Released in 1999, the year ‘Cool Cymru’ provided a soundtrack to devolution, the 21-track Fierce Panda/Townhill compilation Dial M for Merthyr is perfectly curated to form a snapshot of a particular corner of the Welsh indie rock world. By extension, and almost by accident, in retrospect it gives a tiny glimpse of the heady sense of excitement and newfound confidence that had seeped into the culture at large.
Opening track ‘Welsh Bands Suck’, by long forgotten twee-merchants Teen Anthems is a case in point. Taking as its lyrical concern the desire of indie bands to get into the NME or (now defunct) Melody Maker, the song is an uber-ironic take on the vagaries of fashion: ‘Oh no, it can’t be true / Everybody’s saying Welsh bands are cool / Oh no, that can’t be right / Apart from Helen Love, they’re a load of shite.’ After which, John Peel favourites and indie disco staples Helen Love appear themselves, with a track – ‘Beat Him Up’ – that peddles the same Joey Ramone fan club fare that the band patented throughout the nineties and beyond. The sugar coated melody and fuzzy guitars disguise a venomous ditty about domestic violence and intended revenge.
Then, as if to discredit the spurious opening claim that Welsh bands suck, we are treated to ‘Ballerina’, three and three quarter minutes of adrenalin-soaked power-riffing from the criminally underrated 60ft Dolls, the band from The New Seattle™ (that’s Newport, for readers under 25; yes, really) who, despite support slots with Oasis, Elastica and Dinosaur Jr, somehow went under the Britpop radar when the mainstream came calling for bands of their ilk.
Most of the bands that did make it big are here too. ‘Looks Like Chaplin’ is a reminder of why the cognoscenti got interested in the Stereophonics. In places it is almost edgy. At times Kelly Jones’ unmistakable vocals stretch into a Thom Yorke-esque howl. But much like the ‘Phonics career, the song fizzles into a coda of pub rock with stadium pretensions. The other song featured by Welsh Rock Royalty is ‘Strip It Down’. The lead track from the Manic Street Preachers’ debut EP New Art Riot (1990) is, conversely, weaker than most of the band’s back catalogue; deservedly, the track is left out of the band’s 39-song 2011 retrospective National Treasures: The Complete Singles.
Much more interesting are the less well-known bands. Suzy Pepper’s ‘Wah Wah’ is a three-minute throwaway punkish chorus-verse-chorus in the best tradition of such. ‘You go out / you get drunk / you fall down / and you do it again’ runs the stupidly infectious chorus. TJs and Clwb Ifor scenesters will go teary-eyed with nostalgia at the atmosphere of mild hedonism that infuses such moments. Another standout is Dog Day Afternoon’s ‘City at Night’, a stomp of a song that somehow manages to cram exuberant guitar and drum solos into its two breathless minutes, as well as gaining brownie points for its authors’ namechecking the early Al Pacino heist movie in their band name.
A change of pace is provided by another of Cool Cymru’s big guns. ‘To and Fro’, flipside of second single ‘Lost Cat’, is a reminder of just how brilliant were the early Catatonia; in the context of Dial M for Merthyr, it is also a clue to the secret of longevity. The advantage Catatonia had over their peers is Cerys Matthews. Cerys can sing, of course, really sing, and her dulcet tones stand out a mile amid some of the shoutiness and indie schmindie elsewhere on the disc.
Devolution on a disc? Not quite. ‘Welsh Bands Suck’? Hardly.
It is a shame that the period’s very best band aren’t represented, but Super Furry Animals’ associates Big Leaves are here, along with Derrero, Topper and the delightful Melys, to further represent the turn-of-the-Millennium Cymraeg/English crossover scene. It is, however, a below-par ditty solely memorable for its name-checking of Cardiff’s ‘Mill Lane’.
Rachel Trezise pilfered Dial M for Merthyr as a title for her rockumentary about Midasuno, another also-ran Welsh band, and later the Hitchcock spoof would join the likes of Apocalypse Now in a Minute and The Grapes of Roath as one of Taffywood’s ubiquitous Welsh Penguin Classics parodies. Here in its original context it’s a memorable title for a bunch of largely forgettable songs that nevertheless together form a time capsule for a watershed moment in Welsh history and culture. As such, with every year that goes by, Dial M for Merthyr becomes an ever more important historical artefact. Devolution on a disc? Not quite. ‘Welsh Bands Suck’? Hardly. See, we could even do irony now.