Sunday, September 30, 2007

Georges Brassens in Cardiff

Unless (like me) you are a fan of the French chanson tradition you are unlikely to have heard of Georges Brassens.

Yet in France he is an absolute icon. During his lifetime he was more popular than greats like Boris Vian and Léo Ferré ; as esteemed as Jacques Brel; and held in as much affection as Edith Piaf. His moustachioed face was as familiar to the French public as Elvis Presley's was to the rest of the world.

Brassens' live shows were intense, hugely popular affairs. He once performed every night for three months at a Montparnasse theatre to capacity houses. With one foot planted on a wooden chair he would strum his guitar and mesmerise adoring audiences with his poetic lyrics. Brassens was steeped in the French poetic canon.

Every three years he would emerge from hibernation into the public glare with ten new songs - each one honed to perfection. His keen lyrical sense combined with a down to earth, histrionic-free delivery endeared him to French people the world over. They regarded him as something of an avuncular anarchist.

For many years - despite numerous invitations from abroad - Brassens refused to perform outside of France. Then in 1973 he broke his self-imposed rule and did a foreign show in - of all places - Cardiff, Wales.

This incredible event came about through the endeavours of Brassens' friend Colin Evans, a lecturer in French at Cardiff University. The gig was arranged to celebrate the opening of the Sherman Theatre in the Welsh capital. Also on the bill was long-time Brassens admirer Jake Thackray.

Evans wrote an article in a local Welsh newspaper helping to explain who exactly this Frenchman nobody had heard of was. The accompanying photograph is an absolute joy - Brassens puffing on a pipe in front of Caerphilly castle.

The Cardiff show itself was recorded by the BBC and excerpts from it appeared in a documentary in 1975. The live performance (one of the few live recordings ever made of Brassens) was also released as an LP entitled: Live in Great Britain which is well worth getting your mitts on.

*Here's a good Brassens website that includes an endorsement from Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Euros Childs - The Miracle Inn

Euros Childs' third solo release The Miracle Inn is his darkest work to date.

Opening track Over You sets the tone with Euros pining for his love. She is implicity located in a pastoral locale while Euros is schlepping about in urban America. Separation will prove to be this CD's salient theme.

Musically the glam-rock inflected Horse Riding is more upbeat but again the object of his affection is out of reach. In a red dress his rural femme fatale symbolises sexual promise. But wouldn't you just know it - she runs off with a tailor at the end! Hey, we've all been there Euros.

In Ali Day he finds refuge in one of his favourite pastoral settings: childhood. Bouncing balls, the fair, melody - not for the first time he uses the familiar diction and landscape of nursery rhyme to delightful effect.

A rare cover version is up next - The Turtles' Think I'll Run Away. Despite the obvious drug references in the original, emphasis here is on escaping into a rural rather than a narcotic utopia. And nice to hear former GZM cohort Richard James on acoustic guitar.

The funereal Outside my Window is also about distance - this time between what is wished for and life's harsh realities. Childs' prime symbol of happiness and optimism - the sun, emerges at the end to bring hope but it doesn't entirely banish the gloom.

The sweet harmonising on pared down Hard Times is tinged with anguish and yearning as Euros once again tries to deal with being physically removed from the object of his desire.

The Miracle Inn is a 15 minute musical suite that in spirit at least recalls Kate Bush's Hounds of Love LP. Here we are taken on a nostalgic trip to the Miracle Inn - a long gone music venue but also a place of youthful possibilities. It all goes a bit cosmic and Syd Barrett in the middle before once again we return (in a dream) to the Miracle Inn. Despite the song's upbeat ending we are left lamenting a loss of innocence.

The CD's killer track is left 'til last. Childs alchemical ability to take a simple lyric and combine it with a beautiful melody to produce something sublime has never been more evident than in Go Back Soon. And thus the CD ends with Euros pining again. Not for a person this time but for a place of: "rockpools and caves that forever shall be".

Ah, such sweet melancholy. The Miracle Inn is released by Wichita and is on sale now.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tiger Bay Teddy Boys

This Empire News story from 1957 demonstrates that moral panics over drugs and youth culture are nothing new. In this case we have an exotic cocktail of Tiger Bay Teddy Boys and reefers:

Jivers Get Hep on Hemp

Reports that dockland Teddy Boys are selling "reefers" to teenage rock'n'rollers at a Cardiff dance hall are being investigated by city detectives.

The marijuana (Indian hemp) cigarettes change hands in Saturday night crowds, I was told. Price? £1 for ten or £1 for eight - according to strength.

Said one teenager, "They help to get you in the groove - get the rhythm. The man told us they were not full-strength reefers. But all the same they make you feel happy and raring to go."

Another boy - in drainpipe trousers and luminous green socks said: "I haven't smoked any reefers but know some of the others do - though not many. I don't see what the fuss is about. They don't do any harm. People are too stuffy these days."

I was told that the drug traffickers come to the hall "fairly often" but not every week. Only two men did the selling....but not always the same two.

Dance hall proprietor Mr George Sullivan told me: "I'm appalled to hear this - and very surprised. But, of course, it is impossible for me and my staff to see everything. It is terrible that people should try to spread this horrible habit among youngsters.

"We get a crowd of about 200 on a Saturday night. I have four men on the door and a few more inside. From now on they will be watching every move closely.

"Heaven help anyone we catch selling reefers..."

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Lost Ella Fitzgerald Film

In 1960 a jazz icon arrived at Cardiff Central station. Ella Fitzgerald disembarked from the train and strode regally along the platform. Musicians burdened with instruments and equipment followed in her wake. She was greeted by Frederick Newton manager of the Gaumont Theatre. They exchanged pleasantries. She signed autographs for the few fans who had come to greet her.

Outside Fitzgerald surveyed the grey South Wales skies as she waited for a cab. This was her second visit to the city - 4 years previously she had performed at Sophia Gardens Pavilion. When her taxi arrived it whisked her off to television studios in Pontcanna where she recorded a piece (was it an interview or a song?) for a Welsh programme called Here Today. It would be broadcast at 6.30 that same evening.

Coincidentally her first show also started at 6.30pm. She was scheduled to perform for two houses - both of which were sold out. The jazz package of which she was the star attraction was called Jazz at the Philharmonic. Stalwarts like Shelly Manne and the Jimmy Guiffre Trio warmed up the audience. Then Fitzgerald came on.

The applause was warm and spontaneous. She stood before her Welsh fans in a white dress and kicked off with S'wonderful. At the song's conclusion the audience applauded for over a minute. She did versions of Mack the Knife and Misty improvising impressions of Joe Williams and Louis Armstrong along the way. Her voice was lucid, each word delivered with cool but soulful precision. Both shows were a huge success.

So what about this TV show then? Is there an archive at ITV of old local network programmes; or were the tapes erased, re-used, lost? I don't know. But I like to think there is a dusty, forgotten box somewhere containing a precious piece of film showing Ella on Welsh soil.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Poster Art in Wales

Between 1967-8 the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council decided to take art to the people. They wanted to liberate it from the hallowed environs of museums and galleries and put it out there on the streets.

They did this by hiring approximately 250 advertising hoardings all over Wales upon which they placed specially commissioned silk-screen prints. The participating artists, who all had some association with Wales, included Op-Artist Jeffrey Steele, Terry Setch, Eric Malthouse and Allen Jones.

What seems odd in retrospect is that there was no pre-publicity or ad campaign to go with the public exhibition - they just did it. The posters suddenly sprang up in urban, industrial and rural settings across Wales completely without explanation or fanfare.

The artworks were often adjacent to regular large-scale adverts and in a sense had to compete with them for attention. The whole campaign lasted at least six months and must have been pretty expensive. It was though deemed a success in that interest was generated amongst the public.

The poster which caused the most reaction was unsurprisingly a work (entitled Legs) by controversial pop artist Allen Jones. His eroticised female legs surrounded by floating discs on a lurid yellow and green background certainly caught the eye.

So what to make of this whole exercise? I suppose there are two ways of reading it. On one hand it can be seen as a laudable egalitarian attempt to democratise art, very much in keeping with a late '60s zeitgeist. On the other it might be perceived as a wholesale attempt to educate an unsophisticated Welsh public in the ways of contemporary art. You decide.

What I'd really like to know is what happened to the posters themselves? Were they carefully peeled off and stored away somewhere? Were they unceremoniously scraped away? Or were they just covered over by advertisements? If you see a giant-sized 1968 Allen Jones poster for sale on ebay you'll know exactly where it came from.

*One of the Allen Jones multiples was presented to the Tate Gallery by the Welsh Arts Council in 1975 (see pic).

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Richard Burton and Greta Garbo

Here's a thesp anecdote from the Cardiff Times back in 1953:

Garbo Intrigued by Welsh Accent

It was at a small private party. The great Garbo, apparently fascinated by the Welsh accent of Sybil Williams Burton, Richard Burton's wife, drifted over and spent two hours talking with them.

Asked what Garbo talked about, Burton paused. "Come to think of it," he said, "I did most of the talking and she laughed - very melodiously."

Then he admitted yielding to an irrepressible urge. "It was unpardonable considering I'd just met her, but she took it with wonderful grace. I suddenly squeezed her arm and gave her a hug, but promptly explained I had to do it so I could write and tell sis that I'd hugged the Great Garbo."

"Sis" is Burton's eldest sister Cecilia who brought him up from the time their mother died when Richard was two-years-old. "Now" he said, "I've met the two people I most wanted to meet in Hollywood - Garbo and Groucho Marx!"

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Shirley Bassey and Alain Delon

Thought I'd Ring You (Pense Telefonearte) was a single released in 1983 by Shirley Bassey and heartthrob French actor Alain Delon. It lasts 4 mins and 17 secs and is one of my all time favourite romantic duets.

Bassey sings in English, Delon responds in French. Basically they were lovers back in the day and Bassey decides to renew the relationship by ringing him up.

Naturally he invites her over to dinner (hey - he is Alain Delon). They reminisce. Rather startlingly he recalls her wet dress clinging to her body after a dip she once took in a fountain: "Ni le bain de la fontaine, ni la robe collée sur ton corps," he breathes. He then quickly dignifies proceedings by mentioning poetry.

It's pure unadulterated fromage. And just when you thought it couldn't possibly get any cheesier you discover this video on YouTube. Bon appétit.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Welsh Angels and Outlaws

Born to be wild? If you fancy yourself as a budding Hunter S Thompson why not find a Welsh motorcycle gang to hang out with - there are plenty to choose from.

How about the most mythologised bikers in history - the Hells Angels themselves? Wales got its first Hells Angels charter as recently as 1999. Each new club gets to have its own distinct death's-head patch - the Welsh one has yellow and red on the design and its skull has tiny horns.

Or how about visiting a Hells Angels clubhouse? I've never been to one myself but apparently biker paraphenalia from around the world adorns the walls. There is also a special memorial section dedicated to brothers who have died or been killed on the road. Accomodation is provided on site for visiting members of the motorcycle club.

Occasionally all the various Hells Angels clubs from around Britain meet up on a run. In 2003 for example they met in Wales at Baskerville Hall near Hay-on-Wye. After some initial apprehension local residents were won over by the huge boost to the economy provided by a sudden influx of hundreds of hungry and thirsty bikers.

Another (and more numerous) biker fraternity are The Outlaws. The Outlaws Motorcycle Club Wales was officially founded in 1993. There are three main chapters. The North Wales chapter emerged from a notorious biker gang known as The Henchmen MC who go back to the late '60s. The West Wales chapter originated in 1979 and at some point was known as The Strays MC. The South Wales chapter, although relatively new, has become the dominant motorcycle club in the area. Their ranks are made up of bikers from various older motorcycle gangs.

You can find out more about the Outlaws MC Wales at their excellent website. And here's an interesting article about the funeral of a well-known Welsh Outlaw in North Wales.