THE SOUND OF THE SOUTH WALES VALLEYS
The South Wales Valleys are made up of aligned low areas of land between hills and mountains. Referred to locally as ‘the Valleys’ and home to around 30% of the Welsh population. The Rhondda Valleys, Merthyr Valley and the Cynon Valley are situated through the middle. Once – overwhelmingly Welsh at the end of the nineteenth century, today – English is the commonly spoken language. The area is less diverse than the rest of the country, with a relatively high proportion of residents born in Wales unlike, Cardiff, the capital city, which boasts a population with a cosmopolitan mix of cultures and nationalities. It’s a socialist area. The people here, represent a traditional nationalism.k
There’s a theory that heavy metal and rock – thrives in areas of heavy industry, because they are unpretentious, no-nonsense genres whose percussive, aggressive sound echoes the sounds of industry. There was once a large heavy metal scene in the South Wales Valleys that echoed the times. Lots of bands had that influence. “In the ‘80s, this area definitely wanted poodle rock/hair metal or just metal in general,” Simon Price, music journalist and author of the definitive Manic Street Preachers biography, Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers) says. The influence is seen on Bullet For My Valentine, Funeral For A Friend and Manic Street Preachers. Loud guitars and simple melodies.
The music made here, always reflects what the audience want. You rarely see a band that deviates away from the traditional formula of vocals, bass, guitar and drums. Dai Hill, a Cynon Valley musician says “The stereotypical Valley’s audience want Journey and nothing else. They don’t tend to stray away from the middle of the road songs: Sex On Fire, Sweet Home Alabama, and Whiskey In The Jar etc. Popular cover stuff.”
Again, it’s all about the venues these bands play. Most are not solely dedicated to music. Most are pubs – where pleasing the majority is key. Covers bands tend to be a bigger draw than those who play their own material. An Oasis tribute act pull in more than a band playing original material. The bands that mainly stick to their guns and play original music – will be playing to a different type of audience. Justin Beynon, songwriter and guitarist with Cynon Valley band The Broken Vinyl Club, who are signed to Acid Jazz Records, confirms this:
Justin: It really does depend where you play as to the type of audience you are getting. The venues and the type of music you play will determine that. The pub/club crowd will always want popular covers. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard, “play something we know,” shouted from the audience – I’d be a wealthy man.
Jonathan Owen, who was the frontman with ‘90s Merthyr band, The Pocket Devils, says it is all about an audience that, “gets you.” His band would play to packed places in Merthyr and Mountain Ash, without doing covers. He added that, in the early ‘90s – everywhere wanted covers bands. “We were very specific, so it could be hit or miss for us. Blackwood Miners Institute was a great place to play. Another crowd that got us. You could see there were lots of kids into that sound. When Oasis hit and Britpop – even more so.”
The drug of choice in South Wales is alcohol. Alcohol plays a large role in everyday Welsh life. It’s had a huge affect on the social, economic and cultural life of the country. Industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries led to drinking – becoming a social norm. The pubs of the Valleys are very much the lifeblood of live music. Bands on the pub circuit learn and work with each other. These towns are sleepy on the weekdays and come to life on Friday and Saturday. People let go on the weekend. The music made and consumed here – has a similar pace. The verses are quiet and slow (the working week), the choruses are loud and euphoric (the weekend).
How important is alcohol or any other drug, when it comes to playing a part in the music scene and does it influence it? Justin says, “alcohol is more a part of society than a deliberate part of the music scene. But the two definitely collide.” Dai has a more blunt opinion, “I don’t know any band who’s sound is defined by their choice of drugs.” The pubs these bands play in are more home to drugs – then the musician’s creative space. Darren Broome, who runs The LOST Agency, which discovers and promotes Welsh musical talent, has this to say:
Darren: I grew up in Aberdare. The main venue to see new and covers bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s was The Carpenters Arms. I remember distinctly going into the gents loo, a number of times, to see syringes lying around. It was that kind of pub. The druggies used to go there and get spaced out. It didn’t however cross that much over into the bands I knew.
Darren adds that alcohol, “is, was and always will be a big thing for the Valleys.” Simon Price notes that alcohol and drugs play a part in every scene, “if only, as a social lubricant.” He also identifies heroin as the drug that comes to mind when people talk about the Valleys, but that it’s not an influence on the music. He says, “Is there a particular smack-rock scene? Not that I’ve noticed.”
I wanted to know whether South Wales’ bands influence each other, so, firstly, asked Justin:
Justin: Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever been influenced musically by any Welsh bands. I think bands that are influenced by the same genre of music will have similarities in the music, but I think that comes more from the artists they are inspired by.
For 10 years, from the early ‘90s to ‘00s, Alison Stokes was music/entertainment editor at the South Wales Echo. Alison says, referring to the Manic Street Preachers and the Stereophonics, “As with anything that’s successful, there will always be forms of imitation, but in general I think Valleys’ bands are influenced by global sounds.” Because the Valleys’ music scene is predominantly Americanised in its influences, does it have the kinship of the Welsh language music scene? Veteran music journalist, John Robb, says that, “they (Welsh language bands) have their own thing going.” He concedes that the Manic Street Preachers, “changed everything” but only a, “few bands were influenced by that.” Could it be a simple fact that there are just not that many Welsh bands signed to record labels? But why? I asked Darren about this:
Darren: Historically, bands from Wales just didn’t get signed. Bristol yes, Cardiff no. Even the Newport ‘New Seattle’ tag didn’t really generate that much in the way of lasting success for bands. Manic Street Preachers were so political about the prejudice they felt about coming from Wales, it was incredible to see them sticking up against the out and out racism that was felt towards Welsh bands.
To explore Darren’s view on prejudice towards Welsh bands, Jonathan Owen was asked if there were any prejudices to him and his band for being Welsh or was he aware of it – or witness to it?
Jonathan: No, not really. I mean I’ve learned it’s probably easier to get noticed in London when you get to know people and have personal relationships – then of course that has an effect, but the truth will out as they say. You need that one person in power to give you the chance or believe in you. I never found being Welsh detrimental to that. Basically, if you’re good enough you’ll make it whether you are Welsh, English, black, white, Peruvian or an Eskimo.
I turned to Paul Dixon who has over thirty years of music industry experience. Paul is originally from Swansea but lived in London in the early ‘80s and managed 007 who later became The Scene. He later managed Gouge, The Pocket Devils and is now manager of The Broken Vinyl Club:
Paul: The music business would sign The Clangers if they could make money out of it. If there is any regional preference, it would only be in a, “they’re from Wales – offer them less” type way. But I honestly didn’t witness that. The music business is one of the least racist industries I have ever come across. If anything, being Welsh is a slight advantage. To be honest, labels don’t give a shit where these people hailed from; they probably didn’t know the location of half the places anyway. If you take a cross section of where successful bands are from, you’ll see that. It’s too easy to say we didn’t make it because we were Welsh. It’s a dog eat dog cesspit of an industry, but not in that way.
If there were any prejudices towards Welsh bands, it would’ve certainly been a thing of another era. By the early ‘90s, the Welsh language music scene was being noticed, thanks in part to John Peel championing the Ankst Records stable of bands such as Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, Melys and the Super Furry Animals. Even American magazine, Spin, proclaimed Newport to be the ‘new Seattle’ with an A&R buzz around 60ft Dolls. The list of recent acts that have had mainstream hits is, for a country with a small population, quite generous. Funeral for a Friend, Bullet for My Valentine, Lostprophets, The Automatic etc. But these are bands of the Internet age.
Before the Internet, MTV was the sole global music media. And although that aired in America in the early eighties, satellite TV wasn’t financially available for some years later in parts of Wales. Popular shows, such as, 120 minutes and Yo MTV Raps, couldn’t influence a current breed of Welsh sound makers. There were few, if any, grunge bands or rap/hip hop collectives. If some did come along – that alternative scene was long dead and buried. “Our tastes have always been a bit five years behind the rest of the UK,” Darren says.
These new bands from The Valleys, although not spearheading musical movements – were pretty close to its incarnation. They had access to new sounds quicker through music sites, blogs and YouTube etc. They could be at the forefront of something instead of trailing it and could also distribute more effectively and efficiently. People didn’t have to come to their music – there was now a way of taking it to them. Bands from these areas can now target bigger and more diverse audiences.
Before the Internet, the world was a bigger place; it took time for cultures and musical movements to filter though. Getting access to new, alternative sounds was only within reach of those obsessives ready to dig. Simon Price says that the geographical home of music makers will become less of an influence as a result:
Simon: I think it’s less important than it used to be, since the rise of the Internet. Prior to the late ‘90s, access to culture was geographically determined. If you were in exile from the swing of things, it was much harder to plug into what was going on. And that kind of exile can lead to strange and beautiful mutations (just as it does in terms of the evolution of fauna on remote Pacific islands). Which is my theory on how bands like Super Furry Animals started appearing.
John Robb believes, “It’s never that fair to say bands have a geographical sound. Wales produced a lot of indie rock bands.” The “indie rock band” tag is certainly true with the Cardiff music scene.
Geographically, Cardiff isn’t that far away. Musically – it is. “It’s a metropolitan area with a transient population, particularly with students coming and going. This increases the interchange of ideas. As a result, some of the most notable Cardiff bands, such as Los Campesinos and Future Of The Left, are actually non-Welsh, either partly or entirely,” Simon Price explained. Darren Broome says, there is, “a certain coolness” about this Cardiff scene. “It’s about playing the same gigs and playing to 30 or 50 of your mates. Not really that healthy, Welsh bands should concentrate on getting seen and noticed outside of Wales.”
Whereas The Valleys’ music scene seems unaffected and uninfluenced by the Manic Street Preachers and the Stereophonics, Simon Price notes this is not the case with another Welsh band – and their influence on the music scene of the capital.
Simon: I’ve noticed that there’s a real post-Super Fury Animals sound (psych-pop with electronic elements) to a lot of bands on the Cardiff scene. SFA’s legacy is huge.
Unlike the other Welsh bands, the Super Fury Animals are more of a collective. Each member has side projects and operates in different genres. They have roles outside the Super Fury guise. Keyboardist, Cian Ciaran is label manager for SomBom and Strangetown Records. He also produces. He’s very influential on the Cardiff music scene.
You can get a picture of the Valleys’ music scene from two of its biggest commercial successes, Rhymney Valley’s Manic Street Preachers and Cynon Valley’s Stereophonics. From the outside they may appear to be similar: rock vocalists, in the classic sense, and overdriven guitars, but deeper inspection reveals more differences then similarities. These differences come in the form of lyrics and ideology. Early on in their career, the Manic Street Preachers would refer to themselves as a band from Europe, whereas the Stereophonics were adamant they’d be known, not as a Welsh band or even an Aberdare band – but a band from Cwmaman. The later were the most local of local bands. The former – the more literary. How important is this place on the sound made here?
Dai says, that he’s proud of where he’s from and it may have an indirect influence in regards to things influencing him subconsciously – like the natural beauty of the place. “I like the natural surroundings and that may influence my writing, but not so much in like a commentating sense or autobiographical.” Justin shares a similar writing perspective as the Manic Street Preachers. There’s a form of escapism in what he says:
Justin: Coming from the Valleys, it has had an influence on my writing for sure. I have never deliberately written about the Valleys on purpose, but the life that you lead here, and the way you grow up, does come through in the process. I think life is bigger than the valleys and it comes more from there.
“Of course. It informs everything I do. I am from the Valleys and like I said, I found there were hundreds like me,” Jonathon adds. Paul Dixon has a different view, he believes, where you are from has no bearing whatsoever. Music transcends geographical locations. “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” Paul further adds that a location specific phenomenon evolves, not from a geographical sound but through press labels. A product of the London music press was Cool Cymru. These bands were pretty much working class – predominated by boys with guitars. This was in the mid to late ‘90s. Not much has changed. The main reason being – this area is still working class.
To truly grasp the sound of the South Wales Valleys, and label it a “rock music” area – you first have to define the term. Then that label can be attached, because the Valleys do not have one collective rock sound. Each Valley has its own. The music made here is as broad as that genre itself. Those with a better-tuned cultural microscope might even argue that it has five scenes – one for each Valley. The South Wales Valleys’ sound is art and expression which encompasses all of its surroundings.
As technology continues to develop, and the way in which music is consumed evolves, sounds that were previously symptomatic of place – could change. This ease of access to new sounds may change the sound of these Valleys – but place will always give meaning. Perhaps you have to live in this area to recognise your own. You may not instantly think a band is from here – but once that becomes known – it never seems a surprise.