A SONG FOR CORK

So,‘After All’ by The Frank And Walters is Cork’s favourite song, as voted by those who took part in an on-line campaign organised recently by the Cork City Library, in association with Creative Ireland. Popular polls like these aren’t intended to be taken in any way seriously and there are far more pressing issues with which to get carried away. So we won’t.

Indeed, that the call to find Cork’s favourite song cast a light on the phenomenal service afforded by the country’s library system, is perhaps its most significant achievement. ‘Celebrating Cork’s musical heritage and the contribution of The Music Library over the past 41 years’, ran the opening line of the press release to launch the event. And so say all of us.

‘After All’ is one of the best pop songs ever written or recorded by an Irish group, and it’s certainly one of the best ever committed to wax by a Cork act. As such, it sates the criteria laid down by the organisers when they called on the public to ‘think about songs unique to Cork that have helped to shape and define our city’. That The Franks’ home town has, and continues to be, so influential in the shaping of their work, will always give them a competitive edge during more partisan occasions like these. They’ve never attempted to cover their tracks: in marketing speak, they’ve long foregrounded their Corkness, particularly so during those magical years on the international circuit between 1992 and 1997. For which, I would contend, they paid dearly, even if their parochial carry-on anchored them forever in the hearts of their own people.

Although the band’s background is fundamental to everything that’s ever defined them, The Franks’ most popular song – and now, Cork’s favourite – deals instead with a well-worn broader theme and is devoid of the local reference points that populate so much of their other material. ‘After All’ is a straight-forward and efficient pop song that, like much of the band’s catalogue, sends an uncomplicated message to its subject; ‘after all … I’m glad you’re mine’.

I’ve written previously about both the band and the song but it’s worth re-iterating here how timeless ‘After All’ is. Written in Cork and London and first released in 1992, it clearly resonates with not only those who remember it from the time but plenty more who don’t. In the best and worst traditions of these things, there have been numerous versions of the song attempted in the decades since, from the stages of pre-school plays to the bus-hijack scene in Peter Foott’s terrific television drama series, ‘The Young Offenders’. Enough to consistently pump oxygen into the song and re-energise it for various different audiences, traditionally a hallmark of the really great songs. A recent case in point being a version of ‘After All’ performed last Christmas by a group of primary schoolchildren in Ballinspittle National School in Cork using Irish Sign language.

I’ve made numerous lofty claims on the band’s behalf over the many years I’ve known them but I was convinced that ‘After All’ had crossed the Rubicon after I heard it performed by a wedding band in Cork the year after its release. In the sprawling expanse of one of the ballrooms in The Rochestown Park Hotel, the song dragged the various generations away from the remnants of the carvery and out onto the dance-floor, all of them mouthing the sing-a-long. At which point ‘After All’ moved seamlessly into the same orbit as ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. You know you’ve arrived and that there’s no going back after you’ve been honoured in this manner by Larry And The Partners.

A generation of Cork cabaret bands have belted it out with varying degrees of success at social events in the years since. It’s a straight-forward enough song to perform and sing: infinitely more so than, say, either ‘Only Losers Take The Bus’ by The Fatima Mansions or ‘Kelly From Killeens’ by Five Go Down To The Sea, neither of which are heard too frequently at weddings or christenings. And maybe with good reason.

‘After All’ has a gentle Cork veneer about it but, beyond Paul’s pronunciation, nothing more. It’s certainly not a song about Cork and, in that respect, is nowhere near as unapologetically located as, say, Seán O’Callaghan’s ‘The Armoured Car’, among my own favourite Cork songs and one I first heard during the late 1970s. ‘The Armoured Car’ appeared on Jimmy Crowley’s debut album, ‘The Boys Of Fair Hill’, released on the Mulligan label in 1977, and details the remarkable, real-life exploits of a famous hunting dog owned by Connie Doyle of the Fair Hill Harriers.

Drag-hunting has long been a popular winter sport in Cork: at least it was during those years I spent growing up on the Ashgrove estate in Ballyvolane in the shadow of a well-known pub, The Fox And Hounds. Outside of which scores of foxhunters and road bowlers would regularly gather before hitting the back roads for sport out beyond Dublin Pike, Kilcully and Whitechurch.

Jimmy Crowley was, for many years, one of the most high-profile Corkmen in the country, arguably hitting his creative peak during Jack Lynch’s years as Taoiseach in the late 1970s and while Cork hurling was snaring three All-Ireland hurling titles in a row. As a curator and performer of traditional songs, local yarns and tall tales, he found a prescience and relevance during one of the more remarkable periods in the city’s recent social history, capturing the feats of Cork’s finest bowl players, hunting dogs, hurlers, nobbers and drinkers. Even if, by so doing, he often flouted the fine line between social historian and professional Corkman.

But as both a solo performer and as leader of a fine local ensemble, Stoker’s Lodge, he made – and continues to make – an enormous contribution to history and heritage matters in Cork. So much so that he can be forgiven, just about, for a reggae version of ‘The Boys Of Fairhill’ he released in 1982. An act which, at best, can be described as ill-advised.

For several years, Crowley attracted RTÉ camera crews into the city during a decade when, broadly speaking, Cork was on its knees. By capturing him at work and at play, those television appearances gave some of us – especially those of us on the Northside – a rare glimpse of our neighbours on a national canvas. An extraordinary insert shot in 1975 for an early-evening magazine programme, PM, produced and directed by Eoghan Harris, in which members of the Harriers discuss their dogs and wives over pints and chasers, has thankfully survived as another reminder of the way we were.

Jimmy Crowley’s repertoire was almost exclusively born and bred in Cork, and included faithful renditions of ‘Salonika’, ‘The Boys Of Fairhill’ and ‘Boozing’, all of which he sung in a distinctly local drawl. ‘The Armoured Car’, though, has long been my own favourite from that collection because, at its heart and in its lyrical detail, it unashamedly celebrates just how untouchable a people we are. ‘Twas on the green fields of Gurranabraher’ that The Armoured Car ‘first declared war on his terrible Southern foes’ but although the song celebrates the achievements of a hunting dog who slayed ‘all-comers from Castlebar to Timoleague’, ‘The Armoured Car’ can also be read as a metaphor for the unbreakable spirit of the northside. As such, it’s as edgy a song about Cork as anything that has followed it since.

Of which there are many. Any self-respecting list of great songs by Cork writers and performers would go on for an eternity, crossing the generations, languages and the genres. Off of the top of my head, the essentials might include ‘Follow Me’ and ‘Wheels Within Wheels’ by Gallagher, ‘Michiko’ and ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ by The Sultans, ‘Princes Street’ by The Stargazers, ‘Town To Town’ by Microdisney and Stump’s ‘Charlton Heston’. The Holy Trinity of The Belsonic Sound, Burning Embers and Cypress, Mine ! built the bridge from the new-wave of the 1980s to the newer wave of the 1990s and, in any case, ‘Colourblind’, ‘Now That You’re Gone’ and ‘Anxious’ are all fine, varied representations of three bands that perhaps, given what followed them, don’t tend to get the credit they deserve.

I’d make a strong case too for the likes of ‘Call Yossarian’ by LMNO Pelican, ‘Robin’s Party’ by Nothing Like Strauss, Benny’s Head’s ‘Backwater’, ‘William’ by The Emperors of Ice Cream, ‘The Darkness’ by Flex And The Fastweather, ‘Who’s Fooling Who’ by that group’s mainstay, Paul Tiernan, ‘Sparkle’ by Ruby Horse, ‘That’s Why We Lose Control’ by The Young Offenders, ‘Running’ by Fred, ‘There’s A Fish On Top of Shandon Swears He’s Elvis’ by Five Go Down To Sea, Mick Flannery’s ‘How High?’ and, of course, any one of numerous versions of ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’. With a special rosette to anyone who’s included the famous second verse, whose existence seems lost on many of those who perform it as a party piece.

I haven’t touched on the glut of contemporary dance sounds currently popping the city’s soundscape or, indeed, bands like Cyclefly, Boa Morte, Bass Odyssey, The Orange Fetishes, The Altered Hours, The Caroline Shout, Crystal, Sindikat, Censored Vision, Serengeti Long Walk, Scarlet Page and Jinx. All of whom, across a full spectrum of styles, repeatedly put their best feet bravely forward when it was neither profitable not fashionable. And all of whom have at least one, Cork-made banger to their names.

For what it’s worth, my own favourite song about Cork is ‘Down by The River Lee’, written and performed by Kooky, a long-lost one-man operation that burned briefly on a terrific album during the closing days of the last century. Kooky was – and remains, presumably – the creative preserve of Tony O’Sullivan, the improbably handsome former Soon vocalist who released his only elpee, ‘The Good Old Days’, on his own label in the spring of 1999. I’d first come across him years previously, when he was part of the ensemble at the Graffiti Theatre company, then an emerging and exciting young troupe under the formidable stewardship of Emelie Fitzgibbon. Graffiti staged two memorable but very different original productions at the old Ivernia Theatre on The Grand Parade during the mid-1980s, ‘Strong As Horses’ and ‘Silence The Ravens’ that melded a rock and roll sensibility to new writing for theatre in the city. The Graffiti cast also featured the not inconsiderable talent of a number of young locals, Liam Heffernan, Anne Callanan, Miriam Brady and Charlie Ruxton among them.

So it’s hardly surprising that Tony consistently brought a dramatic edge and no little theatre to his music and singing, be that with Soon, who also featured the guitarist, Giordhaí Ó Laoghaire, or another of his side-projects, The Love Handles, who gigged infrequently at The Rock Garden in Dublin during the early 90s. But he most effectively found his meter on ‘The Good Old Days’, which he recorded over time and on a tiny budget with a group of friends and confidantes, Maurice ‘Seezer’ Roycroft most prominently.

‘The Good Old Days’ – which opens with an old archive clip from the late Leonard Sachs, who hosted the popular BBC entertainment revue of the same name – is a powerful piece of work that’s dominated by Tony’s fine tenor and a writing sensibility that nods to vintage Scott Walker and the poppier ambition of The Divine Comedy. Under-cutting the entire enterprise is a warm nostalgia for, and keen insight into, life and society in Cork during the early 1980s, as hinted in the album’s title. ‘The Good Old Days’ is difficult, if not impossible, to locate now, which of course only adds to its allure: in the spirit of d.i.y., not a whole lot of copies were originally minted. But it’s rinsed through with numerous references to Cork and it’s people – Finbarr Donnelly, The Innisfallen, The English Market, The Long Valley, schoolyard vignettes and general local capers – and no more so than on ‘Down By The River Lee’.

With a floral brass decoration scaffolding its whopping chorus, it marries a partisan lyrical flourish – ‘Mary got a fifty on her first real date’ – with the saucy energy heard the previous year on Neil Hannon’s ‘The National Express’, a comparison for which the writer might not necessarily thank me. The rest of the album is more complicated: ‘Edwardian’ was the term used by Kevin Courtney when he reviewed it in The Irish Times. But there’s still something resoundingly and re-assuringly bold and brave about it, even twenty-one years later. Especially on the title-cut and certainly on the closer, ‘I’m Taking Her Away From You’, a mighty track by any stretch that showcases Tony’s vocal range and his gift as a writer.

Of course any search for Cork’s Favourite Song will, ultimately, be a fruitless one because, as is obvious from the last fifteen minutes you’ve spent with us here, Cork has many favourite songs. As indeed do all of us who registered votes with the recent poll. What’s most apparent, though, is just how many quality songs have been penned over the last forty years by Cork writers of all hues, particularly songs about Cork city and its many vagaries. The city’s physical and emotional landscape has long been a rich source for many of those involved in the arts, and given the glut of edgy contemporary acts still pulling from that supply line, shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. ‘After All’ is a worthy and deserved favourite song of Cork but there are many more where it came from and it’s no harm, the odd time, to remind ourselves of that.

Or, in old money, to take a step back and consider once again how great we are. Strong as horses, that’s us.

APPENDICES:

A playlist of (most) of the songs and bands featured in this post can be found here.

Some suggested Cork songs via our Twitter feed can be found here

DELORENTOS AND THE LURE OF WHELANS

I’ve been attending live shows at Whelan’s, on Camden Street in Dublin, for decades. During which time the physical lay-out of the building has changed in line with the development of the street on which it is located and, indeed, the thinning of my hairline. The fabled old venue is now a far broader, more physically elaborate concern than it was, thirty years ago, when it was an unofficial party headquarters for the folk and dog-on-a-string set. But in the time since, it’s booking policy has stayed resolute and, like many of those who regularly return to perform there, seems to be rooted in old currencies like taste and decency.

Whelan’s is in far better shape now than many of us who’ve lived and indeed, loved in it, as much a refuge for the bewildered and the distracted as a live music venue of distinction. And unlike much of that which now surrounds it in central Dublin, it hasn’t yet offered up its soul to the glass, chrome and steel girders that are increasingly prominent around that part of the city.

The lay-out in its main-room should, by any measure, render it un-workable. The hollow can be an awful sound-trap that, like imported craft beer, has unexpectedly messed the heads of the good and the great over the years. But that catholic booking policy, though, brings a pardon to every charge and, although you’re never entirely sure what you’ll find there from one night to the next, the place regularly pulls rabbits out of hats. Whenever the stars get into line, there’s hardly a better location anywhere in which magicians take the floor.

A life-sized sculptural representation of a solitary Dublin drinker, The Stone Man, has forever kept guard at the main bar as a perpetual night-watchman who has seen every single live show at Whelan’s. Its long been one of the venue’s bespoke features but, beyond that, can maybe also be read as a metaphor for the place itself, an old-school constant – a throwback, even – in a world gone increasingly anxious and unreliable. A point that hasn’t been lost, you’d think, on the inestimable Lloyd Cole, a frequent visitor to the place who, in 2008, recorded a live acoustic album in the main room there and titled it ‘The Whelan’. Lloyd, as we know, isn’t one for indulging the gobdaws.

Nostalgia, of course, is a canny seductress and you’d want to be fair careful of her once she gets into her stride. But there comes a tide in the affairs of all those who make and inhale music when they just don’t need to be told anymore: that point where you no longer feel compelled to justify either the music you make or listen to. The result of what the next vacuous Love Island wannabe or, indeed, the next great emerging half-forward – and increasingly, there are few differences – might refer to on a sponsored Instagram post or during a pre-match interview with Marty Morrissey as the importance of the journey over the lustre of the destination.

I stopped making excuses for my favourite bands and performers many, many years ago, after the penny finally dropped and I realised just how un-natural, and indeed anti-natural, the basic idea of ‘being in a band’ is. Think of the most complicated and difficult marriage you can, and then multiply it by the number of bass-players your average group gets through in a lifetime and that’s where the level of intensity is. Which is why I’m so in awe of those in groups everywhere who’ve stayed the distance and managed to keep their faculties and their friendships intact as they’ve done so. From the biggest bands in the world dutifully going about it because they’re contractually bound or because they know no other way to the old school-friends, now working in middle management positions in state agencies, still bound by sound and hacking around together in someone’s garage. For no other reason than, into their middle and later years, it’s a handy way to escape the kids and annoy your wife.

Indeed, whenever I hear ‘City of Blinding Lights’ or ‘With Or Without You’ or ‘One’ by U2, I’m now struck less by the grandeur of the music and way more by the fact that U2 is still able to line-up shoulder-to-shoulder, still able to throw the odd brick. Irrespective of what one might think of the music, and there’s plenty here about that, what, ultimately, is more important? Go on, I dare you.

This is the kind of weighty matter that, I suspect, occupies many of those among the Whelan’s set, those regulars who congregate in its alcoves before shows, the music a cover beneath which important relationships are kept steady and the heads kept on the straight. Those for whom those once-a-year appearances by the old-guard – Something Happens, The Frank and Walters, Nick Kelly and their ilk – are desperately re-assuring, the music as unimportant or as vital as you need it to be, depending.

During those fleeting moments years ago, their greatness was briefly determined by ‘Burn Clear’, ‘After All’ and ‘Arclight’, back when they represented youth, dynamism, life, optimism and energy. Now, as the world hums on, they’re fundamentally as human as the rest of us, determined as much by an ability to simply endure as much as anything more profound. They become us and we become them.

I couldn’t believe how quiet the middle of Dublin was on the Monday night before last Christmas. Even Camden Street, normally so noisy, belligerent and difficult to navigate whether on foot or behind a wheel, was empty. In the back room at Whelan’s, however, the tills were ringing out, business nicely brisk and the going good; another end-of-year Delorentos show, another sell-out.

The North Dublin four-piece now carry the baton once held by The Franks, The Happens, The Fats and that clatter of zesty, local outfits who boxed spectacularly above their weight and spoiled us during the Jack Charlton years. They are the heart of a bridging generation that, in the history of recent Irish popular music connects A House and Whipping Boy with Fontaines D.C. and Murder Capital. A group that, five albums into a weighty career, now finds itself at an inevitable junction.

Those listeners to the mainstream weekday radio schedules will hear Delorentos intone Ryan Tubridy’s programme on RTÉ One every morning [‘S.E.C.R.E.T.] and the band’s material [‘Petardu’ and ‘Home Again’] has also featured on a couple of recent television advertising campaigns. Given how deep and wide their canon extends, and how impressive their development has been, it would be a shame if, in the broader public mind, this was the extent of their legacy. So while the band is technically marking the tenth anniversary of the release of it’s fine second album, ‘You Can Make Sound’, its also book-ending a productive decade and maybe stock-taking for the road ahead. The few bob to be made from the handful of sold-out, end-of-year shows won’t be scoffed at either.

The last decade has taken then far and wide but, commercially, nowhere near far or wide enough. Their curve has been a largely upward one, though, and the group is a far different concern now than when it first emerged in the mid-noughties. Alongside another Portrane-based outfit, Director, they were the feisty, riffy sound of Fingal.

Like many young bands and new groups with an instinctive knack for writing, they were in a ferocious hurry and that early material, much of which is terrific, is marked by an almighty rush to get to the big pay-off. Nothing we haven’t seen previously, though; any punk-infused bucks might, at one point, have been expected to fire off fifteen songs in any thirty-minute set, anthems the lot of them.

But Delorentos always had the physical heft to match their fast hands, however, and those early numbers with which they so dynamically announced themselves – ‘Do You Realise’, ‘Eustace Street’, ‘Idle Conversation’, ‘Sanctuary’ and the perennial ‘S.E.C.R.E.T’ – sound as impressive now as they did when they first detonated. Instant, gnarly pop songs that gave them a real head-start on the rest of the field. Director, who themselves released a couple of moderately diverting post-industrial, Franz-gender elpees, are another curious footnote in the recent history of popular Irish music. But Delorentos shared little with them really bar an Eircode and, by any standards, had far more in common with another fine Dublin guitar band, Sack, to whom those first couple of elpees bear more than a passing resemblance.

With five albums in their locker now, Delo have assembled a body of work as impressive as anything put together by any local group during the last forty years, with the obvious exception of U2. A House, Villagers, The Frames, The Franks, Something Happens; in respect of breadth and body, they’re up there. And yet, in some of my more introspective moments, I wonder if they really get the credit they deserve?

I heard one of them talk impressively on radio some time back about the vagaries of song-writing, and particularly about how an IMRO-sponsored workshop led eventually to one of the band’s best songs, ‘Everybody Else Gets Wet’, one of the many stand-outs from their fourth album, ‘Night Becomes Light’. The idea of formal, structured writing will be anathema to many, kicking against basic creative instinct, the magic in the moment and so forth. And yet its maybe indicative of Delorentos and how they approach their work, for many bands the definitive four-letter word. Recalling the great Cork writer, Seán Ó Faoláin, one might regard them as a band who, in the presence of great music, live nobly’. Either way, ‘Everybody Else Gets Wet’ is a banger.

‘Wet’ is also indicative of the band’s transition from the angled, indie-beat of their first couple of elpees to the more complicated, precise and far less frenetic approach heard on their last three; in time honoured fashion, they’ve mellowed nicely as they’ve gone on. So that while I’m not convinced that the most recent Delorentos album, 2018’s ‘True Surrender’ is the group’s best or most compelling, what is far clearer is that under the keen eye of Tommy McLoughlin, its easily the band’s most expressive and confessional. In part, as on ‘Islands’, ‘S.O.S.’ and the stand-out, ‘In the Moment’, it throws back as far as the bubby, prototype synthy sounds of Tony Mansfield’s New Muzik. Elsewhere it nods to the band’s more familiar, modestly-indie cut influences, Keane most obviously.

The detailed press release that accompanied ‘True Surrender’, and that still features on the band’s website, suggests that Delo have entered a far more complicated phase, not just in respect of their output but in respect of what shapes it. That tonal shift is manifest across the eleven cuts on that elpee, where allusions to parenthood, uncertainty and broader perspectives are fore-grounded. The record opens ominously – ‘I see stormy weather, coming at me across the great water’- before Ronan Yourell determines at the close that ‘there’s a new horizon calling out to me’. Where once, fleet of foot and fancy-free, Delorentos did angst and anguish better than any group in the country [‘I know, you’ve been talking to him. And it’s all coming out now’], these days there’s an existential shadow on their lung. Sad, uncertain songs are almost invariably more beautiful and way more unsettling and, in this respect, ‘True Surrender’ certainly adds another layer to what is already a serious body of work.

Much of which featured during the band’s fin-de-siècle, greatest hits shows before Christmas and not even a persistent tuning issue in Whelan’s could detract from another fuzzy night in the band’s company. During which there were also a couple of references from behind the mics to upheaval and the roll of life; one of them lives in London now, some of them are recent parents, such things. So these are interesting times for them because, although they can point to a fine local following, some of which is borderline fanatical, they’re unlikely at this point to convert that into a broader, international-facing success.

It’s probably the single most unfashionable, overly-simplistic and maybe even patronising thing to ever write about a band but I love Delorentos because they genuinely make me feel good. And I invariably leave their shows feeling buoyed and far better about myself. There’s surely a place for that, isn’t there? Because that’s really the whole point, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

LARRY

It was inevitable, I suppose, that so many of today’s tributes to Larry Gogan would eventually lead back to the rogue answers he was given for decades on ‘The Sixty Second Quiz’, one of the recurring features of his long-running radio career. In one respect, that quiz – routinely stuffed with as many bizarre questions as it elicited bizarre responses – embodied much of the host’s own on-air personality. The affable disc jockey and presenter, whose death was announced this morning, was forever warm, good natured, never overly serious and a welcome respite on the broader running orders. But it’s easy to be side-blinded. 

For sure, Larry knew well that The Taj Mahal was a restaurant opposite The Dental Hospital and that Naomi Campbell was a bird with a long neck. But he was around long enough to know how essential that sort of knockabout codology was, particularly on live entertainment radio. Just as importantly, he also knew that Taj Mahal was a ground-breaking bluesman from Harlem and it was this kind of thing that stood him apart from the pack.  

Ian Wilson, the recently retired radio producer and one-time 2FM main-stay, had his dukes poised nicely earlier today when he made a telling contribution about Gogan to the Morning Ireland programme on RTÉ Radio One. In pointing out the tendency of some to view those who play music, particularly on radio, as a sort of lesser species, he was aiming a decent body-shot at those – in broadcasting and in public life – who simply do not or cannot see the value in popular music. You’d be wary enough of that shower. 

Larry Gogan saw that value, though. He was a genuine pioneer who can legitimately claim to have been there at the start, one of the first and best-known voices from the earliest days of popular music on Irish radio. Like one of his contemporaries, Gay Byrne, he was a link to the first wave of multi-discipline Irish broadcasting, a dual player who cut his teeth on sponsored radio programmes and then on the initial cluster of national entertainment television shows. During those years when Irish television amounted to a limited, single-channel service transmitting in monochrome and popular music on the wireless was an anomaly, Gogan was one of Irish broadcasting’s originals. 

He was an early convert to rock ‘n’ roll, seduced into a life-long dream sequence by the magic of Elvis Presley and the raw promise of boogie and groove. Byrne, by comparison, was a jazz snob, a trained actor who, in popular musicians and popular music saw, with notable exceptions, unnecessary disruption . Even if, as the long-time presenter and producer of The Late Late Show, he knew well the audience-baiting capacity of a freaky young fella with a safety pin in his eyebrow and a few half-baked opinions about The Guards.

In Vincent Power’s fine history of Ireland’s showband years, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’’, first published in 1990, Byrne refers to the groups who dominated that period as ‘by and large, with a few exceptions, fairly indifferent musicians banging out their few chords’.  ‘The music then on The Late Late Show’, he said, ‘was really an interruption of the talk’. 

Gogan saw things very differently and, in his world, music always trumped chat. He was an enthusiastic and partisan advocate from the get-go and his unflinching support for the showbands was indicative of a career-long commitment to domestic music, especially new and emerging Irish music. ‘Without the showbands’, he claimed in an interview in 1965, ‘the pop scene in this country would today be dominated by British artists, like America. No artists – except perhaps the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Cliff Richard – can create anything like the stir our top showbands do in halls around the country’.

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And he was well placed – and maybe compromised with it ? – in this respect. During the early 1960s, Larry Gogan presented fourteen different sponsored radio programmes a week, one of which was actually bank-rolled by a ballroom in Bundoran. He would routinely play relief or support sets for some of the showbands and, at one point, was as familiar an on-stage presence in the dancehalls as some of the bands themselves. Ultimately, he sounded like he just consistently got off on the music and just liked being around it.

No more so than when, on May 31st, 1979, Larry’s ‘Pop Around Ireland’ became the first show broadcast on the new Radio 2 [later 2FM] service. After an official address in front of a live studio audience by the then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Pádraig Faulkner, Larry took the mic at 12.37 and told his listeners how ‘we’ve been waiting for an all-day music radio station for a long time’ before, true to form, opening with a feisty number from an Irish band: ‘Like Clockwork’ by The Boomtown Rats. 

Released a full year earlier as one of the singles from the group’s second elpee, ‘A Tonic For The Troops’, it was an unusual choice of song with which to christen a national radio station. All the more so given that one of the subsequent cuts lifted from that album, ‘Rat Trap’, had given The Boomtown Rats their first Number One single in Britain and was, arguably, the better known track. 

But then Larry played consistently by his own rules, and so it went on for almost forty years, during which, on his impeccably pop-tastic playlists, you’d find all manner of emerging gold in among the hits of the day, the odd rare antique and the oldies-but-goodies. To this end, and as numerous musicians, pluggers and alickadoos have already attested, he made life much, much easier for those working in the local entertainment sector. And in that consistent championing, afforded a public service every bit as valuable and rich as that provided by news, current affairs, analysis and the gab that dominates much of the national radio schedules.

I saw this myself through the heft he consistently lent to a little known band from Churchtown, South Dublin, called Into Paradise, who battled manfully at the crease from 1988 until 1994 and released a series of fine records, to the sound of silence for the most part. In any other functioning democracy, Into Paradise would have neither been seen or heard before the witching hours. But in the band’s sweeping, six-minute cri de coeur, ‘Sleep’, Larry heard enough sparkle through the gloom to make him want to play it regularly on the national airwaves in the middle of the afternoon. Fifteen years after ‘Like Clockwork’ and he was still railing, forever politely but always pointedly, an observation made by several Irish musicians and activists since early morning.

Ultimately, like the television personality and band manager, Louis Walsh, and his own late colleague on 2FM, Tony Fenton, Larry Gogan knew what his strengths were, where his own weaknesses were and he made no pretentions to the contrary. He just consistently played the records instinctively assembled his play-lists and let the music do his persuading. 

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.  

BRIAN O’DONNELL AND THE ORDERS OF THE HIBERNIAN

Brian O’Donnell

I don’t envy whoever is charged with delivering Brian O’Donnell’s eulogy before he’s sent on his way next week. His formidable reputation preceded him, and everyone who ever set foot inside the bar he ran, The Hi-B, on the corner of Oliver Plunkett Street and Winthrop Street in the middle of Cork city, will have left with a story, a scream and often a flea in the ear. Brian was a prolific hit factory and, since news of his death was announced this morning, many of his greatest put-downs, one-liners and japes have already had an airing. There are volumes more in the vaults.

In the best traditions of the great bars, The Hi-B was cut in the likeness of its owner, whose tics and traits could be read in the absence of anything remotely new-fangled or contemporary on the premises. His only aesthetic concession within the four walls of the tiny pub was to classical music and, in some of his balmier moments, he’d come out from behind the bar and blast out a couple of verses from an aria. The bar was utterly pretentious in its outward lack of pretentiousness and, once inside the door, no one was allowed to be more intelligent, or to enjoy more intelligent pursuits, than the owner himself.

I killed many an hour in The Hi-B, either avoiding the grim inevitability of work or, as was often the case, preparing to go on somewhere else. From the leather seats in the window, you’d be able to look down onto Winthrop Street and get a sense of the mood around town. This was especially so during the clammy evenings in summer while the buskers – Mark O’Sullivan and Tony Campagno, most prominently – were going at it on that pitch just beside The Long Valley, in many respects The Hi-B’s spiritual companion across the street.

Try as I did – and I made numerous efforts – I found it impossible to ever spend an entire night in The Hi-B because of the constant honk of cordite. You never knew when Brian might wire into you and it was always better to get out of there while the scores were level. And so he became my regular support act whenever any artist of note – and plenty more without a note – were playing at De Lacy House, down at the other end of Oliver Plunkett Street. From high culture to popular culture in the length of a street, this, for many years, was my routine.

For a bar whose regulars fetched up from all arts and parts – think of the cast of Cheers and then think of the absolute polar opposite, many of them in tweeds and twill, and you’re close – The Hi-B was perennially popular with students, and students were popular with Brian. Many of whom he saw, I suspect, as fresh meat in need of intellectual seasoning and proper finishing, which he provided in abundance. To that end, and ever so slightly mis-calibrated, The Hi-B was the most interesting and tangential bar in the city, like something that Quentin Blake might have drawn for a Roald Dahl short-story co-written with Seán Ó Faoláin. Shabbily chic – or, in old money, dusty and dilapidated – it boasted a considerable beard quotient too and, despite its contempt for trends and trend-setters, certainly attracted its share of posers, poets, fashionistas and thinkers. The odd time, you’d even see a woman there.

But Brian was quick to adapt, too. In Dan Buckley’s profile of Brian in The Irish Examiner in 2012, the writer mentions how his subject grew to despise mobile phones and technology with the same ferocity as he long disregarded radio, television and broadcasters. His philosophy was simple: bars were for drinking and socialising in and, therefore, that space needed to be tended and protected. And so although it always looked to me like it was plugged in, I can never remember the old television set ever once being turned on, even if regulars assure me it was briefly defibrillated into life during the penalty shoot-out at the Ireland-Romania World Cup match in Genoa in 1990. A game which clearly took place while Brian was elsewhere.

Sport was just too coarse for a publican of far more sophisticated tastes. Which is ironic given how Brian sits into Cork’s canon of public personalities – Sonia, Seán Óg, Roy – known popularly by their first names only and for their heroics on the fields and tracks. Indeed it was only when I had to interview him for a short Hot Press preview years ago that it dawned on me to ask him what his surname was. For years, he’d simply been ‘Brian’ or, at a push, ‘Brian from The Hi-B’.

By then, and like practically everyone else who set foot inside the door of his first-floor speakeasy, I’d routinely been abused by him from behind the bar, threatened with various suspensions and warned about my manners. And like most of his other customers, I kept going back there because, in my more reflective moments, and once I’d looked into my heart, I knew he was right in everything he said.

But the cabaret and the burlesque was really seductive too, what strategists and marketing executives now refer to as ‘unique selling points’: and precisely the kind of guff that Brian would put the run on you for. During the summer of 1990, I was helping out on an RTÉ Current Affairs investigative piece on some bent goings-on out the road and, every evening, I’d convene with the producer and reporter in The Hi-B to assess our progress. My colleagues, neither of whom are from Cork, were captivated by Brian, his bar and what they termed ‘The Floor Show’: like The Late Late Show in its pomp, The Hi-B was unscripted, live and you were never quite sure who was going to turn up, how drunk they were going to be and what was going to kick off. With Brian producing, directing and presenting, naturally.

Like everywhere else, Cork has long had its share of cranky bar owners, male and female, and Brian was as frequently discourteous as the worst of them. He was the antithesis of anything they ever taught you about protocol and etiquette in what we describe as ‘the hospitality sector’, but then, while he ran his bar, he never regarded himself as anything other than an old-school publican. ‘Support your local breweries’, he once chided a friend of mine whose crime was to order a bottle of sparkling water.

Because beyond everything else, Brian knew how a bar worked. This wasn’t just a business or a trade. It was far more important than that.

RORY AND HERMAN

Herman Kemp – photographed on the day of the concert in 1978. © Herman Kemp

I’ve written at length about my old school, The North Monastery which, on many levels, dominated my upbringing on the northside of Cork city during the 1970s and 1980s. For a number of us, The Mon provided a structure and an order during a period when much of the area around us was just dilapidated and sore. Strange as it seems but there were days when some of us were glad to go to school.

I last set foot on the grounds up on Our Lady’s Mount during the filming of a short television insert on the week of the All-Ireland hurling final in 2004. As these things tend to go, some of my friends and neighbours are now among the senior teaching staff there and, with the school’s vast canvas of adventure now captured so thoroughly on new media, I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of the breadth of what’s going on there. But there was always an awful lot going on up in The Mon – good, bad and ugly – except that, for years, most of us were blissfully unaware of much of it.

Herman Kemp was a young teacher from Kilrush in County Clare who was unfortunate enough to have encountered us as a class of forty-four noisy young boys in 1976 and 1977. The date is important here: – history recalls that Cork’s swashbuckling hurlers were winning All-Ireland senior titles, Christy Ring still walked among us whenever he tired of walking on water and one of the unlikely pop stars du jour, John Lydon, who’d spat his way into the popular British consciousness as Johnny Rotten, had strong connections to our city that went pretty much unreported.

Teachers among you will know that second and third class are among the most developmentally important years in the Irish primary school cycle. The work-load of the pupil increases and there’s a subtle shift in tone from baby-sitting to, if not full-blown independence, then certainly a greater emphasis on autonomy. Even in Cork during the 1970s, and especially up in The North Mon, they didn’t just hand out those classroom assignments to any old lags or chancers. Which is why, I suppose, that some of us still remember Herman’s classes so clearly.

In his loons, denim shirts and lusty tache, he rarely proselytized the case for hurling and Gaelic football and the more traditional cultural pillars on which the school traded didn’t seem to overly interest him. He looked like a member of The Band and was a proud Stoke City supporter at a time when Liverpool and Manchester United were the only two British clubs that mattered around our way.

On his watch, our class was as likely to debate the merits of contemporary blockbuster films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’ as we were to struggle with the vagaries of long division. One morning he broke down a Chris De Burgh number for us and went through it line by line as a piece of important literary text. And although this did little to endear me to the rubber-faced songwriter, Herman was clearly thinking on a different plane. Like the best teachers and coaches, he not only instilled in us a sense of the exotica that waited for us outside the school’s sash windows but constantly allowed us to picture ourselves knee-deep in it. To those of us with any sort of a creative streak, he was our go-to.

The North Monastery has long prided itself on its academic achievements and its many notable successes on the playing fields and in Irish public life. It isn’t absolutely clear if Cork have ever won a senior All-Ireland hurling title without at least one former pupil involved somewhere or if Ireland’s state class has ever operated at elite level without our graduates leading out, but it certainly feels like this should be the case. What I do know is that I left our school with a fully-formed love of books and sport and, I hope, good basic manners.

Beyond the most basic stipulations of the curriculum, and notwithstanding the regular sideshow performances of The Christian Brothers, one of whom would shove a piece of bamboo in and out of his gob to make a variety of bird calls, music was hardly a priority up in the school. Indeed, the handful who did experiment with drums and wires, or indeed those who just liked alternative music, tended to do so under the cloak of darkness. I’ve written about this in a previous piece here.

As Herman was getting his classroom ready for a new school year during the summer of 1978, we now know he was also busy elsewhere indulging a couple of his other interests; – rock music and photography. The father of three school-going daughters myself – and as a one-time teacher – I’m forever surprised at how children cannot believe that those who front their classrooms every day might also lead interesting lives of their own once the long bell goes in the afternoons. In this respect, Herman left a trail of dots for us that we’re only now joining properly.

Rory Gallagher at Macroom Festival 1978 © Herman Kemp

The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival is one of the more intriguing outdoor events to have taken place in Ireland during the 1970s. Launched in June, 1976, as a week-long community-focused enterprise, it was conceived by a group of young locals led by a publican, John Martin Fitzgerald, and ran for seven years in total. The highlight of that first year was a live show by Marianne Faithfull, who performed in a customized marquee borrowed, for the occasion, from The Rose of Tralee committee fifty miles up the road. The festival was formally launched by the broadcaster and journalist, Frank Hall.

And it certainly achieved its primary ambition, attracting decent crowds into what was then a small market town, located twenty-five miles west of Cork city. By washing its own face financially, and perhaps against all perceived wisdom, the organisers developed the event in its second year and moved into the outdoors at Macroom Castle.

That setting is central to any broader telling of the history of contemporary Irish popular culture. Despite what its people might think, Macroom was never the most sophisticated town and, in the late 1970s, wouldn’t have been best served by general infrastructure and was difficult enough to access. A point touched on in Roz Crowley’s fine book, ‘Memories Of Ireland’s First Rock Festival’, published by On Stream Books in 2016.

That book includes several first-person testimonies from some of those who made their way to Macroom having either walked the distance from Cork or having hitched lifts on the road out from the city’s western suburbs. Many of whom did so against a backdrop of disdain from the local authorities and clergy who, in voicing their concerns for law, order and basic morality, were re-cycling familiar riffs dating back to Ireland’s dance-hall culture during the earliest days of The Free State.

During the mid-1970s, rock music in Ireland’s outdoors – either one-offs or festivals – just didn’t exist. Dalymount Park, on the northside of Dublin, had indeed hosted a one-off show featuring Mungo Jerry and Thin Lizzy as far back as 1971 but that, pretty much, was that. So in terms of chronology, Rory Gallagher’s performance on the grounds of Macroom Castle in June, 1977, pre-dates Thin Lizzy’s famous home-coming show – again at Dalymount Park – by a couple of months. And because The Mountain Dew series took place over the course of several days, it is widely accepted as being Ireland’s first ever outdoor rock music festival.

The commercial success of those early Macroom shows also reflected an obvious appetite for rock music in what we might loosely term rural Ireland, kicking against a couple of crudely formed stereotypes as it did. As such, The Mountain Dew Festival can be seen as an important pre-cursor to other similar events that ran subsequently in Leixlip, Ballisodore, Lisdoonvarna and even Thurles, where Féile: The Trip to Tipp, was launched in 1990.

Over the course of its seven-year history, Macroom attracted a number of well-known headline acts and Van Morrison, The Boomtown Rats, Wishbone Ash, Elvis Costello and Paul Brady all feature prominently in its story. The ability to attract such high-profile names to a small town in West Cork is all the more remarkable given that Ireland’s biggest concert promoters had given Macroom a wide berth: – the ambition was deemed, understandably so, to be just not realizable.

It’s for the two Gallagher headline appearances there on Sunday, June 26th, 1977 and Saturday, June 24th, 1978, for which The Mountain Dew Festival is most memorably recalled, though. Between 1975 and 1979, Rory released four albums – among them two of his best long-players, ‘Calling Card’ and ‘Top Priority’ – and was a prodigious live performer. Then at his creative peak and kicking in the face of punk rock, which had broken the British mainstream in earnest during Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977, the first of those shows also co-incided with the launch of ‘Hot Press’, Ireland’s long-standing music and social affairs magazine.

Conceived and edited, as it is today, by Niall Stokes, and founded by him and a cohort of like-minded Dublin college graduates, the remarkable story of that publication – and Niall’s constant re-invention of the paper in the decades since – is worthy of a Ken Burns-style documentary series. Rory Gallagher was the first ever Hot Press cover star and, until his death almost twenty years later, both parties were tied at the waist.

Rory played many explosive live shows in Ireland during his career, several of them within the ornate indoors at The City Hall in Cork and The Ulster Hall in Belfast. But the Mountain Dew Festival was his first ever outdoor headliner in this country and, following years of high-profile festival shows across Europe, marks another important crossing of the line for him: – was he scaling up and, perhaps, finally finding the mainstream himself?

With tickets priced at 2.50, and with a support bill that also featured The Joe O’Donnell Band and the Flemish bluesman, Ronald Van Campenhout, that 1978 show certainly commanded attention and audience. Estimates of the size of the crowd vary wildly but, using some of the stills shot around the castle on the day, we can realistically put the attendance at around six or seven thousand people and certainly no more than that.

The following summer, on Saturday, June 26th, 1978, Gallagher returned to headline again at Macroom, and Hot Press magazine was once more prominent around the fringes. Still finding its feet in the local marketplace, where it was still regarded as a curiosity, Stokes and his small team succeeded in attracting a number of high-profile musicians and personal guests into the belly of the beast, among them Bob Geldof and Johnny Rotten, and built an improvised awards ceremony into the weekend’s proceedings. And so the first ever Hot Press music awards took place in Coolcower House Hotel, outside Macroom, once Gallagher had completed his set.

Rotten’s journey to Cork, and then onwards to the festival site, has long been the stuff of local legend. His band, The Sex Pistols, had recently come asunder as spectacularly as they’d briefly turned popular music on its head and, now trading as John Lydon, he had re-established himself quickly. With a new band, Public Image Limited, already on the go and about to record its first album, he boarded a flight from London to Cork dressed in priest’s garb. Following an encounter on-board with a couple of nuns, it was only the intervention of Niall Stokes and B.P. Fallon, who was working as a publicist for the event in Macroom, that helped him avoid arrest on landing in Ireland.

Johnny Rotten with one of his cousins, taken in The Coolcower Hotel at the Hot Press Awards. © Herman Kemp

Both of Johnny Rotten’s parents are Irish: – his mother, Mary Barry, is from Carrigrohane, twenty miles from Macroom, and the singer spent many of his childhood summers back in Ireland among his cousins. By fetching up in County Cork, even on such tenuous grounds, Rotten – like Rory Gallagher – was in effect ‘coming home’.

Group shot featuring Bob Geldof, Eamonn Carr, B.P. Fallon et al © Herman Kemp

Herman Kemp was also at that Gallagher show. And in the days before carefully curated media access and strong-armed public relations, took a number of terrific snaps at both the live show and, afterwards, around the tables at those Hot Press awards. He’d travelled down from the city with his friend, Con Downing, his Pentax camera and a bag of high-end lenses borrowed from a colleague on the teaching staff up in The Mon, Brother Leader. Leader’s name will be well known to northside men of a particular generation :- he also ran a film club in the primary school and played westerns and war films in the school hall using his own projector.

Rory Gallagher at Macroom Festival 1978 © Herman Kemp
Rory Gallagher at Macroom Festival 1978 © Herman Kemp
Rory Gallagher at Macroom Festival 1978 © Herman Kemp

Con Downing was another keen music fan and nascent writer who went on to be a mainstay on the Cork journalism circuit, eventually becoming editor of ‘The Southern Star’ newspaper, where he still resides.

Savvy young rakes on the go, Herman and Con’s passes allowed them to drive right into the grounds of Macroom Castle, past the security cordon provided by the local Gaelic football club and straight to a specially constructed front-of-stage hospitality area set aside for the great and the good. In which they enjoyed themselves royally.

And I know this now because, after forty-three years, Herman and myself have recently been re-connected; – it’s difficult to hide around these parts when you have such a distinctive handle and live in a small country. By way of standing up his story, he’s given us a number of his original photographs from The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival, 1978 – and the subsequent do – and also his permission to use them here.

Now ten years retired from teaching, having entered the trade as a callow and energetic nineteen year-old, we are grateful to him and humbled in equal part.