This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Stereophonics debut album, Word Gets Around. I’ll skip the ‘I can’t believe it was so long ago!’ rhetoric and get right to why it was significant. 1997 was the peak of Cool Cymru, a spin-off from the Britpop-fuelled Cool Britannia movement, which deemed it a positive thing to be from Wales. This was new to me. Until then, for most people living in the valleys, our existence had been anything but cool. Frustrating, alienating and angst-ridden maybe, but never cool. Wales is a nice place to visit, but has been on an economic down-turn since Thatcher closed the coal mines in the 80s. Sadly, no money often equals no prospects, no hope, and no reason to believe that will change any time soon. Cue high crime rates, teenage pregnancies, and widespread alcohol and drug abuse.
While Cool Britannia was typified by a new influx of guitar bands with suitably provocative one-word names (Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede, Elastica, Sleeper, Cast, Keane, Embrace, to name but, er, nine) Cool Cymru was always about more than music. Sure, it was spearheaded by the Stereophonics, The Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia and the Super Furry Animals, but it encapsulated so much more. Howard Marks was showing us that bad boys really can come good, in the sporting arena we had Joe Calzaghe (boxing), Ryan Giggs (football) and Scott Gibbs (rugby). The Cardiff Devils ice hockey team were dominant, Ioan Gruffudd was on the Titanic, Twin Town was all the rage, and a national referendum voted ‘yes’ to devolution. The emphasis was very much on growth, progress and change, the historic Cardiff Arms Park being demolished to make way for a plush new venue (the Millennium Stadium) symptomatic of this general shift in attitude. It was an exciting time, filled with optimism and grand expectations, and through it all was an overriding sense that anything was possible.
All this was manifested in the music, and Word Gets Around is a prime example. Not much time for naval-gazing on the Welsh music scene. We were too busy getting wasted and jumping around, high on the fact that if a bunch of beery blokes from a tiny village near Aberdare in the Cynon Valley called Cwmaman could make it, any of us could. The album kicks off with a quartet of fast-paced, fist-pumping, balls-out floor fillers laden with killer riffs and pop hooks. A Thousand Trees, Looks Like Chaplin, More Life in a Tramp’s Vest and Local Boy in the Photograph which, incidentally, were the band’s first four singles, breeze by in a combined total of about eleven minutes, before things are taken down a few notches for track (and single) five, Traffic. These songs are still regulars in the band’s live gigs today.
“Is anyone going anywhere?
Everyone’s got to be somewhere.”
The second half of the album, or side 2 if you are a vinyl worshipper, is where you’ll find all the deep cuts. Two of my all-time favourite ‘Phonics tracks, Same Size Feet and Too Many Sandwiches, reside there. Most of the songs on Word Gets Around are about small-town life, holding a magnifying glass against it and articulating the desire to escape that we all felt, or are based on actual events in and around Cwmaman. Weddings, funerals, suicides, sexual abuse, violent encounters and mundane acts like selling fruit in dying market stalls. Like most valley towns, Cwmaman is a place you don’t visit unless you have to, or you are very, very lost. The isolation can be both a blessing and a curse, and songs like Goldfish Bowl and Last of the Big Time Drinkers’ sum up this state of existence perfectly. Lyrically, the former is pretty self-explanatory, while the latter is about working a dead end job with your only release being a few pints in the local at the end of the week.
“I don’t live to work,
I work to live,
I live at the weekend.”
The album closes on the poignant ballad Billy Davey’s Daughter, about a young girl who drowns herself, which is another standard that has stood the test of time. It’s probably one of the strongest tracks on the record, and it wouldn’t have been a complete surprise to see it released as a single. But then again, five singles was enough. This isn’t Michael Jackson we’re talking about. While we’re on the topic, a few words must be said about the sheer quality of b-sides to be found on the singles that were released, most of which have been included on various re-issues. Carrot Cake & Wine is strong enough to grace virtually any album of the decade and Poppy Day isn’t far behind, while covers of The Last Resort (originally by The Eagles) and Who’ll Stop the Rain (Creedence Clearwater revival) not only pay homage to the ‘Phonics roots, but make decent additions to any collection.
The year before, the ‘Phonics had been the first band to sign to Richard Branson’s new V2 label which meant they had some money and industry clout behind them, ensuring the album reached number six on the UK charts and eventually went triple platinum. Later albums may have sold more (2001’s Just Enough Education to Perform remains their biggest seller to date), but Word Gets Around is the one that got under people’s skin, and is still a firm fan favourite. It featured the original, stripped-down line up of Kelly Jones, Richard Jones and Stuart Cable, who were so polished through years of playing together in workingmen’s clubs that they were as tight as the proverbial nun’s arse. And just as dirty. This is the sound of a band on the cusp, energetic, wide-eyed and hungry, before their next album Performance & Cocktails launched them into the stratosphere, and listening to Word Gets Around now two decades later still evokes the same feelings of defiant celebration.