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.

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