South Wales is guitar country. The North – for some unfathomable reason – is not. I’m sure they have their own cultural heritage up there, but it does not include guitar-playing. Or indeed rock music. The only band of note they have ever produced is the Super Furry Animals, who create memorable music, but music without a substantial guitar input. The South, on the other hand, is fetlock-deep in guitarists.
When rock’n’roll first grabbed me by the throat, there were four local bands ruling the roost in South Wales. The Blackjacks from Carmarthen; the Fleetwoods from Ammanford; the Fireflies from Swansea and the Meteorites from Llanelli. My local gig was the Ritz and this quartet of bands all played there regularly. I spent most nights-out at the Ritz leaning on the front of the stage, along with a small cluster of fellow guitar freaks, in front of whoever was the lead guitarist, gazing in wonder.
My distant cousin, Roland, was the lead guitarist of the Meteorites, which filled me with hope. If he could do it, why couldn’t I? I can’t remember anything about his guitar playing because I only saw him play once, and, as an absolute beginner, had no yardstick by which to judge him. Shortly afterwards, he and the Meteorites parted company and he was replaced by Link Conway, from Swansea. Link was a flamboyant, Strat-wielding Buddy Holly look-alike, who was different from the other local lead guitarists of the time because he was the first to shake off the dead hand of Hank B Marvin. Something of a showman, he had an ebullient personality and played with blistering speed and unfettered invention.
The Meteorites were my favourite local group. Elvin Leroy, their singer, wasn’t bad but he was dwarfed by the monstrous talent behind him. Link’s flamboyance was augmented by bassist Vic Oakley’s matchless voice and drummer Beau Adams’s revolutionary percussion skills. The line-up was completed by Ken Curtis’s rhythm guitar, which was solid and driving.
Vic could sing anything from Little Richard screamers to lush Roy Orbison ballads. I couldn’t wait until Elvin nipped off for a pint and a piss, when Vic took over the lead vocals. His Roy Orbison was truly uncanny. If you closed your eyes, it was Orbison singing. I used to look forward to a new Orbison single because it meant that the following week Vic would be singing it. Whenever he sang an Orbison song, a frisson of excitement would shimmer through the Ritz.
And then there was Beau Adams – the primus inter pares of percussionists. Nothing could prepare you for Beau’s genius. He had everything – speed of hand, weight of foot, speed of foot, weight of hand, and an originality of execution that moved effortlessly from heart-stopping thunder to gossamer delicacy and back again before you could say paradiddle. Every time you saw him his drum kit was different. Sometimes his cymbals would be upside down (he would crash upwards), his floor tom-tom would be sawn in half (no loss of tone and easier to pack), and the finish on his drums changed almost weekly (the two I remember are red tartan and black fur).
He was forever breaking his sticks, and when he ran out of replacements he finished the set using two screwdrivers. His bass-drum had to be nailed down, using two six-inch nails, because, without them, a single thud would propel it, and the rack tom-toms, into the front row of the audience. He was tall, dark and handsome, and seemingly irresistible to women. He lived on a diet of Kunzle Cakes and took five sugars in his tea. He was, quite simply, the leader of the pack.
The Blackjacks were an institution. They’d been the first rock’n’roll band in Wales. They’d released a single (an instrumental version of ‘Sospan Fach’, the Llanelli anthem), and they regularly worked abroad (mainly at US Army bases in Europe). And Don Callard, their ageing guitarist – he was in his thirties – played a salmon pink Fender Stratocaster (the first in Wales). But fashion had passed them by. They still played Shadows’ instrumentals in an R&B age. But what made the Blackjacks still watchable was their drummer Pete James, who was a titan of the craft. Some years later I joined them for a three-month tour of US Army bases in France. It was an entertaining tour during which I nearly sparked a race riot, nearly got blown to smithereens by Pete on a drunken rampage in a room full of oxygen cylinders, and, in the foyer of a Paris hotel, almost got shot (the bullet hit the ceiling above my head, showering me with plaster). I’ll always have a soft spot for the Blackjacks.
The Fireflies were blessed with a stupendous guitarist. Jimmy Humphries could play anything. He was the first guitarist I saw who could play in the Chet Atkins style. All Welsh guitarists of a certain age aspire to Chet Atkins (it’s a Celtic rite of passage), so to see Jimmy do it so perfectly, and seemingly without effort, filled me with awe and envy.
I only saw the Fleetwoods once. I can’t remember their music but I remember the sound. They had a Meazzi Factotum, a state-of-the-art, Italian PA system with a comprehensive range of echoes and, once they got it going, they sounded as if they were playing on a faraway mountaintop. Oh, and they all wore slick, light-grey mohair suits. I only saw them once because, unlike other bands who gravitated east toward civilization, they went west into Pembrokeshire – the land that time forgot. It was like Darwin’s waiting-room down there.
In the Land of My Fathers is available now from Northdown Publishing Ltd.
Photo credit: Blean Y Nant- Deborah Deveney (RSPB)