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Sometimes writing reviews for Terminal Boredom feels disconcertingly similar to what I imagine the life of a solitary frontiersman chopping down redwoods deep in an unpopulated forest would have been like. Forget about the tired question of whether or not trees actually make a sound without anyone around to hear them, the real question here is what’s the point in exerting all that effort if nobody bears witness to the fruits of your labor? I’m pretty sure someone reads this stuff once it gets posted online, but you sure wouldn’t know it from my inbox. Every once in blue moon though a bit of correspondence comes in that makes it all feel worthwhile. Case in point: I got a really nice email forwarded to me from Madoc Roberts of the Tunnelrunners after I reviewed the Sing Sing reissue of their marvelous Plastic Land single. The eponymous cut off that record made a huge impact on me as an impressionable teenager via its inclusion on the bootleg LP Teenage Treats Vol. 4. There was something really special about the song that stuck with me over the years; it felt like a communiqué from a secret dimension only accessible through my turntable. When I got my hands on the Sing Sing reissue of the first EP I was pleasantly surprised to hear every song imbued with the same captivating magic as Plastic Land, which made me even more intrigued as to just what this obscure band from a village in Wales was all about. With Madoc’s email address now in hand I decided it would be a great opportunity to ask him some questions and see if he was willing to tell the tale of the Tunnelrunners for posterity’s sake. Luckily he kindly obliged and also proved to be a very easy interview subject. What follows is a glimpse into the history of an obscure yet wonderful band whose story is emblematic of hundreds of like-minded bands operating in provincial backwaters across the globe back in the late seventies as punk rock spread its tendrils into locations as geographically disparate as Neath, Wales and Bloomington, Indiana. Thanks to Madoc for the interview and for his patience in waiting for it to see the light of day.

TB: To begin with can you talk a little about how the band formed and give a bit of information about everyone in the band's musical background?
Madoc: Graham Jones and I were the first two Tunnelrunners. We lived near each other and went to the same school. We used to catch the bus together and when we were waiting we would talk about music amongst other things. We discovered that we had guitars - I wouldn’t say that we could play them but we had them - so we decided to go around to Graham house and see what happened. Graham had made his own guitar which gave it a unique sound and a unique feel when you played it. He hadn’t quite got the neck right so it felt like it was concave instead of convex (bowing in rather than bowing out). It was 1976 so we were hearing all about the punk stuff that was happening but it was not widely available at first. You had to tune in to John Peel who was a champion of the new kind of music. At first Graham and I used to try and work out other peoples’ songs but that didn’t last too long as it was obvious that we weren’t going to be able to do them as well as the originals, and in any case what’s the point in that? We used to listen to all the usual suspects like The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, and The Sex Pistols etc. but there were a few other less well known influences like Wild Willy Barrett and John Otway, The Panik and even Paul Robeson.
We also used to practice in the school where my father worked. They also had lots of instruments there which we would mess around with. We only had one amp but it had two inputs so we used that. We toyed with several names including “The Exciting Blue Plants”, “The Small Bones of the Middle Ear” and “Staunch Chord Work and the Blur”. This last name came from the fact that Graham would play chords and I would do a blur of notes over the top. I couldn’t do proper solos but I could dig in the pick and play fast.
I don’t know if you are aware of this but we never had a bassist. Graham bought a huge bass amp which he played through to get the lower notes. Graham’s amp was so big that we attached wheels to it so that we could push it through the streets of the village where we lived to get it to the practice room. On one of these trips we came up with the band’s name. We had both been watching a TV programme called Magpie which had featured an item about some kind of burrowing mammal but the presenter couldn’t remember the name of the creatures. She tried to do the whole item without saying their name so she just referred to them as tunnelrunners. It was hysterical so we picked that as our name.
We went through several drummers who couldn’t play before I asked Jeff Burton who was also in the same school if he wanted to give it a go. Jeff was probably the most obvious candidate because everyone knew he was good. The only problem was that whilst I had sold all my old Bob Dylan and Deep Purple albums to raise money to buy punk records, Jeff was still into Genesis and even had drums that you had to tune! But drummers are drummers and most of them just like hitting things hard so Jeff was in.

TB: Were you a big record collector? If so, did you pick up records by more obscure bands in addition to bands like the Ramones and Buzzcocks?
Madoc: I was a big record collector always looking for rare gems. I still have records like “Modern Politics” by the Panik and “Ain’t Been to No Music School” by the Nosebleeds amongst others. There was an American band called the Korps, previously called the Afrika Korps, who had an album called 'Music to Kill By' which I liked.





TB: I read where you were one of a handful of people who saw the Sex Pistols play in Swansea. Can you tell me a bit about that and what, if any, influence it had on starting the Tunnelrunners?
Madoc: I never saw the Sex Pistols. That is a myth started by Steve Mitchell I suspect. Steve was great at this kind of thing and I find it sad to have to spoil the rumour because it’s fun and something I think fits in with the punk spirit. I saw loads of other bands that influenced us like The Clash, Dammed, Buzzcocks, Lurkers, etc. but the Sex Pistols weren’t a massive influence on us musically. The spirit and atmosphere of the time was the big influence. Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin belonged to the generation before us and we wanted something of our own. Those bands prized musicianship and showmanship so the only way to rebel was to do the opposite. This meant that anyone could be in a band and make music. It was democratic and liberating.

TB: Can you talk a little about what it felt like to come of age at a time when that excitement was in the air? Was there an optimistic sense of things opening up that went with it? I ask because in my opinion there is an indefinable spirit that goes a long way towards making the Tunnelrunners' music so special. It's hard for me to put my finger on. The songs are great from a compositional perspective, but there's a sense of youthful exuberance and innocence that makes them sound truly magical.
Madoc: There was definitely a sense of optimism at the time. The old bands had been swept away and new younger groups were popping up all over the place. These groups wanted somewhere to play so venues were found who were willing to put the new music on and a scene arose. As far as our approach was concerned there certainly was a feeling that anything was possible and I suppose that was naive. We weren’t cynical about the future; just the past. When we wrote a song and then played it for the first time together we thought each new one was the best song ever. I would go home with the song ringing in my head; it was a great experience. Playing on stage is a brilliant buzz but the hours spent in the practice room are where you are the first people to hear this stuff and that’s great. There was no set way that we wrote our songs, but we rarely wrote together. We would bring a song or a lyric to practice and combine them or I would have a verse and we would work on some kind of arrangement together. There are some songs where I can’t remember who wrote what. We didn’t go in too much for arrangements, which I think is obvious from the recordings. We didn’t try to sound like anyone else although obviously there are influences.

TB: Pardon me if I come across as the typically geographically ignorant American, but where is Neath located relative to Swansea? Do you think operating in the relative vacuum of a more provincial location helped keep the Tunnelrunners' sound individual and pure?
Madoc: Neath is about six kilometers from Swansea I think, although I’m not sure about that. Swansea was our nearest big town. We were certainly remote from London where all the media hype was happening so we were free to interpret things as we wanted. I think the whole punk thing was about self expression, and in Swansea no two bands were the same. We all did our own thing.
You have to remember that there was only one branch of the shop where Malcolm Mclaren and Vivian Westwood sold their clothes. So they could only influence the King’s Road scene. We only got to see what they were up to once it hit the press. Again we wanted to do our own thing. I Liked the Ramones so when I saw Joey Ramone I didn’t bother to cut my long hair but just bought a leather jacket. Wales didn’t take to punk very quickly. There were just a small number of us in Swansea and we were likely to be picked on for the way we looked but I don’t think the scene here had the aggression that is often associated with punk. I often wore a bright red army tunic and two tone suits so we weren’t conforming to the London look at all. Getting gigs was hard in Wales which is why we never played a single gig in our home town of Neath and had to travel to Swansea. Money was short and we only had Jeff’s van so gigs were difficult. Steve Mitchell again turned this into part of the myth. We would have played more if we could but it was hard.

TB: Where you aware of any bands who sang in Welsh at the time like Ail Symudiad and Y Trwynau Coch? If so, do you think these bands were singing in Welsh as a statement or merely because it came natural to them?
Madoc: People have always had to fight for the Welsh language so it became part of the rebellious punk scene in Wales. I was more aware of this than Graham at the time I think, but we were never going to write songs in Welsh because I don’t speak it brilliantly. We were at school with a well known Welsh band called Crys (Shirt). They weren’t a punk band as such and when they played in Neath they did Status Quo covers, but their stuff in Welsh was different and there was a real sense that anyone singing in Welsh was making a statement. In the early 1980’s we got a Welsh language TV channel which championed the Welsh music scene and it was out of this that we later got bands like Catatonia and The Super Furry Animals who were all in Welsh language bands originally.

TB: Can you talk a little about how the Tunnelrunners place in the local music scene in Swansea? What were some bands you enjoyed playing with? How were you received by the audiences you played in front of?
Madoc: As I’ve said we had this image of rarely playing which is true. Steve Mitchell played this up so our gigs were much sought after when they happened. However this wasn’t always the case. Our first ever gig was at Circles which was the venue in Swansea where all the big punk bands played. Jeff hadn’t joined us yet and on the night [of the show] our drummer pulled out. Another lad stepped in so we told him that we would hold the first chord until he got the rhythm and then we would go for it. Unfortunately the PA system consisted of two speakers one on the right which had all the vocals and one on the left which had all the guitars. It must have sounded terrible. There was an older man at the bar who started off the night by booing but by the end he was pleading with us to stop and accusing us of ruining his night. We thought that he was just old and didn’t understand but when we got off stage our only fan came up to us and said go back on and do “Do You Wanna Dance” (our only ever cover). We had to break it to him that we had already done it. The sound we were making was so bad it was unrecognizable. We went away and practiced a lot.
Our next gig was at a club called the Heathcliffe which normally had strippers on so the stage had a backdrop of shinny metal strips to catch the light. We were meant to be on first but nobody had turned up. Everyone was putting it down to the fact that Gary Glitter was playing at the local football ground. We didn’t think that we had an audience in common with him but the lack of crowd meant that the main bands pulled rank on us and said that they wanted to go on first to get it out of the way and go home. However by the time they had finished and we were due to go on the place had filled up (Glitter must have finished!). We blew the other bands away and the audience loved us. I ended the gig with only one string left on my guitar. I still had to form the full chords because that was the only way I knew where to put my finger on the one remaining string. From that night word got around and we got good reviews in the local punk magazine. As a result we were offered more gigs including one at The Gower Inn where Steve Mitchell saw us and asked us if we wanted to make a record.

TB: That story about the first show is great! So punk! You mention Steve Mitchell (AKA Steve Gregory of Sonic International Records, Fierce Records, Pooh Sticks, Low Down Kids, and 45 Revolutions fame). Can you describe his role in the Swansea scene and talk a bit about how he approached you about both appearing on his radio show and releasing the first Tunnelrunners EP?
Madoc: Steve was central to the scene as he had a show on the local radio station Swansea Sound which was called the Department of Youth (bit of a rubbish title but there you go). Steve went to loads of gigs and was known by everyone as we all wanted to be on his show. I must admit that we didn’t listen to it that much before we knew him. I was more likely to listen to John Peel or buy records. I think Steve’s partner in the record label Sonic International was Graham Larkbey and it was one of his songs which was their first release. It was titled Ystalyfera which is the name of a local town and it was a kind of comedy song sung to the tune of “Guantanamera.” We were one of the first bands after that. After our gig at the Heathcliffe we were offered a support slot for two nights running at the Gower Inn. The main band was the DC10’s who had some great songs especially “I Can See Through Walls.” By this time we had got our act together a bit and the set went well. I can remember the faces of the crowd. We played so fast but with melodies, and they often looked shocked. Steve was standing at the back during the gig and afterwards he came up to us and asked us if we would like to make a record. It was as simple as that. He explained that we would go into the studios of Swansea Sound to record a few songs and they would be played in his studio band slot. Then he would take the session and make a record from the best songs.





TB: Do you have any memories of recording the radio session? Were the songs recorded live? The guitar sound on those recordings is just incredible.
Madoc: On the day of the recording I had a very bad cold and sore throat but we never considered delaying it; we just went ahead. At first the rather elderly technician took a direct feed from our guitars and I think he thought we might overdub stuff. We spent quite a bit of time with him messing about and then we recorded a song. He played it back and it was terrible. The direct feed meant that it had none of our sound. It was all clean and horrible. We explained that this was no good and that he would have to mic the amps. Having done that and being sure he was recording the right sound we then just went through our set. Everything was recorded in one session. It was almost like playing a gig. At one point Andrew Reader of the DC10’s turned up and started twiddling some knobs. His favourite was the reverb which you can hear on some of the songs, but the sound you get on the record is pretty much how we sounded live. We didn’t care if there were any mistakes or that my voice was cracking due to my cold. Whether that was naivety or just the punk spirit, that is the way we were and it suited us. Going back and doing it again would have been cheating in our eyes.

TB: How long had the Tunnelrunners been a band at the point you recorded the radio session that yielded both of the singles? Were there more original songs that went unrecorded?
Madoc: To be honest I can’t be sure how long we had been together before we recorded the record. I still have some of the original lyrics in a book dated from January 1977 and I think the recording session took place in 1979. We had a few more songs that we didn’t record that day and I have some poor recordings of them somewhere.

TB: Do you know how many copies were pressed of the first Tunnelrunners single? Were you given copies of the record in recompense or were you just happy to have a recorded document of the band? Can you describe the sensation of first hearing your songs playing on a record?
Madoc: I don’t know how many copies of Plastic Land were pressed. As far as we were concerned it was only for local consumption so I think it might have been 250 or 500. There was talk of a second pressing but by the time it came out we were all away at college and only playing together when we came home during the holidays. We each got a few copies of the record; I think it was ten each. We never really queried this and the only thing that was a bit odd was that we didn’t get anything from sales [but] Steve said he wanted a cut of our door money at gigs to pay for the record. For us it wasn’t about money or anything like that we just wanted to play our songs to a live audience and carry on writing new music. The first time we heard the songs from the recording session that led to the record was on Steve’s radio show. We were the weekly studio band on one of his shows which featured all ten tracks and an interview in between. Hearing the music on the radio was great, although I was a bit surprised how bad my cold was and the effect it had on my voice. The embarrassing thing was the interview. The night before the interview we had been out with Steve at a pub in Swansea, and getting more and more drunk, we were quite talkative. We told him loads of stuff about trying to write the perfect pop song which we probably meant at the time. The next day we went to his house to do the interview. We all crammed into his tiny bedroom and he produced a tape recorder and off we went. He based the interview on all the things that we had said in the pub but we didn’t play ball and when he asked us about trying to write the perfect pop song we said that that would be ridiculous. It was a bit naughty really but a good laugh. Listening to it back on the radio we sounded like giggling idiots who mumbled occasionally which is how all bands should sound in my opinion.

TB: Wow! Is there still a tape out there of that interview?
Madoc: Yes there is a tape of the interview. It contains all ten songs with the chat in between. Frankly I find it both hugely embarrassing and a bit sweet and naive to hear ourselves that young. There is lots of giggling and interrupting each other from what I can remember.

TB: How was the record received upon release?
Madoc: The record was received very well locally and got some good reviews. This is the odd part of it all: finding out what you think of as yours is then taken on by other people, some of whom get it and others who don’t. We were reviewed in the NME but they hadn’t quite woken up to punk in the same way as Sounds. The NME said we were Neath’s answer to the Ramones and then went on to say that they thought Neath would say “no thank you” to the Tunnelrunners. This sounded worse than it was because I think the review was written by Graham Larkby of Sonic International who knew that Neath was the last bastion of the hippie. People always mentioned the guitar solos and the catchy tunes which in general we were happy with. I must say that the bad reviews are the ones you remember and they are very funny. I wish I had kept copies.

TB: If you can remember, I'd love to hear a bit about the composition/inspiration behind the songs on the first single. To begin with can you tell me what the idea behind "Plastic Land" was?
Madoc: “Plastic Land” is a teen anthem kind of song when I listen to it now. It comes from that teenage realization that a lot of what we were being sold as our aspirations were in fact just ways to get us to conform. Having slagged this off in the first lines it then has quite a hippy message which calls for freedom, etc. I think I was still secretly listening to Pink Floyd or something at the time. Actually I always thought their lyrics were great because unlike other rock bands who sang about gnomes, wizards, and other drug induced stuff Pink Floyd’s lyrics had a kind of social conscience, albeit a middle class one. I think it is worth mentioning that we were not into drugs at all. One of the things we couldn’t stand about rock culture was that everyone was always so doped up and slow. We were far more likely to drink and talk a lot about changing the world. Then, unlike the hippies who would just go to sleep, we would go out and march - like the Rock Against Racism gigs and such like. When Graham Jones and I think back about our songs from that time we can hear the influences in each of them and we always think that “Plastic Land” had something of The Jam about it in the way it starts - e.g. “Modern World” - which I suppose has a similar theme in the lyrics but so did a lot punk songs of the time.

TB: How about "Forever Crying at Love Songs" and "I Can You Can?"
Madoc: “Forever Crying at Love Songs” is a teenage crush song about unrequited love, which most of mine were at the time. If you listen to the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” you will notice that the songs are very similar to the point that they both even have a line that says “wiping the tears from my eyes.” We had never heard their song, which I think came out after ours, so we always thought they had stolen our song. I suppose they would think the same. Ours was written in 1978 which is two years before theirs came out. “I Can You Can” is a typical Tunnelrunners song in that it combines a catchy tune with a lyric that sounds like it goes with the song but really is saying the opposite. The song actually says, “Anybody can fall in love with my baby just like me” in other words this love is nothing special so in many ways it is an anti-love song which sounds like a love song. It was probably a result of feeling bitter about all that unrequited love I was going through. It is almost a pastiche of a love song but still a great tune.

TB: Lyrically "Average" and "Words" are my two favorite besides "Plastic Land." Can you talk a bit about them?
Madoc: “Average” had an average tune and that was the point: no surprises. It was one of those songs where the thoughts and words just went together. Most of the lyrics would be finished within a day and sometimes I would wake up in the morning with the first few lines of a lyric in my head. The same would happen with a tune actually. The worst thing with tunes is they might come when I was on the bus or something and unless I carried on singing the tune something else would happen and the song was gone. Getting into the house I would rush to pick up the guitar and work out the chords. Anyway back to the lyrics. "Average" is about fitting in and doing what is acceptable. Our ethos was to question everything the establishment said we had to do. Some bands shouted loudly and angrily about this; we tried to express it in our lyrics. I also used lots of clichés in the lyrics to “Average” like three piece suit and four door car. These are ready made phrases that tell us how to conform. You don’t hear of a six piece suit! The chorus expresses the idea that conforming is a way to disguise your individuality; an ideal way for frightened people to live. “Words” deals with [how] we use words to try to mould the world into the way we would like it to be. We used to do “Words,” “Candy,” and a song called “Philosophy” in a row without stopping between songs in our set. We also used to try and do “Words” in under a minute if we could.





TB: For those who don't know the story, what was the deal with the second Tunnelrunners single "100mph"? According to the Low Down Kids blog only 100 copies were pressed. Why is it so rare?
Madoc: The story of the second EP is not one I know really because we didn’t know Steve was putting it out. He claims we said he could do whatever he liked with the other tracks that weren’t on Plastic Land, but we can’t [have said] this. I think at least we would have wanted a copy. Steve tells a funny story about why the second EP is so rare. His main outlet was the Virgin record shop in Swansea Market, but it was struggling so the area manager decided to pay a visit. However, on the day of his visit the lead singer of local band the Psuedo Sadists was in the shop with his pet goat! Unfortunately, the goat decided the [arrival] of the area manager was just the right moment to relieve itself on the floor of the shop, sealing its fate (the shop, not the goat). Steve had only sold a few by this time so he was left with loads of records which sat in his mother's garage until he was cleaning out old records by the Crash Action Winners one day and mistakenly threw away all the 100mph EPs as well. A sad end.

TB: Do you have a copy?
Madoc: No!

TB: I first heard the Tunnelrunners via a bootleg compilation. What are your feelings on the Tunnelrunners’ music being included on bootlegs in the era before the Sing Sing reissue made it readily available? I can understand a band getting upset over being included on a bootleg without permission, but personally I'm very grateful to whoever assembled the Teenage Treats compilation that first exposed me to the Tunnelrunners (along with others like the DC 10's who you mentioned earlier).
Madoc: I knew nothing about the bootlegs until the internet and I was amazed that someone had gone to the bother to be honest. I didn’t think anyone even knew we existed apart from the few people who had come to gigs or bought the record. It is very flattering to be bootlegged I think. After all, the most important thing is that people hear the music. Nobody is going to get rich from these things and it certainly meant that interest in our music was kept alive and definitely enhanced. So I have no problem with it at all.

TB: What led to the first breakup of the band? Was it just that you were all of age and went off to college, or was some of the excitement and optimism of that initial punk era giving way to a more sobering reality?
Madoc: We really did break up because we all went to college. I’m not sure where Jeff went, I think it was Sheffield, and I went to Reading to study film. Graham was the only one of us who stayed in Wales. We carried on when we came home for holidays - it had nothing to do with sobering reality. After college I stayed in Reading and looked for work in the film industry in London for a few years so I didn’t really go home too often. However, in 1982 the new Welsh language television station S4C opened so I moved back to Wales in order to work. Graham was still in Cardiff so we met up and started playing again. In the eighties we made a half hour musical using new songs we had written. They weren’t like the old stuff because they were written specially for the film. It was about unemployment and we made it through the local arts centre. It started off looking like a grim black and white film where the central character was writing a job application. Then at a certain point the lights change a hat falls out of the sky onto his head and he bursts into song. The serious arty types hated it. We had another go [at the Tunnelrunners] in the nineties which went well. We wrote a whole load of new songs which were more like our old stuff. We started gigging again and played venues like TJ’s in Newport where Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love. We recorded ten of the songs live; apart from the singing (I had a cold again). We had a bassist Neil Sinclair and a new drummer Guy Lawrence. We still enjoyed it all, and did our last gig in the late nineties. The venues dried up and we thought we were in danger of becoming sad old men so we stopped. So I suppose you could say that this was the point that sobering reality kicked in if at all. Graham and I are still in touch and occasionally get together to play. I still get songs in my head but now I record them on my phone. Isn’t technology marvelous? Just think of all those lost songs. Ah well.

TB: What is your take on the music of today? Do you think some of the spirit of the initial punk era has been lost somewhere along the way?
Madoc: In the late Seventies we were at a crossover period where the old rock music was overthrown by the New Wave. Today there are so many different styles and yet people tend to ghetto-ize themselves by liking only one type of music or another. I like any music so long as it is good. I will listen to everything and the only thing that disappoints me is that the big record companies have taken control of the industry again. We seem to have lost the do-it-yourself attitude. Today it is easier than ever to make and record your own music but it seems to me that even bands that record stuff in their bedroom and put it out on the internet are generally hoping that they will be discovered and get a record deal with a big label. There was not only a spirit that anyone could make music back in the late Seventies but you had people who didn’t think twice about putting that music on vinyl. I don’t want those days back as it is up to each generation to do its own thing but when you are young music belongs to you; it’s your way of having your say. I suppose that if people felt they couldn’t do that then they would once again start doing it themselves. These things go in cycles and when the need arises I am sure people will rediscover the punk spirit.

END INTERVIEW






Tunnelrunners on the web here.

Pics provided by band.

Interview by Young Steve, 2011.

To read other TB interviews, go here.

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