Sting: The Last Post

Well, after four years of discussions, public lectures and a number of book launches, I am now down to my last few days of engaging with my hometown of Newcastle, via the lens of Sting. I am looking forward to speaking at the Westbourne Book Binge on Sunday, where I am being interviewed by Paul Kelly, which is followed by what will be my final talk in Cardiff on Monday 30th. Although I only managed to meet Sting  once in the four year period, I would like to thank him for giving me the environment to think about my own relationship to Newcastle – which is equally as complex as his. Like Sting, mine is refracted through distance, time and imagination, but it is a nostalgia that feels very real. It is a nostalgia that reflects the true meaning of the word – a mixture of ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’.

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I went to see the first preview of The Last Ship a few weeks back at the same venue where I first seen Sting play in Last Exit when I was 14 years old, which itself was a nostalgic experience. However, even when I attempted to distance myself from the feeling of being in the same room with several hundred Geordies, watching a narrative of isolation, escape and return, I could not help but feel Sting had tapped into something very special here – far more profound than anything he has done previously – or will probably do subsequently.


It is well documented how the various narrative streams in The Last Ship relate directly to Sting’s own past – such as his relationship with his dad, his move to London, his rejection of of Newcastle, and of course his celebrated reunion. Although Sting is exercising his own ghosts here, he is also assisting people such as myself, who has loved and hated his hometown, and was determined to somehow escape what appeared to be a wall of cultural and geographical restrictions when growing up. At 16 when I left Blaydon Comprehensive, my whole world existed around a five mile radius of the house I was born in – so ‘escape’, was the only alternative for someone who wanted to make music. However, ‘return’ is the most important part of this story to me. When I met Sting, he told me that ‘a word does not exist that describes his [now very positive] feelings for Newcastle’, and I would say the same is true for me. As I said at the start of this blog, we are partially talking about a Newcastle that is in the imagination, with parts of it not existing anymore, but it has been such a pleasure having the opportunity to think about it from a personal perspective, let alone an academic one. I hope at least parts of my book transcends Sting, and facilitates readers to consider the complex relationships we all have with our hometowns, and the ways in which artistic practice can assist both the composers and their audiences engage with the places of our birth.

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Sting Book Launches: From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold


Following on from the talks I have done in Newcastle and Bristol, during April, I have three talks coming up on my Sting book – from Northern Skies to Fields of Gold. The first is at Birmingham City University – tickets available here.  The second is part of the Westbourne Book Binge on April 29th. The fact that it is in Dorset, where I lived for a decade makes it special – so I am really looking forward to it. Tickets available here. This is followed the day after on April 30th with a book Launch at the ATriuM in Cardiff. Tickets available here. All of the talks are subtly distinct and coincide with with Sting’s tour of The Last Ship, the show that actually inspired me to write my book – as it resonated so strongly with me personally. I attended the premier in Newcastle a few weeks ago and I can only suggest that you go see it if you get the chance. Finally, in the middle of all this, I will be on BBC Radio Wales talking about the book on Sunday April 15th at 2.00. Come along/listen and find out my own insights into what it is that makes the Last Ship ‘tick’ and the inspiration behind it. Here is a shot from a talk I done a few months back from The Gosforth Hotel, were Sting played every week with Last Exit in the mid ’70s – the band he was in prior to The Police – and where many of his soon to be famous songs were tested out. Hope to see some of you at one of the talks.


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History of Popular Music in Merthyr Tydfil Exhibition: Thanks!

Well, after around two years of planning, interviewing many community members and collating close to 200 photographs, the Lost History of Popular Music in Merthyr Tydifil Exhibition at the Redhouse is in its last week of a one month run. Like I have said many times, the exhibition is the communities not mine, and it has been a pleasure and an honor to be involved with it. The next stage is to work on probably an edited collection on the impacts of lost histories of local music making. Additionally I am wanting to find a more permanent place for the exhibition and wait for it: look for another community in South Wales that would be interested in showcasing their histories – any ideas welcome. So for the moment, here are some reminders of what the exhibition looked like. Thanks  again to everyone who contributed – it is really appreciated. It is not too late to see it, so catch it while you can.




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Merthyr Tydfil and Popular Music: Celebrating a Rich Musical History

As I mentioned in my last post, we launched the #merthyrpop exhibition last week. Here are a few more photos of the event, featuring some of the speakers and community members

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This was followed by the first week that the exhibition ran and we have had some great publicity, starting with a front and center page feature in the Merthyr Express on January 25th 2018, in addition to a feature in Wales Online.






We were then lucky enough to have a feature on ITV. After a great half day recording in the Redhouse, the show went out on the evening of Friday February 2nd as part of the 6.00 ITV news broadcast.


In addition to the short documentary, there was also a fantastic piece written by ITV’s Mike Griffiths which featured some of the community members talking about the exhibition. You can access this here.


For those of you who missed it – here is the ITV piece, recorded off the TV

Copyright ITV

To top the week off, we had a half page feature in the Merthyr Express on February 1st (p. 7)


….Followed by an interview by Roy Noble, on BBC Radio Wales on Sunday February 4th 2018

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The BBC were also kind enough to put this short video together



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The Lost and Found Musical History of Merthyr Tydfil

From George Jones

Photo Courtesy of George Jones

So, after around two years of planning, the Lost Musical Histories of Merthyr Tydfil exhibition was launched on Saturday 27th of January. It was launched by a one-day symposium, and featured speakers from both Wales and around the UK, ranging from established academics, archivists, to industry lobbyists.

The morning engaged with the sustainability of local music making, with subject matters ranging from music policy making in Wales to live music campaigning. These discussions were complemented in the afternoon by some ‘hidden history’ narratives not only about Wales, but also from other locations in the UK. How do they relate to Wales and what can we learn from each other?

The audience consisted of a mixed demographic, including musicians and family members of musicians featured in the exhibition, community members, the music industry, colleagues from local councils and also academia.

I hope the exhibition and the symposium gives the Welsh music industry, government policy makers and the public at large an opportunity to step back, look back through the lens of time and appreciate the importance of how popular music contributes to our culture. For me, without the real sustainability of local music, we have a lopsided music industry and a subsequent history that is somewhat imposed from above, as opposed to reflecting the culture from below.

The donated photographs have come from as far afield as New Zealand, with many of them being seen in public for the first time. These visual stories not only depict the rich musical history of Merthyr, but also the cultural importance of local popular music making in the Valleys. Indeed I would argue they represent the importance of local music making generally – I really don’t think it is celebrated enough. It is why I am so grateful for the work the Womanby Street campaign has done in safeguarding the local scene in Cardiff for example. With Cardiff soon to become one of the UKs first ‘music cities’, I hope the impact of this reaches out to the Valleys, and that the memories experienced by both the musicians and audiences will have a legacy that will be analyzed positively, in events such as this in the future.

So what I have copied below is a copy of my exhibition launch speech for those that could not make it. The exhibition runs over the next month, so please take the opportunity to attend. Please tweet at #merthyrpop

PC - from George Jones

Photo Courtesy of George Jones

The Lost and Found Musical History of Merthyr Tydfil

Once the largest town in Wales, Merthyr Tydfil has a rich and very proud industrial history. Although often associated with the production of coal, at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, the town’s iron works were the most productive in the world, bringing high levels of employment to the area. In modern times however, like places such as my hometown of Newcastle, the town is usually characterized in the press through its apparent deficits: stories of lower than average life expectancy, high rates of long-term illness, large numbers of people claiming benefits and poor educational attainment are rife. Recent TV programmes such as Channel 4s Skint (2015), MTV’s The Valleys (2012-14) and BBC Three’s Valley Cops (2017) have added new negative stereotypical dimensions to this narrative in the town and surrounding area, which are both unfair and unjust.

However, this exhibition intends to celebrate an alternative cultural history, a more positive narrative of Merthyr: popular music making and engagement between the years 1955-1975. This period was chosen because it is between these times that rock ‘n’ roll began to take over from big bands and when live music opportunities noticeably abounded in the town. It was also deemed important to capture the memories generated between this time period because they will eventually disappear. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told a now deceased member of the community could have provided invaluable information, but is no longer with us. This ensures that the present opportunity is not missed to link together what Jan Assmann describes as communicative and cultural memory, internally remembered oral histories that are linked to identity and “external objects as carriers of history”. As Assman states, our memories exist “only in constant interaction, not only with other human memories, but also with “things”, outward symbols” that “carry memories we have invested in them” (111). This exhibition and the work we done as part of the Being Human Festival in November are hopefully examples of initiatives that facilitate this union.

In order to give community memories some initial context, I decided to initially position popular music activities in Merthyr via the lens of what Pierre Nora famously describes as “sites of memories” (Lieux de Mémoire) (Nora, p. 7, 1989), artificial placeholders for the no longer existent, natural collective memories. These include institutions such as archives, museums, cemeteries and of course exhibitions. The problem when dealing with the hidden musical histories of Merthyr is that the ‘sites of memory’, or ‘carriers of history’ either don’t exist, have had little attention, or are not immediately apparent. Therefore, if we accept that music making of any sort can’t be disassociated from place, the project’s initial impetus included encouraging reflection upon Merthyr’s key music venues of the past.

While some of these buildings have been appropriated for other uses as the years have progressed, others have fallen into a state of disrepair or have been demolished, therefore existing only in the realm of memory. However, all of these buildings, whether in situ or not, represent a symbolic representation of the community based musical activities that took place many decades ago. It is these buildings of course that facilitated both the musical activities and the associated social interactions, alongside other less visible ‘carriers of history’ – the musicians who made the music and the audiences who attended the concerts.

As some of you know, in November, I conducted a series of intergenerational activities, funded by The Being Human Festival and First Campus. Via Dowlais Library, this project initially facilitated communities, who remembered musical activities between 1955-1975, to learn about, reflect and document their personal recollections of the period.

Memories were triggered by encouraging the community to engage with ‘memory boxes’: compiled recorded and visual media, drawn from the developing photographic archive, donated by the community. This was followed by a series of workshops with primary age school children in the town, who were given the opportunity to discover, via reenactment, some of the hidden ‘musical histories’ provided by the older community.

These reenactments were performed at Theatre Soar on November 25th 2017, less than a week after they were developed, with the scripts being entirely improvised by director Peter Morgan Barnes.

What was interesting in the feedback we received from schools, was that the children felt they not only learnt about their local history, but were actually given the opportunity to ‘feel’ like the community members who donated the stories. A sound pedagogical benefit I would suggest, that I hope to take forward.

In many ways, this project provided the perfect pre curser to this exhibition, as it reinforced the importance live music plays on the development of community and its consequent heritage. Some of the community members who engaged with the Being Human event had not met each other for many years, despite the fact that they played such an important part in the history of music making in the town.

from Stuart DaviesGerald Mogford from The Dynatones photo Catrin Sarin

Gerald Mogford standing next to his photo of the days he was playing in The Dynatones. Photo Courtesy of Catrin James

Jeff Jones photo Catrin Sarin

 Jeff Lewis pointing out his days in the Cheatin’ Harts. Photo Courtesy of Catrin Sarin

George Jones

Micky Jones’ son George Jones, standing next to his fathers Bystanders photos. Photo Courtesy of George Jones

George Jones 2

Son of Man guitarist George Jones, standing next to a photo of his grandfather, who played steel guitar in an unnamed band. Photo Courtesy of George Jones

Although understanding the relationship of ‘hidden history’, nostalgia and identity construction is the underlying ‘research angle’ of the exhibition, the forward facing community aim is simple: to safeguard local popular music heritage for future generations, by not only housing and making visible existing documentation, but attempting to generate a wealth of new material, created by the community, for the community. Eventually, I hope this exhibition provides the impetus to develop a continually evolving, local narrative of popular music, which resonates with the more dominant popular music narratives that have already been written.

The exhibition includes much memorabilia, ranging from the big band era and skiffle music of the 1950s, visits by the likes of the The Small Faces, Pink Floyd and Hermans Hermits in the 60s, to the staggeringly large lapels and flares of the 70s ::, to the many photographs and ‘oral history’ accounts of local musicians and audiences.

In addition to providing a new ‘site of memory’, it is hoped that this exhibition will capture the two categories of nostalgia outlined by Svetlana Boyn – reflective and restorative. Boyn describes restorative nostalgia as a “transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home” and I would suggest that both the Being Human event work and this exhibition provides an excellent example of this, providing opportunities for communities who remember the actual events and those who don’t to reflect and learn from their past, their history, their memories and their heritage. Most important, if offers up opportunities for both young and old to make sense of it.

Panels 1




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Past and Present: Local Music Making and the Politics of Popular Music

Panels 1

The Red House (Town Hall), Merthyr Tydfil

Saturday 27th January 2018, 11am- 4.30pm, Followed by Exhibition Launch

Join us for a free one-day research and industry event marking the launch of a one-month exhibition celebrating the hidden history of popular music in Merthyr Tydfil, between 1955-1975. The event is organised by The University of South Wales’ Centre for the Study of Media and Culture in Small Nations

This symposium launches a month long exhibition on the history of popular music in Merthyr Tydfil, between 1955 – 1975. Taking place in the Town Hall ‘Red House’ in Merthyr Tydfil, the papers presented will be of interest not only to an academic audience, but also the music industry, community organisations and government bodies at large. The symposium features a range of established and emerging speakers from both academia and industry and will focus principally on the following research questions

  • What are the relationships between local music making and more mainstream histories?
  • What are the most appropriate methodologies of capturing local music histories?
  • How can lost local popular music histories be made relevant to young people today?
  • How can lost local musical histories impact individual and shared identities?
  • How can local music making be made more sustainable?

The debates discussed in the morning range from music policy making in Wales to live music campaigning, which are complemented in the afternoon by ‘hidden history’ narratives such as the importance of locality place and memory in the construction of history, case studies of local popular music archives and the relationship of local histories to the ‘mainstream’. The day will end with a talk by Professor Paul Carr on ‘The Lost and Found Musical Histories of Merthyr Tydfil’, prior to the exhibition being launched.

The event is free and lunch is provided, but must be pre booked via the following link.

Past and Present: Local Music Making and the Politics of Popular Music

The Red House, Merthyr Tydfil. Saturday January 27th 11am – 5pm

11.00 Welcome and Introduction: Paul Carr
11.15 Panel 1: The Music Industry in Wales: Chaired by Paul Carr

11.15 Luke Thomas (University of South Wales) – Culture Versus Economy: Popular Music Policy in Wales

11.30 Ewan Moor (Save Womanby Street) – From Anger to Action: Campaigning in Live Music

11.45 Joseph O’Connell (Cardiff University) & Sam Murray (Teesside University) – Are You With Me Now?: The Sŵn Performer’s Journey

12.05 Liz Hunt (Creative Republic of Cardiff) – Rebooting the Moon: Creative Republic of Cardiff

12.20 Q&A with the panel

12.45-1.30 Lunch Break







Panel 2: Alternative Local Musical Histories: Chaired by Luke Thomas

1.30 Anne Cleaton (University of East Anglia) – How Musical is my Valley? an exploration into the role of place in the musical consumption and production of local popular musicians


2.00 Dave Allen (University of Portsmouth) – Pompey Pop: a case study of a local music archive


2.30 Jez Collins (Birmingham City University) – Local Popular Music Making: pump up the grime


3.00 Mike Brocken (Liverpool Hope University) – Phillips’ Sound Recording Services: the studio that tourism forgot

3.30 Short Break
4.00 Paul Carr (University of South Wales) – Exhibition Launch: The Lost and Found Musical History of Merthyr Tydfil
4.30 End/Visit Exhibition






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Sting Book Launch: Books on the Tyne


I had a fleeting visit to Newcastle last week to talk about my new book on Sting: From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold. As can be seen in the photo below, the event was  well attended, with the audience interested in the ways in which he (and us) can negotiate Geordie Identity in various ways. I found out after the talk that the lady taking her seat in the photo was in fact Sting’s auntie (on his mother’s side). She came up at the end of the talk and thanked me for providing a positive narrative about her nephew.


Although I did not know what to expect, the audience consisted of locals, but also people from outside of the area, who were interested not only in Sting as an artist, but also how his Geordie identity has fueled his creativity, in particular on The Last Ship.


This talk has followed previous ones in Wallsend and Bristol and I am looking forward to another couple booked thus far next year in Cardiff and Dorset. Let me know if you want me to do one – in particular if it coincides with Sting’s tour of the Last Ship next year.

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