RORY AND HERMAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rory Gallagher at Macroom Festival 1978 © Herman Kemp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINN’S CORNER

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’ [1986] and ‘Temple Of Low Men’ [1988]. 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].

ENGINE ALLEY : COOL FOR CATS

‘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.

Karl Whitney’s book, ‘Hit Factories : A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British pop’ is published by Weidenfeld And Nicolson and is available in all quality bookshops and on-line.

OPERATION TRANSFORMATION

De Lacy House, with its multiple floors, was an often-unheralded venue in the cardo of Cork city during those glory years from the mid-1980s onwards. But under the management of Don Forde – the original Dapper Don – it eventually became one of the more important and lucrative stop-offs on the national live circuit.

De Lacys operated a catholic booking policy and hosted a vast and varied array of acts – folk, trad, jazz, blues and alternative rock music – over the course of at least fifteen years. But it was at the very top of the house that the real magic shook down and, although it never quite enjoyed Sir Henry’s lustre, De Lacys was a terrific venue in its own right and is just as entitled to its place in local music lore. 

I saw, on that top floor, a series of electric performances over the years by A House, Roddy Frame, Martin Stephenson, The Fatima Mansions, Power Of Dreams, The Wannadies and numerous others, during which the parquet boards would come under savage pressure from those floating across it. Many of those shows were promoted by the late and fondly remembered local promoter, Des Blair. 

The tone at De Lacys was set at the main door and, in particular, by the elaborately coiffured figure of Tony Hennessy. Who, when he wasn’t kicking imaginary footballs down Barrack Street or refereeing juvenile soccer fixtures, manned the front of house for years with the manners and good humour of an experienced sommelier.   

For years Tony also doubled up as my first line of critical thinking and, on my way past him, he’d offer up pithy previews based on the calibre of punter already inside the venue or the noise levels he’d endured at the soundchecks. Its fair to say that, during his many years on patrol, the live music crowd caused him few, if any, problems and I suspect that many of his views were framed by that: – he had a healthy regard for the music and those who supported it even if, the odd time, I’d see him with plugs discreetly lodged in both ears.     

Tony was one of the handful present on a slow Sunday night late in 1988 when The Fat Lady Sings – a Dublin four-piece in exile in London – played live in Cork for the first time. De Lacys, located towards the Grand Parade end of Oliver Plunkett Street and an absolute hoor to get a sound rig in and out of, had over-estimated the group’s pulling power and, by any standards, Tony and his crew enjoyed one of their quieter nights on the drag. Inside, meanwhile, TFLS were tearing the house down. 

In terms of how it supports live music, Cork has always been a law unto itself and I’ve referred to this previously in multiple posts. Sunday nights were always difficult to sell anyway, all the more so when it came to the not insignificant matter of new Dublin bands still learning to fly. Jeff Lynne famously wrote that, at some of the earlier Electric Light Orchestra gigs, the fledgling seven-piece band often out-numbered the paying audience. And although The Fat Lady Sings didn’t quite touch those levels at De Lacys, it was certainly touch-and-go for a while.

Those of us who did take the punt saw a terrific show from an outwardly cheery, emerging four-piece on the up who, two independently-released singles in, were bedding a couple of fresh recruits into their number. The night ended with the band on the dance floor with some of the doormen and the entire audience up on the stage, wigging out.

I picked up the band’s first two singles from the tat stall as I made my way out; – the jangled ‘Fear And Favour’, released on Good Vibrations a couple of years previously, and the delayed follow-up, the more rounded ‘Be Still’. I also added my name to the band’s mailing list and, for my troubles, was briefed routinely on their adventures for several years afterwards via a series of regular newsletters. Decades before GDPR and social media, I left De Lacys that night feeling uniquely invested in a new band and, as can often be the case after these kinds of blind encounters, followed their progress intently until the end.   

Even at this stage in their development, The Fat Lady Sings were a decent pop band with good ears and this much was evident within minutes of them mounting the boards in Cork. Fronted and led by Nick Kelly, whose good humour and broad smile were matched only by the ease with which he knocked out smart couplets, that first pair of singles had attracted decent notices that marked him as a canny writer with a leading edge. ‘Fear And Favour’, begins with the line ‘I’ve got a talent I’d rather be without’ which, as opening statements go, is straight in at elite level and certainly strong enough to prick the ears of even the most stupored free-lancer.  

The line-up on that single included David Sweeney on guitar and Finbarr O’Riordan on bass. Sweeney was a formidable musician who’d served his time on the Dublin mod scene, most notably with The Vipers, and founded The Fat Lady Sings with Kelly. I later worked closely with his brother, Ken, who recorded two fine albums for Setanta Records as Brian, and whose story I’ve attempted to capture here in a previous piece.  

Brian seldom came out from under the covers and Ken only ever played a handful of live shows during the decade he was aligned to Setanta. One of the most memorable of which was a support set before A House played The University of London Union in 1992, when Robert Hamilton – another of the original members of The Fat Lady Sings – fetched up on drums as part of the live Brian line-up.   

Nick’s stock-in-trade, then as forever, was the intelligent, lyrically astute love song and, unsurprisingly, the band attracted critical comparisons to Prefab Sprout who, at the time, were the standard bearers for anything even mildly bookish and self-effacing. In reality, The Fat Lady Sings had far more in common with the more straight-forward likes of The Bible, The Big Dish and even Deacon Blue and it was in this mildly left-of-centre space that the band eventually took root and, for a while, flourished.

It didn’t take them too long to return to Cork either :- within months, a missive from the group alerted me to another upcoming live show, this time in Mojos, then still known then by its maiden name, The Buckingham, over on George’s Quay. Having learned the hard way about the hierarchy of the city’s live music venues, the band was going for broke with its set-up: – an electric piano now dominated the tiny stage at the back of the pub. The Fat Lady Sings had, on the one hand, scaled down and, on the other, scaled up. 

TFLS were on the roads in Britain and Europe incessantly as the 1980s bled into the 90s and during which their tour van, known as Gloria Esther, was racking up the miles as quickly as the band itself was acquiring a decent live following. Off of the back of which it released two further self-financed singles, ‘Arclight’ and ‘Dronning Maud Land’, both issued on the band’s own label, Fourth Base, and which continued to propel them forward at pace.  

‘Arclight’ was a genuine gear-shifter for them and, with the added heft of the piano, saw them cut through on mainstream radio in Ireland and shake a number of record companies to attention. Thirty years on, it resounds with the same urgency as it did when I first heard it, still the band’s signature number and one of that familiar set, alongside ‘Celebrate’, ‘Parachute’, ‘Brewing Up A Storm’, ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ and ‘After All’ that, for many, soundtrack an intense period of opportunity and unprecedented optimism for new Irish popular music.   

‘Arclight’ is the band’s ‘Dignity’, and not just stylistically. Because although The Fat Lady Sings released far more ambitious and, to my mind, many better songs – the immediate follow-up, ‘Dronning Maud Land’, for instance, is a waltz that bravely features a piano accordion – I’m not sure if the wider public ever really saw past it? Or wanted to. So, while you’d hardly describe ‘Arclight’ as an albatross, I’m not sure if any of the band’s ensuing material ever really matched its punch.  

The song featured prominently on the band’s first album, ‘Twist’, released in May 1991, and produced by Paul Hardiman, Mike Roarty and the band. Alongside old reliables like ‘Be Still’, which was re-recorded – unsatisfactorily, in my own view – and the imperious ‘Gravy Train’, the record was intelligent, hummable and getting there. Caught in a hail of fire from all angles – Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ and U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ were among its many competitors for attention and had already closed off much of the space – ‘Twist’ was a fine debut. But, like too many of those Irish debuts issued between 1985 and 1995, just didn’t have enough about it and struggled to be heard above the general racket. 

The band’s second album, ‘Johnson’, released in 1993, was a far sturdier affair and, produced by Steve Osborne, is much steadier on its feet. The piano was less prominent, the accordion decommissioned and the heft, instead, was provided by layers of guitar, various synths and backing vocals. Robert Hamilton was no longer behind the traps either – he’d left the group to work on the Peace Together project – and the drums on the record were laid down by a terrific session player called Nic France. Ostensibly a jazz musician who, at the time, was part of Tanita Tikaram’s live band, those anoraks among us will note his influence all over the record: – the drums on ‘Johnson’ are magnificent.

It’s a far from breezy album, though. The opener, ‘Boil’, is a sulky affair that burbles away darkly until it bursts open over the final furlongs. ‘Strip the paint, drain the oil. Let it boil’, Nick sings, signaling perhaps the band’s change of tone as much as he’s detailing the vagaries of yet another relationship. The first single pulled from ‘Johnson’, ‘Show Of Myself’, opens with twin female vocals at the stand, sharing duties throughout with Nick’s plummy South Dublin drawl, a style of delivery heard years later on the songs of another fine pop band from the same part of the world, The Thrills. ‘Show Of Myself’ was, in hindsight, a peculiar choice to lead the charge and there are certainly a cluster of far more instant cuts in the middle-order, ‘World Exploding Touch’, ‘This Guitar’ and ‘Stealing A Plane’ most prominently.

‘World Exploding Touch’ also contains one of Nick’s finest stanzas when he sings, ‘I used to float inches off the ground, I was too weightless to ever be hurt. And I never knew the truth about untrue until I saw you in his shirt’. Which is redolent, and obviously so, of the ease with which the late Grant McLennan consistently captured the softness of the ordinary in the heart of broader, far more complicated themes.

The album also features what I consider to be the band’s best ever song, ‘Drunkard Logic’, the second cut lifted from ‘Johnson’ and the group’s most commercially successful single. Which, intentionally or otherwise, was still resonating years later on McLennan’s ‘Can You See The Lights’, one of the highlights on his 1997 elpee, ‘In Your Bright Ray’. And on which Nick reaches back to his years as a law student when he regally claims that ‘we don’t leave ourselves in many things, just in letters, leases, writs and rings’. Elsewhere, there are echoes of ‘Be Still’ on the gorgeous ‘Horse, Water, Wind’ and, given the band’s almost blemish-free history, I’m happy to grant them a free pass for the tin whistle and didgeridoo on the closer, ‘Providence’.

And then it was over. 

After years on the treadmill, The Fat Lady Sings had finally found a setting that suited the shape of their legs and the capacity of their lungs. But the course to the gains they’d made had taken a toll on their limbs and the eventual pay-off wasn’t exactly as had been promised in the brochures. Life on the road as a jobbing musician and writer had simply run into one cul-de-sac too many and Nick was off to pursue other ambitions. 

Decades on and he’s still keeping his hand in and, when he isn’t directing films or ads for television and cinema, Nick performs and records – as infrequently as can be expected of a man with multiple interests – as Alien Envoy. He’s released a brace of fine albums under his own name, ‘Between Trapezes’ [1997] and ‘Running Dog’ [2005], both on his own Self Possessed label. And from which the sombre, pared-back ‘Grey And Blue’, from that debut solo record, is worth the admission on its own.

But it’s for his body of work during that scarcely believable period from 1986 until 1994 that he’s still best remembered; – those songs tell their own stories and are still strong enough to do their own bidding. The Fat Lady Sings were a fine, fine band who got out while they were still ahead and just after they’d completed their best work. 

Who among us can say we’ve done that?

DAVE COUSE, A HOUSE AND THE POINT OF EVERYTHING

Irish Times

I’m regularly struck jealous by the capacity of some of my colleagues, friends and peers to devour so much material so quickly and to be so consistently boned up on the latest albums, books, on-line posts, international drama serials and edgy films. I honestly couldn’t tell you where my own time goes, by comparison.

It might be that I’m just a slow reader who wades through far too much of what some now refer to as older, traditional media, when my days might be better spent hoovering up bite-sized cuts, hot takes and ignoring my children instead ? Or perhaps I need to be far less obsessive about the things I like and spread my wings further but less diligently ? But it’s easy, eitherway, to be over-whelmed by the noise levels on the super-highway.

And so I’m always grateful for the good advices of those trusted correspondents who, when they feel my focus isn’t what it might be, point me in the direction of key peaks on the mountain of output I’m missing on a daily basis.

‘You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV’, claimed the would-be big shot, Suzanne Stone Maretto, brilliantly played by Nicole Kidman, in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film, ‘To Die For’. ‘On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching ?’. I’m not sure if ‘To Die For’ always gets the credit it deserves but it’s long been a favourite film of mine and, as someone who’s spent a lifetime working in television, I have real difficulty defining the fiction from the reality in some of its key scenes.

Ostensibly a morality tale about society’s obsession with celebrity and the stupidity that often under-pins it, the film has already gone full circle to the point where it’s long since lapped itself dizzy. Almost twenty five years after it was premiered, and despite the absolute fracture of all media in the decades since, ‘To Die For’ looks more and more prescient by the week. Kidman’s wildly ambitious weather-woman, with her front leg on the lower rungs at a small, local television station might, in 2019, be an Instagram sensation or ‘influencer’ but the core message is as was.

I think of ‘To Die For’ and that incessant struggle to be heard from miles across the valley whenever I’m recommended – and inevitably frustrated by – another lackluster podcast that promises rabbits from hats and delivers aural myxomatosis instead. Our regular readers will know exactly what I mean ;- no doubt well-meaning and often full-bodied social broadcasts that often just add crudely-formed, half-baked opinions to the unsustainable levels of global clutter already out there. [I appreciate, of course, that a similar charge can be levelled at this site].

The journalist Michael O’Toole once memorably described Twitter – on Twitter – as a place where ‘every expert is a clown and every clown is an expert’. It doesn’t always follow, I guess, that just because you have a smart phone, you have anything smart to impart. But we continue to confront the mountain because of the enduring promise of a decent view of the sunrise. And, from time to time, my head will be turned and my ears pricked, as they were by a recent exchange conducted by The Point Of Everything blog and podcast with Dave Couse, the formidable singer and frontman with a revered but long-lost Dublin band, A House. An iteration of which performed live for the first time in over 22 years at the National Concert Hall last weekend.

By the end of its 38 minutes, TPOE’s host, Eoghan O’Sullivan – who I don’t know – has clearly touched a couple of his subject’s nerves, pulling reams of colour and insight from him by simply asking pertinent questions and allowing Couse the space to reflect before responding. Redolent of those long Fanning Show interviews where the guest’s seat in the small radio studio in RTE Radio 2 often became a psychiatrist’s couch – and current, high-profile new media versions like Dion Fanning’s ‘Ireland Unfiltered’ or Jarlath Regan’s ‘An Irishman Abroad’ – this too takes its time to get going and eventually just soars. Its easily one of the more compelling Couse interviews I’ve heard over the last thirty years and, for my troubles, I’ve heard many.

I’m conflicted on a number of levels here, though. First of all, The Point Of Everything is kind and generous enough at the top of the podcast to reference The Blackpool Sentinel as he sets up the context for the interview. Secondly, regular readers will be aware of how dominant the shadow of A House is on much of the ground we attempt to cover here and the respect with which we hold both the band and its frontman. And I’m especially minded, by even thinking as much, of another popular social media affliction ;- the hollow chorus of the echo chamber where you stroke my back and I’ll re-tweet you long and hard in return.

I need to be careful too not to patronize. I’m at an age now where its easy to sound like those labored sports pundits who go on at length about the majesty of sport in the 1980s, often at the expense of the magic flying around their ears in 2019. The good old days, as we all know, weren’t always necessarily as good as we’d like to think.

But all of that apart, to anyone with even the most passing interest in alternative music in Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s worth parsing TPOE’s exchange with Couse on several levels. On a canvas where speed and opinion regularly trump clarity and consideration, it’s interesting to hear what falls out when the emphasis stays slow and the lights stay low.

And so we’ve re-posted the podcast with permission here, in which the host stays consistently on the right side of the mic and allows Couse the floor. It’s an ancient and reliable way of working, simple enough to get right and easier again to get completely arseways.

I haven’t seen or spoken to Couse in decades but he’s long been an engaging and often uncompromising interviewee that, by the sounds of it, hasn’t been dimmed by either the passing of time or his re-location up the country. The longer this conversation goes on, the more swear words he uses, not for dramatic effect or because he has little else to defer to but because, as with all of the best exchanges, he grows more and more into it as it rolls. And as the interview draws to a close, he sounds as cosy, comfortable and, I think, genuinely grateful as he gets.

On the end of a telephone line from his home in County Cavan, Couse is as cranky, smart and bellicose as I recall him from way back. I’m not going to blow the podcast’s cover and go into the guts of it in any great detail here but, when he refers to his age – he’s 55 now – the implication is obvious enough. Like all of the great entertainers, he’s old enough and talented enough to be as contrary and confrontational as he wants or needs to be.

At the outset the interviewer admits that he’s a generation removed from Couse, A House and the Dublin indie scene of the 1980s from which they emerged and that, ergo, his acquired knowledge of that period might not be what it should be. It’s an honourable and bold concession and a welcome respite from another chronic podcast ailment, especially those that are author-led :- knowallism. Ultimately, it just helps to frame and scaffold the following thirty odd minutes, parts of which sound like a social history tutorial.

When it comes to de-constructing the unprecedented and scarcely believable years from 1985 to 1997, during which Dublin was routinely bannered as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’, few Irish musicians can sieve it out better than Couse. Six albums on three different labels, two droppings and a stubborn streak that feral teenagers only dream about, A House were the prolific guitar band whose work-rate was matched only by their capacity to shoot themselves in the groin with staple-guns. And even when the good times briefly rolled, there was always another calamity – often self-inflicted – waiting to further derail them and, ultimately, to embitter them further. Indeed one of the recurring themes across the band’s wide catalogue is how easily defeat can be clutched from the jaws of victory.

The Point Of Everything, by his own admission, was born long after A House first took the stage in The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street during the mid-80s. But Couse is only too happy to talk him through much of the insanity of that period – or, as he’d probably say himself, put him right – even if there’s a real sense of resignation about how he now views his lot. Perhaps he’s right when he says that we may never see or hear its likes again ?

He’s also strong and typically unsentimental about the original A House line-up, laying to rest any lingering sense that the band was anything other than himself and guitarist Fergal Bunbury at its heart and that all and any others who joined the line-up over the years were never more than the sum of their parts. Which may come as a surprise to a couple of notable players among the band’s number who soldiered long and far with them on-stage and off from the get-go. Or maybe not ?

But Couse opens new frontiers when he refers to the economic reality he faced during the twelve years he fronted A House and, more starkly, once the band tired of beating its head off of concrete after the release of its sixth album, ‘No More Apologies’, in 1996. Penniless in their early 30s, there’s something especially grim in such a reveal, even if the image of the struggling artist in penury, railing against the dying of the light, is an old and familiar one. Preferring to deal with the topic through the front door and without the use of code – irreconcilable musical differences was never going to sit well with Couse anyway – I’m not sure I’ve heard an Irish writer of that caliber refer to brutal economics and the break-up of a band with such honesty.

Last week’s live show by Couse, Bunbury and a cast of guest musicians – including, at one point, their daughters – was the culmination of a broader campaign, led by Gary Sheehan, IMRO and The National Concert Hall, to recognise ‘I Am The Greatest’, arguably A House’s best known album, for its enduring excellence. Even if, to these ears, all of the band’s long-players could have sated the basic qualification criteria.

But beyond bringing half of the original A House line-up back onto the same stage at the same time, the last number of weeks have also served to further remind us of just how captivating a performer Couse can be. In a radio interview with Tom Dunne on Newstalk to promote the NCH show, he admitted that he’s still writing songs and, reading between the lines, there’s almost certainly another live show or two in this. Beyond that, who knows ? He tells TPOE that he’d love to play in Cork, for instance, and refers to Microdisney who, this time last year, played the same venue under many of the same conditions.

I wondered, after I saw A House play their last show at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in February, 1997, if we’d ever see another local band like them again and, in the decades since, I’m not convinced that we have. And clearly, neither does Couse. So, unfinished business, unfinished dreaming or both ?