeon online with more to follow. Click here to see the final 1974 edition in all its resurrected glory.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Bore Da - Euros Childs

Nothing has me reaching for my geiriadur mawr quite like a new Euros Childs record. His latest offering Bore Da is sung entirely in Welsh. Not that this should be a hindrance to anglophones as Childs' strength as a songwriter has always been his wonderful gift for melody.

The word "jaunty" doesn't really do justice to opening track Bore Da (Good Morning). It's the kind of life affirming song that everyone should wake up to. Of course it goes all haunting and melancholy at the end just to confound you but that's Euros Childs in a nutshell.

Diabetics everywhere will be delighted by Siwgr Siwgr Siwgr (Sugar Sugar Sugar), a foot stomping rock'n'roll number that's better than a double dose of insulin.

In Henry a Matilda Supermarketsuper Childs pokes fun at the domestic as well as having a go at supermarkets. Anyone who has seen him live over the last year will know that this song has become something of a favourite with fans.

Ar Lan Y Mor (By the Seaside) is a short ditty that will transport you straight back to your infancy. All songs sounded like this when you were 2-years-old.

Childs is at his melancholic best with Twll Yn Y Awyr (Hole in the Sky) and the beautiful Dechrau'r Diwedd (The Start of the End). Is there anybody out there who can pen a lament as expertly as this man? I think not.

The mood is lightened somewhat by Cwtch, a raucous slice of rock'n'roll that will have you shamelessly bouncing about your bedroom. And in case you were wondering Childs is extolling the virtues of having a nice cuddle.

Blaidd Tu Fas Y Drws (Wolf Outside the Door) is a dark, edgy little number with more than a whiff of the folk tale about it. Childs ups the weirdness ante still further with Warrior. As this song proceeds his manic vocal becomes increasingly disturbed until by the end he is screaming like a loon. Let's be honest we'd feel short changed if this didn't happen at least once on a Euros Childs record.

The concluding three tracks are a return to the pastoral. Foot fetishists will swoon at Sandalau (Sandals) - essentially a hymn to summertime. Roedd Hi'n Nofio Yn Y Bore Bach (She was Swimming in the Early Morning) is a beautiful celtic lament. And like a perfect sunset the CD ends with Aur Y Haul (Gold the Sun).

Once again Euros Childs has confirmed his status as the Crown Prince of Lovely Melodies and provided us with an ideal soundtrack for the coming of Spring. Bore da, released by Wichita, is on sale now.

Friday, March 09, 2007

David Sullivan's Old House

I was over in Penarth today and couldn't resist having a look at David Sullivan's old house. He has often waxed lyrical about his childhood in St David's Crescent and the sense of community he felt growing up there.

When his parents moved into the Crescent back in the 1950s their house was part of a new estate. Sullivan remembers well the games of football played with dozens of local kids; and fighting with ragamuffins from other areas.

Nowadays he lives in a huge mansion in Essex. Often ridiculed for his supposed bad taste you get the feeling there is more than a little establishment snobbery directed towards the Penarth pornographer.

To give him his due Sullivan has done a pretty impressive job in challenging Britain's often bizarre censorship laws. OK, his stand has been for entirely selfish financial reasons but still, he has shown genuine guts in his battles against the forces of puritanism.

I'm sure the so called "Sultan of Sleaze" would be pleased to learn that St David's Crescent remains a close-knit community. As I photographed his old house today one concerned neighbour asked what I was up to. We look out for each other around here, he said. Quite right too sir.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Laugharne Weekend Festival

"The festival aims to celebrate Welsh literature as well as cult writers and outlaw voices. It's a weekend where you can see a whole range of the finest writers from the Celtic fringes rubbing shoulders with psychedelic rockers, train robbers and Lily Allen's dad."

Sounds like fun. And all in you know who's backyard too.

The organisers of this brand new festival are promising interesting chat, great music and lots of drinking. Some of the illustrious rogues you get to shoot the shit with are gobby actor Keith Allen; writers such as Niall Griffiths, Joolz Denby, Desmond Barry, Lynsey Hanley, Patrick McCabe, Rachel Trezise, Dan Rhodes, John Williams and the fabulous Nick Kent. You'll also stumble across musical types like Peter Hook out of New Order, ex-Gorky Richard James and Welsh-language singing legend Meic Stevens. If that's not badass enough for you then keep an eye out for Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds and ubiquitous international drug smuggler (retired) Howard Marks.

The Laugharne Weekend Festival will take place March 31 - April 1 (2007). For the full programme of events, ticket details, accommodation advice etc check out the festival website.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Good Vibrations at the Infirmary

No doubt Cardiff Royal Infirmary will at some point suffer a "mysterious fire", get demolished, and be replaced with "luxury apartments" as part of some "prestigious development". Until that dreaded day arrives join me in basking in the former hospital's pop cultural significance.

Back in 1966 the Beach Boys (minus Brian Wilson who remained in California to work on Smile and his own nervous breakdown) had embarked on their first UK tour. They arrived at Cardiff's Capitol Theatre to promote new album Pet Sounds and their latest hit single Good Vibrations.

It was usual in those days for bands at the Capitol to perform twice - an early evening show and a late show. However four minutes before their first performance was due to begin catastrophe struck! Lead guitarist Carl Wilson badly cut his right wrist whilst over-zealously attempting to open a window. He had accidentally thrust his hand through a pane of glass.

The Cardiff gig was in jeopardy but the Beach Boys remained calm determined that the show should go ahead. Raiding the First Aid cabinet they managed to bandage Wilson's injured wrist and at the appointed hour the Californians took to the stage.

They played an eleven song set that included Barbara Ann, California Girls, and God Only Knows to a delighted audience. Carl Wilson struggled on manfully, strumming his way through hit after hit with bloodied wrist. The show climaxed with Good Vibrations.

As soon as the set finished Wilson legged it over to the Infirmary to have his wound properly attended to. It was a Saturday evening in Cardiff so heaven only knows what carnage he beheld at the hospital. Stitched up, he heroically returned to the Capitol in time for the second show.

The Beach Boys performed their final set with consummate professionalism, sending their Welsh fans into raptures. The gig continued without incident until Good Vibrations when an over-excited local girl jumped up on stage and attempted to snog drummer Dennis Wilson. She was ushered safely away and the show ended without further injury or bloodshed.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Holy Welsh Batmobiles Batman!

Ah Swansea, that lovely ugly town, renowned the world over for its greatest cultural export - the Corgi miniature Batmobile (1966) .
When the Mettoy company opened its Swansea factory in 1954 they decided to call their new range of toy cars 'Corgi'. Having moved to Wales and specializing in miniatures they thought it appropriate to use a breed of small Welsh dog as a brand name. Bizarre but true.

Corgi cars were manufactured in Swansea right up until 1991. In that time they produced classic collectibles like the Monte Carlo Mini Cooper (1965); The Man From UNCLE "Thrushbuster" Oldsmobile (1966); and the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

However their most successful export and biggest ever seller was the aforementioned Batmobile (1966). Just 5 inches long, the dye-cast model featured rocket launchers and tiny versions of Batman and Robin in the front seats. It sold (in Britain) for 12 shillings and 11 pence.

Normally the process of getting a model from the drawing board to the shops took 12 months but they got the Batmobile out in just 5. At that time 'Batmania' was sweeping across the world and Mettoy knew if they could get their new product in toy stores by Christmas they'd make an absolute killing. They were right - it sold over 5 million units.

I doubt if Under Milk Wood has sold that many copies. Maybe Swansea council should get the words Bam! Zap! Pow! prominently displayed in the city centre or rename their metropolis Dinas Gotham in its honour? Anyway, to the Batmobile!