MICRODISNEY AND THE VILLAGE OF CORK

 

It sounds far better now than it may have been on the night in question but the first live band I ever saw was Microdisney. I was fourteen years old and, six months before The Smiths released ‘Hand In Glove’ and turned the world upside down, it’s not as if I either deliberately sought them out or if, indeed, I knew a single thing about them. But I watched on anyway as they thanklessly worked their way through a lo-fi, mild-mannered set, to mostly deaf ears, just the pair of them – Cathal Coughlan and Seán O’Hagan – not fifty feet away from me, lost on the vast, ornate stage at Cork’s City Hall that extended as deep as it did wide.

 

I’d previously seen the name – and it’s a terrific name – on some of the many posters plastered on the stud walls inside The Queen’s Old Castle arcade, close to where Microdisney rehearsed in a small room over-looking Daunt Square, at the top of Patrick Street. And they’d feature sometimes in the odd piece in The Evening Echo, one of the local newspapers that chronicled their various mis-adventures. But beyond that I hadn’t an iota and sure, why would I have had ? Not many else did.

 

 

I’d actually fetched up on Anglesea Street on October 7th, 1982, to see Depeche Mode, the London-based, Bowie-trousered dandies who were pushing their second album, ‘A Broken Frame’, and who were in town, I suspect, through the offices of the promoter and businessman Pat Egan, another sharply-dressed blow-in who seemed to be behind every single event of note in Cork at the time. I’d been ferried in from Blackpool by my father, who was based in The City Hall for fifty years and who, with a nod to one of the venue’s regular security staff, sneaked me into the belly of the beast using one of the lesser-travelled routes, through a warren of long, cold corridors that smelt of detergent.

 

‘A Broken Frame’ had landed weeks previously and the departure of the band’s primary songwriter, Vince Clarke, didn’t seem to have altered the cut of Depeche Mode’s jib much. In fact if anything, it was a far more cohesive and full-bodied collection of songs than that assembled on their debut, ‘Speak And Spell’ and, with Martin Gore now running the  show, also hinted at some of the darker order that would later come to characterise the band. But here, in decent nick on the back of their strongest singles yet, ‘See You’ and ‘The Meaning Of Love’, Depeche Mode were an outwardly teen-focused pop band and a genuine star turn. And as such, they drew a healthy and diverse crowd to The City Hall, much of it male, many of them replete in cardigans, slip-on shoes, elaborate mullets and skinny ties.

 

I recognised some of them from around our school, lads you’d usually cross the road to avoid and for whom Smash Hits and gate-fold sleeves tended to be mostly off-limits. But the raw lustre of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘New Life’, which were among the popular floor-fillers at the ribald teen disco of choice near-by at Saint Francis’ Hall, was just  impossible to resist. Pop music at its most lethal has always been a great leveller and, strange as it might sound now, but Depeche Mode, like David Bowie and Queen during that same period and, later, even The Smiths, attracted a decent share of local toughs and hard feens, seduced like the rest of us by the pull of a decent tune, a good time and the prospect of – remote enough in most cases – gamey female company.

 

And in such a setting, Microdisney struggled to make the weight. They were baited throughout their set and found few favours from an unforgiving and impatient home crowd, eventually leaving the stage to general indifference, polite applause and sent on their way with the odd profanity. Needless to say, I thought they were magic.

 

It mightn’t have been entirely obvious at the time but Microdisney had much in common with Depeche Mode, even if they often made like the very antithesis of what the London group, and it’s growing support base, represented. And that’s because, notwithstanding their tinny drum machine, loops and wires, chintzy synths and smart shapes, they were forever difficult to pin down, seemingly always at odds with themselves. A band pulling from a wide breadth of reference, much of it classic old-school, dealing in fragile pop songs over which Cathal, every time he opened his mouth, cast a long, loud and foreboding shadow. And that, basically, is the story of the band’s entire career :- the eternal collision between the immovable object and the irrestible force.

 

But by late 1982, Microdisney were making decent headway. Pared back to a core of just Cathal and Seán, they were unrecognisable from the often incoherent post-punk outfit with notions that had featured two years previously on ‘Kaught At The Kampus’, a mini-album recorded live at the U.C.C. Downtown Kampus in Cork’s Arcadia Ballroom that also included cuts from three other young local acts, Nun Attax, Mean Features and Urban Blitz, and that saw the light on Elvera Butler’s fledgling imprint, Reekus Records.

 

Well read, whip-smart and with a field of influence that extended from Steely Dan to Nick Drake and Van Dyke Parks, the gut of their sound was based around Seán’s soft, often acoustic guitar, Cathal’s full- force and consistently under-appreciated tenor and his light hands around the keyboard. Like Depeche Mode, Microdisney too were plugging a record, albeit on a different scale. Their debut single, ‘Hello Rascals’, backed by ‘Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost’, had recently been issued on the emerging London-based, Irish-focused independent label, Kabuki Records, recorded the previous summer ‘in a draughty, converted gym in South Dublin’.

 

 

Thirty-five years, four fine studio albums and a series of re-issues and  compilations later, Microdisney are, I think, still to be properly critically evaluated in either a local Cork context or a broader national one ;- they’ve long been among the least most important footnotes in contemporary Irish music history. Not, you’d think, that they’d ever be pushed either way but, decades since Cathal, from Glounthaune, and Seán, born in Luton but returned with his family, met at a New Year’s Eve party in Cork, all that really exists is a well-intentioned, fan-centred outline. But then Microdisney have never, either, enjoyed the broader appeal and wider regard bestowed on some of those who went before  them and plenty of patently lesser acts who followed. Little wonder then that, after they took the Innisfallen ferry out of the harbour for good in the summer of 1983, they rarely returned to ‘the village of Cork’, as Cathal was fond of referring, at that time, to his hometown.

 

Beyond Microdisney’s excellent airplay-friendly 1987 single, ‘Town To Town’, which briefly exposed them to a mainstream radio audience, much of what’s known of them is based to a considerable extent on the numerous interviews, feature pieces and liner notes they did over the years and also, of course, on Cathal’s lyrics. Mournful, autobiographical, outwardly political, funny, usually self-deprecating and, for a number of years, chemically-enhanced, he liked to sneak an arsenic drop into the compound too, routinely lending Microdisney’s aspect a jagged and absurdist edge.

 

 

And so this, after all, is the band who, on it’s debut album, ‘Everybody Is Fantastic’, announced themselves with the lines : ‘My mind, might take hours to change back to normal’ while the opening track on it’s excellent follow-up, ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’ draws the memorable conclusion ;- ‘my wife is a horse’.

 

But if nothing else, Cathal and Seán can forever take credit for how they so quickly and effectively evolved Microdisneys’s sound, either by design or otherwise. Less than two years after that tentative City Hall support, they’d released a fine, if arguably under-nourished debut album for the Rough Trade label and were already road-testing two of their finest ever songs, the imperious ‘Are You Happy ?’, which fetched up on their second album and the imposing ‘Loftholdingswood’, which eventually buttressed the excellent three-track ‘In The World’ e.p., released in 1985.

 

Having re-located into the bleak squatlands around South East London, and with little by way of financial support from their record company, Microdisney again found themselves in their natural habitat :- the outside. The extent of the drudgery and drug-addled penury they endured during their first years in London has been long documented, and no more tellingly so than on ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’, Microdisney’s stand-out album and a record born out of – and committed to tape against the backdrop of – their dreary, day-to-day sundering.

 

And yet within the depths of that world weariness, the usual smattering of light and shade too, where the personal and political chaos of the words is often set, mostly effortlessly, against breezy and easy soundtracks, to which both Seán and Cathal – trading, for the duration, as Blah Blah – contribute handsomely. It was the Dublin writer and journalist, David Cavanagh who, on the excellent sleeve notes that accompanied the 1996 re-issue of the album – and not for the first time succinctly captured them better than almost anyone when he wrote :- ‘Microdisney music was pop music. It didn’t make them pop stars’.

 

Gerry Smyth and Sean Campbell, in their 2005 book, ‘Beautiful Day :  Forty Years of Irish Rock’ go deeper again. In specific relation to the circumstances around which ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’ was recorded, they write :- ‘this period of experimentation had a transformative effect on the band, giving them a heightened perspective on mid-1980s London, with its burgeoning materialism and increasingly right-wing politics’. And no better boys to mine that seam either.

 

The two major label releases for Virgin Records, 1987’s ‘Crooked Mile’ and ’39 Minutes’, which was released the following year, saw the band’s sound bulked up and Cathal’s colloquial drawl watered down to the point where, in the pursuit of chart positions and radio rotation, the tension between the sweet and the carnage that had long determined Microdisney was nowhere near as obvious. And while it’s a chronic over-simplification in many respects, the extent of that fork in the road is best seen in the tone and form of what Cathal and Seán went on to do next and with whom.

 

Coughlan formed the muscular, foaming Fatima Mansions who, on stage and on record were a positively lethal deal while O’Hagan fetched up with the avant-indie outfit, Stereolab, before unfurling a long career as leader of the sun-blushed, semi-horizontal High Llamas, who owed to and borrowed liberally from Brian Wilson, among others.

 

It’s worth making the point that The Fatima Mansions enjoyed far more support and generated far more attention in Ireland – and in Cork, particularly – than anything that Microdisney had managed previously. Whether that was because the band’s sound – which, although always outwardly aggressive, oscillated from the loud and furious to the serene and calm, often within the same verse – was more in keeping with the prevailing mood of much of the underground of the day or whether it was, purely, because the band was far more visible in Ireland throughout it’s existence, is up for debate. As is often the case with this sort of basic revisionism, the actual answer may well lie in the half-way ; Microdisney were indeed a band out of time and a band out of town.

 

A couple of summers ago, Theo Dorgan, the Cork poet, writer and long-time Na Piarsaigh clubman was asked, in the course of an Irish Examiner hurling preview, if he ever missed living in Cork. ‘I don’t’, he replied, ‘because I never left. I just live somewhere else’.

 

And for several years I was of those who routinely annoyed Cathal Coughlan by putting the same question to him. But while he rarely articulated any degree of over-sentimentality for his hometown – and is far removed from that most risible of species, the professional Corkman in exile – I long suspected he was way more wired into the gut of the city and beyond, its people and prose, its songs and its ways – many of which are unspeakably bad, as many again unspeakably mad – than he’s ever given credit for. In particular, I detected a keen ear for the O’Riada/Muskerry singing tradition which, although never apparent in Microdisney’s output, may certainly have helped shape the band’s spirit and define its humours.

 

A point which, as with much of the band’s story, may one day become apparent to even the villagers.

 

 

FÓGRA :- Sean O’Hagan will shortly play a handful of solo acoustic dates in Ireland. He plays in Bennigan’s Bar in Derry on June 29th next [where support is provided by Paul ‘PJ’ McCartney of The Deadly Engines/Bam Bam And The Calling] and in Fealty’s Back Bar in Bangor the following night. Sean plays in The Grand Social in Dublin on Saturday, July 1st [with support by an acoustic Sack] and then takes to the  lush surrounds of The Cork Cricket Club on The Mardyke on Sunday, July 2nd. Consider this your summer treat.

 

THE HARVEST MINISTERS TAKE DUNDALK

It’s over twenty-five years ago now since, one Saturday evening, Ken Sweeney set his mother’s runaround for Dundalk and sped the pair of us up the road, out of Glasnevin and onwards to Mister Ridley’s. The two of us were softly obsessive about one of our many favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, a Dublin outfit who’d been making decent headway for a while, earnestly kicking against every single convention of the time, often maybe over-earnestly so. With their boy-girl twin lead vocals and deft lyrical flourishes, they’d been ludicrously compared to Prefab Sprout on a shoestring. But burrow in behind their fragile frontage and William Merriman’s dark introspection owed far more to Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ than Paddy McAloon’s ‘If You Don’t Love Me’.

 

Five years after they formed in the initial afterglow of post-‘Joshua Tree’ optimism, and representing the absolute antithesis of all that that record stood for, they were making a rare foray out of Dublin and Ken and myself were anxious to see how they got on. Or, indeed, if they’d complete the course at all. On paper, the prospect of The Harvest Ministers taking on a nightclub crowd in Dundalk looked like a real mis- match and Ken had the runaround primed, immediately outside the venue, for a quick getaway. Just in case.

 

I knew little of the scene in that part of the world. Anything I did was informed by the ribald, souped-up yarns imparted by the late George Byrne and, in print, by the delicate hands of Tony Clayton-Lea in Hot Press, who handled much of the constituency work in the North-East and who got through a fair amount of mileage on his beat. There was also the storied battle-front experience of Cypress, Mine !, the paisleyed Cork undergrounders who, one Saturday afternoon, may or may not have been hastened out of County Louth during an eventful double-bill in Drogheda Boxing Club, possibly by local youths bionic on apples.

 

Ken and myself were briefly back in Ireland from London, where we were both based at the time. He was one of the small number of fledgling artists on our books at Setanta Records and had, months previously, rescued me from a squat in Peckham and taken me in under his own roof, far across town in West London. I was stick-thin at the time and, lost in the music and in the giddy rush of an emerging story – I was working closely with The Frank And Walters – hadn’t been minding myself. In spite of all the shimmer, I just wasn’t having a good time ;- I didn’t like London because I wasn’t clued in enough or sussed enough for it and so I fairly welcomed the prospect of a few days of respite.

 

We set up base in Ken’s family home for the duration :- Mrs. Sweeney was a terrific and gracious host who afforded me a mighty welcome and, unusually for that time, regular, healthy meals. And although I’m not sure if she completely appreciated the ambition in her son’s work, it wasn’t as if she let on. I was helping him to promote his first album, the excellent eight-song ‘Understand’, which he’d released on the Setanta label under the band name, Brian, and had set up a range of interviews and live appearances for him around the country. ‘Understand’ was clearly a compelling piece of work but, as with much of the Setanta output at the time, I wasn’t convinced we had enough access to the pipes and wires down which we could distribute the message as widely as it deserved.

 

And so, hastily around the country, kitted out in our long-sleeved Setanta sweatshirts, we proselytised for the week, the highlight of which, I think, was Ken’s live acoustic performance on the RTÉ television series, ‘Nighthawks’. But the purpose of our trip wasn’t just to promote the Brian album ;- we were blazing a trail for Keith Cullen’s asset-rich but still emerging imprint which, at the time, also boasted the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Divine Comedy and A House on it’s roster.

 

And it was to this end that, hours before The Ministers took the stage in Mister Ridley’s, we’d fetched up at the local radio studios of LMFM, where Ken did a short piece with the aforementioned Tony Clayton-Lea, who at the time also presented a weekly show there. We did likewise in RTÉ Cork Local Radio and at other selected stop-offs around Ireland ;- I had a cluster of Setanta samplers in my ruck-sack which we’d leave behind us as we left ;- the definitive calling cards, we thought.

 

Mister Ridley’s was – and remains, by all accounts – a popular nightclub in Dundalk, a serious provincial discotheque with notions, even if the shape and scale of the place has changed enormously in the years since. God knows how The Harvest Ministers, with their brittle, barely-pulsing songs ever ended up playing there, but then the band’s long history is pock-marked routinely with this sort of thing. An eternal search for God Knows How.

 

They’ve been on the go now for over thirty years and yet you’ll struggle to locate them in any of the annals that document contemporary music in Dublin from 1985 onwards. I first saw them at one of the heats at the Carling/Hot Press Band of The Year competition in Sir Henry’s in Cork during the late 1980s where, then as now, they stood out because they didn’t stand out at all ;- they were reluctant, callow, soft and hardly there. In a broader salad of paisley, black denim and long, swept-back hair, they were hunched and cut apart in their charity-shop jackets and dead men’s shoes. They were far from perfect and, in one way, still are – which is why, I think, I took to them so quickly and so intently.

 

Will Merriman first patched his group together during a period when U2 had just gone global and when a single, anthemic chorus got you to first base and a positive Hot Press notice without ever breaking sweat. He’s seen many summers – and indeed many drummers too – in the decades since and The Harvest Ministers’ family tree certainly extends far, deep and wide. But on that night in Mister Ridley’s, Will – the band’s leader, songwriter and constant, led what is easily the band’s best-known and most cohesive line-up, supported by the long-serving Padraig McCaul on guitar, piano and sax, the tearaway Pat Dillon on drums, Gerardette Bailey on sweet, sweet backing vocals, Brian Foley, then previously of The Blades on bass and Aingeala De Burca on violin. And it was this line- up that featured on the band’s first album, ‘Little Dark Mansion’, which was released later that year on the Bristol-based Sarah Records label.

 

You’d never, were you so pushed, expect The Harvest Ministers to get a disco crowd going, post-midnight, but that’s what was expected of them in Mister Ridley’s. And, at the time, there was nothing unusual about that :- given that many venues, especially those outside of Dublin, were located in nightclubs, many excellent live bands were routinely booked to bridge an hour or so over the course of what were long nights and, by so doing, up the intensity – and the take – at the bars. Indeed the one-time Ultravox singer, Midge Ure, once just refused to take the stage at The Bridge Hotel in Waterford when he was told he was going on-stage in the venue’s faux-Roman classical finished dance-hall as a support act to a disco.

 

And so, when The Harvest Ministers ambled onto a small space in the corner of the main floor at Mister Ridley’s, caught in the flickered glitter shapes cast by the numerous disco balls mounted overhead, they looked, as they’ve often tended to, like Nemo and his friends set free from the tank. Opening with a spartan, skewed new number called ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’ can’t have endeared them to the revellers, many of them already well flutered. And, for a while, patronising as you like, Ken and myself worried if The Ministers would make it through.

But they were quickly into their groove and went on to play a protracted and often wild set that featured several of what have long been staples :- ‘Forfeit Trials’, ‘Theresa’, ‘Silent House’ and ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’ among them. And, maybe with a calculated nod to their surroundings – or maybe not ? – the jerky ‘Oliver Cromwell’, with its convulsive sax and frantic snare over which Will repeatedly sings the big money-line – ‘Oliver Cromwell … is a pansy’. And as I recalled in a review in Melody Maker magazine subsequently, ‘by the end of the night there are couples waltzing around at the front and not an evil word is spoken’.

 

I’m consistently drawn back to that night in Dundalk for many reasons, not least of all because, not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I saw exactly how music, in this instance neither obvious, direct or immediate, can often forge a direct emotional contact even in the most unlikely of settings. Where, kicking against all reasonable theory or argument, The Harvest Ministers absolutely aced it. Of all of the live shows I’ve seen – and I’ve seen far too many at this stage – it is easily one of the more memorable and certainly on any list of favourites.

 

And that’s maybe why, I think, The Harvest Ministers continue to be such an unremarkable and yet at the same time wholly remarkable force. Because notwithstanding their exceptional back catalogue, and the scope inherent in what Will is still trying to do, it’s just impossible to dislike them.

 

In a curious twist of fate, they went on to release two terrific albums for the Setanta label, ‘A Feeling Mission’, produced by Phil Thornalley in 1995 and 1997’s magnificent ‘Orbit’, which was over-seen by John Parish, a long-time side-kick of P.J. Harvey. And betimes during this period, it looked as if the band might, almost in spite of itself, achieve some manner of cross-over, especially when the sound was bolstered up on the likes of ‘If It Kills Me [And It Will]’. But that they’ve remained resolutely stuck in the hedges and caught on the margins ever since shouldn’t in any way devalue Will’s song-writing stock :- all that’s really changed in that respect is the manner in which he now records his material, and with whom.

 

Most recently he’s been buttressed by Andy Fitzpatrick, the New York- based, former Dadas frontman who’s been an ancillary member of The Ministers for years and it’s the pair of them who, ostensibly, laid down the down the core of The Harvest Ministers’ current album, ‘Back To Harbour’, which was recorded in Fitzpatrick’s apartment and released last week.

 

And, as we’ve come to expect [and long since come to take for granted], it’s another pretty special instalment that, over the course of it’s eleven tracks, plots a familiar course dominated by casual strumming, brushed drums, delicate melodies, layered strings, a soft organ wash here or there, over-laid with Will’s vocals which, to this day, are sometimes barely there at all. Especially strong over the home straight, you’d have to wonder if he’s ever written a cluster as impactful as ‘The Debutante With The Nose Ring’, ‘Through The Trap Doors Of Insanity’, ‘No Feelings For You’ and the absurdly beautiful ‘The Heron’ ? All of which, yet again, come highly recommended.

 

Several years later I returned to Mister Ridleys. Plenty of water had roared out past Dundalk Bay in the seven years since I’d last darkened it’s doors and I was now working as, of all things, a television producer. Myself and my friend, Dave Hannigan, were making a documentary for RTÉ about the retired Irish footballer, Paul McGrath, and were picking up an important aspect of the story.

 

McGrath was, and remains, a fascinating subject and, in our efforts to unravel what was a complicated and often difficult past, we’d come looking to speak with another Irish footballer, Barry Kehoe, who had also, like Paul, played in the League of Ireland before briefly trying his luck at Manchester United. Barry’s story was no less complicated :- he was a magnificent midfield player at his hometown club, Dundalk, but his career was curtailed by injury and, later, by a long battle with cancer. As a contemporary of McGrath’s at Manchester United, however briefly, he was an obvious contributor to our film. And I located him quickly and easily enough ;- he was living and working in Dundalk, managing a nightclub in the town. Mister Ridleys.

 

Myself and Dave remember the time we spent on that Paul McGrath documentary very fondly and, across the Atlantic, we’ll still trade short messages about those wonderful months, back in 1998, as we pieced together ‘They Called Him God’. And as the cast list passes away one by one – Tommy Heffernan, Charlie Walker, Graham Taylor and Barry Kehoe himself, who eventually lost that cancer battle in 2002, those memories take on added significance for us.

 

On Barry’s suggestion, we conducted the interview with him at his place of work and, while our crew began to set their equipment into place, he proudly took us on a tour around Mister Ridleys and, as he did, The Harvest Ministers, from out of nowhere, flashed through my mind. The mirror balls, the waltzing couples, ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’, Ken and the runaround.

 

‘And over there’, said Barry in a warm but typically flat Dundalk accent as he pointed to a small alcove area touching onto the dance floor, ‘that’s what we call The Erection Section’. And, for whatever reason, The Harvest Ministers disappeared back to the dim recesses of my mind, as did any thoughts I had about lunch for the cast and crew.

Brian

Via Ken Sweeney

 

MANCHESTER ARENA, MAY 22nd, 2017

I celebrate yet another birthday next week and, barring any last minute misfortune, I’ll turn forty nine years of age. I am the fiercely proud father of three young daughters and, as the clock ticks on, I’m careful, usually, in what I say to them and how far I go for them. It is they, more than likely, who’ll decide what nursing home I end up in and, just as importantly, where my collection of discs, vinyl and downloads goes when I’m no longer able to care for it.

Over the years, several people have asked, bizarrely, if myself and my wife regret not having sons or if we miss the joys of having to deal with young boys around the house. But in the unbowed spirit of Simon Carmody before me, I absolutely revel in a house of girls and I wouldn’t want it any other way, ever. Even if, as has long proven to be the case, girls wreck your head while boys wreck your house and pulverize your fridge.

They love music, all three, and this gives me no end of added hope for them and about how they might turn out. And they’re at an age – just turning 13, 11 and 8 – when they enjoy, to varying degrees, pure, unfiltered pop music for the gift it often is – a genuine treat – without prejudice or cynicism, exactly like I did myself decades ago. My own mother set the tone in our house as we grew up in the middle of Cork city in the 1970s and, while we often had little else, she fostered in us a real love of and respect for all manner of music. And wittingly or otherwise, that deference is now being handed on down the family line ;- more and more often, when it comes to putting the lights out at bed-time and switching their devices off, I’m being asked for extra time. For just one more song.

I routinely hear another familiar chorus too :- my children think their parents, and me especially, suffer an appalling lack of judgement and taste, especially in the not insignificant matter of how we sound-track our lives. There’s an odd moment here and there, of course, when, out of the blue, an old chorus or a quirky lyric will fleetingly make an impression in the back of the car and a kooky fusion happens. We had this once with ‘Black Cow’, from Steely Dan’s remarkable ‘Aja’ album, for no other reason, I suspect, than the idea of being asked to take a big black cow somewhere resonated with a six year old already spellbound by the soft conjury of ‘The Gruffalo’, ‘Tiddler’ and ‘Stick Man’. These are indeed the kind of bizarre moments that, as a parent, I’ll be re-cycling in broader company for as long as I can and that will bedrock any future wedding speeches I may make.

When it comes to their own music, they don’t always know what they like but they certainly know what they don’t and, as they get older and gobbier, the breadth of what they’re listening to has increased no end. And so whenever I remind them – it’s what we used to call ‘The Civics curriculum’ – how important Paddy McAloon or Trashcan Sinatras are [‘they sure are trash’, said one of them], they’ll counter with a strong case for Harry Styles or Olly Murs or Little Mix or even, God bless them, Hometown. And this sort of carry-on has its uses.

At a big family do down the country last weekend, Ariana Grande helped to break the ice during those first, more awkward moments whenever the kids from the city found themselves at close quarters with their cousins and their cousins’ many, many other cousins, almost all of them attached to some personal device or other but all of them sussed and mad for music and performing. Some of the usual company was marked absent, away in Dublin for the weekend with older siblings or friends to catch Ariana’s live show down in the docklands but, even at such a remove in South Tipperary, their movements were being clearly and regularly monitored in real-time.

But while my own daughters certainly wouldn’t rate Ariana as highly as they might do Louis, Niall or Harry [‘she’s interesting’, ‘she has a good range’ and so on] her name and her music helped them, last weekend, to level the field, mark the territory and keep the conversation going between townies, reformed townies, died-in-the-wool country kids and my own crew who, on any given day, aspire to being like all and indeed none of the above, well into the small hours. And that’s the power of pop music, doing what it’s long done ;- opening the floor and joining the dots. As the music writer and critic Dorian Lynskey wrote on his blog yesterday about young girls and the live concert experience, they don’t tend to just celebrate music ‘but also youth, friendship, the ineffable glee of the moment, life at it’s most unquenchable’. And, to me, that sort of thing is vital.

We’ve had far different conversations about Ariana Grande over the last day or so and my daughters have helped me to put a small bit of flesh on what I had down, wrongly, as a crudely formed, pop star stereotype. Yesterday evening, in return, I tried to explain to them, although far less successfully, why Saffie Rose Roussos was in the news and how an eight year-old little girl who’d gone to see Ariana perform live in Manchester the previous night, wouldn’t be going home. But when we struggle so badly ourselves to make head or tail of the origins and the consequences of global terrorism, what else can we contribute to the table except hard clichés and an over-coat of the obvious ?

At some point soon, I’ll honour one of my many promises to my three daughters and take them to their first real pop concert. The older two saw One Direction at Croke Park some years back but they’re clued-in enough to know there’s something far more intense waiting for them on the next level, down around the edges where its much more intimate, personal and probably cool too. Their cousins’ cousins, with their trendy gear and social media accounts consistently to hand, make sure they know all about the extent of that sorcery.

And it’s no different in principle – maybe just more sophisticated and clinically marketed, perhaps ? – than it was back in the early 1980s when my father blagged me in through a side door at the City Hall in Cork to see my own first ever live concert, a helium-filled show by a fledgling Depeche Mode. Or on that night, maybe twenty years later when, back home for Christmas, I smuggled my youngest brother into The Savoy on Patrick Street [where in 1984, I’d fetched up in an over-sized crombie for The Smiths] to see The Divine Comedy. Up the stairs over the manky carpet, in through the venue doors, warning him to stay wide and to have his story straight in the event of capture, watching him suck it all in, still practically uncorrupted, for the first time. And although others may well argue, I honestly think that these sort of experiences have stood us well. Because without that love of music, and without that love of sport, who and what are we?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended many live shows in Manchester over the years, both in the giant-sized Arena itself and in some of the city’s many excellent smaller venues that circle it. And with one of my best friends living with his own family of music-loving girls in Salford, the news that broke late on Tuesday night carried an added significance, as it will have done for the many Irish music fans who have routinely made the return trip to that terrific city over the years.

Live music, live pop music especially, is nothing when it isn’t giddy, loud and delirious. At its most endearing and important it absolutely defines the moment, any moment, regularly undistilled and often manifest in the high-octane, skittish and sometimes demented reactions at live concerts. An experience which can also, of course, be a dangerous, unwelcoming and intimidating one for young women, and not simply because of the atrocity in Manchester earlier this week.

But as my friend Anne McCoy – who I first met through attending live shows in Dublin- posted in the wake of Tuesday night’s suicide bombing, ‘all the dead and injured weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were in the right place at the right time because they came to share the magic and joy of music’.

So when, over the coming years, my own daughters take their first, urgent steps into the heart of live music, they’ll do so with my full blessing and encouragement – and no little trepidation and fear either– because, as a parent, to do otherwise, just isn’t an option. And never has been.

THE SWINGING SWINE / THE GLEE CLUB

 

Guest post by Hugh O’Carroll… 

In late 1980s Dublin, having played a bit part in The Babysnakes’ story and a bigger part in The Stormcrows’ story, I was called on by Mr. Eamonn Dowd to guest with, and then join, The Swinging Swine. They had formed in Galway and had already gone through some line-up changes but the core of the band was Eamonn on guitar, vocals and some fiddle, Joanne Loughman on vocals, Doug Steen on lead guitar and John Lalor on bass. They were using the drummer from The Stars of Heaven at the time but that was a fluid situation!

The guest appearance was on a show called ‘Borderline’ on RTÉ and it all went well, though a cameraman pulled out my jack plug, but the vibes were good and I joined for full-time fiddling.

 

Swinging Swine

The Swinging Swine. Picture courtesy of Hugh O’Carroll

 

The Swine had been playing in and around Galway for a couple of years in the same circles as The Stunning and the infant Sawdoctors and all three were garnering interest. We added Billy Geraghty to the line-up as our most permanent drummer. In Dublin we started a residency in a nightspot called The Speakeasy and this became legendary. The band thrived and started creating some really energetic folk, country, and rock music to the delight of an ever-colourful audience. Besides the highly engaging activities of the Swine onstage, there was always the possibility of a guest appearance by a Waterboy or a Hothouse Flower or other luminaries of the day.
We gigged around Ireland to pretty good audiences as well and started recording a lot with help from Larry O’Toole, Donal Lunny, James Delaney, Paul Thomas and other Dublin-based legends.

Eventually we released an EP with the lead track being ‘Them Ghosts Do Come’, which sneaked into the Irish charts for quite a few weeks and thus we got quite a bit of radio play.


RTÉ were good to us and we were constantly on TV, on shows like Nighthawks, Check It Out, Púiríní and other shows of the day along with other bands of the day, like Interference, The Dixons, The Stunning, The Golden Horde and the like, who were all good buddies of ours.


We switched our main Dublin residency to Walters in Dun Laoghaire and, if anything, this became even more exciting than The Speakeasy. We also played other big gigs, including a few Trinity Balls and a couple of Olympia gigs etc, aided by an array of management characters including Horslips legend, journalist Eamonn Carr and Robbie Foy.

We were on the verge of various different record deals and bigger gigs and tours when the years of constant gigging and partying and general rowing over wee things started to take its toll.

We’d been like a family for a few years but concentrated familiarity can breed a little friction and even though there’d been no lack of encouragement from our supporters, the band fell apart. The whole folk rock frenzy of the Swine was highly enjoyable though and certainly had some serious highs!

From the time I first joined The Swinging Swine I’d always got on really well, musically and personally, with Joanne. I gelled musically with all the Swine but particularly with Joanne. When the group broke up I joined Niall Toner’s Hank Halfhead, which was a country-rock band which had at times been home to many a famous individual! While gigging away with the boys I was writing and recording with Joanne. We were heading down a more left of field indie alley.

Kevin Boyle, a mate of mine from Hank Halfhead, was a wiz with a fancy four track and a nifty guitar and bass player. We recorded demos with Joanne on vocals, myself on guitar and fiddle and Kevin on guitar, bass and programming.

We tried some other mates in the band but the three gelled recording wise and we decided to do some recording with our old mate, Larry O’Toole, in Temple Lane studios.


We decided to call the band The Glee Club, which was a suggestion from a friend of ours inspired by the Cork band, Five Go Down To The Sea.

We mixed up the recordings and made a wee demo and sent out about 3 or 4 and got a quick response from Keith Cullen from Setanta Records, home to The Frank And Walters and The Divine Comedy, to name but two. Keith signed us up pretty quick and in a flash we were going to London for a spell.

It was agreed that we’d record a mini LP with Angelo Bruschini from The Blue Aeroplanes producing.

We went to Bristol to start and got some backing tracks together before heading down to Dave Stewart’s Church studio to do the tracking. It all came together pretty quick and the album was released in 1993 to reasonable critical acclaim. We gigged as a 3 with backing tracks and played a little around London with Radiohead, Slowdive and The Gang of Four to name a few !

We also gigged a bit in France and were getting good feedback from Europe in general.
Melody Maker then gave us a great review and we got more positive feedback from press in Ireland, U.K. and Europe.

Around this time it was decided we should fully move to London.

Kevin had a new baby and this was not practical for him so we were down to a core of two members, but we were joined by Magnus Box on bass and an auld buddy of mine from Dublin, Justin Healy, on drums. This line up played another few gigs and around this time there was interest developing from Ivo from 4AD records, home to bands we loved like The Cocteau Twins, Pixies and Dead Can Dance etc.

Ivo had spotted Joanne previously and loved the voice and was interested in working with The Glee Club but thought the mini album was a bit ‘rock’.

We recorded a pared down version of Need, with Ivo and 4AD’s opinion in mind.
The recording took place in The Drugstore, which was The Jesus And Mary Chain’s studio, with engineer Dick Meaney and both Setanta and 4AD were impressed. Plus, we were loving it too!

It was decided that we’d record some tracks in Eden Studios with Hugh Jones of Echo And The Bunnymen fame, with Dick and others engineering. This resulted in 4 new tracks which we were all thrilled with.

The end result of this period was an agreement that we’d add re-recorded versions of songs from the mini-album to the new tracks recorded with Hugh and release a full length album on Setanta in Europe and on 4AD in the U.S..

We spent most of 1993 recording the rest of the album in The Drugstore with Dick Meaney in London, where we now were living full-time. Magnus was still playing bass and a friend of his, Adrian Meehan, was playing drums as they had on the tracks with Hugh Jones.

Everyone was happy with the album when finished and it was decided that we would go to the CMJ festival in New York to push the album, which was called ‘Mine’. Mazzy Star and Mercury Rev, amongst others, played at the festival. We played three sets there ;- one at Sin É, which at the time was a buzzing venue having been home to some golden gigs by Jeff Buckley.

All in all the trip to New York was a success. We were featured on the excellent No Disco show in Ireland and reviews in the home country were glowing!

It was decided that we should move to the U.S as the reaction to the album was good as 4AD had pushed it with the radio stations and the band was now a long-term feature in the College Radio charts.

Setanta had a friend, Gina Orr, who was interested in managing the band Stateside and it was agreed that myself and Joanne would move to San Francisco to make the most of the fact that the 4AD push was exposing a lot of people to the band and we continued to do well in the College Radio and Alternative charts in the U.S..

We moved to San Fran and played some shows, just the two of us in S.F. and Los Angeles, and also went to play at South By South West, where other 4AD acts were on the bill and other people we admired such as Beck.

We were going down grand as a 2 piece but to get more into the shows we enlisted a bass player and drummer, Chris and Dave, to play along with us. Our record deals weren’t lucrative enough to have moved the English boys to The States for a year.

Gina got us a tour supporting the band LOW and off we went from coast to coast for a month. That was a great experience. We went down well and enjoyed their music too!
We went home to Ireland to do Féile, -The Trip to Tipp.

On the bill were lots of bands we liked, like Cypress Hill, Rage against The Machine and Blur, to name but a few.

Things seemed to be going really well but both 4AD and Setanta were losing interest in what was a slow build and, even though we were going back to America for another long tour, we kind of knew that they both mightn’t release another album for us.

It had been a great run for The Glee Club but when that tour finished and I realised that we were losing the support of our backers, I would have found it hard to go back to London and record another album and try to build momentum again. So I rang Joanne and we decided to stop things for a while.

The proceeding couple of years had been intense. Constant touring, recording and schmoozing is both living the dream and not so much!! Either way we went our separate ways for a brief 20 years and then, having meandered around the world and around Ireland playing all kinds of gigs, I started releasing some original material again ,singing a bit and collaborating with various people.

I got to thinking that I might collaborate again with Joanne and rang her up and
we re-gelled well over a single, ‘Platitudes’.

We decided, while doing some promotional work for the single, that we might as well do an album together, and this is how the new album ‘HIVE’ has arrived!
It’s been a long and winding tale but I’ve enjoyed recording this album as much as the earlier stuff.

The album will be released in July, 2017 and The Glee Club are about to announce a couple of gigs in Dublin, where it all started!

GEMMA HAYES

The swagger of the remarkable hurling teams up in The North Mon during our secondary school years in the early 1980s would regularly entice entire slabs of Cork’s northside on tour beyond the county bounds and out of reach of regular reason. On assorted mid-week afternoons every winter, a slew of battered old buses and coaches would fetch up at the gates and deliver the school’s travelling army to remote, rural venues all over Munster for big colleges games. And these were all bleak, barren and backwards places ;- with our crudely-formed inner-city smarts, anywhere other than Blackpool was.

Decked out in our duffle coats and hooped blue-and-white scarves, and with our cheese sandwiches packed away in our pockets, we saw the very best of emerging locals like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan, Jim Murray, Liam Coffey and the mighty Connerys of Na Piarsaigh up close in their callow bodies and pimply faces in villages and towns all over South Tipperary and beyond. Those young men were never beaten and consistently left it all out there on the killing fields in the school’s cause and, back in The Mon, we made sure to commemorate their heroics.

We had a song, ‘Amhrán na Main’ – a bit like Amhrán Na bhFiann meets The Green Fields Of France – which we’d rehearse in class before big Dr. Harty Cup games and, on those occasions when we’d reach a provincial or national final, the school would produce it’s own hurling fanzine, a badly photocopied, Pravda-inspired issue called ‘Monsoon’. In which you were told all you needed to know about the teenagers on the panel – club, height, weight, the class they were in and their own favourite hurlers – with a cursory line at the end about their off-field peccadilloes.

Frankie Walsh was one of a small number of pupils who were trusted with load-hailers and hand-picked to lead the cheering and chanting on the days of the big games. He had a wheezy smoker’s rasp and a fine beardy shadow and some of those in the school clearly thought his sharp tongue and quick wit could be channelled a bit more positively and, for a change, to the school’s benefit. And so, on the marquee occasions, he’d be given a bit more latitude than usual and enlisted as an official rabble-rouser.

But Frankie was easily bored too and would sometimes deviate off-script and into more dangerous territory [‘Tax The Farmers’ was one of his better originals] and, from his seat at the back of the bus, would slyly drop the teachers’ nicknames into some of his post- watershed material. It took a brave boy to stare down The Christian Brothers but Frankie had a hard neck and a soft head and he’d give anything a decent old shot. And on the days immediately after we’d put one over on Thurles C.B.S. or Saint Flannans of Ennis or Saint Colman’s of Fermoy, he’d strut the ramp up to school like someone returned from a fortnight in America with a buffalo’s head in his holdall.

It was hurling that first took us to Emly, New Inn, Cahir, Clogheen and Ballyporeen, and they were vile places ;- one-bit, two-horse towns that whiffed of diesel and whose pop-up tuck shops and filthy chip vans lured the per diems from the sweaty palms of the day-trippers. How the locals, we imagined, must have feared the bumper days when The Northside, in it’s rattling fleet, rolled into town with it’s history, cocky young hurlers, loud-hailers and quotient of un-reconstructed tulls.

Decades later I married into the South Tipperary crowd and, for the last twenty years, I’ve routinely driven those roads through the same villages and towns deep within The Golden Vale, often over the hills into Kilworth and back home by stealth to Cork from my in-laws house in Ardfinnan. And every single time I drive the four-and-a half miles from Clogheen into Ballyporeen, a part of me is still fifteen years old, thick and back there with the Mon boys on tour, taxing the farmers. And another part of me is older but no less clueless, wondering which of the narrow by-roads around these parts could have inspired such wonder and magic in the songs of Gemma Hayes ?

Born and reared within a large family in Ballyporeen, Hayes remains a peripheral figure and real curiosity within Irish music circles and, even after nearly twenty years spent making records and keeping on, is frightfully difficult to pin down. Sitting neither in the fish bowl of the kooky left-field set populated by Lisa O’Neill and Julie Feeney or in the often ungainly mainstream of Imelda May or Sinéad, she’s long paid the price for her ambition and wanderlust and even more so for her indifference.

I’ll happily stand corrected but I’m still not convinced she’s been given the credit she deserves as one of Ireland’s most consistent, curious and captivating writers and solo performers, as engaging over long distance as Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien and even Sinéad herself. So much so that, when I see Imelda May vamping it one more time for the cameras, the latest in line of national sweethearts, I wonder if Ireland just likes it’s contemporary story-tellers far better if they’re more malleable and just available ?

During the summer of 2015, Gemma did a short radio insert with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio One ;- she was plugging her fifth album, ‘Bones And Longing’ and, from a remote studio in London, performed a couple of numbers on acoustic guitar and gave her host a terrific if all- too-brief interview. During that exchange she revealed that Louis Walsh, the one-time Boyzone and Westlife manager and now a well-known figure on British television, once suggested he take her under his wing and manage her career. ‘He wanted to work with me at the time. He was saying to me, ‘Gemma, you need to play the game more. We need to get you out dating another celebrity, we need to get you on the scene and in the papers’’, Gemma told Miriam.

Walsh, who she described as ‘a brilliant businessman’, also suggested that Hayes stop writing her own material and that he employ a team to do that on her behalf instead. And kicking the corpse once more for good luck, he assured her that she did indeed have ‘The X Factor’ which, no doubt, thrilled her no end.

Walsh is a diverting, often creepy and always boisterous figure with a traditional view of the entertainment industry – ‘the business we call ‘show’’ – who’s long understood the enduring benefits of good teeth and the utter pointlessness of the creative process. Alongside a couple of RTÉ presenters, Walsh is easily the most available ‘well-known face’ in the country and, to this extent, is a world removed from Gemma Hayes who remains at a distance and tends to hold her whisht unless she has a record to perform or promote or something of interest to impart.

Which has it’s advantages too, of course. Because if Gemma was more visible and closer to hand, like all national sweethearts, would her terrific songs still carry the same degree of mystery ? Does unsung and distant give her more room to roam, more of a licence to take risks and distort her sound ? Either way, she had a lucky escape with Louis Walsh.

Hayes first made herself heard during the late 1990s when, around the fringes of the post-raggle taggle Dublin scene dominated by the likes of The Frames, The Mary Janes and Mark Geary, you’d sometimes see her with the Whelans and Mother Redcaps set, often alongside the cellist Julian Lennon. There have been five albums since, all of them flushed with the soft, acoustic touch of the old school folkies, the frenetic, shoe-gaze blitz of Slowdive, the up-beat pop swagger of The Bangles and the giddy eclectics of Kate Bush. And every one of which, kicking against convention, has been progressively better and more ambitious than the last.

Foremost among which is 2008’s ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, a terrific break-up album seeking both ‘order in the chaos’ [and indeed ‘chaos in the order’ too] in the aftermath of a split, whether that be from a person, place or thing. Or indeed all three.

Sharply produced by David Odlum, one of the original members of The Frames and a member of Hayes’s kitchen cabinet for years, it’s easily one of the best Irish albums of the last two decades. And yet ‘The Hollow Of Morning’ rarely features on anyone’s list ;- another recurring theme of Hayes’s career. Unsurprisingly, the records that followed it – the excellent ‘Let It Break’ [2011] and 2014’s ‘Bones And Longing’, both of which, like ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, were independently issued – didn’t trouble the chart compilers either. Indeed despite a handsome cluster of terrific, guitar-fuelled albums, she is arguably best known fora cover version of Chris Issac’s ‘Wicked Game’, which featured on the soundtrack of the American teen drama series, ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and, to a lesser extent, for ‘Making My Way Back’, which sound-tracked the Lidl supermarket chain’s Christmas advertising campaign some years back.

But she remains one of my own favourite artists and I routinely return to Gemma’s songs ;- after a recent post here about Joe Chester, who’s collaborated with and featured alongside her for years, I’ve listened to practically nothing else since. And there’s a lot of material to suck in too, most of it determined by simple melodies and those gorgeous, breathy deliveries and smart, often arrant lyrics that have long been among her signatures.

Over the course of a random shuffle, she’ll divert and shift gear from the giddy, piano and plucked string staccato of ‘All I Need’ [from ‘Let It Break’] to the up-beat, guitar pop workouts of ‘Happy Sad’ [from ‘The Roads Don’t Love You’] and ‘Out Of Our Hands’ [from ‘The Hollow Of Morning’] to the introspective, fuzzy shoe-gazed tuning of ‘Laughter’ [from ‘Bones And Longing’]. And in spite of myself, I’m still suckered every time by the full-frontal pay-off in ‘Keep Running’, her 2011 single that, after a mildly-tempered rattle that name-checks some of the most interesting cities in the world in which the writer ‘might as well be lost’, proceeds to flail blindly, like a drunken uncle at an indie disco.

No one song captures the breath of Hayes’s ambition better than ‘I Let A Good Thing Go’, from her sturdy 2002 debut album, ‘Night On My Side’, which boasts all of her primary strike assets within it’s four minutes :- the carnal vocals, acoustic underlay and full-frontal thrashing that plays with skewed tunings and distorted lower ends. Ingredients she’s long favoured throughout her recording history, in which the most obvious variances have been in her increased use of beats, loops and dips ;- her most recent work is certainly infused with far more ambience and space. As if, almost, the more perceptive and confident she’s grown, the easier it’s become for her to pare her songs right back ;- on ‘Bones And Longing’ as if she’s often just corrupting the beauty.

A couple of summers ago, I produced ‘Saturday Night With Miriam’ for the RTÉ One television schedule and, with no little prompting from the show’s music booker, my old friend Caroline Henry, we invited Paul Noonan from Bell X1 and Gemma to come in and perform a live, acoustic version of ‘The Snowman’. Trading for the occasion as Printer Clips, a solo project of Paul’s, they fetched up in Studio Four without fanfare or fuss and, working the song through during afternoon rehearsals, had a core of us absolutely distracted as they did do.

Gemma had arrived bearing gifts ;- as well as her acoustic guitar, she also brought along her husband, who was also minding their first child, a little boy. And hours later, and in front of an audience of just over one hundred, Paul and herself delivered a mighty live performance, directed with her usual brio – in one shot only – by Niamh White and captured on camera in a single take by Gerry Hickey, a formidable and skilled operator. Once we’d downed tools for the night and repaired back-stage, Gemma told us that she’d successfully crowd-funded a new record, even if motherhood had given her far more pressing priorities and, as you’d expect, plenty else to occupy her mind and her time.

Months later she’d also delivered ‘Bones And Longing’, as absorbing a record as any and easily her most salient. And across much of the promotion she did in support of that record, she spoke about how becoming a mother had genuinely liberated her and about how music no longer absorbs her so intently or exclusively.

Life as a parent clearly suits her.

And her work.