Since 2010, Wales has been celebrating its close links with the Chinese province of Chongqing by holding a Wales Week annually in March. To mark the fifth anniversary of this celebration of Welsh culture in China, Music journalist David Owens takes us on a journey through the history of Welsh pop and rock music and charts the rebirth of the Music Nation.
When you think of Wales, what springs to mind? Invariably it’s beautiful rolling hills, undulating valleys, some of the most picturesque coastline in the world and more ancient castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world.
But it’s not to the past that Wales is intent on looking; it faces a bright new future on many fronts, and nowhere is that more true than the continued ascendancy of its music scene.
However, it wasn’t always this way. Until the mid-1990s, when Wales conjured up Cool Cymru and with it a host of pioneering trailblazers in the guise of Manic Street Preachers, Stereophonics, Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and 60ft Dolls, the country’s music prolificacy was burdened by the weight of its own underachievement.
At the same time the decline of the once mighty coal industry compounded the angst, dealing a hammer-blow to our confidence that took decades to recover from. Success, both economically and culturally, though, has been quietly and steadily growing and a nation once on its knees now walks tall.
The formation of the Welsh Government has given us autonomy to carve out our own political destiny, while the regeneration of our capital city Cardiff is a shining monument to Wales’ reawakening, and this rebirth – which comes from a sense of pride in identity – has much to do with Wales’ startling musical transformation.
The Dark Ages
To trace the cultural uprising that has spawned so much groundbreaking music, you have to tread backwards to the dim and distant past and immerse yourself in the murky embarrassment of our land’s dark ages.
There was a time when you could bet that anyone, when asked about Welsh music, would have cited Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and male voice choirs amongst the nation’s sole musical achievements – cliches that would trip off the tongue as predictably as Wales being the land of sheep, leeks, daffodils, druids, dragons and bilingual road signs.
Read this sparse roll-call of Welsh success and hear the wind whistle across the barren rock ‘n’ roll conquering plain: the 1960s and 1970s served up Cardiff’s original Britpop stars, Amen Corner, the downbeat Beatles-aping Badfinger, pastoral folky Mary Hopkin, rock ‘n’ roll survivor Dave Edmunds, psychedelic soundscapers Man, and heavy rockers Budgie.
Meanwhile the Eighties gave birth to Rhyl rabble rousers The Alarm, Swansea’s archly-knowing indie cult The Pooh Sticks, Cardiff’s coolly influential Young Marble Giants and Newport’s blonde popsters The Darling Buds. And that was the sum credibility quotient of 30 years of hurt.
The Welsh Music Renaissance
But it was almost two decades ago in 1996 – year zero for the new Welsh music big bang – when all that changed forever. A new breed of outfits blossomed and forced talent-spotting A&R men, who had never dared to cross the Severn Bridge, to check out what all the fuss was about.
Bands featuring Welsh-speaking musicians such as Catatonia, Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were not overnight sensations. They had learnt their craft and honed their talent playing for years as part of a flowering Welsh language scene that had prospered in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By 1996, with a wealth of experience under their belts, they were ready for the great leap forward.
Wales, of course, is unique in that it harbours two equally strong music scenes – one in English, one in Welsh. These two disparate and diverse breeding grounds make occasionally uncomfortable bedfellows but, in the main, exist in a state of unencumbered creativity.
Legendary Welsh language pioneers such as Y Cyrff and Y Crumblowers (who formed the nucleus of Catatonia) and Ffa Coffi Pawb (who featured Super Furry Animals’ frontman Gruff Rhys) realised if they were ever to make a successful career they would have to sing in English – a politically contentious decision facing Welsh-speaking bands even to this day. The simple fact was that Welsh speaking bands might make waves in Wales, but their music was unlikely to export far beyond the border.
Meanwhile, the music press was having a field day with the emergent populist scene, conjuring such creative and hilarious headlines as Fight The Powys That Be, You Make Me Feel Mighty Rhyl, and the criminal Don’t Leek Back In Anger.
Alongside Britpop, which was firing a British music renaissance and making stars of Blur, Pulp and Oasis, Welsh music was in vogue for the first time and everybody wanted a piece of the action.
Cool Cymru was the unfortunate and conveniently alliterative moniker attached to the scene, but at least this wasn’t some media-manufactured hype. It was gloriously real.
Owen Powell, former guitarist with Catatonia, and the man responsible for nurturing the early career of Welsh pop queen Duffy, pinpoints the differences between the scene now and its embryonic stages.
“The by-product of this period of change has been the creation of a stand-alone, self-sufficient music industry that has prospered through the lessons learnt from the past and a more professional outlook applied to the present,” he says. “Where there were very few record companies, recording studios, rehearsal rooms, management companies, or the merest hints of an industry framework, now there is a defined business structure.”
That framework can be seen in sharp focus with self-sustainable and established Wales-based record labels such as Shape Records (home to Islet, Mowbird and Sweet Baboo); Turnstile, whose roster includes homegrown stars such as Gruff Rhys, Joanna Gruesome and Cate Le Bon, as well as US musicians Christopher Owens and Perfume Genius; and Peski Records, who harbour a bilingual roster that includes Gwenno, R.Seiliog, Horses, Y Pencadlys and Plyci.
The word ‘legacy’ is very important here. As Owen Powell points out, the aftershocks of Cool Cymru are still being felt.
“The bands that were successful back then had two effects. Firstly, they made a generation of people want to form their own bands, and secondly, the others who didn’t want to or couldn’t join a band put on gigs, formed labels or got involved in any way they could.”
Radio Wales DJ Bethan Elfyn, who also runs the BBC Wales Horizons programme which aims to promotes Welsh music in both languages in conjunction with the Welsh Arts Council, was one of those inspired by the mid-nineties scene to get involved with music through going to gigs by both English and Welsh-speaking bands.
“Unfortunately in some respects it’s been difficult for the media to move on from those names and bands (of the mid-nineties), but Welsh music hasn’t stopped developing, evolving or producing big names,” she says. “At a time when indie music is more popular than ever before, the DIY aesthetic of Welsh labels, fanzines, websites, venues and new festivals means there’s more opportunities than ever before and, most importantly, more genres of music.”
That’s the key. Wales has never been about one style of music or one particular scene. It is a particularly parochial area.
“Wales is like four or five different countries in one,” adds Owen Powell. “Wherever you go you get various sounds and styles – rock and metal in the Valleys, pastoral, psychedelic folk in West Wales. You have the Welsh language stronghold of Gwynedd and everything from dance, hip hop and experimental electronica in between.”
You only have to look at two of Wales’ most successful exports to underline this diverse approach. From the dark heart of the Rhondda Valley came a fertile rock scene that produced Funeral For A Friend, The Blackout, Lostprophets, Bullet For My Valentine and Kids In Glass Houses, while at the opposite end of the scale Wales can lay claim to the talents of chart-bothering pop princesses such as Duffy and Marina And The Diamonds.
Cool Cymru paved the way for those making music now, but as Welsh music champion, and Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens points out, there’s no need for a catchy tag line.
“I think Welsh music is very healthy, there’s so much going on in both English and Welsh languages. There’s a lot of variety. It’s become the norm now for successful bands to come out Wales, so hopefully that will mean terms like Cool Cymru will never be used again.”
Welsh Music Prize
This confidence in the rude health of Welsh music can be seen in the recent unveiling of the Welsh Music Prize – our version of the acclaimed Mercury Music Prize, launched by Stephens and promoter John Rostron, the man responsible for one of Wales’ biggest music festivals – Swn.
The Welsh Music Prize celebrates Welsh music across a wide variety of genres, and is selected and judged by a panel of industry figures and music experts.
“The Welsh Music Prize is a chance to highlight incredible albums made by Welsh musicians, and bring their music to a wider attention,” says Stephens. “By inviting a panel who love, make or work with music to judge this award, it will be a chance to celebrate the wealth of recording talent that exists in Wales, and shine a light on some exciting, diverse and excellent albums.
“We’ve long thought Wales should have a critically judged music prize which celebrates the great diversity in genre and language which comes from this country,” adds Rostron. “We had the idea for it a long time ago. We looked at the Mercury Music Prize and what they’ve done. Wales used to have its own awards and this was an opportunity to fill that hole.
“We were also inspired by the Nordic Music Prize which runs alongside a similar festival to Swn in Scandinavia. It worked really well for them and got a lot of exposure for their bands.
“Things came to a head when I brought two bands to Wales, Austra and Braids, who both got shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, which is Canada’s music award. It was then that we thought we have to prioritise it and make it a reality because there’s so much great music being made right now.”
Someone who can vouch for this statement is Charlotte Church who runs Bounce, a music publishing company based in Cardiff. The singer who has performed in front of Popes and Presidents is well placed to observe the perils and the pitfalls of the music industry after making the leap from child star to pop star and beyond.
In launching Bounce – home to such exciting new Welsh musicians as Ellie Makes Music, Keys, Little Arrow, Remembering August, Sion Russell Jones, Third Party and Winter Villains – Church says that she was keen to take advantage of the dynamism of Welsh music by pooling creative resources.
“It makes sense for lots of creative people to know each other and to be able to have easy access to each other. Whether that’s between songwriters, producers, remixers, whatever it may be, we hope to create a little family of people who all know each other, who all know each other’s strengths and capabilities. Therefore, everybody is able to utilise each other. It may sound pretty cheesy, but together we’re stronger.”
The Welsh Language Scene
This spirit of enterprise among like-minded musicians is self-evident among Wales’ burgeoning Welsh language scene.
Young outfits like Swnami, Candelas, Kizzy Crawford, Mellt, Y Reu, Y Ffug, Tymbal and Yr Eira are proving that those singing in the medium of Welsh are as popular as ever. That’s a viewed shared by Owain Schiavone, managing editor of Y Selar, the Welsh language music magazine which stages its own annual awards Gwobrau’r Selar, this year staged in Aberyswyth.
“I think it’s currently the healthiest it’s ever been in terms of quality. The talented acts we’ve got at the moment and quality of those coming through are really good. I really do believe that the quality of some of the music being produced is as good as anything in the Anglo-American scene, but we obviously don’t have the promotional clout they do.
“If promoters can create enough of a buzz and get people excited then the audience seems to be there. The more large, exciting events we can establish the better, and hopefully Y Selar, and our awards night can contribute to that.”
For many artists, bilingualism – singing in both English and Welsh – is imperative to their cultural make-up.
One of those to bang the drum for bilingualism is Gareth Bonello, the musician who records under the moniker of The Gentle Good.
In October 2011 Bonello travelled to the city of Chengdu to take up a six week artistic residency with the Chengdu Associated Theatre of Performing Arts. The residency was part of the Musicians in Residence – China project organised by The British Council and PRSF.
Bonello used the opportunity to explore Chinese folk music and literature and to collaborate with local traditional musicians. Upon his return to the UK the musician continued to work on the project collaborating with composer Seb Goldfinch, The Mavron String Quartet, and members of the UK Chinese Ensemble to record Y Bardd Anfarwol.
The album tells the life story of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai and brings together elements of Welsh and Chinese folk music.
The album was shortlisted for the Welsh Music Prize, won Welsh album of the Year at the 2014 National Eisteddfod and received great critical acclaim, something that took Bonello by surprise.
“I was surprised I thought what I was doing was a bit of a curiosity, I thought it might appeal to some people but most people wouldn’t like it. I was quite confident that the music would work, but I wasn;t expecting for poepl to like it as much as they did. Especially being nominated for the Welsh Music Prize. I was proud of what it showed of my time in China but I didn’t think it would grab so much attention.”
Over the last five years Wales has celebrated its close links with the Chinese province of Chongqing by holding a Wales Week in March each year around St David’s Day and to celebrate all things Welsh. As part of these celebrations Bonello returned to China to perform in Chengdu, Chongqing, and Kungming where he hopes to repeat the success of his first trip.
“I’d definitely like to use the same approach again: taking an aspect of the culture and reflecting it back through that culture into my interpretations and influences. That appeals to me. The first trip to China broadened my horizons and I now find myself listening to music from around the world, so it’s only been a wholly positive experience.”
About the author
David Owens is a music journalist for WalesOnline in Cardiff. He also the author of Cerys, Catatonia and the Rise of Welsh Pop.