The “Welsh” issue

Apart from the Language, there is very little that makes Welsh popular music “Welsh”. Most new bands in the Welsh Rock Scene are influenced by Anglo-American bands ( Gorky’s have been compared in the NME to Soft Machine and The Beach Boys) since they are a symbol of success and fame. This also reflects the (lack of) influence that Welsh music has had on much of Wales’ youth in the I990s. Welsh traditional music is often considered too modal or “odd-sounding” for many bands to perform, and many feel that it would be pointless playing more “traditional” Welsh music without the correct instrumentation. Since guitars, drums, keyboards and brass instruments are what most of these young bands include in: their line-up, they feel that they get their influences from bands who use a similar line-up or play a style of music that they Like. Calon y Ddraig are influenced by Metallica and hard rock, Diems are influenced by Van Halen‘s guitars an Aerosmith‘s horn section, Dylanwad Drwg are influenced by Bon Jovi in the way they sing vocal harmony. These direct results of familiarity – the bands are more influenced by these Anglo-American groups because their music can be heard all around them while Welsh traditional music seems to keep a low profile outside of its clubs and venues.

Catatonia have proved that the language is the only aspect of Welsh music that is “Welsh” by recording two versions of “New Mercurial Heights” for their “Catatonia'” EP in 1993, one sung in English, the other in Welsh ( “Gyda Gwen”). This is not an isolated incident. The Alarm released their final album “Alarm” in both English and Welsh at the end of the 80s, as did lead singer Mike Peters with his solo single “Back into the System”/”Nol Mewn i’r System” and album “Breathe”/”Aer” in 1994. Mike Peters was believed to be “returning to his roots” as a Welshman, but Tecwyn of Welsh rock band Calon y Ddraig believes there are other motives behind the release of bilingual formats.

Ankst (one of the major Welsh record labels) said that they were set up to promote Welsh music and that they wouldn’t record any English bands, while Sain (Ankst’s rival Label, and the longest-running in Wales) had english-reggae band One Style on their books. But with Gorky’s, they seem to have changed their tune.” He believes that if something will make money, then your principles have to take a back seat.

Since being noticed by the NME, Gorky’s have recorded more tracks in English, including The Game Of Eyes, Miss Trudy and a cover- version of the Soft Machine track Why Are We Sleeping. It seems that however fashionable Welsh music may be at the moment, English songs are still needed for anyone outside Wales to take any notice. But are bands like Gorky’s and Catatonia “selling out” by adapting their art to suit a wider audience? Bari, of Diems and Socrates: “Yes, but everyone’s got to do it. They’re doing it for their own good, and if that’s what makes them successful, well…” Guitarist Jo Webb agrees. “If you were offered a million pounds or a multi-album deal with a major label, would you change from being a Welsh band to an English band? Most people would sign up without a second thought, and if they say they wouldn’t then they’re liars”.

Gorky’s are certainly in a better position than any other band to promote the Welsh Rock Scene and the Welsh language, but will they continue to do so? There seems to be some amount of misunderstanding in the music press about Gorky’s and the Welsh language, much of it caused by the band itself. Lead singer Euros Childs: “We’re not after justice for the Welsh language, we just like the sound of it sometimes” (NME, 08/04/35). In the introduction to the same interview, Ted Kessler writes “Sometimes they sing in Welsh”, though the majority of the 13 tracks on their last album Tatay (1994) were sung in Welsh, as well as all 21 songs on their debut album Patio (1993). These comments lead the nation to believe that Gorky’s are an English-language band who occasionally sing in their native tongue, but this is not strictly the case.

Worse than misleading the nation is misleading new bands who believe that including a few English lyrics will guarantee them media attention, even if the bands deny that this is the case. Tecwyn (Calon y Ddraig: “I don’t think that singing in English detracts from the message of our songs. The language of the song depends on its content, its nature and the audience the song is aimed at. I don’t choose to write in English because it’s fashionable or whatever, every song needs something different to make it work” (translated from Sothach! February 1995)

Two or three years ago it was unheard of for a Welsh band to record an English song or to record vocals in English. Not only was it politically unsound, but it seemed to defeat the purpose of being in a Welsh band, which to many was a way of voicing discontent at the way the English continued to invade and oppress Wales and the Welsh. The important thing was that singing in Welsh guaranteed a modest amount of national success because of the close nature of the Welsh Rock Scene. English-language bands in the north may tour and release material for years, but they may never become known outside their own town/area. Since the Welsh Rock Scene is a structured network of venues and organsations which help promote Welsh music throughout Wales, nationwide links such as Radio Cymru (which plays Welsh-language music from folk to pop to easy listening) and Welsh newspaper Y Cymro (which is distributed to all Welsh-speaking areas both inside and outside Wales) guarantee some amount of success for any band that is touring or has recorded material to promote. In this respect Welsh-speaking bands are more fortunate than their- English-speaking counter parts, but does the language alienate a large part of the potential audience: is Welsh music for the ears of the Welsh only?

A factor that is believed to have led to the decline of the Welsh Rock Scene in recent years has been the rise of the dance scene and raves, where the atmosphere (and even the audience) is totally different to the one found at the more traditional rock gig. Perhaps the reason for the rise of the dance scene is that language is not a barrier to its enjoyment. Deian Owen of Diems – “Who’s going to go to a gig if you can’t understand what’s being said? No matter how good the music is, part of the fun of going to a gig is being able to sing along with songs that you know, or songs that are catchy and have a simple chorus”.

Welsh band Diffiniad have attempted to merge the Welsh Rock scene with the dance scene, as have Ty Gwydr before them at the end of the 80s. Diffiniad’s album Discodawn was released in the summer of 1993 and owed much to the British House and Techno scenes. The only difference was that all the lyrics were sung in Welsh. Deian Owen (Diems) – “Though the music onDiscodawn was different to anything released in Welsh before, it was still in Welsh” and as a result didn’t do as much as it intended to reconcile the rift between the Welsh Rock Scene and its audience. Tracks such as C’mon! Co Ni’n Mynd ( C’mon! We’re Moving) or Edrych Arna Ti (Looking At You) were played on Radio Cymru but rarely in public events such as discos, except for discos organised by Yr Urdd (an organisation that promotes the Welsh language among children in Wales).

One track on the compilation tape Gog Rock is Cadfael and is different to the other tracks in that it is a dance track, but unlike Diffiniad, there are no vocals. Deian co-wrote the track and said of it “It’s meant to appeal to more people, hence its appearance on the tape as a Dub version. We wanted to pretend that there are lyrics to it just that we chose to use the dub. To stop it being just a normal instrumental, we used Gregorian chants in the middle section and this got us out of the problem of What vocals to use.” He sees Cadfael as an opportunity since there seems to be a gap in the market for dance music in Wales, and if there are no vocals to limit its possibilities, he believes it could break through into the non-Welsh market.

More new bands tend to look towards Anglo-American bands for their influences. In a gig at the Bryncynan Arms, Nefyn, on March 3rd I995, three Welsh bands performed, two of which (Cherrybombs and Dylanwad Drwg) performed cover versions of Anglo-American songs, including Stiltskin’s “Inside”, The Cranberries” “Zombie” (both by Cherrybombs) and Green Day’s “Basket Case” (Dylanwad Drwg). The inclusion of these cover versions shows that the bands have a cynical understanding of the audience to which they are performing. Alun Pritchard (Cherrybombs) – “Kids relate more to English or American bands than they do to Welsh bands, since American culture is all around us. The kids hear these songs on the radio, see them on TV or MTV or whatever, and buy them in local shops. They read the music press, who tells them that these bands are cool, while Welsh music is harden to get hold of, less publicised and the kids normally associate Welsh music with: old stagers Like Dafydd Iwan or Meic Stevens, which aren’t all that cool to be honest. If you want to be a success locally, you have to give the audience what they want to hear, and if that’s American music on whatever, you’ve got to give it to them.”

Language doesn’t seem to be a problem for every band tough. Hywel Wigley, previously of Welsh guitar band Aros Mae, runs the independent company Do Re Mi Ffwnc, and believes that it is possible to be successful in the international market by bypassing Britain altogether. He works with artists and musicians to promote the Celtic heritage of Welsh bands contracted to him by inventing a Celtic design for each band and then attempting to “sell” their image to other Celtic nations, such as Ireland or Brittany. Welsh punk band Vaffan Coulo has contributed material to compilation tapes in Czechoslovakia, Greece, Sweden, Germany, Singapore and Japan. Lead singer Jo Shooman believes this offers them different opportunities on the international “underground” scene, and takes them away from Wales for a while. He believes that being part of an underground scene, being written about in fanzines, and signing recording deals in other countries is important to a band’s development in that it offers new touring possibilities and allows bands to see how the industry works outside Wales.

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