An almost insignificant tweet by Owain Schiavone @owainsgiv editor of Y Selar magazine on the 22nd of December put a very good question out there. Basically, what would it take for a current Welsh language band to have the pulling power of Edward H ? Edward H’s ‘Farwell Concert’ at the 2013 Eisteddfod had been shown again on S4C, as ‘Mwy o Gig Olaf Edward H Dafis’ and I’m guessing that it’s this repeat showing that prompted the tweet.
The gig has already attained mythical status, with accounts of anything up to 7,000 present and the who’s who of the Welsh rock scene all in attendance (well Huw Stephens and Dyl Mei) and probably a good number of current Welsh band members checking out the ‘legends’. Actually, watching ‘Pethe 2013’ on S4C recently, the attendance figure had gone up to 8,000. It can only go up !
Whatever the Pop theories, and there are certainly no easy answers, I do agree with Schaivone, in the sense that it would be great to see several young / old / current Welsh language bands who could pull 7,000 punters. It’s a shame that as a scene we have managed to do this with only one band. On the other hand, it’s not a numbers game – what if we were to debate online which is the best band – Edward H or Datblygu or which is the Best Welsh language band of each decade, you would have more criteria than punters at a gig for sure ??????
But to focus on Schiavone’s point, such a question could probably occupy a Phd student but here’s a simplified version of 10 thoughts on why and how.
1. Edward H were the first Welsh language Rock’n Roll band to really make the effort to play live and release records and to present Welsh language audiences (mainly) with a band they could relate to. Y Blew had released an excellent record (Maes B) in 1967 but had split after one tour, therefore although technically y Blew can claim to be the first Welsh language rock band, they probably didn’t stick around long enough to make any serious in-roads.
Edward H will always be seen as the first Welsh language rock band – that’s a head start.
2. Edward H had two front persons in Cleif Harpwood and Dewi Pws, both colourful characters, both with presence, and probably more importantly, the girls fancied them. Both had been in other bands, they had enough stage experience to pull this off.
3. There is an argument that Edward H were a proto ‘boy band’. The musical directorship and songwriting / arranging / production talents of Hefin Elis should not be underestimated. If you study the history of Welsh language Pop music, Elis is always there in the background putting bands together, writing songs. Elis was there with Dafydd Ifans before Y Blew, he was, and is, there with Dafydd Iwan. Elis is a quiet unassuming musical Svengali. Elis wanted to put a Welsh language rock band together because he’d seen there was a gap in the market, but more for promoting the language than for commercial motives.
4. Edward H had image, the red neck scarfs, the waistcoats, the denims, they looked like acool version of the audience (students and farmers). The audience dressed like their heroes. It was win win. In terms of fashion this is definitely pre-Mclaren and Westwood and not a whiff of Roxy Music or David Bowie to be seen. More Status Quo than anything else.
5. Edward H were political. Songs such as ‘Yn y Fro’ and ‘Ty Haf’ struck the right chords politically. Welsh language pop music has always been a bedfellow of the language campaign. Of course they also wrote ballads, ‘Ysbryd y Nos’ case in point, which must be one of the most played (to death) songs on BBC Radio Cymru, but essentially you have a band singing to an audience who empathise with the songs. This is a must.
6. Sex. How many young Welsh-sters must have lost their virginity at Edward H gigs. Never underestimate the importance of Sex. Pop music is all about Sex (even when it’s about saving the Welsh language). Whether the band realised this or not, but again for Edward H it was win win.
7. Throughout the 1980s, and in many a DJ case, right up to the present day, the Welsh Media portrayed the Edward H period as the “Oes Aur” (the Golden Age of Welsh Pop). In fact the media who propagated this myth were merely reflecting (and wallowing in) their own impressions of their own youth, not realising that Pop music never stay’s still, but in true Murdochesque fashion this eventually translates as fact. It’s a Beatles situation – no new band can ever be better than this. In this sense the Welsh Media have a lot to answer for, not for constantly promoting Edward H, but for failing to give any new band the space or enough rope to create new myths.
Case in point is the failure to fully grasp or support Cyrff or Ffa Coffi Pawb who eventually morph into Catatonia and Super Furry Animals (who were vastly more successful than Edward H and Internationally to boot) but it took success in England and the sanction of the NME for the Welsh Media to fully catch on. ‘Cool Cymru’ is a logical conclusion to the “Oes Aur”. We can’t win so we will sing in English.
8. Edward H probably reached the more ‘traditional’ Welsh audience. It’s a similar audience shared by Bryn Fon. The more straight (non queer) the whole thing is, the better. Cyrff always had weird haircuts and probably took drugs and were townies from Llanrwst. They had no chance. Edward H did not challenge anybody musically, it was Quo riffs meets Celtic twighlight folk, distinctly Welsh / Cymreig in that it looked traditional enough, straight enough. Frankie Goes To Hollywood would have been lynched at an Edward H gig. It’s all about the perception of being ‘gwerinol’ one of the ‘hogia’, ‘hogia ni’. In this sense Bryn Fon is totally carrying the torch in the 21st century.
9. Actually if you look back at the live footage and listen to some of the recordings, they were a pretty good Rock’n Roll band. They had energy, they gave off an energy. It was not until Trwynau Coch, Geraint Jarman and Maffia Mr Huws later on in the 70’s / early 80’s that any other Welsh language bands actually gave this much energy out on stage. Political anger can be an energy source for rock’n roll lightbulbs.
10. We have to make it clear – it’s not Edward H’s fault. They did what they did and at the right time. Hergest or Shwn would not have had the same impact had either of those bands been the so called first Welsh language rock band. Maffia probably worked harder, did more gigs but could not compete with their heroes. The legacy is a catalogue of fine songs, many a classic and a few duff numbers for sure.
So what should the current Welsh language bands do ?
1. Short of calling themselves Edward H and singing in English, I don’t know. Mind you a band called Edward H singing in English is not going to make much sense in downtown Newcastle or Glasgow and singing in English is going to be a bit of a turn off / bit tricky getting paid, at the Eisteddfod. Try naming your band Edward Furry Animals, Edwardphonics, Funeral for an Edward or the Manic Street Edwards, that might help a little bit.
2. Tony Wilson’s pop theory about real talent always finding a way through all the dross seems to be manifesting itself in the career trajectory of Georgia Ruth. Here is real talent, sex appeal, song-writing skills and a real ‘hit’ with Week of Pines. Maybe it’s that simple, be cool and write a great tune. Georgia has matured as an artist, she has been given space to develop within Wales and she is now moving on up. Week of Pines is a great song for sure but had this been sung in the Welsh language would it have had the same effect ? Do the Edward H / Bryn Fon fans get Georgia Ruth ?
I suspect it no longer matters, Georgia will continue onwards and upwards in both languages but will not confined or defined by the Welsh language scene. Even if Georgia has International success, she is no more likely to pull 7,000 at a future Eisteddfod than Gruff Rhys and Cerys Matthews combined next year. That tradition is signed, sealed and delivered and is firmly Oes Aur forever more. You have to find another venue, another gig – try Margam Park or something and call the gig ‘Home International’.
3. Stop doing gigs in front of your mates. Rule No 1. Your mam and Anti Nel are always going to tell you that you are a great band. The real test is to play in front of a hostile audience or an audience where the band has no relatives, friends or school mates. That’s the test – can you engage with Joe Public on songs and performance alone ? The Welsh language scene is at times too much like a mutual appreciation society – they will not like this, but for all their awards and back slapping and Eisteddfod gigs – the fact remains, it get’s them nowhere – because they have not grafted for the real audience, the real fans – that takes several years of hard work and loads of gigs, not a Huw Stephens session a Maes B headliner or a Selar award. False economy. It’s not meant to be easy or quick.
I know, I know, some bands are out there grafting, well, you just have to keep keeping on if you believe in what you do – my point is don’t believe the Welsh hype, you have to believe the audience – they are what counts. If no one turns up then you have to ask why – lack of advertising and blame the promoter or face up to the fact you band’s shit !
4. It’s not as simple as singing in English. God, we’ve had our fair share over the years of bad Welsh language bands that have been given far too much exposure / airtime / TV slots when they should have been doing a gig in the local pub. The Welsh language scene has no filter, no bullshit detector, no discerning mechanisms – that’s always been a thing with the Welsh language scene. It’s worse since ‘Cool Cymru’, they all think that if they do a song in English they will turn into Super Furry Animals overnight as if by magic, shown by God of course.
5. Bring back politics. Save the Welsh language or something. Does anybody know or care what some of the current bands are singing about or stand for ? You could enjoy Edward H, get pissed, get laid and still sing about Holiday Homes. You have to have something interesting to say, at least some of the time. Be funny, be sharp, be controversial even – but you have to be in some way interesting and intelligent outside the confines of the band. Of course it’s a generational thing, the teenagers will relate to their peer bands but that’s not enough to pull 7,000 punters, not that Edward H ever pulled 7,000 back in the day. They might have done a few gigs with 1,000 punters, but then so have Bryn Fon, Dafydd Iwan – probably just as many. The sad fact is that you only pull 7,000 (if it was of course) after 40 years of the Media telling everybody in the Welsh language scene that you are the best Welsh band ever and constantly playing your songs – but you still have to carry it off – which Edward H have always done.
But then again, shooting at the Media is too simplistic, the same amount of Media exposure for Llygod Ffyrnig or Datblygu would not have resulted in 7,000 at the Eisteddfod, not even after 400 years.
You have to know your audience.
6. There is also the question of what is meant by success. For bands such as Datblygu, arguably, it was recording several John Peel Sessions and that was almost enough – they hated doing gigs anyway. But Ffa Coffi Pawb and Cyrff ran out of places to play and places to go on the Welsh language scene, so for them it was sing in English or Dai.
Bands such as Radio Rhydd, following in the tradition of rebel rousers like Tystion or even Elfyn Presli back in post-punk days, are doing what they do, no compromise, for them surely it’s about doing the right gigs, for the right causes and keeping hold of artistic freedom and integrity. An Eisteddfod gig should be seen as a compromise in one sense, all establishment and no Anarchy, so we cannot evaluate the success or failures of Radio Rhydd or Datblygu with the same microscope as the one we use for Edward H. It’s not always about the numbers.
Mind you Radio Rhydd supporting Edward H in front of 7,000 at the Eisteddfod would have been an interesting (not to miss) event.
7. There are very good bands out there today. Gwenno is producing some of her best stuff ever, ‘Chwyldro’ is pure elctro-pop genius. The Lovely Wars are doing the Darling Buds punk-pop thing and we could argue that the Welsh Pop Wars have been won – certainly in terms of song-writing and production, we now have cool urban pop, we have current sounds and well dressed bands, but to compare them in any way to Edward H is to miss the point. These acts have to find and build their own audience – they (as did Datblygu and Cyrff in post-Punk days) have to create Culture for the new Wales, a forward looking and forward thinking Wales – their problem is that they will be too cool, too urban, too well read, too referenced, too style, too visual, too articulate for the Edward H audience (young or old). They will create a new audience, they will re-define the borders and at the same time blur and smash the borders, and they will, they will !
8. Tunes, again there are plenty of current or recent great tunes out there, Yr Ods ‘Cofio Chdi o’r Ysgol’ is one that comes to mind as a great, great tune and Colorama had a good one as well, but I can never remember the song title – maybe that’s part of it. Yr Ods and Colorama produce great pop but are they great bands, do they change people’s lives ? – Edward H did change people’s lives, Datblygu changed people’s lives. Sometimes it has to be that vital, that life changing.
9. Our overall failure as the Welsh language scene to move forward, our ambition to stay in that little world, the Welsh bubble, that’s not good.
10. Great Welsh language bands who did not pull 7,000. Big Leaves, Trwynau Coch, Tynal Tywyll, Traddodiad Ofnus, Geraint Jarman, Brodyr, Heather Jones, Topper, Melys, Ffa Coffi Pawb, Y Gwefrau and on and on and on ………
One’s to watch : Y Ffug, Radio Rhydd, Lovely Wars
Ones that should reform : Big Leaves definitely, Topper yes, Brodyr why not …… Trwynau Coch at ‘Rebellion’ maybe.
Ones that can never reform with the original line up sadly : Elfyn Presli, Cyrff, Fflaps.