Strange Wales: The Laugharne Weekend

“The Strangest Town in Wales” was how Dylan Thomas first described his adopted home of Laugharne (pronounced Larn – the ‘laugh’ is silent).

This “beguiling island of a town”, a “legendary lazy little black-magical bedlam by the sea” has some unusual characteristics conferred by retaining the last surviving medieval corporation in Britain. It also has some impressive Georgian mansions, a ruined castle and beautiful views of Thomas’s beloved “heron priested” shore of the Taf Estuary.

sunny view from laugharne castle

View of the estuary from Laugharne Castle

Stumbling upon the Strange Wales festival weekend in spite of their rather jumbled online presence (usually there is one Laugharne Weekend, this year for Thomas’s Centenary there are three), I headed out of my comfort zone to see what unpredictable happenings were taking place.

At first it felt like a product of the special festival atmosphere, but one gets the feeling that Laugharne is like this most weekends – folks tumbling out of pubs and taking their pints into the church; the Tin Shed, casually billed as a 1940s experience doubling as a bar, handy for the gigs in the Millennium Hall.

Cate Le Bon at Millennium Hall, Laugharne

Cate Le Bon at Millennium Hall, Laugharne

The celebrated Browns Hotel, and at least three more pubs makes for an interesting route through town. The Georgian scale of many of the buildings, larger than those usually found in a similarly sized Welsh village, are the legacy of a history as a busy cockeling port and the Castle, ruined by Cromwell’s soldiers during the civil war. Eccentricity is embraced here, creativity encouraged and there is a looseness to proceedings that means nothing is ever quite on time.

On Friday I arrive in time to catch the night’s Millennium Hall gig – Sweet Baboo with some campervan inspired acoustic indie then Cate Le Bon, playing most of her album Mug Museum, the end of a long tour which leads to some hi-jinks with carrots, and a closing cover of a Thin Lizzie number which sees the band relax.

In the congregational church up the road there is a woozy late showing of Gruff Rhys’ film American Interior, where the Super Furry Animals songwriter traces his ancestor John Evans’ journey across the states in search of a mythical Welsh-speaking tribe of Native Americans.

The Boathouse, where Dylan and Caitlin Thomas lived

The Boathouse, where Dylan and Caitlin Thomas lived

Left to my own devices on Saturday, I head first to the Boathouse, the house where Dylan Thomas lived from 1949 until his death in 1953. Here he wrote some of the major works of his late career including Under Milk Wood (which Laugharne inhabitants likes to claim is based on the characters of the town). After taking in the views and old HTV documentary, I peer into the recreation of his writing shed, perched on the cliff edge and decorated with pictures of his influences and dozens of crumbled papers beneath the writing desk. A walk along tree looped lanes finds the Poet’s grave, an unassuming flimsy white cross heading a plot scattered with cheap boozers trinkets and tributes from all over the world.

Dylan Thomas's writing shed.

Dylan Thomas’s writing shed.

Back at to the unofficial festival hub, a reconditioned mobile library dubbed the Book Bus, where a few of the literati are gathered to browse through DT aficionado Jeff Towns’ collection of Dylan-iana. Then into church again to catch the last half of the 1997 film Twin Town.

Following up on his debut’s anarchic spirit, director Kevin Allen has returned to Wales to film Under Milk Wood. Here he presents a teaser trailer. Sharing some cast members with Twin Town, including Rhys Ifans, it promises to be a surreal, dream-like romp, filmed in both English and Welsh language versions. Allen takes questions from the audience, many of whom took part in the filming as extras. He claims that the somewhat bawdy play, originally written for radio, will gain a new audience from his highly visual interpretation and if he had his way the poster would bare the legend “it’s all about the shagging”.

A quick dash to the Rugby Club to catch the end of a noisy set by young Cardiff-based band Joanna Gruesome, then it’s back to Browns for a few pints with some new friends. The rest of the evening – Krautrock from two man outfit R. Seiliog and then luminaries of the Post Punk scene Young Marble Giants take to the stage for the first time since 1979 – goes by in a pleasant haze.

On Sunday, a restorative B&B breakfast and it’s back down to the explore the castle in the sunshine. An unassuming summer house in the grounds provides another writers bolt hole, once owned by Richard Hughes (author of A High Wind In Jamaica) and also used by Dylan Thomas.

"Gonzo Bookselling: 1. Find An Event, 2. Immerse Yourself, 3. Become the Story."

“Gonzo Bookselling: 1. Find An Event, 2. Immerse Yourself, 3. Become the Story.”

Hannah Ellis, the poet’s granddaughter, teacher- turned advocate of creativity in education, speaks eloquently on her hopes for a future Dylan Thomas Foundation, to bring his work to a new generation. Dylan failed at school, his imagination and creativity perceived as bad behaviour. Wandering around Laugharne, getting into mischief, exploring and going with the flow helps one realise how constrained one can be by such convention.

The unseasonal late sunshine is too bright to give up for a Wickerman-esq documentary in the church and soon the lure of golden ales and a John Martin tribute draw us back to the Tin Shed.

Later, after a minimal electro set from newcomers Trwbadour, local bookshop owner and former music journalist George Tremlett is upstairs at The Cross Inn talking about his co-authorship with the poet’s widow Caitlin of a definitive biography – his involvement suggested by Ted Hughes after reading his interviews with 1970s pop names including Marc Bolan and David Bowie. Thomas was rock ‘n’ roll ahead of time and his influence had been weaving a spell over Tremlett for years before his involvement with the project. He goes on to debunk myths about the circumstances of the poet’s death and to suggest that we shouldn’t allow reputation to stand in the way of the immortality of the work.

Islet at The Millennium Hall, Laugharne

Islet at The Millennium Hall, Laugharne

Back down at the Millennium Hall, Islet take the stage banging on a variety of percussive bars, bells and drums. They are a band full of energy and invention, gestures and rhythms and it makes for the best performance of the weekend.

Gruff Rhys, this time in person, is in contrast a whimsical, witty presence and tells the story of John Evans complete with his specially commissioned puppet, through a selection of songs and anecdotes which slips from English to Welsh and back again so smoothly that it’s almost possible feel like you’re learning some scraps of the language as he goes along.

Outside, the weather has turned cold and skipping more films in lieu of a lift back up the road, the B&B beckons once more.

Waking up to one more over the top breakfast and the odour of egg and bacon, there is time for then one more look at the gloriously shiny bay before taking a bus to the relative normality of Carmarthan – so different Laugharne already seems like a fevered dream.

View from Laugharne Castle

View from Laugharne Castle

 

 

 

 

 

Queens Park Music Club

Queens Park Music Club Vol. 1

Glasgow International (GI) is in full swing and the project I worked on with Queens Park Railway Club has been launched.

Queens Park Music Club Volume 1 – a digital publication comprising artists’ responses to questions about the role of music in their practice – featuring playlists, essays, illustrations and meditations on the theme – is now available to download.

Queens Park Music Club

There was a lot of discussion about what form this collection of work should take – should we embed playlists? If so what form would they take? In the end it was settled that links to the music would be placed within the text – leaving it to the internet to provide the music – rather than curating a podcast or compiling a mix. With so many issues around copyright, ownership and piracy tied up with listening to music online it was detracting from the focus of the project. I feel it demonstrates the effect that the internet has had on the breadth of people’s musical taste – almost everything is available if you can find it, indeed we found that to be the case, with the exception of only a couple of the pieces cited in the publication.

In the end, I didn’t write for the project myself but, in researching the form it would take, I did compile a piece of my own which I present below with a Mixcloud featuring the tracks under discussion.

QPRC Playlist 1: Live Tracks by Queensparkrailwayclub on Mixcloud

Live In Concert.
 

 

*track 1* Joe Cocker  – Delta Lady (Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Live Album 1970)

“Delta Lady it is my love,” With his Sheffield showing, Joe Cocker launches the closing track his 1970 live album. I have a clear memory of the gatefold sleeve, full of circus imagery and Cocker’s sweaty, crazed, stoned, gurning face in my parent’s meagre vinyl collection when I was a kid. The sound of all the drugs the band took, all the life they were living is captured on this record.

“Rock ‘n’ roll!” Cocker chuckles, like he’s almost surprised. I remember not being allowed to play with my parents records – I must have looked at the sleeve while my dad played it on the big wooden box of a hifi. My parents had some history with Cocker, attending his early pre-fame, pre-America gigs. They tell a possibly apocryphal story about him singing while standing on a table in a working men’s club. There’s another tale that they never finish involving Cocker disappearing to the toilet mid-set, presumably partaking in some recreational pursuit that parents don’t want their children to know about.

Is this where I get my need to follow bands from?

In my head I’m at some dream-version of the gig, it doesn’t match the tour film with Cocker’s crazed battery bunny drumming dance. Worn out, one more time, feeling it. The big finish. The reprise, pushing it just that bit further. They don’t want it to end.

They’re playing so hard there’s not much left of the song – that shriek, that voice almost falling apart. No meaning left but the moment. Good live albums which capture the essential transience of live performance are rare. Live albums that make you feel like you’re at a gig are rarer still. It’s impossible to talk of ‘authenticity’ after all this is a Yorkshireman singing the blues.

*track 2* Radiohead – The National Anthem (I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, 2001)

When I hear this, I am sent back to the Buddokan toilets. When Radiohead played in Tokyo in 2001, I was there. The gig that night started early and like the other shows on that tour they opened it with The National Anthem and it felt like a threat. That bass, that noise, the whole round place shook with the shiver and the panic of it. And we weren’t even in the auditorium yet. It was the manifestation of my touring anxiety dream (I get lost, I can hear the band but I can’t see them).

The way they were playing that song at that time went beyond the dark album version, it becomes something purely physical.

My muscle memory makes me twitch, I don’t hear this one I feel it. Aggression and fear and anger and all the things I take from those gigs. It’s a feeling in the pit of my stomach.

 *track 3* The Jesus & Mary Chain – Reverence (Live in Bristol, 1992 from BBC Radio Live in Concert album, 2003)

Lying in bed with headphones on in the dark. The year my taste was formed. The Mary Chain are something forbidden, their name (to a Catholic school girl, afraid of everything) the dirtiness of their noise, the sexy confidence of it. If this was a gig, then I had to go to one.

I know now that the Mary Chain wear their influences on their sleeve, but then it was my gateway to The Stooges, to Jonathan Richman, to the Phil Spector Wall of Sound. JAMC got to me first.

I was too young to go their gigs that year, and I never got the chance to see them before they split. They’ve played a few gigs in the last few years but I they’re the last band I’m yet to see. I joke that I’ll book them myself if that’s what it would take for me to be able to see them play The Barrowland.

*tracks 4 & 5* Patti Smith – Babelogue/ Rock n Roll Nigger (Easter, 1978)

Though these are from a studio album, they sound live. When I saw her play in Amsterdam, in a moment of serendipity, she adjusted the lyrics of the spoken word Babelogue to become germane to the evening. Never having seen her before, I was astonished by her energy. I thought I got it. I didn’t really get it until that moment.

It’s a call, a summons. There was unity in the room, beyond that of a mere live music show. I am a little afraid of Patti Smith, her life force amid all her tales of dead friends is an astonishing creative power.

*track 6* The Clash – The Magnificent Seven (live in Boston 1982, from From Here To Eternity: Live, 1999)

This live album was released around the same time as Joe Strummer’s first Mescaleros album. I saw that band live, but I’m too young to have seen The Clash, they’re still a massive band in my life. This album always comes out in times of crisis. It’s a fantasy gig from several recordings making up a survey of the band’s career in a way that none of their actual real gigs would have been. Its a protective cloak, an invincible strength.

*track 7* Nina Simone – Sinnerman

Just one of many tracks I could have put in by Nina Simone, another act I will never get to see play live whose work I treasure. At this fantasy concert I am in the audience and it doesn’t matter if this was recorded in a studio or at a concert because it sounds like it’s happening in front of you. “Power.”

*track 8* Jeff Buckley – Je n’en connais pas la fin (Live at Sin-e EP, 1993)

I saw Buckley play live a couple of times, when he was being lauded for his first records. Even if he’d lived, the gigs would have been special. He was ridiculously handsome, funny, with a vocal range that none of the other indie acts of the time came close to. His studio albums have that edge of over production and “classic rock” which was against my religion, but this acoustic EP was a thing of rare beauty. Every note Buckley committed to tape seems to have been released as a “special edition” it’s a cliché, but the music is immortal.

*track 9* Talking Heads – Life During Wartime (Stop Making Sense, 1984)

This is from the album of the concert film. Not really a filmed concert, more a concert as a film. There is another Talking Heads live album (The Name of This Band Is) but Stop Making Sense is the perfection of the form.

 

20 Facts About The Barrowland Ballroom

This weekend was Doors Open Day in Glasgow and I volunteered to be a tour guide around one of my favourite Glasgow places – The Barrowland Ballroom. It’s 20 years since I first went to a gig there, and about 20 years since I first moved to Glasgow, so this felt like a good way to mark the occasion. It’s a unique place – still owned by the family who established it and the market it covers over – it has a very Glaswegian personality all its own. Here some Barrowland facts I put together for my tour:

Mrs Margaret McIver, 1955

Mrs Margaret McIver, 1955

1. The Barrowland was built in 1934 by Margaret McIver – the matriarch of a family of nine children, who originally bought the land and established the market for traders and their “Barras”. The market was covered in 1926 and completely enclosed by 1931. She instructed her builders Hunter and Clark that the ballroom “should not encumber the ground,” and it was built on stilts above the market. It was a ‘Palais de Danse’ with a big band and became the venue for the traders’ annual Christmas party.

2. Due to enormous popularity the ballroom was extended in 1938. The original sign on the roof was a man pushing a barrow, imported from the USA, it was believed to be the first animated neon sign in the UK. A flash mechanism gave the impression of spinning wheels.

002 Original Exterior 1935 City Archives

Exterior 1935, showing original neon “barrow boy” sign

3. The original building was destroyed by fire on 19th August 1958 (just a couple of months after Maggie McIver died). The McIver family rebuilt it and dedicated it to her memory. It was reopened on Christmas Eve 1960.

4. Over the stairs as you enter the present building, there is a cartwheel – from the original neon sign – is the only remaining fixture rescued from the fire.

5. The present neon sign was completed in 1985, it is possibly the largest of its kind in the UK (but no one kept the paperwork) and apparently it costs £1.10 per hour plus VAT in electricity to run!

6. An extra floor was added to the 1960 building. There are 18 vertical columns and cross beams which were added in the late 1980s to reinforce the fabric of the building and accommodate the change of use to a rock venue – 1900 people jumping in unison on the floor above.

7. On the floor of the “crush room” (the additional middle floor which houses the cloakroom, merchandise stand, toilets, support dressing room, production offices and Barrowland 2 bar) is the musical score of the opening line of ‘I Belong To Glasgow’ (written by Dundonian music hall star Will Fyffe in 1920).

The "Crush Room" with musical score on the floor.

The “Crush Room” with musical score on the floor.

8. The area by the ladies which is now closed off used to be the powder room – with alcoves and lots of mirrors for ladies to fix their hair before going upstairs to dance – some used to arrive in their rollers and put the finishing touches to their hairdos before doing upstairs to dance.

The rescued barrow wheel, from commemorative programme 1960

The rescued barrow wheel, from commemorative programme 1960

9.The production rooms and support dressing room. Donald MacLeod of Glasgow promoter CPL says “You canna trash a Barras dressing room because there’s f-all in it!”

10. When The Saw Doctors supported the Waterboys over two nights in 1989, they slept in the support band dressing room on the floor. When they later returned as headliners they requested the support room for old times sake. They’ve since headlined here 36 times – more than any other band.

11.  When Barrowland 2 was Geordie’s Byre in the 1960s, it was home to Glasgow’s first disco – with a DJ. It has been redecorated several times since and now plays host to unsigned bands.

 

12. A team of paranormal investigators spent the night in the venue and claimed that “a man called James with a scar on his face and not much of a home life” was present… according to the staff, there used to be doorman answering that description…

Newspaper advert for the Barrowland, 1944

Newspaper advert for the Barrowland, 1944

13. Upstairs in the main hall, the dance floor is made of specially imported Canadian Maple – underneath is criss-crossed batons to give the floor its springy quality. In its heyday it was considered the best dancefloor in Glasgow. The octagonal lay out is for sequence dancing so dancers can see their place on the floor. Choreographer Michael Clark was intrigued by the floor’s geometry and incorporated it into his Barrowlands Project which took place here in 2012.

14. The stage used to be on the opposite side of the hall but was rebuilt in its present position in the early 1980s. The pillars, made of Australian Walnut go round the back of the present stage.

Interior 1960, from the commemorative programme.

Interior 1960, from the commemorative programme.

15. The oak prize boxes that used to flank the stage – for all manner of games and fun that the band leaders used to involve the audience in – are now in the People’s Palace.

16. In the 1930s, throughout the year the ballroom was rented to bandleader Billy (Bobby?) Blue and the Bluebirds who held regular dances, but canny Maggie McIver saw the queues for the dance nights and could see there was money to be made. She approached the drummer Billy McGregor to form a big band of his own and work for her. And so Billy McGregor and The Gay Birds become the house band. They continued to be the house band well into the 1960s.

17. The Ballroom was rediscovered as a rock venue in the early 1980s, after a stint as a roller disco – when Simple Minds choose it as the location for the video for their song ‘Waterfront‘, filmed there in 1983.

18. The stars on the walls of the main dressing room are often taken as souvenirs by bands – so often that the staff now make their own to replace them. David Bowie is alleged to have one in the bathroom of his Paris home.

19. The crew, many of whom came over from The Apollo when it closed in 1985, include Bill Gunn aged 66 – they’re famed for being able to get even the heaviest of gear up all the stairs without a lift.

Ticket for Simple Minds, 1983

Ticket for Simple Minds, 1983

20. The Barrowland’s first wedding took place on Saturday September 21 2013 (in the middle of the Doors Open Day weekend) when author Nuala Naughton married Dave.  The ceremony took place in the dressing room and the reception was held in Barrowland 2. Nuala’s book, Barrowland: A Glasgow Experience, was launched over the weekend and is the source of a few of these stories, it also contains a list of all the acts to have played at the venue since the relaunch in the 1980s.

 

Thanks to all at the Barrowland, especially General Manager Tom Joyes, the hardest working man in Glasgow!

 

Steve Reich Radio Rewrite: Part One: Everything In Its Reich Place

Last month I went down to London to hear the premiere of Steve Reich‘s Radiohead-inspired piece Radio Rewrite at The Royal Festival Hall.

Image: Angela Catlin

Steve Reich. Image: Angela Catlin

My crash course in the music of Steve Reich begins in London. My visit is to attend the premier of his new piece inspired by the music of Radiohead, performed by musicians of the London Sinfonietta.

We live in an age of musical convergence, and it seems only fitting that the man described as “the single most influential composer of the late 20th century” should bridge the gap between contemporary and popular music in such a way.
This is not the London Sinfonietta’s first association with Radiohead. They collaborated with Jonny Greenwood (along with Thom Yorke and the Nazareth Orchestra) for 2005’s Ether Festival and have often performed Greenwood’s pieces for orchestra, Popcorn Superhet Receiver and Smear.

It was a meeting with Greenwood that sparked Reich’s interested in Radiohead’s music. The guitarist performed the composer’s Electric Counterpoint at a festival in Poland. Impressed by Greenwood’s interpretation of his work, Reich found time to listen to Radiohead and was drawn to two songs in particular: Everything In Its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place.
It is fitting for me to be back at the Royal Festival Hall for this performance. This is the same stage on which I saw Radiohead perform material from Kid A at 2000’s Meltdown Festival, the first UK performance of those songs.

Kid A draws on electronic and minimalist musical influences and is regarded as a breakthrough for a band who transcend simple description as a “rock” act. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, after all this is the band that used Olivier Messiaen’s stark Quartet for the End of Time – written when the composer was held in a World War Two concentration camp – as intro music for their shows way back in 1995.

To my rock-trained ears Steve Reich’s precise, tightly notated works, performed in the rarefied atmosphere of the symphony hall, seem a little clinical. Clapping Music, using the technique of subtly shifting the phase of rhythm, is deceptively simple; Electric Counterpoint, here performed by Mats Bergstrom, is made up of shimmering guitar chords over a prepared backing; 2×5 plays with a rock band format while fitting into the Reich’s classical music lineage.

There are sounds that remind me of Tortoise and other “math rock” bands in 2×5 yet it is “chamber music for rock instruments” driven by bass and piano rather than drums. For Double Sextet, Reich mans the mixing desk in his distinctive baseball cap.

Radio Rewrite comes in the second half. I can catch the melodies more easily than the harmonic progressions, there are shadows of the Radiohead songs as it moves from slow to fast, from Everything In Its Right Place to Jigsaw and back. Threads of the songs remain but they’re hard to spot. These are not two songs I would have linked together, but certain chords ring out as similar to Reich’s other works, there are moments where you can identify Radiohead but as channelled through Steve Reich’s ears.

My experience of Everything In Its Right Place is as a visceral live concert closer. I’ve stood in a huge crowd numerous times and clapped the off-beats to Phil Selway’s drums and it’s astonishing how the same piece of music can inspire such utterly different reactions and interpretations.

Steve Reich talks briefly about the work at the end of the show, the structure of the song, the way it is dissonant while still having a tonic… I don’t have enough theoretical language to explain it but I understand what he means. It is EVERYTHING.