Sunday, March 29, 2015

Roc and role

As the presenter himself wryly noted, St Patrick's Day was a curious date for Radio 4 to choose to schedule Gareth Gwynn's Little Book Of Welsh Rock. While the half-hour programme was nothing new to aficionados such as the Welsh friend I recommended it to and too short to give real insight, it was nevertheless a useful crash course for someone like me who doesn't speak the language and wasn't familiar with the bands and the history.

Satirist Gwynn traced the Welsh-language rock movement back to its beginnings in the 1960s with earnest folkie Dafydd Iwan, through Peel-approved punk and post-punk in the late 1970s, on to the so-called "Cool Cymru" set of the post-Britpop period (Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci), and right up to the present day.

In the early days, when the national language wasn't even officially recognised, simply performing "roc cymraeg" was a provocative and inherently political act, a means of fighting for the preservation of Welsh culture. As Iwan commented, the enemy and the objectives were clear. As time wore on, though, the waters became more muddied, both by infighting between North and South Walians over the concept of "proper Welsh" and particularly by concerns about insularity.

In his book Spoken Here, Mark Abley argues that the revival of the Welsh language is a great success story, one founded on the refusal to defensively close ranks and exclude outsiders and on the determination to reach out and (literally) spread the word - so the argument that Welsh-language rock partially fell victim to exclusionist dogma, preaching to the converted while remaining unknown beyond Offa's Dyke, is interesting. Gwynn highlighted the amusing example of the Super Furries being banned from performing the English sections of bilingual songs at the Eisteddfod, and responding in characteristically cheeky fashion by whistling them instead while handing out lyric sheets with the words translated into Japanese and French.

Welsh-language rock no longer has the political force and content it once did - probably, Iwan suggested, because those original objectives have been achieved. The principality has its own assembly government and TV station, things that would have been inconceivable in the 1960s. It's nevertheless a situation Iwan admitted pains him slightly. Young bands like Y Ffug are even consciously and openly turning their backs on the past - controversial for some of the older guard like Iwan, no doubt, but a political act in its own way in that they are refusing to dwell on battles won or lost and instead looking to the future.

One thing I took away from the programme was a newfound appreciation of the fact that Manic Street Preachers hardly sprang up in splendid isolation - on the contrary, despite singing in English, they belong to a long lineage and tradition of fiercely nationalist political music. 'Ready For Drowning', as a tale of the flooding of a Welsh village to create a reservoir to supply water to Liverpool and Manchester, has clear precedents.

The other take-home message was that I need to investigate Peel favourites Datblygu - commonly labelled "the Welsh Fall" - albeit in the company of someone who can translate David R Edwards' sardonic lyrics in the same way that Gwynn had Elis James to help him out. Edwards used to teach at the school my friend went to, and would apparently spend his lunchtimes sat in his car drinking vodka. Imagine receiving an education from a drunk Welsh Mark E Smith...


skif said...

Great tip. Not just cos of the subject matter, but Gareth Gwynn is a pal of Ms. Gilroy (they both worked at the Pleasance Courtyard in Edinburgh in 2005) so she'll be keen to hear this too.

Ben said...

Happy to be of service! Seems like a nice chap - took the trouble to thank me for listening on Twitter.