Sunday, January 13, 2008
Cyfres Y Ceirw III: Shakin' Stevens
Shaky is, of course, the greatest living Welsh after Tom Jones, Howards Marks and Charlotte Church. So why does he need extra exposure by here? Surely his body of work speaks for itself?
Indeed, but I come to praise not Shaky the Rock Colossus, for he belongs to the world, but Shaky the socialist politician and Welsh patriot.
As is often the case with great Welsh radicals, today's Shaky grew from unexpected roots.
Born Étienne Tremblant in the fabled Dynevor Tower of Oystermouth Castle in 1948, Shaky was the scion of one of Wales's oldest and most rapacious Norman families. His father, Sir Rollo Tremblant Bt, handed him over to a cabal of reves, makars and soused nursemaids, who instructed him in the ways of robber-barony in the back lanes and bedchambers of Gower.
A lifetime of sybaritic cruelty, ruffled shirts and bastardy awaited young Étienne until a fateful trip to the bordellos of Hamburg in 1967 organised by his private tutor - the unlicensed apothecary, Katangan consul and author of "Achmed, un fils du Rif", Conrad Latto.
As the two rode down the midnight Reeperbahn in a carriage drawn by a pair of Moroccan pony-boys, Étienne leafed through a copy of Adorno's "Minima Moralia" that he'd picked up in an alternative bookshop in the reasonable expectation that it was a Renaissance guide to mauve depravity.
As he told Michael Heatley, "[Adorno's] fragmentary aphorisms seemed to fuse together as I read them, forming a golden bar of philosophical bullion. The way forward was now clear to me. I told Conrad to rein in Mohand and Abdenour, dismounted, shook his hand for the last time, and strode into the dialectic as confidently as my silken hosiery permitted." ("Shaky: The Biography of Shakin' Stevens", Michael O'Mara Books, 2005, p38)
Étienne used his inheritance and shallow reading in the crepuscular classics of European and Near Eastern literatures to surf the spume of the German radical left, which began battering the bollards of bourgeois West Germany the following year.
But he soon grew disillusioned with the Marcusean posturings of the 68er-Bewegung, clearly foreseeing the rise of its violent, anarchic undercurrent to the surface in the form of the Baader-Meinhof Group (see his pamphlet "The One-Dimensional Movement: The Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund and a Superstructure of Gewalt", Spartakusverlag, Hamburg, 1968).
Many were unable to forgive him this incisive criticism, especially after the attempt on the life of SDS leader Rudi Dutschke, and Tremblant decided to return to Wales.
It was while toying with the radio in the family Bentley as he crossed the Heads of the Valleys that Étienne found himself switching rapidly between a recording of Aneurin Bevan and a track by a young rockabilly outfit called The Sunsets from Penarth. A second epiphany followed. "How to bring the tropes of Critical Theory to the working classes in Wales? For 'we are a musical nation' are we not? I had the car turn left - where else? - and we raced down the Rhondda towards the The Sunsets, towards the sea." (Heatley, p97).
It took a little time and a lot of money for Étienne to persuade The Sunsets to let him take lead vocals and songwriting duties, but it soon paid off in a string of consciousness-raising gigs.
The hits - "Sweet Little Rock & Roller" (1972 - dedicated to Leila Khaled), "Honey Honey" (1973 - a critical anthem mocking the statist posturings of the new East German Communist leader Erich Honecker), and "Jungle Rock" (1976 - in memory of Patrice Lumumba) - kept the band going while not compromising its revolutionary integrity.
After an uncertain start, Tremblant heeded the band's advice and agreed to change his name to something both more rock and yet more roll. In an early intimation of his interest in Welsh culture, Étienne opted for the name Steffan Y Crynwr, but the possible translation as "Stephen the Quaker" brought in too many earnestly silent men in cardigans and plain, plain women to make the joints jump. And so he bowed to cultural hegemony, and adopted another English version of his stage name. Thus was born Shakin' Stevens.
Shaky went solo in 1977, but the bond of solidarity he'd already forged with the workers, peasants and progressive studentry of Wales kept him in touch politically during the good times - and supported him in the locust years of the 1980s.
For Shaky's work was subject to a near-total and utter broadcasting boycott throughout the grim decade of Thatcherism following his alleged assault on Richard Madeley during an episode of "Calendar Goes Pop" in 1980. It was simply a Happening that Shaky had staged to illustrate a point he'd been trying to make about Debord's "Society of the Spectacle" to Francis Rossi out of Status Quo, but the coarsened social sensibility of the time was unable to grasp that.
Richard and Judy are the closest thing the English have to royalty, even though it was years before they'd met, and Shaky stood no chance. The only records of his that Radio One would play were either covers or songs with lyrics of such Æsopian subtlety that the BBC censors could not catch their thread of subversion. "I felt like I could look Vysotsky, Victor Jara and Wolf Biermann in the eye at last," Shaky recalled ruefully of those tense times (Heatley p178).
Highlights of the "Decade of Resistance", as Shaky called it, were "Shooting Gallery" (1980 - a chill warning of the advent of President Reagan), "This Ole House" (1981 - which pilloried the impotence of the House of Commons in the face of Thatcherism), "Oh Julie" (1982 - a bold doo-wop treatment of the semiotics of Julia Kristeva), and "A Rockin' Good Way" (1984, with miners' activist Bonnie Tyler, and dedicated to Woody Guthrie), culminating in the coruscating slab of anti-Eurocommunism that was 1990s "Pink Champagne".
Indeed, Shaky had been increasingly unhappy with the reformism taking root in the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and 1981's "Green Door" was a clear overture to Plaid Cymru's socialist wing under Dafydd Elis Thomas to form a broad Welsh left alliance.
An explicit invitation to Plaid would have cost Shaky his candidate Politburo membership, of course, and it is only to be regretted that Elis Thomas was unable (or unwilling?) to break free of Plaid's Gwynforite ascendancy. Shaky has written wistfully of what might have been in "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Dafydd Wigley", a pamphlet that the Arts Council of Wales repeatedly refuses to print.
The bureaucratic establishment of the Welsh Assembly has long since cast the pall of osmosis over Elis Thomas and other erstwhile radicals, and the irony is that Shaky's political legacy is more widely recognised at home than abroad.
His record sales in Denmark are an indictment of us all, and it has been left to the Northern chronicler of proletarian culture, Peter Kay, to pay Shaky tribute by making him the only star to make two separate appearances in his homage to the Mexican Revolution, "(Is This The Way to) Amarillo":
As Tom Jones gradually reduces his public commitments and Owain Glyndwr persistently declines to heed the call, the stage may yet still be set for Shaky to take his rightful place as First President of the Welsh Republic. The question is, are we Welsh enough to deserve him?