Archive for the ‘Wales’ Tag

Max Boyce – Know your arias from your elbow

Who would have expected an album recorded in a small Welsh rugby club would create a major superstar of 1970s comedy?

Max Boyce - Live At Treorchy

Max Boyce – Live At Treorchy

Max Boyce,
Live At Treorchy,
One Up OU 2033,
1974

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Nationalism can do odd things to people. I don’t feel there is anything intrinsically wrong with believing your nation to be a fairly decent place full of thoroughly decent people leading highly decent lives. That nation of yours is going to be there every time you gaze out of a window or open your door, so you might as well try and like it, or at least feign some sort of passing interest. It is though, a short step from believing your respective country to be the best and by far the most decent, to experiencing a strong desire to conquer the known world and subjugate all other nations until they reach your required state of taste and decency.

Along with wanting to vanquish all the people of the world, nationalism also seems to bring with it certain other odd desires that are not entirely natural. Take for instance the sudden urge to address huge baying crowds from a balcony. Or the need to adopt emblems and insignia, and to wear stylistically improbable items of clothing. With their crisp black shirts, natty armband accessories, leather jackets, polished metallic eagles and shiny knee-length boots, nationalists have always managed to look stylish and cut a certain dash while they attempt to vanquish their foes and crush the peoples of the world. Apart from Nicola Sturgeon of course, who manages to look like a school dinner lady all dressed up for a night at the bingo.

Striding about the stage of some random Welsh town hall, adorned from head to toe in red with matching scarf and hat, Max Boyce certainly looked the part of the ardent nationalist. Add into that equation an enormous rosette the size of a cart wheel and a giant leek that was taller than Max himself, and you have the living embodiment of Welsh nationalism and its greatest ever comedian. Even Hitler or Mussolini in their prime would have felt underdressed and a tad shabby watching Max Boyce in his prime.

It wasn’t always like this. The covers of Max Boyce’s first two albums In Session and The World Of Max Boyce, both first released in 1971, show him in his pre-giant leek days. His chunky knitwear adorned with hues of brown and beige, his hair long but tamed, Max looks every inch a jobbing folk singer. By 1974 when Live At Treorchy was released, Max Boyce’s amazing transformation from folk singer to the very personification of Welshness was well under way. Gone is the brown woollen uniform, replaced instead by the ubiquitous leek and Welsh rugby wear that he would make his own. The leek is just a regular vegetable at this stage, and Max’s hair is still un-permed, but the puckish grin shows that he is well on his way to becoming the most Welsh person to have ever walked the valleys or waved a daffodil in anger. With the exception of 1977’s The Road And The Miles…, which sees Max flirting with rock superstardom in denim flares and a shirt open to his navel, the red and white clad rugby obsessive was a look that would serve him well.

Much of the appeal at Live At Treorchy comes from the instant rapport between Max and his audience. Born in 1943 in the mining town of Glynneath, Max Boyce worked in the mines himself and his tales of hard toil and of the emotional release offered by rugby and beer come from the heart. There is no affectation or effort to ingratiate himself with his audience. It is simply a man at home in his surroundings and the response of an audience who recognize one of their own. The material and topics Max sings about are instantly familiar to his crowd.

Much of the material on Live At Treorchy makes reference to Welsh rugby, which enjoyed a period of exceptional skill and dominance during the 1970s. I could devote a doctoral thesis to investigating whether it was the dominance of Welsh rugby which gave rise to the mass appeal of Max Boyce or vice versa. Suffice to say, the album both begins and ends with rugby related comedy, with only a few non-rugby related songs included to prevent the audience from rising from their chairs in a frenzied state of nationalism and marching immediately on London to overthrow the government.

Opening track 9-3 tells for instance of the 1972 defeat of the mighty New Zealand All Blacks by the Carmarthenshire club side Llanelli. The match is still talked about and mythologised forty years on and the details are now a matter of sporting legend, but Max Boyce explores much more than just the minutiae of the match. He tells of the atmosphere that the match generated, the camaraderie and mass elation that the result provoked, and of the Felinfoel beer induced revelry that caused many a headache and absence from work the next day. And probably the day after that as well.

More rugby tales follow on The Scottish Trip which relates more about the experience of travelling to a match than it does about the enjoyment of watching the match itself. It is a tale of hard working men bonding on a rare day off, and also of the scarcity of toilets on the motorways of the early 1970s. A similar track Hymns And Arias finishes the album, telling this time of a trip to Twickenham, detailing the songs sung and the various ways the Welsh got one over on their English hosts. It is a rousing crowd pleaser on which to end the record, with the line ‘Wales defeated England’ inevitably earning the loudest, most raucous cheer of the night.

Less drunken tracks, such as The Outside-Half Factory, relate a tall yarn of Welsh rugby players being constructed deep below the ground, hidden from the scheming gaze of English rugby league scouts. There is also Asso Asso Yogoshi, a cheerful tale of glib casual racism blessed glossed over, that despite its obvious affection for the touring Japanese rugby side and their brave sporting spirit, is just the sort of song that gives the 1970s a bad name. Wales has yet to issue Japan a formal apology for the track…

Astonishingly though, there are songs which are not about rugby or annoying the English. The Ballad Of Morgan The Moon is a long rambling story/poem which tells about how the eponymous Welsh inventor made it to the surface of the moon in a coal powered rocket fashioned from an old winding-engine.

The non-rugby songs also showcase the serious side of Max Boyce. Duw It’s Hard is a reflective lament for the lost pit in Max’s home town of Glynneath which generates a moment of genuine pathos amidst all the musical merriment and rugger. Max is honest enough to acknowledge that life in the mines was tough and full of hardship, but the replacement of the pithead baths with a supermarket imbues the song with a reflective sadness at the inevitability of change and the loss of communities. Ten Thousand Instant Christians is another reflective number which marvels at the empty chapels dotted around Cardiff on the day of a rugby international, while inside the stadium hymns such as Calon Lân and Cwm Rhondda can be heard ringing out with such faith and devotion.

Did You Understand? is a track written about the 1972 colliery strike, the indifferent decision makers in power and how the nation’s sympathies with the striking miners faded over time. With its portentous piano chords playing over Max’s piercing vocal lament, it is a powerful moment of social commentary that reveals the folk club origins of much of Max Boyce’s act.

For all its parochial Welsh charm, Live At Treorchy achieved great success for Max Boyce outside of his own safe heartland of support. The blend of working class humour and gentle comedy saw the album sell by the thousands, spending 38 weeks in the charts and reaching number 21 in the run up to Christmas 1975. The follow up album We All Had Doctors’ Papers achieved even greater success becoming (so far) the only comedy album to have reached number one in the UK charts. Which, given the competition, is quite an achievement.

To end then, here is Duw It’s Hard, Max’s wistful farewell to the mining industry that made him and thousands like him into proud Welshmen.

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