Sunday, 18 March 2012

Max BOYCE: We All Had Doctors' Papers

(#161: 15 November 1975, 1 week)

Track listing: Sospan Fach/I Am An Entertainer/I Wandered Lonely/I Gave My Love A Debenture/Rhondda Grey/Slow, Men At Work/Deck Of Cards/Swansea Town/The Devil’s Marking Me/A’r Lan Y Mör/The Pontypool Front Row/Sospan Fach

“When I see the eight I think of the great Mervyn Davies, the greatest ‘number eight’ in the world.”
(Max Boyce, “Deck Of Cards”)

The man always had a good sense of timing. Not only did “Merv the Swerve” check out the day before his number came up on Then Play Long, but he also died exactly thirty-six years after captaining the Welsh team who beat France comfortably at Cardiff towards their historic Grand Slam victory – and the day before it would happen again, 16-9 at the Millennium Stadium, by a side generally thought to be at least the equivalent of the great seventies teams. Only a few days after his victory, while playing for Swansea in the Welsh Cup final against Pontypool, again at Cardiff, he collapsed on the pitch with a brain haemorrhage. He was lucky to have come through that – he later admitted that had he collapsed on an “obscure golf course,” that would have been it – but as a result he never played again, although he did flourish in subsequent spells as rugby coach and journalist. Nobody who remembers his cunning and tough tackles, his brilliant passing – the term “defender” scarcely did him justice – could deny that he was one of the greatest players the game of rugby union had seen.

I stress the term “rugby union” because all of the rugby-related humour and music within We All Had Doctors’ Papers is to do with this variant of the game. The term “rugby league” is mentioned only two or three times, and on one of these occasions the words are bleeped out as though they were expletives. Those who don’t recognise the differences between the two sports are probably unaware of the turbulent history which produced them, a story of paid versus unpaid, cushioned southerners against needful northerners, between dilettantism and need. Rugby league is supposed to produce a more visually exciting and stimulating game than rugby union, and also requires two fewer players (thirteen rather than fifteen). This is, however, probably the first instance of sport selling itself out in order to appease fickle, floating audiences; the point of rugby union is that, under its cover of aggression, it is as artful and tricky a pursuit as cricket. It is about long-term results rather than flashes in a glamorous pan.

But then We All Had Doctors’ Papers isn’t really about rugby, even though four of its songs, and much of the patter, are devoted to the subject, and it was recorded live (to a point; the recordings were made from several different performances, as the fadeouts and splicings betray) at the Pontardulais Rugby Club. It’s true that a full appreciation of the record involves an intimate understanding of the geography of South Wales and the comings and goings of their mid-seventies rugby clubs. More importantly, though, it’s about life, and the necessity to hold on to and maintain it.

It’s not really a “comedy” album either, and certainly isn’t the only “comedy” album that will be considered here, although it is frequently very funny indeed. I thought initially to prepare for this record by undertaking a full-length survey of comedic trends in 1975, but after a thousand or so words realised that this would be sorely inadequate, and most likely irrelevant. Better to say that Max Boyce is this tale’s most visible example of one of the most prominent trends in British comedy of the period, namely the tendency of long-serving folk musicians to move towards telling jokes.

There was also Mike Harding from Rochdale and Jasper Carrott from Birmingham, but the man who got the whole craze going was unquestionably Billy Connolly, who the following week would attain a UK number one single with his literal shaggy dog story reading of Tammy Wynette’s “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” Although 1974’s double Solo Concert, taped at a pub in Airdrie, was not Connolly’s first “comedy” album, it proved his breakthrough; it sold in such astronomical qualities in Scotland that I don’t think I’ve come across a household which didn’t have a copy. Formerly one half of the Humblebums, with Gerry Rafferty, Connolly gradually realised that his between-songs patter was getting a better reaction than his songs, and realigned his act accordingly. Hence Solo Concert is mostly Connolly, ranting, musing and amusing, with occasional proficient banjo/guitar outings; major setpieces like “The Jobbie Weecha!” and “The Crucifixion,” reconstructions of tired pop songs (“Nobody’s Child,” “Ten Guitars,” “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool” – all get a good kicking here) and long ponderous strands where nothing much happens at all; an overlong and unfunny reminiscence of fifties camping barely raises a titter. But there was nothing else like it happening in Britain, and so the Big Yin prospered.

Connolly bothers me, especially after listening to the man (mistakenly) labelled his Welsh equivalent. There’s a continued undercurrent of aggression and contempt in Connolly’s work; you’re never quite sure whether he’s going to step down into the audience and bash someone over the head with his banjo. There’s a hard threat about his posture, an air of menace. It’s almost as if he feels he’s too good for his (from his perspective) dumb cabaret audiences. And, this being seventies West Central Scotland, there are far too many jibes at Protestants – a reminder that Scotland remains divided by its own institutionalised religious apartheid, and it makes uncomfortable listening nearly four decades later. I imagine most Scots under the age of forty would find Solo Concert as hip and hilarious as Beowulf.

This was never a problem with Boyce. Although, like Connolly, he is apt to crack himself up with his own wit, he has a bashful, self-deprecating air about him that removes such barriers. Religion is not an issue here, and although he takes a few mild pot shots at England, he is not particularly anti-anything; more importantly, he’s pro-Welsh. His delivery is not gruff and cross like Connolly’s; his light tenor often gives his voice a plaintive, near androgynous air (“Tick-et-less!” he exclaims delightedly near the beginning of “I Wandered Lonely”), and if that self-deprecation sometimes leads towards bending his voice to mask the occasional punchline, this is all part of his personality, and his audiences certainly get it. And him.

For this record reminds us that Boyce is utterly at one with his audience; each treats the other like their equal, and there is love rather than spitting content. He had been working the Welsh club circuit for years, and in late 1973 tried out on Opportunity Knocks, without success. Still, his stage reputation grew big enough for EMI to take a chance on him; the resultant album, Live At Treorchy, was an immense hit in Wales, and a word-of-mouth success elsewhere in Britain; although the album never placed higher than #21 in the national charts, it stayed there for fully eight months. One of its songs, “9-3,” celebrating a celebrated rugby victory by Llanelli against a touring All Blacks team, contained the line “we all had doctors’ papers,” i.e. the entire working class population had been signed off work by their doctors so they could go and see the match. Subversive stuff for 1974, and the spirit carried over to its sequel.

The cover is almost entirely a Where’s Wally?-type affair, drawn by “Gren” (“Cartoonist of the South Wales Echo"), and apart from a picture of Boyce himself, stern in his medical get-up and strongly resembling the young Danny Baker, it is all a cartoon of crowds swarming around and into the rugby ground, with numerous hidden celebrity cameos – mostly distinguished Welsh names of the period, but we also spotted Laurel and Hardy, Tommy Cooper, Batman and Robin, Harold Wilson and the Queen (and the fellow holding the giant leek is, I suspect, meant to be Boyce himself) – with humorous notices and banter, two speech bubbles indicating the first appearances in this tale of the future colloquialism “innit.” It’s all about getting one over on the powers that would be, in favour of the greater good.

Boyce clearly needs to prove nothing to this audience. His backing group – guitarist Neil Lewis, bassist John Luce and MD Jack Emblow on keyboards, accordion, etc. (with Boyce himself contributing guitar work) – set the scene with a furious sprint through “Sospan Fach,” Boyce’s adopted theme tune, which invites immediate clapping and sing-alongs. Then Boyce arrives on stage with his cheerful war cry of “Oggi oggi OGGI!” (Audience: “Oi! Oi! OI!”) and launches into a warm mixture of stand-up and songs.

Since the bulk of this album – or side one of it, anyway – is stand-up comedy, I will not attempt in-depth analysis or spoil any punchlines. As I say, if you have a working knowledge of mid-seventies South Wales life, you should be able to understand it all, but (as with the need with Billy Connolly to be familiar with the twists and turns of mid-seventies Glasgow) it’s not absolutely necessary. He does daft poems, bizarre narratives about himself and Wales and rugby, and it’s all great, infectious fun. His first song is the jokey “I Gave My Love A Debenture” (“Block A, Row 3!”), set to the tune of “The Twelfth Of Never” (complete with a little “1812 Overture” coda).

But – and this is quite unexpected, even given his then-recent past as a folk artist and poet – Boyce is also able to do serious songs. “Rhondda Grey” is his song, and a memory of a childhood in the mining community of South Wales. The boy is given an assignment by his art teacher at school and wants to paint what he sees around him. Excitedly he wonders aloud what colours he should use, and it is down to his father to show him:

“It’s a colour you can’t buy, lad
No matter what you pay.
But that’s the colour that we want –
They call it Rhondda grey.”

It’s a lesson in growing up, in rejecting superficial glamour in favour of the real; and as a song and performance it’s extremely moving. Boyce’s vocal is quiet but concentrated and clearly heartfelt – does anyone else hear, in Boyce’s singing, a marked resemblance to that other Welshman, John Cale? – and the listener can feel the audience empathising, although they do not erupt with approval until the end. In addition, the line “with your reds and greens and gold” brings to mind another live album recorded in 1975, this time in London, by and for another community on the brink of dispossession:

“One good thing about music,
When it hits you,
You feel no pain.”
(Bob Marley, “Trench Town Rock”)

It’s there, isn’t it, in the mass sing-alongs to “The Pontypool Front Row” and the ancient Welsh folk song (sung in defiant Welsh) “Ar Lan Y Mör.” “Everything’s gonna be alright,” as Marley sang to an ecstatic, if troubled, audience at the Lyceum. Anticipating this, Boyce launches into his satirical anthem to council road workers, “Slow, Men At Work” and everybody already seems to know the refrain “They keep their billycan brewing.” It is as if this contained community is fortifying itself against the outside world.

Side two concentrates on the songs. Although you’ll have to look up most of the references yourself (even though the mere thought of “Ray Williams training leaflets” makes me laugh uncontrollably), Boyce’s rugby union take on the old warhorse “Deck Of Cards” is funny and pertinent. “Swansea Town” is a pleasant country-folk lope towards nostalgia, again performed with great control and concern. “The Devil’s Marking Me” concerns rugby matches in the afterlife. Finally, “The Pontypool Front Row” – by which he means the renowned Welsh rugby front line of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner – is a quite exhilarating anthem, sung with gusto by everybody present, and incorporating topical references (Mary Whitehouse, Idi Amin, The Six Million Dollar Man) in a way which suggests Boyce could keep adding verses to the song forever. But there is no denying the power and commitment of the mass choruses – “And it’s up and under, here we go/Are you ready, here we go?” – and Boyce is clearly delighted and moved by the audience participation. He leaves the stage to a tumultuous reception, and “Sospan Fach” is played to fade.

In summary, then, Max Boyce is throughout a mirror to the audience (almost certainly 100% male); he sees them and they see him, one of theirs, and together they engage in building this subtle little dinghy of resistance to the outside world. Direct comparisons to other countries is hard, although Canada’s Stompin’ Tom Connors probably comes closest. This is a Wales which doesn’t particularly need anywhere else – and, as if we needed to be reminded, we are talking mid-seventies Wales, and a community long since rendered the opposite of “beautiful” by the remorseless but vital mining industry. In just under a year’s time there will come another live album of low budget but high energy; for now, though, listen to the more than evident love between Boyce and his audience, and think of Alan Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny today, both of whom made it possible for their country to repeat the greatness of Mervyn Jones’ days. The victory, the joy, made me feel just that little bit happier, that crucial little bit more human; and I think We All Had Doctors’ Papers does that too.