No Disco

DAVID GRAY AND NO DISCO

 

The story of David Gray’s first decade as a recording artist is a terrific one, irrespective of what you think of him or his music. And it’s also probably the single most enduring legacy of the lo-fi music television series, ‘No Disco’, which was first broadcast twenty-five years ago this week on what was then Ireland’s second national channel, Network 2. It just doesn’t seem possible – or proper – to assess the impact of one without acknowledging the influence of the other.

 

As one of those responsible for ‘No Disco’, a series that eventually ran for the guts of ten years, on a shoestring budget, from a small space in RTÉ’s regional offices in Cork, I know the story of its origins better than anyone and have previously written about it at length. And unlike many of the terrific groups and writers we routinely featured on that series, I won’t be re-cycling old stories or familiar riffs here.

 

‘No Disco’ still has a resonance, fading as it might be, for a cohort of men and women of a particular age who, before the popular emergence of the internet and during the earliest days of the mobile telephone, used the series as a visual companion to much of what Dave Fanning and John Peel were doing on their late night music radio shows on RTÉ Radio 2FM and BBC Radio One respectively. And that’s how we saw our role, pretty much, and how we regarded the whole enterprise, slipshod and haphazard as our operation down in sticks actually was.

 

Donal Dineen, from Rathmore in County Kerry, was ‘No Disco’’s first presenter. In the sense that the series – in its earliest iteration at least – was in any way presenter-led or dependent. I’d soldiered with him for a while on the fringes of what then passed for a local music industry, fetching up in all sorts of quare places and attempting one scheme after the next. Which is how I was there with him, during Easter week, 1993, in a house in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, when he was asked to review David Gray’s debut album, ‘A Century Ends’, for a free music paper, ‘Dropout’, with which we were both involved.

 

And it was as basic and unsuspecting as that. ‘Dropout’ tended to push the more sensitive and introspective new releases – anything by The Go-Betweens, American Music Club and the Sarah Records roster, basically – towards the more sensitive end of its small team of volunteer contributors, ar son na cúise. That was Donal, pretty much.

 
It was there, in that semi-d in Knocklyon, that we both forged our first connection with the Manchester-born, Wales-reared singer-songwriter who’s since enjoyed considerable international success. David Gray has subsequently sold over twelve million albums worldwide and counting ; twenty years ago, he released – for the first time – the biggest ever selling elpee in the history of popular music in Ireland, his self-funded fourth album, ‘White Ladder’.

 

 

That record, first issued on David’s own label in November, 1998, had been recorded the previous year in his apartment in London and, in keeping with his career graph to that point, died quickly on landing. It was re-released on Dave Mathews’ imprint, ATO, sixteen months later and eventually spent three years in the U.K. album chart.

 

The fact that David Gray was still clinging onto a career at all at that point was a pretty decent achievement. In the five preceding years he’d issued three long-players, ‘A Century Ends’ and ‘Flesh’ for Hut Records and ‘Sell, Sell, Sell’ for EMI and had been dropped by both major labels. Outside of Ireland – where he’d developed a considerable following and was headlining the biggest venues in the country – he was still a minor character, a curious footnote in the Hut Records story. And so at the time, the d-i-y ‘White Ladder’ had all the appearances of a desperate last punt into the small square in the hope of a break, the marking of an unpretty position as a century was ending.

 

It took Donal a couple of weeks in the company of ‘A Century Ends’ to see the magic that under-cuts it’s every layer. Even now he’s still not fazed by time and he moves at his own pace. But it’s not as if David’s album was especially instant, either :- it’s a slow-boiler, utterly out of synch with the many moods of the time, launched without fanfare or broader record company support.

 

Understandable enough too, given that even within the confines of Hut Records, where his label-mates included the noisy, guitar-driven indie of The Verve, Drop Nineteens, Revolver and The Auteurs – he honked, at best, as a vanity signing. And his Irish publicists at Virgin Records’ impressive Dublin offices, then located in a serious pile on Aylesbury Road, perhaps suspected as much too. They knew neither what to make of him or how to even begin to start selling him.

 

Little wonder, so, that Donal and myself took to him so instinctively ;- we were kindred spirits who understood his pain better than most. ‘No Disco’ had also fallen out of the sky unsupported, RTÉ’s own vanity project, lost in the broader television schedules, ticking a box, under-resourced and under-regarded and abjectly out of step with the broadcast conventions du jour. Which, on the one hand, is a series of back-handed compliments and, on the other, the definition of talking to the wall.

 

And I guess we hardly helped our own case by selling ‘No Disco’ as a radio series with a few pictures on top, a planet of sound to cheaply fill an hour of late-night television once every week. Into which David Gray quickly became our Rosebud ;- a toned singer-songwriter cut in the classic, lone star traditions of Bob Dylan and Neil Young but with a keen edge that made him all the more attractive to us, poetic young bucks that we were.

 

Up in Thurles, a couple of months previously, the line-up at Féile 1993 was headlined variously by Iggy Pop, INXS and Chris De Burgh, with the likes of A House, Spiritualized, The Frank And Walters, Teenage Fanclub, Whipping Boy, An Emotional Fish and The Shamen also featuring on a far-reaching undercard. Paul Brady, raised in Strabane, County Tyrone and easily one of the finest songwriters in the history of Irish folk and popular music, also took the stage in Semple Stadium that year and, if anything, it was with his extensive, acoustic-skewing songbook that David Gray was most in step. Indeed there are a couple of stand-out tracks on David’s second album, ‘Flesh’ [1994] that very clearly nod at Brady’s 1981 cross-over elpee, ‘Hard Station’, in terms of body shape and lyrical ambition.

 

And this set him absolutely apart on the regular ‘No Disco’ playlists, lost in the quarry of noisy, unhealthily-pale alternative guitar-pop – Smashing Pumpkins, Buffalo Tom, Breeders, The Auteurs, Rollerskate Skinny – and trippy dance vibes – Transglobal Underground, Portishead and De La Soul – that populated the Network 2 dead zone on Thursday nights. But then Donal has long been as comfortable in the company of Van Morrison, Neil Young and Lou Reed as he’s been with The Beastie Boys and Scary Eire and so we played the brooding video clip for ‘Shine’, and later the more upbeat trailer for ‘Wisdom’ – a song which, I am convinced, dictated the entire Turin Brakes design manual – off the air during the first six months of ‘No Disco’.

 

 

In the absence of any meaningful critical appraisal from our betters in Dublin – to RTÉ senior management, getting a regionally-located show to air without a full-on industrial dispute and then keeping it there for a while were the only barometers of success for ‘No Disco’ – we lived out our first couple of months in a state of absolute ignorance. Where, if we thought we were good – and I certainly needed no convincing about my own ability and probably compensated for Donal in this regard – then we definitely were. And then one day, messing with our heads and disturbing the sense of security we’d been lulled into, we received our first communication from the world outside ;- a letter from a viewer.

 

It’s not as if we didn’t court it. We consciously concluded every episode with a slide bearing our office address on the presumption that someone, anyone, might want to get in touch. Postal contact was, after all, how we’d both developed various relationships with our favourite groups and labels and, for years, the mailbag or the post office box number was a primary point of contact for all and any self-respecting independent-minded music endeavour. So why not ‘No Disco’ ?

 

And it’s not as if we were talking about mountains of post, either ;- ‘No Disco’’s numbers never seriously troubled the compilers of what were then known as TAM ratings. We had a loyal, bespoke viewership and, like Spinal Tap during their ‘Jazz Odyssey’ phase, our audience was a selective one, pulling in, at its peak, between 40 and 70 thousand viewers every week. And our in-tray reflected that.

 

But there was a real, fanzine-style intent to much of the correspondence we received. We deliberately shied away from competitions for obvious reasons – we didn’t want, in our naiveté, the art to be polluted – and so instead of post-cards bearing answers, we’d regularly receive cassettes, requests and long, hand-written love-notes to some of the acts we’d feature. It was genuine, morale-boosting stuff, constant enough to make us sit up a bit and, the odd time, answer a letter or two and even pick up the phone and actually talk directly to the audience.

 

David Gray dominated practically all of those conversations and our viewers had taken to him, if not instantly – and personally I’ve found him a slow burn – then certainly after the first couple of months of on-air shelling. And of course he had a small, undeclared bit of previous too :- he’d been to Ireland six months earlier, travelling light to play a couple of live shows as a self-sufficient, acoustic guitar-slinger.

 

One of which had taken place five minutes away from our production offices on Father Mathew Street. Ally Ó Riada, who promoted that date in Nancy Spains, in Cork, told Ed Power for an Irish Examiner feature piece earlier this year that there were probably no more than twenty people there to see it.

 

It was a drastically different picture a year later, and just five months after ‘No Disco’ had come on air. Another of our number, Donal Scannell from Ballinasloe in County Galway, has long been a formidable weather vane, one eye perennially cocked on public mood, another on the starting point for his next scheme. And it was he who talked Virgin Records’ Dublin office – then manned by a core staff of two, one of whom subsequently played Rory in the television sit-com, ‘Mrs. Brown’s Boys’ – into bringing David back to Ireland to promote his second album, ‘Flesh’. That deal was sealed by the guarantee of a couple of television appearances and the potential to construct a decent publicity campaign around any state visit.

 

It was all scarcely believable stuff, really, and very much in line with a much of the general carry-on of the time. A couple of young pups and a niche, late-night music show making a case to the regional office of a major record label and presenting a marketing strategy on a plate to them for an act they didn’t really know where or how to place. And with no side or agenda either, beyond the fact that we just all liked a couple of records.

 

But it was still surprising to see the length of the queue forming from early outside of Whelan’s on Dublin’s Camden Street on Friday, February 4th, 1994. And no-one was more surprised than David Gray himself, who’d become accustomed to scanty turn-outs at his live shows up and down Britain. The blind support from ‘No Disco’ and, to be fair, a handful of others on the same page like Alan Corr at The RTÉ Guide and Brian Boyd at The Irish Times, had helped him to sell-out his first ever date.

 

And he didn’t have to wait long to repeat the dose :- the following night in Cork, at what was then The Triskel Arts Centre, was also rammed. Myself and Donal ended up walking David back to The Imperial Hotel in Cork after that show and sat up long into the night with him in the resident’s bar on the ground floor. David and Donal are very similar – softly-spoken, soulful men who value simple things – and I spent the guts of that conversation, unusually for me, sitting back and sucking it all in, marvelling at the pair of them as they deconstructed on a grand scale.

 

But apart entirely from having seen David Gray play a couple of cracking sets, those dates brought ‘No Disco’ physically face-to-face with a small but fervent audience we presumed might have been out there but about which, beyond that, we knew nothing. Donal became an unlikely focal point and was pretty much bombarded by viewers and admirers that weekend, a disconcerting experience for someone so mild-mannered and shy. But on a far deeper level, that entire weekend suggested to us that, perhaps, we were being heard beyond the breeze-blocked walls of our improvised studio ?

 

It’s easy to see those early David Gray shows in Ireland – like the early days of ‘No Disco’ itself – through the cracked looking-glass of recent Irish music history. But during the Spring of 1994, there was certainly something on the boil, even if both David and the series were fundamentally still works in progress. And in hindsight I’d suggest that ‘No Disco’ reached its peak and fulfilled its ambition far before David Gray did but that David’s influence on contemporary Irish music – and the possibilities inherent in it – has been considerably more far-reaching.

 

But should any of us have really been that surprised ? David, after all, was continuing a long-held national crush on the highly-charged, deep-thinking, male writer and performer – the one man/one voice/one storm model – from Luke Kelly to Christy Moore and Paul Brady. The year after ‘A Century Ends’, for instance, Moore played a mammoth series of live solo dates in what was then The Point Depot in Dublin, from which the most impactful moments were released as ‘Christy Moore Live At The Point’. That album, alongside ‘The Pope In Ireland’, [1979] and U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’ [1987], is another of the biggest selling records in the history of the state.

 

One of the more interested and interesting on-lookers that night in Whelans in February, 1994, would have been Glen Hansard, then the lead singer and primary songwriter with Dublin guitar-band, The Frames. They’d released their Gil Norton-produced, Pixies-infused debut album, ‘Another Love Song’ in 1992 and, with their twin guitars, were one of the country’s most compelling and interesting live bands.

 

Having recently swapped labels, from Island to the Trevor Horn/Jill Sinclair/Paul Morley-dervived ZTT, and with his band having undergone a couple of key line-up changes, Hansard too was at a career impasse. His own story thereafter is as remarkable as any aspect of David Gray’s and, in part, maybe even moreso. But how much of it derives from what he saw and heard that night after David Gray announced himself in Dublin, and particularly the spirit in which he’d been enabled ?

 

THIS IS NO DISCO

 

 

On Shrove Tuesday night, February 28th, 1995, I fetched up at Dublin’s  R.D.S. and, as I wound my way up the long avenue, in past the security hut and around the clusters of other invitees and liggers, my mind was cast back twelve months, back to a time when we were all a bit less sure on our feet. A handful of us had gathered to support our friend and colleague, Dónal Dineen: ‘No Disco’, the programme he reluctantly presented and the one that I enthusiastically but naively devised and produced was about to claim the Vincent Hanley Memorial Award at the Hot Press Music Critics’ Awards. Much to our surprise, we received one of the best receptions of the night, but then ‘surprise’ is a dominant theme throughout the early history of ‘No Disco’. 

Among the other winners that Pancake Night were A House, who took the gongs for ‘Best Single’ and ‘Best Video’ for ‘Endless Art’ and Terri Hooley, the Belfast maverick who, among other things, founded the Good Vibrations record shop and cajoled The Undertones through their labour. We were in good company and had come a long way in the fifteen months since ‘No Disco’ first stumbled onto the national airwaves at the end of September, 1993.

The Hot Press event was sponsored by one of the drinks companies, Smithwicks I think, and a few of us stayed around well into the night, Dónal apart. He doesn’t drink and, as long as I know him, has always  been in a rush to beat a hasty retreat. It was a strange old night as I recall it but an important one for the series on several levels. I’d been based in Dublin for the previous number of months, attending a full-time  training course out in RTÉ and, for practical reasons, just couldn’t keep going. I was reluctantly cutting my lingering ties with ‘No Disco’ and, by killing my darling, was doing the show a real favour.

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‘No Disco’ was first broadcast on Thursday night, September 30th, 1993, and ran for the guts of a decade. The decision by RTÉ to discontinue the programme certainly created far more of a stir than the decision to start it all in the first place and its fair to say that the series was held deliberately under the radar, regarded largely as more of a strategic and technical experiment than an editorial one. Far from being launched, the series just fell into the schedules, like a flutered old lag around the fringes of a hen night. Brian Boyd, writing in The Irish Times on the week before we aired the first episode, opened his preview as follows: ‘Oh dear, they’re at it again. RTÉ are putting on a new young person’s music programme – pass the remote control and make it quick’. And it was difficult to blame his cynicism, especially given how even some of our own colleagues, baffled by what we were trying to do, expected ‘No Disco’ to fail so miserably too.

Twenty-two years after we started work on the very first episode, I’m still routinely reminded of ‘No Disco’. To a generation of middle-aged, music-loving parents now dealing with their own surly teenage sons and daughters, I’ll forever be part of the reason they were so distracted way back, late on Thursday nights, on what was then Network 2. At various work and social events, weddings and funerals over the years, I’ve been subjected to all manner of loose conversation regarding Paul Weller, Tindersticks, Kristin Hersh, The Afghan Whigs and the many other flag- bearers who dominated the early ‘No Disco’ songbook. ‘Ah, ‘’twas a long time ago’, I say, flattered. ‘There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since’. And then I suck the remaining air out of whatever room I’m in. I never learn.

‘No Disco’ has always attracted an awful lot of old guff, and I’ve been responsible for much of it myself. What’s undeniable is that, once this quite bizarre series settled down, it became an appointment to view – or, to our sizeable student cohort, to record on VHS – for a loyal and perfectly deformed audience of anoraks, enthusiasts, freaks and those who had issues dealing with regular society. It was a public health service as much as it was a public service statement.

In hindsight, it was Philip Kampff, then an RTÉ television producer who,among other things, masterminded the Gerry Ryan/Lambo heist as part of Gay Byrne’s radio series and later devised The Lyrics Board, planted the first seeds. During the late 1980s, Philip had exploited the production facilities in RTÉ’s regional studios to help feed a monster children’s television series called ‘Scratch Saturday’. I’d been recruited as a free-lancer onto his programme staff, producing a weekly music slot from RTÉ Cork’s new, city centre base in Father Mathew Street. When, four years later – and after an exotic trip around the fringes of the music industry in London and beyond – I returned to my old desk in Cork and informed the small band of local technicians that we’d shortly be producing an hour of music television every week for national broadcast, I was laughed all the way back out to Blackpool.

‘No Disco’ formed the first part of a broader RTÉ commitment to what was then referred to as ‘regional broadcasting’. The production base in Cork has since expanded beyond all recognition and is a far cry from the empty shell in which we set up shop in August, 1993, both in terms of the quality and quantity of it’s output. And so the next time you see John Creedon take a retro vehicle on a scenic driving tour of Ireland, you can blame Dónal Dineen.

 

 

I was working with Jeff Brennan in The Rock Garden in Temple Bar in Dublin during the Summer of 1993 when I was summoned out to RTÉ to meet Eugene Murray. Eugene had been a former editor on Today Tonight and, now running RTÉ’s Presentation Division, believed we could produce cost-effective programming [or, if you prefer, no-budget television] from the skeleton facility in Cork, using the old ‘Scratch Saturday’ template and building on it. Having few other interests, commitments or concerns, I defaulted to what I knew best and, taking my cues variously from previous RTÉ music programmes like ‘MT USA’ and Dave Heffernan’s inserts into ‘Anything Goes’, I put together the most simple formula I could. Ten weeks later we were on air.

On the night of ‘No Disco’’s first transmission, a small group of us met up in Cork to mark what was possibly the closest the county had come to a modern miracle since the statues moved down in Ballinspittle. It was an enormous achievement to actually get the thing on air, all the more so given that neither Dónal or myself had the first idea what we were doing. Cockiness and mindless enthusiasm were always only going to get us so far and, while we were teething, we were often shovelled onto air by a support cast of notables who, I am sure, found the whole set-up quite erratic. I’ve thanked the likes of Tom McSweeney, Olan O’Brien, Antóin O’Callaghan, Tom Bannon and Déirdre O’Grady in the past and I’m doing it again here now: they rarely, if ever, feature in the ‘No Disco’ story. And yet in many respects, they are the first chapters of the ‘No Disco’ story.

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Between one thing and another, it was Marty Morrissey, now a well- known Gaelic Games broadcaster but then one of a number of young reporters billeted in RTÉ Radio Cork on Union Quay, who convinced Jurys Hotel on Western Road to allow us watch our debut programme go out on air from a vacant suite on their complex. The first video on the first programme was ‘Cannonball’ by The Breeders, but by the time we got to the ten minute Dead Can Dance segment, we’d lost the room. Marty barely made it past the opening sequence and, more an M.O.R. man than an A.R. Kane man, wasn’t entirely sure what he was seeing. We didn’t use credits at the end of the programme and, as the first hour wound down and we faded out into the closing RTÉ Cork logo, my friends and colleagues applauded politely and kindly. It was as if we’d been gathered in a courtroom and I’d just been acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter. I wanted the mini-bar to open up and swallow me whole.

 

 

The really great things about ‘No Disco’ ultimately un-did it. Based outside of Dublin gave us a freedom and a licence to roam, more or less, as we wanted. We weren’t privvy to the carry-on in Montrose and I fancifully saw myself as a latter-day Wolfe Tone, a colonial outsider railing against the machine. Even though, on one level, my work was defined largely by that same machine.

I used to wonder what would have happened had senior RTÉ managers at the time had their way with ‘No Disco’ ? If, for instance, they had daily physical access to us ? Because after only four weeks on air, ‘No Disco’ was an issue: word filtered back to me that Dónal was a real concern, that the music policy was considered far too extreme and that ‘No Disco’ wasn’t really a broadcastable programme at all. But we held our ground – because, I guess, we could – put our heads down and just pedalled harder. I may not have always known what I was doing but I certainly knew what I wanted to do. And then The Irish Times came to the party.

Brian Boyd contributed a weekly column called ‘Hot Licks’ to the paper’s Friday morning arts and music coverage and, from very early on, was down enthusiastically with the series. Word seemed to be spreading, however slowly and, in the days before e-mail, we’d even received a trickle of correspondence from viewers by post. On one occasion the telephone in the office actually rang and a ‘fan’ was on the other end. We had other friends out there too, of course: Dónal Scannell was a fellow traveller and a loyal snout inside the belly of the beast in RTÉ while Áine Healy played a starring role as our administrative back-up in Dublin. Apart from Brian Boyd, we had other agents in the music pages too, all of whom sung our praises often and loudly. And it all helped. What ‘No Disco’ lacked in terms of audience numbers and branding support, it made up for with that rarest of commodities: real credibility among a small cohort who could see beyond the obvious.

And Dónal Dineen takes the credit here. I first encountered him through Dónal Scannell, back when we were publishing a free, monthly music paper in Dublin called DropOut. We shared a Southern sensibility and a keen interest in the GAA: we once spent seven consecutive nights crawling a range of Dublin’s flesh-pots for a feature called ‘It’s a Shame about Cabaret’ and were lucky to survive up in The Four Provinces in Ranelagh when we were turned on by a couple of young bucks from up the country somewhere.

Dónal was in the autumn of his club football career with his beloved Rathmore – he is a contemporary and clubmate of the former Kerry senior goalkeeper, Declan O’Keeffe – and our small production office would often resound with tales from the darker side of the dressing room. Years before Croke Park was re-developed and well before the advent of media boycotts, multiple sponsors, dieticians, head doctors and team flunkeys, Gaelic Games were hugely derided by some of the louder elements of the Dublin media set. Fine writers like Gerry McGovern were routinely dismissed because, with their ‘bog-ball’ and ‘stick-fighting’, they dared to be proud of what made them and maybe brought different values to the editorial tables. Dónal would have gladly swapped any number of Hot Press awards for an O’Donoghue Cup medal with Rathmore and that pursuit, for a time, was every bit as intense as they man himself and his long-running affair with sound.

It was during the course of a DropOut production weekend in a semi- detached house in Knocklyon that we first heard [and he became obsessed with] David Gray’s first album, ‘A Century Ends’, which had been submitted for review by one of the record companies. That was how humble the beginnings of that relationship were and it’s probably fair to say that the growth in David Gray’s popularity in Ireland owed, to a large degree, to the exposure he received on ‘No Disco’, where he was a mainstay. Over the course of the first eighteen months of the series, both David Gray and ‘No Disco’ found their feet, voice and audiences in tandem. And when Dónal Scannell brought Gray to Cork and Dublin for his first nervous live shows here, ‘No Disco’ was the primary driver for that.

 

 

It certainly wasn’t intentional and I didn’t really appreciate it at the time but, looking back now, the tone of the series – dislocated, informed, intense, regional, soft and considerate – was based entirely around Dónal’s personality. He’s by far the most reluctant and easily the most interesting ‘presenter’ I’ve worked with, most probably because he isn’t and never was a presenter in the first place. One of the many things that set him apart, and what disconcerted many of the ‘industry professionals’ who encountered him, was that he saw right through the medium and was absolutely discommoded by it. He never saw ‘No Disco’ as a stepping stone to a career in light entertainment but more of a stepping stone back into obscurity. He was everything he said he was and he had no side: he did what he did in the interests of quality music and, to that end, was always more emotionally comfortable and secure on radio, which was his real passion. And so I wasn’t overly surprised to see him unveiled alongside Eamonn Dunphy, Anne-Marie Hourihane and others as part of the first Radio Ireland line-up in 1997, where his late-night ‘Here Comes The Night’ programme was, for a number of years, an essential listen. My only surprise was that he managed to hang around there for so long.

Because there, as on ‘No Disco’, he really did give it all for the music he believed in, and maybe far too much sometimes. We’d routinely argue over set-lists for the show: he brought the sophistication, the breath of reference and the smarts and I brought the noise and the pale indie shapes. His scripts would often sparkle: Dónal’s writing owed more to Con Houlihan than to Nick Kent and he’d agonise and pore over every line. One of his best print pieces was actually about Gaelic football, a gorgeous personal essay he did about Rathmore for the Munster Football Final programme in July, 1995. ‘The special sense of community that arises from the sharing of dreams is a precious part of the life of place’, he wrote. It could have doubled as one of his softly-voiced introductions to a new Stina Nordenstam release or a lost Red House Painters track.

Some of our production priorities were far less romantic, though. Our cameramen and sound recordists were, at least during the early years, actually scheduled onto the RTE News service in Cork and, as happened once or twice, we’d have to abandon or suspend a planned shoot in the event of a news story breaking. It was all very laissez-faire but Joe and Tony McCarthy, Tony Cournane, Paul O’Flynn and Brian O’Mahony gave us sterling service over the years, as did Dónal and Jim Wylde, whenever they were sprung from the Waterford bureau and pressed into service, dispatched to take care of ‘the mad shit in Cork’.

But it was a slow process and, throughout those early months, we were viewed with a combination of bafflement and suspicion, more to do with what we were trying to do than for who we were, I suspect. But once ‘No Disco’ settled, and once the first positive notices started to filter through, a real gang mentality grew up around the series and everyone felt far more secure in the boat. For those who sailed in her, it was a scenic and exotic passage in steerage class, even if it often felt like we were travelling without a compass.

We recorded Dónal’s pieces to camera on the top floor of the RTÉ Cork building every Monday night, working around the demands of the newsroom. Our location was a cold, breeze-blocked space that we’d often supplement with whatever odd props we could pinch from the children’s TV stash down-stairs. I spent ages one afternoon cutting the letters that comprised the words ‘No Disco’ from a load of old Styrofoam wrapping that had come with some piece of technical kit installed in another part of the building. We got ferocious mileage from those self- standing pieces but my hands were welted for weeks afterwards.

But the more established we became, the more confident we grew and we soon reached a point where we didn’t have to explain or introduce ourselves to bands, handlers or publicists, which was another huge leap forwards. Paul Weller, then in the early stages of an unexpected career revival after years in the sidings, requested a date with us and I remember heading out nervously one Sunday evening to interview him after he’d finished a sound-check in The City Hall. He could be a spiky character at the best of times but I was assured that he liked the cut of the programme and had watched a couple of episodes: so much so that he sang like a canary and was happy to keep going way beyond the allotted half-hour. It was his father, who was also his manager, who arrived into the posh seats and wrapped us up so they could actually open the main doors and start getting folk into the hall.

 

 

By the start of the second series, the programme scored a rare audience with Lou Reed in Paris, which we gratefully accepted and during which Dónal and his interviewee developed a serious rapport, touching on art, design and photography as they ate, in real detail, into various aspects of Reed’s career. It is highly unlikely that, on that entire promotional campaign in support of ‘Set The Twilight Reeling’, Reed encountered anything as far- ranging and informed as the hour he spent with our boy. But by then we’d already done the likes of Suede, St. Etienne, David Gray, Pavement, Kristin Hersh and, most memorably, David Gedge from The Wedding Present, who took the short walk across from Sir Henry’s to talk to us in Father Mathew Street. And we’d picked up a few pointers – and no few brownie points – along the way.

As well as knocking off interviews with anyone of note – and many of no note whatsoever – who came our way, we also began to dabble with live, stripped back ‘sessions’, initially with a number of largely Dublin- based acts who’d travel to Cork for the day and endure us as we’d shoot multiple takes for editing later. Edwyn Collins did a gorgeous two- song set for us upstairs in The Old Oak one afternoon, performing ‘Low Expectations’ and ‘Gorgeous George’ from his comeback Setanta album, while we also recorded in The Triskel with Martin Stephenson, The Firkin Crane with The Divine Comedy and The CAT Club with The Revenants. Dónal had already introduced me to the Kerry singer-songwriter, John Hegarty, and we did a terrific session with him, also in The Triskel, that yielded a golden version of ‘Bonfire Night’, a beautiful song we both adored and which sat perfectly with our own personal sensibilities. I’ve covered this aspect of the series in a previous post about The Divine Comedy, available here.

 

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We wrapped up ‘No Disco’’s first season with a live benefit concert, in support of the Cork Aids Alliance, up in Nancy Spain’s on Barrack Street on May 17th, 1994. A local PR company run by Jean Kearney and Maura O’Keeffe had come to me with the suggestion, adamant that the ‘No Disco’ name was enough to carry a show like this, and wanted to guage our interest. I never once thought that we’d ram Nancy’s on a Sunday night with a bill that comprised, basically, of our friends – Engine Alley, Blink, Sack, LMNO Pelican and Treehouse – all of whom put themselves out on our behalf and never requested a single bean. Jim Carroll spun discs long into the night, Dónal did a short set, said a few words from the stage and was basically molested when he wandered through the venue. It was into the small hours when we cleared the hall, pulled down the P.A. and got the visiting bands back safely on the road and, as I made the short journey down-hill, home to my flat on Sullivan’s Quay, I wondered if ‘No Disco’ would be returning for a second series ?

I needn’t have worried. Not only had ‘No Disco’ found and developed an audience, the reviews and the general critical reaction gave us a bit more leeway in our discussions with RTÉ. We’d gotten onto air, stayed there and, by so doing, won friends in unlikely places. So by the time I checked out of the series for good, ‘No Disco’ was on it’s way. But it was Rory Cobbe and Dónal who developed the breath and the scope of the series beyond all recognition, putting flesh on what was still a very crudely formed skeleton. The programme became far broader in tone and in content, and I suspect that Rory enabled Dónal in ways which I never could have done and, by the third series, ‘No Disco’ had really found it’s meter.

I’ve seen Dónal a handful of times in the twenty years since we soldiered so intensely and intently together in Cork. We last spoke when I talked him into doing the voice-over on Ross Whitaker’s beautiful documentary film, ‘When Ali Came To Ireland’, and I was thrilled skinny when he agreed to be involved. Moreso again when I saw the final cut and heard that voice back on screen one more time. I’m not sure when we’ll meet again – given our recent record it’s unlikely to be any time soon – but, when eventually we do, we’ll talk about Gaelic football, enquire after our respective families and recall an old in-joke about Paul Weller headbands.

And then one of us will mention ‘Asleep In The Back’ by Elbow or ‘The Idiots’ by Republic of Loose or ‘Your Ghost’ by Kristin Hersh and we’ll lose ourselves for a moment because, as much as some things change, other things never change at all.

 

THE DIVINE COMEDY

As I recently re-watched The Divine Comedy’s terrific 2004 show, recorded live at London’s Palladium Theatre, my mind was cast way back to another far more intimate but no less powerful encounter with Neil Hannon.

I had been aware of The Divine Comedy from the get go. My friend, Keith Cullen, had issued their 1990 mini-album, ‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’, on his fledgling Setanta imprint and, as part of that affair, had moved the then three-piece from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh to a flat in North London. That apartment was owned by John O’Neill of The Undertones who had produced the seven-tracker and who was also recording for Setanta under the band name, Rare.

Written by Neil Hannon, who sang and played all of the guitars, the record also featured John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor on bass and drums respectively. The Divine Comedy had first been recommended to Setanta by Louise Trehy, a Dublin musician who later recorded for 4AD as half of the band, Swallow .

‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’ captures a clever young songwriter with no little ambition, borrowing from a standard frame of indie reference, most notably the British shoe-gaze scene led by Ride. The Divine Comedy were thinking big – the title of the record being a case in point – and notwithstanding the band’s circumstances in their hovel in Tottenham – Neil had set the bar high.

Initially at least, the band struggled to generate any real interest in London and went largely un-noticed by the music press who, instead, rowed in behind their Setanta label-mates, Dublin’s Into Paradise. To provide the band with more heft, The Divine Comedy briefly expanded it’s ranks by adding a friend of Neil’s, John Allen, as lead vocalist, allowing the song-writer more scope to drive the band on from behind his guitar. I saw them give a workmanlike performance at The Borderline in London at this time, opening for Toasted Heretic who, by then, were commanding plenty of interest themselves, particularly from the inkies.

But The Divine Comedy set was all very shapeless and dour and, while the excellent ‘Europop’ E.P. [1992] was certainly a meatier and more focussed affair, the band imploded in North London shortly afterwards. Neil opted to go it alone and de-camped back to his parents’ house in County Fermanagh.

It was during the late Autumn of 1992 that Setanta started to receive the first flashes of what was to subsequently become the popular Divine Comedy sound. Neil had been busy back in Northern Ireland and had delivered us a suite of pretty ace but crudely formed songs on tape , all of which he’d written, played and produced himself on a small portable studio. Even at this stage, there was a real magic about some of that material.

Most of those songs would, of course, provide the spine to, ‘Liberation’, the aptly-titled, first full Divine Comedy album, released by Setanta in August, 1993, and the sound of a songwriter finally finding his voice after a false start. Recorded with the engineer Darren Allison, who also contributed drums, the record revealed a serious change in mood and tone. The original rhythm section had been replaced by a number of string players and Neil had swapped his indie-fringe for a tighter cut and a smart collar-and-tie finish. The whole thing had been recorded on a typical Setanta shoestring.

Immediately prior to the release of ‘Liberation’, I too had changed direction and was now busy back in Cork, working on a national television series I’d devised. No Disco’ was pitched as a late-night alternative music show for RTÉ Two, the first thrust of a central RTÉ strategy to produce more content from outside of  Dublin. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d actually based the series on the founding principles of Setanta Records ;- no money, no facilities, no embarrassment and plenty of neck. The origins and early days of the ‘No Disco’ series have never really been properly documented and I’ll return to this in a more substantial future post.

‘No Disco’ was cheap and cheerful television, a simple cut-and-paste of mildly left-field music videos with the odd interview [some of them very odd] and pulled together by the weekly proselytising of it’s presenter, Dónal Dineen. The first episode aired in September, 1993, to the sound of huge indifference and to the astonishment of those who had worked on it. But as soon as we found our feet and established ourselves in the margins of the RTÉ Two schedules, we’d started to get cockier and more ambitious.

To that end, we’d occasionally wander out from our bunkered existence at the studios in Father Mathew Street to tape, randomly enough, live acoustic performances from certain acts. The criteria were simple enough :- the music had to sit easily with Dónal and myself and the bands had to be prepared to deal with some of the vagaries of our existence as a television series by stealth, operating with minimal amounts of everything. It was rough and it was ready and we were based in Cork.

Keith Cullen had mailed me a pre-release of ‘Liberation’ on cassette and I couldn’t believe how good it was. Neither could I believe how far Neil had developed – and how quickly ? – since he’d left London. Yes, his songs had always had grand designs but he’d now re-drawn his foundations and the sound was far more rounded, mature and compelling as a result. Consequently, The Divine Comedy became an obvious early target for ‘No Disco’ and we were anxious to feature them as part of the brainwash.

In the absence of any video material – Setanta Records was run from a squat in Camberwell and barely had enough money to record its bands – we decided to tape a two-song Divine Comedy acoustic performance instead. And Neil’s gorgeous renditions of ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘Lucy’ – both among the many stellar songs on ‘Liberation’ – featured regularly on the ‘No Disco’ playlists throughout.

That session took us about two hours to record and involved around six hours work in all. It was shot on the spartan, curtained stage at The Firkin Crane building on the Northside of Cork city, a beautiful dance studio and theatre in the shadow of Shandon, the iconic landmark. As well as the two songs, we also knocked out a long-ish interview with Neil in which all of us were effusive in our praise for ‘Liberation’.

Tony McCarthy was the cameraman who captured the performance on standard Betacam tape, Paul O’Flynn was the sound recordist and, on this occasion, we’d hired the added help of Tony Healy, a local musician who provided the heavy duty sound equipment we used on all of these sessions.

Because we were working on the cheap, I’d also hired an acoustic guitar locally so that Neil didn’t incur additional flight charges. He played this guitar for the first time as we were setting up in the venue.

We’d put him up in my family’s house in Blackpool the previous night, where he charmed my mother, who loves her music and who remains a staunch supporter of Neil’s to this day. So whenever I hear The Divine Comedy’s ‘Mother Dear’ [from the ‘Victory For The Comic Muse’ album], I think that the song could easily be about my own mother’s absolute regard for her young guest all of those years previously. It isn’t, but hey …

‘No Disco’ never had the budget  to employ a production runner, to order taxis or to deal with the day-to-day practicalities of running sessions like these. And so I’d routinely be on hand to lug sound gear into venues, do a run for lunchtime sandwiches and, when required, bum lifts off of my father, who regularly spun musicians around Cork city and got them back on the train home. It was, of course, no way to run a television programme but then, in our heads at least, ’No Disco’ wasn’t a television programme at all. It was, to borrow popular current vernacular, a weekly Ted Talk :- an address of genuine inspiration to the nation.

On the day of the Firkin Crane session, Neil performed both songs at least three times each. Once we had captured the master sound recording – and once Neil was happy with what he had heard – we did a couple of other takes on the song from alternative angles. When we got into the edit with Antóin O’Callaghan [no relation] we decided, where possible, to keep the performances on one single shot. This was out of character with much of what was going on more widely in music television at the time. Indeed, it’s very rare these days to see any sort of pans, zooms and tilts on location-based television output. But again, in the hands of a skilled operator, the old ways can often be the only ways. And we went for it.

The only real concession we made in the edit was in removing all of the colour from the clip, for no other reason than we wanted those sessions to have a different look and feel to the rest of the programme. Among some of the other acoustic room performances we shot during the first year of the programme were a handful of ace tracks by The Harvest Ministers recorded in The Triskel Arts Centre, a cracking set by The Revenants in The CAT Club and a pretty special two-song show by Edwyn Collins, put to tape upstairs in The Old Oak, during which he performed ‘Low Expectations’ and ‘Gorgeous George’ from the Setanta album of the same name.

The Divine Comedy remained one of the staples of the ‘No Disco’ play-lists for many years thereafter. Over the following twelve months we also cobbled together a pretty woeful time-lapse video for ‘Tonight We Fly’ [from the band’s 1994 album, ‘Promenade’] salvaged from footage of a sun-down that one of Neil’s friends had sent us from London. And, one memorable Sunday afternoon, the directors Eamonn Crudden and Eamonn Doyle hired an old-school bicycle from a shop in Dillon’s Cross and shot a handful of Super 8 reels of my late friend, Philip  Kennedy, as he peddled around Cork. The personal highlight of that shoot occurred when we were asked to leave the grounds of The Cork Cricket Club by some local toff after we’d arrived, un-announced, up the avenue, on foot and on wheels, wielding a funny looking camera.

We used that footage to accompany ‘The Summerhouse’, another track from ‘Promenade’, which myself and Donal really liked and which, again, we just felt needed to be heard.

It was the pair of us, I guess, just taking care of business.