AN EMOTIONAL FISH: A STRANGE KIND OF GLORY

Has any Irish band announced itself as spectacularly as An Emotional Fish ? The Dublin four-piece were, I’d argue, the last of the great major label indulgences in emerging Irish music, the poster child’s poster children for that mad, unprecedented decade from 1985 onwards. Rarely has so much coin been invested in any Irish band for so little commercial return and God knows how big a tab they’d run up before they were finally cut off at the bar. 

The band’s magnificent second single, ‘Celebrate’, is one of the most distinctive Irish pop songs from that period, so perfectly formed that it set subsequent ambitions for them unfeasibly high. ‘Celebrate’ was both an outrageous calling card and, ultimately, the rock on which the band eventually ran aground: try as they did, they never quite matched its lustre to the same extent thereafter. But as can often be the case, ‘Celebrate’ unduly distorts AEF’s legacy because, beyond the obvious, they always had far more going on. Much of which scarcely figures in their story.  

I was never completely convinced by them and, for a while, saw them as more of a sophisticated experiment hatched over a dinner party in Sandymount than a legitimate rock concern. And yet, once I’d killed my darlings and set my prejudices aside, I grew to love them. There was even a period of a couple of years where – as part of the travelling Into Paradise circus – I couldn’t physically shake them and ran into The Fish, often quite literally, in a variety of unlikely locations, in Ireland and beyond. They were decent, affable, generous and always good company.

On Saturday, May 27th, 1989, An Emotional Fish played the Cork Rock series for unsigned bands at Sir Henry’s and arrived in a hail of hyperbole and expectation I’d never encountered previously. Although a host of record companies had flown into Cork to see them play a short set – and they were, genuinely, the subject of an all-out bidding battle – the word was that they’d already done the bold thing with one of the major labels. If they hadn’t consummated the deal, they’d certainly been fumbling away on the sofa and so Cork Rock ’89 was more of a coronation than a live audition.

Given what went off in Sir Henry’s at the same event the following summer, when The Cranberries, The Frank and Walters, Therapy? and Toasted Heretic all donned the jersey, Cork Rock ‘89 tends to be consigned to the halfpenny place. Yet, in retrospect, those three sessions that May certainly had their moments. The Fish were joined on the Saturday night bill by Cork’s representatives on The Paisley Underground, Cypress, Mine !, Dublin’s formidable Hellfire Club, Fanning Show regulars The Malfunctions and If, who shared a name with a lesser-spotted U.K. prog rock outfit but, sadly, not a whole heap else besides.

The rest of that weekend was notable for a short, blistering set by Power of Dreams, featuring Robbie Callan on second guitar, and who, had some of them been carded, wouldn’t have been legally allowed to enter the premises. Elsewhere, the Galway-Dublin compound, The Swinging Swine, who later morphed into a variant called The Glee Club, gave it up with gusto for the dog-on-a-string set.

One of the more interesting sets at Cork Rock ’89 was performed by a Limerick troupe, Private World, who were fronted and led by Pearse Gilmore. He later founded Xeric Studios back in his home town and produced and managed The Cranberries to the point in their career where they’d started work on a first album. That night in Cork, he memorably stalked the compact stage at Sir Henry’s like Synge’s Old Mahon, spectacularly sprung back to life and with a loy planted in his crown. 

In such esoteric company, The Fish had a serious weight and reach advantage. The band’s management enjoyed a long-standing relationship with U2’s back-room and, on that first night in Cork, they arrived mob-handed with some of the best-known road crew in the world in tow. Those connections did them few favours ultimately, I think: the pat on the head from U2 has been counter-productive to practically every Irish band who’ve entered their orbit. In respect of patronage, well-meaning as it no doubt has always been, U2 have consistently had the Midas touch in reverse.  

Within weeks, An Emotional Fish released their first single, ‘Grey Matter/Cry Like A Baby’, on U2’s Mother Records label and, under the baton of their manager, Aidan Cosgrave, a formidable player in the Irish advertising industry, were fast-tracked to sainthood. The fundamental problem, as I saw it, was that An Emotional Fish had all the endorsements and supports but, ‘Celebrate’ apart, little else to justify the weight of expectation. The band’s half-baked debut album [‘An Emotional Fish’, 1990] only re-enforced that point for me: they just weren’t immediate or urgent enough and far too much of their material was determined by heavy-handed riffing and wafer-thin ideas. They seemed averse to choruses too: ‘Celebrate’, for all its glory, is missing a key part of the standard assembly. Not necessarily a deal-breaker, for sure, but when set against the breathlessness of the teenage Power of Dreams, who could knock out the bangers in their sleep, The Fish just sounded a bit laboured. Far too much of their material circled the parameters and, as unique selling points go, I’m not sure how effective it was. 

AEF laid their foundations on the dominant bass sound of Enda Wyatt who, from behind his out-sized specs, set the tone for the entire enterprise. Enda was a little older, calmer and impressively well read: he was also a phenomenal but under-stated musician. Outwardly, though, it was the band’s guitarist, David Frew, who looked to me to be driving the wagon. Away from the stage he was a terrific footballer and it was in our fondness for sport that we found a common bond. Always happy to do a turn with The Dancing Bastards from Hell whenever the opportunity arose, I’m not sure I’ve met someone as genuinely affable and downright decent during my decades hanging around the fringes of the entertainment industry.

He defended his corner with gusto, too, and he challenged me to see AEF for what they were and not for what they weren’t, which I was happy to do. So, although my reservations about the group remained largely unchanged, I certainly saw the point – and the quiet magic –of the band’s mighty second album, ‘Junk Puppets’, which was released in 1993.

The making of that record is a long and complicated chapter during which, with the label keen to see them kicking on quickly, An Emotional Fish cut loose and, I think, found their meter. I heard the first flushes of that album at a storming live show the band played at The Opera House in Cork in 1992, recorded for an RTÉ live music series directed by the late Anita Notaro, during which they gave early airings to ‘If God Was A Girl’ and ‘A Hole in My Heaven’. That show ended with a full-scale invasion of the stage and the splintering of the first three or four rows of seating. Central to the chaos was the band’s frontman, Gerard Whelan, who consistently brought drama and camp to the band’s live shows and is as good a focal point I’ve seen on any Irish stage. The Fish always put on a show – often featuring the sassy vocal backing of Violet Williams – and, for several years, were one of the most potent live draws in the country. 

The previous year, the board of directors at Setanta Records thought it might positively benefit one of its bands, Into Paradise, if they were de-camped from the distractions of Dublin and London and put out into the wilds. Far from the maddening crowds and the comforts of home, the hope was that they might up their work-rate and break the back on a new album. So, for a couple of months, Into Paradise were dispatched to a rented farmhouse in Ballyvourney in the West Cork Gaeltacht and their back-line set-up in a hay shed. It was the most ill-fated and far-fetched coupling since Elton John married Renate Blauel and my only regret was that we didn’t embed a small documentary crew with the band for the duration. 

The spirit of Seán Ó Riada and the maverick sounds of Cór Cúl Aodha were lost, sadly, on Into Paradise and I’m not sure if the experience benefited anyone save, perhaps, the owners of The Mills, the fine boozer in the heart of the village. Unbeknownst to us, in Tadhg Kelleher’s Súlán Studios on the very same drag, An Emotional Fish were hard at it: they were billeted in Ballyvourney too, recording songs for a second album. From fleeting dispatches, I’m not sure how much work was completed down in the heart of West Cork while both bands were on the loose.  

‘Junk Puppets’ was subsequently completed in three separate studios in London, with three different producers across it. Alan Moulder brought the noise and, in the search for more soothing sounds and a breakthrough hit, Clive Langer and David Stewart were enlisted to bring the sheen to the spit. None of the Ballyvourney labours survived the journey.

Although ‘Celebrate’ had picked up generous air-play in Britain, neither the band’s prodigious work-rate – and to be fair to them, they were constantly on the road, where they were at their strongest – or their label’s clout could force it higher than the mid-40s. I have no doubt that, had the band snared just one appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’, and had a mainstream British television audience been exposed to just three magnetic minutes of Gerry Whelan in full flow, AEF’s career might have taken a drastically different turn. 

Instead, the air was being slowly sucked from their balloon. By the time that Aidan Cosgrave invited me around to his office down in Windmill Lane to play me that second album, AEF were going for broke: in for a penny, in for a pound. Some of the songs had been through the hands, a couple of them had had structural make-overs and, when the record finally landed, it was to general indifference. The band’s best long-player by a distance, I was taken by how lavish and layered it was.

I’m unconvinced to this day that writing ever came easily to The Fish but, on the lead single, ‘Rain’, the full-on glam-stomp of ‘Hole in My Heaven’, the prissy ‘Sister Change’ and the re-worked ‘If God Was A Girl’, they’d certainly developed their game a bit. But nowhere is the sparkle of that record – and, indeed, the general insanity of that entire period – captured more succinctly than on a video shot by Dave Stewart himself in his own studio, The Church in North London, during the sessions that put AEF’s finest ever song, ‘Careless Child’ to bed. 

Apart from his long and varied career as a writer, performer and producer, Stewart has also dabbled in film and video and he was behind the camcorder himself as the band worked out the song on the vast studio floor. The video is intercut with sequences featuring a full orchestra adding considerable heft, no little veneer and, one suspects, a multiple-page invoice, to the final product. 

‘Careless Child’ is the standout cut on ‘Junk Puppets’, a consummate ballad that cuts loose half way through with a spectacular Disney-esque orchestral break. The idea that a band at AEF’s level would be so indulged by any record company now seems positively fanciful: orchestras, the ultimate indulgence, simply don’t feature on new music anymore. Playing from scripted, pre-prepared scores, Stewart’s home-movie captures the classical set in their smart casual gear andfoppish hair-dos, on the clock and largely disinterested as they wait to be counted into action by a fresh-faced conductor. They make an outrageous racket, of course, and there’s a satisfied smirk on Stewart’s face as he makes a brief cameo alongside the band at the end of the clip. 

By the time that ‘Junk Puppets’ saw the light of day, though, any momentum the band had was dis-placed. The Fish followed a familiar narrative thereafter: Warners let them go once the record was released and they hung around for a bit thereafter, putting out a third album. ‘Sloper’, on its own label.

Maybe it’s just received memory at this stage but I still find myself reaching for ‘Junk Puppets’. I also know that, out there on the live circuit, Whelan and Frew are still going strong. Gerard, re-born as Jerry Fish and still leading from the front as a veteran ring-master, Dave riffing away in a variety of guises. The band has re-grouped the odd time over the last decade and a couple of live shows at The Olympia – as part of a fund-raiser for Barretstown – and an impressive set at Féile Classical in 2018 can both be found, with the usual caveats and health warnings, on-line.

I can’t let any piece on An Emotional Fish go, though, without reference to the group’s drummer, Martin Murphy, who died suddenly in January, 2017. Martin cut his teeth with Eugene, fronted by Jil Turner and also featuring Dave McGinley, during the early 1980s, which is where I first came across his work. I remember him as a quiet and unassuming soul who was key to the Fish’s sound, a sound that, as I think we’ve established by now, was rarely straight-forward. He was integral to that band: like the best drummers, he was reluctantly seen but consistently heard. The full range of his ability is out there, on three albums, by way of a lasting and fitting memorial.

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