Womanby Street: keeping cultural distinctiveness alive

Cities across the UK are facing challenges in keeping music live, and their cultural distinctiveness alive. Cardiff is the latest.

Calvin Jones is a Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School and was once mistaken for a member of Super Furry Animals by Liam Gallagher


It is only a few yards and a few hours between the front door of Cardiff Castle in the daytime and Womanby Street at night. But this is a case of the city and the city. A broad expanse filled with tourists, visiting schoolkids and the rush of traffic is replaced with darkness, the shouts and laughter of monochrome teens and, regrettably of late, too many of the homeless. Womanby Street has a smell too; not that of stale beer and urine (although that is here too), but the smell of history.


Halfway down, on the left, just beyond the under-development new grill and bar (née The Four Bars) is Clwb Ifor Bach, serving up cool tunes to the youth of Cardiff since 1983. I last graced the boards here over 20 years ago, bleached of head, pinstriped of suit, V-shaped of guitar, and far too unhealthy of Michael Stipe fixation. At that time, Cardiff was in the full swing of Cool Cymru; a time when my own band, Staredown, was criminally overlooked by all of the major, and most minor global record labels (pre-Internet, so don’t go Googling in search of a cheap laugh). Clwb, and other small venues were the hub for a variety of bands – Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s and Catatonia amongst the most interesting, the ‘phonics the most successful. Along with T.J.s in Newport, it was a vital outpost for bands that railed against the economic and cultural might of the London music industry.


It is still so. Clwb, along with other venues Fuel, Bootlegger and the Full Moon, all in the same street, provide not just stages (for rock, jazz, dance, you name it), but safe places for kids to talk music (and to belong); for bands to form, split, reform and give rise to deep acts of treachery in search of the perfect blend; for young photographers, bloggers and designers to use music as a shared theme in cultural creation. But this is all fragile. The twin threats of recently arrived near residents, complaining about the noise, and  a proposed Wetherspoon’s hotel (no, me neither) have potential implications for late music licensing, and might mean the end of live music in the street – certainly in its wonderfully ramshackle and youth-centred form.


This matters far beyond the kids themselves, because Womanby Street is a living example of the kind of dynamic, diverse, organically-arising and sustainable creative quarter that city governments have been trying, and failing, to create for decades. Our understanding of city development suggests that culture, distinctiveness, diversity and tolerance are key elements in building an attractive and hence successful place. And yet it is these elements that are being driven by licensing, noise, market, regulation and other forces out of the centres of UK cities including Cardiff – to be replaced by more chain-generics, more wine bars, more grills, and more craft ale.


Actually, belay that last one.


If this happens here, if live music is pushed to places where the pressure on space is lesser (and it has already happened of course in the Bay), we will lose something vital. The buzz will go. A long time ago – 1997 I think – I suggested in a report that the building of the Millennium Stadium might drag the cultural and economic heart of Cardiff South and East, making areas like St. Mary’s Street, Westgate Street and around the Station attractive for investment. How right I was, he wrote, ironically.


The last time I was in Clwb was this week, along with fans from as far afield as Scotland and, um, Margate, to see the band Holding Absence, my nephew in the lead role, pushed along by his two guitarists and million-MPH rhythm section, his heart jostling for space with the tattoos on his sleeve, and yes, with a bleached blonde head of hair. He’s been schlepping around the UK for a few years now, gigging tirelessly (well, sometimes tiredly), touching base in between at his bar jobs in Cardiff rock bars and of course at his mother’s. With washing. This year, Holding Absence was signed to US record label Sharptone, and as I write are in the Kerrang Top 10 (this is apparently, A Very Good Thing). Amongst a number of key supports – not least the Uni of South Wales Atrium, and his mother with that washing – was Womanby Street, the place in the world that his culture calls home.


Cardiff County Council has been asked to declare Womanby Street a cultural night time economy, and recognize and protect its importance at the heart of Cardiff’s creative offer. It would do well to do so. If there’s one thing the last 30 years in the UK should have taught it is that the interests of individuals and large corporates have been prioritized too much over those of communities and quirky sub-cultures. I don’t know if the next Beatles, Moby or P J Harvey will emerge from Clwb Ifor Bach, Fuel or Bootleggers. But they won’t emerge from a Wetherspoon’s.



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