“The book is an absolute treat”- Jamie Owen, BBC Radio Wales.
Back in the days when I was an aspiring guitarist I owned a copy of the late Bert Weedon’s seminal guide, Play In A Day. Everyone owned a copy of this. I’d have it open in front of me as I attempted to strum. C, D and then the truly awful F. It was all such a painful process. The strings made the ends of my fingers ache. I read that over time the tips would thicken, like trumpet players’ lips. This couldn’t come soon enough. I wanted to do this guitar stuff and do it with ease. I persevered.
I’d heard the Outlaws’ Ambush and the twang of the Shadows’ Apache. I wanted some of that. Bert Weedon, it turned out, had actually recorded the original account of Jerry Lordan’s world-stopper. Everyone I knew, however, preferred the one the Shadows had done. Play them back-to-back today, fifty years on, and they still sound good. Yet something still remains uncool about the Weedon take. Weedon the youth worker, full of non-stop smiles. Marvin, king of the Shadows, greased back hair, craggy jaw and a vaguely underfed look.
Things are all relative, of course. Smooth, black-rim bespectacled Marvin was hardly what you could describe as a non-conformist. He wore a suit on stage and shined his shoes. But compared to session musician Herbert Weedon he was nothing short of James Dean.
The guitar and I didn’t go far. I took up listening instead. On my racks I’ve got a copy of Apache Mania. It’s a CD that contains twenty-two versions of the great guitar instrumental sequenced one after the other. The Ventures, The Surfaris, The Jordans, The Spacemen, Les Guitares Du Diable, The Jet Blacks, The Cousins, The Shadows and then Bert himself. They all take the tune through its twangy paces. Listening to it in a single sitting is a Zen experience. You are intrigued, engaged, impressed, lost, bored, and then finally engaged again as Apache reasserts its crisply British sound. Apache, part of the natural air.
I’m on a journey and The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back tracks where it goes. It follows the music back to the American Southern States, driving in a great ellipse. It bowls through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. It drives across the Appalachian Carolinas, both of them, and then returns to the heartland state that seems to go on in straight historical lines forever. Tennessee.
I’m tracing an obsession.
I want to find out where the material I listened to as a young man and which became the backdrop to my life came from. I want to discover where it lived. How it was. How it is. How it got there. I want to find out on the ground how the blues, hillbilly, old time dance music, bluegrass, Hank Williams country and western, rockabilly, Nashville slick and straight ahead Rocket 88 rock and roll came about. What were the components of these musics? How did they cross the Atlantic? What parts came from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales? Most importantly I want to discover how the magic all this became made the transition back to rain drenched Wales. How did it flow across the Bay of Tigers to manifest itself in the bright blue drape jackets of Valley’s born Teddy Boys? How did it appear amid the banjos plucked in folk clubs in pub back rooms on the Welsh Capital’s Broadway and Charles Street? How did it rock in the dance halls of Sophia Gardens, Cowbridge Road and Death Junction? And, in particular, how did it inform the taste of more than one Welsh generation? Mike Harries, Man, the Sons of Adam, Amen Corner, The Sun Also Rises, Edward H, Meic Stevens, the Manic Street Preachers, Cate Le Bon, Richard James, Georgia Ruth, Gruff Rhys, Trampolene, Baby Queens, Climbing Trees, and Euros Childs.
Roots. Where are they and how do they grow?
The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back is a record of finding out. It’s an expansion of the music, a delving into it and beyond it, at tangents to it, underneath it and on top.
I don’t much like researching at libraries where time slows down and the world without music in my ears can be so cold. I’m not keen, either, in dragging data up in great Wiki sweeps, informational dross accumulating against my keyboard, holding me down in a clunk of ordered and numbing stats. Data: it’s simultaneously the stuff and the bane of life. Fly with it and you’ll crash because you’re too heavy. Ignore it and you won’t take off at all. But use it when you must.
I prefer to walk, that’s when the eyes and the brain are most attuned. I take photographs constantly – as aide memoir, as illustration, to capture detail, to collect bits of a place’s soul. I make notes. They arrive when it’s raining and the pen ink smears on the notebook’s pulp. I record them speaking into my iPhone, can’t decipher when I listen later, for the drumming of the air.
The Roots Of Rock is a travel book because it recounts a journey. And it is also not one, simply because it spends much space and time not actually going anywhere at all. It is full of diversions and recollections and the recounted voices and sounds of others. There are guides, opinions, casual conversations, overheards, read abouts, listened tos. Stuff recalled and forgotten stuff remembered after all.
The book starts in south Wales, in the place I come from. The Cardiff delta. The flood plain made by the three city rivers – the Ely, the Taff, the Rumney – aided ably by the Roath Brook, the Nant, and that long lost waterway, the Tan. Cardiff is not the centre of the music universe by any means but it has had its moments. Bill Haley came here in 1957 and played the Cardiff Capitol. Lynyrd Skynyrd did the same thing in 1975. John Lee Hooker was here in 1964 at a surf club on the Wentloog flatlands. Jerry Lee played Sophia Gardens in 1962. Dion wandered to the Capitol in 1964. Chuck Berry duck walked there a year later. Johnny Cash visited in 1966. Elvis never. How and why? I want to know.
The book flies the Atlantic again and again to hire cars and to drive and drive and drive. It traverses a great arc, full of plains and wooded hills. Here there are conifers, high harmonies, fields of rolling corn and rocking rhythms, flatlands bustling with the white tails of cotton, shacks and dust, bent strings, steels, overalls, Stetsons. Where you from, Honey? Cardiff, huh? Never heard of that place.
The Roots of Rock hears the music, considers its history, and sees how the disparate bits fit together. And if you keep listening for long enough, then you’ll discover that they do, indeed, fit. Tight jeans, carrot fit, peg pants, bib and tucker, bell bottoms, faded, distressed.
From Cardiff to Mississippi, from the Bay to the Delta. Ain’t nothin’ shakin’, sang Eddie Fontaine in 1958. How wrong he turned out to be.