PRINT October 1996


Welsh Rock

JUST A STONE’S THROW away from Joe Orton’s old stomping grounds, the four man, one woman group Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci take the small stage of the Garage in Highbury Park. Though they’re all in their early to mid 20s, they make no concession to the Britpop uniform of ’70s retro and sports stripes. Dressed simply in T-shirts and jeans, they dive straight into the twists and turns of songs like “Paid Cheto Ar Pam” (Don’t cheat on Pam), “Miss Trudy,” and “The Game of Eyes”—Brian Wilson–like melodies interspersed with moments of furious trance rocking. Singer Euros Childs tosses his head and pumps his keyboard with all the insouciant charm of the Pied Piper.

Fresh from a short tour opening for the Manic Street Preachers (the previous generation of Welsh rockers), Gorky’s almost surprise themselves with the concise speed of their performance. The audience—a smattering of indie kids, escapees from the northwest of England, and a healthy Japanese contingent—pays attention during the quiet bits and moshes when the repetition kicks in. Even the lads next to me, Oasis-fresh in their polo shirts and white jeans, surrender their gawky machismo and succumb to the hints of Glam lurking in Gorky’s skewed innocence. Afterward, the group, tired but polite, receive the British and American representatives of their future record company: London is, after all, a place where business gets done.

After years of being ignored or, worse, insulted in terms that border on racist, Welsh pop has found its voice. Gorky’s breakthrough record, last year’s U.K. indie chart–topping Bwyd Time, is part of a trio of remarkable albums that has come, not only out of Wales, but out of one label, Ankst, and one particular studio on the island of Anglesey, Gorwel Stiwdio Ofn. Along with Super Furry Animals’ Fuzzy Logic and Ectogram’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Reggae, Bwyd Time captures an organic hybrid as initially unfamiliar but compelling as German language rock 25 years ago. The link between these cultures—enshrined by Ectogram’s epic 15-minute improv on Faust’s minimalist mantra. “J’ai mal au dent/J’ai mal au pied aussi”—isn’t so surprising given that both have achieved some autonomy from Anglo/American dominated pop.

Gorky’s write and sing in Welsh (as do Ectogram), switching at will to English as if it were the most natural thing in the world—take the wonderful “Merched Yn Neud Gwallt Eu Gilydd” (Girls doing each other’s hair)—much as they switch from the queasy dreaminess of the English psychedelic eccentrics (Kevin Ayers, Syd Barrett) to the great drinking song in “Lechyd Da” (Good health), complete with sitar, chinking glasses, and bar operatics. If some of Bwyd Time and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Reggae are in an unfamiliar language, the seductiveness of the production carries you through. What unites these three groups is an insistence on psychedelic sound: each record is full of tangential noises and sonic experiments, all matched to a strong lyric discipline. Everything is there to be played with; nothing is sacred.

If Gorky’s are the squirrely kids off building tree houses and declaring unilateral independence, Super Furry Animals have commandeered the hi-fi in the book-lined study, spinning conspiracy theories, and occasionally doing the monkey dance to a particularly stupid Steely Dan riff. Superficially more laddish, they have been slotted into the whole post-Oasis matrix; yet even a quick skim of Fuzzy Logic reveals a group full of wit, brains, and, yes, a distinct Welsh perspective, evident in the choice of local heroes on the sleeve: famed cannabis smuggler Howard Marks and glam weather girl Sian Lloyd. Matched to rowdy ’70s riffs and synth expansion noises are sharp lyrics full of an everyday surrealism—another hero is UFO abductee Frank Fontaine—and the occasional shaft of bitter insight, “You and I united by/itemised bills,” spit out on the tenderly acoustic “Gathering Moss.”

Meanwhile, Ectogram are locked into the 24-track studio in the courtyard, watching ’60s beat exploitation films, experimenting with sitars and sine waves, overloading the equipment with trebly Jaguar guitars. A determinedly art-rock ensemble, Ectogram springboard off their avant-obsessions (from Faust and Pere Ubu to Television and Sonic Youth) to something ambitious and full-fledged. Singing and writing in a multiplicity of voices, Ann Matthews moves from nature mysticism (the beaches and sandbanks of “The Time is Now”) through flat-out guitar rockers like “I Set It Far From Wrong” to the double-take, pro-fern commentary of “Her Mood Swings”—disturbance set to a childlike, almost sickly sweet pop tune with a tantalizing hint of autobiography as the payoff.

Far from the dominance of London and its media, these groups have created a unique pop hybrid that wears its inventiveness easily. In this, they reflect the final success of the separatist movement they are now transcending: Welsh nationalism has created a space and an infrastructure for these groups—all of whom have been playing for nearly ten years—to develop and flourish at their own pace. The result shames the restrictive, self-censoring parochialism of Britpop: besides a sense of gleeful experiment, these three groups share an almost pagan sense of wonder and pleasure—partly engendered by the beauty of a country where the mountains meet the sea. Listening to them, you feel that the world is still a place of possibility.

Jon Savage is a writer living in London. He is coeditor, with Hanif Kureishi, of The Faber Book of Pop.