R.E.M :- THE LOST LETTER

 

You’d miss R.E.M. all the same, wouldn’t you ? Easily one of the best, certainly one of the most prolific and without doubt one of the most subversive of them all stepped off of the travellator for the last time in  2011, thirty-one years after they’d assembled in Athens, Georgia, from where they launched some of the most breath-taking and influential records in the entire history of popular music. And although the quality of some of the band’s later material definitely tailed off – I’d point to a dilution of structural tension before anything else, if pushed – at least ten of R.E.M.’s fifteen studio albums should, by any standards, reside in any self-respecting music collection.

Once they’d found traction and, literally, their voice, on ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’, their third album, released in 1985, they remained a real threat until the very end and, as recently as the band’s last elpee, ‘Collapse Into Now’, were freely minting the magic :- ‘Walk It Back’ is easily one of their best ever songs on a record that’s much, much more than a mere swansong. R.E.M. might well have been struggling to maintain the all-killer consistency that had long hall-marked them but it wasn’t overly difficult, after twenty-five years at the crease, to pardon them ;- very few will ever again come close to their batting average.

 

 

It’s easy to point to the departure of the group’s founder, drummer Bill Berry, back in 1997, as a nail in their tube and the start of a slow puncture. But while the loss of their founder and, to my mind at least, the band’s spiritual leader, certainly impacted on R.E.M.’s complicated blood circulation system, I’d be mindful of an over-simplistic diagnosis. Berry was certainly an under-rated writing influence and many of the band’s more impactful offensives were launched from behind his traps. But it’s worth considering the following question :- name one band or artist of such distinction and influence – and I include Bowie, Dylan and Neil Young here – whose body of work retained its earlier consistency beyond ten albums ?

 

There was much about R.E.M. that set them apart during their three decades together, but leaving the stage with the same easy command of their craft on ‘Collapse Into Now’ as they did on arrival, albeit through a far narrower lens, on the ‘Chronic Town’ mini-album and then the ‘Murmur’ album [1983], is one of their greatest definers. During which time they crawled from the south to become the unlikeliest biggest band in the world ever. And in my more introspective moments – and there have been more and more of those this last twelve months as my children grow older and the world struggles for order – I often think about the damage that R.E.M. might cause were they still actively recording in this, the year of the rancid, venal, racist, neo-liberal sociopath ?

 

Thirty years ago, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ [1986] and ‘Document’ [1987], the band’s fourth and fifth albums, were powered on many levels by the darker shadows of Ronald Reagan’s American presidency and the many unsettling, often inflammatory, policy positions adopted by his administration at home and abroad during his term of office. That R.E.M. crossed over into the mainstream during the Reagan years and released its angriest, most insurgent and best records during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, who held office between 1989 and 1993, may not be co-incidental either.

 

I was a recent college graduate, mooching the streets in search of a start and, like many others like me, was as comforted and confounded by those records as I was informed and scared by them. R.E.M. were taking sharply-informed, highly-charged political and social rhetoric into the arenas and stadia without once sounding like an over-earnest, empty-at-the-bottom rock band in search of a slogan. Of which, during the 1980s, there were far too many, few of whom showed any grasp at all of nuance and subtlety. Unlike R.E.M., who were masters of this sort of carry-on, routinely wrapping their nail bombs in the softest of suggestion and allusion.

 

I’ve obsessively gone back to both ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and ‘Document’ over the last six months ;- like David Szalay’s novels or any of the Father Ted episodes, new dimensions still emerge within their work on every engagement. Because while R.E.M. of course brought astute, often implied political messaging, their range carried far higher and much wider. They routinely dealt with the far more complex politics of human engagement too and are responsible for some of the most bewitching love songs in the history of the genre.

 

Many of which, like the bulk of the band’s canon, have dated extremely well. Even on their first, tentative albums, ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’ [1984] their shyness – parts of their debut, Michael Stipe’s vocals especially, are buried to the point of being barely audible – there was always a real intent deep within the sound of their silence. Manifest from early on the likes of ‘Talk About The Passion’, ‘Perfect Circle’,and ‘Camera’ and on numerous junctions thereafter.

 

 

 

The more curious among us were well and truly under the band’s spell from the first bars of ‘Radio Free Europe’ onwards. As well as the songs –  most of which were stellar – the band itself was remote and mysterious enough for those who were instinctively dragged to the margins and who preferred their music served at an angle. Myself and my friend, Philip, spent hours poring over R.E.M., particularly their first four albums, which we adored and which were released during that period in our friendship when we lived, pretty much, in each other’s pockets. And during which time we made numerous attempts to decipher some of R.E.M.’s enigma. Or which there was an awful lot.

 

Basic as it sounds, but we spent far too much time trying to work out, from their mug-shots on the back of ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’, exactly which of them was which. Their names, ‘Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe’ – always in alphabetical order and briefly, on ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’, with added initials – quickly became embedded in our vernacular, tripping off of the tongue as easily as any of the band’s songs. [A special nod here, for the anoraks, to the mysterious N. Bogan, who received a once-off writing credit on ‘West Of The Fields’]. R.E.M. rarely, if ever, succumbed to the obvious and, on those early sleeves, are deliberately playing with their identity and with how the band fronted-up ;- they look completely different, Berry’s distinctive eyebrows apart, on the first two albums.

 

Indeed it wasn’t until the band appeared on the BBC music television series, ‘The Od Grey Whistle Test’, in November 1984, during which they performed fully live versions of ‘Pretty Persuasion’, from ‘Reckoning’, and debuted a new song, ‘Old Man Kensey’ [from ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’], that we first caught sight of them behind their instruments and were able to definitively join the dots.

 

 

 

Identity – for R.E.M., for myself and Philip – was often a common puzzle during the years when The Paisley Underground, the flag of convenience under which several terrific American guitar bands traded briefly during the early to mid-1980s, was in its pomp. Many of the key figures in that cluster were involved with, or circling around, several other bands at the same time and some of the associations extended far and wide. And although R.E.M., given their Byrds/Love tenor, were only ever loosely aligned to this party, they quickly grew to dominate it and so, on their prompting, we were soon seeking out new music from the likes of Let’s Active, featuring R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, The Long Ryders, Green On Red, Love Tractor, the imperious Jason And The Scorchers, Oh OK [featuring one of Michael Stipe’s sisters, Lynda] and Guadalcanal Diary, a powerful guitar band that also took root in Georgia. Some of which was very difficult to locate and for which we depended, for several years, on friends and acquaintances on J1 Visas in the United States, to import for us.

 

R.E.M. championed their lesser-known – and ultimately just lesser – peers at every opportunity and if Peter Buck didn’t physically contribute guitar to much of this output, then he certainly exerted a serious philosophical influence on it. And by so doing, made a household name of John Keane’s studio, initially a small recording facility local to R.E.M. that was also name-checked so routinely that it sounded like a magnet around which many largely unreported planets revolved.

 

We’d recently returned to school during the autumn of 1984 when I wrote to the P.O. box number listed on the inside sleeve of R.E.M’s second album, ‘Reckoning’. I sent a mournful note to the group – the first and only time I’ve done so with any band – explaining just how difficult it was to follow the fortunes of such an important, emerging band when, like themselves, I too was based far from the action in a regional outpost. I just knew that they’d understand.

 

And for my troubles I received, by return post some weeks later, a hand written reply ;- a free-form note on photocopied paper that also doubled as an artily-designed, type-written merchandising list enclosed within Airmail paper, no less, inviting me to their show in Dublin’s SFX later that year. The band would, the note said, set aside a pair of tickets for me on the night and were hopeful I’d be able to join them afterwards. Irrespective of whether or not this was the work of one of the band, an office junior or someone’s fluffer, it didn’t matter. R.E.M. had heard me like, in my head, I always imagined they would do. And with that scrawled note, a lifelong friendship was forever hewn :- I stayed loyal, steadfast and besotted until the end. And long after the end.

 

That R.E.M. show in Dublin, on December 4th, 1984, has long dominated the colourful war stories of live music veterans in this country. I hear it still referenced to this day, and in the most unlikeliest of settings ;- it’s long been the centre of conversation among a cohort of hardy anoraks  in the small village of Ardfinnan, in South Tipperary, where I gift an annual quota of Corkness to my in-laws.

 

But in one of the most egregious acts of poor judgement in my entire life – and there have been many – I passed up the band’s kind offer to join them for what would be the first of many subsequent live appearances in Ireland. Given that the show was scheduled for a Tuesday night, far from home and during our final year in school, my formal education was deemed to have been more important and, like the Dublin senior footballers, fatigue and work commitments meant that I didn’t make the trip.

 

It’s a wound that’s never entirely healed properly and one that’s been regularly salted over the years. To add insult to it, my letter from R.E.M. – in its own right as important a love note as anything Michael Collins ever wrote to Kitty Kiernan – has been long mislaid. Stuck, more than likely, inside an album that was loaned out to some fleeting love interest years ago in an effort to radicalise her, never to be returned.

 

But I didn’t have to wait too long to see R.E.M. in the flesh. They were back in Dublin the following summer when they appeared at Croke Park as part of the undercard at U2’s ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ show when, in the late afternoon sunshine on July 29th, 1985, they were greeted with a shower of bottles. Their cause may not have been entirely helped by Michael’s decision to start the band’s short slot with his back to the crowd and, in an overcoat and pork-pie hat, to open proceedings with the very antithesis of stadium anthemry, the jagged ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’.

 

 

And from our seats high up in The Cusack Stand, and having recently completed secondary school, we marvelled at the size of their neck. The fact that the partisan home support couldn’t find it in itself to extend the hand to them only drove the point home further :- R.E.M. had decent cutting, our instincts were soundly founded and they were far too subtle for the mainstream. I was, of course, far more careful about where and when I saw my favourite groups thereafter ;- once bitten, twice shy, I  always preferred R.E.M. indoors and always resisted the urge to ever see them in the open air again.

 

I’ve written previously about the profile of the radio presenter, Dave Fanning on RTÉ television’s youth magazine series, ‘Youngline’, that aired in February, 1984 and in which the then late-night disc jockey was shown spinning into his place of work in a battered old beater. He slips a random cassette into the car’s sound system and the life-affirming ‘Radio Free Europe’, the opening cut on R.E.M.’s debut album, ‘Murmur’, comes on. And it was on – and indeed for – those infrequent crumbs that myself and Philip sustained ourselves for ages.

 

That crack Radio 2 squad of Fanning, Mark Cagney and B.P. Fallon were all early R.E.M. acolytes and more or less spun the band off the air as, from the get-go, did the BBC’s John Peel. Fanning and his producer, Ian Wilson, also nailed them for an excellent ‘Rock Show’ interview during that brief 1984 stop-over in Dublin which, far from affording me cold comfort, only succeeded in making my sense of solitary confinement back home seem far, far worse.

 

But we replayed it back incessantly anyway, our ears and eyes opened by the band’s drawly accents and the manner in which they dropped, as usual, the names of several other emerging groups from within their orbit. Philip took his devotion to them much further and, at some point in the early 1990s, made what was then an unprecedented leap when he attempted to grow what remains one of the worst ever beards known to man. This was just one of his many personal tributes over the years to Michael Stipe, who’d recently started to experiment with face furniture and body paint. And it remains one of a number of vivid, sometimes bizarre memories I have of my late friend, with whom I soldiered long and hard in the trenches, usually playing the gormless wingman to his ascetic, corduroy-jacketed people’s poet.

 

R.E.M. were one of a number of compelling, urgent and special groups that we discovered together and through whose many songs we played out the guts of a friendship that was forever as intense as it was complicated. And often at the expense of what we might, and maybe should, have been dealing with instead. But they were easily the most dominant band of that number because, apart from the music, they developed as a force as quickly and as fiercely as myself and Philip were growing up – and moving on – back in Ireland. Twenty-five years after the release of R.E.M.’s most remarkable and most vital album, ‘Automatic For The People’, and I don’t think I’ve ever missed them more. And I don’t think that I’ve ever missed him more either.

 

 

 

 

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STEELY DAN :- LIVE AT THE 3 ARENA, DUBLIN. OCTOBER 28th, 2017. 

It was because of Mark Cagney’s perenially classy late night radio show on Radio 2, ‘The Night Train’, that I was first alerted to the wonder of Donald Fagen and, as a consequence, Steely Dan, the band – in the loosest of terms possible – that Fagen first roughly sketched out with Walter Becker in New York in 1967. Fagen’s regal 1982  solo album, ‘The Nightfly’ became, in several respects, the signature record for Cagney’s show in that, across it’s eight cuts, it also captured the essence of the host who, like the artist, seemed forever torn between the macho ache of cool and the lure of the middle-ground, where the audiences were bigger, the prizes greater and the landings softer.

Thom Hickey, on his excellent blog, The Immortal Jukebox, describes ‘The Nightfly’ as ‘a record that shows us an artist brilliantly finding the means to come to terms with the challenges of perspective’. In so doing, the record reeks of the after-dark and the small hours, wherein man casts one eye on his past and another into an uncertain future. All of which, at the time the record was released, was lost on my empty teenage head :- I was just struck by Fagen’s vocal and the smart, off-beat lustre of ‘New Frontier’, which was unlike anything I’d heard previously. I just loved it.

A memorable television interview that Mark Cagney did several years later with Pat Kenny on ‘Kenny Live’ put real side on what had previously been an affable public personae. In the course of twenty compelling minutes under the studio lights, Cagney spoke affectingly of his wife, who was seriously ill, about his own issues with drug abuse and about why, how and to what effect he had laboured on the graveyard shift for so long. It filled the dots for me on what was often a uniquely sharp radio show ;- Cagney had not only a back story but a scream too. He remains, to my mind, one of the more interesting characters in Irish broadcasting and it would be wrong to dismiss him as just another chat-show lightweight, cut adrift on breakfast television.

When it comes to rock and roll, Cagney has an incredible range and a formidable curiousity. But as REM’s ‘[Don’t Go Back To] Rockville’, Lloyd Cole’s ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’ and Prefab Sprout’s ‘Desire As’ defined ‘The Night Train’ for an entire generation of newcomers searching the more interesting edges of new music, Cagney was an instinctive tutor too ;- he’d thread Neil Young, Lou Reed, Springsteen and vintage American soul music seamlessly into his set-lists. It was education and learning at its most subtle and Cagney was effortleesly schooling his listeners on the value of context. And into those lessons, as primary texts, sat Steely Dan.

In this respect, their ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ album [1973] and ‘Gaucho’ [1980] helped me, eventually, to make some sort of sense of the likely origins of much of the Prefab Sprout catalogue from ‘Steve McQueen’ [1985] onward, particularly the band’s enormously ambitious 1990 double, ‘Jordan : The Comeback’. Those records may not sound overly similar – and, on the surface at least, have little in common – but Fagen and Becker had already shown how possible it was to fuse smart wordplays with complicated time signatures, difficult chord sequences and a variety of styles – routinely incorporating ragtime and jazz – while also knocking out more regular, multi-layered, popular music. It was the scale of the ambition and the grasp of the possibilities of sound that bonded them.

Every house in Ireland is familiar with Steely Dan, either consciously or otherwise. One of the band’s best known songs and biggest commercial hits, ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, lends its title – and its chorus – to the long running and consistently repeated RTÉ archive-based television series. And scanning the sold-out audience down in the soul-less old cow-shed in Dublin’s docklands for Steely Dan’s first Dublin show in twenty-one years, its obvious that many of those same households are represented in the sprawl. Steely Dan might well be an acquired taste and, to many, a difficult listen – aren’t those always the best ones ? – but it’s still comforting to know that, forty-five years since the release of the band’s first album, their impact is still being felt so far from home and to such an extent.

A point not lost, clearly, on Donald Fagen, who appears to be in decent humour as he saunters onto the vast stage – wielding a melodica like a spoil of battle – at Dublin’s 3 Arena and whose positive demeanour develops as the show catches fire. He appears to be genuinely taken by the response to tonight’s best-of set which, as you’d expect, often veers off of its expected course and in which much of Steely Dan’s canon remains unwrapped. ‘Pretzel Logic’ is untouched, they barely dip into the ‘Katy Lied’ elpee, there’s no ‘Rikki’ and, instead, they do a pair of cuts from ‘The Nightfly’ – ‘Green Flower Street’ and ‘New Frontier’ – a formidable ‘Godwhacker’ and a Joe Tex cover.

The two big video screens flanking the stage capture Fagen throughout in close-up, towelling the sweat from his head and wiping his prescription shades clear of fog. He never references the late Walter Becker by name, referring twice instead to ‘my partner’ but, as has been the case throughout the current tour, the band performs ‘Book Of Liars’ from Becker’s 1994 solo album, ‘11 Tracks Of Whack’ by way of a tribute to Fagen’s long-time side-kick, who died in September.

But there’s a name-check later for David Palmer, the band’s one-time vocalist who took the lead on ‘Dirty Work’, back on Steely Dan’s 1972 debut, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’. That mighty cut is performed tonight, as it’s been for many years, by the group’s imperious backing vocalists, The Danettes, and is a real stand-out among many.

Those considered, layered female harmonies have long distinguished much of Steely Dan’s best work, regularly sitting at the heart of their material and not, as can often be the case, as mere decoration or after- thought. And tonight they serve a more practical purpose too :- Fagen has forever been a distinctive vocalist but he’s never been a comfortable one and, closing in on seventy now, deftly deflects the top registers side-stage, from where The Danettes regularly escort him home.

Elsewhere, the four-way brass section – alto and tenor saxes, trumpet and trombone – add girth to the ragtime and jazz aspects of the set and also sit tidily into the bigger picture, even if all twelve musicians on stage often make like they’re all working in isolation. Which is another long-time Steely Dan trait :- the busy arrangements have always been carefully plotted – the more clinical aspects of their sound have always been a critical bugbear – and Becker and Fagen are among the most formidable structural architects in the history of contemporary music. For better and, often, for worse.

But backed by an exceptional band, among which guitarist Jon Herington – the definitive New York City blade – drummer Keith Carlock, bassist Freddie Washington and backing vocalist Carolyn Leonhart have been long-time side-kicks, Steely Dan counter the coldness of the venue quickly, which is no mean feat, and also just about defy the vagaries of the in-house sound system, which can often take on a life of its own.

They sign off with ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ – by a distance the closest to concession they get all night – and which, fully-revved and loaded, brings a deserved ovation from a full-house that, one suspects, was won over long before the band had even taken the stage.

In the twenty-odd since Steely Dan last played in Dublin, the area that surrounds the venue, deep in the city’s docklands, has changed beyond all recognition :- the container depots and the cargo huts are dwarfed now by the dominant cut of contemporary architecture, every new structure a statement piece. Given the prominence of chrome, metal supports, clean design lines and glass fronts on the long walk down from the city centre, there’s a Steely Dan metaphor on every block.

Because I’m certain I’ve never seen such a breadth of ambition on any live stage previously :- the closest I can recall by way of comparison is Prefab Sprout’s show in the same venue in December, 1990, when that band’s core line-up was suitably enhanced as they toured the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ album. But not even that performance,  memorable as it was, comes anywhere close in terms of the sheer scale of delivery and the scope of aspiration that hallmarks tonight’s. Which was stellar, spellbinding stuff from the off and if, as you’d imagine, many of us are unlikely to see Steely Dan live again, a remarkable farewell.

 

CYPRESS, MINE ! :- TRASH TALK

 

Jim McCarthy’s photograph on the front of ‘Exit Trashtown’ could have been taken in Cork at any point during the 1980s. In that snap, a lorry’s fog-lights pop the mist as it passes an abandoned fishing boat that’s run aground on the banks of The River Lee. Take your pick of the metaphors ;- you’re spoilt for choice.

 

Two months after Cypress, Mine ! released that record in May, 1988, Michael Jackson, then the undisputed heavyweight champion of popular music, performed two sold-out shows at Páirc Uí Chaoimh that briefly sprinkled Cork with glamour and razzle. He later departed Ireland on a private jet, accompanied by his companion, 10 year-old Jimmy Safechuck, and the place quickly returned to normal. From beneath the grey, it was left to the likes of Cypress, Mine ! to keep the flag flying and the tunes rolling.

 

The city and its people that surrounded and informed them had long been left behind. In Cork, the 1980s carried on where the previous decade left off and the back-drop to Cypress, Mine !’s tenure was pockmarked by social, moral and financial austerity. The industrial fumes that often carried up on the wind from the docks left the city centre with an unwelcome whiff ;- something was indeed very rotten.

 

Back in 1987, Charles Haughey was returned to power as head of a minority Irish government. While in Cork, one of its most talked-about politicians, Bernie Murphy, a local councillor who couldn’t read or write, travelled to San Francisco in 1986 as a civic guest and returned with a new set of false teeth. A man who, when asked on local radio for his view on a contraceptive bill that was then before parliament replied ;- “I think it should be paid”.

 

In Daunt Square, at the Northern end of Cork’s main drag, protesters routinely railed against nuclear power, in favour of divorce and opposed The Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution which, in 1983, introduced a constitutional ban on abortion. And as ‘Exit Trashtown’ was still warm on the shelves of the handful of record shops around the city, a prominent voice – that of The Bishop Of Cork – denounced the screening of Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation Of Christ’ during the Cork Film Festival as an act of blasphemy. Had it really been only three years since a statue of The Blessed Virgin was reported to have moved, twenty odd miles out the road in Ballinspittle ?

 

Little wonder, then, that Cypress, Mine ! could be so angry, moody and vocal. And all those years later, I’m still grateful that they stuck around to channel it all and helped to illuminate the pit.

 

 

FÓGRA :-

These notes were written for the inside sleeve of the 30th anniversary re-issue of ‘Exit Trashtown’, released today on Pretty Olivia Records. The package also includes many previously unavailable Cypress, Mine ! cuts, including most of what was originally intended as the band’s second album. And is, of course, heartily recommended.

http://prettyolivia.bigcartel.com/product/cypress-mine-exit-trashtown-2lp

 

 

 

 

VINCENT HANLEY’S ABSOLUTE FABULOUSNESS

 

Broadcasters Donal Dineen and the late Vincent Hanley never met and, on the surface, have little in common bar the radio. One revelled in the glare, came alive in front of an audience and was widely known by his nickname, Fab Vinny. The other has long been uneasy in the spotlight and only really comes alive after dark ;- when he hosted a nightly national radio programme he’d reluctantly whisper his name to a small but loyal cadre of music fans, anoraks and enthusiasts. One was The Disco King, the other was strictly No Disco.

 

But I thought of Donal within minutes of the retro-skewing opening titles of Eimear O’Mahony and Sinéad Ní Churnáin’s forthcoming short documentary on Hanley, Fab Vinny, which airs on RTÉ One on October 31st next and which looks at the short life of one of the most arresting characters to have ever lit up the radio and television schedules in Ireland. And I thought especially of the many conversations we had, twenty five years ago, when we were wandering blindly together through the first, nervy months of the ‘No Disco’ television series and when, left to our own devices on what was in essence an illicit back-room operation, we worked away on the fly. All that kept us afloat was the buoyancy that often comes from gut instinct.

 

During that time we’d regularly reference MT USA [Music Television USA], the pioneering series that Conor McAnally and Bill Hughes produced and that Vincent Hanley presented on Irish national television on Sunday afternoons for three seasons, starting in February, 1984. Because if it wasn’t for MT USA, ‘No Disco’ would never have seen the light of day on the same channel, RTÉ 2, ten years later even if, on most levels, the two shows were literally worlds apart.

 

Thirty years after his premature death in April, 1987, Vincent Hanley is remembered best for the series that brought wall-to-wall popular music television to the masses, many of whom were located across provincial Ireland where, on a clear day, you had two part-time channels to pick from. MTV had launched in the United States two years previously and, although music video was still an infant form, MT USA was prescient and on the money :- Hanley saw the potential and ran with it.

 

Like our own series that launched in 1993, it was cut in the likeness of it’s host – bold, ambitious and fabulous – even if its production model meant it was frequently paddling furiously beneath the surface. Hanley’s links were shot on location around popular New York city landmarks, to where Bill Hughes would take flight from Dublin every week to capture the host at play on his adopted estate, centre-stage on the city’s streets, lord of all he surveyed.

 

Fab Vinny was one of the programme’s two lead characters – the other was the city of New York itself – and his scripts and interviews with everyone from randomers on the city’s sidewalks to the biggest names in popular music, often told you far more about him than about much of the music he featured, from which he often appeared utterly detached. But the message was simple :- Fab Vinny was out there, somewhere over the rainbow on Planet Fabulous, having the time of his life. And on Sunday afternoons, he’d blag every one of his viewers with him into the most exclusive showbiz party of the week.

 

Those signals weren’t lost on an entire generation of famished music fans for whom the three-hour long programme quickly became an appointment to view. Irrespective of whether or not you were from a small village on the Cork/Kerry border like Donal Dineen or, like myself, from a village on the northside of Cork city, MT USA was an absolute event and, for the three years it remained on air, dominated our weekends. As the country went to sleep after Summer, once the All-Irelands had been won and the trophies gone home for the year, it helped us to flesh out the winter with giddy talk.

 

But MT USA does only scant justice to Hanley’s career in broadcasting – and his complicated gestalt – the bulk of which was spent at RTÉ ;- he soared high quickly but was regularly on the move. In the best and worst traditions of daytime radio he revelled in his nickname which, according to Bill Hughes, his life-long friend and colleague on the MT USA production team, he absolutely loved. ‘Everything [with Vincent] was fab’, he remembers. ‘And of course he had to be fab too’. And so whenever the transmission light went on in studio or whenever he heard a director’s countdown, Vincent Hanley became Fab Vinny, a smelting of a private and public face that for years gave Hanley an enigmatic edge. At least until the last months of his young life when the lines became blurred and the joins began to sunder.

 

His brother, Fergus, recalls how, growing up as part of a small family in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Vincent and himself ‘lived on different planets’. Bill Hughes describes him as ‘very much a smalltown boy in some ways, but very much angry at the idea that anyone would think he was a smalltown boy’. And throughout his career Hanley consistently sought out a town that was big enough to accommodate him, moving first from Clonmel to Cork, then onwards to Dublin, from there to a short spell with Capitol Radio in London, and ultimately on to New York City.

 

He began his broadcasting career, like many others, in the small, off-Broadway outpost in RTÉ in Cork, where his attractive tenor was quickly recognised and from where he hosted several music-based radio programmes for the local opt-out service while working relief shifts in the locals nightclubs. He moved quickly to the campus in Montrose, working initially as a continuity announcer on radio and television before he was unveiled as one of the bulwarks on the new national popular music radio station, Radio 2, when it was launched in May, 1979. Hanley’s anchor slot on the weekday mornings between 9.30 am and 12 noon saw him scaffold the daily schedules alongside the likes of Ronan Collins, Marty Whelan, Jimmy Greely and Larry Gogan in the heart of peak-time, supported by the likes of Dave Fanning, Gerry Ryan and Pat Kenny on the flanks and in the margins.

 

But as well as dominating the national pop radio schedules, the first of the Radio 2 recruits also made regular hay on the burgeoning club circuit around the country where, for many years, they drew considerable live crowds into regional dancehalls, rendering much of the last vestiges of Ireland’s showband scene redundant as they did so. And while they were also handsomely palmed for their troubles, the broader picture wasn’t lost on Hanley :- in entertainment, as in life, time waits for no one.

 

 

Given the easy availability of technology and the daily blizzard of user-generated video material today, its difficult to appreciate just how vital the MT USA series was. Conor McAnally rightly claims that the show was instrumental in breaking several prominent American acts on this side of the Atlantic – ZZ Top, especially – simply by heavily rotating their distinctive short-form music videos to large audiences. The series also gave a considerable leg-up to U2 and initially featured some of the band’s highly-charged live performances at the magnificent Red Rocks arena in Colorado in 1983 and which were also captured on the band’s ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’ album. While word of U2’s breakthrough in America was rife back in Ireland – often imparted first-hand by returned immigrants who’d witnessed the band’s live shows or television appearances there – MT USA captured the evidence on video and reinforced the message back home.

 

That same oxygen supply also helped to launch Suzanne Vega more widely following her breakthrough in the U.S. in 1984, while also pushing the likes of established American acts like Pat Benatar [her ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ must have been the single most played video in the entire history of the show], Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac. To its credit, MT USA also supported a slew of emerging mainstream acts, most notably Madonna, who’d released her debut album in 1983 and whose arrival as one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music coincided with the peak of the show’s popularity. A popularity that was reflected in the widespread recording of weekly episodes of the series onto VHS cassettes in households all over Ireland.

 

 

Inevitably, and as was par for the course in Ireland during the 1980s, the idea of popular contemporary music playing to large, family-centred audiences on Sunday afternoons drew fire and ire from the usual quarters. Largely because of the lascivious, on-tape carry-on of the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Prince and Madonna herself, Bill Hughes became a regular visitor to the RTÉ Radio Centre where he’d fend off familiar criticisms from the nation’s moral custodians and robustly defend his series. ‘We were read from the altar’, recalls MacAnally over thirty years later, knowing that content of even a moderately sexual nature – and the indignation that often followed – was  ultimately good for business.

 

A point not lost on a vocal parish priest in the small West Cork village of  Union Hall, who made this point repeatedly during a plainly bizarre series of moral sermons he delivered from the pulpit that I witnessed as a gob-smacked teenager on holidays with my family at this time.

 

But notwithstanding the odd set-to, MT USA was ostensibly a safe, very middle-of-the-road affair that served up a diet of radio-friendly rock and pop music. You’d often wait for hours to see something moderately lateral and out of the ordinary and, more often than not, you’d leave disappointed, returning the following week in the hope of a fleeting glimpse of Morrissey, Paddy McAloon or Michael Stipe. Like ‘No Disco’, the show is routinely viewed now through a tinted lens ;- it was often far more stylish than it was substantial, much less than the sum of its parts and very definitely of its time. Grabby graphics and noisy stings could never convincingly mask its easy, mainstream feel, even if Hanley was a pioneering jock with a far looser approach than most of his colleagues, more Kenny Everett than Pat Kenny.

 

Vincent Hanley was a gay man who died of an AIDS-related illness, the first public Irish figure to succumb to a disease about which, in 1987, little was known. For many years the exact cause of his death remained unclear to all but those inside his coterie of friends and family. More broadly, homosexuality was still outlawed in Ireland and Dublin boasted only one gay club, which operated on the condition that no alcohol could be served there.

 

One of the more striking aspects of the ‘Fab Vinny’ documentary is how, in it’s deft use of archive footage, some of it long-lost and some of it previously unseen, the film adroitly captures Hanley’s physical disintegration during the final pages of the MT USA history and the last months of his life. In as much as he’d grown up and come of age in the public eye, he ailed visibly on camera too.

 

In the run-up to Christmas, 1986, Hanley was back home in Ireland and, to those catching up with him for the first time in months, his appearance – of which he was forever proud – aroused no little concern or comment. In order to allay concerns for his well-being, he did a memorable radio interview on The Gay Byrne Hour on RTÉ Radio One where he dismissed suggestions that he was ill. Dublin’s Evening Herald newspaper had led, days previously, with a story headlined ‘Health Fears For Pop DJ Hanley’ in which, citing un-named sources and reacting to the media’s gossip mill, they’d landed a serious end-of-year flyer. But one which Vincent was anxious to bury :- he suggested to Byrne that The Evening Herald had implied he was suffering from AIDS.

 

Conor McAnally had first noticed his physical decline from a seat in front of a bank of monitors in the video editing suite in which he had a weekly inject of MT USA video footage. A full decade before the concept of reality television, Vincent Hanley’s weekly links chronicled the effects of a debilitating condition in real time. Bill Hughes reveals that, during the recording of Hanley’s pieces to camera during the last months of the MT USA run in the winter of 1986, the presenter was often too weak to stand and had to be regularly supported, often using his director’s arched back to sit on in between takes.

 

Vincent Hanley died in Saint James’s Hospital in Dublin on April 18th, 1987, in the presence of his closest friends. On the day of his funeral in Clonmel days later, Marian Richardson was presenting hourly news updates on Radio 2, one of the presenter’s former stomping grounds. And as she referenced the funeral on her broadcast just after lunch, she struggled to retain her composure as she referred to her late colleague, and broke down.

 

Simply Red’s version of the old Cole Porter song, ‘Everytime We Say Goodbye’, segued directly out of the end of the bulletin.

 

FÓGRA :-

‘Fab Vinny’ airs on RTÉ One on Tuesday, October 31st next at 7PM.

 

ADDENDUM – via KillianM2

MT1MT2MT3MT4MT5MT6MT7MT8MT9MT10

INTO PARADISE – BACK TO THE GLENSIDE

welcome to churchtown

 

I spent many, many hours with the excellent Dublin band, Into Paradise, devising numerous schemes and strategies intended to bring them in from the cold but that only ultimately moved them further out into the margins. And through the madness, I remember fondly the time I spent as the band’s butler, a bit like Scooter from The Muppet Show, during which I tried to help them put order on their affairs, publicise their cause and, briefly, even turn out for them as an additional member of their live retinue. Like a loyal handful of others I felt their material warranted way more attention and far greater audiences than it ever generated and I’ll go my grave still stubbornly making that case for them. But whenever Into Paradise turn up, as they regularly do, on those lists that chronicle the great feats of chronic Irish under-achievement, another part of me melts away ;- is it right or just that these are the only charts in which the band has ever featured prominently ?

 

Exactly how ‘[Why Don’t You] Move Over’, the band’s most friendly pop song, failed to achieve broader recognition than it did when it was first released as a single in 1993, is as difficult to rationalise as the free-form roundabout in Walkinstown, which goes in many directions and none at the same time. But although Into Paradise has long since splintered in various directions, it must still rankle with one or two of them that they’re best remembered for what they didn’t achieve rather than for what they did.

 

 

I’ve never written at any great length about them :- what goes on on the road and within small, confined spaces is often best left there. But although much of their story is an achingly familiar one, there’s another level on which it’s just far too complicated, even at this remove. The likes of Dónal Ryan and Emma Donohoe, with their deft hands and keen sense of the claustrophobic and the absurd, might struggle to do it justice.

 

My long-standing personal connection to them aside – and, like many aspects of their story, this was always intense and forever prone to fracture – they’ll always just be one of my favourite bands. And when I dip back into their material now, I can still hear the rare, punctured and sometimes reckless beauty that characterised much of their first two elpees and that was still flickering when they did two mini-albums back on the Setanta label towards the end of their decade-long history. Their back catalogue is like an extension of my body at this stage.

 

But that’s what happens when you soldier on the frontlines with a group as consistently keen-eyed and forever acute as they were. When, long before the internet or mobile phones, you’d drive for days with them across the continent, using old atlases and road maps to reach those small venues in Zurich or that large warehouse in Alicante or the bikers hut somewhere in Holland that whiffed of denim, soiled leather and questionable politics.

 

Every one of those trips began in hope and with a sense that, out there somewhere, new audiences – or indeed any audiences – awaited us. And it was that same hope, and the inevitable disappointment that followed Into Paradise around like a deranged hanger-on, that turned on you in the end. My own heart eventually just gave out when, near the finish, we travelled for an eternity to Castletownbere on the Beara peninsula in West Cork to play a local festival to less than twenty punters in a vast hall. While, in the venue across the road, Zig and Zag were doing ‘Never Mind The Zogabongs’ in its entirety to a full-house whose floor was buckling beneath the heft of feet. Ten years previously, in a parallel world, the fictional American band, Spinal Tap, were also up-staged by a puppet show during an ill-advised booking at Themeland Amusement Park in California. But at least Spinal Tap had the consolation of knowing they’d landed a bigger dressing room than the puppets ;- Into Paradise enjoyed no such luxury.

 

 

 

Purely by co-incidence, I moved onto the band’s manor twelve or so years ago. The second Into Paradise album, ‘Churchtown’, their only issue on a major label, is named after the south Dublin suburb in which the group grew up, took shape and in which it was based, on and off, for most of its existence. I drive through Churchtown practically every single day now, along those same tree-lined back-roads I once walked for hours to get to band meetings and rehearsals. Through a part of the south Dublin hinterland that, to some of us, is as well-known and historically important for the likes of Blue In Heaven and The Coletranes [later Revelino] as it is for Scoil Éanna and Patrick Pearse and where, for the guts of ten years, the best-known Into Paradise line-up – David Long, Rachel Tighe, Jimmy Eadie and Ronan Clarke – devised new spells and conjured up regular magic tricks, often in spite of themselves.

 

Many of the landmarks that pepper the band’s story are still standing and some of the others have been modified in the years since the band would regularly go to the well, summon its energies one more time, assemble in the practice room and make another last, often despairing stab at it. And, when I’m stuck in traffic during the early mornings on Lower Churchtown Road or when I’m caught for puff on as I shuffle past the back of Milltown Golf Club, its hard not to be reminded of the band’s magnificent body of work when the source of much of it is rooted all around me.

 

The Bottle Tower, now a gastro-pub with notions serving craft beer on the top end of Churchtown Road Upper and Nutgrove Avenue was, for years, a formidable local bolthole outside of which we’d assemble the troops at dawn before leaving for the ferry at Dún Laoghaire. Close-by, within touching distance of the long defunct Braemor Rooms – the long-time spiritual home of Dublin cabaret – is De La Salle Boys school where David Long, the formidable Into Paradise leader, seems not to be listed alongside the footballer, Damien Duff, the actor, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and the film director, John Carney, on the roll call of honour along it’s far-reaching hallways.

 

 

The old Mount Carmel hospital at the inter-section of Orwell Road and Braemor Park, is now largely un-occupied and infinitely less busy than it used to be at the height of the Celtic Tiger and its assorted insanities. But from outside on the roadway, I can make out ‘the grey, dirty white steps of the hospital greenhouse’ that begin ‘The Pleasure Is Over’, one of the many stellar cuts on the first Into Paradise album, ‘Under The Water’, released on the Setanta label in 1990. Further along the same road, towards the village end, the walls of the band’s old rehearsal rooms on the tip of Braemor Park and Braemor Road are still super- injuncted forever from talking, which is maybe for the best.

 

And then there’s The Glenside, an enormous, thatched boozer located half-way down Landscape Road, the setting for many a lively Into Paradise band meeting and whose pulling power often caused the early abandonment of a scheduled rehearsal. The Glenside has long been a fixture on Dublin’s formidable suburban entertainment circuit and, for years, The Evening Herald newspaper carried regular listings for the wide breath of exotica it hosted. Also on that circuit were the likes of The Addison Lodge in Glasnevin, The Patriots Inn in Kilmainham, The Old Mill in Tallaght, The Graduate in Killiney and The Towers in Ballymun, where I saw Aslan do a couple of blinding acoustic shows during their fallow years in the early 1990s while they were at a loose and uncertain point in their career, scrambling for life. That hinterland track gave them the space to re-group and re-calibrate, strictly out of the spotlight, and also put a few bob into their pockets for good measure.

 

All of these are sizeable premises that serve decent pints, good food and regular entertainment, the bulk of which is almost always booked from the cabaret network. It was in this territory that Brendan O’Carroll, for instance, first developed a reputation for what one might charitably refer to as a particular brand of comedy. And where, to this day, the likes of Roly Daniels and Who’s Eddie continue to defy the laws of science, taste and decency.

 

Every now and then an out-of-the-ordinary or quirky booking might pull a different sort of crowd out into the suburbs and away from the city- centre axis around which Dublin’s live music scene has long been rooted. It was up in what was once The Rathmines Inn in Dublin 6, for instance, that Bjorn Again – still easily the best of all of the Abba tribute bands – made their first tentative live appearances in Ireland while, during the early 1990s, The Dundrum House hosted a series of magnificent live shows by The Coletranes, a local guitar-doused outfit whose classy record collections and adroit command of music history shaped a terrific residency that took place on their own doorstep.

 

The Glenside still serves up regular live music in one of its well- appointed rooms upstairs and, from one week to the next, you’re never quite sure what or who you’ll find there. Earlier this year, while The Republic of Ireland were sleep-walking their way through a soporific friendly fixture against Iceland over at The Aviva Stadium, I was back in the place after for the first time in ages, lured by a friend promising a night of decent cover versions, old-school riffing and quality porter. And in that wood-lined room, up over the sprawling main bar that, on one side, is festooned with decades worth of vintage Dublin Gaelic football memorabilia and, on the other, the rolling screens that only always seem to carry Sky Sports, The Donal Kirk Band enlivened a slow night with a wide-ranging stock of standards, each one delivered with the careful precision of a surgeon’s nerveless hand.

 

The breath of their fare is unremarkable enough ;- ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘You Do Something To Me’, ‘Wish You Were Here’ and David Gray’s ‘Babylon’ all sitting in a set that also features the odd Vince Gill cover and early ZZ Top. What distinguishes them, though, – and at the risk of sounding like the esteemed Jazz Club host, Louis Balfour – is the quality of the performance, every one of the five men consistently winning their own ball. And what starts as high end pub rock, neat and tidy throughout, develops into something that eventually becomes far more than the sum of its parts as they kick for home after an hour or so.

 

Donal Kirk’s name will be familiar to those who frequented Slatterys on Capel Street or JJ Smyth’s on Aungier Street during the 1980s, when both venues resounded regularly to the strains of quality r and b and dirty rock and roll. A fine vocalist with a soft, easy delivery, he was part of a crew that also included Don Baker and the guitarist, Pat Farrell, serious men well-drilled in the deep, often difficult traditions of authentic blues. He’s backed these days by a vacuum-packed rhythm section that supports a series of elaborate solo runs on lead guitar and, to their credit, they’ve pulled sixty odd punters in – no cover charge – riffing out to a handful of friends and musos who’ve gathered by the side of the performance area and who intently devour every lick, turn, spank and run.

 

It wasn’t until the end of a peppy set that paid off with a frenetic blues work-out that the callow figure of the group’s lead guitarist finally emerged from out of the shadows ;- Jimmy Smyth, formerly of The Bogey Boys, and one of the most formidable and nimble musicians I’ve ever seen on any stage. Wearing a long grey pony-tail and standard rock and roll duds, Smyth is a diminutive character and an explosive player whose work I first encountered through someone who shares several of primary his traits, Ray O’Callaghan of Poles Apart, the Police-tinged Blackpool-based three-piece who shone briefly in the early 1980s and who, with their Fender straps and amps, briefly lit up the night skies around Mount Farran, close to the old Glen Hall.

 

 

It was after Ray’s prompting that I first sought out The Bogey Boys, fish out of water, resolutely old style rockers competing for space with what was then the second of the new waves. And they were all the better for that. Jimmy Smyth took many of his cues from Wilko Johnson of Doctor Feelgood and, especially in a live setting, the three-piece were a proud and powerful counterpoint to much of what was going on around them. To this end, their spiky debut album, ‘Friday Night’, released in 1979, is among the most arresting local issues of its time, capturing a youthful Smyth in full flight, wearing the swagger of youth lightly and defiantly on what is a fine opening card. Years later and he’s still doing it on a cold Tuesday night in Churchtown.

 

There’s something warmly re-assuring about how these old soldiers still have the energy for battle ;- all the more so when those battles take place on their own terms. The last time I saw Donal Kirk’s outfit was on the Friday night before the recent All-Ireland football semi-final replay between Mayo and Kerry when I travelled out to Stillorgan and when much of the talk among our number beforehand was on tactical formations and positional switches.

 

Donal Kirk had clearly done his own video analysis himself in the lead-up ;- Jimmy Smyth had been stood down for the night, replaced by Anto Drennan, another local who’s featured regularly on international stages when he’s fetched up over the years as a jobbing guitarist with the likes of The Corrs, Chris Rea and Genesis. Born in Luton – like another of my favourite musicians, Microdisney’s Seán O’Hagan – but raised around the corner in Kilmacud, Drennan is another whose name has decorated many, many records over a long and varied career. And yet he too is still drawn to the flame that often surrounds the local hustings :- towards the end of the set, he steps up during a cover of ‘Purple Rain’ and takes a solo that’s as potent as anything seen in Croke Park the following afternoon. During which, as tends to be customary in these situations, Donal Kirk and his pards gently stalk the small stage behind him, heads bowed as they go, drinking it all in. Up at the side of the venue, meanwhile, I spot a couple of faces I’d seen months earlier, upstairs at The Glenside, their stares fixed stage-wards, eyes closed, close enough to touch the hands of God.

 

I last saw half of Into Paradise at a live show in The Tivoli Theatre in the mid 1990s. I’m still in touch, infrequently over e-mail, with David Long, who now resides down south but who still releases records and writes music, both as a member of The Whens and under his own name. Much of which is as urgent and captivating as anything he did with Into Paradise between 1986 and 1993. His tender, barely-pulsing ambient album, ‘Cities’, is a far cry from the brooding Bunnymen/The Sound rattle that characterises much of Into Paradise’s catalogue and a sign that, on one level, at least one of the pair of us has moved on.

 

Rachel Tighe fetched up for a while in another well-regarded Dublin art-pop band, Luggage, while Jimmy Eadie, a magnificent musician in his own right, runs a small studio from which he composes soundtracks for theatre and installations while producing some of the country’s most interesting writers and performers, We Cut Corners, Jape and Cian Nugent among them. I haven’t seen or heard of the band’s drummer, Ronan Clarke, for almost twenty-five years.

 

And yet every single time I pass The Glenside, I think of Into Paradise and the many battles they fought – and invariably lost – on sites all over this country and far beyond. Proving once more, in a small way, that greatness isn’t always forged in victory.