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MICRODISNEY AND THE VILLAGE OF CORK

 

It sounds far better now than it may have been on the night in question but the first live band I ever saw was Microdisney. I was fourteen years old and, six months before The Smiths released ‘Hand In Glove’ and turned the world upside down, it’s not as if I either deliberately sought them out or if, indeed, I knew a single thing about them. But I watched on anyway as they thanklessly worked their way through a lo-fi, mild-mannered set, to mostly deaf ears, just the pair of them – Cathal Coughlan and Seán O’Hagan – not fifty feet away from me, lost on the vast, ornate stage at Cork’s City Hall that extended as deep as it did wide.

 

I’d previously seen the name – and it’s a terrific name – on some of the many posters plastered on the stud walls inside The Queen’s Old Castle arcade, close to where Microdisney rehearsed in a small room over-looking Daunt Square, at the top of Patrick Street. And they’d feature sometimes in the odd piece in The Evening Echo, one of the local newspapers that chronicled their various mis-adventures. But beyond that I hadn’t an iota and sure, why would I have had ? Not many else did.

 

 

I’d actually fetched up on Anglesea Street on October 7th, 1982, to see Depeche Mode, the London-based, Bowie-trousered dandies who were pushing their second album, ‘A Broken Frame’, and who were in town, I suspect, through the offices of the promoter and businessman Pat Egan, another sharply-dressed blow-in who seemed to be behind every single event of note in Cork at the time. I’d been ferried in from Blackpool by my father, who was based in The City Hall for fifty years and who, with a nod to one of the venue’s regular security staff, sneaked me into the belly of the beast using one of the lesser-travelled routes, through a warren of long, cold corridors that smelt of detergent.

 

‘A Broken Frame’ had landed weeks previously and the departure of the band’s primary songwriter, Vince Clarke, didn’t seem to have altered the cut of Depeche Mode’s jib much. In fact if anything, it was a far more cohesive and full-bodied collection of songs than that assembled on their debut, ‘Speak And Spell’ and, with Martin Gore now running the  show, also hinted at some of the darker order that would later come to characterise the band. But here, in decent nick on the back of their strongest singles yet, ‘See You’ and ‘The Meaning Of Love’, Depeche Mode were an outwardly teen-focused pop band and a genuine star turn. And as such, they drew a healthy and diverse crowd to The City Hall, much of it male, many of them replete in cardigans, slip-on shoes, elaborate mullets and skinny ties.

 

I recognised some of them from around our school, lads you’d usually cross the road to avoid and for whom Smash Hits and gate-fold sleeves tended to be mostly off-limits. But the raw lustre of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘New Life’, which were among the popular floor-fillers at the ribald teen disco of choice near-by at Saint Francis’ Hall, was just  impossible to resist. Pop music at its most lethal has always been a great leveller and, strange as it might sound now, but Depeche Mode, like David Bowie and Queen during that same period and, later, even The Smiths, attracted a decent share of local toughs and hard feens, seduced like the rest of us by the pull of a decent tune, a good time and the prospect of – remote enough in most cases – gamey female company.

 

And in such a setting, Microdisney struggled to make the weight. They were baited throughout their set and found few favours from an unforgiving and impatient home crowd, eventually leaving the stage to general indifference, polite applause and sent on their way with the odd profanity. Needless to say, I thought they were magic.

 

It mightn’t have been entirely obvious at the time but Microdisney had much in common with Depeche Mode, even if they often made like the very antithesis of what the London group, and it’s growing support base, represented. And that’s because, notwithstanding their tinny drum machine, loops and wires, chintzy synths and smart shapes, they were forever difficult to pin down, seemingly always at odds with themselves. A band pulling from a wide breadth of reference, much of it classic old-school, dealing in fragile pop songs over which Cathal, every time he opened his mouth, cast a long, loud and foreboding shadow. And that, basically, is the story of the band’s entire career :- the eternal collision between the immovable object and the irrestible force.

 

But by late 1982, Microdisney were making decent headway. Pared back to a core of just Cathal and Seán, they were unrecognisable from the often incoherent post-punk outfit with notions that had featured two years previously on ‘Kaught At The Kampus’, a mini-album recorded live at the U.C.C. Downtown Kampus in Cork’s Arcadia Ballroom that also included cuts from three other young local acts, Nun Attax, Mean Features and Urban Blitz, and that saw the light on Elvera Butler’s fledgling imprint, Reekus Records.

 

Well read, whip-smart and with a field of influence that extended from Steely Dan to Nick Drake and Van Dyke Parks, the gut of their sound was based around Seán’s soft, often acoustic guitar, Cathal’s full- force and consistently under-appreciated tenor and his light hands around the keyboard. Like Depeche Mode, Microdisney too were plugging a record, albeit on a different scale. Their debut single, ‘Hello Rascals’, backed by ‘Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost’, had recently been issued on the emerging London-based, Irish-focused independent label, Kabuki Records, recorded the previous summer ‘in a draughty, converted gym in South Dublin’.

 

 

Thirty-five years, four fine studio albums and a series of re-issues and  compilations later, Microdisney are, I think, still to be properly critically evaluated in either a local Cork context or a broader national one ;- they’ve long been among the least most important footnotes in contemporary Irish music history. Not, you’d think, that they’d ever be pushed either way but, decades since Cathal, from Glounthaune, and Seán, born in Luton but returned with his family, met at a New Year’s Eve party in Cork, all that really exists is a well-intentioned, fan-centred outline. But then Microdisney have never, either, enjoyed the broader appeal and wider regard bestowed on some of those who went before  them and plenty of patently lesser acts who followed. Little wonder then that, after they took the Innisfallen ferry out of the harbour for good in the summer of 1983, they rarely returned to ‘the village of Cork’, as Cathal was fond of referring, at that time, to his hometown.

 

Beyond Microdisney’s excellent airplay-friendly 1987 single, ‘Town To Town’, which briefly exposed them to a mainstream radio audience, much of what’s known of them is based to a considerable extent on the numerous interviews, feature pieces and liner notes they did over the years and also, of course, on Cathal’s lyrics. Mournful, autobiographical, outwardly political, funny, usually self-deprecating and, for a number of years, chemically-enhanced, he liked to sneak an arsenic drop into the compound too, routinely lending Microdisney’s aspect a jagged and absurdist edge.

 

 

And so this, after all, is the band who, on it’s debut album, ‘Everybody Is Fantastic’, announced themselves with the lines : ‘My mind, might take hours to change back to normal’ while the opening track on it’s excellent follow-up, ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’ draws the memorable conclusion ;- ‘my wife is a horse’.

 

But if nothing else, Cathal and Seán can forever take credit for how they so quickly and effectively evolved Microdisneys’s sound, either by design or otherwise. Less than two years after that tentative City Hall support, they’d released a fine, if arguably under-nourished debut album for the Rough Trade label and were already road-testing two of their finest ever songs, the imperious ‘Are You Happy ?’, which fetched up on their second album and the imposing ‘Loftholdingswood’, which eventually buttressed the excellent three-track ‘In The World’ e.p., released in 1985.

 

Having re-located into the bleak squatlands around South East London, and with little by way of financial support from their record company, Microdisney again found themselves in their natural habitat :- the outside. The extent of the drudgery and drug-addled penury they endured during their first years in London has been long documented, and no more tellingly so than on ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’, Microdisney’s stand-out album and a record born out of – and committed to tape against the backdrop of – their dreary, day-to-day sundering.

 

And yet within the depths of that world weariness, the usual smattering of light and shade too, where the personal and political chaos of the words is often set, mostly effortlessly, against breezy and easy soundtracks, to which both Seán and Cathal – trading, for the duration, as Blah Blah – contribute handsomely. It was the Dublin writer and journalist, David Cavanagh who, on the excellent sleeve notes that accompanied the 1996 re-issue of the album – and not for the first time succinctly captured them better than almost anyone when he wrote :- ‘Microdisney music was pop music. It didn’t make them pop stars’.

 

Gerry Smyth and Sean Campbell, in their 2005 book, ‘Beautiful Day :  Forty Years of Irish Rock’ go deeper again. In specific relation to the circumstances around which ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’ was recorded, they write :- ‘this period of experimentation had a transformative effect on the band, giving them a heightened perspective on mid-1980s London, with its burgeoning materialism and increasingly right-wing politics’. And no better boys to mine that seam either.

 

The two major label releases for Virgin Records, 1987’s ‘Crooked Mile’ and ’39 Minutes’, which was released the following year, saw the band’s sound bulked up and Cathal’s colloquial drawl watered down to the point where, in the pursuit of chart positions and radio rotation, the tension between the sweet and the carnage that had long determined Microdisney was nowhere near as obvious. And while it’s a chronic over-simplification in many respects, the extent of that fork in the road is best seen in the tone and form of what Cathal and Seán went on to do next and with whom.

 

Coughlan formed the muscular, foaming Fatima Mansions who, on stage and on record were a positively lethal deal while O’Hagan fetched up with the avant-indie outfit, Stereolab, before unfurling a long career as leader of the sun-blushed, semi-horizontal High Llamas, who owed to and borrowed liberally from Brian Wilson, among others.

 

It’s worth making the point that The Fatima Mansions enjoyed far more support and generated far more attention in Ireland – and in Cork, particularly – than anything that Microdisney had managed previously. Whether that was because the band’s sound – which, although always outwardly aggressive, oscillated from the loud and furious to the serene and calm, often within the same verse – was more in keeping with the prevailing mood of much of the underground of the day or whether it was, purely, because the band was far more visible in Ireland throughout it’s existence, is up for debate. As is often the case with this sort of basic revisionism, the actual answer may well lie in the half-way ; Microdisney were indeed a band out of time and a band out of town.

 

A couple of summers ago, Theo Dorgan, the Cork poet, writer and long-time Na Piarsaigh clubman was asked, in the course of an Irish Examiner hurling preview, if he ever missed living in Cork. ‘I don’t’, he replied, ‘because I never left. I just live somewhere else’.

 

And for several years I was of those who routinely annoyed Cathal Coughlan by putting the same question to him. But while he rarely articulated any degree of over-sentimentality for his hometown – and is far removed from that most risible of species, the professional Corkman in exile – I long suspected he was way more wired into the gut of the city and beyond, its people and prose, its songs and its ways – many of which are unspeakably bad, as many again unspeakably mad – than he’s ever given credit for. In particular, I detected a keen ear for the O’Riada/Muskerry singing tradition which, although never apparent in Microdisney’s output, may certainly have helped shape the band’s spirit and define its humours.

 

A point which, as with much of the band’s story, may one day become apparent to even the villagers.

 

 

FÓGRA :- Sean O’Hagan will shortly play a handful of solo acoustic dates in Ireland. He plays in Bennigan’s Bar in Derry on June 29th next [where support is provided by Paul ‘PJ’ McCartney of The Deadly Engines/Bam Bam And The Calling] and in Fealty’s Back Bar in Bangor the following night. Sean plays in The Grand Social in Dublin on Saturday, July 1st [with support by an acoustic Sack] and then takes to the  lush surrounds of The Cork Cricket Club on The Mardyke on Sunday, July 2nd. Consider this your summer treat.

 

THE HARVEST MINISTERS TAKE DUNDALK

It’s over twenty-five years ago now since, one Saturday evening, Ken Sweeney set his mother’s runaround for Dundalk and sped the pair of us up the road, out of Glasnevin and onwards to Mister Ridley’s. The two of us were softly obsessive about one of our many favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, a Dublin outfit who’d been making decent headway for a while, earnestly kicking against every single convention of the time, often maybe over-earnestly so. With their boy-girl twin lead vocals and deft lyrical flourishes, they’d been ludicrously compared to Prefab Sprout on a shoestring. But burrow in behind their fragile frontage and William Merriman’s dark introspection owed far more to Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ than Paddy McAloon’s ‘If You Don’t Love Me’.

 

Five years after they formed in the initial afterglow of post-‘Joshua Tree’ optimism, and representing the absolute antithesis of all that that record stood for, they were making a rare foray out of Dublin and Ken and myself were anxious to see how they got on. Or, indeed, if they’d complete the course at all. On paper, the prospect of The Harvest Ministers taking on a nightclub crowd in Dundalk looked like a real mis- match and Ken had the runaround primed, immediately outside the venue, for a quick getaway. Just in case.

 

I knew little of the scene in that part of the world. Anything I did was informed by the ribald, souped-up yarns imparted by the late George Byrne and, in print, by the delicate hands of Tony Clayton-Lea in Hot Press, who handled much of the constituency work in the North-East and who got through a fair amount of mileage on his beat. There was also the storied battle-front experience of Cypress, Mine !, the paisleyed Cork undergrounders who, one Saturday afternoon, may or may not have been hastened out of County Louth during an eventful double-bill in Drogheda Boxing Club, possibly by local youths bionic on apples.

 

Ken and myself were briefly back in Ireland from London, where we were both based at the time. He was one of the small number of fledgling artists on our books at Setanta Records and had, months previously, rescued me from a squat in Peckham and taken me in under his own roof, far across town in West London. I was stick-thin at the time and, lost in the music and in the giddy rush of an emerging story – I was working closely with The Frank And Walters – hadn’t been minding myself. In spite of all the shimmer, I just wasn’t having a good time ;- I didn’t like London because I wasn’t clued in enough or sussed enough for it and so I fairly welcomed the prospect of a few days of respite.

 

We set up base in Ken’s family home for the duration :- Mrs. Sweeney was a terrific and gracious host who afforded me a mighty welcome and, unusually for that time, regular, healthy meals. And although I’m not sure if she completely appreciated the ambition in her son’s work, it wasn’t as if she let on. I was helping him to promote his first album, the excellent eight-song ‘Understand’, which he’d released on the Setanta label under the band name, Brian, and had set up a range of interviews and live appearances for him around the country. ‘Understand’ was clearly a compelling piece of work but, as with much of the Setanta output at the time, I wasn’t convinced we had enough access to the pipes and wires down which we could distribute the message as widely as it deserved.

 

And so, hastily around the country, kitted out in our long-sleeved Setanta sweatshirts, we proselytised for the week, the highlight of which, I think, was Ken’s live acoustic performance on the RTÉ television series, ‘Nighthawks’. But the purpose of our trip wasn’t just to promote the Brian album ;- we were blazing a trail for Keith Cullen’s asset-rich but still emerging imprint which, at the time, also boasted the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Divine Comedy and A House on it’s roster.

 

And it was to this end that, hours before The Ministers took the stage in Mister Ridley’s, we’d fetched up at the local radio studios of LMFM, where Ken did a short piece with the aforementioned Tony Clayton-Lea, who at the time also presented a weekly show there. We did likewise in RTÉ Cork Local Radio and at other selected stop-offs around Ireland ;- I had a cluster of Setanta samplers in my ruck-sack which we’d leave behind us as we left ;- the definitive calling cards, we thought.

 

Mister Ridley’s was – and remains, by all accounts – a popular nightclub in Dundalk, a serious provincial discotheque with notions, even if the shape and scale of the place has changed enormously in the years since. God knows how The Harvest Ministers, with their brittle, barely-pulsing songs ever ended up playing there, but then the band’s long history is pock-marked routinely with this sort of thing. An eternal search for God Knows How.

 

They’ve been on the go now for over thirty years and yet you’ll struggle to locate them in any of the annals that document contemporary music in Dublin from 1985 onwards. I first saw them at one of the heats at the Carling/Hot Press Band of The Year competition in Sir Henry’s in Cork during the late 1980s where, then as now, they stood out because they didn’t stand out at all ;- they were reluctant, callow, soft and hardly there. In a broader salad of paisley, black denim and long, swept-back hair, they were hunched and cut apart in their charity-shop jackets and dead men’s shoes. They were far from perfect and, in one way, still are – which is why, I think, I took to them so quickly and so intently.

 

Will Merriman first patched his group together during a period when U2 had just gone global and when a single, anthemic chorus got you to first base and a positive Hot Press notice without ever breaking sweat. He’s seen many summers – and indeed many drummers too – in the decades since and The Harvest Ministers’ family tree certainly extends far, deep and wide. But on that night in Mister Ridley’s, Will – the band’s leader, songwriter and constant, led what is easily the band’s best-known and most cohesive line-up, supported by the long-serving Padraig McCaul on guitar, piano and sax, the tearaway Pat Dillon on drums, Gerardette Bailey on sweet, sweet backing vocals, Brian Foley, then previously of The Blades on bass and Aingeala De Burca on violin. And it was this line- up that featured on the band’s first album, ‘Little Dark Mansion’, which was released later that year on the Bristol-based Sarah Records label.

 

You’d never, were you so pushed, expect The Harvest Ministers to get a disco crowd going, post-midnight, but that’s what was expected of them in Mister Ridley’s. And, at the time, there was nothing unusual about that :- given that many venues, especially those outside of Dublin, were located in nightclubs, many excellent live bands were routinely booked to bridge an hour or so over the course of what were long nights and, by so doing, up the intensity – and the take – at the bars. Indeed the one-time Ultravox singer, Midge Ure, once just refused to take the stage at The Bridge Hotel in Waterford when he was told he was going on-stage in the venue’s faux-Roman classical finished dance-hall as a support act to a disco.

 

And so, when The Harvest Ministers ambled onto a small space in the corner of the main floor at Mister Ridley’s, caught in the flickered glitter shapes cast by the numerous disco balls mounted overhead, they looked, as they’ve often tended to, like Nemo and his friends set free from the tank. Opening with a spartan, skewed new number called ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’ can’t have endeared them to the revellers, many of them already well flutered. And, for a while, patronising as you like, Ken and myself worried if The Ministers would make it through.

But they were quickly into their groove and went on to play a protracted and often wild set that featured several of what have long been staples :- ‘Forfeit Trials’, ‘Theresa’, ‘Silent House’ and ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’ among them. And, maybe with a calculated nod to their surroundings – or maybe not ? – the jerky ‘Oliver Cromwell’, with its convulsive sax and frantic snare over which Will repeatedly sings the big money-line – ‘Oliver Cromwell … is a pansy’. And as I recalled in a review in Melody Maker magazine subsequently, ‘by the end of the night there are couples waltzing around at the front and not an evil word is spoken’.

 

I’m consistently drawn back to that night in Dundalk for many reasons, not least of all because, not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I saw exactly how music, in this instance neither obvious, direct or immediate, can often forge a direct emotional contact even in the most unlikely of settings. Where, kicking against all reasonable theory or argument, The Harvest Ministers absolutely aced it. Of all of the live shows I’ve seen – and I’ve seen far too many at this stage – it is easily one of the more memorable and certainly on any list of favourites.

 

And that’s maybe why, I think, The Harvest Ministers continue to be such an unremarkable and yet at the same time wholly remarkable force. Because notwithstanding their exceptional back catalogue, and the scope inherent in what Will is still trying to do, it’s just impossible to dislike them.

 

In a curious twist of fate, they went on to release two terrific albums for the Setanta label, ‘A Feeling Mission’, produced by Phil Thornalley in 1995 and 1997’s magnificent ‘Orbit’, which was over-seen by John Parish, a long-time side-kick of P.J. Harvey. And betimes during this period, it looked as if the band might, almost in spite of itself, achieve some manner of cross-over, especially when the sound was bolstered up on the likes of ‘If It Kills Me [And It Will]’. But that they’ve remained resolutely stuck in the hedges and caught on the margins ever since shouldn’t in any way devalue Will’s song-writing stock :- all that’s really changed in that respect is the manner in which he now records his material, and with whom.

 

Most recently he’s been buttressed by Andy Fitzpatrick, the New York- based, former Dadas frontman who’s been an ancillary member of The Ministers for years and it’s the pair of them who, ostensibly, laid down the down the core of The Harvest Ministers’ current album, ‘Back To Harbour’, which was recorded in Fitzpatrick’s apartment and released last week.

 

And, as we’ve come to expect [and long since come to take for granted], it’s another pretty special instalment that, over the course of it’s eleven tracks, plots a familiar course dominated by casual strumming, brushed drums, delicate melodies, layered strings, a soft organ wash here or there, over-laid with Will’s vocals which, to this day, are sometimes barely there at all. Especially strong over the home straight, you’d have to wonder if he’s ever written a cluster as impactful as ‘The Debutante With The Nose Ring’, ‘Through The Trap Doors Of Insanity’, ‘No Feelings For You’ and the absurdly beautiful ‘The Heron’ ? All of which, yet again, come highly recommended.

 

Several years later I returned to Mister Ridleys. Plenty of water had roared out past Dundalk Bay in the seven years since I’d last darkened it’s doors and I was now working as, of all things, a television producer. Myself and my friend, Dave Hannigan, were making a documentary for RTÉ about the retired Irish footballer, Paul McGrath, and were picking up an important aspect of the story.

 

McGrath was, and remains, a fascinating subject and, in our efforts to unravel what was a complicated and often difficult past, we’d come looking to speak with another Irish footballer, Barry Kehoe, who had also, like Paul, played in the League of Ireland before briefly trying his luck at Manchester United. Barry’s story was no less complicated :- he was a magnificent midfield player at his hometown club, Dundalk, but his career was curtailed by injury and, later, by a long battle with cancer. As a contemporary of McGrath’s at Manchester United, however briefly, he was an obvious contributor to our film. And I located him quickly and easily enough ;- he was living and working in Dundalk, managing a nightclub in the town. Mister Ridleys.

 

Myself and Dave remember the time we spent on that Paul McGrath documentary very fondly and, across the Atlantic, we’ll still trade short messages about those wonderful months, back in 1998, as we pieced together ‘They Called Him God’. And as the cast list passes away one by one – Tommy Heffernan, Charlie Walker, Graham Taylor and Barry Kehoe himself, who eventually lost that cancer battle in 2002, those memories take on added significance for us.

 

On Barry’s suggestion, we conducted the interview with him at his place of work and, while our crew began to set their equipment into place, he proudly took us on a tour around Mister Ridleys and, as he did, The Harvest Ministers, from out of nowhere, flashed through my mind. The mirror balls, the waltzing couples, ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’, Ken and the runaround.

 

‘And over there’, said Barry in a warm but typically flat Dundalk accent as he pointed to a small alcove area touching onto the dance floor, ‘that’s what we call The Erection Section’. And, for whatever reason, The Harvest Ministers disappeared back to the dim recesses of my mind, as did any thoughts I had about lunch for the cast and crew.

Brian

Via Ken Sweeney

 

HOLY JOE CHESTER

One of the many memorable passages in Johnny Marr’s recent autobiography, ‘Set The Boy Free’, recalls a visit the author made to Matt Johnson’s London flat in 1982, back when he was still in his teens and his band, The Smiths, had recorded what would become it’s first single, ‘Hand In Glove’. Johnson was a couple of years older, just twenty-one, but had already signed a significant deal with a major label and, writing and recording as The The, had released two fine singles. The pair had crossed paths in Manchester the previous year and had formed a fledgling friendship.

 

Johnson’s girlfriend, Fiona, answered the door. ‘She showed me into the flat’, Marr writes, ‘where Matt was crouched on the floor, wearing headphones surrounded by equipment that was strewn all over the carpet. A Casio keyboard and a black Fender Strat and drum machine were all plugged into a little four-track cassette recorder, and there was an electronic autoharp lying around and some microphones, one of which was plugged into an echo pedal. I hadn’t seen anyone working this way before. It struck me as incredibly modern and innovative’.

 

And to an ambitious but wide-eyed young musician taking his cues from a pointedly traditional view of the industry, basic home recording might well have looked peculiar. Because even allowing for the legend of Brian Wilson’s ability to record his own group, The Beach Boys, using sophisticated techniques on unsophisticated machinery as far back as the mid-1960s, self-sufficiency was still largely regarded as a delinquent form. And while Johnny Marr was having his head turned and his eyes opened in Matt Johnson’s flat, Duran Duran were busy pressing the flesh in support of ‘Rio’, the record that, in terms of the hoopla that surrounded it, become yet another by-word for industry excess. Another snapshot from a period during which record companies couldn’t spend quickly or recklessly enough, both inside the studio and outside on the tiles.

 

But while it took many years for the process and the technology to fully develop into the commonplace, the core conceit behind home-recording – doing it, literally, for yourself – was marking another important line in the sand for the music industry. Removing, as it could, many of the impediments – some of them fanciful – that surrounded the recording process and making it far more democratic, in theory at least.

 

Reading those paragraphs in ‘Set The Boy Free’ I thought, rightly or wrongly, of Joe Chester, the Dublin-born musician and songwriter whose most recent album, ‘The Easter Vigil’, has just been released and who, on any given day or project, can work as sustainably or efficiently as the best of them. His five solo albums – and they are, to all intents, entirely solo projects wherein our hero takes on the bulk of the creative lifting – are but one aspect of a wide and varied career spent as a musician, writer, producer and collaborator. Joe has long been as comfortable working alone as he is as part of a broader group ;- I first saw him in action many years back as one of Sunbear, an angular guitar band that regularly lit up many a dank evening in the belly of The Rock Garden in Temple Bar during the early 1990s. Someone who, depending on circumstance and mood, can pare it right back to the muscle too, as is certainly the case on ‘The Easter Vigil’.

Interestingly enough, my own copy arrived in the post after I bought it on-line from a record label based in Dublin 3, never previously regarded as a stronghold within the international music industry. Eight songs long, and softer and more spartan than much of Joe’s previous output, ‘The Easter Vigil’ is simply another chapter in a body of work that’s as impressive as that by any contemporary Irish artist. And the fact that he remains, outside of a small coterie of anoraks, fans and friends, a largely acquired taste, only adds to his lustre, of course.

 

Tall, thin and unlikely, he trades in uncomplicated, blue-chip songs that borrow their strokes from the best in show. His first album, ‘A Murder Of Crows’, for instance, features both Gemma Hayes on harmony vocals and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bleed To Love Her’ that, by so doing, pretty fairly reflects the crease into which he pitches. In every conceivable respect, he’s as far from Duran Duran as it’s possible to get.

 

I met Joe once, very briefly, back when I was producing a tidy music television series for tweens called ‘Eye2Eye’ and onto which we’d invited Gemma to play a short live set to an audience of forty twelve year olds and to answer some of their questions. And she was as decent and elegant as usual, unfussily accompanying herself on acoustic guitar while Joe, to her right, camera left, played her reluctant foil, buried deep in the half-light and uneasy anytime he was caught unwittingly in the glare. They populate each other’s work freely but even so, I was still struck by the ease with which they so instinctively sat in concert.

 

 

It’s a rare and remarkable gift, this, and one I’ve been fortunate enough to see close-up over the years in pairs as diverse as Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Conall and John from We Cut Corners and Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott. And that Friday afternoon we spent in Studio Two in Montrose was every bit as visceral as it was heart-lifting :- my abiding hope was that, beyond the smoke and mirrors of television, the performers’ alchemy had rubbed off on some of the kids and that they left the campus more rounded than when they entered.

 

I’d been turned onto ‘A Murder Of Crows’ the previous year by Tom Dunne, the Something Happens singer who, back in the mid-2000s, hosted an excellent early-evening music show on Today FM. And not only was he wearing the record to within an inch of it’s life but he was using the title track – with it’s chintzy keyboard swivel – as a regular ident throughout his programme. My wife and myself had recently become parents for the first time and, on those many evenings spent stuck in the slow torture along The Coast Road in Sandymount and over onto The East Link, Tom’s impeccable play-lists would help me home to Dublin 3 and back to the general gormlessness that tends to be family life for first-timers. And for many months thereafter, I’d drive my daughter to crèche in the mornings to the sweet, sweet sounds of ‘A Murder Of Crows’ ;- it became an unlikely soundtrack and vital mental support to life as a bewildered new parent.

 

I’ve kept a keen eye on Joe’s various activities in the years since. And, as our family increased in size along the way, so too did the ambition and the wonder of his records. And it’s been onwards, upwards and varied ever since ;- in between various stints working as a hired hand with Sinéad O’Connor and The Waterboys, or as a producer du jour for practically every Irish act worth it’s salt, Joe would infrequently fetch up and quietly leave out another essential calling card of his own.

 

And by any stretch, ‘The Tiny Pieces Left Behind’, ‘She Darks Me’ and ‘Hope Against Hope’ represent a formidable decade of work, carefully hand cut, delicately produced albums that wear their influences openly and boast their impacts clearly. Each of them made, for the most part, by one man and his help, working discreetly to small budgets, off-Broadway, cost-effectively and without the fanfare.

 

It’s been five busy, varied years since he last released a long-player and ‘The Easter Vigil’ finds Joe in a reflective and sombre humour ;- in part a concept album of soulful reflection and mature observation that, thematically, is back-dropped by the Easter tenets of sacrifice, re-birth and renewal.

 

To anyone with even the most passing interest in the emotional power of music, religion can often be a bountiful – if unlikely – source. The Easter Vigil itself is one of the staples of the Roman Catholic calendar and, as a drama, is a remarkable affair, big on pomp, staging and imagery. The single most important celebration within the Christian faith, Easter’s third act sees Jesus Christ rise from the dead hours after crucifixion on a cross on Calvary on Good Friday. And as such, it has provided numerous writers and musicians with ample symbolic ammo over the centuries.

 

Even as a non-believer, I’ve long found the use of music during the Easter ceremonies to be particularly impactful and just as interesting as the narrative it supports ;- as with most great films or stage shows, the soundtrack bulwarks the storyline and delivers several key punctuations and sub-texts across a week of ceremonials. As of Holy Thursday night, for instance, all instruments are de-commissioned and put beyond use and all music, until the resurrection during The Easter Vigil on Easter Saturday night, is plain and unaccompanied. Good Friday ceremonies, like The Stations of The Cross, are stark and wistful, powerful performance pieces played out in churches that stay dark and unadorned until faith is restored after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After which, in simple terms, normal service[s] resume.

 

And in several respects, Joe’s album endures a similar catharsis using the same sort of dramatic tension. Only in reverse. From the peppy opener that takes place on ‘Spy Wednesday’ to the magnificent closer, ‘I’m Not A Christian Anymore’, located on Easter Sunday, the record’s central figure concludes a passage from confident believer [‘I know that my Redeemer lives’] through self-doubt, uncertainty and onwards into disbelief. When, over the album’s concluding bars, Joe sings ;- ‘that night in the sleeping house of God, I was a phantom walking in the corridor. I was a Christian then, I’m not a Christian anymore’.

 

But it had all been so different back at the beginning, seven songs earlier. ‘Spy Wednesday’ has an innocent Waterboys feel – appropriately enough, it could sit easily on ‘A Pagan Place’ – that springs to its capstone off of a saxophone solo by Anthony Thistlethwaite. Another packing considerable Waterboys history, Steve Wickham, lends the violin and viola parts while cellist Vyvienne Long decorates the room with deeper tones throughout. Elsewhere, ‘Dark Mornings’ – a first-class graduate from the Matthew Sweet/Ryan Adams/Lindsey Buckingham finishing school – is still the closest concession to the all-out, Cars-inspired finish that’s distinguished much of Joe’s previous work. And after that it’s just the magic of the soft hush ;- and it’s beautiful. Because for all of it’s allegory and bespoke references [‘the feast of Corpus Christi’, ‘Swastika Laundry’ and ‘the valley of tears’], Joe still finds the real wonder in the smaller, far less abstract moments.

 

The first single, ‘Juliette Walking In The Rain’ is about exactly that, a chance encounter with the French actress Juliette Binoche as she makes her way across Meeting House Square in Central Dublin. While for all the swagger on ‘Dark Mornings’, the song ultimately – and maybe invariably? – finds itself dissecting matters of the heart as Joe points out that he’s ‘just looking out the window, waiting for you to wake up’.

 

And that’s where his gift lies. The devil may indeed always lurk amidst the detail but it takes the confidence of a master to allow the magic flourish deep inside the quiet.

 

CODA :- ‘The Easter Vigil’ is available in decent shops and on-line via Bohemia Records.

http://www.bohemiarecords.ie/#/joe-chester/

 

Joe is playing a handful of live dates in Ireland in support of ‘The Easter Vigil’. Róisín Dubh in Galway on April 23rd, The Unitarian Church in Dublin on April 28th, The Spirit Store in Dundalk on May 4th and Crane Lane in Cork on May 27th. So do yourself a favour.

 

 

 

 

ELVIS COSTELLO :– TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

 

A friend of my father’s blagged me in through a side door to see Depeche Mode  at The City Hall in Cork in October, 1982 but, on the drive home afterwards, all I could really remember was the aggressive support set from a shambling local band called Microdisney, who were jeered and baited throughout. ‘Any requests ?’, enquired the singer at one point ? ‘Get off the fucking stage, ye’re shit’, came a response from the middle of the crowd. And maybe Microdisney were shit, who knows ? But they certainly left a mark of sorts and, for years thereafter, I slavishly followed their fortunes and numerous misfortunes.

I’m still not entirely sure what makes a great live show or an impactful set but I certainly know what makes a poor one and, over the many years I’ve since spent beside mixing desks all over the world, I’ve seen far more implosions than fireworks. That which makes live music so compelling and attractive in theory – unpredictability, surprise, potential, possibilities – also make it so unreliable and often so unsatisfactory an experience in practice.

There was a time when I saw twenty bands a week, every week. This was back when I had no meaningful ties or responsibilities, had few other interests and when I wore my social stamina like a badge. No show was too small, no band too pointless, no pint too flat, no toilet too nuclear, no venue too unwelcoming. During that decade in the fog, live music was one of the few things that really mattered ;- forget the quality, feel the width.

But during those years I was fortunate too to see some pretty blistering stuff and I’ve been floored on occasion by the sheer magic of a handful of acts who, in an absolutely subjective way and for whatever reason, spun my feet like they played with my heart. I saw a nascent Radiohead at very close quarters, saw Nirvana support Sonic Youth twice and The Frank And Walters play a magnificent set for an invited record company in a rehearsal room in Cork. I’ve seen The Pixies play to a largely disinterested crowd of three hundred people in Amherst, Massachusetts while they were the most exhilarating live band anywhere and saw Suede – ‘the best new band in Britain’ – a week after they  appeared on the front of Melody Maker before they’d released a single note. I’ve seen The Divine Comedy in a series of different pig-pens in London and U2 in football stadia all over Europe. I was there when The Cranberries played The College Bar in U.C.C., when Therapy? played upstairs in The White Horse and when Pulp played The Rock Garden in Crown Alley to 60 people one Saturday.

plecs Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello plecs. Pic Colm O’Callaghan

And yet I’m not sure if I’ll ever see a better live show than the one I saw Elvis Costello play in Dublin’s National Concert Hall in April, 1999. Backed only by Steve Nieve on piano and, for a handful of numbers, by himself on acoustic guitar, Elvis played thirty songs in two hours, scattering a typically wide-ranging set with the guts of ‘Painted From Memory’, a collection of sassy piano-based ballads he’d recently recorded in collaboration with Burt Bacharach.

Drawing from an exceptional and far-reaching body of work that transcends the years like it does the genres, The Beloved Entertainer made every single blow count and, from the top – a searing ‘Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone’ from ‘All This Useless Beauty’ his intentions were clear and his aim true. At his best, Elvis is a master craftsman and an often untouchable live performer and, even two hours later, was still reluctant to wrap and go. As the house lights came on, he laid into a remarkable a capella take on ‘Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4’ and, with all of the stage mics turned off, bounced his voice off of the walls of the NCH like a bored teenager working a bionic yo-yo.

But as always, there’s another context too ;- my companion that evening in the stalls was an Elvis fan who I’d met through friends. We had a shared love of good music and sport and, sixteen years, one marriage and three daughters later, still look back on our tentative first steps from Cassidy’s on Camden Street around to Earlsfort Terrace in the rain. And, although neither of us would probably care to admit it, thank Elvis for taking care of the real business.

NOTE : This piece also appears in ‘In Concert ;- Favourite Gigs Of Ireland’s Music Community’ [Hope Publications], published in December 2016 to raise money for the Irish Red Cross, especially in it’s efforts to assist those forced to flee their homes in Syria.

The book, which we seriously recommend, is available to buy via http://hopecollectiveireland.com/2016/12/15/supporting-syrian-refugees/

U2 :– WELCOME TO THE CABARET

 

The announcements in early January that U2 were parking the release of an intended album and were instead loading their bases to tour ‘The Joshua Tree’ on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of it’s issue, won’t have taken regular watchers of the veteran band by surprise. ‘Songs Of Experience’ had initially been touted as a quick-fire follow-up and companion piece to 2014’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’, even if more specific detail wasn’t forthcoming, a tack favoured by a band that, even now, likes to play with a closed hand. ‘Innocence’ was recorded in a  myriad of locations by multiple producers and a team of engineers and sounds like it was a real struggle to complete. And so it’s easy to see why the band has re-ordered it’s to-do list ;- with a big birthday  looming, the associated commercial opportunities are simply too  attractive to ignore. The line between band and brand is indeed a fine  one and U2 have played fast and loose with it for years.

 

The band has always been as pragmatic as it’s been notoriously driven and competitive, especially in the corporate field. Writing about the ticketing mechanism used for the band’s date in Dublin’s Croke Park next July for instance, Jim Carroll has pointed out in his excellent Irish  Times blog, ‘On The Record’ how ‘the same corporate entity is  promoting the U2 [Joshua Tree] tour, managing the band, flogging the tickets and operating one of the biggest secondary ticket markets’.

 

On the day of the announcement of the forthcoming tour, Adam Clayton, the band’s bass player, told Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio One that  ‘desperate times’ motivated the band to re-visit ‘The Joshua Tree’ thirty years on. But while many believed he was referring to Donald Trump’s election to the office of American President and the growing sense of global anxiety that’s followed it, he could just as easily have been referencing U2’s creative and critical nose-dive, which started in earnest over ten years ago and which shows no sign of abating. Simply  put, U2 have ‘the drabs’ and have been re-cycling bitty old riffs and scraps of familiar lyrical conceits for ages.    

 

It’s not the first time that U2 has shelved a record, of course. The early sessions for what eventually became the band’s 2009 album, ‘No Line On The Horizon’ were started three years beforehand with Rick Rubin, one of the co-founders of the Def Jam label and unquestionably one of  the most important producers in the history of contemporary popular  music. The band’s previous album, ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’, was an uncomplicated, mildly diverting but ultimately familiar sounding U2 record. And so the prospect of a creative marriage with Rubin on it’s follow-up suggested, fleetingly as it transpired, the sort of possibilities realised a decade previously on the two most lateral of all of U2’s albums, ‘Zooropa’ and ‘Pop’, when the band cut loose while under the influence of producers Flood and Howie B. And paid dearly for the privilege at the hands of critics, who largely panned them, and fans,who rejected them.

  

But although Rubin’s ‘Beach’ sessions sound far more conventional than one might have expected, the marriage was dissolved quickly and the band returned instead to the more familiar arms of it’s long-time squad of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, aided by a large support cast of assistants and engineers. Rubin clearly wasn’t taken by, or had the patience for, the band’s preferred way of working ;- riff it out in studio and let’s see what gives. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, The Edge claimed that ‘it’s in the process of recording that we really do our writing’. And, with reference to the abandoned Rubin sessions added :- ‘we’d almost have to make a record with Brian [Eno] and Daniel [Lanois] first, then go and re-record it with Rick Rubin’. Even to those of us who’d grown accustomed to U2 at half-throttle, this was a pretty exceptional reveal.

 

Steve Lillywhite had first seen the band work this way during the studio sessions for it’s second album, 1981’s ‘October’. He’d already produced U2’s debut, ‘Boy’, in the relatively modest Windmill Lane facility in Dublin city and was back again behind the desk when an under-prepared band struggled to bring a follow-up record together on the studio floor. U2 have never traded as the most prolific of writers and, having flogged the best of their early material on 1980’s ‘Boy’, found themselves under real pressure to deliver a second album on schedule. But despite helping the band to make an initial splash in Britain, ‘October’ was really no more than a collection of loose ideas and half-imagined words stitched together in studio, a point made by Lillywhite some years back during an interview with the www.atu2.com website. ‘They pretty much exhausted all of their songs on ‘Boy’’, he said. ‘They were touring ‘Boy’ and they used to play ‘I Will Follow’ twice because they didn’t have enough songs. So when it came to doing ‘October’, they didn’t really have very long to prepare it’. And it shows :- the title track is Spinal Tap’s ‘Lick My Lovepump’, ‘I Threw A Brick Through A Window’ is a meandering jam, ‘Scarlet’ is random riffing and so on and so forth.

 

Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois go back with U2 to 1984’s ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ when, during a critical cross-over period in the band’s career, they succeeded in pushing them out of what had already become comfortable territory. They also pushed U2 out into the sticks :- the record was laid down, for the most part in the vast, ornate ballroom at Slane Castle in County Meath, and the layers of production and additional sound design on ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ reflect the extent of the surroundings in which slabs of it was conceived. Much of it brought to the table by Eno, in particular.

 

 

Barry Devlin’s documentary film, ‘The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire’ is an excellent portrait of a starry-eyed young band at work, especially revealing in how, as early as 1983/84, U2 were approaching the studio recording process and regarding the role of the producer. After three albums and the broader cut-through achieved by ‘War’, which was also produced by Steve Lillywhite, the band had of course earned the right to take a looser, more unhindered approach to studio work. But Brian Eno’s contribution to ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ is vast, none moreso than on ‘Pride’, the record’s signature piece, which he elevates – as seen in Devlin’s film – – from a series of sinewy riffs into something far more defined and magical. ‘The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire’ captures Eno variously as producer, mentor, writer, teacher and guru :- if Devlin were to document U2 at such close quarters today, what – and who – might he find inside the studio walls ?

 

In Joshua Klein’s 2009 Pitchfork interview with Eno, filed to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, the producer explained that the band wanted him on that album was because they wanted ‘to be changed unrecognisably’. And by effecting that change, Eno and Lanois became fundamental to the scale and extent of U2’s global breakthrough and, consequently, their entire raison d’etre. So much so that by the time the two producers had completed their work on ‘No Line On The Horizon’, they were also finally credited as co-writers and, to all intents, the fifth and sixth members of the group. If, as The Edge had previously explained, it was in the process of recording that the band did it’s writing, then what was it exactly that U2 brought to the studio with them at the start of that project ? Because ‘Horizon’, like ‘Songs Of Innocence’,  sounds exactly like a record painted by numbers and laid down by a committee.

 

U2 wouldn’t be the first, and certainly won’t be the last of the great bands to work in such a manner. Johnny Rogan reveals in ‘Morrissey And Marr : The Severed Alliance’, that much of The Smiths’ finest material came together very quickly during studio sessions, often from half-raw riffs that were vigorously jammed out on the fly. Indeed the band’s long-time producer, Stephen Street, maintains that during the recording of the group’s final album,‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, his input into the string arrangement on ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ was such that he could have been given a writing credit.

 

Although The Smiths were only ever together for barely five years, their career – like much of the early part of U2’s – was characterised by a relentless and often reckless touring-recording-touring schedule. ‘Strangeways’, for instance, was recorded off of the back of a long American tour and many of the songs that made it onto that album were seriously under-cooked before the formal sessions began. Its been decades since U2 have had those kind of scheduling problems and time pressures but, from 2000 onwards, they’ve been re-mining the same seam for ever-decreasing returns. And the more that basic songwriting has become an issue, the more desperate – and ultimately cluttered – their sound has become in search of those familiar, big statement pieces.

 

In that same http://www.atu2.com interview, Steve Lillywhite suggests that the band has consistently asked him back because he brings clarity to what they do. But by their own standards, U2’s recorded output has lacked real clarity and any sort of positive form line since ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, their last truly full-bodied album. And the Cinemascope cut of ‘The Joshua Tree’ that The Edge referred to recently in Rolling Stone magazine is far removed from the wedding video finish of the band’s last three elpees. With U2 cut adrift in the roaring forties, the suite of songs on ‘The Joshua Tree’, must pretty much haunt them now.

 

The more flaccid and middling U2’s records have become, the bigger and more complicated their accompanying live shows have been ;- spectacle and scale plastering over the obvious. To that end, the ‘Songs Of Innocence’ tour was essentially ‘U2 : The Musical’, a flabby and over- rated theatre show that only really kicked into gear up the final straight when the band dipped into it’s back-catalogue to just about salvage it from the ordinary. And ‘The Joshua Tree’ cabaret is an obvious extension of that broader theme, U2 celebrating themselves and their achievements – some of which are still scarcely believable – under-pinned by the shake and roll of some of their greatest hits.

 

The ‘Innocence’ tour in Dublin was the first time that the emotional under-lay that usually accompanies their Irish shows wasn’t enough to fully hold the weight of the band’s ambition. Bono’s voice, previously the fulcrum around which every single great U2 moment has resounded, sounded weary and weak, hindered by the lethargic set-list. And from my seat in the stalls, I found it difficult to buy into the giddy hoopla that surrounded the record’s lyrics ;- in the absence of imposing signature tunes, the autobiographical aspect of the words had attracted much of the critical focus beforehand. But Bono has long dealt in the confessional, themes of childhood, aspects of family life, parenting, adolescence and loss. And far more convincingly so on U2’s earliest records too. By comparison, the likes of ‘Iris’, ‘The Miracle of Joey Ramone’ and ‘Cedarwood Road’ just sound as hollow and incomplete as the most featherweight material on ‘October’, as if they’d been beaten into shape to accompany an elaborate set and lighting design.

 

A point that was also made over five years previously by the Dublin writer and journalist Michael Ross, who has observed the band at close quarters since it’s inception and has written with terrific insight on U2 over many years. And never more so than in a long feature for The Sunday Times in 2009 following the release of ‘No Line On The Horizon’- and the opulent live tour that accompanied it – that forensically deconstructed the band’s creative decline using thirty years of personal testimony and first-hand experience to scaffold his thesis. That prescient piece at atU2.Com. is essential for anyone with even a passing interest in the complicated and compelling history of Ireland’s most successful ever rock band, and it was foremost in my mind as I sat watching on in The Point.

 

I made the mistake of articulating my views on the ‘Innocence’ tour to my companion that night in November, 2015 ;- my wife. Devoted, loyal and steadfast, I pale into insignificance when she turns her focus onto the small matter of U2, with whom she’s been smitten for the guts of thirty years, for better and, this last while, for worse. And I’m still paying the price for my loose tongue. She’ll be there once again come July and, like most other long-standing U2 fans, will travel in good faith, delighted to have stayed the course with them, still fearless in devotion. And why not ?

 

Croke Park itself – and the organisation to which it belongs, The Gaelic Athletic Association – has changed beyond recognition in the thirty years since she first saw U2 anoint the holy ground to the strains of ‘The Joshua Tree’. The band itself may be caught in a long-term creative torpor but remain one of the most fascinating, infuriating, driven and ambitious acts in the history of popular music. Like the hurlers of Cork, who’ve long lapsed into listlessness, they have tradition and history on their side, even if that’s been eroded slowly over time. And yet, as we’ve seen over the years, they’re at their most lethal and dangerous when they’ve been counted out.

 

But for now that count continues, steady and backwards.