We all have those summers we remember from days gone by that we need to relive every once in a while. This is a wonderful account of Martin Copland-Gray’s holidays to a caravan park in Wales, and the blank cassette tapes he filled.
Now, back in my days as a Hip-Hop fan (yes, really) I loved a good bit of scratching (that’ll be record scratching and not the unfortunate, flea related ailment). It was back during a time when my summer holidays were spent on a caravan site in a small village called Borth on the West Coast of Wales.
If you’ve never been it’s a beautiful place nestling against a rocky headland that juts out into the bay and lined by a great mixture of pebbles and sand that begins at the base of the rocky outcrop and stretches determinedly all the way to the mouth of the distant river some miles north.
The village itself ran either side of the single track road and had the feel of a frontier town at times. One might imagine the lonesome hero of a John Sturgess western to come ambling down the main street on his faithful steed being eyed with suspicion by the villagers before pulling up outside The Railway Hotel and securing a room and a plate of beans for a dollar a day. The Wild West, but not as you know it!
It was a magical place with rivers, mountains, sand dunes, at times blessed with all the sunshine the sky had to offer but also capable of unleashing down rain of biblical proportions for days on end. On those days you’d stay cooped up in the caravan all cosy and safe with the radio, board games and the Cambrian News. I’d be sent to the site shop for supplies so would grab my coat and leg it through the rain to procure whatever it was that my Nan would need for the evening’s dinner.
As a younger boy I’d make friends with the other kids in the surrounding caravans and during the day we’d go on adventures amongst the trees that lined the site or down to the beach if we were feeling adventurous enough. As the end of the day approached we would gather round the steps of our caravan and my Dad would tell stories of the monsters that inhabited the woods that looked down on us from the hillside above.
There was no SKY TV and no mobile phones. You were, in a sense, cut off from the real world for the duration of your holiday. Once a week you’d make the journey up to the public pay phone and queue with dozens of others making the weekly phone call for news from home. If it was busy you simply went back to the caravan and waited. There was time you see.
On one of these weekly occasions we decided to queue for the phone. It was a windy day and my Dad, being a smoker, needed his regular fix of nicotine. So he lifted up the collar of his 1970’s red bomber jacket, flicked his lighter nonchalantly and endeavoured to light his cigarette in the manner of Steve McQueen in Le Mans. Sadly for him the wind changed direction and set fire to the inside of his jacket causing him to twirl round in anguish as he tried to put out the flames that were threatening to singe his hair as well as the lining of his jacket.
We had a TV though, only three channels mind, but that was more than enough. When I wasn’t outside with my pals I watched Top of the Pops, European Cup Finals mostly featuring Liverpool and endless episodes of The A-Team. I still have a thing for Melinda Culea and I’d give anything to be as cool as Hannibal Smith or Face!
At my Grandfather’s behest we’d play bowls on the lawn next to the caravan, go on regular shopping trips to Aberystwyth (every Thursday without fail) and go for long walks with the family dog in matching rain macs that were reversible – yellow on one side and blue on the other. It was idyllic and I miss it to this day.
So how did a lovely tranquil holiday village tucked away in the heart of Wales be a place where the kids listened to Hip-Hop and dressed like they were Casuals from the North West?
Well, me and my pals were the coolest bunch on site. We were drawn from various parts of the UK – Stockport, Staffordshire, Manchester, Wolverhampton and me from Rock n’ Roll Bromsgrove. Wales was where you went on your holidays during the 70’s and 80’s. It was a cheap holiday and easy to get to.
The local kids who we had running battles with and who on summer evenings would sneak into the club disco to meet girls were still listening to heavy metal. “Stuck in a time warp,” we’d jeer at them. But I guess when you’re surrounded by mountains and rivers and not grey cities and Old Trafford your influences are different.
It’s no wonder that Led Zeppelin chose to retreat to the mythical cottage of Bron-Yr-Aur just up the road near Machynlleth to write songs for their third album in 1970. Who could fail to be inspired by the lush green hills and valleys where crystal clear streams danced playfully over mottled pebbles and great shards of slate? As Robert Plant said of the time, “It was absolutely wonderful, and my heart was so light and happy. At that time, at that age, 1970 was like the biggest blue sky I ever saw’.
But we, my friends and I, were all united in our love of Hip-Hop and Electro. I’d just left school and had received my first experience of a working life. My Mum, ever the inspiration (or was it motivator) suggested that I should get a job for a couple of weeks before we made our annual three and a half hour trek down to the caravan.
My summer job was an interesting one. I would be working for two weeks for a small engineering firm in Bromsgrove who made changing room lockers. They had just secured the contract for replacing the staff lockers at Cadbury’s in Bournville and were looking for casual staff.
Now, the idea of discounted or even free chocolate appealed to me much more than the idea of moving heavy bits of metal for two weeks during the height of the British summer. For those of you too young to remember this was in the days when July and August were hot, sticky and filled with ice cream!
Even more exciting than chocolate was the news that I would be paid £50 per week and an additional £50 bonus if I was on time and didn’t take any time off! I really don’t remember how I managed to swing this job. Perhaps my Mum pleaded with the company to take me on and get me out of the house. More than likely it was an excellent attempt to instill a work ethic in my young self. All I know is that the thought of £150 coming my way (a serious amount of cash back then) would bring me closer to the prize I’d been coveting since the previous summer.
Back then, my friend Mark from Manchester and the de facto leader of our group had proudly showed off his new Ghetto Blaster to a collection of “oohs” and “ahhs” from the rest of the gang. In my eyes he was at the apex of cool. He lived in Manchester, listened to Key 103 FM and always had mixes from the uber-on-trend Stu Allan.
How was I, a kid from downtown, low down Bromsgrove going to keep up with this? Currys held the answer! There in the high street window in all its glory was a double cassette deck Ghetto Blaster with my name on it – well Sanyo actually. Taping tapes of friends was how we shared these prized mixes and with this beast of a machine I could get in on the action.
So I took a deep breath and flung myself headlong into the adult world of gainful employment. The two weeks came and went in a blurry haze of early morning van rides, sausage sandwiches with brown sauce, cuts on my hands from sharp locker edges and chocolate…lots of chocolate.
Every week each tradesman was allowed one voucher for the fabled “employees only” on-site chocolate shop. Being the youngest and ever resourceful I would take everyone’s orders and skoot off with a handful of cash, returning later like Willy Wonka bearing a bag crammed full of “a glass and a half” delights.
I managed to get through this testing time fairly unscathed apart from some leg pulling from my older and wiser workmates (which was to be expected) and a single kick up the arse from my manager for slacking one day when I did my best to avoid some serious lifting!
The final Friday came and there in my hands was the cash in the small but well packed brown wages envelope. Having won several brownie points with my Mum we made our way down to the town centre the very next morning. The object of my desire was still waiting for me and I excitedly handed over £85 of my well earned booty. Interestingly whilst researching this article I came across an auction on EBay for this very item from my past. It was a Sanyo M-W1L and went for the princely sum of £26 and ironically had been sold by someone in Aberystwyth! I never did find out what happened to the one I owned!
Next up was a trip to the now sadly defunct Woolworth’s store to purchase two tapes – ‘Purple Rain’ (the sound of summer 84), Madonna’s first album (cause I fancied her rotten) and a jumbo pack of C90 blank tapes. I was armed and ready and later that afternoon we set off on our journey to the Welsh coast. I was even allowed to play ‘Purple Rain’ albeit at a low volume on my new toy as I sat between my parents on the back seat of my Grandfather’s Marina.
As we didn’t arrive until the early evening the unveiling of my new acquisition would have to wait until the next day. No matter as I spent the evening watching MR T and co. on the A-Team and recording tracks by Doug E Fresh and Grandmaster Flash off Radio One from the comfort of my tiny bunk bedroom in our caravan.
The next day I was up early and ready to go. As was the family tradition on such holidays we would troop on mass down to the beach for an early morning dog walk. In previous years when Dad was with us he would say “Tally Ho Chaps!” as we made our way down the lifeboat ramp towards the surf. Now that was my job!
My Nan would remain behind to cook our breakfast. Cooking was always a full scale operation for dear old Floss. It mattered not that we were on holiday. Meals would be as they were at home, even a Sunday Roast with all the trimmings, whatever the weather, even if it was sweltering outside.
As we made our way back from the beach and then through the caravan site you could smell dozens of other breakfasts being prepared by more curly haired, bespectacled septugenarians from the Midlands and the North. Whenever I smell bacon cooking I am always transported back to this time.
The windows of the caravan would all be steamed up and on entering my Grandfather, Seth would turn the transistor on to Radio 4. God forbid anyone change the channel! He had ‘his’ seat he always sat at, ‘his’ radio station, he carved Welsh Love Spoons as a way of distracting himself from my Nan’s constant chatter and I loved him for it.
As a younger boy we would sit at the breakfast table together. As I splashed “tiger’s blood” (tomato ketchup) onto my bacon, egg and fried bread he would regale me with stories of Welsh myths and legends and how he could see the rabbits on the distant hillside at play even though I knew he couldn’t and that he was just saying so to make me laugh.
This particular day I gobbled down my food, shouldered my new beat box and headed up to the amusement arcade – our designated meeting place.
When we began our regular visits to the caravan site the amusement arcade had been housed in a smallish wooden building painted in red that you descended into by two or three wooden steps. It was a cute building with a small clump of trees on one side which we kids christened Sherwood Forest. We would purchase wooden bows and arrows with rubber stoppers from the shop on site and play at being Robin Hood and his Merry Men in the small boughs of those trees.
In all probability the amusement arcade was a health and safety accident waiting to happen. The enterprising owner had turned his farm into a caravan site and the arcade had previously been one of its outbuildings. Thus one year the decision had been made to close it down, remove all the machines with our favourite games – Pac Man, Space Invaders and Defender – and knock it down.
That beautiful old building was torn down along with Sherwood Forest and in its place was built a non-descript concrete walled and tiled floored building with adjacent wash/shower room standing where once the tiny wood had.
Practically it all made sense as it was much bigger, there were more machines and a bingo and campers could use the new washing machines and showers to their hearts content. It wasn’t the same but it was still our meeting place.
The first time I met the others I’d gone up to the arcade with my tiny radio cassette player slung over my shoulder with the Top 30 playing as loud as the tinny speaker could cope with. They often ridiculed me for that. But now things would be different and my word they were.
Waiting for me, leaning against the wall of the stone farm building opposite were the rest of the Magnificent Seven. Mark, Rich, Steve, Andy and Tubs. It’s at this point that I struggle to remember if all of those names are correct. The mists of time are thick and even though I see their faces some of the names have become a tad faded or lost in my mind. Mark’s brother Ian was already in the arcade, being addicted to the fruit machines and the countless girls like us who spent their days away from their parents congregating by the arcade.
As I walked up the drive they thronged about me. “Ah mate that’s cool”, “Bostin’ ay it” and “Wow” were some of the comments. Mark just looked at me, smiled and said “Top stuff fella” before handing over a copy of the latest Stu Allan mix on a battered C90 cassette. Even Ian broke off from his winning run on the fruit machines to dash out and declare my new beat box as “cool man”!
Ian was like a character from ‘Shameless’ before it had even been conceived. Where his brother Mark was cool and laid back, Ian was a hyperactive, money grabbing, womanizer. More often that not he was described by several members of the gang as “an annoying little shit”. He did his own thing, but hung out with us whenever he was between girls, those he would seduce at the weekly disco in the onsite club. I remember quite clearly one grey afternoon as we watched the aliens swoop down in full attack during the umpteenth game of Defender as he confided in me “D’ya know Mart, I’m sure that bird’s given me summat, I’ve been scratching myself like a dog all weekend.”
There used to be a tiny sports shop housed in one of the stone outbuildings that was an off shoot of the larger store in Aberystwyth. Impossible to believe nowadays that someone would make such a business decision as to have a concession on a caravan site. However, for us it was a gold mine of Fred Perry, Gola and Adidas.
Part of the new stock that year were some gorgeous Adidas funnel neck macs that had our names on them. We all bought one in the same colour – predominantly Navy with blocks of colour all over in Sky Blue, Red and Gold with Adidas in white printed on the chest pocket. All but Ian. He bought the predominantly Gold one, just to be different. Back then we thought him a prat and made him walk behind us on our regular jaunts up the main street of the village. In all likelihood he was being individual and we were the prats for all looking the same.
But it was the Casual look as Mark pointed out and we loved it. We were entry level Casuals all the same, this was Wales remember and not the terraces of Old Trafford or Anfield. I remember one summer when I saw a couple of more serious Casuals frequenting the arcade.
They were a boy and girl, obviously a couple on holiday with one of their parents. They were two or three years older than me and to my mind they looked fab. They both dressed fairly similarly in a uniform of Sergio Tacchini tracksuit top, Farah trousers and Adidas Sambas or variations of those. He had blonde hair, short at the sides and back with a flick over his forehead. He stood feet slightly apart, a hand resting on the fruit machine, casually tapping buttons and slipping another handful of coins into the slot. Coolness personified!
She was almost the same but leant closer to the machine, studying the numbers and symbols with an arched brow and a painted pout. I could barely take my eyes off her. She was a dark curly haired vision in slim cut Farah’s that perfectly encased her gorgeous long legs and she was completely and utterly out of my league!
My Ghetto Blaster certainly saw some action that summer. The Magnificent Seven would sit for hours in one of our caravans as the rain relentlessly beat down enthusing over tracks by Run DMC, Full Force, The B-Boys and Afrika Bambaataa. When the sun was shining we’d stroll up the high street looking mean playing the latest tunes by Doug E Fresh et al. One holidaymaker shouted at us on such an occasion “That’s not music!” to which I replied “Yes it is!” and turned it up even louder. Oh how cool we were.
I still have a photo of us together that year. We entered a five-a-side football tournament only losing in the semi-final to a team made up of players from the local semi-pro outfit Borth FC. In the team photo that windy day some of us can be seen in those fabulous Adidas jackets. Mine is nowhere to be seen as I’d removed it for goalkeeping duties but Mark, Steve and Tubs are wearing theirs with pride. Ian is nowhere to be seen. He’d refused to “get all muddy like” and was hunkered down in the caravan of his latest conquest.
That was also the summer that we made friends with two local DJs. The first was the wonderfully named Louis Delahaye or Brother Lou as he liked to be called. Possessing one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard, Louis was a hairdresser, DJ and part time Lifeboat-man.
On many an occasion I’ve sat in front of his fish tank having my hair cut whilst he would share stories of girls he’d met whilst DJing at the pier in Aberystwyth working alongside Lord John, a DJ of Jimmy Saville type leanings. He’d laugh along with me at these stories whilst repeating his mantra “Brother Lou knows what to do!” We’re still in touch to this day and even now he still has the capacity to make me laugh just as I did back then. The man still has the most incredible collection of vinyl, a fact which makes me incredibly jealous.
The other DJ to come our way was Jonathan Lewis or, to give him his DJ name, Funkadelic or Prof JMB Funk – he’d answer to either. He’d been introduced to us by an old friend of mine, Huw Tipton, who lived in a large white house that overlooked the caravan site. Huw and I became friends at an early age and even to this day he’s still the short, cheeky little chap that I remember from long summers in Mid Wales.
Somewhere in a box at my Mum’s is a photograph of us at the park on the site. It’s 1977 and I’m wearing a Blue Queen’s Silver Jubilee t-shirt and jeans. He’s wearing a purple short sleeved knitted top and shorts that his Mum probably bought from the thrift shop for him. Our hair is long, our smiles are wide and we’ve not a care in the world.
Huw and JMB had formed the Aber Scratch Crew and were dead serious about music. They were good people to know. Where Louis was a more populist DJ who could work a crowd either on the pier or in the small Brynowen Club where we met him, JMB was a supremely talented mixer and scratcher.
JMB lived in the attic of his parent’s guest house on the main street with nothing but his bed, Technics decks and a huge stack of vinyl. To be invited up to this inner sanctuary was an honour and Huw had made it possible for me. If you were one of the lucky ones you climbed the steep steps up to the tiny bedroom armed with your blank cassette. C60’s were ok but C90’s were better and C120’s even more so. The longer the tape length, the longer the mix and more cred with your friends.
Safely ensconced amongst the boxes of vinyl you handed over your cassette for a bespoke JMB mix that he would put together before your very eyes. You’d sit entranced with a glass of squash and a Digestive as he’d perform musical wizardry with the flick of a hand and the waggle of a cross-fade switch.
He’d have two copies of songs like ‘Alice, I Want You Just for Me’ by Full Force and would cut backwards and forwards between the two copies for 10 or 15 minutes creating sonic electro sound scapes and scratching as if his life depended on it.
Somewhere in the bottom of a box in my folks garage lies an old C90 cassette and on it is a recording of one of those fabled mixes. It may even be the one containing that piece of Full Force magic. Forever recorded onto that shiny brown tape are cut up versions of songs by Lisa Lisa, Shalamar, Kurtis Blow, Rene and Angela, Aurra and The SOS Band. I listen to them now on Spotify and Youtube and even though it’s good to hear them again it’s not the same.
Perhaps in this era of retro revival I should scour EBay and invest in a personal cassette player, search down in the bottom of that box, dig out that old C90 and transport myself back to that Welsh Summer? I think I’m more suited to a personal player these days rather than the Sanyo Double Cassette Deck Beat Box of yore. Imagine the looks on the tube that I’d get with that in my hand! Also, I don’t think the Adidas jacket would fit me anymore. It might be on the snug side and not my style nowadays.
I think I’m due a visit to the coast this summer though. The weather might not be the same anymore, the caravan has been sold and the gang might be long gone but in this 44 year old heart of mine the beat still goes on.
Words by Martin Copland-Gray. More writing by Martin on Louder Than War can be found here.