A grown-up's Christmas in Wales. My local, where everybody knows your name (and they're always glad you came), is MacGowan's in Barry, the decaying seaside resort/docks town where I grew up.
This means rum and cokes with the folks, searching for "Hey Ya" on the jukebox and settling for "Ms Jackson" and, if I'm really bored, doing a moustache count (south Wales being one of those few remaining outposts where upper-lip facial hair is a signifier of heterosexuality). My record is 40 per cent. A "that's just the women" joke hoves into view, but I politely decline to acknowledge it.
Boxing Night at MacGowan's offers a performance from Dave Lee Jones, a Plymouth-via-the-Valleys pub singer. On Christmas Eve, to show me what he's made of, he does a mean "Wonder Of You" a cappella, as the bar staff try to shoo us out through the door. Dave clearly has musical talent. But talent, I've decided lately, is a commonplace aberration, like left-handedness. Genius is incalculably rarer, like those people who are born with their heart on the wrong side of their body. (I possess neither, which is why I make my living doing this.) Maybe I need to look elsewhere.
In any case, the talk at the bar is about a hard case who came in covered in bandages after a sword attack, and another guy who accidentally glassed himself in the face and then, looking for someone to blame, started a Wild West brawl. With this in mind, I decide to catch a train nine miles down the tracks to Cardiff, the metropolis where I bawled my first breath, and take a chance on a bunch of bands I've never heard of. Cardiff may be more alive nowadays than ever, but it's dead tonight. First on at the Barfly are Six Month Plan, and they play to an almost-empty room. Which is perhaps apt, because they're woefully unready for the stage (watching them, I feel like I've intruded upon one of their rehearsals). With song titles like "EasyEverything Love Affair" they're a fairly standard indiepop proposition, and they look the part. Well, kinda. Singer Gareth is a pretty boy with pin-up potential, but the bassist is a scary skinhead bruiser in a T-shirt which reads "Let's Fight". With their scratchy, strummed chords, brutish drums and raw drums, they occasionally remind me of Violent Femmes, but I suspect it's more accident than design.
Next up are White Noise, a funk-metal crew in sportswear and woolly hats, whose second song is ripped note-for-note from "The Holiday Song" by Pixies (they were probably banking, not unreasonably, on nobody noticing). Their whole act seems to be based on the premise that "It worked for Lost Prophets, so maybe..." And maybe it might. But so far, no genius.
The day after Boxing Day. I need cheering up. Furthermore, I was recently invited to be part of the panel for the Welsh Music Awards (coming up in February), and I felt a bit of a fraud when judging the New Band category from my remote perch up in London, so I need to ease my conscience with a little field research.
So, I return to the Barfly to catch Lear, another all-male guitar-based quartet, from the Manics' hometown of Blackwood. Lear turn out to be decent enough - melodic and musical and all those traditional virtues - and their singer Rob has a Beatlesy twang in his voice on songs like "Spread Your Love Around" which will please people who like that sort of thing. But traditionalism is also their vice, the thing which may, after five years on the circuit, be preventing them from flying any higher (this may sound rich coming from such a loud advocate of The Darkness, but sometimes it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it). In certain instances, isolation breeds innovation, like the unique species found by Darwin on the Galapagos Islands (Super Furry Animals, for example, could never have evolved in London). More often, it breeds a desperate keenness to please. The typical smalltown local band, anywhere in Britain, tends to settle for a lo-com-denom nightmare amalgam of U2 and Oasis: rugged, heroic, masculine, emotional, anthemic rock. Once in a while, one of these bands makes it big (Stereophonics, Alarm), but more often, they end up playing places like MacGowan's.
It's a paradoxical rule of pop: the more you try to please the crowd, the smaller that crowd will be. All the bands I see this week are guilty of this, to one degree or another.
The fact that these bands at the Cardiff Barfly are here doing this at all is in some sense a relic from the mid-Nineties "Cool Cymru" boom, like waves of Big Bang radiation crackling away at the far edge of the universe (yes, I got that Bill Bryson book for Christmas). When I was their age, there was nothing to do, nowhere to go. But nowadays, Cardiff is overflowing with venues, clubs, magazines, shops, websites, radio stations, the full infrastructure of a thriving scene. If these bands, and any other bands yet to be formed, fail to take advantage of the opportunity, they only have themselves to blame.Reuse content