Or, Happy St David’s Day, if you prefer.
(Pause whilst I wait for my Welsh speaking friends to correct me.)
I try to post something by a Welsh act every year on this day, whenever I remember, which isn’t every year, and which probably makes me the worst living Honorary Welshman, a title bestowed upon me I think with no irony (the Honorary Welshman bit, not the worst living bit) by friends partly because I lived in Wales for so long, but partly also because of my love for today’s artist.
More often than not, my annual selection will be by the Welsh act who I think has been most important to me throughout my life: not the Manic Street Preachers, nor The Alarm; not Super Furry Animals or Shakin’ Stevens; not Shirley Bassey and certainly not the Stereophonics.
No, I speak of none other than all-round entertainer Max Boyce.
Believe it or not, in the 1970s, Max was a huge star, and not just in Wales. His trajectory was similar to Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott, who started off playing the folk clubs, their acts slowly changing until the songs had all but disappeared and been replaced with jokes. Max, however, worked his way up playing the Welsh rugby club circuit, the only other difference being that he never stopped doing his songs.
He’s sold more than two million albums in a career spanning four decades, which is pretty impressive for what on the face of it appears to be a bit of niche act, But although his act largely comprised of songs, stories and jokes about Rugby Union, these were not all sold to his Welsh fans.
No, for my father was responsible for the purchase of two of them: 1974’s Live at Treorchy and 1975’s We All Had Doctor’s Papers – the latter of which, according to Wiki, remains the only comedy album to have topped the UK Albums Chart. Suck on that, The Barron Knights.
Boyce’s schtick is wonderfully simplistic: lots of rugby jokes, often anti-English (which is fair enough), a few poems and lots of songs, mostly about rugby, often anti-English (still, fair enough) with boisterous sing-a-long choruses – it’s no coincidence that many of his records were recorded live in rugby clubs, with a receptive audience who didn’t need asking twice to join in.
Of course, recorded in the 1970s, some of the songs are very much “of their time”: I doubt, for example, that he still performs (and he is still performing) Asso Asso Yogoshi which features on the Live at Treochy album, and tells of the time the Japanese Rugby Team toured Wales, and has a very 70s chorus of “Asso Asso Yogoshi, Me Welsh speaking Japanee”. Ouch.
I can’t claim that I understood all of the jokes back then, and I probably only understand marginally more now, all these years later. And some of those which I do, I think if you’re not Welsh then you have to understand Welsh culture and often dead-pan humour. Never is this more obvious than in my favourite song by him, which still makes me laugh to this day, mostly for his delivery of two jokes within.
- He’s only delivered the first line of the song – I met her in the Con Club – which is met with such regales of laughter, he pauses to ask: “Been there have you?”
- Actual lyrics from the song: She told me ‘You can walk me home’/ I said: ‘I’ve got a van!’
They don’t look as funny written down as I find them, but I think having lived in Wales for as long as I did, and having loved and embraced the culture as much as I did, is the key to me loving that song and those jokes as much as I do (and Hel will confirm how many times I played it on a Friday night when we shared a flat).
But I’ve posted that before, so it’s not the focus of today’s post. No, that honour, such as it is, rests with the next song on the same record, a much more beautiful and poignant song, which tells the tale of a young lad charged with painting a scene from the valleys by his school teacher, but finding that none of the colours quite capture it as he wants to:
You could listen to that and find it rather bleak, but I prefer to look at it as describing the unique beauty of the Welsh mining communities, which I think is what was intended.
I could have asked him, for I had the pleasure of meeting Max once. I worked for a time in Boots the Chemist on Cardiff’s Queen Street, and we would often have celebrities who were performing in one of the city’s many venues pop in to buy something they needed.
Generally, when I’m in the presence of someone famous, I don’t bother them. They probably get hassled enough without me adding to it, is my way of seeing it. And this was magnified when I saw them in Boots, because as they’re visiting a chemist store, chances are they may be looking to purchase something that they would rather not be recognised whilst buying. But there were occasions where I simply had to say something.
Sometimes it was fine: spotting comedy legend June Whitfield at the Max Factor counter I simply had to go and say hello (and she was just as lovely as you would expect) and we had quite the loveliest chat.
Sometimes it was a little awkward: chatting to Glenys Kinnock was all fine until her credit card got rejected at the tills and I had to go and do a credit check on her (which, I should stress, she passed).
Sometimes it was very awkward: having been to their gig the previous night, I was delighted to see The Beautiful South’s Jacqui Abbott at our tills one day, and went over to say hello and to tell her how much I had enjoyed her performance, only to find she was in the middle of purchasing some feminine hygiene products – just tampons, nothing unpleasant or weird – and although courteous, I really don’t think she appreciated the attention.
Sometimes the prelude is awkward, but I just about managed to reign it back in, and such was the case with the time I met Max.
I’ve written about this before, but I’ve never gone on to tell of the conversation after the awkward bit.
I spotted him in the queue at one of the tills and hovered nearby until he got served. The lady who did the till stuff, Jayne, probably in her mid-30s, looked up at him:
“It’s you, isn’t it?” she said, smiling.
“Erm…yes…” Max Boyce said, modestly.
“It’s Max, isn’t it?” she said
“Yes, yes I am” said Max Boyce, modestly.
“Max….Bygraves!!” she exclaimed
“Max fucking Bygraves?!?!? Am I fuck!!” said Max Boyce, angrily. “He’s in his fucking 80s!”
I swooped. “Max, Max, hello. You can probably tell from my voice I’m not from round here.” He eyed me suspiciously. “But my father had some of your records which I listened to a lot when I was a kid, and I’m a big fan. I just wanted to thank you because knowing your records really helped me to fit in and be accepted in Wales, so I’m really really grateful to you, even if I am more of Harry’s Got a Horse type.”
And it was this reference which made him realise, I think, that I wasn’t bull-shitting him.
He smiled, looked me in the eye, and shook my hand and said: “Well, I’m very glad you’re here and we’ve made you welcome then, son”.
Sometimes, meeting your idols pans out just nicely.