Popular music is a powerful social force. It can entertain, inspire and anger. But sometimes it’s nothing more than part of the humdrum of everyday life, something in the background, barely heard or noticed. Whether it was being listened to, danced to or just played in the background, most of the music played in post-war Wales was not produced in Wales. Nonetheless, there have been a number of bands and singers who deserve some historical recognition because of their popularity, wider impact or their insight into wider currents in Welsh society.
Rhyl-band The Alarm sold 5 million records but they were never cool, even at their 1980s peak. Yet they deserve some recognition and even analysis. In their early days they sang about class politics and the frustrations and aspirations of youth. As they grew older, their music developed an overt and vocal consciousness of Wales and being Welsh. This shift in itself was reflective of a wider trend in the Welsh working class. I’ve written a short essay about this which you can read it here.
The band’s most obviously Welsh song is New South Wales (1989). Its lyrics are a little jumbled but it clearly articulated the sense that a way of life was passing away and leaving little in its place. The comments on Youtube versions of the song clearly show that message still hits home.
Treforest’s Tom Jones is the son of a miner and, like The Beatles, George Best and Michael Caine, embodied the rise of working-class icons in the 1960s.
In the 1950s the route to social mobility was through grammar school and it usually involved people leaving behind a sense of being part of the working class. In the 1960s, however, the revolution in popular music, like the growth of television and the abolition of the maximum wage in football, enabled a lucky few to find fame and even fortune whilst still holding on to a working-class identity. This shift was embodied in the way that among the famous and the ordinary regional accents became something to be celebrated rather than shed.
Jones’ public image centered on his deep voice, sex appeal and Welsh working-class roots. He helped show a generation that masculinity did not have to be focused on working on heavy industry, fighting or playing sport. The press portrayed him as someone tough and rich but who still went home to visit his Mum where he had to help with the chores.
One of his most successful records of the 1960s was the sentimental ‘Green, green grass of home’. It sold 850,000 copies in the UK and was the best-selling single of 1966. Its success owed much to its appeal with housewives and, as historian Dominic Sandbrook points out, it is an important reminder that the 1960s were far more conservative than is usually now imagined. The song was nothing to do with Wales but many, then and since, have interpreted it that way.