Thirty years ago this weekend, Public Enemy played Trinity College, Dublin. Kieran Cunningham, Chief Sports Writer with the Irish Daily Star, and someone who once had musical notions of his own, has written this excellent guest post for us.
Joe Brolly was lying on his back on the cobblestones. Staring at the stars, wired to the moon.
Tuxedo, white shirt, polished shoes, proper bowtie. A walkie-talkie as big as his big, big head pressed to his ear.
Dungiven’s finest was trying to get in touch with the Starship Enterprise.
“There seems to be no sign of intelligent life anywhere, Captain, but the air…the air is tight and closing in. You’ve got to beam me up!”
Joe, a first year law student, was ‘working’ as security at the Trinity Ball.
This was one of the great cover stories. A gig on security meant a free pass to the show and it was easy to hide. It was a time before mobile phones so walkie-talkies were supplied. Large and unwieldy, they were a mass of crackles and static. Unpredictable and untrustworthy. Unlike Joe, of course.
So the temptation to go AWOL was huge. Joe didn’t resist…
The date was May 20, 1988, and the 30th anniversary this week is significant. It marks three decades since Public Enemy first played in Ireland. Open to correction, but I believe it was the first major hip-hop gig in Ireland.
I had a small part to play in them coming here, but will come to that anon. First, some context. Colm has written wonderfully well in this space on so many aspects of Irish music in the 1980s and 1990s, but I’ve read little over the years on the impact of the Ents circuit in colleges.
I’m more than a little wary of getting into the nostalgia business, as the danger of dressing up often bleak times in sentimental colours is always there.
Leeches on their arms and legs. Stomach purges, live burials, and ”warm hypnotic emulsions”, whatever on earth they are. These were just some of the cures used for nostalgia in different centuries.
You see, from the 17th to 19th century, it was actually classed as a disease. Things got so bad in Switzerland that the playing of a milking song, Khue-Reyen, was punishable by death. This was due to the supposed fact that Swiss soldiers were overcome with nostalgia and useless for battle if they heard it.
So I’ve always been wary of nostalgia about student days. Truth to tell, I stumbled into college. In the months before, I was giving serious consideration to giving it a miss. At the time, I was singing in a band called The Hour After, with three Gallagher brothers. The original of the species.
They were, like many in west Donegal, Glasgow born and bred before moving across the water with their parents. We bumped into each other through a mutual friend and found a shared obsession with Echo and the Bunnymen.
Only problem was they lived in The Rosses, 45 miles away from me in Glencolmcille, so we could only practise at weekends, and it was hardcore. Seven hours on a Saturday, seven hours on a Sunday.
Nobody had any money in the 1980s so, to cut petrol costs, I’d get a lift on the back of the drummer’s Vespa for one leg of the journey on the Saturday morning, staying in their house, and returning in a battered Hiace van on the Sunday night.
Our set-list was a diet of Bunnymen, Velvets, Iggy Pop and Doors covers, but we had notions. They were keen for me to commit full-time and give up on college, and I thought seriously about doing so. Luckily, I got sense.
Arrived into Trinity to study English and Sociology in September, 1985, wide-eyed and clueless. It was Fresher’s Week, so Front Square was lined with various stalls trying to entice the gullible to join everything from debating societies to sports clubs to the wonderfully named ‘Rock Nostalgia Society’.
By chance, I got talking to a tall Dubliner with a mohican and 12 hole Docs. His name was Barry Henry, and he was involved with Ents. We ended up as close friends, sharing a flat in London in the mid-1990s.
There were free lunchtime gigs in the Junior Common Room (JCR) above Front Gate that week, with A House among those playing. Bands I’d grown fond of from listening to Dave Fanning and now they were playing a couple of feet in front of me. This was mind-blowing. In that first term, among those to play in Trinity were the kick-ass Green On Red, part of the Paisley Underground movement – if you could call it a movement – in the US.
But the band that blew me away early on were The Triffids. Australian outlaws with a troubled and charismatic singer in David McComb, who tragically died at just 36 in 1999.
Dublin was a pretty grim place, in many aspects, back then. So many miserable cold bedsits. So much frustration and pent-up rage. Gigs were often violent affairs. Then there was the suffocating smog in the winter. Nothing to look forward to but a plane ticket to London or New York in search of work.
Things were so bad we used to drink Furstenberg.
But there were up-sides too. There was a remarkable energy to the place. Temple Bar was a very different place, and it rang to the sounds of dozens of bands rehearsing, the murmur of planning and plotting and scheming.
In places like the Coffee Inn, Well Red Cafe and Marks Brothers, plans for world domination were put in place. Often over steaming mugs of Nicaraguan coffee. It was a time of AIDs benefits and a constant hum of debate about abortion. Some things never change.
It was a time too when Trinity had a serious Gaelic football team, one that would have won a Sigerson Cup in different eras.
They did win the league but, in Sigerson, had the misfortune to come up against a genius called Maurice Fitzgerald in the red and black of UCC.
Joe Brolly was one of the star turns up front, but there were other fine players. Paddy O’Donoghue took the frees and went on to win the man of the match award when Kilmacud Crokes took the All-Ireland club crown in 1995. He was a selector with Pat Gilroy, another Trinity footballer, when Dublin won the 2011 All-Ireland and is now alongside Gilroy with the capital’s hurlers.
Ciaran Murray of Monaghan, Wicklow’s Conan Daye, Sean Kelly of Meath, Cavan’s Cian Murtagh…it was a fine team.
Of that side, I was particularly friendly with Terry Jennings, who I usually see these days at reunion gigs by The Blades. Terry is now heavily involved in coaching with Kilmacud Crokes, having made the sacrilegious leap across the river from his beloved St Vincent’s.
He had a spell with the Dubs under Pat O’Neill, coming up with one of the great lines to describe life as an inter-county fringe player. “I spent 10 years trying to get on the Dublin panel and six months trying to get off it.”
Terry is one of the most significant figures in the history of Dublin football, though, making a seismic impact when he was just seven years old.
In the 1974 Championship, the Dubs had struggled to an underwhelming victory away to Wexford first time out. Kevin Heffernan headed home in despair and, in the car with him were his wife, Mary, his wife’s friend Lily Jennings and her son, Terry.
Heffo was lamenting his fruitless search for a free-taker which caused young Terry to pipe up: “I’ve never seen Jimmy Keaveney miss one.” That planted a seed in Heffo’s mind. He persuaded Keaveney to come out of retirement, got him fit and his fellow Vincent’s man played a huge role in Dublin’s most glorious era.
Trinity might seem like an unlikely GAA hotspot, and it was Heffo who was the trailblazer. One of his early great days was playing for Trinity in the Duke Cup final in 1955. UCD ran riot in the first half, leading by 14 points at the break.
Trinity needed a strong second half and won a penalty almost from the throw-in. Heffo blasted it wide. The Kerry poet Brendan Kennelly was a Trinity teammate that day and later recalled his reaction.
“Having missed the penalty, the man went mad, and inside 10 minutes, he had the ball three times in the UCD net, and then added a several points,” he said:
“Heffo was a great full-forward because he was an efficient and stylish savage of a player, who was at his best when he was slightly humiliated. If he had scored the penalty, we would have lost. He might have relaxed. He might have lost his demon energy. But he didn’t, and we won, because he was suddenly humiliated into greatness.”
Humiliated into greatness. What a line.
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, I’d inveigled myself on to the Ents crew. This involved many things. Putting up posters, humping PA systems around, the bonus of DJing in The Buttery on a Wednesday night with payment being five free pints.
In the pre-internet, pre-selfie, pre-smartphone world, things were simpler. One night, a band led by Neil McCormick, Shook Up!, were playing in The Buttery. McCormick went on to carve out a very successful career as a music journalist in the UK but one of his claims to fame back then was that he’d gone to Mount Temple with U2.
Sure enough, Bono was at the gig with his wife, Ali. With the innocence and bravado of youth – I went up and started chatting. Bono yapped happily away, bought his rounds and then dragged me to Hothouse Flowers, who were playing a late night gig in the Arts Block. That led to those on the door later asking ‘How do you know Bono? ‘I don’t’. But things were simpler, there wasn’t the same kind of distance then. We’d get to know The Stars of Heaven and Something Happens through Ents gigs and would play football with them in Herbert Park.
Colm has written here before about The Stars, a special band, and it brings to mind the influence of Eamon Carr – the only Irish journalist who should write an autobiography.
Eamon has had an extraordinary life, from a start in advertising to drumming with Horslips, to setting up Hotwire Records. Guru Weirdbrain was Eamon’s alter-ego, and he put together a fine compilation – Weird Weird World of Guru Weirdbrain on Hotwire in 1985. If featured everybody from The Stars of Heaven to The Golden Horde to The Real Wild West to Paranoid Visions and The Baby Snakes.
Modern journalism is in thrall to third-level colleges, with most recruits coming straight from media courses and with little life experience outside of that. It could do with more who have taken the road not taken. Like Eamon. Not many journalists these days have written poems and plays, or completed a PhD in History of Art.
I’ll always remember a press junket to New York a decade ago for a fight between Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones Jr in Madison Square Garden. It was the week of Barack Obama’s elevation to the US Presidency so Gotham was buzzing.
After the Calzaghe/Jones fight, we headed to the press conference room, waiting for the two boxers to come in. I was sitting beside Eamon and he recognised a chap in the row in front of us. It was Richard Williams, then the chief sports writer of The Guardian. Eamon tapped him on the shoulder and introduced himself. “Remember me? I was on with Horslips when you were presenting The Old Grey Whistle Test.”
Many of Eamon’s buddies on Hotwire were Trinity regulars, and the Ball at the end of my first year was special. Dr and the Medics, who’d just been at number one in the UK with a cover of ‘Spirit in the Sky’. The Pogues, That Petrol Emotion, The Go-Betweens.
Remarkably, the latter played one of the free lunchtime gigs in Trinity week, with a stage facing the cricket pitch. Robert Forster recalled that day in his autobiography ‘Grant and I’:
“We played on a makeshift outdoor stage in a corner of Trinity College. It had rained most of the morning, and the crowd were as amazed as the appearance of the sun as they were at the sight and sound of the group. Our final note bringing a downpour, and a rubbed-eye, did-that-really-happen? experience that was pure Go-Betweens.”
A few months back, Jessica Moss uploaded a photo of that lunchtime gig to Twitter. Was taken aback by being able to spot myself to the left of the stage.
My friend, Barry Henry, had been elected Ents officer for my second year and I gave more and more energy to that side of college life. The plan to go for the job myself at some stage was hatching. It had considerable perks. A year out of studies with a modest wage but a free apartment on campus was part of the deal.
Another friend, Paul Gavin, ran for Ents in second year and got the gig. That turned out to be quite a year. I’d spent the summer of 1987 in London and returned to Dublin for the new term, hooking up with Paul to catch up on his plans. He was buzzing over having booked Bad Manners to play the Freshers Ball.
“Remember the big fat bald lad? They’ll be a great laugh.” “You do know they have a huge skinhead following, Paul?” “No…”
At the time, gangs of skinheads caused regular trouble at gigs, so we had the extraordinary experience of arranging a meeting between ourselves, the college authorities and a chap known only as ‘King Skin’. He promised to make sure that peace was kept, but Paul called in a few of the Trinity rugby team as extra security on the night to make sure. We all linked arms around the stage, facing the crowd. Hordes of skins surged forward again and again, storming on to the stage, with Buster Bloodvessel showing surprisingly nifty footwork to get out of the way.
We’d do our best to haul them off, link arms, and go again. It was quite an adrenaline rush. A few months on, Paul had another brainwave. Showaddywaddy – rock ‘n’ roll revivalists who’d been huge a decade earlier – to headline the Valentine’s Ball with The Golden Horde as support. To make them feel at home, Paul had gone to a theatrical costume shop and hired a full Teddy Boy outfit – drape jacket, brocade waistcoat, bolo tie, drainpipe trousers, brothel creeper shoes. The works.
Paul and I went to meet Showaddywaddy beforehand and these middle-aged blokes from Leicester – dressed like middle-aged blokes from Leicester – looked at Paul’s outfit and just shook their heads. They did get in costume by the time the gig came around…
I had taken the plunge and ran for Ents officer in the annual Students Union elections but was the worst candidate in the world. Poor Barry was my campaign manager nad he must have been tearing his hair out. Terminally shy, having to stand in front of classes in lecture halls to give a stump speech was torture. I lost out to Edwina Forkin by about a hundred votes, and she became the first woman to hold the office. She did a great job too, memorably bringing The La’s over the following year, shortly after they released one of the great debut albums.
As part of his cunning plan to get me elected, Barry had found a way to get me on to the organising committee for the 1988 Trinity Ball. Around 30 bands play on the night, but the big headache was finding a headliner. There was one sleepy afternoon in the Ents office in Front Square when Paul and I were going through possibles, and we hit paydirt.
Paul was firing names at me. Band of Susans? Nah. The Shop Assistants? Nah. Voice of the Beehive? Meh. Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts? Oh, God. Napalm Death? No, no, no. Public Enemy? No…er, what, did you say Public Enemy? Yeah, they’re down to do a UK tour and might be on for coming over. Go for it, Paul, you have to go for it.
Hip-hop really came on our radar thanks to Chris Heaney, later the drummer with Stephen Ryan’s post-Stars outfit, The Revenants. Chris had spent a year studying in the States and augmented his collection of US hardcore punk with a few choice cuts from Def-Jam Records as well as NWA.
A few months earlier, Public Enemy’s ‘Yo, Bum Rush the Show’ had been voted as NME’s Album of the Year. At the end of 1988, they’d make it a double whammy, topping the NME poll with ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’. They were becoming the hottest act in the world.
Paul talked to the promoters and, unbelievably, their price was within our budget. Chancing my arm, I told Paul to ask them if they’d do one of the free lunchtime gigs as well. Incredibly, they agreed. But then things hit a snag.
Chuck D was Public Enemy’s voice, leader and guiding intelligence. He shared the vocal duties with Flavor Flav, a crown prince with an outsized clock hung around his neck.
Professor Griff was the self-styled Minister for Information with Terminator X the DJ who supplied the block-rocking beats.
What was causing trouble was the two dancers, if you could call them that, who went by the name of Security of the First World. They wore paramilitary uniforms and waved fake Uzi submachine guns around.
This was only a couple of months after one of the most volatile periods in Northern Ireland history. In the space of a fortnight in March, 1988, things got particularly toxic. The killing by the SAS of three IRA members in Gibraltar had led to a gun and grenade attack on their funeral in Belfast by loyalist Michael Stone, killing three. In turn, the subsquent funerals led to an horrific incident where two British Army coroporals drove into the cortege, and were then abducted and killed.
Somehow, in a time before Google, the college authorities got wind of Public Enemy’s paramilitary trappings. Mindful of the optics of such a show so soon after events in the north, a crisis meeting with the Senior Dean. Contracts had been signed so it was decided to push ahead, but the Trinity authorities weren’t happy.
As things turned out, the lunchtime gig was a damp squib. Public Enemy clearly didn’t want to know, blasting out a half-hearted ‘Bring the Noise’, before leaving the stage. It was a public appearance, rather than a show.
But they made up for it later that night at the Trinity Ball with a coruscating, fire-cracking show. Playing on the main stage in New Square, it was a strange sight. The sons and daughters of the Dublin middle classes in tuxedos and ball gowns, roaring ‘Fight the Power!’ with clenched fists aloft. And Chuck D didn’t endear himself to the powers-that-be with a speech from the stage about the north and British imperialism. Joe might have even got up off the cobblestones to check it out.
The following night, Public Enemy played another Dublin gig – rocking McGonagle’s to the rafters. I slept it out.