Inside the Welsh punk scene of the 1980s

Inside the Welsh punk scene of the 1980s
‘Wastelands of my Fathers’ is a new exhibition taking a vivid look into an under-reported chapter in punk’s story.

“You wanna go out today but the lifts are all still broken,” vocalist Andy James sneers to kick-start Victimize’s 1979 cult-hit Hi Rising Failure. “You wanna go out and play and the council says, ‘You better jump, son.’” Almost 50 years later, its clattering bass and shredded power chords tamped down into a YouTube vinyl rip, the song’s stifling, going-nowhere rage remains inescapable.

Victimize formed on a council estate in Barry, then an ailing port town in south Wales, in the late 1970s. Their take on punk, confined to a few singles and compilation appearances, replaced the cartoonish nihilism of the Sex Pistols with a sense of hard-nosed, grounded inertia that makes you want to climb out of your own skin. A photo of the young band — their leather jackets set against the rubble of a demolition site — leads off Wasteland of My Fathers, a new exhibition that assembles a vivid look into under-reported chapter in punk’s story.

Designed by Cardiff Music History’s David Taylor, the retrospective will form part of the Llais festival at the Wales Millennium Centre in the capital between September 25th and November 5th. It delves into a Welsh scene that existed in the fading light of heavy industry, percolating throughout the 1980s in dockers’ cottages and mining villages, from the southern coast to Blaina in the heart of the valleys and on to Bangor in the north.

“If you think about punk, you probably think about London or New York,” Taylor says. “It was very different in Wales. It was Thatcher’s Britain. They were playing benefit gigs for the miners in London. In Wales, the bands’ families were down the mines. It was closer to home.”

Wasteland of My Fathers pulls together photographs and oral history from 13 leading bands including the Partisans, the Oppressed, Icons of Filth, Yr Anhrefn, Rectify and Shrapnel, alongside excerpts from the influential zines Artcore and Oh Cardiff...Up Yours!. There is also a look at Is the War Over?, a 1979 compilation drawn from goings on at the Cardiff cultural hub Grassroots, which sustained the minimalist post-punk pioneers Young Marble Giants. The patchwork narrative it tells is one of activism, DIY and community — these bands were anti-Thatcherite politics, anti-racist, anti-nuke, and pro-animal rights.

“The bands all have their own stories and hopefully the exhibition extracts that,” Taylor says. “The Oppressed, you've got Roddy [Moreno, vocals] with the whole anti-fascist thing. Before he got sieg-heiled at a Swansea gig they were playing, they were just singing about fighting and football and drinking. That was a turning point for them. Their message was, 'If you want to be a hooligan, and a thug, that's fine, but fight those guys.’

Top to bottom: Victimize, Icons of Filth

“There are not a lot of photos of Icons of Filth. Apparently they encouraged people not to take them because there were animal products used in the processing of film. You've got Rectify, who were singing about hunt-sabbing and badger-baiting. They were from Blaina and it's going on around them. It was personal to them. They had drawings of badgers on their records, which seems so un-punk. But the activism is punk.”

Taylor was a 12-year-old metalhead when he stumbled into the basement of one of Cardiff’s Edwardian shopping arcades, finding Autonomy Records’ owner, a punk named Marv, presiding over a stash of vinyl, t-shirts and zines. “He had spiky hair that was bleach-blond on one side and black on the other,” Taylor recalls. Crucially, nestled amid Marv’s wares was a box of cassettes with photocopied DIY covers. “I recognised a couple of names,” Taylor adds. “I got a tape of the first Cro-Mags demo.”

Blaina punks at The Bush Inn

Sometimes, finding your music is like having your eyes opened. For Taylor, though, this was an extinction-level event. “Suddenly my heavy metal records seemed a bit stupid and distant — rock stars on big stages with inflatable dragons,” he observes. He went back to Autonomy week after week, scarfing down missives from the hardcore scenes that had sprung up across America along with crust-punk, grindcore and anarcho-punk from closer to home. “Punk was saying that no record costs more than a pound, a fanzine is 10p, and they all put their home addresses on the back of the records,” he says. “Within a month I was writing to Napalm Death, Heresy, and Subhumans.”

By sending these letters, Taylor had unknowingly plugged himself into the same grassroots information exchange that sustained bands across Wales. Multiple musicians featured in Wasteland of My Fathers take time to eulogise the freedom offered by the postal service, which allowed for tapes, flyers, zines and ideas to crisscross the UK at a time of deadening uncertainty and fear. These parcels were both an outlet and an invitation — Mari Bradbury, vocalist with Bridgend’s Life Cycle, recalls soaping stamps to stay connected with like-minded punks across the UK.

Top to bottom: The Oppressed, Life Cycle

“They are another interesting band who were involved in a lot of animal rights stuff — Mari talks about gluing up butchers' locks and the network of writing letters and arranging gigs,” Taylor says. “I think a lot of indie bands would have been sending off demos to venues, whereas there was such a strong network with punk. If you've got mates who you've been trading tapes with in London or Birmingham and you've got a band, they'll probably say come on down and play.”

Along with sourcing original artwork, interviews, video, records and contemporary merch, Taylor has spent months reverse-engineering digital files onto cassettes for Wasteland of My Fathers, bringing long-lost live sets and demos back to analogue life. They’ll be served up next to a set of headphones in what he’s calling “the punk living room”. Decades later, he’s turning to the same medium that reset his view of the world, perhaps hoping to do the same for people who have no idea of Wales’ punk history. The venues — pubs, working men’s clubs or punk boltholes such as Cardiff’s Grannie’s Club or the Lion's Den — are gone. Some of the people are gone. But the music is still here, and the problems are still here.

Wasteland of My Fathers will run between September 25 and November 5 at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff.

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