Rock ‘n’ roll tales – the Welshman at the heart of Cool Cymru and Creation
One of the most influential names in the music industry, a Welsh music obsessive who signed Super Furry Animals and was at the heart of the madness at Creation Records at the height of Britpop, Mark Bowen has plenty of stories to tell.
The people of Wales (well the south of Wales, to be precise) were privy to the blossoming musical obsession of the music mad teenager in the 1980s, a decade before he would come to prominence as a music industry gamechanger.
Then, as a super fan of winsome Scots popsters Aztec Camera, he appeared on the front page of the South Wales Echo newspaper after winning a competition to meet his hero, Aztec Camera singer Roddy Frame.
In the cutting from the paper, the teenager looks thrilled to meet his idol and happily Roddy looks equally delighted to be in the presence of the young music fan.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, the gig on September 27, 1984, at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall, would signify year zero in the musical career of a man whose life has chiefly consisted of records, gigs and impressive amounts of backstage passes.
“Aztec Camera played a crucial part in my life,” says Mark, speaking to me from his home in Los Angeles. “I bought their album High Land Hard Rain after hearing their singles on the radio and reading about them in the NME.
“I was 14 and I think the fact that Roddy Frame was barely older was one of the things that attracted me.
“When the tour for the band’s second album Knife was, unbelievably, due to begin in Cardiff, I made sure I got front row tickets the day they went on sale and I knew it would be all I was looking forward to for months,” he adds.
“A few weeks later the Echo ran a competition to win tickets to the show, so of course I entered even though I already had a ticket.
“I was doubly surprised when I won, but found out the seats were only in the fourth row. Those seats were no use to a true fan like me, so I bartered the tickets for my first ever backstage passes instead.
“The show was at St David’s Hall, with The Go Betweens opening. I a did a lot of shouting from the front row and then after the show nervously made my way to my first ever backstage with my mate Colin Malam.
“It was the touring keyboard player Eddie Kulak’s birthday so when we got back there a party was in full swing. In hindsight I probably didn’t need to wear my suede fringed jacket which I went everywhere in doing my best to look like my hero Roddy.”
The gig in Cardiff may have been the beginning of his own particular rites of passage, but music was all around the youngster when he was growing up – his love of pop music taking an equal billing with his devotion to his local football team, Cardiff City.
“I was born in Splott Infirmary in 1969 and we lived with my grandparents in Habershon Street for a bit and I went to Stacey Road juniors,” he recalls. “My parents then moved up the Valleys and we lived in Pontypridd and, when I got to comprehensive school age, we moved to Caerphilly.
“My dad had loved the folk club scene in Cardiff and my mum had screamed at The Beatles et al at the Capitol Theatre in the city centre. There were also lots of AOR tapes in the car, Loggins & Messina type stuff.
“To this day I can still remember chart placings and radio play as I started to pay attention to music in the mid-1970s, sharing time with my obsession with Cardiff City.
“I bought my first record, a used copy of Queen’s ‘Jazz’, from a record shop in Ponty that my dad’s mate had who allegedly stocked his shop with promo records sent to the Echo for review.”
Mark soon began attending gigs regularly after an early encounter with a certain multi-million selling US country singer
“My first show involved a trip to Oxford to see the mighty John Denver,” he laughs. “It maybe wouldn’t have been my first pick, but I was enraptured with the whole experience.
“My incredibly understanding parents would take me to and pick me up from all kinds of places over the next couple of years with the New Ocean Club in Cardiff a regular haunt, even though I was too young to get in.
“I realised early on that while, frustratingly, most tours omitted Cardiff and Wales from their tour itinerary, there were some acts which made it to Wales and in my teens I went to see everything I could, from The Smiths to KC And The Sunshine Band. I was just desperate to see live music.
“With sometimes months between shows I got into seeing some of the local bands at clubs around Cardiff stalking local lads Boys Have Emotions and finding myself at Chapter (Arts Centre) most weekends and crimping my hair like a madman for the unmissable trips to Cardiff’s goth havens Nero’s and the Model Inn.”
Mark’s alternative indie education, like generations of other music obsessives, was informed by broadcasting hero John Peel. It opened a whole new world for the Welsh youngster, including an introduction to a vibrant and dynamic scene right here on his doorstep in Wales.
“By this time I was listening to Peel religiously on the radio,” he recalls. “I was taping shows and waiting to hear the new releases from The Fall, Smiths, New Order, etc. But some time in the mid-1980s I heard him play records from Yr Anhrefn ad Datblygu and my mind was completely blown.
“As far as I was concerned, the only Welsh bands were the Alarm, who I saw at the New Ocean Club, Tom Jones and what I thought was dodgy Welsh language rock like Ceffyl Pren.
“Suddenly here are two bands whose sound fits perfectly with everything Peel is playing, but they’re from Wales. They even sing in Welsh.
“I started bluffing my way into Clwb Ifor Bach (in Cardiff ) and learnt how to order my pint of cider in Welsh, as there was still a hardcore Welsh speakers-only policy at that time.
“In what seems like a dream now, John Peel started doing a Saturday morning show from BBC Wales in Llandaff and me and my best mate Colin would go down and hang around outside hoping just to catch a glimpse of the great man.”
‘Where the action was’
A lack of live gigs on his doorstep was a constant source of annoyance for Mark – however, luckily for the nascent record company boss, there was a famed citadel of musical delights to feed his imagination within easy reach.
“Live shows in town were few and far between and I would get mad every week whenever another tour was announced that mysteriously skipped Wales altogether,” he says. “Thankfully, I had the world’s best record shop Spillers, where I would make the pilgrimage every weekend and after school on Mondays for the biggest new releases that wouldn’t wait till the weekend.”
Here he would buy the latest releases including one of his favourites, ‘Psychocandy’ by Jesus and Mary Chain on Creation Records, the label that a decade later would provide him with untold adventures. Spillers was a destination that would broaden his horizons in more ways than one.
“Alongside every record worth having they also sold concert tickets which came with a coach trip,” he remembers. “This meant I could travel across the bridge to see the likes of The Smiths, The Cure and Echo And The Bunnymen for some of the most memorable nights of my life.”
However, a need to spread his wings and gain his own independence away from home saw him move to a city steeped in music history, where he would make a lifelong friendship that would change his life.
“When I turned 18 I felt like I had to be where the action was and that was definitely not Cardiff at that time,” he says. “I got into Liverpool University ostensibly to gain a politics degree, but, in reality, it was because of (legendary Liverpool venue) Eric’s and the Crucial Three (the short-lived band famed for its line-up that included influential Merseyside musicians Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch and Pete Wylie) and the student union seemed to have an amazing show straight out of the pages of NME every night.
“I also picked up a job in a record shop, Pink Moon, in Liverpool where a regular customer was an excitable young man named Martin Carr.
“We bonded over a love of Hüsker Dü and My Bloody Valentine and I sealed the deal by memorably calling (MBV singer) Kevin Shields one night, we’d met at an MBV gig at Treforest Poly a few years before, and handed the receiver over to a sceptical Martin.
“From that point onwards everything good to happen to me in life was attributable to longtime friend Martin [who ironically now lives in Cardiff ]. He formed a band called The Boo Radleys. They were amazing and sounded like all of my favourite bands. I went to every show in Liverpool and then graduated to jumping in the van to go to Leeds or wherever and sell t-shirts for them. I was officially in the music business.
“The Boos signed to Rough Trade, who later gave me my first label job, and then to Creation, an event that had Martin and I openly weeping in the pub as it seemed like the greatest thing you could achieve in life.
“I’d been a Creation fanatic ever since hearing CRE 009, a single by The Loft when I was still in my bedroom in Caerphilly – and now in 1991 they had released two of the most important records in my life [Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque] and the next Boo Radleys album would be on Creation.
“Factor in that I was aware that they had just signed my musical hero (Hüsker Dü guitarist) Bob Mould’s new band Sugar and it really was as exciting as winning the lottery.”
When Martin moved to London, Mark followed, quickly finding a job at London’s famed Record And Tape Exchange in Notting Hill, before a brief stint working at Rough Trade Records, who had released Aztec Camera’s Knife album a decade earlier. But a chance encounter at a nightclub would put him at the heart of the world’s most riotous record label.
“I was at a loose end and I didn’t know what I was going to do at the time,” he remembers. “I was at Andrew Weatherall’s Sabresonic club one night when I ran into Alan McGee, who was accompanied by Bobby Gillespie and Kylie Minogue, no less.
“I’d met Alan a couple of times with the Boos and he told me, ‘I see you everywhere. You should come and work for me.’ It was a dream come true to work at Creation and more tears were shed.”
Little did he know that he was in the right place at the right time. A biblical storm was brewing that would turn the music industry upside down and put a group of Manc scallies on the world stage.
“I already knew most of the bands on the roster through the Boos and I was ecstatic to find myself working with not only my best friends but other bands I’d spend a lot of time around like Swervedriver, Teenage Fanclub and St Etienne,” says Mark. “Incredibly, within six months The Boo Radleys had a number one album with ‘Wake Up!’ and the birth of Britpop was truly upon us, as Oasis started to become this unstoppable juggernaut.
“In the meantime, the label had acquired a full-time ‘party planner,’ whose job was to organise events for the releases and maybe make sure that the rock ‘n’ roll spirit didn’t die with the label’s success.
“Inevitably, the Oasis story looms over events at this point, but having been privileged to see them at every London show from the Water Rats (in London) and seen some of the best gigs I’d ever seen by the time they got to Knebworth and the whole country tried to buy a ticket, we were clearly in uncharted waters.
“Looking back now, Knebworth was the high water mark and things would end so quickly from there, but I always knew that the reason Noel wanted to be on the label was that he’d grown up loving Creation Records as much as any of us and it just so happened that his own band turned out to be the biggest on the planet.”
As the money poured in, so did the mayhem. Creation Records had long been party central and Friday afternoons at the office turned into a drink and drug-fuelled sessions of bacchanalian excess – with the label’s maverick boss Alan McGee as cheerleader-in-chief.
Something had to give and it was the Glaswegian’s health that bore the brunt. He suffered a breakdown as the partying took its toll.
Mark stepped into the breach and was the music svengali’s day-to-day contact, as he recuperated after a stint in rehab.
“Alan was always a larger-than-life character and was already ‘music press’ famous before I ever got to meet him,” says the Welshman. “He has this incredible energy where he genuinely didn’t care what people thought and was a genuine provocateur, always happy to wind people up as long as they were talking about him.
“Malcolm McLaren was a hero and influence for Alan and the night he took me to the Ivy for dinner and I listened to him and Malcolm swapping war stories was a true ‘pinch me I’m dreaming’ moment.
“Having been around Creation since 1991 and having started work in the ‘sweat shop’ offices on Westgate Street in Hackney, we now had a fancy new HQ in Primrose Hill. Alan was coming back to full health around this time. I would go up to Scotland to see him while he was recovering and to his flat in Marylebone and go record shopping for him.
“Alan would have all these great ideas for mixers and remixers when he was at the gym and I remember taking calls in the morning in a hungover state with him sounding full of beans having already worked out.
“Alan was a much-in-demand public figure by this point so I would be called to a meeting with, say, Bernard Butler or Kevin Rowland and he would say, ‘We’re signing Bernard, can you help him get his record made please’ and I would be the day-to-day contact at the label for the artist and work on putting together recording their albums.
“Things were getting more serious in the office as the stakes in having the biggest band since The Beatles grew, but whenever people came in for meetings they’d always comment that we were the last rock ‘n’ roll company there was and how different Creation was from the majors. There were just less Friday afternoon ‘adventures.’
“There were still a lot of parties and a lot of partiers, but there was also a great deal of hard work keeping up with the amazing growth that the label was a going through.”
A key player in the eye of the storm, Mark saw his career take a further upturn with a new position and the capture of the Welsh group that McGee described as “the last great Creation band”.
“When I started at the label Alan had never really said what I’d be doing, so I busied myself listening to demo tapes and trying to make myself useful,” he says. “I was already friends with so many of the bands, though, so I found myself in the thick of it very quickly.
“We seemed to block book Rockfield Studios for years at a time then and I would often use it as a chance to go to see my parents or go down the City.
“Eventually, after signing a couple of bands, I ended up with the title of head of A&R, which the label hadn’t really had before as Alan had signed all of this incredible roster all by himself.”
As Britpop had exploded, so had music from Wales, with a number of bands from across the Severn Bridge making giant strides under the banner of Cool Cymru.
“I was going to shows every night, mostly in Camden, but had been home at the weekend to see Cardiff City lose the Welsh Cup final to Wrexham,” remembers Mark. “Back in London I spoke to a couple of NME writers I was friends with who told me all about this amazing EP in Welsh by a band called Super Furry Animals that I had to hear and that the band were playing in London that week.
“I checked out the band’s EP on Ankst Records and thought it was great, but given that it was sung entirely in Welsh I didn’t exactly see how it would fit on Creation, which was already outgrowing its decade of ‘barely making it’ indie and starting to have regular ‘hits’ on the radio and in the charts.”
As fate would have it, the London gig became the stuff of legend: “Martin (Carr) was off tour and looking for things to do and agreed to come to the Monarch with me to see the band,” recalls Mark. “We were in the office at the end of the day and Alan asked what we were up to. I was a bit nervous when Martin said we were going to see this great new band and he should come along. I hadn’t seen the band myself yet and the idea of a Welsh language band on the label seemed unthinkable, but, hey ho, Alan has said he’s coming now so let’s hope they’re good.
“That Monarch show became the stuff of legend. The band played hilariously fast through a set of amazing songs which revealed that they actually sang in Welsh and English. Gruff’s (Rhys) thick North Wales accent meant Alan had thought the whole show was in Welsh, but he was impressed enough to agree to let the band have some money to demo some ‘English songs’ and see how they sounded.
“That demo was amazing and I discovered that I had literally lived a parallel life to the band being the same age and having attended many of the same events, shows and football matches growing up.
“I had unknowingly already seen several members in their previous Welsh language acts like U Thant and Y Crumblowers who would regularly play in Liverpool due to their ties with the local Probe Records and the short distance from north Wales.
“They’d been as obsessed with the Creation catalogue as I had and when we talked music, football and growing up in Wales, the decision to sign a band had never been easier.”
Describing the aftermath of signing Super Furry Animals as “the most fun I ever had in music”, Mark describes how Creation’s money allowed him and the Furries to hatch a number of outlandish schemes.
“We bought them a tank and took it to festivals,” he recalls. “We brought The Fall to Cooper’s Field (in Cardiff to support SFA) and pinched ourselves.
“We even got the band to sponsor a Cardiff City shirt for a season. All funded in part by the money generated not only by Oasis but by the 30-odd top 40 hits the label worked on over that period.”
Looking back at those heady days, the music obsessive who loved the label growing up in Cardiff and fulfilled a dream by working for the record company has Creation to thank for him traversing the globe several times over.
“For seven years I had the time of my life,” he says. “Work took me from Iceland to South Africa and I would come home to my parents after going around the world and tell them stories about having to leave the office via the car park with a jacket over my head as there were so many paparazzi gathered outside trying to get Oasis scoops.
“I remember taking a limousine from Manhattan to Jones Beach in New York to see Oasis and thinking, ‘I’m not in Splott anymore,’ a feeling compounded when the Manics who were supporting spotted me and gave me a shout out from the stage.”
Little did he know it at the time, but the end of the label was nigh.
“In 1999 SFA had started work on (their Welsh language album) ‘Mwng’ with the intention of it coming out on Creation which would have been an amazing situation and showed how everything changed with the advent of Cool Cymru,” says Mark. “SFA could even sell out the Cardiff International Arena, which was probably five times bigger than any venue I’d seen a show at in Cardiff growing up.
“Then one day I was called into a meeting with Alan and (label co-founder) Dick Green, his partner, and to my utter shock they said they were going to close down the label.
“We were still in the middle of all this success but, according to Alan, it had ‘stopped being fun’. To this day I think it’s the bravest decision I’ve ever seen in music, but at that point all I could do was wonder what I was going to do for a job. I flew to Denmark to break the news to SFA and we all tried to guess what the consequences might be without really having any idea.
“Creation closed its doors on May 31, 2000 and I physically locked the door of the office on that day and left for the last time.”
There was no time to ruminate on the past or feel sorry for himself, Mark had his future to think about.
“I had started to talk to Dick Green about what his plans might be,” he remembers. “We always got on and as he was heavily involved with both the Boos and SFA we’d become close.
“He said he was too young to retire but wanted to go ‘back to basics’ and do something small from home if that might interest me. I loved Dick and had no idea what else I would do, so enthusiastically signed up.”
That label was Wichita Recordings and, 21 years later, the label is still going strong, testimony to the considerable talents of both Mark Bowen and Dick Green.
“We ran Wichita out of our respective bedrooms for five years releasing the likes of Bright Eyes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and My Morning Jacket before the impending release of Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm meant I had finally run out of room and we had to get an office space,” he recalls.
“More than two decades later, we are still here and ironically the biggest current act on the label are our old friends from Creation, Ride, who are as full of vigour now as they were in 1991.”
Mark himself is now based Stateside in Los Angeles, where he has lived for the best part of a decade.
“The Swedish band First Aid Kit was starting to do very well in America and as we had no office there and my wife Roxanne had moved to London from LA, I offered to go out there for a bit and try to make the First Aid Kit record a hit. Almost 10 years later I’m still in LA and I haven’t been able to come home for over a year.
“Life came full circle last year, though, when we began managing the genius Gruff Rhys who I’d signed 25 years previous as the singer in the Furries.”
Looking back on his days at Creation, working with Alan McGee, the subject of recent biopic, ‘Creation Stories’, the Welshman naturally has untold fondness for his days living the high life at the height of Britpop on a label of ‘mavericks’ and ‘lunatics.’
“People, of course, think of Oasis first, but the label released so many seminal, game changing records from Jesus and Mary Chain to My Bloody Valentine to Primal Scream. Alan had this amazing ability to take artists from the far left of the dial to the very centre of the mainstream.
“What inspired me the most and continues to this very day is that Alan and Dick were true music business outsiders. Working class kids from Glasgow and Boston, Lincolnshire, who hadn’t been to the right school and weren’t ‘connected’ or handed anything, but were able to influence the history of popular music through sheer enthusiasm and belief.
“The longer I’ve worked in music the more I’ve realised how utterly rare this is. They knew no one in the music business starting out but ended up bossing it. That, to me, was always the real inspiration and significance of Creation and maybe is even the reason they decided to walk away when they did. They launched the biggest band since The Beatles. What else are you going to do?
“I’m 52. It’s now almost 30 years since I spent most of my twenties working for my favourite label. It still seems like a dream sometimes and I think about it every day. It was such an intense time, I’ve also thought that we would probably all benefit from some group therapy.
“The label of ‘mavericks’ and ‘lunatics’ somehow produced a roster of acts who are still working, successful and relevant in 2021, and that’s the biggest tribute I can pay to the amazing ears of Alan McGee.
“I believe that Creation is pound for pound the greatest label of all time and I think about it every day.”
This article first appeared in the Western Mail magazine