(taken from This Patch of Land)
Twenty or so miles inland from Bangor’s Anhrefn in Llanrwst, a young Dylan Hughes was becoming musically aware, ‘I was a big Adam and The Ants fan as well as most of the ska bands around, Specials, Selector, The Beat and so on. I didn’t get into The Clash until things got serious with Y Cyrff, at which point I was very much into the White Man in Hammersmith Palais single [by The Clash].’ Explains Dylan who describes how Y Cyrff got together.
‘In order to escape a maths test, I was press ganged into taking drum lessons in school and Mark Roberts tagged along as well. That’s when we both started talking about music and the what ifs of being a teenager and part of a band. I got pretty good at this drumming lark and Mark dropped out cause he got talking to Barry Cawley who started showing him how to play guitar.’
He continues, ‘After a couple of months, Mark and Barry came to my house [in Pentrefoelas] and we started jamming Clash songs mainly, and a couple of Beatles numbers and Joy Division. Emyr Davies then came with them to rehearse and the band was born.’
Y Cyrff means The Bodies, and they were built around the punk ethic of The Clash. These four schoolboys were encouraged by their geography teacher, Toni Schiavone to sing in Welsh. Their debut show was in neighbouring Llansannan in support of Welsh act Peth’ma (who featured Anhrefn’s Dewi Gwyn), on 23rd December 1983. The vocalist, Emyr soon left the area and the band, whereas Toni, their teacher was to become a leading light for the Welsh Language Society, booked them gigs across North Wales and helped the band develop.
The ‘Cam O’r Twyllwch’ compilation LP on Recordiau Anhrefn gave Cyrff their vinyl debut, and impressed with their stance, label boss Rhys Mwyn released the singles Yr Haint (July 1985) and Pum Munud the following year. The band’s more ‘user friendly’ output than the brash approach by Anhrefn gave them plenty of media exposure within Welsh circles, and although TV appearances on The Tube and Old Grey Whistle Test offered up even more expansive opportunities, Cyrff never really attracted an English speaking coterie.
‘The high points of being in Y Cyrff was as a teenager, it gave me a purpose and something I really loved and was very committed to,’ explains Dylan. ‘I loved the connection we had on stage and the plans we had of world domination in the pop scene. The buzz of going on stage and turning the switch on to 150% was the ultimate high for me. The more we played the better it got. The low point was being taken the piss out of all the time, and possibly I was the naive one in those days, and I found it difficult trying to catch on what the fuck the others were talking about most of the time, which led to some heated exchanges when no one was looking.’
Sain Records, described by Foggy Notions fanzine as ‘a label more suited to choirs of old men and harps, and re-releases of wartime Welsh tenors,’ signed the band and released a single Cadwyni and the six track 12” EP ‘Y Testament Newydd’ in 1987. With Sain pulling the strings, the Welsh media coverage ensured sell out shows across the Principality. The stable line-up of Mark Roberts (vocals and guitar), Barry Cawley (guitar), Paul Jones (bass) and Dylan Hughes (drums) was disrupted when Dylan upped sticks and joined Anhrefn, ‘I didn’t feel as though anything new was happening and the music got a bit contemporary for my liking, plus I was being pressured by other factors, of which I’m not going to mention here.’
Dylan continues, ‘I was made a good offer by Anhrefn of travel and playing abroad, where Y Cyrff only had one gig set up by a TV company to film us. So I went for the travel. But I didn’t leave the band in the lurch, I went to get Mark Kendal [his replacement] a drum kit from Liverpool and went over the Cyrff set with him many times in rehearsals. I wouldn’t have left the band without a beatbox, Y Cyrff was my life in those days and even to this day I still think Y Cyrff are and were the best Welsh rock band ever. No one would touch us onstage or off.’
By 1989 Y Cyrff had parted company with Sain and formed their own DNA label to release an eponymous EP that included the anthem Cymru, Lloegr a Llanrwst, a song tipping its hat to what is dubbed as the People’s Republic of Llanrwst as Toni Schiavone explains in his appraisal of the band, ‘All places have character but sometimes the character of the place is larger than the place itself and this is true of Llanrwst. In the Welsh language we have a saying “Cymru, Lloegr a Llanrwst”– Wales, England and Llanrwst. A reference to the independence of spirit and thought which at one point in time led to the declaration of Llanrwst as a country in its own right.’
The innovative Ankst label became Cyrff’s final resting place from 1989, releasing their debut album in 1991 ‘Llawenydd Heb Ddiwedd’ and although containing some dashes of brilliance it also displayed a band in search of an identity within the changing face of the music industry. The album earned splashes in the NME but by then it was too late for a band that was falling apart. They soon split and Ankst put out a posthumous LP ‘Mae Ddoe Yn Ddoe’ the following year.
Unashamedly citing The Clash as their heroes, Mark’s onstage persona was one of aping Joe Strummer to the point of almost schoolboy embarrassment. Tracks like 1984’s Bradwyr Cymraeg owe so much to The Clash it is almost Strummer by numbers – join the dots and make your own Clash song! Although as time moved on and experience was gained their song writing matured, 1990’s Pethau Achlysurol owes more to Michael Stipe than Strummer and Jones. The music had a more melodic approach and portrayed the band as serious tunesmiths. And although some will claim Mark and Paul wrote their finest tunes as Y Cyrff it is also interesting that after such a prolific recorded output, they still had plenty of gas left in the tank to write the incredible songs we knew and loved as Catatonia.
Of their abilities, Seren website wrote, ‘They were the best Welsh-language band I ever heard. A Welsh Clash full of attitude but also lyrics of subtle poetry. They could write catchy riffs in their sleep and they were great live as well as on vinyl.’
Ectogram’s Alan Holmes was also full of praise, ‘They were a great group and lovely people – they were always happy to come and play at one our gigs to ten people for no payment, when they were regularly headlining Eisteddfods for loads of money – genuinely passionate about their music and doing it for all the right reasons.’
Dave Macher’s band Pwy Dall supported them near the end of their career, I asked him if he had a love for all things Cyrff, ‘Not at all, some songs were tedious and morose. I loved the early punky venom of Yr Haint, Cadwyni, Fy Enaid Noeth; the last album was very good too, Llawenydd heb Diwedd. But I didn’t like Cymru, Lloegr a Llanrwst at all and Weithiau/Anadl was nearly as bad as Pulse [probably the worst act ever to grace North Wales]. Y Cyrff were ok as people, a bit distant though. The late Barry Cawley was the nicest, a real laugh and good sport. When Y Cyrff became Catatonia that destroyed it for me. Many will disagree with me, but I didn’t think Catatonia were a patch on Y Cyrff.’
Mark and Paul teamed up in Cardiff with the former’s busking girlfriend Cerys Matthews and Crumblowers’ Owen Powell to form Catatonia. With Rhys Mwyn working for Crai Records, he kind of co-managed and signed the band in 1993, leading a three pronged assault on the media with Hue Williams (ex Pooh Sticks) and the NME’s Iestyn George. Catatonia released the EPs ‘For Tinkerbell’ and 1994’s Hooked before they signed to Warner Brothers and became the huge success and tabloid fodder you can read about by clicking online. Rhys had his nose pushed out of the reckoning once the scent of success was in the air and the two parties parted company. Catatonia did however have the decency to send him a platinum disc as a way of saying thank you, and of Rhys, Cerys said, ‘I’ve always thought that Rhys was mad. A Svengali rather than Mickey Mouse, but with an incredible passion driving him – and passion for a good cause has never been a bad thing.’
The inseparable working partnership of Mark Roberts and Paul Jones went post-Catatonia to form Sherbet Antlers and then the poppy go indie project, Y Ffyrc.