Mar 16, 2012

Merv The Swerve

Readers from Wales will be familiar with Grogg caricatures of rugby players down the ages. The one that adorned the cover of Mervyn Davies' biography, written by David Parry Jones, sits by the telly in my mother's house.

When I started watching going to watch Swansea RFC playing at St Helens in the mid 70s, the side featured three international back-row forwards. On the open-side was Englishman Mark Keyworth, while Trefor Evans of Wales played on the blind-side. Number 8 and captain was Mervyn Davies. Tall and slight, he was a dynamic player with ball in hand and workmanlike in defence. Merv was not a demonstrative man - he led by example. As a kid I always wondered why he always looked so sad.

I started going to watch Wales around this time. My father was wise to have bought a couple of debenture tickets when they built Cardiff Arms Park in 1969. They cost him £50. Even though I was lucky enough to witness the great Welsh rugby side at their best, my foremost memories of that time are following the All Whites, particularly in cup competitions.

In 1976 Swansea met Pontypool in the semi-final of the cup at Cardiff's club ground next door to Cardiff Arms Park. Pontypool had the most fearsome pack in club rugby. Whenever we travelled up there, the team would be greeted with ironic jeers by the home fans as they ran out in their pristine all-white kit to play in the rain and sludge. They invariably returned on the wrong side of a battering.

But on neutral ground Swansea outplayed the mighty Pooler. They scored a scored a try in the far corner of the ground. I think it was Roy Woodward who touched down, but my attention was drawn by one Swansea player who lay on the ground in a crumpled heap having failed to rise from the ruck that led to the try.

As my dad leapt to his feet to celebrate the score I can clearly remember pulling at the sleeve of his coat, saying: "Merv's down. Something's wrong." It didn't take long for the crowd to recognise that there something serious had happened to the Swansea skipper. It turned out that he'd suffered a brain haemorrhage. Doctors later explained that it was completely unrelated to rugby. Miraculously, he recovered from his trauma, but at 29 years of age his rugby career was over.

In the years that followed Swansea RFC become one of the strongest forces in club rugby. I followed them home and away, spending some of my happiest days on the terraces at St Helens. For the past three years I've wanted to make a documentary on that glorious time, interviewing the key figures, reflecting on their achievements during the last age of true amateurism in the sport.

It was all going to start with that fateful day in 1976 and the impact Mervyn Davies had on my hometown club. Now he's gone, but the urge to mark his contribution before it's forgotten is greater than ever before. 

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Mar 2, 2012

NME Of The State

There's a new book out charting The History Of The NME. It's written by Pat Long, who was a staffer there between 2002-2008 (or 2003-2009 according to his interview on BBC Radio 6).

As he rightly points out in his introduction, working as a music journalist at NME is not proper journalism. Still, people of a certain age are fascinated by the goings on at what they call on the book cover 'the world's most famous music magazine'.

When I worked there anyone calling NME a magazine would receive a clip round the ear. We were a paper and we were very proud of the fact. I've only flicked through the book so far - yes I have checked the index for my name and no, it's not in there.

What immediately strikes me is that with 60 colourful years to cover, Pat was brave to even take the job on. It's not just the years of research. Imagine trying to piece together a coherent story from dozens of different perspectives - sieving diligently through all that bluster and bullshit.

The account of when we striked for our NUJ rights had to be pretty fast and loose in order to tell the story. The bare facts are that editor Danny Kelly, publisher Alan Lewis and a few other helping hands managed to put the issue out. Fair play to them, but that week pretty much heralded the way that publishing companies would look to structure editorial departments once the unions were out of the way.

Some of the detail from the strike story is missing. Question is: does it really matter? Pat gets the fundamentals right and as one my NME contemporaries reflected: "In the wider scheme of things anything that happened in the 90s was pretty small beer".

Still, it bothers me for some reason. The thought of getting the tiny details wrong means there's no chance of knowing what really happened when people look back. It's how we end up with stuff like that hilarious scene from The Doors movie.

That's why I love Dave Cavanagh's book The Creation Records Story and find Danny O'Connor's Upside Down documentary on the same subject so bloody annoying.

But that doesn't mean I'm right. Just self-righteous.

One of my colleagues at Solent University, Sean Albiez, wrote a classic piece of myth-busting on the Sex Pistols' Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in 1976. In the simplified story of the city's musical history, everyone was there and were suitably inspired to go off and form hundreds of bands and labels. The truth is somewhat different.

In a parallel universe I've sat in board meetings with financiers who only want to hear a tidy summary of how things are going. They're not interested in the grimy detail. Strangely, they're always the first to go ballistic if something goes awry. 

So whatever you do, don't give me myths. Just give me the truth in its glorious, grey mundanity. Don't make it all fit nicely together like a child's jigsaw, make it awkward and unexpected and a little bit dull compared to the Hollywood-optioned version starring the young James Stewart as me.

After all, that's real life, isn't it?

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Feb 3, 2012

Bank you and good night...

I've been banking with Lloyds for over 30 years. My first bank manager's name was Mr Francis. I went to school with his son, David, but we weren't big mates or anything.

When I was a student, Mr Francis used to waive the odd charge when I passed my overdraft limit. I always got the feeling he was looking out for me.

It felt odd walking into the Preston Circus branch of Lloyds to close my account today. After all, this was the longest business relationship I've had. It's not as if they'd lost all my money or anything. It was just one poxy letter too many threatening one too many £10 a day overdraft charges.

In the past I'd threaten to close my account and be handed over to someone who was in charge of soft-soaping to calm me down.

What a weird way to run a business. You have a client in the palm of your hand for over three decades and for at least half that time all you do is send him letters that cost him money and junk mail that costs him time.

You employ friendly and efficient staff to work in telesales and at your branches. You have a nice, cosy advertising campaign. Yet you send out letters that wind him up so much that he thinks your entire communications strategy seems designed to ensure he's less-than-happy with his lot.

So much money spent, so much effort made, yet nobody seems to have thought about the importance of those few words that are typed and printed and sent out to their customers in their millions.

When I told the woman behind the cash desk why I'd decided to close my account she looked a little bit sad too, before saying: "We are starting out a new loyalty scheme for our customers..."

Her voice trailed off a bit before the end. We both knew this was the end of an era.

All of which reminds me of the words of wisdom written by Seth Godin. If you don't already read his stuff give it a go.

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Jan 25, 2012

Jones THE Jones

In 2006 the Millennium Centre in Cardiff held a concert featuring Grace Jones and contributions from Aled Jones and Ruth Jones. Over a thousand people called Jones attended, making it the largest gathering of its kind in history, whatever that means.

But there's only one person I've ever known who had the sheer bloody-mindedness to simply call himself Jones.

He was a solid citizen from Anglesey who worked closely with some of the artists who helped map out the electronic music landscape in Britain. After working in PR at the Rough Trade label, Jones ran his own operation called Unitary. He combined PR for Orbital, Ultramarine and Richard H Kirk among others, with graphic design work for many of his clients.

On very rare occasions I can remember Jones visiting the NME offices. He wouldn't hang about long, dragging Graham Sherman off to some corner of the Stamford Arms to discuss tactics on how to bring capitalism to its knees through the use of an Akai S1000 sampler.

Jones played a pivotal role in the proudest moment of my NME career - writing a joint Orbital and Prodigy cover story around the Tribal Gathering festival. This was in 1995, when there was still a lingering suspicion of electronic music within the editorial camp. I seem to remember standing around in some Essex woodland with Jones, who seemed characteristically uneasy with the whole affair.

The sad news is that Jones is not longer with us. He was a good man. And he would have absoluely hated every bloody minute of that Millennium Centre concert.

The graphic, by the way, is taken from Jones' post-Unitary MySpace site.

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Jan 24, 2012

You've got to have faith

The South London Black Music Archive is an exhibition by Barbary Asante taking place at London's Peckham Space between January & March 2012. As part of the exhibition, a map of south London's black music scene has been created with an invitation for people to contribute additional places as well as their personal experiences.

Having lived in Brixton during the late 80s and early 90s, I'm tempted to submit a legendary one Sunday night only hip-hop night we put on in the wonderful ballroom of what once was The Loughborough Hotel.

Why three middle class students would feel emboldened to do such a thing remains a mystery. We roped in a friend who was on long-term sickness leave from British Gas with a bad back to do the DJing. For his own amusement he used to set up his decks on the tiny balcony of his flat overlooking Atlantic Road and play to passers-by.

The night came and went without one single customer entering the establishment - a chastening experience in a less-than-illustrious promoting career that included an indie night called Good Shot Good Save (also at the Loughborough Hotel) and a more dancefloor-friendly indie extravaganza called Snakey On The Bus at the Brixton Fridge.

Fortunately the experience didn't persuade DJ Maxi Jazz to pack it in and go back to British Gas. Just as well, otherwise he and his mates Rollo and Sister Bliss would have missed out on 10 million record sales with Faithless.

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