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Max Boyce: Live At Treorchy

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James McLaren James McLaren | 15:33 UK time, Thursday, 24 February 2011

With a very special pair of programmes this week (Max Boyce: The Road To Treorchy, Monday 28 February, 8.30pm and Live At Treorchy.... Again, Tuesday 1 March, 9pm, both on BBC One Wales), producer Carolyn Hitt looks back at the man and the classic album.

Max Boyce

Max Boyce

When Live At Treorchy was released in 1974 nobody - least of all Max Boyce himself - could have predicted that four decades later many of its songs would still be sung not just in Wales but across the world.

The album turned an unknown singer, comedian and factory worker from Glynneath into an international star, launching a career spanning 40 years and two million record sales.

Recorded in Treorchy Rugby Club in the Rhondda on 23 November 1973, this collection of comedy, poetry and song astonished the music industry by staying in the album charts for 38 weeks, turning gold and attracting fans from Murrayfield to Melbourne.

Max Boyce

Max Boyce

Max Boyce: The Road to Treorchy tells the remarkable story of the album that changed Max Boyce's life and reflected a changing Wales, where success on the rugby field was a welcome distraction from the decline of heavy industry. Max reflected the laughter and sadness of close-knit communities adapting to this new world - a world where King Coal was dying but at least Barry John was King.

The documentary also explores how Live At Treorchy still stands as a vivid icon of Wales and Welsh identity - captured forever in nine unforgettable tracks. They range from raucous rugby songs like The Scottish Trip, which celebrated the adventures of Welsh fans on tour, to the surreal comedy of The Ballad of Morgan the Moon and the mythical musings of The Outside Half Factory.

But there are songs of pathos, poignancy and powerful social comment too, like Did You Understand, written during the Miners' Strike of 1972, and Duw It's Hard which presents a pretty subversive take on the collapse of the coal industry.

Max - the son of a collier who died a month before he was born - wonders if the end of coal is a good thing, given the pain it has inflicted on those who hacked it out of the ground. And the lyric "The pithead baths are supermarkets now" summarises Welsh industrial decline more neatly than any historian.

Every album has its greatest hit of course. Live At Treorchy's has to be Hymns & Arias, the hilarious tale of a weekend in 'Twickers' which is now sung wherever rugby is played all over the world. Yet back in 1973 this people's anthem was barely known to an audience of Treorchy locals, many of whom had to be coerced into coming.

Indeed Live At Treorchy's success is all the more amazing given the low-key build up to its recording. Max had signed a two-album contract after EMI record producer Bob Barratt spotted him stealing the show as Ken Dodd's support act at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. The deal was sealed on the coastal path overlooking Langland Bay following a lunch at the nearby golf club.

But without an agent, manager or any kind of promotional backing, Max had to make all his own arrangements to stage the recording.

In later years many fans would claim "I Was There" when Max Boyce recorded Live At Treorchy but at the time he wasn't exactly a hot ticket. "We couldn't sell the tickets because they hadn't heard of me, "Max recalls. "And they were only 50p. We ended up giving them away. A friend of mine went round the pubs asking people to come and see this boy from Glynneath who needed an audience to make a record. They came because they almost felt sorry for me so it was remarkable really!"

Among those persuaded to attend were members of the world-famous Treorchy Male Voice Choir, providing Max with unofficial backing singers for the rousing choruses of his songs. Players from Treorchy RFC saved the day by borrowing a piano from the nearby Polikoff's clothing factory and wheeling it to the club - putting a brick under it when it wobbled. The late broadcaster and raconteur Alun Williams was the compère while popular Welsh folk group Triban were the support act.

"Max burst into the room like an explosion that night," remembers Triban singer Caryl Owens. "The atmosphere was electric."

Music industry giants EMI sent a three-strong team to record the album, including Abbey Road sound engineer Phil Hancock, who recalls how he set up the mixing desk in the club changing rooms and found a welcome in the hillsides. "I arrived at 10.00am in the morning and was immediately given a pint," he laughs.

Max Boyce

Max Boyce

Phil, who recorded with Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney's Wings that same week as his trip to Treorchy, could see Max was destined for greater things. "We'd never heard of this guy with the leek and the Oggie, Oggie, Oggies but it was obvious he would go far. The audience loved him."

The people of Treorchy helped Max's material come alive. Every song buzzed with the humour and energy of those who could say "I Was There". The record captured this magical atmosphere - so much so that those who listened to it for years afterwards felt they were there too.

After a quick mix at the Abbey Road studios, all Live At Treorchy needed now was an eye-catching album cover. Max arranged an ad hoc shoot in a photographic studio in Mumbles, mocked up to look like a pub with a couple of his friends posing as drinkers. "And for some reason I wore my Uncle's mac," he remembers ruefully, a wardrobe choice he regrets to this day.

A word-of-mouth sensation, Live At Treorchy may have relied on Welsh humour and pathos for its content but it struck a chord across Britain, selling by the box-load. It brought Max a gold disc plus the courage to give up the day job and concentrate on a career in showbiz, setting him on a path that would lead all the way from a Rhondda rugby club to Sydney Opera House.

His follow up album - We All Had Doctor's Papers - became the first and only comedy LP to top the UK album charts, reaching number one in the summer of 1975 ahead of Pink Floyd, Wings, Elton John and Rod Stewart.

Hymns & Arias seeped into the public consciousness. Max recalls the thrill of hearing it taken up by the Arms Park crowd for the first time: "I was being interviewed by Frank Bough on Grandstand in front of the North Enclosure for the Wales v England game. I'd bought a very expensive suede fur coat with a big fur collar to wear on the programme. The crowd recognised me and began to sing Hymns & Arias. After the interview I ran round to the BBC van and telephoned home. 'Mam did you see Grandstand and hear the singing?'

'Yes,' she replied.

What did you think of it?' I asked excitedly.

'Oh!' she said, 'Your coat looked lovely'.

If Hymns & Arias has become a second Welsh anthem, Live At Treorchy has become an icon of Welsh popular culture. In the documentary, fans ranging from broadcaster Huw Edwards, actor Steffan Rhodri and comedian Jasper Carrott to rugby legend Gareth Edwards and members of the current Welsh rugby team describe what it means to them. And in the words of historian Martin Johnes: "Live At Treorchy is as important to an understanding of Welshness as anything Dylan Thomas or Saunders Lewis wrote." For Max himself, the album captures one of the best nights of his life: "It was a very special evening, a magical evening - and the audience were every bit as important as I was."

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