As a rather unpatriotic Englishman of Celtic descent, and being geographically in very close proximately to the Welsh border, I’ve always been a bit jealous of my Welsh neighbours. Not only do they have beautiful scenery, Ivor The Engine, their own secret language (which apparently is the oldest language in Britain going back some 4,000 years,) they also have a fine musical heritage. Unlike my birthplace, which can’t (or is unwilling to) step out of the shadow of a fairly reasonable 1960’s boy band, the Welsh scene seems far more forward looking, innovative and vibrant.
Through the ages there have always been Welsh folk willing to burst into song at the drop of a hat, however, as lovely as it was to hear Tom Jones singing about the “Green Green Grass Of Home,” it wasn’t until the 1990’s that a definite Welsh identity came to the fore. The emergence of bands such as The Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, et all, were hugely influential, gaining fans and critical acclaim in equal measure, whilst inspiring a phalanx of Welsh musicians. Bands/artists such as Feeder, The Victorian English Gentleman’s Club, Bullet For My Valentine, The Hot Puppies The Automatic, Euros Child, Funeral For A Friend, Los Campesinos, Duffy, Spencer McGarry and The School are just a small selection of Welsh musical talent, who demonstrate the exciting and diverse nature of new music that continues to pour forth from the “land of song.”
In England there have, of course, always been rather dubious jokes with regard to Welshness, whether it be about nervous sheep, big eared farm boys or aptly named emos called Liv Fast and Dai Young. But why? Do we somehow feel threatened or do we recognise on some level that in the “world irritation league” we are second only to America ? Personally I think the answer is much more simplistic, one word, “caravans.” This attitude has been forged by our experiences whilst on holiday at Welsh caravan sites. We discovered, that as an English person, if you walk into the local camp shop, the staff, who were previously deep in conversation using the medium of English will stop dead, look you up and down and revert to their native tongue. As they proceed with their tête-à-tête in Welsh, they will occasionally glance at you, guffaw, and eventually (when they are quite ready) turn to you half- smirking and say “Can I help you sir?” This experience can lead to a strange sense of disquiet, and have you furtively checking your flies, which, if not done with a deft hand and a lightness of touch can lead to more humiliation in the shape of a visit from the local heddlu (the police, to me and you.) “Have you been scaring the ladies with your John Thomas boyo ? “
Of course (most of ) the previous examples are absurd stereotypes and I therefore resolved to get to the bottom of all things Welsh, and discover what makes the home of Hannibal Lector, dragons, Dylan Thomas, leeks and erm.. Neil Kinnock, tick. During this investigation, I decided to ask questions that would cut through the fatty tissue of irrelevance and frippery and get straight to the heart of the matter ; Why are the valleys awash with talent and close harmony choirs? Why was the Charlotte Church show ever commissioned? Was Max Boyce ever really funny? Has Aled Jones’ voice broken yet? Why didn’t my music teacher look like Katherine Jenkins ? And Owain Glyndŵr ; Just what was his problem ? Well who better to start off with than Radio 1’s Bethan Eflyn , whose has been championing bands from Wales for many a year, a bit like John Peels Welsh sister .. I quizzed her about all things Welsh, past and present and hoped she wouldn’t randomly start laughing, break into the tongue of her forefathers and thus invoke those strange feelings of disquiet once more….
VP: What is it about Wales that seems to constantly produce innovative and exciting music?
BETH: The constant in-breeding has produced lots of odd people! Ha, no, I like to think that we’re a creative, artistic Nation. Some of the earliest British poetry on manuscript is Welsh dating back to the 6th Century, and the Bards are still lauded today, whether in Pop or in literature. Also the landscape truly is exceptionally inspirational, dynamic, dangerous and unruly – reflecting how we feel as a Nation. When you grow up with such sights, how can you not think of the bigger picture and aim for the stars, rather than wallow in the gutter?
VP: When did you first get bitten by the musical bug ?
BETH: I grew up in a small market town called Newtown in Mid-Wales, and like all young girls, I loved my pop, and my early records were all Top of the Pops influenced purchases from my local Woolworths (A-ha, Bros, Curiosity Killed the Cat, Shakin Stevens, Kylie etc etc 80s heaven!). At 17 I did some travelling, working in a hotel in France over the summer of my 6th form years, there I met some punks from Northern Ireland, and overnight became a teenage nightmare! Suddenly I was blasting Hole, Babes in Toyland, Sex Pistols, the Smiths and Manic Street Preachers from my sulky bedroom.
VP: How did you get involved with BBC radio?
BETH: After my degree I trained as a journalist at Cardiff Uni, and my first job was with BBC Radio Cymru in Bangor, North Wales. I was responsible for lots of programmes, magazine shows, news, politics, but I soon naturally gravitated towards the evenings where music seems to have more of a priority. During my time here I worked on a Concert to Save Snowdon and this is where I met some of the Radio One team who developed the idea of a Welsh show as part of Radio One. Needless to say I started harrasing them on a regular basis.
VP: You’re renown for your championing of new bands from Wales (and beyond), what of the current crop of new and exciting bands? Who would you recommend ?
BETH: Agh! Every day there’ll be a new band on my mind. Today, I’m listening to intelligent rock from Tiger Please Also, I can’t believe how much I love love love I Am Austin, that I heard for the first time last week, And as I’m the middle of Eisteddfod week while I write this, I’ve also been enjoying a few new Welsh language bands, Yucatan (heavily influenced by Sigor Ros), Cyrion (new spicy electronica), and Jen Jeniro (laid back vibe with a distinct early SFA overtones). The Cardiff bands scene has also been pretty exciting over the last year with names like The Muscle Club, Kutosis, Hemme Fatal, The School, Little My and Truckers of Husk doing great things. Like I said, argh, the list is endless!
VP: What are your favourite five albums of all time and why ?
BETH: Manic Street Preachers Generation Terrorists (representing my teenage rebellion years) Joni Mitchell Blue (for when I’m feeling blue) Teenage Fanclub Bandwagonesque (I love the melodies and the grungey guitars) Gorkys Zygotic Mynci Patio (genius songs and the start of a long love affair with the prolific Euros Childs and gang) Gram Parsons Grevious Angel (for the harmonies with Emmy Lou, my introduction to Country, a cool dude, a mad story and rock and roll at its best)
VP: Who would you say have been the most influential Welsh artists of say the last ten years?
BETH: Tom, Shirl, Shakey, Manics, etc are all there saying its possible to go from a local boy to live your dreams but I’d say the stand out band for me are the Super Furry Animals. They’ve inspired generations with their amazing ideas, songs, baffling and incredible live productions and now Gruff Rhys in Neon Neon is still doing it. I don’t know how that man copes with his own head. They’ve been a one band punk rock revolution!
VP: What have been your favourite sessions performed on your Radio shows over the years?
BETH: So many memories, its always the stripped down and personal sessions that stay in mind. Gosh, this answer would take me forever! My first session of BBC Introducing with Attack and Defend was brilliant and exciting, as we had the run of the BBC at Midnight for the first time and I love the band, also, I loved the Funeral for A Friend acoustic back in 2004 in our Studio 3, with a small audience of comp winners – they were really freaked by the intimacy and the tension and Matt’s personality made it special. Or the Christmas barn show we did in North Wales with the Pippettes and Zabrinsky, with a roaring log fire in the middle of the huge hall – gorgeous! I’m also, proud of the fact that we’ve been there championing music of all kinds of genres from Lostprophets to Moldy Peaches! No boundaries!
VP: Have you been to any music festivals this year , who has impressed you?
BETH: I’ve been to more than I expected. Sonar in Barcelona was incredible with Soulwax playing live dance for an hour with a live band – it was bonkers. At Latitude, I enjoyed a.P.A.t.T. At Goodtimes festival in Wrexham it was all about James Yuill and I have Underage, Greenman, Reading and maybe Bestival still to come.
VP: Playlists? Is there a better way?
BETH: Too much power in a few hands. Even if part of the playlist were chosen by the public, there’s no guarantee that it would change anything. Lets face it, people who like music are in the minority, for most music is just a fun thing in the background that they sing along to occasionally, and dance to at weekends.
VP: The Vinyl Vendettas whats all that about then?
BETH: Its a fun pass time that’s become a bit of a monster. A gang of my friends, who all do wicked jobs in the music industry, started Djing together, and now we have a residency at Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff on Saturday nights, and play at loads of festivals. We DJ all kinds of music, and from any genre, but you’ll likely hear rock n roll from the 50s next to Foals next to some cheesy 80s number. We sometimes dress up if we feel like it, and always always cause a stir! (www.myspace.com/thevinylvendettas or facebook group: The Vinyl Vendettas Saturday Night Dance Off). VP: Five welsh words to sum up how you feel about music? BETH: Curiad. Cariad. Calon Popeth. Antur. The Beat. Love. The Heart of Everything. Adventure.
Bethan Elfyn presents “BBC Introducing ” on Radio 1 Wales.
Musings On Wales and Welshness
When we were selling out the Millennium Stadium – we didn’t enjoy it like we should have. We asked, “If we’re this popular, does that mean we’re shit?” Something in the Welsh psyche rejects success: there’s a self-destructive streak. The place is littered with people like us.
Nicky Wire (Manics)
“The Welsh are all actors. It’s only the bad ones who become professional.
“I would like to go back to Wales. I’m obsessed with my childhood and at least three times a week dream I am back there”
“Wales is the land of my fathers. And my fathers can have it.”
“I always feel a bit guilty when Catherine Zeta Jones talks to me and I can’t converse with her in Welsh.
Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson.”
“Why ask me , I’m not Welsh?”
Matthew Horne (Gavin & Stacey)
“My name it is Dai Young/I’m the king of Welsh Goth/The village I come from, is near Abersoch. I was brought up on Bauhaus/And black bedroom walls/And I had my first snakebite/When I was in halls.”
Nigel Blackwell (“With Goth On Our Side”)
And Finally former Welsh international football captain, Ian Rush, proves the density of a footballers head , cares not a jot for nationality, it’s universal ;
“Moving from Wales to Italy is like moving to a different country.“
“Patio Song” By Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci