Keeping it Peel – Cerddoriaeth heb Saesneg

The BBC have produced a program compiling bits of various sessions of Welsh language rock music that were broadcast as part of John Peel’s regular radio show. There’s even been a recent re-mix of Datblygu’s hit “Maes E” and one of my favourite bands of the time, Melys have a new LP due out next year; exciting times.

This was of interest to me as I used to listen to these sessions when I was a younger man and also because I can now speak Welsh. So, listening to these recordings was strange as I was listening to something I used to hear in an unknown language to one I now speak; a big wow basically.

I’ve never quite understood this English language bias in the British media. There is an awful lot of English language music out there and sure, you can be perfectly happy only listening to English language music. However you would always be missing out of the even bigger amount of non-English language music that is out there. It’s music, there is no need to be able to grasp every tiny nuance of the lyric to appreciate the song and you rarely do that on a first listen anyway. Yet despite the efforts of people like John Peel, British radio continued to almost exclusively play English language music.

The reason the Peel program was so important to people who liked interesting music was that in the pre-internet era there were so few places to hear things that were not deemed popular. Records were expensive, an LP cost around £10, 20 years ago, almost exactly the same price as a CD now. today however you have the advantage of being able to listen to the entire album before purchasing a hard copy and people now only really buy hard copies to support artists they really love, whereas twenty years go you would occasionally take a punt of something because you liked the album cover which no-one would do these days.

There is almost no need for a John Peel show nowadays. We have the internet and the whole gamut of music available to us twenty fours hours a day at the touch of a button. Yet do people take advantage of this blessing by listening to the strange and obscure to us in the hope of uncovering a truly magical piece of music? Commercial radio is as awful as it ever was and I suspect it’s the same people who listen to interesting music now as then, despite the improved availability.

Welsh language music, specifically y Sin Roc Cymraeg / Welsh language Rock Scene, as opposed to the equally dull “daytime” Welsh language music that is as bad as “daytime” music anywhere else. Welsh language rock has always struggled to be heard outside of the Welsh speaking community. John Peel was one of the few who understood the value in exposing the scene to a wider public, because it was interesting music. Yet it is still largely ignored outside of evenings on Radio Cymru. It is simply not one of the major options on a service like Spotify, there is nothing to guide you to it unless you are actively looking for it. Such services always guide you to popular contemporary music. Alffa achieved one million listens on Spotify recently, which suggests things may be changing, but is still a rare exception.

It’s not just Welsh language music, there is world of wonderful music out there outside the English language. I just think it’s a shame that it isn’t easy to stumble across and that in today’s divided world there needs to be more exposure to the different the non-conventional, that other cultures exist than white male Europeans. Some music such as Soul has broken through, but so much has not. I’ve also heard of a friend post about discovering the wonderful Mongolian band, ‘The HU’ recently.  There is just so much wonderful music out there: Perfect pop music or k-pop from Korea. Folk music from Central Europe, wonderful Volksmusik form Germany, French Pop, Vocal trios from Georgia or Icelandic Electro or Russian string trios.  You simply don’t need to understand the language to appreciate the music. All of the linked examples demonstrate that all languages are great for music. They are all female fronted, but as a  heterosexual male myself, I just find more beauty in the female voice. It just seems mad to restrict oneself to music in English, when there are so many languages in the world.

The very sad truth is that for most musicians who want to earn enough to make a living from music have learned they need to sing in English to make enough money. Many Welsh language bands release songs to English to try to achieve commercial success as do bands across Europe. The Eurovision song Contest, once a competition where everyone sung in their native language is now a predominately English club. It’s very sad, because music written to appeal commercially is often dull, whereas that written to express your real thoughts is almost always much more interesting.

There is even a kind of liberal objection, that such ‘folk music’ is Nationalistic or promoting separatism, as if everything being the same, having no diversity, is somehow a good thing. That maintaining traditions is the opposite of being an open inclusive society, that seeking to conserve things is somehow wrong. If anything the white, male European/North American model is really not the one culture for humanity to have. There are so many interesting musical and cultural traditions out there, that are surely foolish to ignore or shun support for. I still don’t understand why so many people don’t look beyond the narrow confines of English language commercial music, especially in these dark days of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right. without it we would never have wonderful cultural mixes such as Bhangra combined with Scottish Highland bagpipes

 

 

Good Evening Europe

The excitement gathers once more for this years Eurovision Song Contest. I’ve always been a big fan of the Eurovision, despite its changes through the years.

In a pre-internet age is was one of the highlights of the year . The family would gather around the family television, then the only screen in the house, and settle down to watch and discuss the ‘competition’. The show for those that don’t know, is divided into two parts.

The first part is the performances. A selection of European countries and a few non-European countries that subscribe to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) select and enter a song and these are then performed on the Eurovision stage and broadcast live to the whole of Europe and now the world, when this was a rare and exciting thing. The important thing is that generally the songs are not very good, it isn’t really a song contest in an artisitic sense, actually it is a rather bizarre popularity contest, which is where its interest lies. So during each song the audience discusses the various weaknesses of the performance and occasionally note the odd thing that they actually like. So we used to have musical discussions at a fairly low level with family members who didn’t even like music.

Once everyone is exhausted from sitting though so much truly awful music, the show turns to the voting. Traditionally each country had a jury of people who knew nothing about music but thought themselves that they did to do what everyone at home was doing and decide who they should give points to. Basically, each country awards 12, 10, 8,7,6,5,4,3,2 and 1 point to the entries of other countries. Each country was connected via the once unreliable European telephone networks to the arena and would read out there results. Which was a cue for the start of the political discussions. A lot of the interest was in trying to work out why people had deemed to award high points to the various terrible parodies of music. However further political discussions arose as it often seemed like simply a popularity contest, where countries would award their closest allies with points and not give points to there ‘enemies’ even when they had produced a song with some merit and entertainment value. That Greece awarded ‘Le Chypre, douze points’ [to Cyprus the maximum 12 point score] and Le Chypre, sorry, Cyprus would award ‘Grece douze points’ as well. By this point usually most people were fairly drunk and such discussions were huge amounts of fun.

In times past, a song winning the thing by acquiring the most points meant that your countries state broadcaster had the honour and bore the cost of staging next years competition. Famously there was a period where Ireland won every year, to the point that the Irish Broadcaster was getting into serious financial difficulties. Hence there is an episode of ‘Father Ted’ where Ted and Dougal win ‘Song for Ireland’ (or whatever they call it) by writing a “My Lovely Horse” a song so so bad that Ireland would be all but guaranteed not to win that years Eurovision.

Things changed, the Berlin wall fell and the re-establishing countries of Central and Eastern Europe were keen to join in the fun of the previously Western European club,   technology developed so that the people of Europe could vote over the telephone for their favourite entry, rather than rely on the vagaries of the idiot juries. Which was thought would be an end to the so called ‘political voting’. The major change was that as the number of eligible countries rose, there was the potential for 40 or 50 entries, meaning that the songs would go on for three or four hours, to be followed by several hours of the votes being read out. Personally I would have been happy for the thing to go onto the wee small hours, propping my eyelids open to see who this years winner was.

This was not to be, the EBU decided to hold Semi-finals, whereby hardcore Eurovision audiences would sit through two mini Eurovisions, the select twenty ‘finalists’ to be joined by the scaredy-cat countries, or rather larger contributors to the EBU budget who recieve byes to the final and the host country (whom probably don’t want to win the next year, but host countries tend to get lots of votes for some reason]. Of course with the internet, the songs are all available to listen to before the competition anyway.

The voting has also changed. The ‘televote’ continued to produce ‘political voting’ as neighbouring countries voted for each other. In reality it’s not political, it’s simply that people are more likely to move to a neighbouring country than further away and people tend to vote for their home country for some bizarre form of patriotism perhaps. So the EBU brought back the inept juries in the hope that the different forces of the juries and the televote would balance out the international relations stuff and guarantee no-one would receive the dreaded ‘null points’ (zero points; by not receiving a single point from any country)

Of course the televote raises lots of money so every country runs it, so even with 26 finalists, there is still 40 or 50 countries to vote. So, very very sadly, these days the 1 to 8 points is glossed over in an a flash (which was always fascinating) and some disgraced former celebrity of the country merely flirts with the stage hosts and announces the ‘big ten and twelve points’. Indeed the multi-lingualism has gone too, the hosts used to announce everything first in French, then English and then the main language of their country, which was a great idea as it taught the children the names of the European countries in three languages. I can still recite the names of the European states in French, I with hardly any other French vocabulary. It used to be that almost everyone sang in their native language, which was wonderful, but these days almost everyone sings in English.

There is no English in Can i Gymru (Song for Wales) of course! Wales has it’s own mini-Eurovision show where a ‘Song for Wales’ is ‘selected’, if Wales ever were to get its own proper Eurovision entry in its own right. This show is also lots of fun as the wannabees put out their awful songs and chat about themselves to the hosts, whilst there is a twitterstorm on Social Media as people disparage the performances and the mindless banter of the show. There is this wonderful parody video, where Can i Gymru songs are over-dubbed for comic effect. With the UK Eurovision entries being so dire, maybe it’s time for Wales to enter Eurovision for the first time, we can’t do much worse.

I feel I am not alone that the current voting system isn’t quite right, this part of the show lacks something now and is less fun. The current system is the jury vote is announced, which is fairly random, then the televote is rushed through in the last five minutes, which is the more interesting one as it is interesting to see what things are popular in different countries in what is after all a popularity contest, rather than the views of the hopeless juries. I was angered when a few years ago when I was sure Italy were going to storm Eurovision with ‘Grande Amore‘, something I think people could enjoy outside of the Eurovision world and largely the rest of Europe agreed with me in that they did gain the most points by some way in the televote, but finished second as the crazy juries didn’t really go for it. Surely a popularity contest should be determined by a popular vote, which is the very essence of popularity. Is there any point in pretending  that is is some serious music competition?

Occasionally, there is a classic year, where a genuinely good performance wins and that makes me happy and the other entrants generally provide good entertainment. There was the year when Dana International won with ‘Viva la Diva‘, because it was the best song that year and not because she is a transexual. My favourite year was when Finnish comedy metal band. Lordi performed ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah‘. I was a Lordi fan before Eurovision, they are fantastic musicians and know how to structure a song AND how to put on a show. I was convinced that they would rock Eurovision and I was a little worried that they wouldn’t and I would lose all my faith in humanity. I was confident enough and I crammed about 40 people into my tiny living room for a Eurovision party for that years show and just having that many people screaming ‘Lordi, Finland’ was something to behold. Fortunately they did indeed walk Eurovision that year as country after country gave Finland douze points to my enormous joy and relief. Sometimes, sadly quite rarelyn a genuinely good song that embodies the very essense of Eurovisioness, will not only appear, but also win the thing, such as the year of Denmark’s ‘Teardrops‘ . Those moments when you hear the song and know that feeling of ‘ we have a winner’.

Unfortunately most years, such a song doesn’t emerge, indeed most years I suffer a sense of disappointment that there isn’t one or that the wrong song won. But then without the bad years there wouldn’t be those life affirming good years. It’s probably why so many people like me, support football teams. The years of frustration fall away when, finally our team achieves something, such as when Wales progressed to the semi-finals in the European championships in 2016. So we keep tuning in to Eurovision in the hope of a classic year. Having the semi-finals kind of spoils the fun. they annoy me as so often good acts, strangely don’t make it through.

Often I’ve had the ‘What makes a good Eurovision song?’ Now if anyone has an answer to that , put an entry in. I’m sure this is what someone in Finland thought ‘Put Lordi in Eurovision, they’ll win it easily’. Sadly the UK hasn’t had a clue for decades now. People suggest that it’s bias against Britain for taking part in the calamitous Iraq war or Brexit or whatever, and fail to see the truth that the UK hasn’t entered a passably good entry for a long time. There are some counties that enjoy more success than others, as they have people in the right positions who kind of get what makes a good Eurovision song. Sweden is one of these countries and a couple of years ago the hosts of the show performed the ‘perfect’ Eurovision song ‘Love love, Peace peace

I kind of feel the what a good Eurovision song  needs is simply a bit of originality, a touch of edge, but nothing that will upset a primitive family audience. It also needs to stand out from the pack, so for example a good ballad will struggle in a year where every other song is a ballad, but shine when no-one else brings a ballad. Usually some musicianship helps, and a talented singer, but sadly it seems that having an attractive singer gathers more votes, but currently I feel the stage show has to be right, the costumes and backing singers need to attract interest too to make a complete performance. If you watch the Eurovision Song Contest, you will see entries trying to cover these bases, such as the blatant ‘man in a hamster wheel’ mentioned in ‘Peace Peace Love Love’ [which was Ukraine 2014). The fascinating thing, and why it’s so hard to get right, is that all these different criteria change every year. It is this that makes the competition so fascinating. These days i usually listen to the songs with a pen and paper, awarding points for costumes, dance routines, vocal performance and then a string of bonus points for such things as not singing in English or innovative costuming. However I have never predicted the voting with any accuracy, but the voting patterns change every year in amongst the ‘political voting’ of the UK and Ireland ‘always vote for each other’.

Perhaps I should talk about Eurovision with reference to Brexit, but that can wait for another day. Tomorrow is the annual opportunity to celebrate Europe’s shared love of tacky pop music. I did have a speed flick through the Semi-finals, my pick for this year, (I’m usually very wrong, but have been right once or twice) is Moldova. I think it has all the traditional and modern elements of a good Eurovision song needs and is performed with class. and light entertainment for all?

Let the show begin!