Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Meic Stevens: Welsh wizard at work

Meic Stevens is usually described as ‘the Welsh Bob Dylan’, or as some sort of acid folk troubadour (on account of his 1970 Outlander LP), but in truth his unwieldy catalogue spans more genres than that – straight folk, strange folk, pop, blues-rock, TV soundtracks, spoken poetry and so on. He was an anomaly in the late 60s because he recorded in both English and Welsh (and for labels in both places), which makes   the prospect of delving into his music a little daunting - so here’s a cut-out-n'keep guide to the man and his music… 

Born in Solva, Pembrokeshire in March 1942, Meic honed his writing and playing skills as an art student in Cardiff, before busking around Europe. He was talent-spotted by eccentric DJ Jimmy Savile at Manchester University's folk club in late 1964, and was promptly signed up by Savile's secretary, Richard Reese-Edwards. His debut release was this rare folk 45, which appeared in June 1965. The string arrangement on the A-side was by John Paul Jones, who is in fact thought to have produced the disc too. Sung in English, it's very much in the early Donovan / Dylan style, and seems to have sold very poorly. Certainly no follow-up was released. Here's the promo postcard Decca sent out with advance copies:

And here are a couple of promo shots:

A small amount of press appeared to support the 45, which was bizarrely marketed as by 'The MANly Mike Stevens':

Record Mirror, June 12th 1965
Record Mirror, June 26th 1965

The next 3 years saw Meic scratching a living as a folkie, writing prolifically and hanging out with any number of interesting folks in London - Syd Barrett, the Blossom Toes, Joe Harriott, Captain Beefheart, Shawn Phillips and many others ("most of us lived on clouds of Nepalese hash in those days," as he puts it). Eventually the unhealthy lifestyle took its toll, and - after a projected deal with Apple fell through - he retreated to the Welsh countryside of his childhood. This self-titled EP appeared on the tiny Wren label in May 1968, and its back cover describes Meic's ambition as 'to create a new modern music in Wales'. In fact, the four songs are charming but crudely recorded ballads, enlivened by some sprightly clarinet and sax. Recorded in the same small Swansea studio in which Dylan Thomas had made some of his famous poetry recordings, its standout is perhaps the angry Tryweryn, concerning the recent flooding of an inhabited valley to create a reservoir.

The local success of the Mike Stevens EP led to plentiful Welsh radio and TV exposure, on which Wren was eager to capitalise. The magical Rhif 2 ('Number 2') therefore appeared in November 1968, having been recorded at the BBC's primitive Llandaff studio. Accompanied by his brother Irving on rhythm guitar, its four songs are among the most starkly beautiful Meic ever recorded. Cân Walter ('Walter's Song') is a touching tribute to his late uncle and Hwiangerdd Mihangel ('Michael's Lullaby') is a pretty instrumental, but the classics here are on side 2 - the spine-tingling Glaw yn y Dail ('Rain In The Leaves') and simple, moving Lan a Lawr (Up And Down'). This is a terrific record, and I suspect these songs would be standards if they were sung in English. As the back cover states: 'In his cottage in Solva, he endeavours to create new Welsh music.'

Meic spent much of 1969 shuttling between Wales and London, where he still had hopes of landing a major record deal. He contributed guitar to Gary Farr's Take Something With You LP, and performed with him at that summer's Isle Of Wight festival. Back home Meic had formed the light-hearted trio Y Bara Menyn ('Bread & Butter') with singer Heather Jones and poet Geraint Jarman, making two EPs under that name, as well as maing regular solo appearances on local TV. That summer Meic and Geraint were commissioned by Harlech TV to compose a pop opera, and they settled on the theme of a steelworker's flight from the drudgery of the factory to the calm of the countryside. Mwg (pronounced 'moog', meaning 'Smoke') was duly televised on St. David's Day (March 1st) 1970. The film's soundtrack was orchestrated, but Wren put out this EP of Meic's solo renditions of four songs from it the preceding November. It's stark and less melodic than his previous work, but has a compelling intensity, especially on the Eastern-influenced Myfi yw’r Dechreuad ('I Am The Beginning').

Meic's patience paid off at the start of the new decade, when he signed to Warner Bros. for a large advance, as a result of a chance meeting with the label's head of A&R (Ian Samwell) in the offices of music publisher Bryan Morrison. At the same time he was in the throes of setting up a label back in Wales, together with folk-singers / activists Dafydd Iwan and Huw Jones (with assistance from businessman Brian Morgan Edwards). Named Sain - pronounced 'sign' and meaning 'sound' - the label thrives to this day, and is a vital part of Welsh culture. This EP appeared in the spring of 1970, but had been taped in London the previous autumn, with backing from members of pop-soul band Ferris Wheel. The catchy title track (meaning 'The Great Houdini') became hugely popular in Wales, and was used as the theme tune to the local pop TV show Disc A Dawn, while Rhyddid Ffug ('False Freedom') was another track from the Mwg TV project.

Meic spent the spring of 1970 in London, recording his debut album, Outlander. It was released (with a lyric insert) to mixed reviews in May. Music Now felt 'Meic's voice is superb, swooping and soaring, savouring the melodies and lyrics alike. The accompaniments are excellent and feature some really intriguing sounds... The songs could not have been better, and I have no doubt whatsoever that Meic is poised to emerge as an important figure on the music scene', while Melody Maker sniffed that 'The album sounds in the main like early Bob Dylan... there’s very little originality about his songwriting at all. Most of the material sounds dated – the kind of stuff that was being performed in folk clubs three or four years ago.’ Sales were minuscule, and following a drunken fiasco at a showcase gig for the label's US executives, Meic was soon out on his ear. Little promo seems to have been done for the LP, though Meic played at a mini-festival called Extravaganza 70 at London Olympia in June:

By the end of the summer Meic’s involvement with Warner Bros. was over. The time he’d spent with them had seen him constantly shuttling between London and Wales, to the detriment of his fragile home life, so he returned to Wales with the intention of focusing of work there. The August 1970 issue of Beat Instrumental told its readers that ‘his main concern now is with Wales and with the Welsh culture, and within that country’s borders he is certainly the leading musical talent’. He added: “I want to put something back into Wales, where artists like Mary Hopkin and Tom Jones don’t do anything. The Welsh are fighting to retrieve the rags of their culture. It’s sad.” He had returned from London with a fistful of recordings, which steadily appeared over the next 18 months. This 45 (whose A-side translates as 'No Glass Windows') contained yet further demos of tracks from the Mwg TV opera, with a decidedly lo-fi sound. The B-side Rhywbeth Gwell i Ddod ('Something Better To Come') had also appeared on Y Bara Menyn’s debut EP, released in February 1969. 

Beat Instrumental, August 1970
The release of the Nid Oes Un Gwydyr Ffenestr 45 coincided with the National Eisteddfodd at Ammanford in August 1970. Meic commemorated this important event in Welsh culture by pressing another disc at his own expense, which he handed out free to audience members at his performance. Billed as a 'mini-LP', the five tracks on it were recorded in Welsh during the Outlander sessions, and showcased a more psychedelic sensibility than on his previous EPs, from the frantic electric rocker Mynd i Bala ar y Cwch Banana ('Going To Bala On The Banana Boat') to the lovely Dim Ond Heddiw Ddoe ac Fory ('Only Today, Yesterday & Tomorrow'), which sounds like an outtake from Tim Buckley's Blue Afternoon. All of Meic's Welsh EPs are rare, but this is easily the rarest, with only a handful known to exist. The only other release on Newyddion Da ('good news'), incidentally, was a simultaneously-produced and similarly-rare giveaway disc by Heather Jones.

Throughout 1970 Meic was a regular performer on Disc A Dawn ('Disc & Talent'), the rudimentary weekly Welsh pop TV show (actually made by the BBC). Most of its guests were amateur singers crooning mainstream ballads or hits translated into Welsh, but it offered Meic useful exposure. At some point in 1970 an LP was released by the Beeb, showcasing some of its more popular guests. Two songs by Meic are included - the touching ballad Nid Y Fl Yw’r Un I Ofyn Pam ('Not For Me To Ask The Reason Why'), which also appeared in a different version on his Meic Stevens EP, and Dwyn Y Lein ('Down The Line'), a light-hearted, jazzy pop number co-written with Dyfed Glyn Jones, head of children’s programmes at BBC Wales. The liner notes describe Meic as ‘the only way-out figure on the scene. His experiments with form, arrangement and lyrics, coupled with his considerable composing gifts and his brilliance as a guitarist, could soon rocket him to international fame.’ 
South Wales Echo, May 5th 1972
Meic's return to Wales had been complicated by his affections being torn between Tessa, the mother of his small daughters Isabel and Bethan (all pictured on the left), and a Texan hippie named Carol-Ann Maw, whom he’d met at Ian Samwell’s London flat in late 1969, and with whom he shared an interest in mysticism. The difficulties this situation created - coupled with Tessa’s schizophrenia and the fact that Carol-Ann had several bin-bags full of the Grateful Dead’s LSD, which she urgently needed to dispose of - conspired to prevent Meic from recording for almost a year. The basic, bluesy Byw yn y Wlad ('Living In The Country') EP was taped with backing from two local musicians at Monmouthshire’s Rockfield Studio, and appeared in July 1971. Founded by eccentric brothers Kingsley and Charles Ward, Rockfield was Wales’s first proper recording facility, sweeping away forever the primitive standards Meic had suffered in the past, and representing another major shift in contemporary Welsh music. 

By the summer of 1971, work and family circumstances had obliged Meic to abandon his idyllic rural existence in his childhood village of Solva for Cardiff, where he continued to work regularly for the BBC, and participate in its riotous drinking culture. As well as contributing a topical song each week to HTV’s current affairs programme John Morgan At 10:30, he was commissioned by Harlech TV to write and perform The Dewsland Rake, an epic elegiac poem for his uncle, and had also started to act, winning acclaim for his turn as Punchinello in the Welsh Theatre Company’s production of Molière’s Hypochondriac (for which he also oversaw the music), and appearing in the hit historical TV drama Arthur Of The Britons and Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (for which he also acted as horse wrangler). Amidst these activities he recorded his final EP, Diolch yn Fawr ('Thanks A Lot'), also at Rockfield. Eclectic as ever, on it Meic draws from his past repertoire - Bryn Unigrwydd ('Lonely Hill') shares a tune with Did I Dream?, the A-side of his Decca debut 45, while Pe Cawn Dy Gwymni Di ('If I Had Your Company') had first been recorded with producer Tony Pike in London in September 1965, and the title track was part of a commission Meic had to write songs to help infants learn to speak Welsh. 

By the middle of 1972 Meic had amassed enough new songs to make another album - this time on his own terms. He still had access to Warner's demo studio in Denmark Street, so went there to tape the songs in the summer. Some were new, some had been written for Welsh TV shows (from topical to children's to religious), while others were older (like the flippant, infectious Carangarw, or 'Kangaroo', which Meic recalls '"was written in a London taxicab while stoned with Gary Farr and Reggie King"). Recorded in a single day after a night's rehearsal with a pair of musicians he'd met in a Soho pub (Paul Martinez and Graham Smith), and sung entirely in Welsh, the result was less mystical and more pop-orientated than Outlander, with a bouncy, uptempo feel (other than the obvious exception of the eerie ‘Galarnad’ - a setting of a passage from the Book of Jeremiah). Meic decided to call it Gwymon (‘seaweed’), and it appeared in September 1972 in an edition of 2500 vinyl copies.

Rarer still is the cassette version of Gywymon, which appeared in 1973:

Shortly after its appearance, Meic wrote the following letter to the Welsh Nation newspaper, which casts some light on the project:

The Welsh Nation, October 19th 1972
Following the appearance of Gwymon, Meic was drinking too much, the TV and live work was drying up, he was broke and his personal life was in chaos.  His response to an approach from a French-based agent in the summer 1973 was to sell all his possessions and hop on a ferry, as this article from The Western Mail explains:

Around this time a couple of tracks from Gwymon appeared on a French-only 45  (see left; the titles translate as 'King Of The Night' and 'Hello? Hello?'), though a projected French release of Gwymon never materialised. Over the next few years Meic hung out with artists in Brittany and elsewhere, drinking copiously and playing at innumerable bars and at festivals, where the Breton folk revival was in full swing. He gave an interview to a local newspaper in 1974, in which he claimed: "I adore Solva, my home village, but Wales has completely changed. Everything I loved when I was a child no longer exists. It's all been Anglicised." Here it is: 

Nonetheless, Meic returned to Wales in 1976, ready to record a collection of new songs. The resulting set, Gôg (meaning 'cuckoo'), has rather a sinister sleeve and appeared in 1977. His time in France is celebrated on sunny opener Rue St. Michel, while elsewhere there are dreamy ballads such as Gwenllian (addressed to his lover of the time) and Cwm Y Pren Helyg ('Willow Valley'), spacey pop numbers like the phased Cwm Llwm ('The Poor Valley'), bouncy pop reminiscent of Gwymon such as Menyn y Ffenestr ('The Woman In The Window') and Douarnenez (the name of the street he lived in), as well as some edgy psych with heavy guitar in the shape of Y Crwydryn a Mi ('The Traveller & Me') and Dim Ond Cysgodion ('Only Shadows'). It's a fine, varied album, but – like Gwymon – the fact that it’s sung entirely in Welsh has doomed it to a smaller audience than it deserves, and it has yet to appear on CD.

Meic rounded off the 1970s by re-recordings eight of the songs that had appeared on his earlier EPs, along with two tracks from Gwymon (Merch o’r Ffatri Wlan and Gwely Gwag - 'The Girl From The Wool Factory' and 'Empty Bed'). He named the resulting album Caneuon Cynnar ('Early Songs'), and it appeared in 1979 on another tiny label of his own, Tic-Toc, complete with two pages of photocopies notes in Welsh by Geraint Jarman. Some of the arrangements are less sparse than in their original forms, but the songs remain simple, catchy and affecting, and it stands up as one of his best sets. Unfortunately, it too has yet to see the light of day on CD.

It may be missing the point, but in reviewing Meic's work of this period, it’s hard not to conclude how different things might have been for him had he also recorded his fine compositions in English. All the material on his EPs (together with some rare unreleased recordings) and Gwymon can be bought at

[With thanks to the great Gari Melville at The Welsh Rock & Pop Archive.]


  1. Richard,

    Everything I ever wanted to know about Meic Stevens but was afraid to ask. Much obliged for the enlightenment.


  2. Great article! In my interview with Gretta Barclay (a friend of Syd Barrett) she told me how she and her boyfriend dragged Syd to Meic, hoping they would make some music together. But alas Barrett was already long gone by then... Some information about the different Syd Barrett - Meic Stevens meetings:

  3. What has he been doing since 1979? I ran into him in a pub in Brittany in about 1982 and that was the last I heard (apart from an account of another fine ruckus at the house of Le Patron, Bern, or was it Bun? a Welshman who inherited the pub from his Breton wife, who had run off earlier.) I'd like to know why Meic was brought up by his Grandmother - I met his mother at a party in her council house in Solva in the sixties, and liked her a lot, although her choice of men-friends seemed odd. But that's probably none of my business... I've got Outlander, but that's all. Must hunt for more.

  4. I first heard his stuff thanks to 'Ghost Town' the Tenth Planet LP released 15 years ago...Eventually I got the fantastic 'Outlander'.
    I don't know Welsh at all but that collection of his early EPs 'Rain in the Leaves' is just amazing and I found his stuff later albums too. I understand he's been active after 1979 and released records, I have a recording of an album from 1982 for example...