Tag Archives: cool cymru

A Sound Reaction: chat from Cardiff music man, Dave Owens

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.

david_owens

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.

spillers

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.

***

Dave Owens is a multimedia news and features journalist at Media Wales. Follow his writings at A Sound Reaction – Facebook page

Sign up for the weekly We Are Cardiff newsletter

“Cardiff will always be synonymous with friendships, good music, and unlimited fun” – Gwen

Today’s We Are Cardiff piece goes back in time … and visits a lively gal by the name of Gwen Love, who – in 1996 – is enjoying her 20s in the city of ‘cool Cymru’. Read on to find out what she’s been up to!

gwen love

 

I cannot imagine being anywhere more exciting than Cardiff in 1996. I am thrilled to be a part of this amazing city at such a buzzing time. Right now, Cardiff is at the heart of the Cool Cymru movement. It has been amazing to witness the explosion of the Welsh music scene before our very eyes – watching our home-grown talent become part of the Britpop brigade has made us all proud of our heritage and roots. I have been lucky enough to see Catatonia and Super Furry Animals morph from obscure Welsh language bands to being on Top of the Pops and playing with some of the biggest bands of our time. I love the fact that I have seen these bands live several times at venues around the city – and that they just get bigger and better.

I knew I wanted to study in Cardiff as soon as I set down my country-bumpkin-North-Walian feet in the bus station in 1993 – three years ago. An excited gaggle of us were here for the university open day and it was as though we had found utopia. Cool people, friendly bars, and live music. This was what I had yearned for throughout my awkward, frustrated teenage years. I’m ashamed to admit that I paid a lot less attention to the details of my course of study than I did to the events calendar.

It’s not just live music that Cardiff excels at either. The variety of night life is endless. As students we are spoiled with our fantastic Student’s Union and we have all enthusiastically taken part in Fun Factory, Jive Hive, or Cloud 9 at some point in time. The town centre offers everything from the sterility of Zeus (RIP Cocos) to the dirty, dingy yet delightful Metros. At the moment my favourite venue and night out is Clwb Ifor Bach’s newly opened Popscene. A fantastic indie club upstairs playing everything from Oasis to Puressence, where the DJ will kindly oblige to the musical whims of most indie kids. Then, downstairs, for a change of tempo is the Cheesy Club; funk, disco and cheese. It is impossible to dance without a smile. It’s the happiest dance floor in town.

Downtime, when I’m not studying hard, can be spent idling in the beautiful parks with friends after a magnificent breakfast from Ramones. What better way to cure a hangover than by watching the beautiful people play baseball, turning slowly pink in the sun amidst the sleepy floral scents.

When the student loan has been freshly deposited in my bank account my other method of relaxing is to shop, shop, shop. I love Cardiff for its independent shops. I love exploring the arcades to find an elusive vinyl, that perfect 70s shirt to emulate Jarvis, or some beautiful, hand crafted jewellery. It is so easy to buy retro in Cardiff and develop your own sense of style.

I hope to graduate this summer but have no plans to leave Cardiff just yet. I love this city and feel very proud to be studying and partying here. Whatever the future holds, whereever I will be in 20 years time, Cardiff will hold a very special place in my heart and will always be synonymous with friendships, good music and unlimited fun.

 

Having graduated from Cardiff University in 1996, Gwen Love then moved to Bristol and spent many years in marketing until she retrained as a primary school teacher. She has been teaching for 10 years and is a mother of two young children. Her retroblog came about through her love of music and through a selfish need to do something creative for herself. She always wanted to write and, as she was still in possession of her eventful diary from ’96, she was inspired to write a blog set in that year. During ’96 she left her long term boyfriend, reached the grand old age of 21, and graduated with a respectful drinker’s degree – all to a thoroughly researched Britpop soundtrack. Follow Gwen on Twitter @GwenLove3 and on her blog site www.gwenlove76.wordpress.com. She hopes to publish as a novel in the near future. During 1996 Gwen lived in Cathays. She currently lives in Canton.

***

“Cardiff’s nightlife might be a haphazard affair…” – Adam

adam_corner_web

Arriving in Cardiff fresh and slightly chubby-faced in late September 2001, I couldn’t have predicted I’d still be here, more than 10 years later. Through a combination of Cardiff’s unique charms and my heroic lack of geographical ambition, I lived in such far-flung nether-regions as Cathays, Roath, Canton … and Roath.

Like a lot of people, my first three years in Cardiff were spent slowly – oh so painfully slowly – refining my interests from ‘drinking heavily in terrible bars during the week’ to ‘drinking heavily in more interesting bars at the weekend’. But one of the ways that I can track my time in Cardiff is through the music venues and events that have come and gone while I’ve lived in the city.

I arrived in Cardiff at the tail end of Cool Cymru – when the Manic Street Preachers (post-Richie) and the Super Furry Animals were some of the biggest indie names around. The Millennium Stadium had just been built, Tiger Bay had been refurbished within an inch of its life, and Charlotte Church was still young enough to have not realised opera was for losers.

Coming from a small-ish town in the South West (Yeovil), the prospect of live music most nights of the week was something to get excited about, and the Barfly (now replaced by the weirdly named Bogiez) more than provided. Tiny gigs by bands who would later go on to much greater things – The Libertines, The Futureheads, and, err … Grand Drive – stick in my mind.

The Toucan – a Cardiff institution with a habit of closing and re-opening down the road several times a year – was on St Mary’s Street when I first started to frequent it, providing a reason to venture into Hell’s Hen Party. Even with its weird giant pillars blocking views of the stage from almost all positions other than right-down-the-front, some formative musical moments occurred in that place. All the big names of the (then) burgeoning UK hip hop passed through – Jehst, Braintax, Mystro, Rodney P … and when the Toucan moved to Splott (and then eventually back into town before closing for good) it was never quite the same.

Down in the Bay, initial enthusiasm about its face-lift had faded to a general acceptance that studio flats, executive hotel rooms and ‘world’ cuisine were probably not going to be producing the sort of cutting-edge culture that Cardiff was craving. The Point – a beautiful renovated church –  was hosting some incredible gigs for a few short years (Four Tet, Cinematic Orchestra and Deerhoof stand out). And the Coal Exchange was always there for bigger bands – with a set by Mogwai remaining the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. But both these venues went the way of the Dodo, occasionally re-opening in name, if not in spirit.

The closure of key musical venues in Cardiff is a constant throughout during the decade I’ve lived here. Its always sad to see the passion of promoters dashed on the rocks of reality – but unfortunately, although Cardiff has some great musical culture, it doesn’t have the strength in numbers to support much in the way of an ‘alternative’ scene. We can basically only handle one or two successful venues at a time – and the only place that has ridden this bumpy road successfully for the entire time I’ve been here is Clwb Ifor Bach.

My first forays into Clwb were for Friday night mind-manglers – with Hustler running tings on a decidedly student-ey hip hop tip. I saw my first ever dubstep set in Clwb – way back when Digital Mystikz were just emerging out of Plastic People in London, and long, long before dubstep was providing the soundtrack for everything from shit mobile phone adverts to shit mobile internet adverts.

The family of venues that began with Moloko (home of the much-loved drum’n’bass Thursday nighter that launched High Contrast’s career) and now includes Buffalo and 10ft Tall has proven another resilient strain of Cardiff’s nightlife. Buffalo is still the closest thing Cardiff has to a trendy East London hangout, and although Cardiff Arts Institute looked like a strong contender for that crown for a few happy years, it too became a victim of the Cardiff curse: shitloads of interest and enthusiasm, but not enough punters through the doors.

That pretty much brings us up to date, and I’m about to hotfoot it over the bridge to Bristol after nearly 11 years in Cardiff’s familiar folds. Bristol’s a bigger city – it doesn’t suffer from the Cardiff curse. But what are the odds of running into half a dozen people you know on a random night out in Bristol? Cardiff’s nightlife might be a slightly haphazard affair, but there’s something reassuring about seeing the same faces in the same places wherever you go.

Don’t be a stranger Caerdydd …

Adam Corner is a male human who lived in Cardiff until 2012. He loves music, food and fine wines (e.g. Buckfast). He does research on the psychology of communicating climate change at Cardiff University and writes about this kind of thing for the Guardian. Nose into his life on twitter @AJCorner.

Adam was photographed at Catapult Records in the Duke Street Arcade by Doug Nicholls

***