Friday, August 31, 2012

Blue Monday in Portmeirion

Having bitched on here in the past about the narrow and unadventurous repertoires of most Welsh male voice choirs it’s heartening to note that the Brythoniad Male Voice Choir have given the full choral treatment to New Order’s Blue Monday. The track has been recorded to help publicise Festival No. 6, a Prisoner-influenced she-bang to be held at Portmeirion. Hopefully they can follow it up with Release the Bats by the Birthday Party or maybe Bikini Girls With Machine Guns by The Cramps.


Mel's was a legendary nightclub in Cardiff that catered to the musical needs of south Wales's freaks and weirdoes - ie all the cool people. It was where girls who shopped at Paradise Garage and boys who wore make-up used to hang out. Adding further Hubert Selby Jr-type spice to proceedings the joint was situated down the Docks at 111 Bute Street - then a pretty dilapidated and seedy locale. As well as playing Bowie, Roxy, and European electronica they also hosted art events and put on local alternative bands such as Reptile Ranch and Moira and the Mice. Here are some random ads for Mel's from circa 1980. No normals please.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Creative Photography and Wales

The key image in Creative Photography and Wales is Eugene Smith's Three Generations of Welsh Miners. The photograph was taken in 1950 when Smith was in south Wales on a political shoot for Life magazine. Using this iconic picture as his starting point, author Paul Cabuts explores a variety of themes. The relationship between photography and national identity, for instance, and how the culturally dominant Valleys came to stand, in many outsiders' eyes, for Wales as a whole. We learn that legendary American snappers Eugene Smith, Robert Capa and Robert Frank all arrived in south Wales with Hollywood blockbuster How Green Was My Valley still fresh in their memories.

Through the work of Eugene Smith Cabuts provides an insight into the potentially compromised role of a post-war magazine photographer. Snappers had to operate within strictly prescribed editorial parameters which were often defined by commercial or political imperatives. Images were routinely cropped and inappropriate captions added. Pictures (including Three Generations of Welsh Miners) were staged in order to fit a narrative brief. Thus photographers were walking a tightrope between complicity and subversion. For a man like Eugene Smith with strong humanistic (even leftist) instincts this inevitably led to conflict with his employers (Life), whose proprietor was vehemently anti-Socialist.

Cabuts comprehensively sets out the historical context of Eugene Smith's work as well as the social history of the south Wales that he visited in 1950. He also charts the development of documentary photography (implicitly moral) to its contemporary position in the art world (aesthetic). In other words we observe the journey of Three Generations of Welsh Miners from the magazine page to the art gallery to the coffee table photobook. Other outsider views of the Valleys are investigated - these include the work of American Bruce Davidson and German husband and wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Finally Cabuts examines the emergent notion of a "Welsh photography' and how this came about. A growing awareness of Wales's own photographic heritage; post-war nation building; psychologically scarring events such as Aberfan and the drowning of Tryweryn; arts funding strategies; the pioneering work of Ffotogallery; the establishing of a documentary photography course at Newport School of Art and Design; and initiatives such as the Valleys Project have all contributed to this idea.

Creative Photography and Wales by Paul Cabuts is a thoroughly researched and intelligent book that, happily, never loses its readability. Insightful and informative it is, I believe, an important critical contribution to the visual culture of Wales. The book is published by the University of Wales Press and costs a mildly terrifying £30.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Axis Music Fanzine

One of the earliest Welsh rock music fanzines that I've come across is Axis which came out of Swansea. It ran from January 1969 to March 1970 and was edited by Peter Phillips, a booking agent for local bands. The mag was printed up in Llanelli and sold for 9 old pennies. A mere 12 pages in length it covered the usual bases: news, features, reviews, interviews, listings. It was aimed specifically at under-25s - people older than that being, presumably, just too square. The paper bit the dust when Phillips re-located to London where he became a booker briefly for the Bay City Rollers. The above picture shows issue number 4 of Axis which was published in March 1969 and features Love Sculpture on the cover.

Dexy's in Merthyr Tydfil

I've never really bought into the Kevin Rowland is a genius way of thinking but he was certainly one of the more interesting figures on the UK music scene of the late '70s/early '80s. This Dexy's Midnight Runners gig at Tiffanys Ballroom, Merthyr Tydfil, in the summer of 1980 featured alternative comedian Keith Allen as compere and warm-up artiste. Presumably he was there to de-earnest proceedings. In his autobiography, Grow Up, Allen bemoaned Rowland’s autocratic rule over the band and the consequent lack of fun to be had on the Intense Emotion Review tour. Happiness, it seems, wasn’t one of the emotions to be experienced intensely. Band members even had to sneak off in order to enjoy a jazz cigarette so as not to upset their leader who enforced a strict no drugs policy. 'Punk comedian' Allen found the whole deal a bit boring - there was, he claimed, little joy in Dexy's.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ffotoview Magazine

I recently stumbled across some old back copies of ffotoview – an impressive Welsh photographic magazine that ran from 1982-85. Previously called C Magazine, 12 issues in total were produced. The journal was published by Ffotogallery, Cardiff, in conjunction with the Association for Photography in Wales. Edited by Robert Greetham it quickly gained a reputation as one of the best gallery magazines around. It contained high quality criticism; showcased new work; and carried reviews and analysis of exhibitions and photobooks. The local and the international were covered. Thus you could find a feature on a project documenting unemployed youths in Barry – Squaring Up – alongside some great pics by American snapper Burk Uzzel. Interesting, well put together and accessible, it is certainly one of the best Welsh arts-related publications that I have encountered during the compilation of this blog.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Long Live Helen Love

Was just scanning through this article on the supposed best 50 records ever by Welsh artists and was shocked to discover no mention of Young Marble Giants, Datblygu or the fabulous Helen Love from Swansea. I was a lot less surprised to learn that they’ve included a cover version of MacArthur Park by Only Men Aloud. To compensate for these oversights here’s the video for Helen Love’s brilliant handbag dance on the grave of Britpop, Long Live the UK Music Scene (1998). Rejoice as they gleefully rip the piss out of Chris Evans, Shed Seven, the Bluetones, Ocean Colour Scene and other shite bands from that era. And here's some over-enthusiastic but sincere verbiage I once wrote about the band that still holds true for me today (despite the whole world and its chartered accountant now owning a Ramones tee-shirt):

Helen Love dwell in a world of perpetual summer, a teen Eden habituated by bubblegum chewing pop kids forever tuned to the MC5 on brightly coloured plastic radios. Their moral code is simple: "love; kiss; run; sing; shout; jump!" Bestriding this innocent paradise like a Levi-clad Colossus is benevolent god Joey Ramone - a deity worshipped with fan club zeal. One day, in the distant future, archaeologists seeking evidence of this lost world will comb a beach somewhere in the vicinity of Swansea Bay searching for its artefacts: huggy bear tee-shirts, laser guns and, if they're really lucky, a scratched copy of Does your Heart go Boom.

You don't have to be any kind of intellectual to work out the Helen Love philosophy. A cursory glance at their record sleeves - DayGlo collages of 70s Top of the Pops albums, Jamie Reid style cut-up headlines and Roy Lichtenstein pop art messages - reveals a preference for lo-fidelity musical values and a DIY punk/pop aesthetic. Helen Love exult in the very notion of being pop stars, after all it is the apotheosis of their universe. Evidently thrilled at being questioned by one radio station in New York, they sample the resulting interview on record. You see Helen Love are more than happy to wear their gaucheness on their sleeves. They believe in pop with the same innocent perfervidity that some people believe soap opera characters are real. We Love You they proclaim, a sentiment as far removed from the cynicism of Manic Street Preachers' You Love Us, as you could get. And they mean it too, for them being a fan is as important a part of the pop equation as being a performer.

Cartoon innocents they may be but these popsters are not without political or critical bite. Their very first vinyl utterance on Formula One Racing Girls (long before the lamentable Spice Girls turned the term into a vacuous catch-phrase) was: "Girl power, girl power". A later single Long Live the UK Music Scene was a heavily ironic attack on the moribund state of the British record industry and mainstream radio in particular. Woe betide anyone that fails to live up to their pop ideal - Chris Evans, Kula Shaker, Longpigs, Bush and The Bluetones have all been comically 'dissed' on record.

Which brings us to their enduring love affair with The Ramones, emperors of three chord melodic punk and Helen Love's entire raison d'etre. It was Joey himself (now sadly deceased) who invited the band over to play in New York, reputedly their first ever gig. Radio Hits, their debut (compilation) album, even bears his written endorsement. Frankly it was the least he could do as almost every song on the record contains some paean to his work. The mutual appreciation was cemented when Joey and Helen duetted on Punk Boy the highlight of the band's brilliant Love and Glitter, Hot Days and Music album. What a genuine delight it is to hear the gangly punk rocker actually singing: "From Swansea Bay to the USA/ You're a million stars in the sky today - hey punk boy!" Genius. Here's hoping Helen Love continue making records of pure distilled sunshine and, when required, bee-stinging wit.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Ingrid Bergman in Penrhyndeudraeth

Here is a nice shot from 1958 of Ingrid Bergman relaxing on location in Penrhyndeudraeth, north Wales, during the shooting of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. She is with her children Roberto, Ingrid and Isabella (who would herself later go on to become a successful actress). For the movie, which was supposed to be set in China, oriental children were drafted into Snowdonia from Cardiff, London and Liverpool. A replica of the Great Wall of China was even erected – though I’m assuming not in its entirety. A gold-painted Buddha that was used on set in the film is now at Portmeirion. Male lead Robert Donat died a few days after the film was completed.

David Rees Davies

I'm a fan of the work of David Rees Davies, the artist who has been at the centre of a storm at the National Eisteddfod in the Vale of Glamorgan. His portraits depicting teenage killer Joshua Davies and victim Rebecca Aylward were withdrawn from the festival after understandable criticism from the victim's mother. David Rees Davies apologised for the offence caused by the paintings which formed part of an exhibition entitled: People I Know. People I Used to Know. And People I'd Rather Not Know. The incident has raised familiar questions about freedom of expression, censorship and what constitutes appropriate subject matter for art - well-trodden critical ground, of course, as responses to pieces such as Myra (1995) by English artist Marcus Harvey have previously demonstrated. The exhibiting of these paintings so soon after the appalling murder and in an area close to where the victim's family live was unquestionably insensitive and ill-advised, but I'd just like to register my support for David Rees Davies and his right to explore dark, even unpalatable subject matter in his art.

*The above painting by David Rees Davies is titled: To The Edge of Quarella Road