Cover Stories

A great deal of what follows is true

Track 1

On Saturday 6 July 1957, the unexpectedly hot weather saw the British public shed a little of their customary reserve and head for the seaside, or – failing that – the nearest park. The Liverpool Echo that evening reported that ‘Corporation buses bound for Woolton, Aigburth Vale, and other outlying districts of the city were full, many people carrying picnic hampers.’
Some of those Woolton-bound picnickers may have settled down with their sandwiches and lemonade behind St Peter’s Church, where the annual fête (tickets 2/-, refreshments at moderate prices) was taking place. Fate and fête collided in the afternoon sunshine and a musical legend was born.
A sixteen-year-old lad named John, wearing a checked T-shirt and black jeans, led his strictly amateur band, the Quarry Men Skiffle Group, through their paces on the makeshift stage. Afterwards he struck up a conversation with another local lad named Paul. He recalled the afternoon over twenty-three years later, just hours before his senseless murder in the streets of New York:
A mutual friend brought him to see my group. And we met and talked after the show and I saw he had talent and he was playing guitar backstage and doing ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ by Eddie Cochran and I turned to him right then on first meeting and said do you want to join the group and he said um hmm you know hmm de hmm and I think he said yes the next day as I recall it.
They plodded on for a couple of years, learning the hits of the time – Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, the US discs brought over by older relatives and friends in the Merchant Navy – as well as a smattering of folk songs and standards to keep their parents happy.
Then they started writing songs of their own – and found (to their amazement) that people liked them. After a while, audiences started to prefer these original compositions to the covers they’d started out playing. There were lots of other lads in the city doing the same thing, but it was John and Paul’s group that became really big before any of the others. They were even able to sell songs to other bands who were starting out. People in far-off towns heard their music on the radio and were inspired by what they heard.

Track 2

On 17 October 1961, on platform 2 of Dartford Station in Kent, two old schoolfriends met by chance. Mike was on his way to the London School of Economics; Keith was on his way to Sidcup Art College. They’d been divided – educationally and socially – by the 11-plus examination, and were reconnected by the objects they were holding: each had a Chuck Berry record under his arm.
Less than six months later, the reunited friends met a third lad named Brian, at a club in Ealing in Middlesex. Brian, originally from Cheltenham, had recently had a letter published in Disc, praising the American blues scene which the other boys so admired. They decided to try and form a band, playing the style of music they loved so much. The first part was easy, because all the songs had already been written for them by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and the rest. Then two lads from Liverpool offered to lend them a song they’d written, so that the boys could bring it out as a record.

Track 3

In the autumn of 1962, two young middle-class artists from Cambridge had just embarked on a two-year course at the city’s technical college. One day, a new record came over the radio, by a northern English group neither of the boys had heard of. The more musically minded of the pair, named Roger, grabbed his mate by the shoulder and said, ‘Storm, man, this is it!’
It took less than five years for young Roger Barrett to get together with some more schoolmates and form a band. Storm Thorgerson took photos and his design team worked on the band’s visuals. The band went on to become of the world’s biggest-selling and most acclaimed rock acts over its forty-odd year career, only winding up when one of the founder members passed away.

Track 4

When I was about twelve years old, the BBC broadcast a recorded concert by a chap named Mike Oldfield. It was a name I knew, primarily because Mr Oldfield had been commissioned to record an updated version of the Blue Peter TV show theme. The programme had followed the recording process from start to finish, showing Mr Oldfield laying down each instrumental track in turn, building up the layers of the final piece. That sparked my interest in electronic music, studio technology, and the whole business of playing instruments. Listening to the BBC’s broadcast of Incantations was therefore the next logical step.
Five years later I’d followed the threads of Mr Oldfield’s musical career, and those of his collaborators, into a complex web woven by some of Britain’s most inventive, experimental and interesting people. The survivors keep on writing, recording, occasionally performing, and people keep on buying their records. Few, if any, have ever had a hit single in the UK.

The remixed version

On Saturday 6 July 1957, the unexpectedly hot weather saw the British public shed a little of their customary reserve and head for the seaside, or – failing that – the nearest park. The Liverpool Echo that evening reported that ‘Corporation buses bound for Woolton, Aigburth Vale, and other outlying districts of the city were full, many people carrying picnic hampers.’ Some of those Woolton-bound picnickers may have settled down with their sandwiches and lemonade behind St Peter’s Church, where the annual fête (tickets 2/-, refreshments at moderate prices) was taking place.
A sixteen-year-old lad named John, wearing a checked T-shirt and black jeans, led his strictly amateur band, the Quarry Men Skiffle Group, through their paces on the makeshift stage. Afterwards he struck up a conversation with another local lad named Paul. Soon, John and Paul started a rock’n’roll band together with some pals.
And they plodded on for a couple of years, learning the rock ’n’ roll hits of the time – Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, the US songs brought over by relatives and friends in the Merchant Navy – as well as a smattering of folk songs and easy listening standards to keep their parents happy. One day, they suddenly realised that hardly anybody was coming to see them any more. Without even realising it, they’d exhausted their repertoire of familiar, catchy, easy-to-hum danceable numbers. They had written some strong, catchy, easy-to-hum, danceable numbers of their own, of course. But no one would give them a chance to play them.
‘Play “Twenty Flight Rock”!’ the crowd would scream after the first verse; or else, ‘Play “Roll Over Beethoven”!’; or else, ‘Play “Peggy Sue”!’
And so the four young boys decided to concentrate on their college work, or just went back to their day jobs.
Meanwhile, in London, Mike, Keith and Brian plodded on for a while, and then gave up because they’d played all the songs they liked. If they tried to play one of their own compositions, the audience would howl them down.
‘Play “Come On”!’, they would shout, or else ‘Play “Little Red Rooster”!’
Mike studied hard at the LSE and eventually became a teacher, where his extravagant classroom antics were only witnessed by a few dozen teenagers at a time. He never did take to ‘Mick’ as a nickname. Keith and Brian got day jobs too. Roger Barrett became a painter, while his three mates became architects. Mike Oldfield continued to play guitar in folk clubs and picked up some session work now and again. They all lived unhappily ever after, because this parallel existence of middle-class conformity didn’t suit any of them at all.
Go back to the beginning of the timeline and follow this other branch – the one where John Lennon and Paul McCartney decided to take an early bath – to its very end. Would Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones have decided to keep their band together, if Lennon and McCartney’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ hadn’t been available for them to record as an early single? What (if anything) would young Syd Barrett have been turned on by, if ‘Love Me Do’ hadn’t come on the radio? What would have inspired Mike Oldfield to turn away from folk music and move into a rock idiom? Would there even have been a rock idiom without the famous meeting between the Beatles and Bob Dylan?
Or would you have grown up in a world of show tunes and schmaltzy ballads, of novelty songs and cowboy songs, of Cliff Richard songs and Tommy Steele songs and Perry Como songs and Jim Reeves songs. For ever.
Following this Path of Least Resistance means that we’d have ended up more or less where we are anyway, six decades on: with a chart full of shitty love songs, written by a total pool of two or three people and sung by a host of manufactured acts who will be forgotten in a few months’ time, while people like Simon Cowell make all the money out of the suckers who claim to ‘love music’ but who actually care nothing for it. Not one jot!
They just swallow the crap that comes out of the radio, without ever questioning it or wondering if there’s something different on the other channels. They never buy a record or go to a real gig. They never read the music papers to find out more about the rest of the scene – and yet they’ll tell anyone who listens that they ‘love music’. Most people who claim to ‘love Indian food’ never venture beyond chicken tikka masala. It’s the same with music.
Every sizeable town has at least one place – usually a large pub or club of some description – catering for this audience. You can see the endless parade of ‘top quality artists’ filing through their doors every weekend. Only a small minority of them ever pick up a musical instrument; the karaoke gear they bring with them does all the heavy lifting. They sing the same set as everybody else (not necessarily in the right order) and walk away with 150 notes in their arse pocket. Ask them why, and this is what they’ll tell you: ‘We only play the “crowd pleasers” because that’s people want to hear. Nobody wants to hear original songs, or songs they don’t know.’
It’s exactly what John Lennon didn’t say to Paul McCartney on 6 July 1957.
I ask you to imagine all this, because your own musical adventure never even began, because British popular music was stillborn behind St Peter’s Church in Woolton, when Paul told John, ‘You’ll never get anywhere trying to write your own songs. It isn’t what people what to hear.’
You grew up in a world of show tunes and schmaltzy ballads, of novelty songs and cover versions, of Ed Sheeran tunes and Diane Warren tunes and Andrew Lloyd-Webber tunes. For ever.
Is that really what you want?
Or do you want to stand up and be counted?
If your musical tastes are a bit more discerning than The X Factor and the John Lewis Xmas ads, we know just the place for you. We have somewhere in Aberdare where you can come without having to endure cries of ‘Play “The Crowd Pleasing One”!’, or ‘Play “The One That Got to Number 1”!’, or ‘Play “Something We Know”!’. Because simply playing those will get you nowhere, and it never would have. If you can’t play an instrument yourself, don’t worry – we know plenty of people who can. If you can play a bit, but don’t know where to go next, come down and have a knock. Another fine innovator and musical elder statesman, who has been around for fifty years without ever troubling the Official Charts Company or its predecessors, once said: ‘Practising for fifteen hours a day only makes you very good at practising. Playing makes you good at playing.’
A word of warning: you probably won’t enjoy everything you hear after you walk through the doors. Good! If you slavishly like everything you hear, without question or criticism, you’re in the core demographic for Heart FM. There’s a ‘top quality artiste’ in the village club on Saturday night. Go and listen to that crap instead. You deserve each other.
If, on the other hand, you’d like to have your musical prejudices challenged, your horizons broadened, and your circle of friends expanded, what are you waiting for? Thirty-odd years ago, a chance afternoon meeting with a friend led me into a pub full of musicians, of all tastes and ages. In my heart, I never really left.
Jac’s can do that for you. What are you waiting for?

The Inevitable Pinhole Burns

Apologies for the poor quality photos. My camera isn’t great for indoor shots. And drummers always hide at the back these days.

To kick January firmly into touch, we hosted possibly our best gig to date last night: three bands playing entirely original material. The headline act were an unknown quantity to me, in fairness. While we were chatting about the gig, ages ago, Barrie described them as ‘Folk Rock’. They certainly sounded intriguing enough – quirky songs about life in Wales and their experiences of travelling. (At the risk of public execution, dare I say it’s the sort of thing Kelly Jones used to write about before his creative juices dried up, around the third LP?)
Discount Columbo were on the poster, but when I got inside there was no sign of Connor and the others. Most bands won’t get far without a bass player. Mind you, it was his birthday on Friday. I’ll throw a nice word your way: crapulous. The Chambers Dictionary defines it as ‘sick through intemperance’. (Hung-over to buggery, in plain English.) There was still no sign of them when Heavy Flames took to the stage. I wondered if they were going to throw a collective sickie.
A six-piece band, Heavy Flames have been gigging steadily around South Wales for quite a few years. In spite of the fact that Dai Hill, their singer, and Lee Harvey, one of the guitarists, are old pals of mine, I hadn’t managed to catch them at all until last October. At the time I described them as having ‘a hard bluesy sound and great presence’.
On Saturday night they’d changed their approach entirely. With not one but two sit-down acoustic guitarists, a rock-solid rhythm section, a fine harp player (no, not the traditional Celtic instrument), and Dai doing his stuff in front of the stage, their sound was much easier on the ears than last time. It made a welcome change from the sledgehammer approach of too many bands these days. A couple of songs in, Dai assured the audience that they only play original material. That’s a good sign as well.
I spoke to Dai on Sunday, and he was very pleased with their change of direction. I hope Heavy Flames decide to continue along those lines. It’s a classic sound without being derivative or cliched.(I know comparisons are lazy journalism, but early Nine Below Zero would be a decent benchmark.) I’ll definitely be popping into Red House Music in Aberdare Market this week to pick up their CD.
Heavy Flames had finished their set before Connor and the rest of Discount Columbo strolled in. He didn’t look especially crapulous, but he did decline my offer of a birthday pint so I think he was slightly unwell. The band are based in Bristol – they met at university – so we can probably ascribe their late arrival to the legendary Brynglas Tunnel Effect.
I’ve only seen Discount Columbo once before, too. That was a packed ‘end of the pub’ gig, and the nature of the venue didn’t do them any great favours. I was looking forward to seeing them on a proper stage and hearing them through a decent PA.
They describe themselves as a Britpop band, but (as with Folk Rock) that label covers a multitude of sins. I wasn’t a fan of the whole Britpop thing (apart from Pulp), but Discount Columbo bring something new to the table. They’ve got some great melodies and cool harmonies, and the acoustic guitars just accentuated this more laid-back aspect of their music. Matt, the drummer, had probably the most minimal set-up since Crass recorded their first demo tape.
I had a bit of shock when Jake, their front man, introduced a song from their first EP which ‘came out two years ago’. It seems like only yesterday that Connor introduced himself to me on the train to Cardiff. He’ll be finishing university this summer. Doesn’t time fly?
Discount Columbo are constantly gigging around the country, and over Xmas they posted this summary of their 2017 activity on Facebook:
11 released songs, 2 EP launches, 14 cities, 42 gigs, 33 venues,1 new member, 6045 streams, 3 live videos, 25 new songs, 2 music degrees,1 new manager, 3 live sessions, 3 music videos, 7 trips over severn bridge [sic], 10 radio stations, 1 bow tie, 1 vehicle breakdown,1 new car, 3348 miles.
And not a TV ‘talent’ show in sight. These lads (and lass) are certainly paying their dues, as we say in the biz.
A lot of student bands can be rather unimaginative and samey, in my opinion. Discount Columbo definitely manage to do something worthy of repeated listening. I bought the EP at the earlier gig, and it’s strong enough to merit closer examination.
I sometimes envy today’s youngsters, who get to study pop/rock/whatever music to degree level, learn about the mechanics of the business, and build a network of contacts that will set them in good stead for years to come. It’s a great way to develop your skills, and it’s little wonder that so many bands have come out of the university circuit in recent years. It used to be a sideline for arts students back in the day. Studying ‘Music’ was all about playing an instrument at Grade 8 and joining an orchestra. Not any more. If only I were thirty-five years younger … (And talented? – Ed.)
Which brings us to the headline band – the Blims. A quick note to readers outside the South Wales Valleys: you won’t find the word ‘blim’ in any of the dictionaries I use in my day job. I’m reliably informed that a blim is a small piece of burning cannabis resin which falls out of a joint and burns a little hole in your T-shirt, or whatever you’re wearing at the time.
(My drug of choice has only ever come in a glass. It was about twenty years before I realised what Pink Floyd meant in the line ‘I’ve got the inevitable pinhole burns all down the front of my favourite satin shirt.’) But I digress …
The Blims are from Bridgend. There’s always been a lively scene over there, and it’s surprising that more people don’t make the journey between our respective towns. But I will admit to having misgivings from the outset. It was their name that put me off. It’s been many years since I last watched EastEnders. (Phil Mitchell was still sober), but I can only remember two Welsh characters. One was a gobby, self-righteous and obnoxious Trotskyite. The other was a permanently stoned layabout, who could have been modelled on one of my friends. (In fact, my mate would have been ideal for the part.)
As far as the good folk across Offa’s Dyke know, we’re all either plotting the overthrow of global capitalism, or zonked off our chops the whole time. Or playing rugby. Or dropping the F-bomb during a live broadcast of a music industry awards ceremony. Or doing unspeakable things with sheep.
I had an uneasy feeling that the Blims would basically reinforce this stereotype. But after my extended riff on the theme in ‘Cover Stories’, I had to put my money where my mouth is. And I am partial to a bit of Folk Rock, although I’m more Fairport Convention than the Saw Doctors, and IMHO the Levellers just ripped off the best bits from Blyth Power. (Who they? – Ed.) I was prepared to have my preconceptions challenged.
‘Demolished’ would be a better word. The Blims are older than I expected. You can reflect on your life experiences when you’ve lived a bit. Two songs in, I knew that Barrie’s enthusiastic plugging hadn’t been in vain. They have nice hooks, strong tunes and clever lyrics, with acoustic guitars at the forefront. They also have the sort of witty observations that characterised Billy Bragg’s early career.
Naturally, there was a song about rugby, but ‘Sideburns and Sidesteps’ – written to celebrate the Welsh Grand Slam in 2012 – is a far cry from Max Boyce’s turgid stuff. And it’s a great title, too. Maybe EastEnders could portray the Queen Vic being plunged into misery after we beat the English. Just a thought.
The Blims demonstrated great songwriting abilities, and they were never in danger of being derivative or cliched. Even when they pastiched reggae and C&W styles, they did it with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. In fact, all three bands proved that you don’t need to turn everything up to 11 to get your point across. It’s nice to dial it back from time to time. The Blims very kindly endorsed the venue, too. We had a good chat afterwards, I bought their CDs, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be back in due course.
And finally …
If you didn’t come to our pre-rugby warm-up gig because ‘I haven’t heard of them’ – get with the bloody programme! Or even better, get with the program. That’s why Soundcloud and Bandcamp and Spotify and YouTube exist in the first place. They give you a chance to try before you buy, so to speak. If you weren’t here, you missed a real treat. Just over two decades ago you hadn’t heard of Stereophonics, Catatonia or the Manic Street Preachers. As Councillor Duxbury says in Billy Liar: ‘Think on, lad! Think on.’

Always Wear Ear Protection

The evening of 12 January was the latest of Connor Llewellyn and Mitch Tennant’s Blowout indie/alternative showcases. I’ve been promising the boys for ages that I’ll pop along, so I was pretty much the first punter on parade. (Connor hadn’t even set up the door when I arrived, so the bugger scammed me out of a quid on the grounds that he ‘didn’t have any change’.)
I made some notes as I went along, and I’ve typed them up pretty much as they stand. Please bear in mind that I’m the wrong side of forty (and then some), so I probably don’t fall into the target demographic for Blowout – but first impressions are important.


Power trio – three young lads. Very nice guitar work from the main man, strong basslines, great riffs and a solid backbeat. Pixies influence quite apparent, but have potential to explore new ground. I bought their five-track EP Milk Teeth for a mere pound. You’ll pay that for a sliced loaf and not get as much wholesome goodness for your cash. Oddly enough, there are four people credited on the sleeve notes. Maybe they’re like The League of Gentlemen, and one of them stays out of sight. Who can tell?


Another trio. More punky than Tusk – maybe how The Jam might have sounded in a parallel universe where Carnaby Street didn’t exist. More aggressive musically (in a good way), harder and faster than Tusk, but also rather aggressive and a little off-putting between songs. They set up a resonating wave through the furniture at one point. That takes some doing, fair play.

Stiff Necks

Yet another trio. This is bad news for me, as rhythm guitarists and keyboard players seemed doomed to extinction. Perhaps, as in Roger Waters’ famous quip, I’ll end up on the drum stool. Chunky basslines, solid drumming and some nice riffs, but I had the feeling that the main man’s heart wasn’t really in it.
After three quite similar bands back to back, I felt slightly as though I’d been bludgeoned about the face by a Nirvana demo. I never got the whole Sub Pop thing, so maybe I wasn’t the ideal audience for these guys.


These, it turns out, are clients of my old pal Darren Broome’s agency, Lost PR. Apparently they’ve played at Leeds/Reading, so I was expecting something pretty substantial. They were an unusual setup – drummer, bass player, female vocalist. That was it. Katie has a decent voice, but it was lost in the barrage from the other two. She seemed a little timid between songs.
It might have just been the mix, but I thought the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Apparently Katie works in a call centre. They have a song called (possibly) ‘Working in a Call Centre’. What you see is what you get. There doesn’t seem to be any wit. Maybe it was in the lyrics, but who could possibly tell?
It could just be me – a combination of advancing age and partial shift of hearing – but I wondered at several points why the bands bothered with vocalists at all. When the vocals aren’t buried under thee wall of sound, they’re completely unintelligible. The Cocteau Twins got away with using the voice as an instrument, and the hardcore bands like Napalm Death rendered lyrics redundant, but haven’t we moved on since the early nineties?
I think we had a bad case of Tom Hardy Syndrome on Friday. As my friend Alan has pointed out on several occasions, we have sound reproduction technology that is unsurpassed since Edison first recorded the human voice. It isn’t even as though the venue has substandard gear – the mixing desk looks like something they found in the craft at Roswell.
So why is it so bloody difficult for singers to make themselves understood. Answers on a postcard, please …
The Saturday night saw the welcome return of EZY Money, a guitar and vocal duo who first came here in the autumn. Brian and Simon are very nice guys who’ve been on the circuit for ages, and we chatted for a long time before they started their set.
They specialise in classic rock covers, but it’s decent classic rock – there’s no Kings of Leon here. Instead, they go in for mini pyrotechnics, with Brian’s guitar shooting sparks from the stage, and later on he played with a firework in his mouth. It’s a little way from Arthur Brown, but give him time.
‘Duelling Banjos’, anyone? Oh yes, that was in the set as well. I only know three banjo players, and it’s always good to see one getting an airing. EZY Money even played my all-time favourite song – ‘Comfortably Numb’ – although the buggers waited until I’d gone for a jimmy riddle before starting that one.
They pulled in a great crowd, a few people were dancing, and everyone had a thoroughly good time. (Especially one young lady, who was passed out on the end of my row. But I digress …)
In the second half they returned to the greatest rock band of all time, and played two thirds of ‘Wish You Were Here’, with a little help from your humble blogger. I sang all the right words – but I didn’t necessarily sing them in the right order. Needs work, as they say.
My ears were still ringing on the Sunday morning. Now I know why Connor and Mitch wore earplugs on the night. It’s a good idea, as it turns out.