Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Subterraneans in Cardiff

It was one of the earliest punk-related events to have occurred in Wales. In May, 1976, music scribe Nick Kent’s band The Subterraneans played two theatrical gigs at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff. As you can see from the above advert the shows were billed as: ‘Songs of Random Passion’ and ‘the Dance of Romance’.

Kent had formed The Subterraneans after splitting from a very early version of the Sex Pistols. Included in his new band were Rat Scabies and Bryan James who would soon go on to form The Damned. On vocals for the Cardiff shows was Hermine Demoriane.

She was one of those interesting arty types on the fringes of the punk scene. She’d written stuff for counterculture rag International Times, including an interview with Jean-Luc Godard. She also had a career as a tightrope walker and performed with COUM Transmissions. She would later show up in Derek Jarman’s punk flick Jubilee in which she played Chaos. At the time she and Kent were an item.

In his ‘70s memoir Apathy For the Devil Kent stated that the Cardiff shows were in two parts. In the first they played “nasty misogynistic numbers” such as Under My Thumb by the Stones and The Crystals’ He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss); in the second they ran through some brand new songs, the most significant of which was, soon to be punk classic, New Rose. According to Kent this was the song’s first ever public airing and all to an audience of about 8 people! Punk history made at Chapter Arts Centre.

After the Cardiff gigs The Subterraneans split-up. A different line-up would reappear circa 1980 with Nick Kent on vocals. They would release just one (these days) much sought after single My Flamingo/Veiled Women before splitting for good. They sounded like a cross between The Only Ones and The Pretenders. In fact, Chrissie Hynde was briefly a member of The Subterraneans having also once been Nick Kent’s girlfriend.

The punk revolution would arrive in Wales in more recognisable form later in the year - September '76 - when the Sex Pistols played Cardiff (Top Rank), Newport (Stowaway) and Swansea (Circles) on successive nights. Despite his own failed career as a rock singer Nick Kent continued as a highly successful and much esteemed music critic.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that Kent was a former denizen of Llandaf, Cardiff. I recently checked out his old gaff on Prospect Drive. His family clearly weren’t short of a few quid. With regards the current occupants, not sure if having Nick Kent as a former resident adds value to your property or knocks a few grand off.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

George Harris: Photographer of Presidents

George William Harris was a photographer of Presidents. Originally from Dowlais he and his family left Wales for the USA where he embarked upon a career as a snapper. From 1900-1903 he worked for the Hearst News Agency in San Francisco. Later he was part of Teddy Roosevelt's press entourage. The president personally urged him to start a photographic news service in Washington DC. It would help disseminate pictures of political events and personalities from the capital to the rest of the USA.

So, in 1905, along with Martha Ewing he co-founded the Harris & Ewing photo studio in Washington DC. Within a year it was the largest studio in the city, selling photographs to media outlets throughout the US and beyond. In 1915 Martha Ewing sold her interest in the business to Harris. He continued to run the news service until 1945 and stayed in the portrait game until 1955.

By the outset of WW2 George Harris had 100 employees working under him and five million pictures in his files. When he sold the news service in 1945 it was the busiest studio in the USA, photographing an estimated 10,000 people a year. His studio took official portraits of American presidents and many other figures from the political (and occasionally non-political) world.

Harris, though, never forgot his Welsh roots. Down the years he was a regular visitor to his homeland. Not that he ever viewed Wales through rose-tinted spectacles. On a stay in south Wales in 1929, for example, he lamented our lack of initiative; our lack of education; and in our mean streets and terrible housing conditions, our lack of civic pride. He continued: "It is heartbreaking to see the potentialities of the Welsh nation, the excellent material from which the nation is made, all running to waste simply because the Welsh people fail, or perhaps refuse, to see the power that is within them. I am glad of the fact that the American people have no tradition and no aristocracy. Value is set upon the man rather than on his lineage or his calling." Commenting on the American-Welsh, he said: “We certainly have our Welsh societies, but the Wales we pay homage to is that of Llewelyn the Last and Owen Glyndwr. The Wales of today – no!”

George Harris died in 1964, at the age of 92, leaving 700,000 negatives to the Library of Congress. The above photograph of Harris was taken by George Skadding for Life magazine and is the copyright of Time Inc.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hitler - Memoirs of a Confidant

One of the more interesting historical books to have been written in Wales during the twentieth century was Otto Wagener’s Hitler – Memoirs of a Confidant. As the book title suggests he was a former chum of Adolf Hitler. Unsurprisingly he was also a Nazi, having joined the party in 1929. By then he was already a member of the brown-shirted SA. During this period Wagener is credited with having persuaded a German cigarette company to produce Sturm cigarettes, the gasper of choice for Nazi stormtroopers.

Slowly but surely Wagener progressed through the Nazi ranks and in 1932 he was appointed personal economic advisor to the Fuhrer. From April to June, 1933, he became Reich Commissar for the Economy. His economic policies were based upon Social Darwinist principles and were formulated in hundreds of discussions he had with Hitler. Unfortunately for Wagener he fell out with various leading industrialists and Nazis (notably Hermann Goring) and was eventually ousted from his position.

He did, however, manage to avoid an even grimmer fate during the Night of the Long Knives (1934). Although briefly detained he escaped execution in Hitler’s bloody purge and returned to a low-profile business career in Saxony. In 1939 he rejoined the army (he had served in WW1) and eventually attained the rank of major general. He surrendered to British forces on the island of Rhodes in 1945.

In 1946 he found himself at Island Farm, a prisoner of war camp near Bridgend. It was there that he wrote his memoir, an account of his working relationship with Hitler during the years 1929-33. His written narrative filled 36 military exercise books (approx 2,300 pages). These notebooks weren't penned secretly - they bear the inspection stamps of the POW camp's officials. Before leaving Wales he placed his memoirs inside a suitcase and asked a Red Cross representative to send it to his wife in Germany. The suitcase eventually arrived in a battered state but the notebooks remained intact.

These days Otto Wagener's book is regarded by historians as one of the few written accounts of the era that provides genuine inside knowledge of Hitler and his rather odd personality. The memoir also sheds light on, amongst other things, Hitler’s relationship with his suicidal niece Geli Raubel (bizarrely, he attended her autopsy); his drug use (which included belladonna); and his views on homosexuals (don’t even ask). Wagener was a Hitler apologist so you’ll find nothing in his reminiscences about concentration camp atrocities.

Hitler – Memoirs of a Confidant was first published six years after Wagener’s death in Bavaria in 1977.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Joy Formidable on Letterman

Check out The Joy Formidable on the Late Show with David Letterman. Following a very poor production team gag involving a pun on Wales, Ritzy Bryan et al tear the place up with a rumbustious rendition of their magnum opus, Whirring. Their fine performance is aided, no question, by the magical properties of their strategically positioned inflatable sheep and Welsh dragon mascots. A great band.

Snoop Dogg v Ian Neale

It’s like Snoop Dogg was trying to out-GLC Goldie Lookin’ Chain with his recent pre-Cardiff gig marketing campaign. After giving a video shout-out to champion vegetable grower Ian Neale, from Newport, the two horticulture enthusiasts finally met up in Cardiff. Ian presented Snoop with some root grow while Snoop gave Ian a jazz cigarette. 68-year-old Mr Neale then blissfully recounted the events of the previous evening to a Sky TV news reporter. He did this wearing the best fruit and vegetable-themed shirt ever. See YouTube.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Shirley Bassey and Kirk Douglas

Here’s a nice backstage pic of Shirley Bassey with a moustachioed Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne Buydens. It was taken after the opening night of Our Shirl’s two week engagement at the Empire Room, Manhattan, in 1967.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Rhys Ifans v Voodoo Mama

Here’s a nice fake ad in which Rhys Ifans plays a sexual pervert. We see him casting lascivious glances at a black woman while suggestively licking out a chocolate ice-cream cone. The lady takes her revenge by applying Voodoo Mama Hot Sauce to an egg. Usually a female symbol the egg here represents Ifans’s balls. When the woman bites into the egg the magic sauce takes full effect and the perv is left doubled-up in agony. Thus, using the exotic powers of voodoo and foodie metaphor, her vengeance is complete.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

You don’t have to have read Michel Foucault to appreciate that the madness industry is a crazy business. Can insanity really be measured and quantified? And who gets to decide upon the criteria? Such questions are at the heart of Jon Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test. As the title suggests it is the field of psychopathy that particularly interests him. We quickly learn that it is a total misconception to think that all psychopaths are cold-blooded killers. What psychopaths actually suffer from is a complete inability to feel empathy. And there are thousands of such people at large in the UK. Your boss, schoolteacher, bank manager or local member of Parliament might just be one.

So how do you identify them? Well, you could use Bob Hare’s twenty point PCL-R checklist – a kind of field guide for psychopath spotters. His list includes such human flaws as: grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; and a failure to accept responsibility for one's actions. Ronson meets Hare and, to much comic effect, learns how to spot psychopaths after completing a course in west Wales. Intoxicated by his new powers Ronson begins to identify psychopathic traits in all kinds of people, notably himself.

The people Ronson interviews during his investigations are typically eccentric. There are the guys from Oak Ridge Hospital for the Criminally Insane who dosed psychopaths with LSD and put them through marathon group encounter sessions. We also meet Al Dunlap – one of those hard-nosed bastards brought in by failing businesses to make the tough decisions. Those decisions invariably involving laying off hundreds of workers whilst pocketing a large fee. David Shayler the cross-dressing former MI5 officer makes an appearance; as does the criminal profiler whose information helped convict for murder the unfortunate and entirely innocent Colin Stagg. Many other colourful characters are encountered.

Forming the main subplot of Ronson’s book is the fate of Tony. He claims to have faked his own psychosis in court in order to gain a lighter prison sentence. He did this by quoting extensively from such films as Blue Velvet and A Clockwork Orange. So convincing was he that he failed the Bob Hare checklist and ended up in Broadmoor. The difficulty in accurately assessing Tony’s mental state perfectly sums up the pit-falls of measuring madness by lists. He might be innocent or he might just be a clever psychopath manipulating well-meaning liberal types in a bid to gain freedom. You’ll just have to read the book to discover the veracity of Tony’s insanity.

The madness industry is subtly satirised by Ronson in The Psychopath Test but it is a non-sneering, non-superior kind of satire. You don’t ever get the sense that Ronson is looking down on his interviewees, even though readers might well be drawing their own negative conclusions about them. Nobody in this book is more mocked than Ronson himself who allows the reader to constantly laugh at his own foibles. Much has been made of Ronson’s brand of ‘naïve’ humour and of how ‘knowing’ it actually is. What his self-mockery certainly does do is win him the confidence of his subjects. He renders himself seemingly harmless and thus gains access to all the good stuff.

*The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson is published by Picador and is out now. It’s both a fascinating and a funny read.