David R Edwards: The No Holds Bard

There are many good reasons to learn Welsh – but the music of Datblygu is the best one.

Because when the ancient Celts were sat around on stones and inventing the language, some 2,000 years ago; they must have known how good it would sound when snarled by David R Edwards over a drum machine and a bass guitar.

It’s a smouldering, scowling sound which reminds you that Welsh is an actual language – something which exists outside of a GCSE text book. When you’re educated at an English medium school, Welsh can sometimes feel like it’s beamed down from a distant galaxy – like a strange otherworldly tongue; used only by bardic Eisteddfod types and for bilingual council press releases.

But when you hear Datblygu, you hear the language as a living, breathing, snorting beast – something which fizzes and rages and soothes. Something which expresses emotions and ideas about Wales; and says them in a way which can’t be said in English. But you don’t need to speak Welsh.

The attitude behind the songs can be understood by anyone who’s felt disconnected from Welsh culture – whether it’s the cosy world of Welsh language media, the twee traditions of the Eisteddfod or the BBC Wales wasteland of Owen Money and Aled Jones and Jamie Owen and Mal Pope and…

Background

Datblygu, (Welsh for ‘develop’ or ‘developing’), was started in 1982 while David was still at school in Aberteifi, Ceredigion. At first it was him and instrumentalist T Wyn Davies, before Patricia Morgan joined in 1984.

You can find out more about them on Facebook or this website.

Pic from GanMed64 (Flickr)

Pic from GanMed64 (Flickr)

Interview with David R Edwards

On Welsh language

People say that singing in Welsh was a political statement, but I never looked at it like that. To me, it was just the most natural thing in the world. It’s what I spoke at home, it’s my mother tongue. So it wasn’t a statement – it was just the language I spoke; what I felt most comfortable with.

I’m biased because it’s my first language, but I do think it’s a more beautiful language than English; it works well for lyrics and poetry. And I feel that I can say more in Welsh than I can using English.

So that’s all it was. I never saw it as an issue. But I did want to share it with other people. That’s why I tried to create something different; to use the language in a way which I thought was missing. I was trying to do something which was contemporary, which you can see reflected in the different styles of music we’ve used over the years.

And we didn’t want to just do a Welsh version of something that already existed. It was meant to be something that stood out by itself. We were trying to engage with people and raise some awareness of the language; to show that it’s not some dead old thing but it’s alive and it has bite.

But language is a strange thing and at the end of the day, we’re all just animals in the jungle grunting at each other – that’s all language is; it’s just a code. It just happens that English is the code that has spread all over the world.

On John Peel

My ambition was only ever to record one John Peel session on Radio One – that was the only thing that mattered. And after about four or five years, that chance came. Then we ended up doing five John Peel sessions and every record we used to put out, he’d play.

He was great for us. He gave us the support we weren’t getting in Wales. But it was never really about selling records. It was more about communicating with those people sat in their bedrooms listening to their radio – just like I was doing.

Commercial pressure to sing in English?

You can’t get away from the fact that there’s the chance of a much bigger cheque if you sing in English. I can understand the commercial pressures and I wouldn’t knock anyone for whatever choices they have made. It can come down to a matter of survival, people finding ways to keep going; to keep getting paid to make music.

For a lot of the Welsh bands at the time, nobody in Wales was supporting them, the money was all coming from people like Sony Records and the big English record labels. So you can’t really blame them for singing in English.

Translating lyrics into English

I didn’t used to like the idea of translating our lyrics, just because I thought, well, they are what they are. But the record company said how about meeting people half way, so we have had some of them translated.

I think it loses something but I’ve never wanted to exclude anyone and we’ve included English notes to go with the songs to help give an idea of what they’re going on about.

What’s encouraging is when people say they’ve started to take an interest in Welsh through Datblygu and learning the language because of the lyrics. If the music has helped people to connect in that way, then that’s great.

On America

I was never interested in America – breaking it or whatever. I hate America – not the people, but the general idea of it.

Datblygu never really toured properly. We played the odd gig here and there, and over the years, we’ve played all over England and Wales, but the idea of getting on a plane and going over to America – well, I can’t think of anything worse. None of that ever appealed to me.

Chelsea and Leeds goalkeeper, Gary Sprake.

Chelsea and Leeds goalkeeper, Gary Sprake.

On football

Chelsea’s my team; I’ve been supporting them since I was six.

It goes back to when my parents were watching the 1970 FA Cup Final; Leeds were playing Chelsea and Leeds had a Welsh goalie called Gary Sprake. So my parents were supporting Leeds and, as I was an only child, it was a two-on-one situation – so I decided to go with the underdog in the house and that was Chelsea. That game was a draw, went to extra time and then a replay, and Chelsea won the replay. I’ve been a supporter ever since.

But the only football league match I’ve ever attended was in 1973; it was Swansea City versus Aston Villa when I was eight years old. It was in the old Third Division and I found it to be a terrifying experience. Those were the days when there was still a lot of trouble at the games with the bootboys out and causing trouble.

But I like following it and especially when any of the Welsh teams are playing. The national side might not be the best but I still get that shiver down the spine when they’re playing.

On National Eisteddfod

I’ve never understood the Eisteddfod. It came to Cardigan in around 1976, when I was about 12. And my mother said, well you’d better go and see what it’s all about. So I went up there with a fiver in my pocket; wandered around for an hour and then I came home with a pound of plums. That was the only thing I found that interested me.

I don’t see the point of it and I don’t believe in the whole competitive side of things. Anyone who can talk or write can create some kind of poetry. And who’s to say whether one poem is any better than another? I just don’t agree with it. It seems daft. Why make it into a competition?

There’s also the idea of Welsh culture being something which is dusted off once a year, allowed out for a week, and then locked away again – until same time next year. That’s not how it should work – these things should all be part of our everyday lives.

We did play on the Eisteddfod field about 20 years ago and we got £40 for it. So I thought, well, bugger this – a tenner each for an hour long set. It’s ridiculous really.

Bloke from car insurance ads is welcomed into the Welsh cultural elite.

Bloke from car comparison ads is welcomed into the Welsh cultural elite.

On chances of Gorsedd honours

I can’t say it’s something that keeps me awake at night. They give those honours out every year but they’ve never offered it to me – that’s probably because I’d tell them to get stuffed.

It’s water off a duck’s back really. I doubt if Half Man Half Biscuit are sitting around at home worrying about not getting the MBE – it’s no different. Rock and roll, in all its various forms, has always been music of rebellion. At least, it should be.

On education

I used to be a schoolteacher; I had this idea that I could try and change education from the inside – and that was never going to end well. Which proved to be the case as I did end up having some kind of a nervous breakdown.

But the way I view education is that it’s just an exercise in indoctrination. GCSEs and A-levels and all that crap – I think it’s disgusting. It’s something I’ve said in the past – if there’s an NSPCC, then how come children are still forced to sit exams?

I don’t like the idea of people being made to learn anything – it has the opposite effect of what it sets out to do. Anything that you’re told as a teenager, you’re just going to reject it. It’s the same with making kids learn Welsh – it’s doing their heads in. They tried the Welsh Not in the C19th, but they’ve gone the other way now. They’re trying to kill the language by making kids learn it.

On Y Teimlad

Didn’t take much notice of it at the time but, hearing it now, I think Y Teimlad is a good song. The Super Furries did a great version.

It’s different to a lot of the others – most of them have been sarcastic. But Y Teimlad is a positive song; although lot of people say it also has a gloomy feel to it.

The last line is saying that when the feeling’s not there, life’s not worth living. So I guess you can take that whichever way you want. I see it as a positive song; although all my relationships with women – nine times out of ten – have ended in disaster. I’m not sure why.

Y Teimlad was written the same way as all the other songs; I’d start with the lyrics and then begin messing around with it; working out the chords on an acoustic guitar. Then when it came to recording, we’d put down the drum machine part first, then the acoustic guitar and then Pat would put the bass line before Wynne added in the keyboard. It’s a bit like…ehm…making a pizza.

On being classed as a ‘Welsh Institution’

Well, I guess it’s better than being in an institution. But I don’t know how I feel about that really. For me, what was important, was that my parents were able to see that I’d done something which had worked out okay.

They’re both dead now but they were still around when Datblygu was starting to get noticed and they saw that I was making a few quid from playing my music. That’s what I’m really grateful for.

But other than that, I’m just glad that we’ve created a body of work that’s out there now for people to listen to. If people want something different; if they’re bored with what they’re getting on Radio Cymru – it’s always going to be there.

On Welsh media

It’s a long time since I’ve been allowed to go live on Welsh language radio. They’ve taped everything I’ve done for as long as I can remember now; mainly because they don’t like a lot of the things I’ve had to say. But that’s part of what was happening at the time.

We were trying to create an alternative to all of that traditional Welsh media world – push against it and give people something different.

On performing live

Not sure if we’ll perform live again. I’ve always had a problem with stage fright, which isn’t great when you’re a singer. But when I’m in a room with more than two or three people; it makes me feel strange.

It was always difficult for me but when you’ve established yourself as a group – you’re supposed to do these kind of things. But I always found it a problem and much preferred experimenting in the studio and the writing side of things. But then again, even the Beatles stopped playing live in 1966 and that’s when they did all their best stuff; when they started fiddling around in the studio.

Musical influences

The Beatles, Sex Pistols and The Fall were the main three for me. But then there was also Welsh groups like a Cardigan band called Ail Symudiad, who were big at the time, and also somebody called Malcolm Neon who was doing a lot of the more experimental stuff.

But I love lots of different music – whatever it is. The one that has stood out for me recently is a Welsh group called Y Plu; it’s beautiful music.

Pat Morgan, David R Edwards and T Wyn Davies. Pic: Pete Telfer (Culture Colony)

Pat Morgan, David R Edwards and T Wyn Davies. Pic: Pete Telfer (Culture Colony)

Future plans

I’ve been writing a few things again. We did the EP last year which we put out on vinyl. And next year, we’re going to be releasing a mini album. I’ve started to do some of the lyrics already.