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?


Gorilla Bananas said...

Shakin' Stevens was a Welsh? That's news to gobsmack a hippo. He certainly hid it very well when he was singing You drive me crazy. I suppose these radical Pottists had to hide their Welshness to avoid persecution when Mrs Thatcher was ravishing the mines and factories. Has anyone given him an honorary degree? I don't agree with his politics, but I think a man of his intellectual achievements deserves one.

Gyppo Byard said...

Fascintating stuff! These stories about the intellectual underpinnings of modern popular music deserve a wider airing. Soon I shall reveal the results of my own research into the practice of lexicographical alienation as evidenced in the work of Slade (who were, of course, named after the art school).

No Good Boyo said...

GB - it's a sad fact that many narrow nationalists spurned Shaky because of his stout Norman stock, recalling that his ancestor Sir Rufus Tremblant had introduced Lex Despenser Sicut Regale in Gower as late as 1902. "You drive me crazy" simply shows the man's versitility, although you're right that many on the Welsh left sought to conceal their Cambritude from Thatcher's minions - some, like the Kinnocks, even managed to convince themselves they were no longer Welsh. I'll check his honorary degree status, but seem to recall he has one from the Semiotics and Boat Repairs Department at the University of West Swansea(formerly Stella Maris Catholic Primary School, Mumbles).

Gyppo - seminal is a word that barely does Slade justice: I look forward to your analysis. Genesis-album magnate Ward Cooper had Noddy Holder sit on his dad's sofa when he was a mere canal-flosser back in Great Wyrley. The Boyz's experimental film Slade in Flame on the telly this week. Catch it if you can.

Anonymous said...

Sirs: Noddy and co were originally a combo from Blaenau Ffestiniog called Slate, but were persuaded to change their moniker (and their accents) by some English "holidaymakers" in return for buying a set of their singles for use as drinks coasters.

No Good Boyo said...


Your website more than qualifies you for an honoured place among No Good Boyo's commentators, on the grounds that you admire Vopli Vidopliassova, have a photo of Carson McCullers (woof!) and hang out in Cluj.

Mrs Boyo and I plan to have our wedding reception at the Hotel Victoria there once my good lady has sorted out that gun-running unpleasantness.

Your thesis on the Blaenovian (the correct adjective, I assure you) origins of Slade has yet to be disproven, and makes perfect sense to me.

Bun venit!

Anonymous said...

Hei! Multumesc, prietenul meu! Is true, I found new brother when I see your site, is some Ukraine, and is also making of the British joks I am liking now. Is true, am living in Cluj - is very nice - but why you marry this Hutul log-cutter's daughter in our town? Also, so-called (by Hungarians, ha!) Hotel Belvedere is more class than Hotel Victoria. And why is you speaking the Romania? I speaking English of the Mr Borat, now he teach us with his nice film. Horilka!!

No Good Boyo said...

Young man, Mrs Boyo's esteemed father is one of Ukraine's most feared scientists, and hasn't a drop of Hutsul blood in his veins. (What's in his specimen cabinet is another matter.)

We spent an, er, interesting time touring Romania a few years back, and concluded that both Cluj and Napoca beat Suceava's zona industrială and Bucharest in toto as a honeymoon destination. We nearly gatecrashed a wedding reception at the Victoria, and made the acquaintance of the city's only non-blind Gypsy violinist called, I believe, Mad Iancu.

The Roata restaurant is somewhere I could dine everyday, if I lived in Cluj, and the city makes a handy base for forays into darkest Ruthenia.

Anonymous said...

Ah, ok, the father-in-law is a man to be respected and not somebody who paints easter eggs for a living - I hope he will accept my apologies and this packet of rather poor-quality cornflakes as a symbol of the ever-closer ties between our two great nations! Yessss, Cluj is very nice; we now have direct WizzAir flights from London and beer is about 45p a pint - you know what happens next.... :-) I dined at the Roata once, but you will (oh, you will, trust me on this) get tired of Romanian food. I'm pretty sure that Mad Iancu turned up at our civil wedding:

M C Ward said...

A true legend expertly deconstructed. And the film only goes to show how those on the left age so much better. Except Auden perhaps.

Mrs Boyo said...

Boyo, this second Gypsy guest of yours may be illiterate but he is right.

The Belvedere Hotel was in fact the one we almost visited. I recall One-Toothed Liliana caught your eye rather more than did Iancu.

I hope I don't have to intervene too often to keep your web blog in shape, otherwise I may have to give it to someone else.

Anonymous said...


Sarut miinile doamna Boyo.

Yes, it's built on a hill, overlooking the town, and used to be called the Transylvania. Last year they quoted us about £40 per person for a large wedding banquet, if you're still interested. I think the picture link I posted doesn't work, I'll try again. (This gypsy violinist - on the right, is it your friend Iancu? - may be crazy, as I've seen him walking through the streets shouting at his wife).

No Good Boyo said...

I shudder to say this, but Mrs Boyo is wrong. Our hotel was the Victoria, and we walked around the Belvedere (aka Transilvania) dogged by wedding couples.

Your photo worked fine, Gadjo, although you appear to be wearing some sort of skirt.

Mad Iancu is older, and madder, than anyone in that photo.

This blog's greatings to Doamna Dilo.

Anonymous said...

You can mock the Welsh Elvis as much as you like but he does have a radical past. He comes from a family of ten kids in the Fairwater/Ely district of Cardiff; his dad was a miner; and he did benefit gigs for the Communist Party.

Anonymous said...

"dogged by wedding couples", eh?

Yes, the skirt was not (as I have vigorously asserted elsewhere) a tribute to my mother's Scottish heritage, nor was it purely for the sake of auto-eroticism (though that undeniably played its part), but was a stipulation from my parents-in-law that "if their daughter was going to marry a bourgois, lily-livered, Western ponce then he should at least be made to look like one". (Glumesc scumpa mea, Doamna Dilo, e umor englez, scuze!)

Hats off to Shaky, though; all credit to the man. I feel I have somehow crashed his blog party here....

No Good Boyo said...

East European fathers-in-law are clearly cut from one block, Gadjo. Mine was impressed by my morning drinking regime and partisan technique for ambushing fascists by use of frog.

This web blog admires Shaky, but its orison ranges wide from Wales to the arts and matters Carpathian, so you'll find plenty of food for thought and, I like to think, action.

A note to our anonymous visitor: No Good Boyo values candour, so I'd rather you said who you are, but as you too are clearly a Shaquista, I'll let your remark stand, if only as a testament to the enduring propaganda put out by the workerist wing of the Communist Party in the 80s about Shaky's origins.

It's a tribute to his cadre discipline that Shaky has put up with it for so long.

Anonymous said...

Tovaras, your undimmed support of Shakeyist Welshism remains a beacon to us all! But your concessions to cosmopolitanism ("the Carpathians", "the arts") may betoken a dangerous and destabilising bourgous-liberalism. The People demand forthwith that your allegiances be known: the Carpathians encompass only Neo-Daciaist Romanians, Catholico-Zubrowkist Poles and Pysanka-Arborealist Hutsuls. No Welsh, (apart from Michael Howard, of course). The arts are another matter, to be addressed assuredly by the executive arm of comrade Elis-Thomas's People's council.

No Good Boyo said...

Listen here, Gadjo, the Cymru Rouge has a total and utter commitment to internationalism, on the principle enunciated in our 2007 Assembly elections manifesto: "Building Socialism in Other Peoples' Countries". The Welsh presence in Ukraine is long-attested to, as Madame Tymoshenko is herself a Welsh (details to follow in separate post).

This web blog's interest in near-naked ladies is another bulwark of its support for Ukraine, as well as explaining its interest in the arts.

Fine for workerist deviation: one bottle of horinca!

Anonymous said...

Ah, NGB, that the "Gas Princess" is a Welsh is a tonic to this aching Kinnockite heart of mine, which yearns for a return to a kinder, windier age of political speechifying!! Welsh Bela Lugosi Michael Howard, on the other hand, is from the village of Ruscova in Maramures*, decidedly on the "other side of the Tysa".

Palinka for everybody!

(* ok, only his father was)

Anonymous said...

(P.S. to all. My silly comment was a reference to Michael Howard's right-wing politics suggesting that he is somehow related to Vlad Tepes ("Dracula"), nothing to do with his Jewish ancestry, which I had forgotten. No misunderstandings, I hope. Cheers.)

No Good Boyo said...

The "Lugosi" suggestion that he might be a so-called Hungarian might have caused concern, but nothing more, Gadjo.

There's a disused synagogue by the river in Cluj, on the opposite bank immediately below the erstwhile Hotel Transilvania. In the vestibule there's a dedication plague mentioning a Mr Hecht among the contributors. I wonder if he was any relation to Michael Howard.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and I think that (reformed) synagogue is still in use. Interestingly: Romanians, Jews, Hungarians and Dracula enthusiasts alike have all claimed Mr Hecht as one of their own! I'm belatedly warming to the man.

La Tymoshenko, on the other hand, is, and always will be, simply crumpet.

No Good Boyo said...

It was disused at the time I saw it. Look liked some youth club was meeting there.

There is a Reform (Neolog) synagogue that we visited, but this one looks like a warehouse but has Stars of David on the outer walls. Right by the river.

If you like Madame Tymoshenko, you'll love her daughter:

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