Thursday, April 28, 2011

Folk the Royal Wedding

I would feel morally and spiritually unclean if I didn’t post something anti-monarchist before the – pass the sick bag – big day. Thankfully alt.folkie types Gareth Bonello and Richard James have come up trumps with their Royal Wedding Protest Song. Great work. And exemplary in its use of swear words. You can download it for free, via here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

X-Ray Spex in Cardiff

How sad to read of the demise of Poly Styrene, lead singer of X-Ray Spex - what a great band they were. Songs about youthful alienation and the horrors of living in a consumer society have seldom sounded so urgent, so visceral, as when PS was in full flow. Away from the heat of the zeitgeist the work of some punk bands can sound a bit insipid, but X-Ray Spex’s oeuvre has stood the test of time remarkably well. The above newspaper advert (complete with obligatory misspelling of the band's name) is for a gig at the Top Rank, Cardiff, in 1977. Also on the bill were Pontypridd punkers, the Tax Exiles. RIP Poly Styrene.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hywel Ffiaidd

I'm quite curious about Hywel Ffiaidd, a Welsh punk/theatrical rock band from the late '70s, early '80s. Ffiaidd by the way, is Welsh for loathsome. Judging from their song titles they seem to have been politically motivated. On this cassette their tunes are Croeso Diana, Plismon and Bobby Sands. They also did a number called Can i John Jenkins. Their line-up changed at various points but singer Dyfed Thomas - who was also responsible for their lyrics - seems to have been a constant. I've seen some good shots of him in the Welsh-language music fanzine of the day, Sgrech (Scream), looking somewhat Boris Karloff-like. He's an actor now, apparently. Were they any good?

UPDATE: Here is some fabulous background information on Hywel Ffiaidd kindly sent to me by ‘Dean Dwl’. Cheers Dean:

Dyfed Thomas acted in both Welsh & English - in the early ‘80s he appeared alongside Dennis Waterman in the TV film The World Cup: A Captain's Tale.

The bass player Dafydd Saer is the son of Roy Saer, collector of Welsh folk songs at St Fagans.

The guitarist Dafydd Pearce was from Penrhyndeudraeth. In the late ‘60s he met up with the Mick Jagger who was in the area partying with Lord Harlech's kids, I think. Mick introduced Dafydd to his brother Chris. Dafydd joined Chris's band and jetted off to the States to do a couple of albums with Chris, returning to Wales in the late ‘70s with enough money to set up his own studio, Stiwdio 123, in Cardiff, where this tape was recorded. He now lives in west Wales, working as a freelance TV sound recordist. In his house there's a nice portrait of Yul Brynner, presented to Dafydd by Brynner's son from when Daf was living in LA in the ‘70s.

BTW Dafydd's uncle was in the legendary early ‘60s north Wales band Dino & the Wildfires, active on the Merseybeat scene. Legend has it his uncle, Eurwyn Pierce AKA 'Dino', taught Gerry Marsden (& the Pacemakers) the chords to You'll Never Walk Alone - the rest is history. Dino played alongside the Beatles too, amongst other Merseybeat groups. Although all members were Welsh speakers from the Penrhyndeudraeth/Porthmadoc area, they were told to pretend they were from Liverpool because being Welsh wasn't cool - like they did back then. They changed their name to The Wackers and released one single, which was not a hit.

The Vagabond's Breakfast

Richard Gwyn's memoir, The Vagabond's Breakfast, is a compelling account of the author's lost years of vagrancy in Greece, France and Spain, as well as his ongoing battles with alcoholism, insomnia and viral hepatitis. Given a year to live by medics and writing through the fog of hepatic encephalopathy Gwyn picks through his past life with commendable objectivity.

Sun-kissed anecdotes of Keroucian wanderlust and Bukowskian drunkenness provide the reader with vicarious thrills yet Gwyn himself is keen to de-romanticise his former lifestyle. He bemoans, for example, the immense tedium of being down and out: "the hours spent outside cafes nursing a single drink, of rendezvous with potential employers who never turned up, of having to listen to the interminably tedious advice of a certain breed of seasoned world-traveller, of the inane chatter of junkies and petty criminals..."

We learn that Gwyn eked out a living doing seasonal agricultural work, picking tomatoes, melons and oranges. Drunken escapades - often barely remembered - result in frequent hospitalisations or lead to temporary incarceration in a range of continental slammers. Sporadic relationships offer potential avenues of escape from his lowlife existence but as he says himself: "the level of my social dereliction took me to zones where the few available women were either incontinent or permanently brain-damaged."

Underpinning Gwyn’s aimless but colourful meanderings is a strong philosophical dimension. He ruminates on the haphazard, unplanned nature of existence. How those seemingly small choices we make can have a profound influence on the direction that our lives ultimately take – those ‘sliding door’ moments. The memoirist also questions the reliability and veracity of memory. And, as a fictioneer, he is aware of the artifice of shaping those memories into some coherent form. The dynamic between reality and imagination is important to Gwyn both ontologically and as a writer.

Given such musings it's no surprise that The Vagabond’s Breakfast doesn’t follow a linear narrative. Instead this is a weave of anecdotes and memories inspired to some degree by the process of writing itself. Certain of his recollections have the self-contained quality of short stories. A Grangetown youth who rescues the author from a difficult situation at an all night garage, for example, turns out to be a Somali refugee whom he once taught to speak English. Other tales serve to lighten the narrative, notably his stint as a "milkman of ill repute".

Although primarily a memoir The Vagabond's Breakfast reads like a travelogue. By that I don't mean that it's merely a lowlife trek through the sunlit landscapes of southern Europe, but rather a negotiation of the darker and more difficult terrain of illness. It's an inner journey that ends in redemption and hard won self-knowledge, so one that was worth embarking upon - for the reader, certainly.

*The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn is published by Alcemi.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sue Packer's Pets

Just bought a second-hand copy of Pets by Sue Packer, an amusing collection of photographs featuring animals and their owners. The photobook was originally published in hardback in 2003. Fear not, this isn't one of those twee assemblages of soft-focus shots of kittens and puppies. Instead what you’ll find here is a wide-range of subjects including a young girl covered in snails; a tattooed lady and her pet lizard (see pic); and one man and his ferret, amongst many others. Packer, from Abergavenny, has carried out some interesting photographic experiments in the past including documenting the offspring of seven of her closest friends in The Babies. In Tintern Portraits she went around knocking on strangers' doors asking if she could photograph the occupants of the house. She'd just moved into the Gwent village and thought it would be an ideal way of getting to know her new neighbours. Her Pets images have been exhibited throughout the UK.

*The above photograph is copyright of Sue Packer.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gruff Rhys's Toilet Art

This amazing picture from 1992 shows a pre-Super Furry Animals Gruff Rhys engaging in a bit of playful art terrorism. The future Welsh music legend was draping toilet paper down the steps of the National Museum in Cardiff as a protest against that institution’s lack of innovation and also its lack of contemporary Welsh art. Rhys said that the lines of toilet paper on the museum steps represented the Nod Cyfrin or the Secret Symbol of the Gorsedd of Bards. He cheerfully admitted that he often used lavatorial materials in his artworks, including multicoloured toilet brushes which he liked to stick on walls. He’s holding three toilet brushes in the above picture. Fans of Gruff Rhys will recognise that there has always been a strong conceptual dimension to his musical output as well as an employment of art prankster tactics, such as purchasing a tank or constructing a model hotel out of shampoo bottles. As he said himself back in 1992: “seduce the eye first, then get into the political message afterwards.” How about letting him represent Wales at a future Venice Biennale?

*Hotel Shampoo, which is just about the best thing he has ever done in my humble opinion, is out now on Ovni/Turnstile records.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

John Cale's Warholian LP Sleeve

Andy Warhol, famously, designed the first two iconic Velvet Underground album covers. One of his lesser known record designs, however, was for John Cale’s proggy The Academy in Peril (1972) LP. Obviously the two knew each other from their Velvet Underground associations so they came to an arrangement over the sleeve. Warhol would design the album cover in exchange for being able to use one of the album tracks, Days of Steam, for the soundtrack of his film, Heat. The sleeve turned out to be characteristically Warholian with its use of Kodachrome transparencies in series. The actual photographs were taken by Ed Thrasher. The back of the album bears Warhol’s studio signature (see pic).

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Psychedelic Plaid Cymru

Looks like Plaid Cymru were attempting to win over the psychedelic vote with this lysergically toned election poster from back in the day. Judging by the caricatures of Harold Wilson and Ted Heath in the top right-hand corner I'm guessing it must have been printed in either 1970 or 1974. Today's political imagery (from all the main parties) tends to be drearily corporate so it's interesting to view an example of an unconventionally designed election poster. Wonder if the acid demographic turned out and voted Plaid that year? I’m indebted to Huw Jones for sending me the pristine scan.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Absolute by Scritti Politti

When, in the early 1980s, Scritti Politti shifted from earnest agitprop politicos to purveyors of hyper-commercial pop, heads were scratched. Was former squat-dwelling Communist Green Gartside intent on subverting the genre or had he been wholly seduced by it? Who knows? What became increasingly clear is that soul, funk, reggae and hip-hop would be the vital components that would inform and inflect Scritti Politti's future pop musical output.

Absolute is a timely reminder of what a fine songwriter Green Gartside actually became. I'd forgotten just how good songs like Asylums in Jerusalem, The Word Girl and Tinseltown to the Boogiedown are. Jacques Derrida (always my favourite SP track) sounds nothing less than extraordinary today. Name dropping a hip French philosopher and an Italian Socialist newspaper (Avanti!) into a ditty that veers from Simon and Garfunkel sweetness to bolshy hip-hop is indeed bravura.

Other tracks sound better than ever. Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry for Loverboy) - much loved, as I recall, by shop girls and hairdressers - left me completely cold at the time of its release, but how wrong I was. It's a pop masterpiece. Shop girls and hairdressers, of course, have always been THE most discerning and astute of pop musical critics. Another revelation is Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder, a finely polished soulful ballad which Michael Jackson himself would have been proud of.

Green's voice on this collection is fascinating. Skank Bloc Bologna, the only relic here of Scritti Politti's pre-pop incarnation, has him singing in an angsty David Bowie-style mockney accent. It demonstrates that his later Americanised and feminised vocal delivery was certainly an entirely calculated choice. At times Green sounds uncannily like Michael Jackson, including on the two new tracks, A Day Late and A Dollar Short, and A Place We Both Belong - both excellent by the way.

Other high points include meaningful cameos from Robert Wyatt on The "Sweetest Girl" and Miles Davis on Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry for Loverboy). Absolute - a collection of the words and music of Scritti Politti – is an excellent summation of Green Gartside’s musical career and is out now on Virgin Records.