Friday, June 27, 2008

First Welsh Rock Musical

You're probably wondering what was the first indigenous Welsh rock musical? Let me put you out of your misery - it was Tom Jones Slept Here produced in 1974. It was billed as: "Wales's first home-grown and home produced rock musical." I wanted to confirm this fact, so I checked in the recently published Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales. No mention of it. Or rock musicals, for that matter. Ah well.

Rock musicals (and rock operas) were in vogue during the early seventies: Jesus Christ Superstar; Godspell; The Rocky Horror Show. So, no real surprise that we should be getting in on the act. What is surprising though is the choice of subject matter. The musical was based upon John L Hughes's 1971 post-industrial novel of the same name. I've read this book and it can best be summed up as: sex, violence and poverty in Pontypridd. It's a bit grim and hardly the uplifting stuff of musicals.

Anyway, it debuted at Glamorgan Polytechnic in Treforest and then moved on to Cwmbran. Wonder if Baron Lloyd Webber might be interested in reviving it?

UPDATE: I'm indebted to Rhys Wynne who has informed me that there was another Welsh rock musical in 1974. It was called Nia Ben Aur (roughly translated: Nia with the Golden Hair) and was performed at the Carmarthen National Eisteddfod that year. Apparently some of the tracks from it even appeared on the first Welsh Rare Beats CD.

So there you have it. I'm now tempted to refer to 1974 as being the Golden Age of Welsh Rock Musicals.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Clint Eastwood in Cardiff

In 1967 Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood was briefly in Cardiff. He was in the city to promote his first major film, A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone. Although the now famous spaghetti western had been shot in 1964 it took a full three years before it was released in America and Britain.

At the time of his Welsh visit Eastwood had yet to achieve significant success as a screen actor. In fact, back then, he was best known for his role as Rowdy Yates in television programme Rawhide. The popularity of A Fistful of Dollars would soon change all of that.

When Eastwood arrived at the press screening at the Capitol Theatre there really wasn't that much media interest. Local paper, the South Wales Echo, did get a shot of a bequiffed Eastwood, and his then wife Maggie Johnson, in the back of a car but that was about it. With his DA hairstyle and sober suit he looks like a throwback to the 1950s.

The Welsh newspaper media clearly had no inkling of what a mega-star he was about to turn into, otherwise they might have made more of an effort to, at least, get an interview with 'the man with no name'.

UPDATE: I'm grateful to Gari Melville from Swansea for pointing out that whilst the print media may have been slow off the mark in getting an interview with Clint - TWW were not.

A ridiculously boyish-looking John Humphrys quizzed Eastwood at Television Wales and the West's studios in Pontcanna, Cardiff. You can actually see the interview at ITV Wales's excellent programme archive here. Check it out - it's surreal.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Port Talbot: Sci-Fi Central

In my (admittedly 10-year-old) copy of the Rough Guide to Wales there is no entry for Port Talbot. Nothing worth seeing apparently. It is completely off the cultural map. And yet the town's otherworldly industrial landscapes have been inspirational to science-fiction enthusiasts.

Take film director Terry Gilliam for instance. For him a visit to Port Talbot was the starting point for his Kafka-esque dystopian movie Brazil (1985): "Port Talbot is a steel town, where everything is covered with a grey iron ore dust. Even the beach is completely littered with dust, it's just black. The sun was setting, and it was really quite beautiful. The contrast was extraordinary. I had this image of a guy sitting there on this dingy beach with a portable radio, tuning in to these strange Latin escapist songs like Brazil. The music transported him somehow and made his world less grey."

The town is also said to be one of the aesthetic sources for Ridley Scott's futuristic masterpiece Blade Runner (1982), the director having spent part of his childhood in Wales. Another movie director, Richard Stanley, utilised the landscape to film the opening sequences for his apocalyptic flick Hardware (1990) which starred Iggy Pop and Lemmy.

Top Welsh sci-fi writer Alastair Reynolds has also been seduced by Port Talbot's idiosyncratic visual charms. In an interview in 2003 he told me: "Port Talbot steelworks, too, left a big impression. Whenever my parents would drive back from Swansea in the evening, we'd pass this fantastic night-time metropolis of chimneys and furnaces, stretching as far as the eye could see."

Chuck in the fact that local boys Anthony Hopkins (Beowolf) and Richard Burton (1984) have appeared in notable futuristic/fantasy films then at the very least a sci-fi bus tour of Port Talbot is in order. In fact, if I was in charge of Welsh tourism I'd take it further and completely reinvent unlovely and unloved Port Talbot as the science-fiction capital of Wales. I'd make the town a focal-point for sci-fi conferences and book fairs and actively promote the location for film projects. It ain't rocket science - Port Talbot is an extraordinary place.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Ivor Novello the Serial Killer?

Although he'd made several films before The Lodger (1926), director Alfred Hitchcock dated his career from the making of this movie. It was his first critical and commercial success – and also his first suspense flick.

The Lodger – a silent film - is one of the earliest cinematic treatments of the Jack the Ripper theme. Fog-bound London is terrorised by a serial killer known as "The Avenger" who specialises in killing young blonde women. Everyone is paranoid.

One night a Nosferatu-like lodger turns up on the doorstep of a family boarding house. Wearing a hat and overcoat, and swathed in a scarf, only his piercing eyes are visible. When he removes his outdoor garments Ivor Novello is revealed to be the epitome of the aristocratic dandy.

Novello was counter-cast as the potential psycho - his romantic idol looks played off against the rather odd persona of the lodger. However, in order not to upset the Welshman’s legion of female fans, Hitchcock was under strict instruction to ultimately exonerate his main character. It simply wouldn’t do for Novello to play a homicidal maniac.

At this stage of his career Novello was considered to be more of a musical idol than a screen star, but the success of The Lodger soon changed all of that. It turned out to be the box office smash of 1926. In truth Novello was pretty limited as a screen actor but Hitchcock managed to get the best out of him. The director, aware of his leading man’s secret homosexuality, coaxed a performance from him that is both camp and martyred.

Anyway, here’s a nice publicity shot from the movie.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Evan Walters and Seán O'Casey

This is a sketch of Irish dramatist Seán O'Casey done by Welsh artist Evan Walters who was originally from Llangyfelach. Walters did several studies of O'Casey but I've not seen this particular one before. It was exhibited at the Fishguard National Eisteddfod in 1936.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Exotic Adrian Street

You know that Roland Barthes essay, The World of Wrestling, in Mythologies (1957) where he says: "the function of the wrestler is not to win - it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him"? Well, whenever poring over Barthes' Structuralist analysis of the grapple game I can't help but think of Adrian Street from Brynmawr.

During the '60s and '70s Street was one of the most hated wrestlers around. He would enter the ring wearing sequined costumes, carrying an ostrich fan (see pic). To limber up he did provocative pirouettes. The bleached-blond Welsh wrestler would then strut camply around the ring perimeter preening himself. Before the match started he would kiss his opponents. Sometimes he would even refer to them as "Gwendolyn". This would wind them - and the audience - up, something chronic.

Street was what Barthes would have called the "salaud" - the bastard, the character you are meant to hate within the drama. He was a kind of glam rock example of this. A hardcore female following swooned over his pretty boy features but the majority hated his guts. The Welshman wasn't at all bothered - he said they were just jealous of his good looks. Street described himself as not only the King of the Ring but also its Queen. He was billed as: Exotic Adrian Street.

Street was born and brought up in Brynmawr. As a teenager he developed a passion for physical culture and at 17 headed for the bright lights of London. At the beginning of his grappling career he realised that it wasn't enough just to be a good wrestler you had to get yourself noticed. And the best way to do this was to be a complete bastard. As well as adopting an ultra vain and effeminate persona he earned a reputation for being a bit dirty in the ring too.

Street's career soon prospered and he eventually went on to become a world champion. Outside of the ring in the realms of popular culture he also found modest success. For example he had roles in Pasolini's version of the Canterbury Tales (1972) and Grunt! The Wrestling Movie (1985). He has also released records including the single Breakin' Bones (1977).

These days Street lives in Florida where until recently he ran a wrestling school called Skull Krushers. Now he earns a living designing and selling wrestling gear. You can purchase memorabilia and find out more about Adrian and his exotic world at his official website. It's well worth a visit.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Duane Eddy Goes Acoustic

Duane Eddy was the first rock'n'roll guitar god. His distinctive guitar sound earned him the moniker: 'the King of Twang'. His debut LP Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel (1958) remained in the American album chart for 82 weeks. In Britain the New Musical Express voted him the 'World's Number One Musical Personality' ahead of Elvis Presley.

In 1963 Eddy made his Welsh debut at the Sophia Gardens Pavillion, Cardiff. He was part of a musical package which included The Shirelles and Little Richard who topped the bill. However, when the New Yorker walked on stage he stunned fans by announcing that he wouldn't be able to perform his usual 40 minute set. He said: "I am very sorry but my group The Rebels have been told by the British Musicians Union that they cannot play."

It transpired that work permits issued to his backing band by the Ministry of Labour had expired just before the Cardiff gig. The BMU stepped in and insisted The Rebels could not play. If they did, warned the union, then the whole show (including The Shirelles and Little Richard) would be blacklisted.

It was the first time anything like this had happened in Duane Eddy's career. Without The Rebels to back him up he was forced to go acoustic. He ended up playing three folk numbers on a six stringed acoustic guitar before asking the Welsh audience if there was anything they wanted to know about him or his career. After a five minute question and answer session he shuffled off the stage to muted applause.

Duane Eddy may have lost his twang in Cardiff but it wasn't all doom and gloom. The atmosphere improved dramatically when Little Richard arrived in the arena. Fans danced in the aisles and fought over a sweat-drenched shirt that the black rock'n'roll legend had discarded at the front of the stage. Now that's more like it.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Space, Time, Machine and Monster

A science fiction, fantasy and horror conference will be taking place at the University of Glamorgan, Treforest, on Saturday 21 June (10am – 4.30pm).

There will be workshops, discussion panels and presentations hosted by such literary giants as Jasper Fforde (new weird), Tim Lebbon (horror) and Rhys Hughes (fantastical/absurd). Hughes will be giving a talk on magical realism and later doing an OuLiPo presentation on how to write impossible stories. Which sounds intriguing. Also lined up is Andrew Cartmel, a scriptwriter for Dr Who, Dark Knight and Torchwood.

Everyone is welcome. Tickets are available on the door only and will cost a mere 5 of your earth pounds (or £3 concessions).