After decades of neglect and hardship, the 1990s into the 2000s saw Wales patent its own artistic cultural identity as “Cool Cymru” blossomed.
Taken from the British term “Cool Britannia”—attributed to the new cultural change taking place within the UK, headed by Britpop outfits like Oasis and revolutionary politics led by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair—and the Welsh word “Cymru”, meaning Wales, this gave Wales a prominent status again on a world stage, in everything from actors to sportsmen but largely focused on musicians.
For many years, Wales was a country built on industry. Mining, in particular, was how the country thrived. It was a huge loss when the latter half of the 20th century saw the large-scale closure of the industry across Wales, leading to widespread unemployment and financial troubles within the nation.
The music industry at this point in Wales was largely unpromising. Of the music that did make it outside of the country, it was seen as passe, filled with crooners such as Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey; “A largely baron rock history” is how author Ian Ellis described it for the Pop Matters website. It was this underachievement, this reputation, this inadequacy that heavily drove forward the cultural movement of a country waning in its identity. Wales Online claimed: “The country’s music scene was burdened by the weight of its own underachievement.”
By the 1990s, things started to look up for Wales.
1993, for example, saw the creation of a new Welsh Language Act, building upon previous legislation including a 1967 Act under Labour’s Harold Wilson. This allowed Welsh speakers the same rights as English speakers in service-providing public sectors.
Also in 1997, a referendum held in Wales saw the electorate narrowly vote in favour of a devolved government—now known as the Senedd Cymru—by 50.3%. The National Assembly for Wales was set up in 1999 as a result of the Government Of Wales Act 1998. The official Welsh government website states: “Wales is not a Principality. Although we are joined with England by land, and we are part of Great Britain, Wales is a country in its own right.”
Around this time, the population grew by 3.5% from 2,811,865 in 1991 to 2,910,200 in 2001. Proof that times were changing was the increased move away from primary industry with a peak of 260,000 industrial workers in 1921 dropping drastically to less than 1% by 1991, the lowest in over 150 years.
Cool Cymru Outside Of Music
What also helped Wales’s global presence was boosted through sportsmen like Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, rugby player Scott Gibbs who was instrumental in beating England at Wembley at 1999’s Five Nations, and hurdle athlete Colin Jackson who accumulated 21 medals (12 gold) across his career.
Elsewhere, various Welsh actors established themselves, the most famous of which was Anthony Hopkins who continued his success from previous works in the previous years. Also, the likes of Charlie Sheen, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Rhys Ifans (the latter of whom starred in music videos for Welsh acts like Stereophonics and Catatonia) appeared with great success.
Cool Cymru Bands: The Fantastic Five Of The Welsh Sound
1. Manic Street Preachers
In terms of chart success, The Manic Street Preachers have to be considered the most successful Welsh group to get a mention in this list.
The statistics speak for themselves (all statistics from this point on from the UK Official Charts): 34 top 40 singles, 18 top 40 albums, and a combined 252 weeks on the album chart.
In 1992, the group had their first top 10 hit on their hands with their iteration of the theme from M*A*S*H, “Suicide Is Painless”.
From early songs, the group was focussed on for their obscure hometown of Blackwood, Caerphilly, Wales. The album The Holy Bible was critically praised, which would end up leading to a highly-controversial Top Of The Pops performance and sets at festivals such as Glastonbury and Reading. The album, described by the New Musical Express (NME) as being filled with “sheer, abject misery”, is now considered some of their greatest work covering themes of everything from consumerism to the Holocaust to starvation. Behind lead singer James Dean Bradfield’s amazing vocals is a message with every song.
The band was nearly ended its fame prematurely when lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared. Presumed dead in 2008, Edwards sighting have been reported but he has not been found to this day. The months after his disappearance saw the band’s future thrown into doubt but they nonetheless continued.
The band had a string of top 10 hits in 1996 prior to their first number one in 1998, “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”, becoming the first Welsh musicians to score a number one since 1985. The phrase derived from a slogan of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War over the global inaction to the rise of Francoism and associated fascist beliefs. The Manics were ardent against this, with the group actually one of very few western acts to perform in Cuba, doing so in the Karl Marx Theater before meeting Fidel Castro.
The band’s success did not slow down as they ploughed through the new century with another number one single, “The Masses Against The Classes” and a trio of consecutive number two-peaking hits.
With singles like “A Design For Life”, “Motorcycle Emptiness”, “You Stole The Sun From My Heart”, “Kevin Carter”, “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”, and “Australia” remaining popular singles, the band have done more than their fair share to leave their mark on music.
Still a popular group today, The Manic Street Preachers may very well be the most successful act to emerge from the Cool Cymru sound.
Emerging from Cwmaman, a village inhabited by 1,000 residents, Stereophonics formed in 1992, quickly being the first artist to sign with Richard Branson’s V2 music label.
Led by “singer and songwriter and a damn fine one too” – according to Welsh comedian Rob Brydon—Kelly Jones, the group went on to success with debut album Word Gets Around, winning a BRIT Award for the Best New Group. This propelled the group so much so that the next album, Performance and Cocktails went platinum within three weeks, also gifting them the first of eight number one albums (the joint-most of any artist). It also gave them three top five singles.
Subsequent albums saw the release of singles that are some of the band’s most popular tracks such as “Have A Nice Day” and “Maybe Tomorrow”.
In 2005, Stereophonics had a surprise number one single when “Dakota”, a song The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis complimented for its “breezy, radio-smashing chorus.”
The band did not have another top 10 single afterwards but would have a handful of singles charting in the top 40.
Kelly has gone on to say: “We’ve always been proud of being Welsh. Wherever we are in the world people ask us where we’re from and we let them know that it’s Wales, not England or the UK.” This is shown by the song “As long as We Beat The English” written for the 1999 Five Nations England versus Welsh match. They are proud, unapologetic Welshmen who serve as the anchormen of the Cool Cymru sound, helping carry the sound from one generation to the next.
Still going and still touring, Stereophonics are still one of the most popular bands in Britain, a more than fitting headliner for any festival, all stemming from a little village in southern Wales.
3. Super Furry Animals
The Cardiff-based Super Furry Animals saw their success boom in the mid-late 1990s.
Originally singing in Welsh and with an early iteration featuring Rhys Ifans, the band converted to English in order to attract a larger fanbase, a move that faced backlash in Wales for which the band was “completely pissed”. Conversely, the Welsh origins actually helped the band see popularity in the UK.
The band’s stock was bolstered by appearances on Later…With Jools Holland and TFI Friday, in the latter of which host Chris Evans called them “the most Welsh group in the world” before showing a card of all the ultra-Welsh names.
Over the next decade, Super Furry Animals set the record for the most top 40 singles for a band without a top 10, with 19 (and 21 top 75s). Some of their top 20 hits include their most famous records: “Something 4 The Weekend”, “If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You”, and “Golden Retriever”. The band’s songs have covered topics such as drug abuse and the Iraq War, reflecting Welsh decline and left-wing political views.
The group has worked with acclaimed artists over the years from Paul McCartney to The Arctic Monkeys.
Described by Ian Ellis as “ambitious beyond their borders”, the band adapted to a larger audience, yet The Observer comments that despite this “Super Furry Animals’s frontman Gruff Rhys trace[d] his country’s homegrown sounds from their timid origins to today’s burgeoning catalogue of styles.”
If there was one band not afraid to humbly boast about their Welsh homeland, it is Catatonia.
Hailing from Cardiff and fronted by Cerys Matthews, the group had seen moderate success prior to their breakthrough album International Velvet. The eponymous single of which is sung in Welsh (except the chorus: “Everyday when I wake up I thank the lord I’m Welsh” and performed at the 1999 Welsh-hosted Rugby World Cup to 70,000 onlookers.
The number one album helped launch the band, who subsequently scored two top five hits with their two biggest singles: “Mulder and Scully” which hit number three and the number five-peaking “Road Rage”. Both singles were unashamedly Welsh, with Cerys applying her strong Welsh accent to the Cool Cymru sound in the group’s hit singles, met with an unabashed rebellious rockstar nature —something legitimised by her real-life exploits.
On top of that, the album itself quickly ratcheted 900,000 buys in just 22 weeks—going triple platinum—in the UK.
As with many British bands, it was released in the USA, actually on Neil Young’s Vapor label, but failed crossover success across the pond. Although Americans love the British, this particular Welsh sound failed US resonation; their loss as in her own words: “Wales is brimmed full of talent.”
The Guardian’s Katharine Viner described their contributions in this era: “They may be one of Britain’s most successful bands; they may have given us two of 1998’s greatest singles (“Road Rage” and “Mulder & Scully”), and one of its greatest albums (International Velvet).”
A string of failed albums critically panned by media and real-life issues eventually prematurely ended the band shortly into the new millennium. Although short-lived, the band have left their mark.
The group were one of the most popular groups of the era, still a common band on the radio today, decades after the fact.
5. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were never the most commercially successful group but they were nonetheless one of the most prized bands of the Cool Cymru era.
Often compared to Super Furry Animals, both bands do have a lot in common from Welsh-singing to youth to wide range instrument usage to animal-based names—with GZM’s name deliberately bizarre with lead singer Euros Childs remarking: “we might as well stick with the most ridiculous crap name we could think of.”
The band have the most UK top 75 hits without a top 40, with some of their most popular works such as “Patio Song”, “Let’s Get Together (In Our Minds)”, and “Spanish Dance Troupe” being top 50 hits. One of the band’s biggest fans, comedian Elis James said of the band’s work: “I still listen to those records…it still makes me like I did when I was 15.” The band were also a favourite of John Peel.
As mentioned briefly earlier, the band sang in Welsh—being formed in Camarthen—although largely sung in English. Gorky’s even has two of the top five most streamed Welsh language songs on Spotify, both “Sbia Ar Y Seren” and their most popular hit “Patio Song”, the latter of which the band performed at their most famous concert: Later…With Jools Holland (in which they also performed “Young Girls & Happy Endings”)
To focus on the style of the band, they worked both a slow, emotional style as displayed in “Let’s Get Together” as well as a heavier, most raw sound as shown in “Poodle Rockin’”. Everything from psychedelia to folk rock to indie pop is how to best encapsulate their sound.
The band’s style is driven by their unique instrumentation involving the Childs siblings’ instruments with Euros’s keyboard/organ and Megan’s violin. Not just this but also by the brilliantly clever and talented songwriting of Euros, the like of which would not have been found anywhere else which could reflect themes of everything from the idyllic rural life to loneliness to mainstream culture.
A distinctive feature too is the band’s ability to call back to other musicians’ work who may have inspired theirs. “Spanish Dance Troupe” closes referencing The Beach Boys’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” whilst “Poodle Rockin’” alludes to the dog whistle on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band’s “A Day In The Life”.
Although not the most famous band, for my money, Gorky’s is one of the most underappreciated bands of all time, one of the greatest bands to never make it big. Huge in Wales but unknown elsewhere, the band stayed true to their Welsh roots, with their loyalty rewarded by being lauded in Welsh culture. Perhaps no one personified the Welsh musical rise of Cool Cymru just as well as Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.
As Wales Online’s David Owens put it: “Over the next decade, Gorky’s became regarded as one of the most original and unique bands in the history of Welsh music.”
The Cool Cymru sound out of Wales is something that has been defining for Wales, able to show that they were no secondary nation in terms of culture, able to establish their own foundation of popular culture.
Cymru Assembly member for North Wales Janet Ryder has said, “There’s a real sense that we can stand on our own two feet.” Ian Ellis further adds that the impact of these groups has given “credibility and surer foundations to the ever-strengthening Welsh rock scene.”
How has Wales developed? Wales is now seen as a hotbed of UK alternative music, with these bands paving a path that has since been followed by bands who followed from Wales. That is not even to mention some other bands not mentioned here such as Feeder, Bullet For My Valentine, and Catfish & The Bottlemen or solo artists who contributed in different genres such as Charlotte Church and a Tom Jones revival run.
As a result, the Welsh Music Prize, an iteration of the Mercury Music Prize has been established, preserving the memories of its founding fathers whilst also celebrating new music from the Welsh aisles. As Kids In Glass Houses’s Iain Mahanty stated: “If you think of the population of Wales and the amount of great music being produced, it’s pretty incredible.”
In the words of one of Wales’s great writers, the poet Dylan Thomas: “There is only one position for an artist anywhere; and that is upright.”