LOST IN MUSIK

Our recent post about Roddy Frame took me down into a rabbit hole that led, eventually to Tony Mansfield, the songwriter and producer who played a small and largely forgotten role in the Aztec Camera story. And about whom details are a bit scant.

I first came across Tony because of his band, New Musik, one of the more curious footnotes to the poppier end of the new wave story. And whose signature pop songs – like those of Martha And The Muffins, The Vapors and The Lotus Eaters – detonated without warning from our three-in-ones during those years when we were trying to determine the differences between good, bad and ugly. Decades later and I’m still unable to fully shake ‘Echo Beach, ‘Turning Japanese’ and ‘The First Picture Of You’, the most pressing, gold-plated bangers of the period. Indeed, I can still recite the lyrics to Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ even though I often struggle to remember my daughters’ middle-names.

New Musik was Tony’s band, more or less, and it’s hard to think of them as anything other than a group of session players, at their most comfortable within the studio walls, who fell into the one groove and released a run of excellent, synth-built pop singles as the 1970s cross-faded into the 80s. ‘Straight Lines’, ‘Living By Numbers’, ‘This World Of Water’ and ‘On Islands’ are easily the pick of them and turn up now, the very odd time, on those BBC4 re-runs of vintage ‘Top Of The Tops’. Where New Musik are perennially stuck just outside of the Top Thirty, forever bubbling under.

The spelling of the band name isn’t the only thing that dates them. In the most primal traditions of popular music, they defined the moment – or certainly took a reckless enough swing at it – in their coloured blazers, geeky specs, cute bow ties and with their battery of electronic kit. And like most others from that period – Kate Bush, Blondie and Buzzcocks excepted, naturally – look faintly ridiculous with it. In most of the on-line clips pirated from various television archives – and there isn’t a huge amount – keyboard player, Clive Gates, in his horned rims and hunched over the plate of tits and knobs on his Prophet synth, looks like a skinny Frankenstein hooked up to a mind-altering device.

Out front, centre-mid, Mansfield himself looks like Frankie Gavin from De Danann in an out-sized pair of Clark Kent’s glimmers while the well-assembled, bearded bassist, Tony Hibbert preferred the more minimal, barely breathing look – another pose du jour – that, on one television archive clip, has him miming his basslines with one hand clung inside the pocket of his trousers. And with an excellent drummer, Phil Towner, completing their number, the eventual New Musik line-up reads like the spine of a typical Ipswich Town line-up during their pomp years under the late Bobby Robson from 1980 until 1982.

New Musik’s sound – layered synthetic keyboard lines and toothsome vocal harmonies spooned over old school acoustic foundations – has dated better than their look, just about. But although they never enjoyed the same level of success as some of their peers – Buggles, Naked Eyes and A Flock of Seagulls loosely fit the same bill although all of them were far more defined and rounded – that string of singles certainly cut a dash. And created, for their writer, a strong spring-board from where Mansfield launched a fine reputation as a pop producer with good ears. ‘Such a digital lifetime’, he sang on ‘Living By Numbers’, the band’s biggest-selling single even if, in reality, New Musik’s best known material has more in common with Owen Paul’s version of Marshall Crenshaw’s ‘My Favourite Waste Of Time’ than with the ground-shifting European electronica of Can and Kraftwerk.

But with my own radar starting to locate regular targets, I took to New Musik with the same gusto as I did the likes of Adam and the Ants, Gary Numan, John Foxx and Squeeze. To the point that 1978 is defined for me by Charlie McCarthy’s speech after Cork won the All-Ireland hurling final win and Pete Shelly’s last vocal line on Buzzcocks’ ‘What Do I Get’.

With nothing to rate them against except other bands, New Musik looked as other-worldly as they sounded on my over-worked three-in-one. And that even within the pages of Smash Hits they seemed to forever occupy the hard shoulder only added to their lustre. [We know now, of course, that New Musik didn’t just spring up like over-night. Three of them had been involved with The Nick Straker Band who, marching in tandem, enjoyed a 1980 hit single with ‘A Walk In The Park’. While Phil Towner had played the drum parts on Buggles’ imperious ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’].

New Musik released three albums but all of their best known songs appear on the band’s fine debut, ‘From A To B’. While ‘Anywhere’ [1981] is the bridge to their final, and easily most interesting elpee, ‘Warp’, a far more tech-skewed record, featuring a clutch of instrumentals and released in 1983. By which stage Towner and Hibbert were gone and Mansfield was basically directing the operation from behind a Fairlight synthesiser.

The earliest Fairlight* was an extravagant, pricey and unquestionably game-changing piece of digital technology that enabled users to ‘sample’ or record acoustic sounds [instruments, vocals and percussion] – rather than electronically ‘synthesise’ them – and then play these back at different pitches.

Its first iteration came onto the market at the same time that New Musik were getting their act together. Subsequent versions featured sequencing and workstation capabilities, offering revolutionary sound palettes that were quickly embraced by many of those more comfortable working on their own or in more considered surrounds, off the road. Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Buggles [there’s a sub-plot emerging here, isn’t there?] and Thomas Dolby were primary among them, taken by the potential and the self-sufficiency that came with what was an unwieldly piece of kit.

Tony Mansfield was another of those early adapters and his fondness for, and proficiency with the Fairlight can be heard, not just on New Musik’s material but on the many subsequent production projects he took on after the curtain fell on his band following the release of the ‘Warp’ elpee in 1983. And nowhere more so than on Aztec Camera’s ‘Walk Out To Winter’, which he re-recorded and produced later that same year.

The original version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ appears on Aztec Camera’s debut album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’, and was produced by Bernie Clarke and John Brand. Brand followed a pretty standard career trajectory and worked first as a jobbing studio engineer on sessions with the likes of XTC and Magazine before going on to produce The Waterboys’ ‘A Pagan Place’ and The Go-Betweens’ ‘Before Hollywood’ elpees. Himself and Clarke, a keyboard player and arranger who also features on a couple of those earlier Go-Betweens albums, certainly succeeded in nailing the raw confidence in that early collection of Aztec Camera songs even if, as can often be the case with first albums, some of the excellent material sounded callow enough once it was committed to wax.

During the decades of insanity when the music industry was awash with more money and cocaine than cop-on, the recording process could often be grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unregulated. Far too many records, especially those pitched at the higher end of the commercial market, went through scores of executives, marketing heads and assorted flunkeys who would often insist on priority material being re-visited, re-mixed and re-recorded. Often for legitimate, quality-related reasons and often not.

The Smiths’ debut album, also recorded in 1983 for the Rough Trade label, was famously re-recorded from scratch and, even after the band switched producers – Troy Tate for John Porter – the album still managed to sound hollow and far more underwhelming than the band sounded on their first singles or live in concert. Closer to home, The Frank And Walters’ ‘After All’ and the sweeping ‘This Is Not A Song’ were both was re-recorded after the Edwyn Collins-produced originals were deemed, rightly in my view, to lack the sparkle and urgency of the band’s earlier material.

The initial, Pearse Gilmore-produced sessions for the first Cranberries album were scrapped and, after a trial period with Stephen Street, the project was eventually re-started from the floor up. The making of the second An Emotional Fish album, ‘Junk Puppets’, was another protracted affair that went through numerous hands, locations and producers and, invariably, cost an arm and a leg. The final cut was produced by Alan Moulder [the brooding, guitar-heavy parts] and Clive Langer [the more up-beat, instant parts], while David Stewart was later enlisted to add confetti canons and balloon drops to a couple of key cuts on what is, to my mind, a formidable and largely under-rated album.

It’s Tony Mansfield’s version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ with which most of you will be familiar, even if the single failed to do the chart business expected of it and the band remained on the margins until the re-issue of the breezy ‘Oblivious’ towards the end of 1983. And it’s a version that, as you’d expect, has long divided opinion among Aztec Camera watchers, many of whom have stayed steadfast to the tender opening strum of the original.

The primary differences between the two versions are in the first four bars, where Mansfield adds a distinctive intro, and the broader Fairlight-derived scaffolding he uses to bolster the foundations throughout, devices familiar to fans of New Musik, where they were used liberally. And these bespoke sounds, touches and finishes can also be heard, in variously evolved form, across most of the subsequent production work Tony over-saw after New Musik folded. Most notably The B52s’ album, ‘Bouncing Off The Satellites’ [1986], Naked Eyes’ cover of the Bacharach and David number, ‘[There’s] Always Something There To Remind Me’ and Captain Sensible’s ‘Glad It’s All Over’, which he co-wrote and which charted in 1984.

But as a producer, Mansfield is probably best known for his contribution to the first A-ha elpee, ‘Hunting High And Low’, which was recorded in Pete Townsend’s Eel Pie Studio in Twickenham in 1984. The Norwegian band had relocated to London the previous year, from where they became one of the great, defining pop groups of that decade, selling over eleven million copies of their debut album. And although he takes a producer’s credit on nine of the cuts on ‘Hunting High And Low’, the relationship between the producer and the band – or perhaps the record company? – wasn’t a wholly positive one and, after six weeks, he was off the job. But only after he’d taken an early stab at the song that would later become A-ha’s breakthrough single, ‘Take On Me’.

The song was subsequently re-recorded by Alan Tarney and, supported by a distinctive, semi-animated promotional video, gave the band its first chart success. Tarney, a noted songwriter and musician – he was a member of The Shadows at one point during the 1970s – had written and produced Cliff Richard’s ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ and, in several key respects, was cut from the same cloth as Tony Mansfield. ‘Wrapped in warm synths, propelled by shiny hard guitar, hits like ‘Take On Me’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ are the essence of the Alan Tarney sound’, wrote Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley as part of a Guardian feature piece in 2015. And he’d have known better than anyone; – Tarney produced ‘You’re In a Bad Way’ for Stanley’s group, Saint Etienne, over twenty years previously.

In an interview with ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine in March, 2011, Tarney, who also co-wrote and produced Cliff’s imperious ‘Wired For Sound’ and later sprinkled the glitter on terrific pop songs by the likes of Dream Academy, Barbara Dickson, Squeeze, Bow Wow Wow and Pulp – told Richard Buskin that ‘the Tony Mansfield version [of ‘Take On Me’] employed a Fairlight and it just didn’t sound like A-ha at all’. ‘All I did was recreate the original demo. Its ingredients were good – nothing was really wrong other than it just didn’t quite sound like a finished record’.

And, he continued: – ‘I actually worked with Tony on another project, so I knew what to expect. At that time he was totally a Fairlight man and I can imagine why Warners [A-ha’s record company] felt his version wasn’t quite right’.

Hunting High And Low’ went on to break A-ha worldwide and Alan Tarney was back on duty with them on their next two albums, ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘Stay On These Roads’. They never worked with Tony Mansfield again.

*My thanks, as usual, to one of my own favourite producers, Chris O’Brien, who I besiege with technical and sound queries and who, in this instance, put me right about the Fairlight. And without whom etc …

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THE RETURN OF THE ROD SQUAD

 

The going could be rough enough down in Cork during the mid 1980s, but whenever you wanted to feel thoroughly out of your depth, you’d just remind yourself that Roddy Frame wrote and recorded the first, magical Aztec Camera album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ when he was still a teenager. Whatever about the power and blood in the music, and there’s plenty, it was his ability to turn a sharp phrase – ‘And breathless we talked. It was tongues’ – that really highlighted the gulf in class between us.

 

Roddy, more or less the same age as us and raised in what sounded like similar circumstances in Scotland, dealt with love and regret like he’d been on the international chancing circuit for decades, mixing with the kind of mysterious, ethereal women you only read about in books. Or may have seen, the odd time, parading up and down outside The Moderne during their lunchbreaks.

 

‘High Land, Hard Rain’, released invariably on the Rough Trade label, the imprint du jour in 1983, quickly become a staple for us and, with ‘Songs To Remember’ by Scritti Politti, Talking Heads’ ‘Remain In Light’ and the two Joy Division albums – all of which I bought, second-hand, in The Swop Shop on McCurtain Street – showed us the breadth of what was out there waiting for us, on the margins and off the beaten track. And the otherworldly singles that under-pinned it – ‘Oblivious’ and ‘Walk Out To Winter’ – were just as urgent to us as ‘Each And Every One’ by Everything But The Girl and ‘Don’t Sing’ by Prefab Sprout.

 

Indeed, with his battered suede jacket, unruly fringe, smart wordplays and strong, acoustic-powered sets, Roddy shared many basic traits with his peers from Witton Gilbert. And by so doing he provided us with many of our more fundamental reference points as we drove onwards, finding our way.

 

 

As soon as we fetched up in college, some of us made quickly for the most pretentious societies on the U.C.C. campus, where our love of good music, bad poetry, corduroy and general carousing was, we thought, bound to help settle us in. And, on paper at least, The English Literature Society lived up to every other cliché :- a powerful platform for emerging thinkers, writers, beard-strokers and lotharios. On full throttle, it was no place for the faint-hearted or the weak-livered.

 

But the readings, performances and recitals would eventually wind down and we’d head down to The Rock View for the after-show, where the fever of purple prose would engulf the bar and level the pitch a bit. And where, whenever the talk turned to the new, fledgling writers and poets, we’d refer back to Michael Stipe, Morrissey, McAloon and Roddy Frame to find common ground deep in the delirium. We barely knew any better or any differently.

 

A couple of years previously, Roddy Frame was snapped on the back of the second Aztec Camera album, ‘Knife’, wearing what appeared to be a cape. He’d clearly had, if not a full-body make-over then certainly a stylist’s upgrade and, caked in slap and with his considerable quiff swept up and pinned into order with pools of lacquer, looked for all the world like he’d moved over onto a major label and was now being groomed for, and by, a different market and a different class.

 

Produced by Mark Knopfler, Roddy’s first album for a major label [Warners], was a considered, bulked-up affair that, with an enhanced budget and very obviously made with more time and space, marked a line in the sand and a transition into adulthood. Both for the writer and for his audience. To those of us expecting another rash of frantic, lo-fi, love songs, it shocked our systems and, as I worked my way through the lyrics and the inlay, a small part of me faded quickly.

 

 

But I stuck with ‘Knife’ and I’m glad that I did. I listened to it for ages in tandem with Bob Dylan’s ‘Infidels’ album after Roddy, in one of the interviews he did to publicise his own record, suggested we might. Knopfler had also produced that elpee :- two years after the release of Dire Straits’ remarkable ‘Love Over Gold’, he’d been charged with pulling Dylan back in from the fringes following a run of records made after he’d converted to evangelical Christianity and that, critically, are among the most mixed of his long career.

 

Knopfler certainly succeeded in making ‘Infidels’ sound as much like a Dire Straits record as it did a Bob Dylan one. With Sly and Robbie in on drums and bass – and Mick Taylor adding guitar – five of the eight songs clock in at longer than five minutes and feature the producer cracking out a series  of familiar lead licks. The presence of Dire Straits’ own Alan Clark on keyboards and Knopfler’s engineer of choice, Neil Dorfsman, manning the pumps, gave the record a velvety sheen and the likes of ‘Jokerman’ and ‘Sweetheart Like You’ even found favour with MTV. Five years later, Bob Dylan was a Traveling Wilbury.

 

Roddy Frame never graduated to the same league but has certainly been as restless in his own way as Dylan has been throughout his career. And this can be seen, on a most basic level, by the producers he’s chosen to work with en route who, as well as Knopfler, also include Eric Calvi, Riuchi Sakamoto, Tommy LiPuma and Langer and Winstanley.

 

I’ve stayed with him through the decades, producers, humours and hair-dos and I keep going back. Aztec Camera released six studio albums under the cover of the band name and our hero continues to record and issue under his own handle even if, in the great traditions, his audiences have certainly become more selective and its been decades since he’s troubled either the chart compilers or ticket touts.

 

Prefab Sprout fans know well how this story plays out ;- both bands have long been associated in the popular mind, often with good reason and sometimes not. In much the same way that ‘Steve McQueen’ – with its magnificent, ground-breaking Thomas Dolby production – cannoned Prefab Sprout forward out of the undergrowth and into the more considered end of the adult pop market, so too did Knopfler’s finishing help to move Aztec Camera up through the gears apace. And this was nowhere more obvious than on ‘Knife’s title cut, the album’s lengthy closer that, with its long low-key intro and steady meandering could easily have sat on ‘Love Over Gold’.

 

But there’s far more. In the same way that both acts started their careers as multi-part groups, history recalls them now as enhanced assemblies realizing one writer’s central vision and various ambitions. They’ve both enjoyed similar commercial trajectories too and, in spite of formidable bodies of work compiled over decades, are best known in the wider markets for a couple of early singles – ‘Somewhere In My Heart’ and ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’ – that are largely unrepresentative and that kick against almost all of their other, more involved material.

 

 

Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout have both long been left behind by what was once a music industry, well and truly deemed commercially unattractive and irrelevant in the newer scheme of things. And yet, like the most stubborn husband, both Roddy and Paddy are still resolutely clinging to their own first instincts – maybe all, ultimately, that they know ? – and continue to knock out the wonder and hey, who knows, maybe preparing the ground for the next coming ?

 

In the meantime, much of Roddy’s recent work remains in the sidings, left pretty much to its own devices, where it plays to those long converted. And in there somewhere are some of his finest songs, at least three from ‘Frestonia’, his 1995 album and the last released on a major label, four or five from his 1998 elpee, ‘The North Star’ issued on Andy MacDonald’s Independiente label and another handful from his last long-player, 2014’s ‘Seven Dials’ which, had it sold to the same extent that it was critically received, might have burned for longer and more intensively than it did.

 

‘Seven Dials’, like the two albums, ‘Western Skies’ and ‘Surf’ that preceded it, can be difficult enough to locate too. Unlike the records he issued under the band name, there’s an illusiveness to Roddy’s fully-fledged solo output that only adds to the lustre of the work. Indeed I’d been looking for a while for a couple of those more recent records when I picked up five of the first six Aztec Camera elpees, sold as a cluster, for the price of a packet of twenty cigarettes, instead. It must be the fifth time I’ve bought ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ – in various guises – at this stage. Where do the years go ? Probably to the same place as most of my favourite records.

 

Perhaps the stars had just stage-managed themselves into order for a reason ? On the week of the sixteenth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer – whose face fell from a wall on the early Aztec Camera single, ‘Walk Out To Winter’ and whose considerable influence is audible at regular intervals throughout Roddy’s work – it was just an unseen hand at work again ?

 

The Hi-B bar on the corner of Winthrop Street and Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork can be regarded variously as a quaint local speakeasy known for some of the best spontaneous floor shows in the country or as a holding area for some of the most shameless spoons in Cork. And very often it’s just a mix of both. When I drank there during the 80s and 90s, the sitting-room sized boozer, with its leather-seats salvaged from a vintage Volkswagen, was a genuine one-off. Like The Late Late Show at its peak, anything could happen – and often did – and you were never quite sure who was going to appear next. There was no autocue either and some of the patrons would regularly go off-script and break into song or belt out a verse of a poem from the floor.

 

To the bar’s credit, I can never remember the old television there ever actually being on, although some of the regulars assure me that, during Ireland’s penalty shoot-out at Italia ’90, it was briefly flickered into life. What I do know is that the unsuspecting post-grad who reached up from the car-seats one night and tried to switch it on to watch the final episode of Twin Peaks, was unceremoniously fucked from a height by Brian, the cranky owner, and presumably banned from The Hi-B for life?

 

Television and football would have been much too crude for a man of such sophisticated tastes as Brian, whose love of opera and light classical was matched only by his rudeness and the disdain he held for some of his more unsuspecting customers, hapless students usually. Indeed I was there one evening as he made his way out from behind the bar to perform an erratic version of ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’ for the handful of hardy locals before curling up on one of the leather seats and falling into a deep sleep.

 

The English Literature Society crowd were made to feel far more at home in The Hi-B and we were there one night when a poetry reading broke out around us. The material, like the poets themselves, was well-meaning but ultimately grim, brutal stuff, the sort of half-baked, badly-derivative word saladry you’d expect from locals playing to each other. It was after we asked to quieten down for the second time that we taught the better of it and made off.

 

As was practice, we took the short hop over to The Long Valley instead where, for the umpteenth time, we debated the merits of the finest poets and writers of our time. And where, long into the night, we summoned up the great works – ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’, ‘Rattlesnakes’, ‘The Queen Is Dead’, ‘The Joshua Tree’, ‘The Crossing’ and ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ – to drive our various points home.

 

It was in around the same part of Cork – upstairs at De Lacy House – where Roddy Frame played an ace solo support slot one night years later. ‘Do the Van Halen song’, someone shouted from down around the sound desk, hoping perhaps for the sweet cover of ‘Jump’ that Roddy had first included years previously on the back of the ‘All I Need Is Everything’ single. And Roddy took a moment, eye-balled the room and answered: – ‘I’m not doing ‘Hot For Teacher’ tonight.

 

And he didn’t, either.

 

THE HITCHERS

 

After the premature death of Dolores O’Riordan in London last January, many of the reflective pieces written in the immediate aftermath – the one posted here included – referenced the scarcely believable formative days of the band she led, The Cranberries, and the terrific local scene in Limerick from which they emerged during the first flushes of the 1990s. It’s a well-worn story by now and, like many other yarns from Irish history,  is prone to hi-jacking. But the band’s developmental phase – was it weeks, was it months, was it never ? – when they traded as The Cranberry Saw Us, inevitably traces back to another band, The Hitchers. And, specifically, to that group’s long-time mainstay and heartbeat, Niall Quinn.

 

In keeping with the spirit of the time, and Niall’s finely-honed indie smarts, he briefly had a foot in both camps. And it’ll be forever recorded that, for better or worse, he was the lead singer in the band that eventually became The Cranberries, before he left to lend his considerable song-writing heft to The Hitchers instead. Even in the most basic telling of that story, its easy to be side-blinded by the obvious and to cast our hero as a local unfortunate whose Lotto numbers came through just as his dog was eating his dream ticket. But that does scant justice to The Hitchers who, on their own steam, are as important players in the history of popular music in Limerick as any, and moreso than probably most.

 

Last week, off the back of a fresh chapter in the band’s long alliance with the writer, broadcaster and indie enthusiast, Steve Lamacq, they dusted themselves down and re-assembled for another short tour of some of Ireland’s better live music venues. And why not ?

 

Those who’ve ever dabbled in music, and who ever aspired to completing an original composition or mounting, even once, a live stage somewhere, will understand those visceral impulses better than most. Fundamentally, the creation of noise with a group of friends and like-minds is just great fun even if, once music manhandles you onto the merry-go-round, it can be impossible to stop the lights and get off.

 

The recent release of ‘Steve Lamacq’s Lost 90s’, a double album featuring one of The Hitchers’ signature cuts, ‘Strachan’, alongside tracks from Ride, Teenage Fanclub, Travis and the myriad of moderately left-field groups long associated with the one-time fanzine editor and BBC Radio mainstay, has nudged the band back to life, however briefly, and notwithstanding how match fit they might actually be. I doff my hat to them either way.

 

I first encountered the band on a Saturday afternoon in 1989, on-stage in the musty theatre of an old school on one of Limerick city’s main drags. They were half way up a forgettable bill at one of the heats of a nationwide school band competition run by the Cork promoter and musician, Denis Desmond – not to be confused with etc – and to whom, in a moment of extreme weakness, I’d offered to help out with the assessments and judging.

 

Denis shares a handle, perhaps unfortunately and maybe ultimately not, with the now global showrunner who’s basically owned live music in Ireland for the guts of thirty years now and from whom, name apart, he couldn’t be further removed. And so while one of them was in the court of Michael Lowry and planning the first Trip To Tipp – the live Féile event that ran for a number of years in Semple Stadium and that, one could realistically argue, elevated him into the ranks of serious competition – the other was manfully working the school circuit as part of a perennial search for emerging talent.

 

And who, with a dedicated band of helpers – the unflappable live soundmen, Tony Healy and Mick Finnegan, and my late friend, Philip Kennedy, among them – spent his days organizing get-in times for moderately creative and often mannerless school-goers. Most of whom were struggling with basic scale-work and a handful of whom grasped the concept of tuning.

 

The Hitchers were imperious in such company, clearly playing way beyond their own age group ;– barely out of the nursery and already on the fringes of a minor panel, ear-marked from early as likely inter-county material. And as can often be the case with the prodigious ones, they were cocky enough with it too even if, for the most part, their savvy pop-songs were in line with the breadth of their self-confidence.

 

That first iteration was a five-piece one led, from the front, by a long-haired singer, Eoin O’Kelly, who’d often take the stage in bare-feet and who, on a clear day, looked like Neil, the drippy hippy played by Nigel Planer in the 1980s Channel 4 sit-com, The Young Ones. And powered from behind the traps by Niall himself who, from my reading of it, clearly determined the whole operation, even if the writing credits, at that stage, were shared around the band. Whose number was completed by guitarists Andy and Benny – more Bonehead and Noel than Gorham and Robertson – and the fancifully-fringed bassist, Hoss Carney, who gave their sharp, slightly left-leaning pop songs real clout.

 

Compounding their instinctive pop savvy with the back-bar wit of Half Man, Half Biscuit and any one of a number of indie-skewing regulars, its safe to say that, even as callow teenagers, The Hitchers made a terrific racket.

 

And Limerick was the place for it, too. Ten odd years previously, a young Dublin band called The Hype were well down the road to transition when, on March 18th, 1978, they claimed the laurels at ‘Pop 78’, a now legendary talent contest sponsored by Harp Lager and The Evening Press and run at Limerick’s Stella Ballroom as part of that year’s Civic Week. Arriving in what many believe to have been bass-player Adam’s father’s swish motor as boys, The Hype departed back the road to Dublin as men. Or, as some of you may know them now, U2.

 

The Hitchers would have been as aware of that story as they would have been of the terminal lack of cool that accompanied competitions for bands and talent shows generally. But a decade removed, they were part of an emerging generation that was much more self-sufficient and far less dependent on the more traditional mechanics of the industry. Alongside the likes of A Touch of Oliver, Those Stilted Boys and They Do It With Mirrors, they were part of a fledgling set that evolved, to a considerable degree, around Pearse Gilmore’s studio and rehearsal facility at Xeric, out towards the railway station end of Limerick city. They saw that school band competition as an opportunity to win free recording time, appear on television and get a single out on the cheap, and as no more than that.

 

 

Beyond the puns, the word-plays and the on-stage tomfoolery was a hard edge, a strong grasp of the basics and a real sense of what they might achieve, and it was just folly to under-estimate them. ‘Alice Is Here’ [which appeared on a Xeric compilation album, ‘The Reindeer Age’], ‘Blame It On His Hormones’, ‘[There’s A Bomb In That Basket Of] Fruit’ and ‘Which Leg Of A Chicken Is More Tender’ might not have unduly troubled long-time Prefab Sprout or Steely Dan collectors but, beyond the titles were fine, abrasive pop songs that suggested genuine potential.

 

From my reserved seat in that empty school theatre – a metaphor for much of my own life – I knew I’d seen the victors. The Hitchers were a formidable outfit and I saw nothing else in that competition, the heats of which went on for an eternity, that laid a glove on them. And so it was no surprise when, the following Easter, at the conclusion of the Coca Cola-sponsored final, held in Connolly Hall in Cork, they took the spoils back down the N20.

 

And I don’t think it did the band any harm, either, even if it eventually took them five or six years to realistically find their feet. That scene from which they took root was clearly a pretty exceptional one and I stand over my long-held view that not only were the nascent Cranberries not the best young band in Ireland, they were far from the best young band in Limerick too. Its just that they found their way quicker and enjoyed more good fortune than some of the others. And of course Dolores gave them the luster, and the story, that cut them apart from the pack.

 

The world had changed irrevocably by the time that The Hitchers released their debut album, ‘Its All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses An Eye’ on their own Murgatroid label in 1997. The Cranberries had bolted from the pack, were now an established international juggernaut and, already three albums into a career on a major label, had lapped the domestic competition long-since. And although a couple of their peers, A Touch Of Oliver and They Do It With Mirrors also sparkled briefly on the fringes and, for a while, kept the runaway leaders in their sights, The Hitchers had pulled up at the back of the field to re-fuel.

 

Eoin O’Kelly had moved to Cork to study philosophy and I’d meet him from time to time around the middle of town, where he’d up-date me on the band’s adventures. Or not, as the case often seemed to be. And then he was gone, a victim of the vagaries of real life – education, travel, personal ambition – and with Benny also gone overboard, the remainers took to the gym.

 

Andy and Niall took on vocal duties between them and ‘It’s All Fun And Games’, when it eventually saw the light of day, was very obviously buffed up and bulked out, even if the band’s core values were still intact. Crisp and wry, it dripped with spirit and smart writing that pulled variously from The Undertones, Buzzcocks and later period Sultans. And, unusually for an Irish release during this period, was singularly devoid of earnestness.

 

 

A lot of water had passed beneath Sarsfield Bridge in the years since The Hitchers and myself first got it on. But the release of that fine album, buttressed by the likes of ‘Killed It With My Bare Hands’ and ‘Strachan’ – ‘and then the greatest midfield artist of them all walked out onto the park’ – enabled us to re-engage the scrum, and I was only too glad to return to Limerick with a small RTÉ crew to capture the steady pace of the pilgrims’ journey.

 

I’d been busy enough myself, too. In the years since, I’d graduated from the edges of the late-night Network 2 television schedules via ‘No Disco’ to the fringes of the childrens and youths schedule, for which the late Kevin Linehan asked me to devise a music series for kids and teenagers. ‘Popscene’, presented by Suzanne Duffy, Pearse Lehane and Roisin Saxe, is rarely mentioned in the long and often bizarre history of RTÉ music television output – understandably so on one level, given its target audience was 8 to 15 year-olds – but its easily one of the best and most invigorating strands I’ve been across in the twenty-five years I’ve now spent at the national broadcaster. By anyone’s measure, we did good work on that show.

 

And so, buried somewhere in the archives, is a five minute report from Pearse, shot by my long-time wingman, Aidan McGuinness, about The Hitchers and their debut album, that was first broadcast on February 6th, 1998. Of course I needed no nudging to go back to Limerick either, and remember well a terrific day we spent with Niall in a couple of locations relevant to him. The studios at Xeric and the battered old stand at the decrepit ground at Rathbane, then the home to his local football team, Limerick FC – who were challenging for promotion from The League Of Ireland’s First Division – among them.

 

 

And after which we repaired to Xeric to record multiple takes of ‘You Can Only Love Someone So Much [But You Can Hate Them All The Way To Hell]’ – the one where the title of the song contains all of the lyrics in it – which bed-rocked the Popscene report and was subsequently completed as a stand-alone video for the band.

 

I haven’t seen Niall or any of the original band members since we went on that walkabout in Limerick twenty years ago, although the internet allows us to loosely track each other’s movements and, if not physically stay in touch, at least enables us to graph how well our children are performing at their sports or to see what we all got up to during the last mid-term break.

 

And it’s forever re-assuring to know that, like a host of others from way back, they’re all still out there, hale and healthy enough to stay at it whenever the mood takes them, and that Niall is still belting the biscuit tins like a demented caveman might hollow out a carcass. And that, when you re-open The Hitchers’ case-book and dust down the music, it still resonates enough to keep you down the rabbit hole for days.

 

I’ll forever be of the view too that, for whatever reason, they never fully enjoyed the credit they deserved or that their music warranted. Even if all of us are of an age now when absolutely none of that matters anymore.

 

Old soldiers, that’s what we are.

MÍCHEÁL Ó SÚILLEABHÁIN, 1950 – 2018

 

 

It was only right and fitting that news of Micheál Ó Súilleabháin’s death lead the early morning bulletins on national radio earlier today. Even if, by any stretch, his premature passing at the age of 67, still comes as a shock to those long captivated by his distinctive brand of sorcery. His music and his records will be familiar to many.

 

It was Josephine Nestor, for many years a fixture within and around what we know as an Irish music industry, who first pointed me in Mícheál’s direction. Knowing well my numerous peccadilloes, and especially my love of big orchestral set-pieces, she suggested we get together for a short written piece for what was then – and what will always be -The Cork Examiner, on the occasion of the release of his album, ‘Oileán/Island’, released on Virgin Records in 1989.

 

 

And I remember well the nervy walk through town, up Washington Street and into the musty music department in University College Cork, where Mícheál was then based as Head of Music. From where he was generous and polite enough to talk the arse off of a donkey for me. Which was just as well :- I loved every single complicated, stylish and often over-cooked beat of ‘Oileán’ but understood none of it. And so, holding court like a young, over-enthusiastic teacher on his first placement, he broke down the ambition behind the record and highlighted the spread of influences, legacies and histories at play within its gut into easily digestible pieces. Over the course of that hour – a masterclass, in any language – he started a connection that has endured for thirty years since.

 

Mícheál was a magnificent, free-form piano player who was comfortable in a variety of styles. And while its correct – and obvious – to point to his compounding of traditional Irish music and bareback classical, I tended to see him more as a mighty jazz artist from Clonmel, just riding various riffs, surfing onto wherever the currents took him. Like one of his own masters before him, Seán Ó Riada, Mícheál wasn’t fazed by risk and, in his mind, I suspected that labels were strictly for vineyards. If  Phil Spector built walls of sound, Mícheál dealt variously in torrents and streams, often within the same movement, a theme at the heart of the overly-earnest – but typically beautiful – documentary series, ‘A River Of Sound’ he devised and made with Philip King and Nuala O’Connor for RTÉ and BBC Northern Ireland in 1995.

 

 

Of course for years, because of the rare cut of his alchemy, the racket he made become low-hanging fruit for a generation of documentary makers, promo producers and directors in search of a theme tune. But there’s far more to his catalogue than the likes of ‘Woodbrook’, ‘Oileáin’ and ‘Oiche Nollaig’, arguably his three best-know signature pieces and those that have most connected him in the public mind. Indeed there were times when you’d look at him going to work at his keyboard, in his buttoned-up shirt and with his swept-back do and, for all the frenetic hammering and sprints through the scales, wonder how he retained his composure ? Or if, in fact, he was touching the ivory at all ?

 

And then there’s ‘Lumen’, his Eurovision interval composition from 1997 that, twelve months after Bill Whelan’s ‘Riverdance’ exploded onto a global stage, is often unfairly lost even within the bizarre local history of that song contest. Written and completed under serious time-pressure it remains, to these ears, the finest of that trio of showcase Eurovision scores from that period that also include Whelan’s 1980 suite, ‘Timedance’ and its companion piece from 1996. Even if, in simply taking on the commission, Mícheál was on a real hiding to nothing.

 

 

And yet, renewing acquaintances with the singing Benedictines of Glenstal Abbey, the full sweep of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and introducing the magnificent range of a young Brian Kennedy, he manages to do like he always did :- turn theory on its head while minting a work of rare beauty.

 

I’m not sure if Mícheál ever enjoyed the broader public recognition his gift perhaps deserved. But he certainly leaves behind him a telling and important body of work. With far more respect for the music itself than for labeling, genres and the parameters of form, he is one of those remarkable students and curators of song – some of it Irish, some of it traditional, much of it not – who saw an endless potential and limitless ambition in the most basic melody.

 

 

The kind of thinking that, in its own way, can now be heard in the work of The Gloaming – featuring one of his own former students, Iarla Ó Lionaird – among numerous other contemporary performers whose restlessness, if not necessarily licked from stones, was certainly enabled by those who first careered, head-first, through the barriers. And this was seen most recently last June at Dublin’s National Concert Hall where, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra for back-up, and in the rare company of other former pupils like his long-standing bonesman, Mel Mercier and the fiddler, Liz Doherty – Mícheál gave a display for the ages across a wide and varied set that touched on all of his favourite bases.

 

Like one of his own teachers, Seán O’Riada, who died at the age of 40, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, another of the old magicians, leaves the stage far too early. But with impeccable work done.

 

RORY’S STORIES

Unknown

 

Although like Michael D., Bertie, Miriam, Gay and Daniel he’s often referred to in Ireland by his first name only, the implied familiarity here is well out of line with the broader picture :- little of substance is really known about the guitarist and songwriter, Rory Gallagher. By a distance the biggest and most influential figure in Cork’s cultural history – and unquestionably one of Ireland’s most interesting and ground-breaking arts exports – much of his story remains, if not entirely untold, then certainly under-cooked. Even back home in the valley of dead cars and squinting widows, where everybody knows your name and, invariably, your business too.

 

What we do know is well-worn, light on scope and generally easy on the ears. Rory, like another of Cork’s more introspective and quieter exports, the Togher-reared footballer, Denis Irwin, preferred to let his craft do his bidding and, by and large, tended to keep his iron fists out of public view. And its not as if there hasn’t been a sustained effort to commemorate his many remarkable achievements and creative legacies in the popular consciousness. Its just that, with Rory’s estate curated for the most part by his brother and manager, Donal Gallagher, much of that effort tends to centre on the surface only.

 

A plaza in the centre of Cork city bears his name. He’s been immortalized with a statue in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, where he was born, and he’s even been featured on commemorative stamps and coins. All under-pinned by an enduring dedication, almost exclusively among those of a particular age, to Gallagher’s music, his considerable body of recorded work and a slew of remarkable live shows. Many of which, in Dublin, Cork and particularly in Belfast during the darkest chapters of modern Irish history throughout the 1970s, might well have served as informal inter-state events.

 

 

Radio and television producers have bravely taken their chances with him over the years too. The RTÉ archives hold plenty of Gallagher-related material, assembled over the decades, but those documentaries and features are, with the odd exception, well intentioned but soft and inconsequential affairs.

 

And there has of course been an amount of written biography and critical analysis, much of which tends to stay on the outer ring-roads, circling the circumference. Hagiography, for the most part. Easily the best of which are ‘Riding Shotgun’, co-written by Gallagher’s long-time bass-player, Gerry McAvoy, and published in 2005 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the guitarist’s premature death and the relevant passages of Dan Muise’s ‘Gallagher, Marriott, Derringer and Trower’, [2002], a music equivalent of George Kimball’s magnificent boxing book, ‘Four Kings’.

 

Of the mountain of newspaper and magazine archive on Gallagher and his music, much of it Irish, the most enduring and incisive are still, to this mind, landmark pieces by the late Bill Graham in Hot Press and by the Dublin writer and journalist, Michael Ross, in a variety of publications, but especially The Sunday Times.

 

But the primary difficulty for any documentarian or biographer is with the subject himself, who was notoriously shy and self-effacing. As Donal Gallagher told Ross for a Sunday Times feature twenty years ago :- ‘I can’t say that we [Rory and I] ever had an in-depth personal conversation’. And so little exists by way of genuine, close-quarter insight with which to compile a defined photo-fit. In the absence of first person testimony, the gaps have long been filled by rumour, innuendo and speculation.

 

I never saw Gallagher perform live but, like many others born just as his first rock band, Taste, was releasing its first album, still feel like I’ve sucked in every single note played at The City Hall in Cork, the scene of some of his most spectacular and incendiary live shows. Even if, by the time I’d been roused to the wonder of popular music, Rory was well past his creative and critical peak. There was a world of difference between 1975 – when he was arguably at his apex – and 1985, by which time he was struggling to write and was among the more traditional targets against which an emerging indie set could rail.

 

One of the great ironies here, of course, is that the shock of that new, led in the early 1980s by The Smiths and driven by Johnny Marr’s remarkable guitar lines, could ultimately be traced back to Gallagher himself who, among others, was a primary formative influence on the young buck of Irish extraction as he grew up in the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe a decade earlier. Marr acknowledged as much in Ian Thuillier’s 2010 RTÉ television documentary, ‘Ghost Blues’ even if, one suspects, he was taken far more by Gallagher’s ability as a guitarist – and more specifically his use of the instrument as a weapon – and less so by Rory’s song-writing.

 

Like seemingly everyone else in Cork, I had my own direct connection to Rory. I attended The North Monastery school on the northside of the city during the mid-1970s from where, a decade earlier, Gallagher had been removed by his mother at a point in his fledgling career when he was playing regularly with the Fontana showband. And although his name features far more overtly now in the history of that fine school, I can’t recall him or his deeds being as wildly celebrated there at that time as those of his more academic or athletic-inclined peers.

 

We know now, though, that Rory Gallagher certainly was a topic of regular discussion inside the school’s staff-room, at least among some of the younger elements of the teaching team. My third class teacher, Herman Kemp, from Kilrush in County Clare, was the young photographer, film fan and Stoke City supporter who, in 1977, snapped a series of magnificent live shots of Gallagher on-stage at the Macroom Mountain Dew Festival in West Cork, and that surfaced recently on-line. That show was also attended, the internet tells us, by a fifteen year-old Rory fan from Dublin, David Evans, better known known now as The Edge, a guitarist.

 

At a period in Cork city’s history dominated by poverty, unemployment and social and moral bankruptcy – the centre of town’s pallor was, for fifteen years, deathlike – Gallagher’s international successes and eternal cross-continent touring gave the gawkers back home a rare glimpse, on the surface at least, of something moderately exotic. His was a real jet-set story and, as such, his exploits sat up there alongside that small handful of artisans, athletes and public figures that were distinguishing us beyond the county bounds.

 

And of course if you stood on Patrick Street long enough, you might have even bumped into him. Gallagher, up until the early 1980s at least, was an accessible figure ;- at the height of his popularity and, in a distinctive take on the concept of bringing it all back home, he would regularly accompany his mother, Monica, to mass in Douglas when he wasn’t abroad on one of his endless tours of duty.

 

Indeed there was something slightly disconcerting about how mundane he was, forever dressed down in plaid shirts and rubber dollies, handsome in his absolute ordinariness. Because although his records, his playing and especially his live shows often touched the sky, Gallagher’s feet rarely left the deck. To the loyal support back home, and especially in Cork, he made like he had no notions, and stressed as much routinely. Its almost as if he was afraid of the extraordinary.

 

Years after I left The North Mon, I fetched up in another classroom, far  removed from the northside of Cork, alongside Julian Vignoles, and spent six months in and out of his company as a trainee television producer in RTÉ. I already knew Julian’s name, of course – it’s a distinctive one, hard to forget – and had seen it for years on the radio listings in The RTÉ Guide, where he was credited as a producer on some of the more interesting and lateral Radio 2FM shows. Pat Kenny’s excellent review series, ‘The Outside Track’, among them.

 

 

We had music in common from the off :- we’d both served our time and cut our teeth, albeit a decade apart, at Hot Press magazine, and had similar views on the importance of quality music programming on radio and television. Music has always been a useful ice-breaker, especially to those of us who struggle to make small-talk in general company, and many of my most enduring friendships have originated in casual, impromptu conversations about albums, singles, live shows and general trivia.

 

And although Julian’s tastes and mine were varied and rarely in-synch, we could both work up a decent head of steam quickly and, I suspect, there was a quiet respect between us from the get-go.

 

Rory Gallagher : The Man Behind The Guitar’ is Vignoles’s third book and is formally launched next week on The Collins Press imprint. Gallagher’s music has long been one of Julian’s primary passions and we’ve discussed and de-constructed Rory and his work at length in the years since we were first thrown together on the grounds of RTÉ back in 1994.

 

And now, eventually, he’s managed to stand up much of what was once just ad hoc theory, in print, even if the trip to completion has been a long and, I suspect, often arduous one. He’ll get little by way of thanks for it either, of course, but to those of us who appreciate such piddling matters as historical accuracy, archiving and balanced critical analysis, he’s done the history of popular Irish music no little service.

 

He doesn’t hang around either and, typically, Vignoles is quickly down to business. In the introductory chapter, the singer-songwriter Christy Moore is quoted as follows :- ‘He [Rory] was a beautiful man who, I think, died real lonely’. And in those eleven words, Moore sets out the book’s primary ambitions. ‘The Man Behind The Guitar’ does what it says in the title ;- it’s a forensic trawl into Gallagher’s modus in an effort to define a fully-formed portrait of a complicated, difficult and still largely unknown artist.

 

In so doing, Vignoles uncovers an overly-anxious, perennially fearful, sleep deprived, bizarrely superstitious, religiously devout and subsequently alcohol dependent and ultimately lonely writer with a long-standing stubborn streak who, in respect of his music, could be obsessive, impulsive and spontaneous. And in so doing, he shines considerable light onto one of the primary contradictions at the heart of Gallagher’s story :- the manner in which he consistently kicked against one stereotype – that of the hell raising, boisterous rock star – while conforming to another, that of the musician who only really comes alive with a guitar in his hand.

 

‘The Man Behind The Guitar’ has already drawn predictable, and indeed understandable fire from Donal Gallagher. Neither he nor Tom O’Driscoll, Rory’s long-time roadie, or indeed Gerry McAvoy, contributed to the book even if, given the broad breadth of third-party archive material unearthed by the author, their voices are still prominent throughout, albeit from a distance.

 

Over which Vignoles spoons a fine, full-bodied critical over-view of the writer and performer that doesn’t hold back or pull its punches. Because whereas Gallagher was undoubtedly a gifted player and stage performer, he was never the most instinctive, creative or prodigious writer. And while his career can be parceled into three or four distinctive lyrical phases – for which, Vignoles and his critical right-hand, Dave McHugh, rightly assert he is never properly credited – he struggled manfully, or perhaps just blithely refused, to ever really move on musically.

 

[Its probably worth noting too that, in relative terms, Gallagher was never a huge seller :- ‘Live in Europe’, his 1972 elpee, was his only ever Top Ten success in Britain].

 

And which is why one of the more recurring critical conclusions in respect of much of Gallagher’s output after his ‘Top Priority’ album [1978] – rightly or wrongly – is that his songs just eventually became vessels for his next long, and often far too-predictable solo.

 

Given the sensitivity with which Vignoles deals with much of the more speculative aspects of Gallagher’s personal life – he was alcohol dependent for much of his later life, may have been [undiagnosed] on the autism spectrum, certainly suffered from depression from as far back as his teens and endured a long-running series of medical ailments – you feel that Gallagher’s younger brother missed a real opportunity here to contribute to what is a vivid, insightful and important profile.

 

There’s plenty in ‘The Man Behind The Guitar’ too that’s strictly anorak and technical enough for the musos, even if Gallagher’s influence as a player on the generations that came directly after him – The Edge, Johnny Marr, Slash, Noel Gallagher – isn’t developed. Nor does the author fully attempt to place Rory in the creative pantheon, even in Irish terms :- its just assumed, from the off, that he was, ergo he is.

 

But these are moot points. The author suppresses his fan’s instincts from the get-go and, as is invariably the case in documentary and biography, the most difficult passages are the most riveting. Describing the last decade of Rory’s life after the protracted release of his ‘Defender’ elpee in 1987 – which finally saw the light of day in the shadow of the global emergence of U2, who unveiled ‘The Joshua Tree’ in the same year – Vignoles, on an uncharacteristic bitterness that had started to emerge in some of Gallagher’s interviews, is at his most pointed and perceptive.

 

‘When the touring is less frequent, when the adulation is less apparent, when your fingers may no longer have the dexterity they had, what do you do if you’re not taken up with family or investments or golf ? How does the sensitive human being ‘come down’ from fame ? With difficulty, perhaps, is the answer’.

 

‘Rory Gallagher : The Man Behind The Guitar’ by Julian Vignoles is published by The Collins Press and is on sale now.