Look around any decent Cardiff gig and you’ll probably see this guy somewhere in the venue, wearing his coat and holding a pint. His name is David Owens and he’s been mad about music in Cardiff for longer than he’d care to remember. It’s taken me nearly three years of harassing, but finally, he’s given in and done me an interview, about his upbringing in Cardiff and the music that he chased around the city.
What was Cardiff like for you, growing up?
This was the 70s and 80s, so I knew little beyond my immediate circle of family (mum, dad, one brother, one sister – both older than me) and friends. We weren’t poor but we weren’t well off either. We lived in a rented council house, so my adventures were confined to my locale.
Trowbridge was an estate that had been built in the mid-60s and my family were one of the first to move in. As luck would have it, many of the neighbours’ families were of a similar age, so I had plenty of children my own age to play with. Looking back I was incredibly lucky, because remember this was another age when you could play out on the streets to late and run around with your mates without fear or inhibition.
We never went on foreign holidays, I never flew until I was 22, but we would go to Barry Island and Porthcawl, and for me that was glamour and wide-eyed adventure personified. I never knew much of the rest of Cardiff, save Grangetown and Tremorfa where my nan and gramps lived. And their houses seemed like relics from a bygone age compared to the council estate I lived in. The house in Tremorfa I loved, because my nan had a massive pantry I would hide in. She also made incredible cakes! They lived near to Splott Park and I would spend endless summers watching the holidays drift by in the park playing on Jessie the steam locomotive that was positioned in the park. Sadly it was removed in 1980 due to vandalism.
Grangetown was also a joy because my nana and grampy lived in a rambling three storey Edwardian Turner house with all the original features. So visiting them as I did every other Saturday on the way to Ninian Park to see Cardiff City play with my brother was always memorable, as much for the homemade chips and bread and butter she would ply us with. They also had a real coal fire that was the burning heart of the house, a godsend in winter, and as warm and as welcoming as they were.
When did you start getting into music? What was the music scene like for you, growing up?
I loved music from an early age. My mum tells me I was always singing along to songs on the telly and was an avid watcher of Top Of The Pops. I had an older brother and sister who were my musical barometer. My brother Stephen was into the likes of Smokie, Dr Hook, Gilbert O Sullivan and Barry Manilow. So it was enough not to be turned off music for life. However he also love ELO and Status Quo. And there were two songs in particular that his little brother loved – Rockin’ All Over The World and Mr Blue Sky. I have vivid memories of those two songs on repeat on the old music centre we had. It was like a wooden submarine with a record player and radio in it. It was massive.
My sister meanwhile initially loved The Bay City Rollers, who I detested, as was my wont as her little brother – we’re there to take the piss, it’s our role. She then graduated to Roxy Music and loved loved LOVED Bryan Ferry, whose perpetually wonky vocals I would mercilessly ape much to her annoyance obviously. When she started seeing my brother in law Stuart, (see accompanying story) that’s when my tastes changed and I underwent musical puberty – if you like. However, I later grew to love Roxy Music and still do thanks to my sister.
By the age of 10 I was a mini-mod and wore a parka to junior school. Remember this was a glorious time to be a kid into music. This would be 1978/1979/1980. The music scene was a glorious amalgam of tribes – mod/punk/two-tone/new wave/new romantics – with the most incredible music being made. I loved it all and quickly started buying records from Woolworths, John Menzies and Boots on Queen Street who all sold records/Spillers in the Hayes/Buffalo in The Hayes opposite Spillers and also Virgin Records which was then on Duke Street opposite the castle.
I can’t remember the first record I bought, but I was immersed in the mod revival scene so it was probably something by The Jam, Secret Affair, The Chords, The Purple Hearts, The Lambrettas or The Merton Parkas. All my pocket money would be spent thumbing the racks. The sound and the smell of vinyl, the shelves laden with albums and singles and even the little vinyl bags they would be housed in just served to fire my imagination. I might have been a mini-mod but I also loved The Specials, Madness, Bad Manners, The Selecter, The Beat, Dexys. Squeeze, Blondie. I could go on – it was a golden era for music and I was lucky enough to grow up during this incredible period.
Can you tell us a bit more about the bands you saw here in Cardiff in your youth?
If you’re in your 40s or older and lived in Cardiff during the ‘80s, there’s every chance you would have heard of the New Ocean Club. Set three miles from the city centre, nature and industry clashed at the crossroads of eastern Cardiff amidst the mudflats of the River Rumney’s tidal estuary and the smoke-choked East Moors steelworks that dominated the landscape. For reference sake it was situated between Tesco and the Fitness First (or whatever it’s now called) in Pengam.
A peculiar location perhaps, but on stepping through the doors of this unremarkable single-storey building, you entered another world altogether. An old-school social club, formerly known as The Troubadour, with a sprung hardwood dance floor, revolving stage and huge mirror-ball that bathed all beneath it in shimmering moonlight, it was the venue around which my formative musical education revolved. It was a proverbial mecca for any teenager demonstrating a pubescent yearning towards music that eschewed the mainstream. It was the place where, in the early ’80s. I first encountered then-aspiring US alt-rockers REM, crowd-pleasing Welsh tub-thumpers The Alarm, and the bellicose Bard of Barking Billy Bragg, as well as faux mod-soul acts such as The Truth, Small World and Big Sound Authority.
It was where I first wielded a tape recorder in anger as an aspiring fanzine writer, fanning the flames of my journalistic fire. It was a pivotal point in my musical rites of passage and will forever conjure up the sights, sounds and smells of yesteryear; of beer mats on bars, of long-lost brews such as Allbright Bitter and Double Diamond, the inexorable ebb and flow of youthful exuberance pulsing across the dance floor – and of clothes steeped in the stench of smokers’ fumes.
It was also the venue at which I promoted my first-ever gig, a three-band bill headlined by Cardiff power-pop favourites A Sound Reaction – the outfit from which this column takes its name – alongside youthful modernists The Choir (from Cambridge) and The Revenge (from High Wycombe). I was 15 or 16 (I looked older in fairness to door staff who rarely quizzed me on the finer points of my birth certificate). The details are hazy, and just how I staged the show fuzzier still, given all the arrangements were made from a phone box – not for our generation, the luxury of mobile phones and the internet!
The New Ocean Club closed not long after, the sustainability of what was a relic from a fast fading and quickly forgotten era finally catching up with it. As the mid to late ’80s hoved into view, my focus shifted. Five or six years before Wales became the citadel of rock ‘n’ roll reinventing itself as Cool Cymru, the local music scene in the late ’80s was as grey as the slate scratched sky and as dark as the prevailing political mood.
Back in the days when Chapter Arts Centre promoted live music most nights of the week in the original Chapter Bar, it was a dimly-lit room rather than, what the bar is nowadays, a communal gathering point for the practice of borderline alcoholism and the discovery of manifold European brews.
There I marvelled to a slew of wonderful bands, fantastic should-have-beens such as Papa’s New Faith (featuring Alex Silva – now in house engineer at Hansa Studios in Berlin, but better known as the producer of The Manics’ Futurology and The Holy Bible), Peppermint Parlour (starring frontman Alan Thompson he of Radio Wales fame), The Third Uncles ( a cabal of literate art pop dandys) and The Watermelons ( a highly politicised heartbreak trio whose tub-thumping frontman Paul Rosser from the Rhondda was a gravedigger by day).
While Chapter was my main squeeze, Clwb Ifor Bach, The Square Club and The Venue were at various points my bit on the side. Clwb afforded me the opportunity of watch the nascent Cool Cymru movement germinate thanks to the flowering of such bands as Y Crumblowers, y Cyrff, Ffa Coffi Pawb and U Thant – featuring soon-to-be members of Catatonia and Super Furry Animals.
The Square Club on Westgate Street was a den of iniquity a freakish zoo housing tribes of every form – goths, psychobillies, indie kids, Madchester clones and some seemingly not yet classified. The club was famous for its enigmatic manager Frank (no one ever knew his surname), whose past was shrouded in mystery. Recognisable for the trademark white leather cap that never left his head, he had escaped to Cardiff and many believed he was in the witness relocation programme given his fondness for discussing his associations with The Krays. Unforgettable was the in-house DJ The Lizard who spun his discs in a cage mounted on the side of a wall, forgettable were the horrendous toilets which were more public inconvenience, than public convenience – and the place where you could probably have picked up your first swimming proficiency certificate if you were so inclined.
The Venue on Charles Street burnt brightly but briefly – notorious for hosting a gig by The Stone Roses in March 1989 where only 21 people turned up. This was a couple months before their debut album was released and they quickly soared into the strata of superstardom propelled by the golden wings of their sublime debut album. A concrete sweatbox we lost inches off our waistlines in sauna-like conditions while furthering our musical educations thanks to memorable shows by such indie names of yore as The New Fast Automatic Daffodils, Birdland, The Inspiral Carpets and The Pooh Sticks.
Add to this Neros (Greyfriars Road), The Stage Door (now Minskys), PCs (City Road), Sams Bar (St Mary Street a/Mill Lane), Bogiez (Penarth Road), The Philharmonic (St Mary Street), Subways (at The Great Western Hotel), The Model Inn (Quay Street), Metros (Bakers Row), and The Dog and Duck (Womanby Street) and the 80s alternative thrillseeker had plenty to satisfy their cravings outside of the mainstream.