Author: the blackpool sentinel (incorporating Voices from The Glen)
The Blackpool Sentinel [incorporating Voices From The Glen] is a music blog by Martin O'Connor and Colm O’Callaghan.
We deal mostly with alternative music from the 1980s and 1990s, much of it Irish and much of it long lost. And with good reason.
Ah, revisionism and nostalgia: you’d want to be careful when that pair collide. Last Monday, the Irish Times newspaper carried a fine, first person memoir by Conor Pope to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the release of The Sawdoctors’ second single, ‘I Useta Lover’, one of the more distinctive Irish pop songs of the 1990s and one of the country’s biggest-selling singles ever. As such, it’s an anniversary worth noting: there was a time when there was no escaping The Sawdoctors who, in the great traditions of popular music, captured a moment and legged it until they ran out of puff and were lapped by fresher legs.
‘I Useta Lover’ used a series of lyrical flourishes and tropes that would quickly come to characterise the band and that were more in keeping with the thematic heart of the first wave of Irish showbands than the 1980s indie set. And punters of all hues lapped them up with gusto.
Conor Pope tells us of his own loose connection to The Sawdoctors and self-deprecatingly plays down his stint in a rival Galway-based rock outfit, describing the pain he felt – and many others of us, I can assure him – as The Sawdoctors defied the odds and took flight. Thirty years older, the writer has now changed his tune: ‘Never would I have guessed back then that the song would be as timeless as it has turned out … or that I would still be able to sing it [‘I Useta Lover’] without missing a word or a beat’.
I never gave The Sawdoctors the time of day back then and don’t intend to revise my views on them now. I’m wary of the seductive pull of nostalgia, and all the more so on a blog like this that seldom, if ever, looks forward. But in accurately assessing the group’s legacy, an additional pass may be no harm.
The Sawdoctors gave a voice, as the Irish Times piece rightfully claims, to ‘what it was like to live in the west of Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s’. On a most basic level, several of the band’s most powerful songs are located there, and as many again are scattered with local slang, situations and parochial soap operas. But The Sawdoctors didn’t have exclusive editorial ownership on the vagaries of life for those then living outside of Dublin, especially in small towns. Plenty of other groups were also at it but just chose to reflect those lives in different ways.
Indeed, as The Sawdoctors were first coming to national prominence, so too was a cohort of other ambitious young bands from cities and towns all over Ireland. Conor refers to one of them, another Galway group, Toasted Heretic, in his piece, but there were many more in the same boat too. Therapy?, The Frank and Walters, The Sultans of Ping, The Cranberries, The Would-Bes, Engine Alley, The Divine Comedy and Cuckoo are among the best known: it would be wrong to think they weren’t dipping into their own experiences in Larne, Cork, Limerick, Kingscourt, Kilkenny, Enniskillen and Derry to inform their material.
What set The Sawdoctors apart was how they presented. They were horny young bucks sniggering in the pews at mass while, in Therapy?’s orbit, James Joyce was fucking someone’s sister. Like The Frank and Walters, they enjoyed pranks and practical jokes but, while the Cork band captured the spirit of The Monkees, The Sawdoctors looked to the home-made, cardboard comedy of ‘Tops of The Towns’ instead, nudging-and-winking away while others were having it off goodo and happy to tell the world as much. ‘The sun goes down on Galway Bay’, sang Toasted Heretic’s Julian Gough. ‘The daughter goes down on me’.
The Sawdoctors divided opinion with an intensity I hadn’t seen before on the domestic beat. In hindsight, this was rooted far less in the music – more perspiration than inspiration, in my view – and way more in a broader cultural conversation. In their donkey jackets and everyman duds, and with their call-and-response choruses and colloquial language, The Sawdoctors were at the heart of a debate about identity.
‘Designer bogmen’, was how the late Dublin-born music journalist, George Byrne, once described The Sawdoctors and, his provocative choice of language notwithstanding, he had a point. I always thought that the ordinariness that was fundamental to their appeal was as carefully studied in it’s own right as any of U2’s various guises, before them or after them. In Ollie Jennings, their manager, they had as formidable an operator in the cockpit as Paul McGuinness himself in his pomp. A founder of the Galway Arts Festival, which took place for the first time in 1978, Jennings was an experienced and wily hand who could read the mood in a room better than most. And he was fiercely protective of his charges, too: The Sawdoctors took plenty of flack but were well able to defend their territory. Like those doughty corner backs they immortalised in song, they knew how to pull hard and late.
They boasted no outward pretensions and only struck poses and shapes when they were sending themselves up, which was often. The cover of the band’s debut album, ‘If This is Rock ‘N’ Roll I Want My Old Job Back’, features the fathers of the various band members, legs akimbo, replete in leather jackets and with guitars cocked: it was the closest the band got to cool. Instead, like the comedian Pat Shortt, they reported for duty as they were: decent, everyday shams dealing with everyday situations in simple, uncomplicated language. And so when many of those who found comfort in the band’s live shows – particularly in the Irish enclaves in London, Glasgow, New York and Boston – looked stage wards, they often saw themselves, and their values, reflected back at them.
There they were, perennial underdogs from the sticks, battling the music industry, the media and the pomp and ceremony of the big city. Ultimately, channelling the influential Catholic sociologists, Father Harry Bohan and Father Micheál Mac Gréil, The Sawdoctors were fighting to protect the soul of rural Ireland in words, deeds and big choruses.
To be fair, someone had to. During the late 1980s and early 90s, a lot of the conversation about identity, particularly from the Dublin-based commentariat, was woefully one-dimensional. The Sawdoctors, to their credit, saw a gap in the hedge, provided an alternative frame of reference and set out their stall. In this respect, they followed a road also travelled by the Reid brothers from Leith, in Scotland who, as The Proclaimers, proudly told similar tales in thick accents. On that road, where Hot Press magazine saw ‘stick-fighters’ and ‘bog-ballers’, The Sawdoctors instead saw legends, heroes and feats of valour. So much so that, like The Smiths, with whom they have far more in common than one might imagine, they brought swathes of the voiceless in with them from the margins.
It’s a pity, then, that the music itself was so spectacularly lumpy and devoid of imagination. Dress it up all you like, but there isn’t really a lot of distance between ‘Clare Island’ and, say, Liam Reilly’s emigration dirge, ‘The Flight of Earls’. And although ‘To Win Just Once’ might indeed sound visionary and prescient after a feed of porter on the night of an unexpected Intermediate championship victory, it sounds much more mundane in the cold light of morning.
In the wake of Conor’s piece, I saw a reference on-line to the ‘unique genius’ of The Sawdoctors. Early morning over-enthusiasm aside, the reality is that The Sawdoctors weren’t half as unique as we think. And genius ? Hardly. What is indisputable, though, is that, for many years, they were very, very popular and, perhaps, inside the warm wrap of nostalgia and revisionism, it’s just too easy to get carried away ?
To my mind, the band had a far greater impact off the stage than on it or on record. Like the great Irish showbands, The Royal before them and Westlife after them, their popularity facilitated the mass congregation of young men and women and, in the best traditions of popular entertainment, made them feel, if not always better, then certainly as if they were a part of something special, however fleetingly. Their songs – who among you can name five or more ? – just sound-tracked that communion.
They were at the peak of their powers, I think, during the first three Féile festivals that took place in Semple Stadium, Thurles, between 1990 and 1992, and over the course of which they made their way from the bottom of the bill to the top. Those Féile events are as much the story of The Sawdoctors as anyone else and, in Thurles, they found a perfect platform. A small town in the middle of Ireland, the closure of the sugar factory in Thurles in the late eighties deprived it of a primary source of local employment. On Liberty Square, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded at a meeting in Hayes’ Hotel, in November, 1884, and Semple Stadium itself has long witnessed acts of spectacular skill and heroism performed by the best hurlers and footballers in the history of the national games. Féile was where The Sawdoctors walked into one of their own songs.
Alongside ‘Celebrate’ by An Emotional Fish, ‘Parachute’ by Something Happens, The Stunning’s ‘Brewing Up A Storm’ and The Sultans of Ping FC’s ‘Where’s Me Jumper ?’, ‘I Useta Lover’ was one of a number of alternative national anthems played during The Trip to Tipp. To which hordes of giddy youngsters shot to attention, paid their respects and then afterwards ate the faces off of one another.
And maybe there’s a genius in there somewhere ? Or maybe, like Brendan Bowyer before them and Hozier long after, The Sawdoctors were just a popular turn who, deliberately or otherwise, found a moment when they were in synch with the mood of the nation. In the Pantheon of Irish popular music, however, The Sawdoctors – and ‘I Useta Lover’ – are queuing on the outside, well down the stand-by list.
I was twenty-one years old when I spent the second half of 1989 on a JI visa in New England. I’d fetched up in a small city ninety miles outside of Boston looking to do as many shifts as I could in a local restaurant and trying to squirrel away a few bob, and I loved every minute of it. The view from the front of The Log Cabin, on the road to Easthampton, was spectacular, the grub inside was decent and the kitchen and waiting staff were on the colourful side of well oiled. In the great traditions of the hospitality sector, several of them were running away and looking to turn a fast buck: one of them was a fine jazz musician who, after a ruck in the fish kitchen one night, we never saw again.
The punters were just as mixed and varied. One of the local bishops dined with us once a week, ate at his own table in a back room and only took his food after he’d settled himself with a couple of Rob Roys that were generous with the measures. A foursome of obscenely wealthy old dears regularly drove over from Connecticut in their vintage Cadillacs and rarely ventured from the cheapest options on the menu, for which they were avoided by the more experienced waiting staff using an effort v reward-based theorem. The race-going set, on their way to or from the multi-track at Saratoga, were far more attractive: they’d roll in and, to a woman and man, splash freely.
Between the barrel-topped bar on the terrace – where a local businessman would gauge the level of hooch in his cocktail with a home-made device – and the long aisles inside, you were kept going. The good days at The Log Cabin were very good and the nights often went on far too long: a restaurant of the same name still exists on the same site but bears no resemblance, physically or otherwise, to the operation run for decades by Edna Williams and Frank McAvin.
I’d just finished college and was in no rush to do anything more taxing than bussing crockery and waiting tables. Cork city was in rag order, good news was scarce on the ground and the new decade couldn’t come quickly enough. Groomed for either a job in teaching or in the state service, the view down into South Hadley from the front of the restaurant looked more and more appealing by the day.
I spent little or no time in Holyoke city centre itself during my time in Hampden County: very few did, I think. Boasting the birth of volleyball and the drummer from Steppenwolf among its most notable achievements, the city was as unremarkable as its contributions to popular culture. And it was nowhere near as pleasant or chilled out as some of the places that circle it.
On my days off, I’d spend hours rifling the bins and racks in record shops in Northampton, Easthampton and Amherst, the trendier college towns close-by. My fledgling collection of albums and the half-cocked over-view I had of popular music history was an enormous help and a real ice-breaker. The staff and the punters at The Cabin regarded the Irish kids there very fondly anyway but, beyond the courtesy, music was a real leveller in the back-room and unlocked several doors. One of the older waitresses had lived through the first Summer of Love and was still paying the price for it, twenty years on. During down-time and breaks, she gave me a post-graduate schooling on the genius of Van Morrison, for which I’ll forever be in her debt.
In that space where bravery and stupidity merge, I travelled down to Boston in a borrowed beater with four local chemical enthusiasts to see an extended panel of Damned members, past and present, put on an almighty display at The Channel and I have no idea how we made it back up the motorway afterwards. The show itself I remember, of course, in fine detail: a greatest hits pantomime featuring Gary Tibbs at one point on bass and that ended with Captain Sensible chased off the stage, bollock naked.
One of the waiters drove us up to New Haven in Connecticut to see Pixies on the ‘Doolittle’ tour in a hall that was far from full: at the time they were one of the most essential and urgent new bands in Britain and were largely unheralded in their own back yard. In return, I took him to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst – where Pixies first took shape years previously – to see another magnificent live consideration, The Waterboys, in their pomp, powerfully plugging ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and putting on as energetic a show as I’d seen from them, despite having been on the road for what seemed like forever.
Amherst was a beautiful town, and all the more so when it was over-run with students. I saw the Dublin folk singer, Mary Black, outside a coffee shop there one day and, with nothing better to do, ended up at a concert she was doing that night, more out of a sense of patriotic duty than any real desire to hear the best bits from ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’ and ‘No Frontiers’. And I swear, I left there in the dead of night thinking I’d just seen a J1 version of Nick Drake perform ‘Five Leaves Left’ for his parents and his sister in their drawing room in 1969.
The moustachioed Liverpool striker, Ian Rush, spent the 1987/1988 season in Turin, where he endured a difficult year at Juventus before returning home quickly. Whether or not he ever described his only season in Italy as ‘like living in a foreign country’ is irrelevant: I certainly know what he meant. I just couldn’t believe the freedom I had and the range of stuff that was happening in front of my nose. But I was kept nicely connected with what I knew, too, and, in those years before the Internet, a couple of friends of mine were in regular touch from back home.
Every fortnight, I’d take delivery of a couple of packages in which there’d be long letters, clippings, copies of ‘Hot Press’ and ‘Cork Scene’ magazines and compilation tapes magpied from a variety of sources. Whenever I hear talk now about welfare services for the Irish diaspora, I default to the summer of 1989 and the pirated supply line of new music that helped to keep my days bright: The Woodentops, Into Paradise, The Stone Roses and Danny Wilson’s ‘Bebop Moptop’.
It was on Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on RTÉ 2FM – where else ? – that I’d first encountered Danny Wilson. Not, for the sake of clarity, the gnarly, journeyman footballer, then doing duty at Luton Town and who’d recently been capped by Northern Ireland, but an elegant, sharply-turned out pop band with ambitions from Dundee. Named after a 1950s film starring Frank Sinatra – and originally called Spencer Tracy – they’d defied standard British music industry logic by having a hit single, ‘Mary’s Prayer’, in America before they managed to do so at home. That said, I’m not convinced they were ever destined to be a soaraway commercial success; much of their material was just too unwieldly for the charts.
There’s much more to Danny Wilson than ‘Mary’s Prayer’ and, decades later, I’m unsure if that cut sits completely comfortably on the group’s terrific debut album, ‘Meet Danny Wilson’. It was certainly far too obvious for Fanning, who was more inclined towards the more considered stuff, like ‘Steamtrains To the Milky Way’, ‘Nothing Ever Goes to Plan’ and ‘You Remain an Angel’ instead. But ‘Mary’s Prayer’ is what it is, the band’s best-known number and calling card.
Danny Wilson sit in a genre of smart 1980s pop music that was brave enough to kick against all reasonable advice and pull from one of the most critically unfashionable sources available to them: the poppier end of the Steely Dan canon. Like a slew of other groups from the period – most notably Prefab Sprout but also The Big Dish, Love and Money, Hue and Cry and even The Lilac Time – they weren’t afraid to foreground their Humanities degrees and rail against some of the darker, heavier and trendier sounds du jour.
‘Meet Danny Wilson’’s lavish gate-fold sleeve suggested a group that was more comfortable within the confines of the studio, where they could layer their songs with harmonies, backing vocals, brass and strings – like Becker and Fagen – to their hearts’ content, and work out their soul and jazz fantasies. Two of the band wore trilby hats in the colour-treated group photograph on the front cover – an early-warning sign for many critics, the late George Byrne prominent among them – in a nod to some of the 1950s cultural references that so defined them. For a group so proficient with their tools, they were woefully out of time, and that made me love them even more.
I devoured ‘Meet Danny Wilson’ because, like many of my favourite albums at the time – like ‘Steve McQueen’, ‘Sign ‘o the Times’ and ‘Cupid and Psyche’ – I saw in it the potential of contemporary popular music beyond the obvious. Back then, a smart world-play, twisted chorus or a flourish of brass had real currency and, during a period dominated by noisy guitars, meant the world. But for all that, I still prefer the band’s follow-up, ‘Bebop Moptop’, released in the summer of 1989, and which was air-mailed from Cork to Holyoke shortly after it was issued, recorded from original vinyl onto a fresh c60 and marked ‘for the urgent attention of … ’.
I feel the same way about that record now as I did then: like ABC’s terrific second album, ‘Beauty Stab’, it’s often over-looked in the context of the record that preceded it. But in my own case, ‘Bebop’ landed at the right place and during the right time, a seasonal counter-point to much of the noise – Pixies, The Naked Rayguns, The Damned and The Smithereens – I was lost in for much of that period.
‘Bebop’ picks up where ‘Meet’ left off, except the band sounds far more confident and the production more elaborate: the numerous layers, breaks and plumes are testament to that. The lead single, ‘The Second Summer of Love’, was a rattling, acoustic-led romp that resonated very obviously with me on a couple of levels and had the cut of a throwaway ditty written late in the day – like Hinterland’s ‘Desert Boots’ – and added into the mix at the death. Like ‘Mary’s Prayer’, it gave Danny Wilson another chart hit but sounds as dis-connected from the rest of the elpee as ‘Mary’s Prayer’ does on ‘Meet’.
It’s maybe worth noting here how easily Gary Clark has long minted smart pop songs with deceptive degrees of side and edge: I’m not sure if any other chart hit has ever dropped as many acid references inside three minutes. A point perhaps not lost on the Dublin film director, and one-time Frames bass-player, John Carney, who asked Clark to contribute the original sound-track to his 2016 coming-of-age movie, ‘Sing Street’. Which he of course delivered with customary elan.
‘Bebop Moptop’ opens and closes on the streets in the rain: ‘An Imaginary Girl’ and ‘The Ballad of Me and Shirley MacLaine’ twin the record’s beginning and end, before it climaxes with a few triumphant bars of a movie studios signature riff. In between, the body of the record boasts a set of lyrically sharp, well-upholstered pop songs that, as a sum of parts, reflect the best of every mighty Scottish pop record ever, from the first Del Amitri elpee to the next Trash Can Sinatras one and all points in between.
‘I Can’t Wait’, an imperious, busy, pop song co-written with the rest of the group – Gary Clark’s brother, Kit, and Ged Grimes – is one of many stand-outs. ‘If Everything You Said was True’ and ‘I Was Wrong’, with its Sesame Street buff and shine, are stellar pop songs, while ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Charlie Boy’ bring the introspection and the dark. I wore that cassette to a thread over the course of that summer and ‘Bebop Moptop’ is easily among my favourite records of 1989 and beyond. And I don’t think I was alone, either. Danny Wilson were a primary influence on one of the more interesting and ambitious Dublin groups of the late 1980s, Swim, who we’ve written about previously here. But their prints can also be found all over the considerable body of work of another, far better-known Irish performer and writer too.
While I was free-styling it in Hampton County, a teenage Neil Hannon was assembling the first iteration of his band, The Divine Comedy, in a shed in Enniskillen. With two friends, John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor, he had his bowl-cut bowed: the group was still trying to master its instruments and, initially, had My Bloody Valentine, Ride and the shoe-gaze set, in its sights.
I strongly suspect that, in his own time, away from the noise, Neil was mainlining ‘Bebop Moptop’ with the same intensity I was. It’s just a hunch, but …
The ‘Self Aid’ live concert that took place in Dublin’s Royal Dublin Society showgrounds on May 17, 1986, is unprecedented in the history of popular entertainment in Ireland. Never has such a high-profile, high-end indigenous line-up been assembled on the same bill: ‘Self Aid’ was headlined by U2 and also featured short live sets by Rory Gallagher, Van Morrison and The Boomtown Rats among numerous others. But rarely has the build-up to any concert been the subject of such sustained ideological debate and seldom has the fall-out from any show reverberated so loudly for so long afterwards.
‘Self Aid’ was a fourteen-hour, live music event broadcast over the course of an entire day, designed to raise funds for a job creation fund and, through commitment from employers, to create jobs. The core conceit was laudable enough: during mid-1980s, unemployment levels in Ireland were running at nearly 20% of the available workforce and emigration was rife. The country was in recession and listing badly: a well-known social justice campaigner, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, claimed that during this period, one million people here were living in poverty.
We felt this as keenly as any on the northside of Cork. As Michael Moynihan writes in his book, Crisis and Comeback, by the mid-1980s, ‘Cork city had become a rust-belt region’, after three major local employers, Ford, Dunlop and Verolme Dockyard, all closed within eighteen months of each other. Following a second major fire at the city’s historic English Market, Cork Corporation toyed with the idea of turning the site into a car park. Is there a more appropriate metaphor for the story of Ireland during the 1980s?
On July 13th, 1985, after we’d completed our Leaving Cert exams and left secondary school for good, an extraordinary live music event took place at Wembley Stadium in London and at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Conceived by Bob Geldof, the Boomtown Rats’ singer, and organised by him and the prominent British promoter, Harvey Goldsmith, ‘Live Aid’ pulled the biggest names in popular music together for a spectacular, once-off global event to raise money to help famine relief in Ethiopia. It eventually generated well in excess of £100m and catapulted Geldof back into the public eye. The Dubliner has since become a powerful campaigner for global justice and his humanitarian work and advocacy in respect of emerging societies and the Third World dominates his legacy.
By any standards, ‘Live Aid’ is one of the most profoundly affecting live concerts in the history of modern entertainment: apart entirely from the money and the awareness it generated, it was yet another example of the compelling power of popular music. ‘Live Aid’ was a popular cultural device on which to hook a complicated conversation, but some of those live performances in London and Philadelphia – Queen, U2, Bowie, Paul McCartney – will never be forgotten. Bob Geldof recalls it at length in his 1986 autobiography, Is That It? indeed, were it not for ‘Live Aid’, it’s unlikely there would have been a Geldof autobiography at that point at all. As a musician he’d run out of gas but now, barely a year after I saw him front The Rats at a far-from-full Cork City Hall on the ‘In the Long Grass’ tour, he was one of the most recognisable figures on the planet. Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ, was one of the first European outlets to enthusiastically come on board with ‘Live Aid’. In ‘Is That It?’ Geldof claims that ‘without doubt, the Irish [Live Aid] Telethon was the best produced, resulting in the greatest net contribution per head of population’. This was all the more remarkable given the extent of social inequality on the country’s doorstep.
In the wake of the success of ‘Live Aid’, a number of similar events based on the same premise took place around the world. ‘Farm Aid’, pitched as an idea by Bob Dylan and originally organised by John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young, still endures, and with the same basic purpose: to raise funds for struggling American farmers. ‘Sport Aid’ was an obvious adjunct and was briefly popular, while the ‘telethon’ format – where money is pledged to various causes during live television strands – became, and remains, a popular conceit.
RTÉ’s ‘Live Aid’ coverage was led by Tony Boland, a senior producer at the broadcaster’s entertainment division who’d served his time on The Late Late Show and who was a long-time acquaintance of Geldof’s. When, a year later, himself and another formidable RTÉ programme-maker, Niall Mathews, suggested to RTÉ that an Irish television equivalent could focus on the extent of national unemployment, Geldof was one of his first calls.
Money raised by ‘Self Aid’ was administered by a board of trustees –working with some of the formal state agencies – on which sat the then RTÉ Director General, Vincent Finn, U2’s manager, Paul McGuinness, Justice Mella Carroll, trade unionist Peter Cassells, the aforementioned Sister Stanislaus Kennedy and others. Viewers were encouraged to donate money and employers were asked to pledge jobs on the day of the show, which was anchored from the RTÉ studios in Donnybrook and into which were fed a series of inserted links from around the country, as well as live coverage of the music in the RDS. The concert was promoted and run by Jim Aiken and the 30,000 tickets allocated to it, priced at £15, quickly sold out.
Geldof’s participation was clearly a key to unlocking the rest of the ‘Self-Aid’ line-up which, as well as the high-profile names, also featured the best of established local outfits, from Moving Hearts and De Danann to Paul Brady, Scullion and In Tua Nua who lined-up alongside a couple of British artists who, at the time, were regular visitors to Ireland and enjoyed special status here: Elvis Costello and [at the suggestion of Niall Matthews’ brother], Chris Rea. Such were Tony Boland’s powers of persuasion that, over sandwiches and soup at Adam Clayton’s house in Rathfarnham, U2 agreed to defer a planned Dublin show and made ‘Self Aid’ the band’s only European appearance of 1986.
‘Self Aid’ even had its own anthem. A single, ‘Let’s Make It Work’, written and performed by Paul Doran, then pitched as ‘an unemployed songwriter’, and Christy Moore, was released in advance of the event. With its distinctive lyrics – ‘I can dig a hole, I can climb a pole, I can work in a factory, I can assemble a TV’ – it remains a curio in the recent history of Irish music. Produced by Moore and Donal Lunny, and featuring a gold-plated backing band including the late Liam Óg Ó Floinn, Paul Brady and Larry Mullen, the song was unveiled on The Late Late Show the week before ‘Self Aid’. ‘Let’s Make It Work’ was afforded a special dispensation by the late disc jockey, Larry Gogan, who deemed it an honorary Number One single in Ireland, although it was far from the biggest-selling seven-incher in the country that week.
On his website, Paul Doran’s biography refers to ‘Self Aid’ as ‘a controversial event in Ireland, and one he came to regret his involvement in’. In the years since, his songs have been covered by Christy Moore, Mary Coughlan, Paulo Nutini and others and, two years ago, he released his first elpee.
‘Self Aid’ was more of an event that attracted legitimate critical discourse than a ‘controversial event’. It provoked debate from the get-go and, in the weeks leading up to the live concert, came under sustained scrutiny from a small but vocal cohort of the Irish media. The gut of that argument was captured in a spread of pieces in ‘In Dublin’ magazine – up until then a largely unremarkable listings magazine, based on the ‘Time Out’ model and edited by John Waters – which hit the capital’s news-stands days before ‘Self Aid’. Under the umbrella headline, ‘The Great Self Aid Farce’, the magazine ran a series of strongly-worded opinion pieces, led by the Derry-born writer and broadcaster, Eamonn McCann, that took issue with the event on a number of levels.
In his book, The Frontman: Bono [In the Name of Power], Harry Browne refers to this as a ‘groundswell of opinion on much of the Irish left’ that pointed to Self Aid’s ‘emphasis on positivity and the ‘pull up by our bootstraps’ type of capitalism of much of its rhetoric’. A suggestion was that this might do ‘more harm than the little good it would achieve through fund-raising for jobs-creation projects’.
Eamonn McCann was working, at the time, on an RTÉ television media series, ‘Slants’, and he put these points to ‘Self Aid’’s promoter, Jim Aiken, at a press conference in Dublin on May 1st, 1986, to launch the event. As the briefing came to an end, Aiken, an imposing, Armagh-born music industry veteran, suggested that McCann accompany him, rather, to an impromptu, two-person protest at the Russian Embassy to protest about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. What is accepted as the worst nuclear accident in history took place at a defective reactor in what is now northern Ukraine the previous week. According to a report on the launch in The Irish Independent, ‘McCann politely refused’ the invite.
Christy Moore, then as now one of the more politically involved musicians in the country and himself a long-time anti-nuclear campaigner, saw ‘Self Aid’ differently: ‘What harm can it do ?’, he asked The Irish Press newspaper. ‘There are many valid political reasons that can be found to criticise it, but it could have more positive value than the endless discoursing of politicians about the problem of unemployment’.
Bob Geldof was more forthright. ‘I know the arguments against ‘Self Aid’ and I rejected them when I was 14’, he told the media corps gathered backstage at the RDS on the day of the show. Geldof had made a late dash to Dublin from Cardiff, where he’d opened a rugby tournament for the ‘Sport Aid’ fund. Ireland, he claimed, was a country with ‘a Third World economy’ and he rejected the suggestion that, in respect of job creation, ‘Self Aid’ was doing the work of government. ‘If you say that, then you are abdicating your personal responsibility to the people around you’.
Tony Boland came out swinging in The Sunday Independent. ‘I can respect the fact that other people have objected on ideological grounds’, he told Willie Kealy. ‘But we live in a capitalist system, and we have to talk about jobs this side of the revolution, not after it’. ‘If nothing else’, Christy Moore added, ‘the show might lift people’s spirits for a day’. Which, I suspect, was a view shared by most of those who attended ‘Self Aid’ in person or who watched the event unfold live on television.
To many of us, ‘Self Aid’ was a day-out and a day-off, something different to do. A scarcely believable line-up to get worked up about and a reminder too that many of us were being reared for export. The noise around the event, justifiable as much of it may have been, was lost on the multitude.
And besides, I had far more pressing issues on my plate. About to turn eighteen, I’d started my first-year college exams and, in a distinctive twist on an old Irish parable, my mother was pregnant and my parents were the talk of the parish. My brother was born a number of weeks later and was named after the lead singer from Cactus World News, who played a storming teatime set at ‘Self Aid’. That says a lot about the house I grew up in.
Forswearing my books and notes, I spent May 17th, 1986, docked in front of the television, mainlining ‘Self Aid’. The highlights came early and often, as if the producers had cannily scheduled them to detonate at key intervals over the fourteen hours. Blue in Heaven’s ‘Red Dress’, a brooding, Doors-ish cut over a simple keyboard run and with no chorus, exploded during lunchtime. A high-camp, cinematic performance of ‘Slipaway’ by Les Enfants during the mid-afternoon. A fine, meaty set by The Fountainhead, the augmented Dublin two-piece who were about to release a cracking debut album, ‘The Burning Touch’, set the post-teatime pace, and it just kept coming. Just before 9, at the conclusion of his band’s short set, Bob Geldof announced on stage that The Boomtown Rats had just played together for the last time. ‘It’s been a very good ten years. Rest in peace’, he told the crowd.
As darkness descended on Dublin 4 and ‘Self Aid’ hit the home straight, the mood was escalated spectacularly and I’m not sure if the quality and breadth of that closing two hours will ever again be replicated on any national stage. ‘A man whose music has all the comforts of a long-time friend’, is how the songwriter and broadcaster, Shay Healy, introduced Rory Gallagher, who obliged us with four cracking cuts, including ‘Follow Me’ and ‘Shadow Play’. Elvis Costello and the Attractions were heralded into the ring by the broadcaster and publicist, B.P. Fallon, and tore into it from the off with a cover of ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’ leading a five song-set that also included ‘Uncomplicated’ and a snappy ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’.
The Dublin-born actor, Gabriel Byrne, then introduced a magnificent short set by Van Morrison. Who, replete in suit, collar, tie and v-neck, and looking less like a musician and more like a fella on his way to a special pin presentation by the Pioneers, performed three numbers from an immense new album, ‘No Guru, No Method, No Teacher’. ‘Here Comes the Knight’, ‘A Town Called Paradise’ and ‘Thanks For The Information’ brought a balm and mellow to the outdoors: as has long been typical, Morrison paid little heed to his surroundings. And within the first four bars of his set, I’d already purged Chris de Burgh’s earlier performance from my mental hard-drive.
Although they’d played no overt part in the build-up to the event, U2 – and their considerable organisation – were all over ‘Self Aid’. Headlining the bill in their own back-yard, the group’s long-time manager, Paul McGuinness, sat on the Self Aid Trust, which was chaired by U2’s then accountant, Ossie Kilkenny. And it was the band’s live crew, led by production manager Steve Iredale and sound engineer, Joe O’Herlihy, who more or less ran the considerable technical operation at the arena. The original tapes in the RTÉ Archive library bear testament, in particular, to O’Herlihy’s gift and the live sound all day, as well as the live television production on-site, warrant particular mention here: I can’t recall a single, serious sound hitch across the entire day. And certainly nothing as obvious as the technical issues that ruined the start of Paul McCartney’s otherwise magnificent set at ‘Live Aid’.
My former colleague, the impregnable Jack Peoples, mixed the sound output for television, a production that was watched by almost 2.4 million people. That was more than had tuned into ‘Live Aid’ the previous year and represented over 90% of all homes watching television on the day, who each tuned in for an average of three hours.
Months previously, U2 fetched up surprisingly on a late-night RTÉ television youth programme called TV GaGa, where they debuted two new songs, ‘Womanfish’ and an early version of ‘A Trip Through Your Wires’, as well as a cover of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. During that performance, the band dragged a couple of young bucks from the bleachers and set them to work on guitars and percussion as part of the band.
A year before the release of ‘The Joshua Tree’ and knowing, I suspect, that they were sitting on absolute gold, U2 were in the same giddy humour at ‘Self Aid’. Their five-song set was a bit more considered and better upholstered, a mix of covers – ‘C’Mon Everybody’ and ‘Maggie’s Farm’, with popular staples, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and ‘Pride’. At one point, repeating the trick, Bono made into the front of the crowd and necked from a cider bottle with a bemused punter. He then went off on a couple of long, circular rants about work, life, choices, good fortune and semi-state agencies.
But during the band’s familiar encore – a lavish, lengthy version of ‘Bad’, he let fly with gusto. During a segue into Elton John’s ‘Candle in The Wind’, he took aim at In Dublin magazine and ‘Self Aid’’s various dissenters. ‘They crawled out of the woodwork’, he sang, ‘onto pages of cheap Dublin magazines’. It was a bizarre intercession and from my perch in Blackpool, and like most others watching in, I hadn’t a clue what he was on about.
After which Bono introduced Paul Doran onto stage and, with arguably the greatest ever group of Irish musicians gathered live on the one stage at the same time, the massed ranks closed the event with a rousing version – is there ever any other kind in such circumstances ? – of ‘Let’s Make It Work’. Featuring, for one night only, the best-known backing chorus ever heard on this island, consisting of Bono, Máire Brennan, Chris De Burgh and Bob Geldof.
The noise continued long after the three sound-stages in the RDS had been de-rigged. ‘Self Aid’ raised in excess of £500,000 on the day and 750 jobs were pledged, almost one in three of which were subsequently unsubstantiated or that didn’t come within the terms of reference as outlined by the National Manpower Service. A report in the following week’s Leitrim Observer claimed that ‘one job was pledged’ in the county, where a garage owner in Drumshambo, Michael McGowan, was looking for a diesel mechanic with at least five years experience. The ESB took the opportunity afforded by ‘Self Aid’ to create 20 jobs: at a period when the semi-state energy provider company was widely advertising the fact it was sitting on thousands of job applications, this begged the question: ‘Why?’. Tony Boland and Niall Mathews were accused of being well-intentioned but naïve, and a broader view was that ‘Self Aid’ did little to practically benefit the unemployed. Even if this, surely, was the responsibility of the state?
‘Self Aid’ also re-opened a familiar argument about the role of the national broadcaster and its relationship with the government, a question which has persisted as long as time itself. Uniquely in RTÉ’s case, the organisation is funded through a combination of public money and commercial revenues: it is expected to serve a broad public mandate and still be able to compete commercially. Since the launch of RTÉ Television in 1962, a tension has existed between the state classes, who often see public broadcasting as an instrument of public purpose, and the broadcaster, who see it as an instrument of public good. ‘Self Aid’ revived some of the key aspects of this conversation: was it really the place of a national broadcaster to raise funds for the unemployed, for instance? And, by wrapping this event in an entertainment context, was RTÉ not essentially de-basing the plight of those who were out of work and unwaged? And where, ultimately, is the line between the responsibilities of the state and the work of it’s national broadcaster?
Ultimately, many firms and small companies – what we might now refer to as ‘start-ups’ – sought financial aid from ‘Self Aid’. Hundreds of applications were assessed by various semi-state employment agencies on behalf of the Self Aid Trust, after which six different companies and community projects from all over Ireland received immediate help. Several hundred jobs were also directly created.
‘Self Aid’ was a spectacular under-taking and, in terms of its scale and ambition, and especially in respect of assembling the bill of performers it did, I’m not sure if RTÉ has come anywhere close to replicating it in the thirty-four years since. The entire concert was recorded and a double-album, ‘Live for Ireland’, later released: that record is very difficult to locate but contains a number of excellent live performances captured on the day of ‘Self Aid’, including ‘My Friend John’ by Sligo band, Those Nervous Animals, and ‘The Lark’ by Moving Hearts.
Harvey Goldsmith, who promoted the ‘Live Aid’ shows, was generous in his praise for the seamless manner in which ‘Self Aid’ had gone off, even if Tony Boland was a bit more circumspect. ‘I don’t think you could do it again’, he told The Sunday Independent. ‘I don’t think you could persuade all the acts to come together like that again. It’s a once in a lifetime thing’.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that a series of smaller, alternative live music events also took place across the country during the ‘Self Aid’ weekend. Including, memorably, a cluster of shows at The Underground on Dame Street in Dublin where, over three nights, The Stars of Heaven, The Gore hounds and A House all played sterling sets. The cost of entry to the unemployed was 50p.
‘Self Aid’ will be particularly remembered in Cork, and especially by the 900 punters who had gathered at The Opera House for a matinee performance of the musical, ‘Blood Brothers’. During In Tua Nua’s sparkling set at the RDS, an RTÉ transmitter, specifically erected on the roof of the Cork city centre theatre to carry live ‘Self Aid’ injects back to Dublin, was blown over, knocking a hole in the ceiling. After a residue of rain water swept into the backstage area, the building was evacuated and the performance cancelled. Accusations by some of the Blood Brothers’ production staff that the equipment wasn’t properly secured by RTÉ technicians were dismissed by the broadcaster: ‘It was a freak wind’, a spokesman told The Cork Examiner.
Six months after ‘Self Aid’, the ethical row was still bubbling away. A behind-the-scenes documentary about the event, produced by Billy McGrath, was aired on RTÉ television, in which, Eamonn McCann and Tony Boland once again put their respective positions onto the record. Apart entirely from re-cycling many of the ‘Self Aid’ live highlights, this fine documentary gave viewers an informed insight into the vagaries of event and television production. But far more importantly, it helped many of us to make some sort of sense of Bono’s performance at the R.D.S. months previously. And the row that had triggered him.
FÓGRA: There is an entire thesis to be written about ‘Self Aid’ and our piece here only really touches the surface. We chose not to include a mountain of material.
Its certainly worth noting though, that the formidable ghost of Philip Lynott book-ended the event. He died months previously after a short illness and, opening ‘Self Aid’, Brush Shiels, his one-time co-conspirator in Skid Row, dedicated his performance to him.
Although U2 formally headlined ‘Self Aid’, a Thin Lizzy line-up, featuring long-time band members Scott Gorham and Brian Downey, closed the concert with a short set, on which Gary Moore and Bob Geldof shared vocal duties.
Across Dublin, meanwhile, on the day of the ‘Self Aid’ concert, members of Philip Lynott’s family gathered again at the Church of the Assumption in Howth, where his eldest daughter, Sarah, made her First Holy Communion alongside children from the local school.
Philip Lynott’s funeral mass had taken place in the same church on January 13th, 1986.
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.
Brendan Bowyer, who has died in Las Vegas at the age of eighty-one, was Ireland’s first pop music superstar and is easily one of the most influential figures in the entire history of Irish entertainment. As lead singer with The Royal Showband, and subsequently The Big 8, the Waterford-born singer and musician was a formidable vocalist with a terrific range, not just in respect of scale, but in his breadth of musical influence. He dominated live concerts, studio recordings and, for at least fifteen years, Ireland’s showband circuit.
The nascent scene from which he emerged during the late 1950s has long been one of the most lazily mis-represented within Irish popular cultural history. By consistently failing to properly frame the impact of the showbands as a driver of wide-scale congregation across all parts of the country, rural and urban, Bowyer’s legacy tends to be unfairly lost. But with their odd compound of external influences and homespun sensibilities, the showbands were a distinctive and hugely important force in the re-drawing of an Irish cultural identity which, into the early 1960s, became increasingly youth-led. He was a key actor in that evolution.
Fronting The Royal Showband during the decade in which dance halls and live venues sprung up all over Ireland, and around which a formative entertainment industry took root, Bowyer was an unprecedented commercial draw. Like many of those who served their time on that circuit, he was an asset that was relentlessly sweated, to the point where he became the definitive break-out figure from that period. With a swagger in his hips, a permanent pout and a fine set of pipes, he was home-grown and dangerous.
Born in 1938, Brendan Bowyer represented a constituency for whom access to international popular cultural influences was at a premium. ‘The only way we could hear rock ‘n’ roll was on Radio Luxembourg, and we didn’t have a television set, so another place to encounter that was in the local picture house in Waterford’, he told the music writer and journalist Joe Jackson, in an excellent Hot Press interview in 1995. So, unsurprisingly, he modelled his stage personae on that of one of his heroes, Elvis Presley.
But while Presley deliberately played with fire, attracting moral outrage after his first television appearances in 1956, Bowyer, carefully handled by his management, was more cautious. He could pop his fine frame just as spectacularly as Elvis, and frequently did. Yet, mindful of the sensibilities of his audiences and, one suspects, of those booking venues all over the country, he could just as easily knock out maudlin traditional ballads like ‘Danny Boy’. And to the same effect.
Typically, Irish music history pays scant attention to what went on in and around live venues in this country before Rory Gallagher’s now legendary tour in 1974. As a teenager, Gallagher himself enjoyed a formative if restrictive stint with The Fontana Showband in Cork, while another graduate of that school, Van Morrison, has always acknowledged his days as a young jobbing musician with The Monarchs, the Belfast-based outfit with whom he served his own apprenticeship. But Brendan Bowyer pre-dates both of them, and in the timeline of Irish entertainment history, he connects Mick Delahunty’s big band with Philip Lynott’s Thin Lizzy.
Led initially by The Clipper Carlton, Ireland’s showband circuit evolved out of a far more serene, ballroom-skewed, big-band scene where musicians were usually seated, dressed formally and read from sheet music. Lining-out as mini-orchestras, the likes of Delahunty, Maurice Mulcahy and Johnny Quigley dominated the live circuit here, often in the face of considerable condemnation from the pulpit and behind the altar. But men and women danced on regardless, increasingly in commercial halls where standard house rules were rigidly enforced at live shows that often ran for five or six hours, drenched in etiquette and notions. At The National Ballroom, on Parnell Square in Dublin, for instance, women and men were seated on long benches, separated by gender, on opposite sides of the hall, and no close physical contact was permitted. Those who flouted the conditions – randy blokes, for the most part – were shown the door.
Nodding to the increased availability of British and American cultural influences – music, motion pictures, books and magazines – the showbands took live entertainment in Ireland to another level. For starters, they performed on their feet and, with electric instruments and amplified sounds, were a far more forceful and sensuous concern. Communion, contact and the working up of sweat in barely-built ballrooms that were often airless and spartan, became the new normal: within this frame, few performers were as potent as Brendan Bowyer.
I have written previously about how the showbands enabled and powered the congregation of Ireland’s young in venues and locations all over the country. About how, intensely for the guts of a decade, those bands had a far more reaching impact on Irish popular culture and society than many of those who long derided them, Bob Geldof and Philip Lynott most prominently. The music peddled by most of the showbands, The Royal among them, is rank: what is far more important is how, in their customised vans and with their slicked-back hair-dos and smart suits, they so physically mobilised Irish society. A national, state-led initiative to bring electricity to rural Ireland began in 1946 but, inside and outside the ballrooms, the showbands culturally lit-up villages and towns all over the island.
Bono apart, I mark Brendan Bowyer as the single most influential Irish male performer in the country’s history. Paul McGuinness apart, I mark T.J. Byrne, The Royal Showband’s manager, as the country’s most ground-breaking and important band manager, Ireland’s first self-styled Svengali. Indeed when Louis Walsh, himself a product of Ireland’s chicken-in-a-basket circuit, was sketching an artist-mentor template for Boyzone during the early 1990s, it was Byrne’s homework that he cogged.
Always bigger than any of the acts he represented, Byrne was a former furniture salesman from Carlow who, far from fearful of the country’s emerging print and broadcast media, actively sought to manipulate it. Sensing a demand for constant content, he was selling a product first and foremost, based on a carefully drawn and diligently styled formula: The Royal were attractive, athletic young men in sharp suits and snazzy hair-dos performing faithful renditions of the pop songs du jour as well as the odd local come-all-ye. Boyzone are commonly held up as a knock-off, cheap-as-plywood tribute to Take That when, in effect, they were modelled, from the top down, on The Royal Showband. Walsh lifted his own shtick entirely from T.J. Byrne and Ronan Keating, Boyzone’s hapless frontman was photo-copied from Brendan Bowyer’s likeness on a printer without any toner that had been left outdoors during the winter.
Nowhere is any of this more apparent than in Peter Collinson’s exceptional documentary film about The Royal Showband, ‘The One Nighters’, which was premiered in 1963 and which was broadcast on the nascent Teilifís Éireann schedules the following year. Although pre-dating Richard Lester’s film about The Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, the movies have much in common. In his book, ‘Real Ireland’, Harvey O’Brien notes how the two projects depict their subjects as ‘happy-go-lucky boys with clearly-defined semi-comic personae’. But in keeping with a popular showband theme, ‘The One Nighters’ is distinguished more by what it doesn’t cover as for what it does.
Its a remarkable film on many levels, especially in terms of its cinematic ambition: at the time Peter Collinson was a floor manager in RTÉ but he went on to direct a number of feature films, of which ‘The Italian Job’ is probably the best known. An embedded, fly-on-the-wall documentary film that follows the band over the course of a typical twenty-four hours in its working life, none of the band members actually speak on camera. All of their contributions are made using clumsily-delivered voice-overs, while T.J. Byrne steals every scene in which he features. And there are many.
Collinson – clearly with Byrne’s executive input – portrays The Royal and their audiences in line with a vision of Ireland outlined by Eamon De Valera in a Saint Patrick’s Day speech in 1943. With its carefully-selected nuances, ‘The One Nighters’ is scripted in the spirit of ‘cosy homesteads’ and ‘the sounds of industry’ and presents, from its opening scenes onwards, the contest of athletic youth and the laughter of happy maidens’.
Although playing a fresher, more risqué form of music that routinely attracted the ire of political, establishment and church figures, The Royal are deferential throughout to an older order and to family values, especially. By performing well-known traditional ballads like ‘The Auld Triangle’ and ‘Danny Boy’ for Collinson and his cameraman, Robert Monks, alongside what were known at the time as ‘jazz’ numbers, they’re showcasing an ideology as much as a technical ability. ‘The difference between them and any other international stars is that they refuse anything that usually goes with the money and the fame’, runs Frank Hall’s voice-over. ‘They live in ordinary little houses in a quiet little town in Ireland’.
The reality, of course, was much different. The Royal were Brendan Bowyer’s band and, when he left them in 1971 and formed The Big 8, neither of the two outfits did anything like the same degree of business again. Bowyer led a complicated life thereafter, one of a host of high-profile showband figures to fall prey to chronic alcoholism, and was fortunate to survive a number of drink-fuelled episodes in later life. Given his life-long Presley fixation, its only appropriate that he died in his adopted home in Las Vegas where, like Elvis before him, he had long become his own tribute act.
The obvious temptation is to commemorate Brendan Bowyer with The Royal’s best-known song, a cover of ‘The Hucklebuck’, written in 1949 by Andy Gibson and first recorded by Paul Williams and The Hucklebuckers. Or by the well-worn story of how, in a Liverpool theatre in 1962, The Royal were supported by an emerging local band, The Beatles. But Brendan Bowyer leaves a far greater and much more interesting legacy behind him: a huge amount of good, bad and ugly accompanied his life as Ireland’s first runaway pop music idol. But it’s a legacy that, because of the sepia-tinted way we’ve chosen to traditionally tell the story of Ireland’s showbands, isn’t as easy to locate as it might otherwise be.