|mime to be a smile_ | home
Metal, mullets and pickaxe attacks: such is the Stereophonics saga. They began as Zepher, changed their name to Tragic Love Company and nearly became a Hendrix tribute band - but their new album is poised to be one of 1999's best. Really, you couldn't make it up...
Story by Sam Upton
The effect is akin to having a 16-stone man, running at full-sprint, dive straight into the chest. All air is forced out of the lungs, the eyes blink furiously and the whole body is shunted a yard backwards. Five minutes earlier the 2000-strong Newport crowd couldn't have been louder, drowning out AC/DC's 'Highway To Hell' with boisterous chants of "Wales, Wales" and "Stick your chariots up your arse", a neat response to the English rugby anthem lifted direct from Cardiff Arms Park. Now all they can do is raise their arms as if about to plummet down a mile-long flume.
Eyes bulge out of their sockets as 'Roll Up And Shine' proves as effective a silencer as a riot-quelling water cannon. It's a beautiful irony that, after a decade of back-breaking work and frustration, it takes just two seconds of a Stereophoncis song not even released yet to produce such long-desired levels of adulation.
The gig itself is a relevation: Kelly Jones could have walked out, hit his head with a tin tray, and received the same rapturous reception. Tonight this spacious converted gym is witnessing the Stereophonics' timely transition from local heroes to international Big Names. Whether they're topless-and-tatooed brickies or exitable adolescent girls, all present have the suspicion they're watching a band on the scusp of greatness.
It's been three years since the Stereophonics last played Newport. That time they were just down the road in the sparsely appointed and legendarily small Filling Station. There was no expansive dressing room, no complex lighting rig and not one single roadie, just 35 A&R men desperate to sign the 'new 60Ft Dolls'.
"That was the strangest night ever," Kelly recalls later, incredulous at the thought. "We drove back home in Stuart's camper van and right in the middle of nowhere it started to break down. We were all in the frontseat thinking, 'For fuck's sake, we've got every record company in Britain wanting to sign us and we're driving home in this poxy van with a flat battery'. But the weird thing was that we drove for 40 miles convinced it was going to stop at any moment. And do you know where it eventually gave up? Right outside Stuart's front door. Fucking unbelievable."
The Stereophonics, it seems, have always been blessed.
This story is one packed with equal amounts of fortuitous coincidence and dogged determination. All three 'Phonics - Kelly Jones, Richard Jones and Stuart Cable - were born in Aberdare Hospital, a short journey from their home village of Cwmaman, located midway between Swansea and Cardiff. A tiny, one-road, one-pub town, Cwmaman is notable only for the huge mountain that towers over it, keeping one whole side of the village in permanent shade whatever the season.
Born within ten days of each other, Kelly and Richard found themselves in the same class at infant and junior school and became inseparable. At fancy dress parties the pair would go as AC/DC brothers-in-rock Malcolm and Angus Young (Kelly got the more glamorous deal as the schoolboy-attired Angus). Growing up with three older brothers, Richard was subjected at an early age to '70s punk and ska and understandably turned to rock for his contrary musical thrills.
Kelly's musical heritage, thankfully, went a little further back than the odd rude boy number and Sham 69 rarity. His father Oscar was nearly a solo star of the '60s, a man who worked with George Martin and excited Alan 'Fluff' Freeman so much the DJ once flew from London to Leeds by helicopter just to introduce him as support to Roy Orbison. But it took Kelly three childhood crazes - football, judo, then boxing - before he succumbed to his genetic fate.
"The old man got me a ten quid acoustic guitar from a catalogue when I was about 11," he says, wincing. "The nylon strings fucking killed my fingers. But my dad would teach me the songs he'd play in the pubs: 'Pretty Woman', stuff like that."
Meanwhile Stuart, born four years earlier, lived only a few doors down from Kelly in a row of terraces so long it was impossible to see both ends at the same time. It was a friendship "forged by metal" and comical 'Axe Attax' compilation albums which they listened to incessantly in the park opposite their houses.
At the time both were card-carrying rockers, complete with regulation denim jacket and sleeveless leather twinset, and alarming mullets. "And check shirt," Stuart adds hastily, keen to appear still true to the cause. "It was sacrilege not to wear a check shirt in Cwmaman because everyone was into Neil Young. But to be really fucking cool like me you weren't allowed to wash for three weeks."
As an early teen Stuart always thought he'd end up in borstal. He took great delight in locking "wet liberal" teachers in stock rooms, smoking at the back of the class and using the library as a book battlefield.
"All this stuff about not being able to hit kids in school is all bollocks," he rants, clearly not one for the softly approach. "Fucking hell! It's fucking unbelievable. Take them in another room and give them a slap round the head. It's the best way. Our games teacher used to have a pickaxe handle! I swear to God. It was covered in blue electrical tape and he'd walk round the changing room with it and if you weren't putting your shorts on quick enough he'd whack it on the wall by your head. You'd be that fucking scared you'd do anything."
"It is stuck in a time-warp, definitely." Stuart becomes dewy-eyed as he talks about his home town. "But the people are genuine, down to earth and very friendly. And that's the most important thing."
Whenever the subject of the Stereophonics' seemingly insular upbringing comes up, you sense a burning loyalty. Pub regulars are described as "the best people in the world" and, despite pleas from their record company, all three have no intention of uprooting themselves, having already bought houses in the area.
It should be pointed out at this time that Cwmaman has never exactly been a musical hotbed. "Everyone listenend to rock, everyone," says Stuart. It was either AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Rainbow or any offshot of these - and everyone wore the t-shirt. Still do.
Where most people view their obligatory early years' dalliance with music's dark side as something fit only for pub comedy, all three 'Phonics are unrepentant in their continuing enthusiasm (Stuart to this day regards Rush's Neil Peart as the finest drummer that ever lived).
Kelly and Stuart's first band were called Zepher. Along with one Nicolas Greek - real name, apparently - they would go round Kelly's garage and bash out crude versions of 'Bad Moon Rising', 'Hotel California' and Van Halen's 'Jump' and within three weeks they had their first gig. Kelly was 12 years old.
"Stuart made me sing these Led Zeppelin and AC/DC tunes in the same really high key," he laughs. "That's probably why I sing like I do now because he made me do shit like that. I was much more into Otis Reading and Sam Cooke at the time and I wanted to sound like them, have a really clean voice like my dad. But every time I sang it came out gruff."
In 1991 the present line-up had their first rehearsal. Zepher had split up a few years back thanks to Kelly and 'Geeky' constantly bickering over who should have the loudest guitar. Following a chance meeting in a local pub, Kelly and Stuart decided another rock wasn't out of the question. Playing under the regrettable name of Tragic Love Company (an amalgamation of bands The Tragically Hip, Mother Love Bone and Bad Company), Richard only joined when original bassist Mark Everett went on holiday, a move which cut short an adolescently burgeoning criminal career.
Hating school almost as much as Stuart, Richard was put in the set below Kelly at comprehensive and quickly started to spend weeks away, having fallen in with Cwmaman's more roguish element. A few court appearances for the odd borrowed car, and a collection of tattoos of varying quality later, it was decided that playing bass would be more far more fruitful and, indeed, legal. "I was a bit of a tearaway I suppose," he admits - he's now supremely quiet and contemplative thanks to a fascination with Buddhist literature.
"He turned up to this practice with his hair down to his waist," booms Stuart, continuing the story. "And he looked fucking ice cool. He slung this bass round his hip and just started hitching the four strings. I don't think he had a clue what he was doing but me and Kelly looked at each other and went, "Now that's what I call a fucking bass player."
The first songs that Tragic Love Company ever played were Lenny Kravitz's 'Let Love Rule' and 'Mr Cab Driver'. For an encore, whether the space audience wanted it or not, they'd play a ridiculously speeded up version of Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'. Understandably, it wasn't long before Kelly, now on a film and scriptwriting course at college, began to write his own lyrics.
"I was really into things like The Tragically Hip (obscure Canadian band) and Neil Young," he says, "people who basically wrote folk stories. There was this guy in the pub who was heavily into Bob Dylan so I'd take my own lyrics down and try to impress him, because there's no bigger critic than a Bob Dylan fan. The songs all had to have a beginning, a middle and an end."
Listen to any songs on debut album 'Word Gets Around' and you'll quickly realise the lyrics are closer to theatre than seminal Deep Purple track. Most are based upon stories that could come out of any local paper anywhere in the world. A teenager throws himself in front of a train, a man gets knocked down by a bus, a family wedding - all are equally suitable for a lyric.
Kelly lapped up all the seroius TV drama on all time - Our Friends In The North, Jimmy McGovern's Cracker and Hearts And Minds.
"Every story had a twist right at the end," he enthuses, "like Tales Of The Unexpected, and those were the sort of stories I'd hear at work every week. Pulp Fiction was a major thing for me as well. How they could make a long conservation about hamburger was fascinating. A guy at college gave me this advice: "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait" and I've been following that ever since."
However, while the songs were starting to take shape, the other half of the equation - record company attention - wasn't altogether forthcoming. It wasn't for the want of trying: every Thursday before practice, increasingly bizarre packages were sent to record company offices. Tapes were sent with pieces of carrot cake in Chinese takeaway cartons, in crisp boxes, even accompanied by pairs of shoes.
"The post office lady thought I was a fucking idiot," laughs Kelly. "But we were getting desperate. It got to the stage where we were seriously thinking about supplementing our income by becoming a Jimi Hendrix tribute band," he continues, shuddering at the thought. "I was going to black my face up with boot polish and dye Stuart's hair ginger."
So desperate were the tragics to get themselves noticed by a city that seemed a million miles away, they began to answer dubios ads in the back of newspapers that said 'bands wanted by management company'.
"We'd have to pay 200 pounds to some fucking idiot to record one track then do fuck all about it," spits Richard, his calm composure momentarily lost. "One bloke had a swimming pool and huge mansion in Essex so we thought he must be doing something right. We looked in all his drawers and cabinets and they were full of other unsent demos."
"At times it was just shit," adds Stuart, whose forceful zeal kept the band together on more than one occasion. "We thought, 'How much work are we going to have to do, how many times are we going to be knocked back?'"
Eventually, their luck took an upswing. They played at the Aberdare Coliseum with the recently signed Catatonia on Saturday 2 March 1996, though everyone involved thought no-one would turn up: it was the day of a crucial Five Nations rugby tie. Only two weeks earlier they'd decided to change their name, rightly thinking that the brand of Stuart's grandmother's arcane hi-fi was a far better name than TLC.
Backstage at the converted theatre, Kelly found an oversized fur coat left over from a long forgotten production and was persuaded by Stuart against his will to wear it for the entire evening. Unbeknownst to the newly christened Stereophonics, highly regarded manager John Brand was in the audience along with his then charges Pooka, there as part of a Welsh music seminar.
"When I met him I had this stupid granny coat on," remembers Kelly. "I only wore it for a joke but John loved it. He must have thought I was a fucking star."
Meeting after the gig at the nearby service station, the band handed Brand a tape containing raw versions of 'Looks Like Chaplin', 'More Life In A Tramps Vest' and 'She Takes Her Clother Off', plus a lengthy lyric sheet. The very next day Brand was on the phone to Kelly raving about the lyrics, asking what certain phrases meant and talking of showcases and recording contracts.
"He was rambling like a madman," Kelly laughs. "The next thing we knew he'd organised a showcase in Newport with 35 A&R men there."
The next six weeks were a blur of record company offices and expensive restaurants. In the end they decided on Richard Branson's V2, a company that was so new it didn't even have an office but fulfilled the Stereophonics' criteria of thinking beyond the confines of Britain.
But a quick final meeting with Columbia was undertaken before the band travelled up to Richard Branson's Holland Park townhouse to complete the deal with V2. There then followed a state of minor maythem.
Columbia had invited us to this Kula Shaker party to talk some more about signing to them," Richard remembers. "But we forgot to tell them we'd already gone with V2, so as soon as they found out they fucking chucked us out of the club. We went on the Groucho Club then. Falling down the stairs, stumbling over Bob Mortimer and Stephen Fry. Brilliant."
The next morning they took their 500 pounds each (stipulated in the contract as 'up-front jeans money') and strutted down Oxford Street, hell-bent on the serious business of becoming "the best band since AC/DC".
During a series of meetings, the band sat down with Brand and V2 executives and wrote their long-term plan of action - right up to the Millennium. The early trawls round the country supporting anyone willing to put up with Stuart's foul mouth (AC Acoustics, Skunk Anansie, Kenickie, Subcircus), the consecutively higher chart placings, the move up from grim clubs to generously sized arenas, the gold-selling albums - all had been meticulously set down on paper. What they hadn't predicted was a pivotal Hillsborough appearance, a Brit Award and a thriumphant Cardiff Castle show.
Being driven in a plush hire car towards the Birmingham NEC, Kelly Jones is getting a strange feeling. The last time he travelled here was on a coach full of drunken Welsh AC/DC fans who urinated in a barrel brought along for the occasion. He's still got the ticket stub - later he'll go and find his actual seat. As if to put such matters in even sharper contrast, the moment he arrives two girls step out from nowhere clasping pens and pieces of paper for him to sign.
This is the first date of their support tour with the hardy James, a chance to ease themselves into the same world as the 'Roll Over' hot dog, allocated seating areas and 'Cliff Richard's Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament'. Grabbing a piece of the more mature end of the market wouldn't do any harm either.
"Everyone was saying two years ago that come the Millennium we'd be playing huge places like this," Kelly states in hushed tones as he gazes around the arena. "I didn't think we'd do it a year early."
If everything goes to the predetermined plan they'll be doing exactly the same dates as James this time next year, only as the headline. Before then there'll be the small matters of releasing new album 'Performance And Cocktails', a far more accomplished but no less ballsy record than the last, and America to win over. "It can't get any busier because there's no more days in the fucking week," splutters Kelly.
Two hours later, Richard and Stuart return from an afternoon's shopping at Ikea ("some tidy stuff in there") and a brief attempt at sneaking into The Clothes Show Live in the next arena along. AC/DC is already being pumped out to the 10,000 confused James fans outside. It's time for the 'Phonics to begin the next phase of their career.
The response is startling and unprecedented. What begins as a half empty hall quickly turns to full capacity over the space of one track. People are shouting out "C'mon Kelly" at the end of every song and by the halfway point there's little differnce between the reaction of the James crowd and the audience at their own headlining shows in Newport.
On stage Richard and Stuart are so relaxed they appear to be carrying on a conversation throughout the set, while Kelly, seemingly bursting with pure pleasure, sports a grin as big as the twin video screens. The Stereophonics are right where they belong.
A short 50 minutes later, all three members are strutting round the backstage hangar as if they own the place. "I can live with that," grins Kelly as he gives a little it's-all-too-easy shrug. "Roll on next year."