Helen Jones is the writer in the frame this time round, as she makes an impassioned plea for Stereophonics’ debut album to earn the coveted Americana tag. Can the band from the Welsh valleys convince you with their tales of small-town life?
Infidelity, drinking, dead-end jobs, death, and just the plain old struggles of small-town life – these all seem like pretty classic country music tropes, right? Except in this case, they’re exhibited on an album made by a band from the Welsh valleys and marketed as indie-rock – and while there is no denying those heavy guitar riffs a rock record does make – cut this album open and the lyrics bleed Americana.
Released in 1997, ‘Word Gets Around’ is the first (and in my humble opinion, the best) Stereophonics album. Famously the first signing to Richard Branson’s V2 Record label, no doubt in part due to the so-called “Cool Cymru” movement of the era, the Stereophonics released an album dripping with stories from their hometown of Cwmaman. Although the band wouldn’t find complete mainstream success until they released their second album ‘Performance and Cocktails’, ‘Word Gets Around’ was enough to make the music press prick up their ears and take notice.
I’m not going to lie to you, I didn’t catch on until ‘Performance and Cocktails’ either (although in my defence, I was only 12 years old when ‘Word Gets Around’ was released). I acquired the album initially via a generous fellow fan from the Stereophonics chat room (that’s right, an actual chat room on the official site) who kindly recorded the whole thing for me on cassette (b-sides included, which were hard to get hold in the pre-Spotify, CD singles only era) and sent it my way. What struck me most was just how rich each song was; these were true stories, featuring a cast of characters so well painted they were easy to picture in your mind, and having had virtually zero exposure to anything termed “country”, it was an album unlike any other I’d ever heard.
Is it really a surprise the Stereophonics would produce such a body of work though? So much of Americana music is simple stories of small-town life, but more than that, they’re stories that come from a place of marginalisation, of a feeling of being overlooked and ignored by mainstream culture, and who is going to understand that feeling better than a band from a poor former-mining town in Wales?
‘A Thousand Trees’ kicks the album off, and what a heavy dose of the grim reality of sexual assault it is: “It started with a school girl / Who was running / Running home to her Mam and Dad / Told them she was playing, in the change room of the local football side,” sings Kelly Jones. “They said “tell us again”, she told them again, “tell us the truth”, they find it hard to believe / Cause he taught our boy Steve, he even trained me, taught our John who’s a father of three.” It paints such a strong image of those families, scandalised and questioning everything they thought to be true about a once trusted football coach, a fall from grace no better encapsulated than in the following lyrics: “They all honour his name, he did a lot for the game / Got his name knocked up above the sports ground gates / But they’re ripping them down, stamping the ground / Picture gathers dust behind the bar in the lounge.”
As far as tragic stories go, things don’t get any easier listening to ‘Local Boy in the Photograph’, the sad story of a teenage friend of Jones’s who took his own life in front of a train. “He’ll always be 23 / Yet the train runs on and on / Past the place they found his clothing” are fairly simple lyrics, yet completely devastating in the detail they reveal. A similar tale of tragic drowning is told on ‘Billy Davey’s Daughter’ (“Billy Davey’s second daughter / Threw herself to dirty water / Billy’s left with nothing but a dream”). While ‘Traffic’ is a fairly simple look at fellow passengers on the motorway, the tiny imagined details of the people are what really make it: “Another office affair / To kill an unborn scare?” “She got a body in the boot / Or just bags full of food?” (although the lines: “Those are model’s legs / But are they women’s, are they men’s?” do feel a little uncomfortable to 2022 ears more enlightened about the nuances of gender).
‘Same Size Feet’ remains not just my favourite track on the album and my favourite Stereophonics song, but to me, one of the best songs ever written. It’s the complex tale of a woman having an affair with a man who keeps her sweet on a promise he’ll never make good on of leaving his wife for her (“Oh no why hasn’t he phoned / She has to wait until he’s on his own / Lying and denying so nobody knows / I’ll tell her this week is what he tells her to keep her on loan / He’ll buy her one-day”), only for things to take a turn when the man in question mysteriously turns up dead (“They found / A body in the lake / Maybe it wasn’t really his name / Same colour, same weight, same size feet / It’s the not knowing that kills you”), leaving the woman to wonder if it’s the man she was seeing, but never knowing after being fed so many false truths.
I may be making it seem like every song is full of doom and gloom, but that’s not the case, there are tracks that positively revel in the joy of cutting loose. ‘Last of the Big Time Drinkers’ delivers pretty much what it says on the tin: stories of raucous fun and debauchery (“Ten minutes flat after that day at the factory / I’m drinking like a dog in the sun / I don’t need to eat or sleep a wink at the weekend / Just rot my guts”), while ‘Too Many Sandwiches’ takes a cheeky look at a wedding reception: “Too many sandwiches and wine / Sherry stains down your best man’s tie / What a speech / The band arrives, the granny’s cry / Singers tongue’s in the barmaid’s mouth / What a voice”. Then there’s ‘Goldfish Bowl’, which isn’t so much a celebration of the work-life balance as an acceptance of it (“I’m drinking, sinking, swimming / I’m drowning, working, smirking, learning / I’m burning, sleeping, thieving, cheating, beating / I’m eating, I’m deep in a goldfish bowl / It’s sink or swim,” sings Jones on the chorus).
Of all the tracks ‘Not Up to You’ has to be the heaviest on nostalgia as Jones aches for the freedom of his teenage years. “Fresh summer peach / Creased magazine / Sugar chocolate treat” are nothing more than descriptions of objects, yet they somehow completely encapsulate a time. Personally, “The swings don’t swing, the park’s been dead for years / How do you know the last swing was your last for good?” are words I find myself more and more haunted by as the years fade away.
The second Stereophonics album ‘Performance and Cocktails’ certainly has its charms – especially ‘She Takes Her Clothes Off’, the story of a washed-up Baby Jane character that was originally recorded during the ‘Word Get Around’ sessions – but in a lot of ways, the fame of the band ruined what made their initial album so special. While on ‘Word Gets Around’, you had Jones singing about working at the fruit and veg stall in the market as a teenager (‘More Life in a Tramps Vest’), on ‘Performance and Cocktails’ you have him showing disappointment at going to New York and feeling like he had already seen it all in movies (‘Pick a Part That’s New’).
There was at the time of the release of ‘Words Get Around’ a soft push to see if the American market would take to the Stereophonics (the video for ‘Traffic’ was shot in Los Angeles with the US market clearly in mind), but ultimately, it didn’t translate into mainstream success in America for the band. I can’t help but wonder if maybe they had remixed some of the tracks to give them a more rootsy sound and sent them off to country radio, whether things might have turned out differently.