The Alarm: 1980s Wales in a Band


Alarm_kalvoya_01071984_10_500The Alarm sold 5 million records but they were never cool.  Even in the early 1980s, when they were singing punkish rebellion songs like 68 Guns, the band never won the critical acclaim of the music press.  Instead, they were derided as pretentious and inferior imitators of U2.  Even their big hair was mocked.

Perhaps it was just easier to be cool if you came from Dublin rather than Rhyl but even in Wales those who take their rock and pop music seriously have not accorded The Alarm much credit.  Books on Welsh music history overlook or deride them (although David Owens’ Cerys, Catatonia and The Rise Of Welsh Pop is a notable exception).  The contrasts with the feting and celebrations of the Manic Street Preachers could not be greater.

The Alarm released five studio albums between 1984 and 1991, although the name was revived by singer Mike Peters in 2000 and he continues to tour and record under it.  Peters’ health problems and his continuing musical and charitable work mean that the band continue to have some profile in Wales at least.  The derision that was sometimes aimed their way has faded but it has not been replaced with popular affection or admiration.

The Alarm, however, do deserve some recognition and even analysis.  Music does not have to be original or innovative to say something and touch people and the Alarm did both.  Their popularity alone means they deserve a mention in the contemporary history of Wales.  But more than that, The Alarm also offer a window into wider trends in that history, not just in what they did but also in how they ran against contemporary currents.

The band’s early albums captured the anger and frustrations felt by so many young people in a period of mass unemployment.  Most young people may not have been rioting or even been particularly politicized but there was a certainly a resentful sense that affluence and opportunity were not being equally shared out.  As The Alarm sang in Father to Son (1985) ‘How many years must I waste? Today I can’t find nothing nowhere. Tomorrow I might find something somewhere. Give me a future now. I need it so badly now.’

Much of the associated blame and anger was aimed was aimed at Mrs Thatcher, who became hated by many people in a way that no previous Prime Minister had.  The Alarm’s Marching On (1984) did not name her but its angry accusations seemed to be aimed at her and it demanded ‘You’d better look at what you have created and think of all the people who hate you’. This may not have been poetic or subtle but it did sum up how many felt.

Yet rock bands like The Alarm were a minority taste.  Far more popular in the 1980s were catchy pop songs that were an antidote to rather than comment on hard times.  One purveyor of such tunes was Shakin’ Stevens, one of Wales’ most successful modern musicians.  Although he came from a deprived Cardiff council estate, his most popular songs were ditties about love, a green door, and Christmas.  In this, he was more in tune with popular sentiment than The Alarm and others whose anger was politicized.  Indeed, overt faith in the political system was fading and being replaced by apathy and cynicism.

While some turned their backs on party politics, others began to weave a sense of nation into their political views.  This was significant because Welshness had largely been a matter of sentiment rather than politics in working-class urban Wales.  The changing attitudes were evident in the Welsh iconography of banners at the 1984-5 miners’ strike.  One social scientist claimed that Welshness was stepping into a void left by a fragmenting sense of class consciousness.

The_Alarm_Change_BackTheses shifting attitudes to Wales were evident in the output of The Alarm. In 1989, they moved away from their class-based lyrics and released Change, an album inspired by the lead singer’s new found sense of national identity.

Peters learnt Welsh and a version of the record was also released in that language, making it probably the first fully bilingual album.  Change brimmed with a sense of anger and frustration at the state of Wales: ‘I saw a land standing at a crossroads, I saw her wrath in a burned out home, saw her tears, in rivers running cold, her tragedy waiting to explode’ and ‘I see the proud black mountain, beneath an angry sun, under drowning valleys, our disappearing tongue, how many battles must we fight, before we start a war? How many wounds will open before the first blood falls?’

This open sense of Welshness did not help the band’s image outside Wales and their use of a male voice choir on the track New South Wales drew some mirth.  Even in Wales, it left the band vulnerable to accusations of clichés.  But to me, a teenager at the time, this was all heady stuff and it gave my sense of nationality a distinctly political twist.  I surely was not alone.

The Alarm still sounded indistinguishable from so much of western rock music, even with the new lyrics about Wales.  Yet that is no reason to dismiss them as part of Welsh culture. Understanding those facets of our culture that are shared with other nations is just as important as appreciating what marks us out as different. Besides, ultimately, there is little in Welsh popular culture that is unique to Wales.  When The Alarm sang about the pull of Merseyside, they spoke for the Welsh majority whose cultural inspirations and aspirations did not stop at the border.

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. The Alarm were all this.  Yet, whether they were singing about social trends or were just another tune on the radio, the band are a part of the story of modern Wales.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University and is the author of Wales since 1939.

Ought we to feel bitter against the English now? (1910)

If you and I had lived in the time of Llywelyn the last, no doubt we should have felt very bitter, when we saw our friends killed, our lands torn from us, and our families cruelly treated by a nation that could not excuse themselves by saying they were bringing us the gifts of civilization.

Ought we to feel bitter against the English now? If you will think of this carefully, you will see the answer is “No.” Englishmen are no longer free to harm our friends, or take away our lands, or treat our families cruelly. The law protects a Welshman from a bad Englishman in exactly the same way as it protects an Englishman from a bad Welshman. In law, Welshmen and Englishmen are equal.

William Glover, Stories from Welsh History (1910).

Wasn’t she a tyrant ten times worse than Miraz?

While reading my kids a bedtime story tonight I came across this passage. It seems rather apt for recent events.

“They say she ruled for a hundred years: a hundred years of winter. There’s power, if you like. There’s something practical.”

“But, heaven and earth!” said the King, “haven’t we always  been told that she was the worst enemy of all? Wasn’t she a tyrant ten times worse than Miraz?”

“Perhaps,” said Nikabrik in a cold voice. “Perhaps she was for you humans, if there were any of you in those days. Perhaps she was for some of the beasts. She stamped out the Beavers, I dare say; at least there are none of them in Narnia now. But she got on all right with us Dwarfs. I’m a Dwarf and I stand by my own people. We’re not afraid of the Witch.”

C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (1951)

In Narnia there were more beasts than dwarfs.

Two voices of reason from football’s past

A letter from a Cardiff City fan to the South Wales Echo (3 Dec. 1927) that the club’s present ownership would do well to think about.

“The true position with the City at the moment has nothing to do with the players but concerns the management, and I’m afraid that unless they consider a little more of the wishes of the supporters they will kill the bird that lays the golden egg.  If the directors would mingle with the crowd, instead of being perched like tin gods in their reserved stands, they would find that what I say is true.”

A letter to the South Wales Echo (23 Feb. 1922) that the owners of all clubs would do well to think about.

“If the City is to maintain the good feeling of its supporters, it would be wise to give all classes an opportunity to see the match, because, after all, the working man is the backbone and stay of the club. It is a pity that the directors should confuse and misconstrue sport for greed, and remember the story of the magical goose.  If the directors cater only for the rich they will find that class deserting them in times of trouble.”

Victorian toilets

There’s a set of Victorian underground public toilets in the middle of Cardiff. They can be a bit smelly and you probably wouldn’t want to linger in there too long.  But the steep stairs, posh antique ceramics and faint aroma mean there are very few places in Britain with such character to relieve yourself.

Picture reproduced from http://www.flickr.com/photos/auntiep/52545766/ under the Creative Commons licence (non-commercial use).

The local authority plans to close it down. They’ve got no cash and don’t want to raise council tax. It’s a thankless task running a council – whatever choices you make, there’s someone who will object.  And while I don’t have any suggestions for other ways to save the £92,000 the Victorian ‘public conveniences’ in the Hayes apparently costs a year, closing them just isn’t a good idea.

I don’t say this as a historian who objects to the destruction of all historic monuments. Not everything needs preserving. Sometimes you have to move on. The Victorians understood that. They believed in progress.  But this isn’t about progress. The toilets are not going to be replaced with anything, modern or otherwise.

The Victorians also believed in civic pride and building public infrastructure like these toilets was not just about providing facilities; it was about building a community to be proud of.

Modern cities aren’t always big on character. Central shopping areas rather lack in the eccentric or anything much which makes them different from their commercial rivals. However, the Hayes toilets are part of what makes Cardiff memorable. They are much as a part of its city centre as the castle and the statue of Nye Bevan. For visitors they’re something to remember and for locals they’re something to cherish and be proud of.  Few other cities can boast facilities that make people remember taking a pee.

Cardiff is increasingly marketing itself as a distinctive city. It’s been quite successful as a venue for weekends away. Of course, the visitors are tempted by sport, shopping, drinking and Dr Who, not the prospect of a visit to a Victorian toilet. But still, closing one of the things that makes the city distinctive seems shortsighted.

So much of the character of Cardiff was built by Victorians proud of where they lived. They created a modern city.  The city’s council has done much in the last 30 years to build on and take forward that Victorian civic pride. Cardiff has reinvented itself into a modern city but what has enabled that reinvention to be successful is the way it has utilised the city’s past to make the Welsh capital distinctive.

The Hayes toilets are part of the city’s heritage.  They are not being closed in the name of progress but in the name of saving money. Yet sometimes heritage has an immeasurable economic value in itself, even when it sometimes smells a bit.

You can sign the petition to save the Hayes toilets here: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/cardiff-council-to-save-the-hayes-victorian-toilets

There are some photos here http://www.flickr.com/photos/roath_park_mark/sets/72057594052332359/

Christmas in Wales 1900

The Victorians reinvented the idea of Christmas. Although they were drawing upon and reinvigorating older traditions of festivity and generosity, by the late nineteenth century Christmas had become a celebration focused on home and family and its now-familiar trappings – cards, trees, turkey, and Father Christmas – were all well established. Indeed, sending Christmas cards was so popular by 1900 that there were repeated deliveries of mail by hardworking postal staff in Cardiff throughout Christmas Day.

Taking note of the moral of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843), the Victorians were determined to make merry. This was as true of Wales as of England.  Although the Boer War, the price of coal and wet weather were all causing concern, the Western Mail felt able to proclaim that Christmas 1900 would be as ‘if one great wave of joy were sweeping over the face of the land, invigorating our emotions, tickling us into smiles, making our limbs dance and our whole being thrill in an epidemic of gladness.’

Central to such joy was the establishment of Christmas as a time for family.  This was not always straightforward.  The migration of men to the coalfields of south Wales and girls to towns for domestic service and shopwork meant that families were not always living in the same place.  Christmas was thus a time for reuniting families, something helped by the provision of a fairly comprehensive rail service on Christmas Day itself.  There were, however, complaints that limited Christmas services to rural west Wales were preventing some young men and women from returning home for the festivities.

At the heart of family gatherings was Christmas lunch.  Roasted turkey, goose or beef, accompanied by vegetables and followed by plum pudding had become the expected Christmas meal but this was beyond the means of all.  There were even claims in London that some Welsh people ate mutton at Christmas but pretended it was beef and supplemented it with roasted blackbird.  This was angrily denied by the Western Mail but poverty was very real.  State pensions were nine years away and some old people relied on local donations of Christmas food.  Many poor children’s only proper festive meal came courtesy of a charitable dinner at their school on Christmas Day itself.

That local dignitaries and churches funded such events was clear evidence that the religious and charitable ethos of Christmas was strong.  Llandaff Cathedral held Christmas services at 7am, 10am, 11am and midday. Churches were adorned with greenery for the day but chapels were more puritan.  Not only were they not decorated, some did not even hold Christmas Day services.

It was not just religious bodies that held public appeals for the poor and ill.  In Swansea, for example, the Cambrian newspaper organized the distribution of 2,000 toys to children in charitable institutions in the town. Even the inmates of the workhouses were given special dinners courtesy of the Poor Law Guardians and other donors.  In Cardiff, this consisted of roast beef, plum pudding and a pint of beer for the men and half a pint for the women.  There were, however, limits to Christmas charity.  In Denbigh, there were Christmas complaints that poor relief had been given to people brought up like hooligans and who lived liked fighting cocks.

Christmas had also begun to develop its commercial overtones thanks to the growing tradition of gift giving. Shops were brightly decorated and busy advertising presents for children and adults.  To increase sales after Christmas advertisements began to talk of New Year’s gifts.  The most common presents were fancy goods and toys, clothes and bedding, and food and drink.  But for the better off there was photographic equipment, bronze work, cutlery and clocks.  A store in Swansea was even advertising ‘Useful and Artistic Furniture suitable for Christmas presents’.

Christmas Day was also a time for entertainment and people traveled to towns to take part.  Most shops were shut and the pubs had short hours but eisteddfodau were held across Wales and senior football and rugby matches were played.

In theatres and music halls, there were few performances on Christmas Day itself but Boxing Day in Cardiff held plenty of treats from Aladdin at the Theatre Royal (which promised ‘pretty music, pretty dresses, pretty dances, pretty songs, and pretty girls’) to the Dowlais Male Voice Party at the Park Hall. At the Philharmonic Hall on St Mary Street, there was a pantomime called ‘The Christmas Dream’.  An advertisement described it as an elaborate production in twenty scenes portraying a Christmas of ‘Ye Goode Olden Tymes’. If that was not enough, the theatre also had roller-skating and a waxwork exhibition.

There was less cheer in the Rhondda where local magistrates rejected an application for the pubs to stay open to 11.45pm rather than 11pm on Christmas Eve.  In the same area, a 73-year-old partially-crippled peddler was arrested on Christmas morning after his wife was discovered having been beaten to death.  They had apparently argued over his drinking.  In Cardiff, however, police and magistrates reported a quiet and sober Christmas week, with not a single case of cutting and wounding or violent assault.  Yet the fact that this was a matter for comment at all shows the danger of imagining that all Christmases past were simply a matter of peace and goodwill to all men.

Mountains, Welsh Culture and a bit of Science Fiction

I recently finished a 1977 novel called Survivors: Genesis of a Hero. It’s a tale of Britain a few years after a catastrophe that has wiped out of most of the human race. A violent and oppressive government has sprung up to govern what’s left of England.

Wales, however, holds out against this new militaristic regime.  Communities there realize that the English revolution is based on using the guns, food and technology of a civilization that is now over. Instead, they try and build a (Welsh-speaking) society that is not only fairer but more sustainable and self-sufficient. What enables them to do that, and hold off the advances of the English revolution, is retreating to the mountains and fighting a guerrilla war. It’s a military tactic that was familiar to medieval Welsh princes.

The geography of Wales has shaped its history.  Indeed, the opening line of Owen M. Edwards’ influential 1901 history of the nation was ‘Wales is a land of mountains’. The mountains divided north and south, undermining a sense of national unity. But they also kept out not only invaders but migrants too. Only slowly did tourists, industrialists and railways open up north Wales to Anglicizing influences. Mountains were key to why Wales survived into the modern world.

But modern technology and wealth undermined that, as people by the 1950s were only too aware.  In 1961, the nationalist writer Iswlyn Ffowc Elis complained (in Welsh):

Wales is no longer a haven beyond the mountains, but an open playground for hordes of motorists and cyclists and hikers, and an experimental field for the Government’s technology.  The teeth of her defensive mountains have been drawn, her valleys drowned by the English, and the innards of her rural society ripped out.  She now stands naked before the world.

Ironically, mountains are now seen as important to the future of Wales precisely because they bring in the spending power of tourists.

That’s surely a good thing. Wanting to close our border and deny outside influences can only harm Wales, both economically and culturally. Welsh identity survived in the post-war period because it embraced the modern world rather than rejected it. Once ‘the teeth of the defensive mountains’ were drawn, Wales reinvented itself as nation built on the present rather than the past.  Thus while a few opposed the building of the Severn Bridge in the 1960s because it would open Wales up to the world, far more embraced it for exactly the same reason.  Wales was a redefined from a land of hymns and pubs that were shut on a Sunday to one of pop music and personal freedom.

In Survivors the new Welsh society is welcoming of refugees from oppression in England. Those refugees have to agree to live by the ways of the new society but it’s also recognized that the incomers can bring new ideas and news ways of doing things. The best way to protect a culture is to ensure it does not stand still.

Survivors: Genesis of a Hero is out of print but there are pirated pdfs online.  There’s a review of the book here.

Random Swansea scenes from the 1937 Coronation

The South Wales Evening Post noted most of the celebrations were unofficial and reported that ‘the mass of people has been aflame with enthusiasm, and the results in the small streets and tiny hamlets have been half comic, but touching in their exuberance. “Eat, drink and be merry” is the national watchword tomorrow.’

One Swansea woman noted in her diary, ‘As we passed small public house [that afternoon] I heard about 4 or 5 men inside singing God Save the King very emotionally and raucously – they sounded half-intoxicated.’

At an unemployed men’s club in the town, the coronation concert began at 3pm with God Save the King and ended with Hen Wlad fy Nhadau and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. In-between was a comedian, old music hall songs and some Welsh hymns. It was followed by a bus trip to the Gower.

A 62-year-old charwoman noted how her Swansea street was decorated with streamers and Christmas festoons. The children had tea at the street party at 3.30pm (Blanc Mange Jelly, Cream Slices and Pastry). The women had theirs at 4pm (Ham and tongue, pickles, pastries and cake). The men ate next. She listened to the King’s Speech too, saying it was ‘very nice’ and that he did ‘very well’. She noted that he did not stutter but did stop periodically: ‘you’d think he’d finished and then he’d go on again’.

That night there was dancing in neighbouring streets with the music coming from radios in open windows. There was no ‘rowdyism’ and it was all very friendly. The charwoman did, however, break a tooth on a bread roll which led her to later tell her employer ‘So I shall remember the Coronation’.

Taken from the Mass Observation May the Twelfth day survey, 1937

First words in Welsh history (or openings from some random books)

Tonight a new ‘landmark’ series begins on BBC Wales about the history of Wales. I don’t know how far back it will begin but it’s prompted to me to dig out some schoolbooks on the history of Wales and see how they start.

Here are the results of this random exercise:

” History tells us of the deeds of the men of olden time, and their manner of life. These men were our ancestors, and therefore we resemble them, as children resemble their parents: nevertheless, no age is exactly like the one before it; for new things are constantly being discovered, and so the world progresses. Thus, though ancestors of ours have for many centuries lived among the hills of Wales, we should not recognize one of them, if he were to come to life again, but should certainly believe him to be some wild savage.”  J. E. Lloyd, Llyfr Cyntaf Hanes (1893).

“The story of England and Wales is a very long and a very famous one. It is full of deeds of brave and wise men, each of whom loved his own country, and did his utmost for it.” John Finnemore, The Story of England and Wales (1924).

“Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice, fifty-five and fifty-four years before the birth of Christ. He wrote a book about his invasion, but he never came to Wales so his story does not belong to Welsh history.” Mary McCririck, Stories of Wales (1957).

“During the early years of the Second World War, Britain was threatened with invasion from the east across the North Sea, and from the south across the English Channel. Thousands of people left their homes in eastern and southern England, and came to Wales to find refuge from possible occupation by the enemy. It has always been like that. Through the Christian era, and through far longer prehistoric ages, in the face of invasion the people of lowlands have pressed westward into Wales, and the invaders of one age have become the refugees of the next.”  David Frasers, The Invaders (1962).

“Imagine living in a country where the trees drip with human blood.”  Terry Deary, Horrible Histories: Wales (2008)

There are lots of different ways to tell the story of Wales and lots different places it might start. But however and wherever history is started says more about the teller than the subject.