POWER OF DREAMS and NORMAL PEOPLE

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Word that a new Power of Dreams album is on its way comes as a nice surprise to long-time fans and nostalgics who hopped the bus with them as far back as 1988. I’m not sure if anyone, least of all the band itself, expects this fresh body of work to shake the world or to even rupture a replaced hip. But there’s clearly business to be finished and a bit more to be said. In the thirty years since the band released its debut album, ‘Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’, the country that informed much of its lyrical gut has both changed out of all recognition and barely changed at all. 

Power of Dreams released four elpees during what was a short, sharp and prolific seven years on the go. As powerful on the live stage as they were on wax they had, in their leader and principal song-writer, Craig Walker, a rare talent with shoulders broad enough to carry both the band’s creative burden and the weight of expectation directed at it. Like another of Dublin’s slew of fine guitar bands from that period, Something Happens, Power of Dreams got better and more interesting the more they dabbled. But although they never ventured too far from their primary sources – indie guitarscapes and angsty, first personal reflections on love and life – by the time of a more industrial and darker last elpee, ‘Become Yourself’, in 1994, the vagaries of the market had smothered them.   

Four years earlier, Power of Dreams had the world in their hands. That first album was a manifesto for youth in three-minute bursts delivered with no little fury and, with the odd exception, at breakneck speed. But it’s not as if we hadn’t been expecting them: they’d played a series of sinewy live shows in Dublin before the release of an excellent debut four-tracker for Setanta Records, in 1988.  

‘A Little Piece of God’ was produced by John O’Neill of That Petrol Emotion, previously of The Undertones and about to take flight as an over-looked Setanta outfit, Rare. It was committed to tape in the imposing, brutalist bunker at Elephant Studios in Wapping, the label’s go-to facility during its early years, where an excellent engineer, Nick Robbins, came as part of the deal. The E.P. roars into life with a naivete that reflects the fearlessness of youth: still in their teens when they completed it – Keith Walker, the drummer, wasn’t yet sixteen – the stand-out is one of the group’s best ever songs, ‘My Average Day’. 

More a slender diary entry than an elaborate essay on the quirks of infidelity, Craig suggests that his vain female lead ‘will pay some day’ for her betrayal. With its acoustic under-carriage and malevolent shadow, the song is redolent of another Dublin act who followed Power of Dreams onto the Setanta roster, Brian. 

‘A Little Piece of God’ was the third release on the London-based, Irish-facing independent label, and can be found in its catalogue between two Into Paradise EPs, ‘Blue Light’ and ‘Change’. Given how the Setanta Records story subsequently unfolded, Power of Dreams’ brief tenure on the roster tends to often be forgotten. Like many of their songs, they didn’t hang about and, after positive notices from the music weeklies and another round of explosive live shows, including a memorable half-hour set at Cork Rock in Sir Henry’s in June, 1989, they were quickly away to a major label, Polydor.

The fact that Power of Dreams were so disarmingly young – they’re celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the release of their debut album and the original members of the band still haven’t yet turned fifty – meant they were often unintentionally patronised on this basis. Indeed, I’ve already repeated the same crime several times here already. But they were clear-eyed social documentarians too and perhaps more prescient than they were given credit for, the title of that first EP being a case in point.

‘A Little Piece of God’ nods to an odd newspaper column, ‘A Little Bit of Religion’, which has been written by a high-profile Irish priest, Father Brian D’Arcy, in Ireland’s best known and biggest selling tabloid newspaper, The Sunday World, for nearly fifty years. The location of a weekly Christian sermon into a space otherwise dominated by drug-dealers, local crime bosses, terrorists and lusty suburban housewives as a broader metaphor for the city in which they were growing up, wasn’t lost on Power of Dreams.   

The original band members are former pupils of two long-gone Dublin live venues, The Underground on Dame Street and McGonagles on South Anne Street, where they received the kind of bespoke education you’ll not find through the CAO. Alongside the likes of Rex and Dino, Backwards Into Paradise and Whipping Boy, they were part of a second wave of capital-based guitar groups emerging in the slipstream of Something Happens, The Stars Of Heaven, The Slowest Clock and A House. Who themselves were leading the post-U2 peloton, gamely competing at altitude.

The Underground was an unlikely starting point for many of them. A downstairs, down-tempo speakeasy on Dame Street, it’s been lionised at least twice in song for what went on inside its poster-pocked walls for five glorious years during the 1980s. But beyond the dewy-eyed looking glass of its history, the venue was at the heart of all that was good about Dublin’s throbbing live music scene in the aftermath of ‘The Joshua Tree’. A pared-back antidote to the nonsense that had started to wash through the local entertainment sector, The Underground did things differently because it could. It was never driven by commercial considerations, for instance. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the father-and-son team who ran the venue, Noel and Jeff Brennan, were motivated far less by gaps in the local market and way more by a desire to keep themselves entertained.

Like many of their peers, Power of Dreams were callow teenagers in second hand Paisley shirts when they first illegally set foot inside The Underground. From the same Dublin suburb as A House, and with a similar sense of their own worth, they were quickly part of the fabric on Dame Street, as indeed they were further up-town at McGonagles, off of Grafton Street. On the top floor of what was previously The Crystal Ballroom on South Anne Street, Conor Brookes and Killian Forde were pirate radio jocks who also ran a series of live shows on Saturday afternoons on the venue’s ground floor. Pitched at the unwaged and the under-aged, it was at that McGonagles series that Power of Dreams found their feet and, in Brookes and Forde, a keen management team that rowed in squarely behind them. 

With Craig and Keith almost always looking after media duties, Power of Dreams were rarely caught for things to say and, from the get-go, they gave terrific copy. It helped, of course, that they had the goods to support their chutzpah, and the group’s motto – or was it a mission statement ? – proclaimed as much. Emblazoned across their early output was the slogan ‘This is It’, a play on the title of Bob Geldof’s loud 1986 autobiography, ‘Is that it ?’. Walking the walk and talking the talk, they were continuing a fine, boisterous strain: in the same way that The Boomtown Rats had turned up their noses at the cabaret and showband set fifteen years previously, Power of Dreams were now shuffling Geldof off of the stage.  

‘Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’ is a fine debut album in a ferocious rush altogether. It opens with thirty seconds of acoustic strumming before one of the band’s earliest numbers, ‘Joke’s on Me’, head-butts the record into life. And, with the odd exception, it retains its fury for the course of its dozen tracks, few of which breach the three-minute protocol. Driving the whole thing from behind the traps was Keith Walker who, as well as having serious physical capacity in his arms and feet, has always been a spectacular time-keeper. The late sound engineer, Dennis Herlihy, who worked with Power of Dreams for years, referred to him as a machine. Over the decades I’ve spent in live venues and studios, I’ve seldom heard a more powerful, instinctive or naturally balanced rock drummer.  

There was plenty of order to them too, though. ‘Máire, I Don’t Love You’ is one of the more considered cuts on that record, painting a familiar domestic scenario: Máire is pregnant by John, who doesn’t love her. ‘Is he going to marry out of conscience, is he going to marry out of fear ?’, Craig wondered. Not that it mattered one way or the other because the outcome was going to be grim: that’s just how it was in Power of Dreams songs. Elsewhere, ‘Never Been To Texas’, one of the singles lifted from the album, landed a couple of half-hearted body shots at the baggy scene in Manchester and ‘Rattle and Hum’-vintage Bono, but it was the lead cut that announced the group and it’s prowess in earnest. 

‘100 Ways to Kill A Love’, one of the more pressing Irish pop songs of the last fifty years, looked to Paul Simon’s ’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ not just for its title but for its thematic heart. Over another furious guitar squall, it features a recurring Power of Dreams theme: relationships defined, and routinely destroyed, by a lack of clarity and understanding. ‘When you said yes, did you mean no, how could I believe you ?’, Craig asks. Twenty-eight years before the publication of one of the most significant books in modern Irish fiction, ‘100 Ways To Kill A Love’ now looks like an early synopsis of Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’. 

If McGonagles was their Trinity College, then Cork was the band’s Carricklea, a bolthole to which they’d retire at key intervals and in which some of the more visceral scenes in their story were played out. Power of Dreams enjoyed strong connections with the city from the get-go and they’re one of that handful of Dublin guitar bands from this period – Blue In Heaven, The Golden Horde and An Emotional Fish are others – who enjoyed blind devotion there. Indeed, on a couple of levels, one could claim that Power of Dreams had as much in common with the emerging Cork outfits of the time as they had with many of their contemporaries in Dublin. It seemed only natural, then, that the group was eventually joined by guitarist Ian Olney, from Cork band, Cypress, Mine !, the Paisley Undergrounders who wielded an obvious influence on them. 

Ian’s sorcery certainly siliconed the bands live sound and brought them up to senior championship standard in studio. The inclusion of one of his former group’s best songs, ‘Anxious’, on the reverse of a later single, ‘There I Go Again’, consummated the relationship between the two bands and, indeed, the two cities.   

With the benefit of thirty years of hindsight, its clear that Power of Dreams did an awful lot of their growing up on record. Those first two albums in particular – ‘Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’ was followed in 1992 by the heavier and more rounded ‘2 Hell with Common Sense’ – can be read now like two coming-of-age short stories set to high-octane indie-pop soundtracks. To this end, I would argue that some of Craig’s best and more developed Power of Dreams songs feature on the band’s final two elpees, ‘Positivity’ and ‘Become Yourself’.

Music writers and critics have long referred to groups, musicians and records that sound like they’re in a hurry. Mad for road, impatience is found deep inside many songs, and often for the better. I’d instinctively put the likes of The Jam, Buzzcocks and The Smiths, three of my own favourite groups, into this category. On some of their records, it’s possible to actually feel the rush and be swept away by it. Sometimes that feeling comes from an urgency in the writing and a craving to be heard and, often, is determined by constrained budgets and the pressure of deadlines. Frequently, it can result from a compound of both, and this was certainly the case with Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’. 

Power of Dreams were together for barely seven years, even if seems like they were around for far longer. They were prodigious, smart, energetic and curious, and ‘Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’ certainly captures all of that. But it’s also a typical debut album: the band is still growing into its body, prone to injury, finding its feet and locating its voice. But at a thirty year remove, the record has aged as well as those responsible for it: Power of Dreams certainly made better albums but only ever made one debut.

2 comments

  1. Just listened keenly (to that brand old musical biscuit), it really is a synopsis of Normal People isn’t it?

    100 ways was a bolt of energy, like everything else they did back then. Still electrifies next to this day.

    Funnily enough when I was watching the series for Normal People, ‘Maire I don’t love you’ popped into my head during one of the episodes.

    Like

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