I started contributing to The Irish Examiner, then The Cork Examiner, back in the late 1980s and I really hadn’t a clue. I wrote oodles of copy for my local paper over the years, much of it impenetrable and most of it salvaged by the excellent sub-editors I never met and know now by reputation only.
I reviewed many concerts and live events for The Examiner and filled an awful lot of space for them during times when news was slow. I’d often ring in late at night from off-site, usually before 11PM, and my stuff was received at the copy-desk by whoever was unfortunate enough to connect with me at base. From an unreliable pay-phone, often in the middle of town, I’d roar my four-hundred poorly-formed words back to headquarters, especially concerned that we’d spell band names and song titles correctly. ‘That’s ‘Casual Sex In The Cineplex’, I’d shout. ‘C for Cork, I for Ireland, N for Nigel’ while, outside on the street, someone was always waiting impatiently to use the phone box to anxiously call a parent or drug dealer or to just piss or gawk into it. ‘L for Leo, E for Eugene, X for X-Ray’.
There was plenty going on in Limerick during my time freelancing with The Examiner and, whenever an opportunity arose, I’d blag a lift or a bus down there to cover the ground. I thought Limerick was far less self-conscious and precious than what I was used to in Cork ;- all the more so, I guess, because I was only ever passing through. I remember Tony O’Donoghue telling me once about a Hot Press interview he’d done with Tuesday Blue, before which the singer insisted that they both assumed the Lotus Position and do a yoga session together. That sort of talk only teased me further :- I loved Limerick.
I first come across The Hitchers in The Cresent Hall, off Limerick’s main drag, on a Saturday afternoon in 1989. I’d been summoned for jury duty on a national school band competition run by the long-time Cork promoter, Denis Desmond and, far more importantly, was delighted to be scoping out the hall where U2 had played a chaotic live show back in 1980. The Hitchers – then a five-piece led by Eoin O’Kelly – were head and shoulders above anything else I saw during that competition and it was no surprise when they romped home during the final in Connolly Hall later that year. From behind the traps, Niall Quinn was clearly the band’s driving force and, despite the tinny sound in the venue, I can still hum my way through some of their set, of which ‘There’s A Bomb In That Basket Of Fruit’, ‘Which Leg Of A Chicken Is More Tender ?’ and ‘Alice Is Here’ were the obvious stand-outs among many.
The Hitchers also featured on ‘The Reindeer Age’, a compendium of various odds and ends released on the Xeric label which, as a compilation of the numerous emerging bands around Limerick was a damned fine calling card one, hinting at a wide breath of activity and ambition within the old walls. It was through The Hitchers, and especially their manager and mentor, John Moriarty, that I first established a real connection there and, subsequently, a couple of good leads on some of the other young bands in the city, among them The Cranberries and Those Stilted Boys.
Those Stilted Boys were highly regarded among their peers and I heard an awful lot about them before I actually heard a single note from them. Their stuff was very, very ambitious and they reminded me then, as they still do now, of a nervy marriage of early Prefab Sprout, Woodentops and late-period Pixies, with their restless structures, honours-level chords and smart, knowing lyrics. What seems like their entire recorded canon can be accessed on their website and, listening back almost a quarter of a century later, I am certain that I called them correctly way back and that Those Stilted Boys – led by Ciaran Culligan and Ian Dodson – were, without question, one of the country’s great unsung bands during the early 1990s. I tried long and hard to progress – unsuccessfully – a deal for them at the time and I defy anyone to listen to ‘Blow’, ‘Havana’ or ‘Akimbo’ now and tell me I was out of order and off the mark ?
The Cranberries story was already nicely formed by the summer of 1991 and, after a pretty intensive courtship, the band had recently thrown in its chips with Island Records, a deal I’m convinced was consummated after their appearance at the Cork Rock event in Sir Henry’s weeks earlier. They were still based locally and, billeted in Xeric Studios, were working on a debut album against the sound of incessant love-bombing by the likes of Jim Carroll, Shane Fitzsimons, Stuart Clark and myself.
And so it was that, on July 14th, 1991, The Cranberries found themselves half- way down a wholly-Irish line-up assembled in The Peoples’ Park in the heart of Limerick city for what was billed as a ‘Lark In The Park’. The show was headlined by Wexford band Cry Before Dawn, with support sets from An Emotional Fish, The Blue Angels, They Do It With Mirrors and Those Stilted Boys.
I had a vested interest in The Mirrors :- Keith Cullen had recently signed them to Setanta Records and I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about. On tape at least they were a slow burn but quickly became one of my own favourite bands on the label. Indeed I ended up back in Limerick with them years later, working in Xeric on an unreleased third E.P. ;- one of the four outstanding cuts from which, ‘Police Me’, is now available here.
Shane Fitzsimons, who wrote an important long-running music column in The Evening Echo, was by now staging live shows in a venue called The Shelter on Tuckey Street in Cork and some of those performances have rightly assumed mythical status in local music history. Those Stitled Boys, The Cranberries and They Do It With Mirrors all took to the small stage there to enthusiastic crowds and left real smoke in their slipstreams.
From Churchtown on the southside of Dublin, Shane had a long standing connection with The Blue Angels, who also featured on the ‘Lark In The Park’ bill in Limerick and who too played at least one raucous set in The Shelter. The Blue Angels were a secondary iteration of Blue In Heaven, traditionally a serious and regular live draw in Cork. They’d added a new guitarist to their existing line- up and were continuing on the more considered and broader pathway they’d built on their second album, ‘Explicit Material’ ;- less Martin Hannett and more Jimmy Miller, basically. Where once they’d been a dank, mid-range indie-outfit, they now rocked a fuller, more rounded sound. Blue In Heaven will feature prominently in a future post here about their long-standing contemporaries from Churchtown, Into Paradise, but suffice to say for now that I was a staunch supporter.
The Blue Angels released one very tidy if unspectacular album on Solid Records, ‘Coming Out Of Nowhere’, and, in theory, I should have despised everything about them. They represented, in so many ways, the very worst aspects of the scene built on sand around ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ but, in practice, I found their angular Stones/stoned shapes just too hard to resist. I saw them whenever I could and reviewed them enthusiastically ;- as with far too many bands over the years, I regularly ditched perspective for hyperbole and The Angels received several very public fan-letters from me over the years.
By the summer of 1991 An Emotional Fish were one of the country’s biggest live draws and ‘Celebrate’ was an obvious ace in their pack. I found them lumpy at the best of times and was never completely convinced by the hoopla around them. It wasn’t until their second album, ‘Junk Puppets’ – and specifically the exceptional ‘Careless Child’, which was produced by Dave Stewart – that I heard anything of substance to write home about. Working closely with Into Paradise, I subsequently encountered An Emotional Fish all over Britain and Europe ;- there was a time when we seemed to be following each other around the same circuit for ages. But in a field in Limerick, back in August 1991, I found far more comfort in all that I knew best and, on the day, even The Beatles would have struggled to live with Those Stitled Boys, They Do It With Mirrors, The Cranberries and The Blue Angels.
And as for Cry Before Dawn, who headlined the show ? God loves a trier. My review of the event was carried in the following morning’s Cork Examiner under the headline ‘Limerick rocks near pop heaven’ and it’s carried in full below.
Published in Cork Examiner July 15 1991 under title ‘Limerick rocks near pop heaven’
There was no sun, just lots of light rain, but we didn’t mind one bit. Limerick is always a pleasure and it’s bands are better. Yesterday we stood through six hours of free, live outdoor pop at the town’s People’s Park and we left smiling.
This was Limerick’s Lark In The Park and 6,000 people came. Lots danced. Those Stilted Boys are up and all over us with jazz guitars and affected voices and wonderfully pretty songs like ‘Akimbo’ and ‘Havana’ and it stops raining. Clever lines and Chris Issak smirks and Those Stilted Boys are on the elevator to the top floors of pop’s hotels.
They Do It With Mirrors are Keith Cullen’s brand new Setanta band, four guitar funksters on the lunatic fringes. They’ve got a tiny frontman, Kevin, and an enormously strange voice. Lots of off-beat guitar and frothy-headed bass. See them play Shane’s Shelter on Wednesday. Please.
The Blue Angels are here with a vengeance. This band plays dirty, grimy rock songs with little keyboard bits. ‘Get It Back’ and ‘Candy’ are the singles that owe bits to U2’s ‘With Or Without You’. Now, let’s not gripe :- Shane O’Neill is still very much a star and today, Limerick loves him.
The Cranberries too. This is the band with the reviews, the new Island Records band, and that voice. They’re brilliantly good again. ‘The Same Old Story’ spills all over us and, with ‘Put Me Down’, we are gobsmacked once again at the voice and the untouched pop songs. They’re innocent and they’re charmingly naïve. They might be too twee, buy hey, today they were top.
An Emotional Fish followed with that sound and Cry Before Dawn lead us out and bore us halfway to tears. We’re tired and emotional. Limerick is near pop heaven, 60 miles west. Don’t drive idly by.