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Stereophonics: Many Happy Returns To 'Word Gets Around'

Tuesday, 29 August 2017 Written by Graeme Marsh

A budding artist's early influences will almost certainly shape the sound of their debut record. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, they were often rammed full of cover versions and songs already flogged to death by a band as they perfected their chops. The Rolling Stones’ eponymous debut, for example, contained just one track penned by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – Tell Me (You’re Coming Back) – among its 12.

That’s always been understandable. They’re taking their first steps in a career that, more often than not, isn’t a career at all. They’re likely also living out a desire to get something out of their systems, unsure of whether or not they’re actually any good or if they have the minerals to sell millions of records and sustain the inevitable expensive habits that go with stardom.

Influences often run far deeper than just what kids have been listening to in their bedrooms, though, and will find ways to manifest themselves even if first records aren’t built around covers and rehashes these days.

In the former Welsh coal mining town of Cwmaman, Stereophonics frontman Kelly Jones grew up with two older brothers who listened to the heavy rock of the time, like AC/DC. But he also found himself heavily influenced by his father. Arwyn was himself a singer, adopting a stage name in the process – first as Oscar with his band, the Kingfishers, and later Arwyn Davidson – and working the same pub and club circuit that had characterised the early career of Tom Jones.

Although he failed to achieve any significant success, Arwyn did release one notable single: a cover of Simple Man by Graham Nash, who later found huge fame as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young, on occasions).

Speaking to the Daily Record in 2009, Kelly told of watching his father perform: “I spent a lot of my youth in working men’s clubs watching my dad sing. They did a five-night stand supporting Roy Orbison at the Batley Variety Club in Leeds. He also worked on cruise ships going to New York. He even recorded with producer George Martin and on one record the piano player was Dudley Moore. It was weird hearing my old man’s record on the jukebox in our local pub, the Ivy Bush.”

An interview with the Independent in 2015 shed a little more light on the scene. “I was sent into pubs in my pyjamas, but people started to accept that because I was Oscar’s little boy and he had a record on the jukebox when I was a kid,” he said. “So I guess I was accepted into that circle of people who would talk very openly. It was a small town, lots of gossip, lots of rumours, some of them very tragic, some of them very funny, very sarcastic.”

Jones’ father also introduced his son to playing music himself when he bought the young Kelly his first acoustic guitar. For Arwyn, though, home was where he felt comfortable. With his music he seemed to be reaching for a life he didn’t have a strong enough yearning for, given the young family that he left behind when the road came calling. When Kelly’s older brother, Lee, didn’t recognise his father after a period away, Arwyn drew a line under his time as a travelling performer.

“He went back to working in a steel factory and then a double-glazing factory,” Kelly told the Daily Mail in 2007. “I suppose I was the result of the family reunion. If he hadn’t given it all up I probably wouldn’t have been born, but he chose his home over everything else. He could have had it all but he didn’t want it.”

Jones Snr continued to sing but only in his local area, allowing Kelly to avidly follow his father around. Life in the small mining community also gradually left an indelible mark on him. He overheard many stories in the clubs and picked up on the rich details that marked life in the valleys. It was this experience that formed the backbone of Stereophonics’ 1997 debut ‘Word Gets Around’.

“It was a tough but good upbringing,” Jones told the Daily Record. “There was quite a lot of tragedy in our area – people either drinking or taking drugs. I saw a lot of beauty in stuff that went on. People were so funny. I don’t remember anybody dwelling on their situation. They all worked hard in the pits or factories, then enjoyed themselves at weekends.

“They were working their bollocks off but had a good time doing it. I heard and saw a lot but didn’t react in a way which sent me off the rails. My upbringing – the access I had to local people with their stories and humour – has been a key influence on my life, ethics and morals.”

Jones had formed Stereophonics in 1992, with mates Stuart Cable (who sadly died in 2010) and Richard Jones, but it was five years before their debut appeared. ‘Word Gets Around’ was an often raucous collection that drew on Jones’ upbringing and became the backbone of Cool Cymru alongside records by Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals and Catatonia.

Jones’ storytelling depicted a wide range of topics that fused his observational style with experiences of mirth and tragedy, including small-town analysis of a football coach’s relationship with a student (A Thousand Trees), a boy killed by a train (Local Boy In The Photograph), people-watching in gridlock (Traffic) and a girl who died in a fall from a nearby bridge (Billy Davey’s Daughter). His stories were about magic and misery in the everyday.

Follow up ‘Performance And Cocktails’ aside, though, the band struggled to match the debut for its intensity and vitality, choosing a safer route ever since, despite creating an envious singles discography along the way. ‘Word Gets Around’ still remains their pinnacle, 20 years after its release.

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