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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
The summer of 1994 is still primarily recalled by many of us for that year’s World Cup football finals in America, and especially for The Republic of Ireland’s unlikely victory over Italy in The Giant’s Stadium in New York. A game in which Paul McGrath put in an imperious defensive shift that, apart from helping to repel his opponents, also distilled much of the nation’s complicated history into ninety scarcely believable minutes of physical endeavour. For the first couple of weeks of that tournament, much of the country was suspended in time and space and we absolutely lost the run of ourselves. It was brilliant.
I watched that match, which was played on Saturday night, June 18th, with some of my friends from a Cork band called Serengeti Long Walk, on a large screen in an unlikely setting. A small, back-street venue called The Cork Arts And Theatre Club had been festooned and customized for the night :- even the luvvies had hopped the wagon. Two worlds briefly collided and, for a couple of hours, the world was upside down and back to front.
The theatre was packed well before the 9PM kick-off but a couple of us had already been on the go since much earlier. Myself and a local sports hack, Pat McAuliffe, had fetched up with a television news crew outside The City Hall for a pre-breakfast interview with a well-known Premiership footballer, Vinnie Jones, who we’d located in a hotel on Morrison’s Island the previous evening. He was in Cork with a party of acquaintances and friends on his stag weekend but, true to his word, arrived fresh and on time, helpfully kitted out in a white Ireland away top and trendy golf-shorts.
During the course of an exchange that went to air just before kick-off to an enormous television audience, he outlined to Pat his Irish connections, which sounded tenuous enough to me, and his hopes for an international call-up from Jack Charlton, the Irish manager, which turned out to be even more so.
A week previously, at the Vince Power-promoted Fleadh event in Finsbury Park in North London, the head-lining New Zealand/Australian band, Crowded House, emerged for an encore also wearing Republic of Ireland tops. They’d just played a cracking set to a partisan audience featuring many Irish emigrants and second and third-generationists and the reaction, as they returned to ice the cake, was exactly as you’d expect.
Those tops had been gifted to them by Thomas Black, then EMI Records’ local spotter in Ireland and Aiden Lambert, the manager of Dublin four-piece, Blink, who were led by one of his brothers, Dermot. Aiden’s street-trader instinct for an opportunity and a quick win were matched only by his generousity, and I’ve gone into this in more detail in a previous piece.
Whether they realized it or not, Crowded House were making a couple of weighty statements by pulling on those shirts. Outwardly the band was of course being carried on the usual wave of end-of-tour giddiness and knew well the audience they were playing to. But during yet another phase of uncertainty around Anglo-Irish relations, they were also touching on the contentious issue of identity. A theme that also ran through the album they’d released the previous year, ‘Together Alone’, and which they’d been promoting on a far-reaching world tour that had finally come to a halt in in London N4.
Blink had supported Crowded House on the U.K. leg of that haul and while, musically at least, the bands had little in common, it was a decent match and an easy meeting of like minds. Affable, funny and with a common sense of purpose, the groups also shared the same record label at a time when Crowded House were a popular live draw in Ireland. In this respect they can be filed in the same drawer as Chris Rea, Aimee Mann and David Gray, all of whom found regular respite and decent audiences here while they were still looking for commercial footholds in other territories.
We’d recently completed work on the first season of the music television series, No Disco and, unsure whether or not it was returning to the RTE 2 schedules, and with no ties to speak of, I was intent on making the most of the summer. So with the World Cup looming, I threw in my with Blink and joined them for some of the dates on that Crowded House tour in May, 1994. Old habits die hard and what better way to re-charge, I thought, than in the company of two excellent bands ?
I’d blagged my way around Britain and Europe for years in a series of tour vans and in a variety of different guises, sometimes legitimately working and often just hanging on. For many years there was nothing more intoxicating – and of course ultimately demoralising – than the promise of the road ahead and the prospect of where the endless motorways might take you. Those were the days before the engine finally gave up the ghost somewhere beyond the dark valley and when, after too many tours on the same loop, it became obvious to me that the road loves the few and eats the many. In my more introspective moments, I wonder how we ever made it to some of the most remote locations in Europe – and why ? – or indeed how we all made it back home at all ?
Blink were one of those outfits with whom I regularly took off. For a couple of years during the mid-1990s they were one of Ireland’s most interesting and exciting new bands, having formed from the remains of another Dublin combo, Rex And Dino, who themselves had released one terrific single for Solid Records, ‘Someone There To Love’, in 1988. With Aiden’s fingers on the pulse and his eyes constantly peeled, they made the right kind of noise to land a local deal with EMI, and they had plenty to recommend them too. With a strong grasp of the raw mechanics of the pop song – and boasting a top, top rhythm section – they were never either overly precious or indulgent.
Knowing the importance and power of the moment, Blink saw more merit in the hi-energy pop of Mel And Kim as they did in the left-field ache of Kim Gordon. And that Steve Hillage, the one-time Gong guitarist, produced much of their first album, ‘A Map Of The Universe’, tells its own story. By any standards the singles lifted from that elpee – particularly ‘Going To Nepal’, ‘Happy Day’ and ‘Its Not My Fault’ – are memorable cuts that still stand up to scrutiny.
And then there was Crowded House. I was first turned onto them by Mark Cagney – who else ? – on what was then Radio 2FM and who, with added heft from Dave Fanning, relentlessly pushed the band’s first two albums, ‘Crowded House’  and ‘Temple Of Low Men’ . Indeed if ever a band was designed for Cagney it was Crowded House ;- Neil Finn’s songs could be simple, efficient and orthodox but he was just as comfortable as a southpaw, effortlessly switching styles mid-combo. Tracts of the band’s first four albums are testament to his command of structure and what, in technical terms, we might call ‘the middle eight’ and the surprise fill. The imperious ‘Better Be Home Soon’, with its closing organ run and the switch during ‘Fall At Your Feet’ being two absolute cases – of many – in point.
Neil’s blueprint was as clear and simple as the messages he conveyed in his songs and as constant as the mop-top he’s modelled for the guts of forty years. And it all came together for them, I think, on ‘Together Alone’, to my mind Crowded House’s best ever album, released in 1993, and which they toured long and hard.
I was fortunate enough to see them unpack the guts of that album, in high definition and in unusual circumstances, during a handful of dates on that tour where, as part of Blink’s travelling retinue and with a considerable lanyard to legitimize me, I had access to them at their most exposed. For all Neil’s writing prowess, the band’s popular appeal had much to do with its congeniality, much of which was generated by Crowded House’s rhythm section, and particularly by the band’s original drummer and one of the group’s founders, Paul Hester. Paul was a fine musician who, from behind the kit, would regularly interrupt live proceedings with bad puns, one-liners and self-deprecating patter. But far from distracting from the band’s core business, this carry-on only contributed to it’s allure. On the face if it at least, Crowded House, although they took their work very seriously, had few real notions and weren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves.
During the long American leg of the ‘Together Alone’ tour, Hester took off abruptly and returned to Melbourne, where his girlfriend was expecting a baby. Into the live line-up and onto the drum stool came an old friend of the band, Pete Jones, a Liverpool-born session player based in Sydney, who was scrambled half-way across the world to join Crowded House as they were touching down in Britain. And although the band and its management could clearly have done without the inconvenience and the organizational headaches, its not as if you’d have noticed.
Business went on as usual and so, over the course of consecutive sound-checks, I had the scarcely-believable pleasure of watching the band work through their set with a brand new member of their live ensemble. And it was remarkable stuff, really ;- the band walking Pete through the finer points of its songbook – replete with those changes and lost chords – as they rehearsed with him during afternoon soundchecks.
I was standing sentry as usual, half-way down the vast, concrete arenas the band had long sold out, taking it all in. And I’m not sure if, even to this day, I’ve seen anything as mind-blowing in a live setting as Crowded House stepping into the mics on hitting the break on ‘In My Command’, one of the stand-out cuts from ‘Together Alone’. During which the band was actually pulling a stand-in drummer along in its slipstream and, using a series of nods, tics and foot gestures, carrying him through the material.
The band’s line-up on that tour was complimented – and greatly enhanced, I think – by the addition of a wonderful American musician, Mark Hart, on keyboards and guitar. He’d been centrally involved in the recording of ‘Together Alone’ and has been part of the group’s core line-up ever since. From where I stood, though, he was making up more than the numbers ;- he looked like he was the group’s informal musical director.
The band has long lined up with him in the centre-stage, flanked by Neil to his right and Nick to his left while, behind them on that leg of the tour, Pete was busy learning his lines and flaking everything that moved. Neil may well have been the primary creative but, from where I was watching, Mark was playing as an enforcer and, during the uncertainty around that tour, much of the on-stage activity seemed to channel through him.
‘Together Alone’ is arguably best remembered for the first singles lifted from it, ‘Distant Sun’ and ‘Nails In Your Feet’, although over half of the elpee was eventually released in the shorter form. The gut of the album was recorded in a small studio on Kare Kare beach in New Zealand with the London-born producer, Youth, whose colourful past included stints in both Killing Joke and The Orb before he became one of the more unlikely but innovative producers of his generation. Far more layered and subtle than it’s predecessor, ‘Woodface’, the album closes with its magnificent title-track, whose coda features a specially written piece performed by the Te Waka Huia Cultural Group, a Maori choir. Many of whom, in elaborate dress, also joined Crowded House on tour :- the live show would close every night with the singers and log drummers on-stage with the band and making an almighty racket.
And deep in the back-stage, long after the house lights had come up, a full-on hooley would break out, led by the choir and the drummers, and into which the band and their families would fall head first. Traditional songs and stories were swapped well into the night and, whenever Blink were called on for an old song or two from Ireland, they’d contribute with gusto.
My memory of those nights is very sharp, and maybe sharper than it might otherwise be. And over the last twenty-five years, I’ve regularly re-told many of these stories, during good times and bad. Prompted, way too often, by circumstances beyond our control.
And so this one goes out to Paul Hester [1958 – 2005], Pete Jones [1963 –2012], Aiden Lambert [1959 – 2015] and Pat McAuliffe [1958 – 2019].
‘How would you characterise a city’s sound ?’, asks Karl Whitney, in his excellent second book, ‘Hit Factories : A Journey Through The Industrial Cities of British Pop’. In which the writer and academic, Tallaght-reared and based now in Sunderland, explores provincial Britain by train, bus and on foot as he attempts to uncover ‘the story of British pop through the cities that shaped it’.
A compound of social history and back-packer’s travelogue, ‘Hit Factories’ is based on an original thesis ;- namely, that British pop groups and the sounds they’ve made have consistently been influenced by the physical aspects of the cities in which they took shape. Incorporating various lessons in geography and architecture en route, a portrait of the author as a collector and fan also emerges by journey’s end. And although the ambition is a lofty one, Whitney has a trainspotter’s nose for detail that enables him to wrap an anorak’s hood around his pet sounds. By and large, he convincingly stands up his original treatise.
So, using the same metrics, is it possible to determine, perhaps, the sounds of various Irish cities too ? Could it be that, for instance, that Cork’s location as a port city dominated, for years, by a melding of heavy industry with a river that divides it, might have influenced the blues-soaked rock music of Rory Gallagher and, at the same time, connected him to the fractured post-punk of Microdisney and Nun Attax?
What of Galway ? Has its setting in the teeth of the Atlantic and its long history of international export – of people and goods – determined how we hear that city when she roars ? And might this be the staple that binds binds the music of The Stunning, The Little Fish, Toasted Heretic and The Sawdoctors ?
And, if so, then how might we best and most accurately define the sound of somewhere like Kilkenny ? Because there was a time when that county was as regarded for its emerging bands as it was for its fledgling hurlers and, as its senior men’s teams were landing back-to-back All-Irelands in 1992 and 1993, Kilkenny’s cultural underbelly was pulling in parallel. And for five glorious years from 1991 onwards, and to varying degrees of intensity, three local acts were commanding attention at home and abroad while, at every turn, faithfully remembering what, who and where begot them.
During a scarcely believable period of productivity and creativity in which the most meaningful new music in Ireland was being crafted far outside of Dublin, Kerbdog, My Little Funhouse and Engine Alley were taking their positions at the starting blocks. For a while, all roads led to Kilkenny.
I’m leaving Kerbdog and My Little Funhouse to one side for the time being. Suffice to say, though, that in a county as lean as Kilkenny, you’d think that all three bands were certainly known to one another, even if they may not always have been touch-tight. Word that young bucks with notions were messing around with cheap amplifiers and multi-cores would surely have certainly trickled down the corridors of Saint Kieran’s College in the same way that news of this year’s young tyro at Dicksboro or Shamrocks might have excited the more settled set.
Although Engine Alley and Kerbdog attended the same school, it was Kerbdog and My Little Funhouse who were more genetically close and, for a while, both were presciently in tune with the contemporary sounds of the hard American rock circus. MLF were actually signed on a huge deal to Geffen in the immediate aftermath of Nirvana’s breakthrough into the mainstream and, bizarre as it sounds now, were once spoken of in the same breath as Guns N’ Roses. Kerbdog were a far more considered but no less noisy concern and we’ll return to both bands here at some point.
Engine Alley remain, to my mind, one of the more interesting outfits in the history of contemporary Irish popular music. Built around the songwriting core of brothers Canice and Brian Kenealy, the band only really took root in earnest in Dublin once they were joined by the formidable presence of another cat in exile, bassist Eamonn Byrne, and later by Emmaline Duffy-Fallon on drums.
Sharply dressed and often caked in mascara and eye-liner, Engine Alley at their peak were all about the big show and, entering a scene that was overwhelmingly male, guitar-fixated and monochrome, took as much care with their image as they did with their sound. They looked good and they played good but one was never at the expense of the other :- they were a cracking pop band with their ducks in a row and their priorities right.
I always found it re-assuring that a band so seemingly out there, toying with sexual ambiguity, camp and the best and worst excesses of glam, was led by someone called Canice, named after the saint that gives Kilkenny its name. Indeed the spine of the band – Canice, Brian and Eamonn – sounded far more like the kind of animal half-back line on which numerous Kilkenny All-Ireland victories have been founded than it did the gut of one of the best new bands in the country. And this during those years when, within the covers of Dublin’s ‘Hot Press’ magazine, the national games and all those who supported them were routinely derided as if they were somehow less sophisticated and relevant.
Of course I long suspected that Engine Alley, at heart, were just ordinary, decent home-spun lads – and Emmaline – who, in the great traditions of popular music, were toying with their sister’s make-up box. And that the clothes and the style, like Kilkenny’s fabled black and amber tops, just gave them an added shield of protection on a circuit that could otherwise be overly obvious.
Although they wore, for a while, an obvious glam look and were clearly schooled in mid-period Bowie – and, by association, perhaps Bolan and Mott The Hoople too ? – their frame of reference was far wider than perhaps they were given credit for. And this much is evident from the band’s 1992 debut album for Mother Records, ‘A Sonic Holiday’, which drips with Go-Betweens, Big Star, Smiths and Beatles influences. While, lyrically, they had as much in common with The Frank And Walters as they did with Frank Zappa.
The band was managed during this period by Pete Holidai, formerly of The Radiators, the seminal Dublin band fronted by the late Philip Chevron who, ten years previously, brought the same sort of artsy fracture to bear on ‘Ghostown’, their excellent second album released in 1979. But my own primary point of contact with Engine Alley was always with the group’s Chief Executive, Dave O’Grady, one of the great unsung warriors on the frontline of alternative music in Ireland and another of those selfless souls with whom I soldiered for years. Steadfastly tee-total in an environment that was routinely pickled and as unrelentingly positive about music now as he was when I first met him, Dave has been one of my entry points into new and emerging music for thirty years. And it was he who convinced me about the raw power of the Engines.
I’d previously been part of a judging panel that adjudicated on them as a more callow enterprise when they competed in the final of the Carling-sponsored, Hot Press Band of The Year, which took place in Sir Henry’s in May, 1990. Emmaline would have been no more than fourteen or fifteen, was still trying to best navigate her way around the kit and this was a reflection of the band in microcosm :- Engine Alley were a work in progress but rich with potential. For the record, the winners on the night were a swarthy pop band from Derry, The Carrelines, fronted by Paul McLoone, now a familiar voice on Irish radio and elsewhere and also featuring, in stark contrast, the considerable experience and physical clout of Billy Doherty of The Undertones behind the traps. Curiously, the winners of the competition the following year were My Little Funhouse and, in retrospect, you’d think Engine Alley did themselves a real favour by not taking the laurels in Cork.
They were pretty unrecognisable on several levels by the time that Amelia Stein snapped them for the portrait that roars out from the front of ‘A Sonic Holiday’. By which time they’d also recruited a classically-trained, Tralee-born violinist, Ken Rice, to their number. Operating as a sweeper in behind the front three and covering the loose, his contribution to the band’s development can’t be under-stated and it’s fair to say that Engine Alley were at their most complete when he was at his most prominent.
The heavy hand of the marketing department is apparent on that sleeve ; Engine Alley have been gaudily over-styled to within inches of their lives for a look that’s as much Edward Scissorhands as it is Richey Edwards. Thankfully, ‘A Sonic Holiday’ sounds far better than it looks and, almost thirty years on, still stands its ground even if, like most debut albums, parts of it ring more hollow than they should. Produced by Steve Lillywhite who, with his late wife, Kirsty MacColl, semi-adopted the group during their time in London, the record features the core of a set that had been well and truly road-tested in all manner of poke-holes, among which ‘Mrs. Winder’, ‘Song For Someone’, ‘Summertime Is Over’ and ‘Diamond Jill and Crazy Jane’ were the stand-outs. The record features terrific virtuoso performances by Brian Kenealy and Rice, the one-man orchestra.
And yet I’m not entirely sure if Engine Alley were ever a convincing singles band and, for a group so well schooled in the breadth of pop music history, this may have contributed to their eventual undoing. ‘The Flowers’, ‘Mrs. Winder’ and ‘Infamy’ were all smart, breezy cuts but could they ever really summon a signature punch – like ‘Celebrate’, ‘Parachute’ or ‘Brewing Up A Storm’ – to see off niggly opponents ?
Eitherway, by the time that ‘A Sonic Holiday’ was finally released in Britain – the delay presumably a result of licencing issues and the usual record company shenanigans – Engine Alley had also acquired a couple of staunch champions within the ranks of the London-based music press, Melody Maker’s Simon Price being maybe the most notable of them. And it was Simon who was dispatched to Cork in August, 1993, to see the band open for U2 at Páirc Ui Chaoimh during the Zoo TV tour, where he cut them a sterling and richly deserved review.
We celebrated the end of the first series of RTÉ’s late-night alternative music strand, ‘No Disco’, with a special fund-raising live show up in Nancy Spain’s on Barrack Street in aid of the Cork AIDS Alliance. The idea for which was planted after an approach from Jean Kearney and Maura O’Keeffe, two formidable local women working the public relations beat around the city at the time.
And on Sunday, May 15th, 1994, Engine Alley headlined a five band bash in Cork that also featured fine sets from two local outfits, LMNO Pelican and Treehouse, as well as a couple of long-time Dublin-based favourites of ours, Blink and Sack.
I asked Engine Alley to get involved for several reasons. They were a fine band and a decent draw, yes, and I knew I could rely on Dave O’Grady to be there on the night, irrespective of how busy the band’s diary might have been. But I also felt that, in many ways, the band was maybe as misunderstood as the television series and might have been the closest to a living embodiment of it we could find. Assembled in the regions, maybe reluctantly pulled into a middle ground where they were perhaps less than comfortable, boasting a full and varied set of influences, some of them conflicting, and destined to probably always just about keep it together. The sound too, perhaps, of the city that made them ?
Engine Alley subsequently recorded one other album, ‘Shot In The Light’, released on Dave O’Grady’s own Independent Records label in 1995. And, after a long hiatus, last year issued what I believe to be their best ever elpee, ‘Showroom’. Both of which, like ‘A Sonic Holiday’, are available on-line and are well worth a critical re-evaluation.