About pop music in Wales

Charlotte Church

From Tom Jones and Shaky, through Catatonia and Feeder to Charlotte Church, Goldie Lookin' Chain and Duffy, Wales has given the pop world a number of stars. But do they have anything in common? Joe Goodden looks at the evidence.

Wales' all-time greatest pop export is Tom Jones.

OK, so they're all Welsh. But apart from that? On the face of it, not a great deal. But crucially, they've had a degree of chart success that's propelled them from being known by a die-hard fanbase into becoming household names.

Pop music is, by definition, a broad church. After all, it's music designed for a mass audience, primarily as a commercial product rather than an art form - though when the two worlds collide it can be spectacular.

Once pop would have encompassed jazz or blues, skiffle or even folk, but since the dawn of rock 'n' roll in the 50s it has generally meant songs with accessible melodies and mass appeal, each lasting around three minutes, and tangibly of their time. The last point is key.

The first bona fide Welsh pop star was Shirley Bassey. Her first hit, The Banana Boat Song, came in 1957, and with the release in 1964 of Goldfinger she became a chart storm on both sides of the Atlantic. She went on to chalk up numerous hits throughout the 1960s and 70s.

But Wales' all-time greatest pop export is Tom Jones. From the opening bars of It's Not Unusual, his first number one from 1965, it was clear a new pop star had arrived. The hits kept coming, regardless of - or perhaps adapting to - passing fads and fashions, making him one of our most enduring musical figures.

In the 80s, the UK's most successful singles chart performer was Shakin' Stevens. He scored a total of 15 top 10 hits between 1981 and 1987 1987 -including four number ones - through a cunning update of rock 'n' roll, country and blues styles.

The 1990s saw Welsh pop hitting its stride, with Catatonia, Stereophonics and Manic Street Preachers leading the way for others like 60ft Dolls and Super Furry Animals to make headway on the charts.

While the Welsh pop star shone brightly for a while, only Stereophonics managed lasting chart success, while others split up or settled into cult status. Kelly's heroes, meanwhile, finally achieved their first number one single in 2005 with Dakota.

Duffy
Duffy

Charlotte Church's decision to shove aside her classical roots to sing about growing pains and sex was a fairly predictable move. After all, she'd have been fooling nobody if she'd carried on performing hymns and operatic songs while spending the rest of the week on tabloid gossip pages. Something had to give.

With lungs as powerful as hers, Charlotte's versatile enough to turn her vocal chords to whatever style she wants, and perhaps it was inevitable that she'd see out her teenage years treading the boards on Top Of The Pops.

Today's pop crowd is as diverse as ever. Stars are still coming and going without making much of an impression beyond Red Dragon FM concerts and schools tours. Church's success as Welsh pop princess is countered by a myriad acts that seem to blaze and fade without making any lasting impact.

They may have danced and sang their little hearts out in front of thousands while supporting Blue, Atomic Kitten or Liberty X, but that's nothing if people don't buy your records or remember your name. Such a fickle business, pop music.

Although they may struggle to make a name beyond the borders of Wales, a number of Welsh pop bands choose to sing in their mother tongue. With readily-offered airplay from S4C and Radio Cymru, and a growing number of local labels glad to develop talent, it's a tempting route to take.

The advantages enjoyed by Welsh-language groups was summed up by singer Gwenno in Sound Nation magazine. "I've seen kids go mad for these bands," she said. "The thing is, the likes of Atomic Kitten don't go to North Wales or Carmarthen.

"These bands are important for kids, and a Welsh language band who sounds like them really gets through to these kids - they are definitely important and there is a place for them and hopefully they can expand from there and maybe take their fanbase with them."

But in 2008 another proper star burst through, having been one of those unsigned, talent show-attending pop wannabes. Duffy hooked up with Bernard Butler and David McAlmont to create the year's best-selling album, Rockferry.

Once again it's a Welsh woman with an amazing voice who's shown the way in proper pop music; Grammy-nominated and mega-selling, she's set herself the challenge of following up such a massive record. The Welsh pop world has set the bar very high once again.


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