Blackwood, Gwent at the bitter end of 1988 a town cut off from its past and unsure of its future, a microcosm of Britain today. A place where venues and music are hard to find - yet a thriving counter culture is nothing if not inventive. Ensuring few will have to pack up and head for the cities in future. These are days of stirring - Blackwood, this is your life.
Blackwood, a fairly large town of about 20,000 perched between Risca and Tredegar, in the Sirhowy Valley. Another valley town nestling in a green valley, with terraced houses, grey slates and a High Street (No W.H. Smiths I'm afraid to say), but look deeper and as with most towns in this area, one begins to get the feeling of a new passion and exuberance amidst the dole-queue desperation.
There used to be an orange-red glow hanging ominously yet securely above these valleys years ago - Blackwood and the surrounding towns up to Merthyr Tydfil were the hub of industrial Wales, indeed industrial Britain - coal mines, iron and steelworks provided jobs and a sense of community, a sense of belonging and a feeling of pride for the valley people. Sons followed fathers' footsteps into various trades on offer.
Perhaps today, this town had been dislocated somewhat, been burnt away over the past few decades leaving the valleys in the state they are today - slowly decaying with the towns battling against the gnashing demands of the capitalists world that has bled them dry. Wales, especially South Wales has always been renowned for it's poetry and music - throughout the centuries it has grown male voice choirs, great poets, not to mention the singing at rugby matches. Our "Land of Songs", has always dealt favourably with such artists, and the performers always had a place to play in and spread their "Gospel". During this research I discovered that this trait is alive and kicking and indeed bursting with energy and creativity. Surrounded by grey desolation these people have decided to make a stand, as Ian Botham said in a recent interview; "There comes a time when you have to stand up and be counted". This is exactly what young people are doing around Blackwood.
Whereas before there were many places to play and perform, today the overwhelming opinion is of nowhere decent or worthwhile to play. Recent examples of this trend were the examples of Oakdale and Crosskeys Working Mens Institutes. So one sees bands being forced to show their talent elsewhere, and to look further afield to voice their opinions. It's sad especially when you realise that bands like Jam began in their home town building a dedicated following. What choice local bands.
Talking to youth workers, councillors and landlords the view is there isn't a 'music scene': "What's here, show me a decent band then?" "Nah there's nothing here in Blackwood...mind you, the kids don't want it"
Such figures of the community gave the impression that the kids didn't want to see bands, were too lazy to start one and just wanted to roam the streets and that it was just too much hassle to get a band to play because "of the trouble, licenses, Police and complaints", and so most landlords didn't bother. So with the paternalistic phrase "The kids don't want it", echoing in my mind, I decided to find out what the kids really wanted.
On the surface there doesn't appear much , ten pubs, two chip shops and Indian restaurant, a pizza house and four cafes, various building societies, banks plus the usual shops-small fry compared to Cardiff or Newport but there permeates through, a romantic edge to the town that has become a microcosm of Thatcher's reforms, or 'deforms' as one nineteen year-old said - This is not political but someone trying to reflect this town who cannot help but feel it, cannot help to see it in the eyes and hear it in the voices of the people who've been out of work for three years and who see no hope, no future, no real aim in living here, in their hometown, a town so bitterly close to their hearts that they begin to despise it. The young have to move away, or "Get on their bike" as Mr Tebbitt would say. "Why should I?", one eighteen year-old from the Woodfield Side Estate said, "Why should I have to leave my home, my friends and girlfriend and go to a place where I know nobody, feel no belonging, just because some fascist M.P. who's never smiled in his life, says so - no way - even if it means slogging it out here on the dole, I'm gonna do it - I have pride you know?"
I talked to Andrew Long, the bass player with On The Edge, a four piece band, who have built up a strong following in the Islwyn area. I saw their gig at Newbridge Memorial Hall where they played. They went down well and got the audience up. On talking to him, his main sentiment was that there was nowhere to play and that they were forced to look further afield for gigs. When asked what eh would do if he could change Blackwood, he said he would start a club where bands could perform. Walking down Blackwood High Street on a Friday afternoon, my eyes were pulled towards three leather-jacketed lads armed with guitars and tambourine playing the last chord of "Substitute". As I talked to them in Dot's Cafe, they burned with energy and enthusiasm that was infectious. Citing their main influences as The Clash, The Who and The Beat Generation, the Manic Street Preachers have decided to do something that they totally believe in. "We just have to do it, the band is our life and we feel it's now or never". The group bursts against the sometimes conformity of South Walean society and their songs echoes of energy and anger - a hope permeates their lyrics..."Our songs are about what we see all around us and how we would like to change it...we are deadly serious that we're taking the right road and we're not afraid to say what we feel". This three piece formed a year ago have the true rock and roll naivety and hopefulness of The Clash, Who and The Alarm and believe that they can change things - and who's to take that way from them? Recently played on Red Dragon Radio the band are currently recording their debut single and will be doing gigs in October.
Another young band from the Blackwood area are Stoned Lazy - a four piece who name their main influences as Van Halen, Aerosmith and Guns and Roses, the pooled all their creative efforts and money into their band. I met them at at their practice room...the sense of community I felt was overwhelming and people were popping in and out while the band practiced. At a recent gig at the Greyhound pub they played to a packed house a set full of energy, entertainment guaranteed. Although with longer hair than the Manic Street Preachers, Stoned Lazy have the inner spirit and passion for their art, and they want to communicate and give people hope - they are the warm orange glow that used to appear sometimes in the past against the grey.
These three bands all echo the feeling that there should be a place for young people to go, be it a night club or cafe, where they could see local bands or just a place to belong to and communicate away from the "normal" meeting places such as rugby clubs and pubs. These bands are finding their voice now and yet I fear it may be lost due to the lack of places to play and a total lack of understanding on the part of the community - do these people live in cupboards or realise that kids everywhere could soon be mouthing the words of Stoned Lazy or the Manic Street Preachers?
Sensing that there's no second chance, these bands are taking their now and are trying to set up a festival of local bands in December...I sense a pure amphetamined rush of energy and youthful anger...along with a few classic songs too. So, music is alive and kicking here in Blackwood and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
Together with the Manic Street Preachers are the Blue Generation writer to share the band's ideas but express themselves through their poems, plays and words. "We write about the injustice and inequalities that we see...we want to capture our thoughts on paper and try to communicate our deepest emotions, as it can be a lonely world sometimes and we want people to feel less alone. We're concerned for the downtrodden, the misfits and the delicate people in society - we write for the moths that are constantly being trampled on by the mammoths". They are influenced by Jack Kerouac and "generally writers who put their soul into this book - no holds barred". I challenged them that poetry and make it more accessible to young people - away from the way it's taught in schools to the idea that it's there in every one of and all it needs is a little push. I think it can be the ultimate form of communication...forget the telephone, use poetry".
I asked them whether "The Blue" symbolised a love Thatcher and her selfish ideas on society?: "Fuck off, it's symbolic of the ocean, freedom, the sky, and a violent sensitivity to people like Thatcher". "And the endless hope that you can reach further and further in all you do". These people again seem full of hope and energy and a love for their art.
Perhaps what we're seeing her is a new vitality i.e. a new individualism but an individualism that is for the good of the community and aims to communicate. Forgetting the axiom "Oh you can't do that", these bands and writers have decided that "They can and will do it". They aim to make Blackwood "The cultural centre of Wales and be known for more than being the "Divorce capital of Britain". Perhaps the warm glow can be re-created, just by words, this time though not by coal mines and the furnaces (sad as it is), but by the words and music that can lift the hearts and their minds of the community and give a buzz to the town again - as when the Chartists had their meetings here and were fighting for what they believed in and challenging the norm.
So, as I walk through the streets in this valley twilight, the most beautiful of all, I see young kids in shop doorways, and the cracks in the walls, waiting for the onset of night, waiting, waiting, waiting. Maybe with the local bands and writers they'll have something to believe in soon and their world wont be so lonely. My only hope is that it's not the twilight of the valley as there is so much latent talent here and all it needs is a chance to shine through and I'm sure that those bands and writers can lead the way. Throughout my research for this article I've been met with endless enthusiasm and a belief in what each individual is doing, it lifted my heart and gave me hope and I kept thinking of MacMurphy in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", when after failing to lift the metal sink says...:"Hell, I tried didn't I".