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RORY AND HERMAN

Herman Kemp – photographed on the day of the concert in 1978. © Herman Kemp

I’ve written at length about my old school, The North Monastery which, on many levels, dominated my upbringing on the northside of Cork city during the 1970s and 1980s. For a number of us, The Mon provided a structure and an order during a period when much of the area around us was just dilapidated and sore. Strange as it seems but there were days when some of us were glad to go to school.

I last set foot on the grounds up on Our Lady’s Mount during the filming of a short television insert on the week of the All-Ireland hurling final in 2004. As these things tend to go, some of my friends and neighbours are now among the senior teaching staff there and, with the school’s vast canvas of adventure now captured so thoroughly on new media, I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of the breadth of what’s going on there. But there was always an awful lot going on up in The Mon – good, bad and ugly – except that, for years, most of us were blissfully unaware of much of it.

Herman Kemp was a young teacher from Kilrush in County Clare who was unfortunate enough to have encountered us as a class of forty-four noisy young boys in 1976 and 1977. The date is important here: – history recalls that Cork’s swashbuckling hurlers were winning All-Ireland senior titles, Christy Ring still walked among us whenever he tired of walking on water and one of the unlikely pop stars du jour, John Lydon, who’d spat his way into the popular British consciousness as Johnny Rotten, had strong connections to our city that went pretty much unreported.

Teachers among you will know that second and third class are among the most developmentally important years in the Irish primary school cycle. The work-load of the pupil increases and there’s a subtle shift in tone from baby-sitting to, if not full-blown independence, then certainly a greater emphasis on autonomy. Even in Cork during the 1970s, and especially up in The North Mon, they didn’t just hand out those classroom assignments to any old lags or chancers. Which is why, I suppose, that some of us still remember Herman’s classes so clearly.

In his loons, denim shirts and lusty tache, he rarely proselytized the case for hurling and Gaelic football and the more traditional cultural pillars on which the school traded didn’t seem to overly interest him. He looked like a member of The Band and was a proud Stoke City supporter at a time when Liverpool and Manchester United were the only two British clubs that mattered around our way.

On his watch, our class was as likely to debate the merits of contemporary blockbuster films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’ as we were to struggle with the vagaries of long division. One morning he broke down a Chris De Burgh number for us and went through it line by line as a piece of important literary text. And although this did little to endear me to the rubber-faced songwriter, Herman was clearly thinking on a different plane. Like the best teachers and coaches, he not only instilled in us a sense of the exotica that waited for us outside the school’s sash windows but constantly allowed us to picture ourselves knee-deep in it. To those of us with any sort of a creative streak, he was our go-to.

The North Monastery has long prided itself on its academic achievements and its many notable successes on the playing fields and in Irish public life. It isn’t absolutely clear if Cork have ever won a senior All-Ireland hurling title without at least one former pupil involved somewhere or if Ireland’s state class has ever operated at elite level without our graduates leading out, but it certainly feels like this should be the case. What I do know is that I left our school with a fully-formed love of books and sport and, I hope, good basic manners.

Beyond the most basic stipulations of the curriculum, and notwithstanding the regular sideshow performances of The Christian Brothers, one of whom would shove a piece of bamboo in and out of his gob to make a variety of bird calls, music was hardly a priority up in the school. Indeed, the handful who did experiment with drums and wires, or indeed those who just liked alternative music, tended to do so under the cloak of darkness. I’ve written about this in a previous piece here.

As Herman was getting his classroom ready for a new school year during the summer of 1978, we now know he was also busy elsewhere indulging a couple of his other interests; – rock music and photography. The father of three school-going daughters myself – and as a one-time teacher – I’m forever surprised at how children cannot believe that those who front their classrooms every day might also lead interesting lives of their own once the long bell goes in the afternoons. In this respect, Herman left a trail of dots for us that we’re only now joining properly.

Rory Gallagher at Macroom Festival 1978 © Herman Kemp

The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival is one of the more intriguing outdoor events to have taken place in Ireland during the 1970s. Launched in June, 1976, as a week-long community-focused enterprise, it was conceived by a group of young locals led by a publican, John Martin Fitzgerald, and ran for seven years in total. The highlight of that first year was a live show by Marianne Faithfull, who performed in a customized marquee borrowed, for the occasion, from The Rose of Tralee committee fifty miles up the road. The festival was formally launched by the broadcaster and journalist, Frank Hall.

And it certainly achieved its primary ambition, attracting decent crowds into what was then a small market town, located twenty-five miles west of Cork city. By washing its own face financially, and perhaps against all perceived wisdom, the organisers developed the event in its second year and moved into the outdoors at Macroom Castle.

That setting is central to any broader telling of the history of contemporary Irish popular culture. Despite what its people might think, Macroom was never the most sophisticated town and, in the late 1970s, wouldn’t have been best served by general infrastructure and was difficult enough to access. A point touched on in Roz Crowley’s fine book, ‘Memories Of Ireland’s First Rock Festival’, published by On Stream Books in 2016.

That book includes several first-person testimonies from some of those who made their way to Macroom having either walked the distance from Cork or having hitched lifts on the road out from the city’s western suburbs. Many of whom did so against a backdrop of disdain from the local authorities and clergy who, in voicing their concerns for law, order and basic morality, were re-cycling familiar riffs dating back to Ireland’s dance-hall culture during the earliest days of The Free State.

During the mid-1970s, rock music in Ireland’s outdoors – either one-offs or festivals – just didn’t exist. Dalymount Park, on the northside of Dublin, had indeed hosted a one-off show featuring Mungo Jerry and Thin Lizzy as far back as 1971 but that, pretty much, was that. So in terms of chronology, Rory Gallagher’s performance on the grounds of Macroom Castle in June, 1977, pre-dates Thin Lizzy’s famous home-coming show – again at Dalymount Park – by a couple of months. And because The Mountain Dew series took place over the course of several days, it is widely accepted as being Ireland’s first ever outdoor rock music festival.

The commercial success of those early Macroom shows also reflected an obvious appetite for rock music in what we might loosely term rural Ireland, kicking against a couple of crudely formed stereotypes as it did. As such, The Mountain Dew Festival can be seen as an important pre-cursor to other similar events that ran subsequently in Leixlip, Ballisodore, Lisdoonvarna and even Thurles, where Féile: The Trip to Tipp, was launched in 1990.

Over the course of its seven-year history, Macroom attracted a number of well-known headline acts and Van Morrison, The Boomtown Rats, Wishbone Ash, Elvis Costello and Paul Brady all feature prominently in its story. The ability to attract such high-profile names to a small town in West Cork is all the more remarkable given that Ireland’s biggest concert promoters had given Macroom a wide berth: – the ambition was deemed, understandably so, to be just not realizable.

It’s for the two Gallagher headline appearances there on Sunday, June 26th, 1977 and Saturday, June 24th, 1978, for which The Mountain Dew Festival is most memorably recalled, though. Between 1975 and 1979, Rory released four albums – among them two of his best long-players, ‘Calling Card’ and ‘Top Priority’ – and was a prodigious live performer. Then at his creative peak and kicking in the face of punk rock, which had broken the British mainstream in earnest during Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977, the first of those shows also co-incided with the launch of ‘Hot Press’, Ireland’s long-standing music and social affairs magazine.

Conceived and edited, as it is today, by Niall Stokes, and founded by him and a cohort of like-minded Dublin college graduates, the remarkable story of that publication – and Niall’s constant re-invention of the paper in the decades since – is worthy of a Ken Burns-style documentary series. Rory Gallagher was the first ever Hot Press cover star and, until his death almost twenty years later, both parties were tied at the waist.

Rory played many explosive live shows in Ireland during his career, several of them within the ornate indoors at The City Hall in Cork and The Ulster Hall in Belfast. But the Mountain Dew Festival was his first ever outdoor headliner in this country and, following years of high-profile festival shows across Europe, marks another important crossing of the line for him: – was he scaling up and, perhaps, finally finding the mainstream himself?

With tickets priced at 2.50, and with a support bill that also featured The Joe O’Donnell Band and the Flemish bluesman, Ronald Van Campenhout, that 1978 show certainly commanded attention and audience. Estimates of the size of the crowd vary wildly but, using some of the stills shot around the castle on the day, we can realistically put the attendance at around six or seven thousand people and certainly no more than that.

The following summer, on Saturday, June 26th, 1978, Gallagher returned to headline again at Macroom, and Hot Press magazine was once more prominent around the fringes. Still finding its feet in the local marketplace, where it was still regarded as a curiosity, Stokes and his small team succeeded in attracting a number of high-profile musicians and personal guests into the belly of the beast, among them Bob Geldof and Johnny Rotten, and built an improvised awards ceremony into the weekend’s proceedings. And so the first ever Hot Press music awards took place in Coolcower House Hotel, outside Macroom, once Gallagher had completed his set.

Rotten’s journey to Cork, and then onwards to the festival site, has long been the stuff of local legend. His band, The Sex Pistols, had recently come asunder as spectacularly as they’d briefly turned popular music on its head and, now trading as John Lydon, he had re-established himself quickly. With a new band, Public Image Limited, already on the go and about to record its first album, he boarded a flight from London to Cork dressed in priest’s garb. Following an encounter on-board with a couple of nuns, it was only the intervention of Niall Stokes and B.P. Fallon, who was working as a publicist for the event in Macroom, that helped him avoid arrest on landing in Ireland.

Johnny Rotten with one of his cousins, taken in The Coolcower Hotel at the Hot Press Awards. © Herman Kemp

Both of Johnny Rotten’s parents are Irish: – his mother, Mary Barry, is from Carrigrohane, twenty miles from Macroom, and the singer spent many of his childhood summers back in Ireland among his cousins. By fetching up in County Cork, even on such tenuous grounds, Rotten – like Rory Gallagher – was in effect ‘coming home’.

Group shot featuring Bob Geldof, Eamonn Carr, B.P. Fallon et al © Herman Kemp

Herman Kemp was also at that Gallagher show. And in the days before carefully curated media access and strong-armed public relations, took a number of terrific snaps at both the live show and, afterwards, around the tables at those Hot Press awards. He’d travelled down from the city with his friend, Con Downing, his Pentax camera and a bag of high-end lenses borrowed from a colleague on the teaching staff up in The Mon, Brother Leader. Leader’s name will be well known to northside men of a particular generation :- he also ran a film club in the primary school and played westerns and war films in the school hall using his own projector.

Rory Gallagher at Macroom Festival 1978 © Herman Kemp
Rory Gallagher at Macroom Festival 1978 © Herman Kemp
Rory Gallagher at Macroom Festival 1978 © Herman Kemp

Con Downing was another keen music fan and nascent writer who went on to be a mainstay on the Cork journalism circuit, eventually becoming editor of ‘The Southern Star’ newspaper, where he still resides.

Savvy young rakes on the go, Herman and Con’s passes allowed them to drive right into the grounds of Macroom Castle, past the security cordon provided by the local Gaelic football club and straight to a specially constructed front-of-stage hospitality area set aside for the great and the good. In which they enjoyed themselves royally.

And I know this now because, after forty-three years, Herman and myself have recently been re-connected; – it’s difficult to hide around these parts when you have such a distinctive handle and live in a small country. By way of standing up his story, he’s given us a number of his original photographs from The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival, 1978 – and the subsequent do – and also his permission to use them here.

Now ten years retired from teaching, having entered the trade as a callow and energetic nineteen year-old, we are grateful to him and humbled in equal part.

SQUAT IF? BRIAN AND SETANTA RECORDS

Whatever about the balming and transcendent powers of music, maybe best felt in my own case by the magic of Prefab Sprout, Van Morrison and The Blue Nile, I owe a long-time debt to one Irish songwriter and musician who physically rescued me from the havoc and harm of the other side.

During the early 1990s, buoyed by the optimism of a new decade and a sense that I was maybe cruising a small bit, I threw caution to the wind and fetched up with a small, emerging Irish record label based in South East London. By hopping onto the sixteen -wheel articulated trailer that was Keith Cullen’s Setanta imprint, I could work with The Frank And Walters, who’d signed to the label and were making hay, dabble a bit in journalism and see some of the world’s most interesting destinations. Like the back room at The Bull And Gate in Kentish Town and a number of exotic spots around Camden where apparitions happened regularly.

I’d met Keith a couple of years previously as the label was finding its feet and after he’d released Beethoven’s ‘Him Goolie Goolie Man Dem’, Into Paradise’s ‘Blue Light’ E.P., ‘A Little Piece Of God’ by Power of Dreams’ and Rare’s ‘Set Me On Fire’. And, like many before and after me, was quickly dragged under by the formidable cut of his jib. Hewn from the best and worst of the unfiltered spirit of punk rock, he made a compelling argument for most things, but particularly for his roster. But even beyond that, it just seemed like the right thing to do ;- sacrificing the sanctuary of home in the name of quality music and all who were devoted to her.

The full, unabridged story of Setanta Records is another off of the wide canvas of contemporary Irish music – from Rory Gallagher to Boyzone to Ruby Horse via The Thrills – that has never been faithfully told and, in all likelihood, it never will. Keith was only able to keep Setanta going for so long because of an absolute lack of sentiment and an ability to move on quickly. ‘If you want a friend, get a goldfish’, he once told one of his acts. And so after the label was finally wound down a decade ago, that was always likely to be that :- the supremo was never one for taking the podium and drawing undue attention on himself.

But notwithstanding the quality of the catalogue and the all-consuming vitality of the music, our leader saw this as just taking care of business in the moment, and nothing more. I just can’t imagine him ever looking into his heart before bedtime and asking himself what he could have done better. Regrets ? Nah.

And yet for at least fifteen years, Setanta was as valid an Irish music success story as U2’s onward march through the nations or Louis Walsh’s one-man revival of Irish cabaret. Even if, for far too long, the label was seen as a souped-up fanzine and struggled for a foothold outside of the niche. In the pre-digital era, many of its capers and achievements just went under-reported, and maybe thankfully so ? Part soap opera and absurdist theatre and frequently just a free-style street brawl, it’s a yarn that doesn’t want for colour, characters or a compelling story arc. In which Keith, with his out-sized personality, dominates every single scene.

The death earlier this year of the Dublin-born, Belfast-raised music writer, David Cavanagh, and the many eulogies and personal reminiscences that followed, reminded me once again of the raw impulse that characterized much of that decade from the mid-80s onwards. Cavanagh was one of the first onboard the Into Paradise wagon – they were Setanta’s breakthrough band – and remained an ally of both the group and the label until the end. He once joined them on tour and stayed on as part of the travelling number not because he was working on a commissioned piece but because he liked the racket they made and enjoyed the band’s company. And that, back then, was how some of us rolled :- with no responsibilities to speak of, you bought in, signed up and blindly followed the path, irrespective of how treacherous it felt underfoot.

Setanta rarely suffered fools and although I can’t ever remember Keith demanding contracts be signed in blood, he had an instinctive sense of whether you were in or out. His mind worked at a different pace to most and he was relentless in his pursuit of the next scheme, the next band and the next song. History was what we were all doing tomorrow.

He also had a spectacular disdain for waste, squander and spoofers too, a result I suspect of his own previous. From the southside of Dublin, he jacked out of school early and lived on his wits in London, pounding the streets around the city for years as a teenage courier on a bicycle. And as tended to be the case with many of those who came of age in squats all over Britain during Margaret Thatcher’s dozen years as Prime Minister, nothing seemed to faze him, particularly authority. And certainly not the insanity that underpinned much what was then a fully-formed industry. Indeed for many years, Setanta Records was itself run on a day-to-day basis from a modified squat in Camberwell and, as a mission statement, that much succinctly captured the essence of the company’s values and how it saw itself.

And so every Tuesday lunchtime, after the weekly editorial meeting at Melody Maker magazine, where I was getting free-lance work, I’d scope the offices at King’s Reach Tower for recyclable Jiffy bags that I’d rescue from the bins and take back to Setanta in black refuse sacks. Where we’d then use them to post out various bits and pieces from a mail order catalogue we’d started. That’s how Setanta did its business ;- living on its wits for the most part because it had little else to fall back on.

One of the lesser known but certainly more interesting acts on the label during this time was Brian, initially a quietly reflective two-piece from Dublin whose soft, delicate touch was at odds with much of the sound of the rest of the imprint and who rarely get the credit they deserve. It was Jim Carroll – my long-time friend and a man with whom I’ve stood proudly for many years – who first introduced me to the band when, during one of our regular journeys from Cork to Dublin, he played me Brian’s second single, ‘You Don’t Want A Boyfriend’, on an old Walkman. During that same sitting he also played me an early version of Azure Days’ ‘Anything For You’ and, to this day, I can’t think of one of those songs without recalling the other.

Azure Days were a fine, well-upholstered guitar band from Carlow and, in their neat black denims and fresh leather jackets, represented the sound of the crowd. They’d won one of the early Hot Press-backed Band Of The Year competitions in Sir Henry’s some years previously and, led by Gala Hutton, certainly had many of the fundamentals in place. Like numerous others during that period, they sparkled briefly but never really had enough curve to convincingly stand apart from the slew.

Brian, on the other hand, sounded nothing at all like what was then the emerging sound of young Dublin. Ken Sweeney’s songs borrowed instead from the under-strength suburban balm of early Go-Betweens, the anxious, wafer-thin racket of Postcard Records and the more pastoral strokes of The Stars Of Heaven. Indeed ‘Boyfriend’, which was originally a b-side, barely had a pulse at all and very pointedly eschewed the big choruses and boisterous production that hallmarked much of the output of the time.

Neither did Ken do overt messaging, cheap puns or smart-alecy metaphors :- ‘Boyfriend’ is about a relationship that’s come to an end abruptly but with a sting in it’s telling. ‘Maybe you leaving, wasn’t a bad thing ?’, he ponders as he heads for the outro. And these lyrical pipe-bombs were part and parcel of Brian’s rolling stock where, much of the time, he could have been channeling psychological trauma. ‘I remember coming home, shaking for a very long time’, he sings at the top of ‘It Never Crossed Your Mind’, one of the many stand-outs on ‘Understand’, the outfit’s 1992 debut elpee.

This was the sort of thing that occupied our days down at Setanta. One of the more pleasurable aspects of life in the squat was the music itself and, in this respect, Keith gave me a considerable schooling. And although we had a cavalier attitude to food and eating, there was always a fresh cut on the sound system to sustain us. ‘Understand’ was the fourth album issued on the label and I couldn’t believe just how sharp and affecting it was when we first played it back ;- eight terrific, confessional songs, one better than the next, and all the more remarkable given that these were cut-price studio sketches, more or less.

Brian is/are seldom mentioned in the regular histories of Irish popular music. Indeed they’re rarely mentioned in the regular history of Setanta Records either even if ‘Understand’ and its follow-up, ‘Bring Trouble’ [1999] are easily among the most fetching albums on a label whose back catalogue also includes ‘Under The Water’ by Into Paradise, ‘I Am The Greatest’ by A House and ‘Promenade’ by The Divine Comedy. But then Ken had different objectives to every other act on the imprint and I never once got the impression that he was panning for gold. Instead, he had a series of public confessions to make via his work and that catharsis mattered far more to him than sales figures and mid-weeks.

And to this end he was an appalling salesman ;- in interviews he’d rather talk about the songs of Stephen Ryan, Paul Cleary, William Merriman and F.M. Cornog than he would his own. Which may have been an issue for the label’s supremo but which only attracted me even further to him and his work.

His signature dish was the first person vignette that placed familiar themes of love, loss, betrayal and fear into mundane local landscapes. Our nervy hero is routinely found in cars or on bus journeys and there are numerous references across Brian’s canon to various parts of West London – points along The Western Avenue or outside the sprawling Hoover factory in Perivale – where it’s almost always the dead of night and where the writer is perennially at odds with much of what surrounds him. But never more so than he is with himself.

And in that context, the use of such an unspectacular umbrella name might be explained away. Like Prefab Sprout and The Divine Comedy, both of whom were prominent in his orbit, Brian was ostensibly just Ken hiding under the blanket of a band handle by the time that ‘Understand’ saw the light of day. His original side-kick, Niall Austin, was back in Dublin and the main man was working instead with a handful of like-minded session musicians and producers like Ian Catt and Marcus Holdaway, who brought more shape than weight of numbers to the set-up.

But although one of the strongest cuts on ‘Understand’, ‘You Can’t Call Home’ might indeed have been cut from the same ash as ‘Anything For You’ by Azure Days – an irony that hasn’t been lost on me – that was as rowdy as Brian got, initially at least. ‘Understand’ is at its best when its at its most reserved, as shy and nervous as the young man standing in the hallway on its standout track, ‘A Million Miles’, one of Ken’s best ever songs. ‘Tonight when the whole world sleeps, my world will turn to you. A million miles away’, he sings, before a skeletal guitar solo takes us home.

I had almost exclusive access to Ken for a couple of months. I answered the land-line at Setanta to him one Saturday morning and, within hours, he’d rescued me from squalor and a pill-addled Scotsman in a squat on one of the high-rises in Peckham where the baths were located in the kitchens. Try as I did, I just couldn’t see the romance in that sort of carry-on and jumped at Ken’s kind offer to move onto a sofa in the front room of the terraced house he was sharing in West London. This was as far from the Setanta aesthetic as it was possible to get on at least two levels :- comfort and distance.

The late Kirsty MacColl and her family were neighbours of ours on Avalon Road in Ealing where, playing to form, Ken and myself would sit up long and late into the night and work our way through our favourite records and writers. It was harmless but obsessive stuff as we deconstructed our red-raw love for Miracle Legion, REM, Into Paradise, The Go-Betweens and a curious Dublin outfit called Hinterland. Who, in the great atlas of Irish popular music, will one day share the same chapter as Brian.

Ken had served a short but colourful apprenticeship around the fringes of the Dublin mod scene in the early 1980s. Brian might or might not have been named after the erstwhile bass player in The Blades, a band who, if they didn’t overly influence his sound, certainly influenced many of the values he brought to bear on his writing. ‘I thought you only released music when you were feeling it’, he’s told me more than once over the years. And anyway, the band name story was a decent yarn that, in interviews, enabled Ken to wax lyrically about Paul and Lar Cleary, the Dublin brothers who founded and led the Ringsend mod combo.

We talked at length about Paul Cleary during the months I spent dossing on his floor and during which Ken was holding down an archivist’s job at the BBC. And on Sunday mornings we’d head down to Benjy’s, an Australian greasy spoon on Earl’s Court Road for a lavish fry-up called ‘The Builder’, before making our way onwards to Notting Hill and the racks of the second hand record and tape exchanges. Which we’d devour with the same vigour as we did those fried breakfasts, like cavemen hollowing out carcasses in search of rare slivers of fat. And it went on and it still goes on.

I came back to Ireland with Ken during the Autumn of 1992 to help him promote ‘Understand’, the magnificent four-tracker that followed it, ‘Planes’, and the Setanta brand generally, during which he performed a couple of acoustic numbers on RTE’s ‘Nighthawks’ programme and did a round of radio and newspaper interviews. And, while we were at it, saw another of our favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, play a bizarre show in Mister Ripley’s in Dundalk, which I’ve previously recalled in a piece here.

Like an awful lot of what went down during that time, I remember our trip home in no little detail. Our mothers – exceptional women who both died in the past year – greeted us as you’d expect and treated us like prodigals during the few days we spent back in Dublin and Cork. And of course with every passing hour, the prospect of returning to England became more and more unappealing. Although I boarded the plane back to Stansted at the end of the week, I never really left Ireland again.

I tried hard and gave London a decent shot. I still have my numerous post codes, underground stops and bus routes etched into my brain decades later and refer to them instinctively whenever I’m back there. But from as far north as Bound’s Green and as far east as Forest Gate, I just couldn’t really settle ;- I did my best to lay my hat but someone always seemed to just want to sit on it and flatten it.

And I’m not sure that Ken ever re-settled there either. Because although ‘Understand’ was one of Setanta’s best-selling albums – big enough, in fact, for Virgin to later re-issue it – it took him an eternity to complete a follow-up. Having taken a redundancy package from the BBC in 1995, he re-located to Termonfeckin in County Louth and penned the songs that saw the light of day as ‘Bring Trouble’ four years later. That record, a far bulkier affair, captures a contented writer at play and, recorded at September Sound, the studio owned by The Cocteau Twins, features Simon Raymonde on one of it’s more circumspect cuts, ‘Light Years’.

Both ‘Bring Trouble’ and the ‘Planes’ E.P. are both worthy of much more consideration and I’ll return to them in a specific piece down the line. Suffice to say for now that ‘Planes’, released in the immediate slipstream of ‘Understand’, was a terrific, souped-up four-tracker led by the rollicking ‘Knowing’ and also featuring the quiet but deadly ‘Planes Stacking Up’ and, in my view, one of Ken’s best ever songs, ‘She Takes You Away’. And on those tracks, the ground had fundamentally shifted :- our hero was now returning to a warmer house, where an ashtray was still smoking, a pair of shows had been discarded and the lights were still on. The air was ripe with promise ;- ‘Planes’ was shaped in the arc of some manner of an affair, imagined or otherwise.

Nearly thirty years on and Ken and myself are still in contact. It’s far more infrequent and way less intense these days but, like with many of those with whom I soldiered through the carnage, the music helps us to pick up the conversations easily enough. We have far more substantial matters to deal with now – families, work, anxiety and health – even if, invariably, our conversations inevitably lead back to Robert Forster, Stephen Ryan, Mark Mulcahy, Peter Buck or whoever happens to be taking the stage at a venue close-by.

Ken hasn’t released a record in twenty years although I’m happy to report that he’s as lost in music now as he was when Brian – and Setanta Records – were in their pomp. Proof of which can be heard on a number of terrific, award-winning radio documentaries he’s made for RTÉ Radio One over the last while. ‘Michael Jackson’s Irish Driver, ‘REM : Out Of Athens’ and ‘In Search Of The Blue Nile’ all spill over with the same unflinching passion that marked those late, lost nights and Sunday afternoons in London when we searched our souls as we devoured the bargain bins.

We both escaped the city but neither of us seem completely capable of hiding from the past we shared there. But sure, knowing what we know, would we really want to ?

CATCHERS : CALL THE MIDWIFE

One of the more interesting, eloquent and barely referenced bands to have emerged from Northern Ireland during the 1990s are Catchers, who first took shape within the Portrush-Coleraine-Portstewart triangle on the Derry coastline and rode in the Setanta Records colours, for whom they made two fine but often over-looked elpees. And in many respects their story is also the story of that label :- they were primarily song-centred, smart, outward-facing and out of kilter with many of the prevailing moods of the day. They never stood a chance, really.

Much of the Setanta Records story is scarcely believable. The definitive history of what was at first an Irish-skewing label has never been told or explained and, in all likelihood, never will. The imprint’s founder and principal, Keith Cullen, just doesn’t do nostalgia and, throughout Setanta’s twenty year history, consistently preferred the quick getaway. The label was always about the next great song and the next great songwriter and rarely, if ever, stood on ceremony.

And so much of what exists by way of over-view and critical analysis tends to focus on the better known and more commercially successful artists on what, by any standards, is a formidable and varied roster. The Divine Comedy, Into Paradise, Edwyn Collins, A House and The Frank And Walters all enjoyed varying degrees of cross-over success having been hot-housed in the council block squat at Rumball House in Camberwell that served as the label’s offices and, for many years, the living quarters of it’s Chief Executive. And those licencing deals kept the small imprint in coin, the fax machine purring and the wheels turning until such time as the next fragile four-track cassette landed in the mail and turned our heads forever.

But like every other label with form, much of Setanta’s more interesting material exists in the curves and the sidings. A raft of quality Irish bands like The Harvest Ministers, Brian, The Floors, They Do It With Mirrors, The Deadly Engines and Catchers all made cracking records during Setanta’s reign of terror in the early and mid-1990s that are rarely, if ever, spoken of. And I should know :- I was the label’s willing dogsbody for many years, continually putting my ears, heart and typing skills on the line for it.

Twenty five years ago, Catchers – who never carried a definite article in their handle – released an excellent debut album, ‘Mute’ and went on to burn brightly on the fringes of the alternative circuit in France, where they’d recorded that elpee with Mike Hedges. And up the spine of that record were a clutch of songs I’d first encountered in different circumstances over a year previously when, in the name of the cause, I was dispatched to Coleraine to put manners on them.

In the best and worst traditions of the period, the band had sent a crudely-formed demo to the Setanta mailing address , 123, Shakespeare Road, SE24, a fine pile in Brixton owned by a Virgin Prunes-loving builder from Wexford. Featuring an early version of one of their best songs, ‘Cotton Dress’, that tape piqued the label’s interest enough to trigger a gushing note by return mail, stuck inside a jiffy-bag of recent Setanta releases and a compilation cassette compiled by Keith with no little affection. This, my friends, was how some of us conversed and flirted way back.

A couple of them – the ultra-friendly drummer, Damien O’Hara, definitely, and maybe the band’s songwriter, Dale Grundle – met me off of the Ulster Bus that finally pulled in after a mammoth cross-border trek into Coleraine. And, in those sleeping years just before the Good Friday Agreement, fetched me around to a rundown house nearby where half of the band was billeted and where, in the small kitchen, they had their gear set-up and were ready for road.

God knows what they made of me, the man from Setanta, as I took out my notebook and, in the spirit of Phil Spector – or perhaps it was more Phil Spencer ? – took copious notes and sketched out their structures and key design features.

Catchers really didn’t do the wall of sound ;- indeed, much of their better material was more aeroboard than breeze block. But they certainly did harmonies and, then as now, rooted their entire sound in that relationship between the twin vocalists, Dale and Alice Lemon. Who may well have been an item – and they were certainly sharp enough with one another in regular conversation to suggest as much– but weren’t saying. And it was obvious that much of Catchers’ majesty was in the tension that manifested itself as soon as they both got in behind their mics and shared out the singing duties.

I’ve already written glowingly about one of my favourite ever albums, the eponymously-titled debut by a Canadian band, Five Guys Named Moe, which was produced by Donal Lunny in Dublin in 1989 and released the following year on the RCA label. That mighty pop record is under-pinned throughout by the easy vocal exchanges between Jonathan Evans and Meg Lunny and, from as far back as my earliest encounters with local acts like Flex And The Fastweather, The How And Why Insects and The Bedroom Convention, and then onto some of the more considered and formed international standard stuff from Prefab Sprout, The Pursuit Of Happiness and later-period The Go-Betweens, it’s a trick I’ve been unable to resist.

And it was into this space that I felt Catchers needed to be pushed.

My primary connection then, and now, was with Dale. Barely twenty, he was a softly-spoken, no-holds enthusiast who was already experimenting freely and listening widely. His band’s outward appearances belied his own primary instincts :– his favourite records at the time were The Jesus And Mary Chain’s ‘Psychocandy’ and Captain Beefheart’s ‘Clear Spot’, neither of which were apparent in the gut of Catchers’, sweet, sweet sound. Nor, one suspects, overly available around Coleraine which, from what little I saw of it, struck me as a right hole altogether.

And it was certainly far from the groovy world inhabited by The Triffids and The Velvets and to which our hero might have aspired. It was only when, decades later, I finally found myself on the seafront at Portstewart, twelve miles away, that one of Dale’s most primary influences – the calm around that stretch of the Northern coastline – began to make real sense to me. One of the band’s earliest songs was named after the small seaside town and, to this day, I still associate one with the other. Another of their earlies, ‘Summer Is Nearly Over’, also has its roots there and eventually saw the light of day on their ‘Shifting’ E.P.

In that rented tumbledown in Coleraine, and using pretty basic tools, Catchers raced through a full-bodied set for me and clearly didn’t want for decent material. I recall in no little detail the breadth of that collection, skeletal as it was, and which included ‘Cotton Dress’, ‘Beauty Number 3’, ‘Worm Out’, ‘Hollowed’, ‘Summer Is Nearly Over’, ‘‘Spellbound’, ‘Jesus Spaceman’, ‘Country Freaks’ and ‘Shifting’ itself. And I carefully sketched them out one by one, noting Dale’s clever wordplays, the twin vocals and the mountain of opportunity we’d stumbled on.

My scouting report concluded that Catchers were a work in progress and dripping in potential. They certainly didn’t do power, which was to their credit, and weren’t especially cohesive, which was an issue but not an insurmountable one. All told we felt it might be best for them to de-camp southwards for a while, where we could fatten them up and ready them for export. Which is how and why they spent the summer of 1993 in a flat in Phibsborough at a period in contemporary Irish music history when Great Western Square was the city’s coolest and most desirable address. And from where they were able to launch themselves more fully into the meat market and work on their gains.

I snared a couple of live shows for them at The Rock Garden in Crown Alley, where I was doing a turn and earning a crust, and we also landed a radio session for Dave Fanning’s programme out on Radio 2FM, on the back of which Catchers picked up a couple of early mentions in the local press. It was all a bit more intense on and off the field and, with a bit more structure to their rehearsals, they were now developing a bit of heft but, crucially, retaining their charm too.

On a scalding midsummer’s weekend, we fetched up in a small, ground-floor flat in Rathmines and, with Kevin O’Boyle, from another band on the Setanta roster, The Glee Club, on engineering duties, committed four of those early Catchers tracks to tape. It was tight enough in that sitting room where, using a basic four-track portastudio and with a standard drum machine knocking out the patterns, we used most of the channel width for guitars and harmonies. Kevin put in a spectacular performance over those two days and we emerged, I think, with a pretty accurate picture of not necessarily where Catchers were at but more, perhaps, of where they could do. Very quickly afterwards, Setanta determined that they were worth a more substantial investment.

I hadn’t heard that tape in over twenty years until, last month, Dale and myself re-opened the conversation and, as can often be the case with those who have music in common, were able to pick up the threads easily and without fuss :- we had last spoken in 1993. He still lives in London, not far from the old Setanta garret and performs these days, whenever the mood takes him, as The Sleeping Years. And, the odd time, he’ll still perform an acoustic Catchers show with Alice.

I can’t think of Dale, Alice and the rest of the band, though, without recalling another terrific but more sinewy local outfit from that same period, the mighty Dublin pop band, Blink, who were led by my friend, Dermot Lambert, and managed by his late brother, Aiden, about whom I’ve written here previously.

Apart from their clever pop chops and serious live prowess, Blink were also the pivot around which some of the more interesting aspects of Dublin music society revolved at that time. And many were those who fetched up on Sandford Avenue, off The South Circular Road – home of the band’s bass player, Brian McLoughlin – during those years, seeking either shelter from the storm or storm from the shelter.

Catchers were just another outfit to whom the hand of friendship – and quality bed and board – was extended without fear, favour or invoice. And a stellar cast that includes The Candy Shop, Into Paradise, Sack, Robbo, Denis Powell, Mark Kelly, The Forget Me-Nots, Jeff Brennan, Sean Corbett, Andrew Mueller, most of the staff of The Rock Garden and the late Uaneen Fitzsimons, are just some of those who regularly made their way down the SCR after closing time and kept the nonsense going well past the cold light of morning.

And when, to work any excess off, we’d de-camp into the Wolfe Tone end of Saint Stephen’s Green on Saturday afternoons and, using leather and denim jackets for goalposts, play long, free-form football games with whoever fancied it. And Catchers – especially Dale and Damien – always fancied it.

And that, basically, is where we left it after such a full-on nine months in each others’ company. I loved what they were trying to do, had hopefully been of some use to them for a spell when they maybe needed the help and then off-loaded them to those who really knew what they were doing and who could take them further forward. Myself and Catchers were literally going in opposite directions :- they were on the boat for London and I was off home to Cork to get the music television series, ‘No Disco’, going and to fire up the boilers.

As is often the case with young bands in fresh surrounds, they quickly re-freshed their line-up and were soon recording their debut Setanta single, ‘Cotton Dress’, with Darren Allison, who’d been working with Neil Hannon on The Divine Comedy’s second coming at the label. And its fair to say that Catchers enjoyed an eventful five years thereafter, briefly re-locating to The United States, attracting fine positive notices and routinely changing the line-up around the core of Dale and Alice. A second and final album, ‘Stooping To Fit’, was released in 1998, shortly before the band stood it all down.

Dale certainly sounds as fresh and keen now as he did when I first met him up in Coleraine over twenty-five long years ago, still writing and recording but moving at a much more considered pace and to his own deadlines. The older soldiers, those who’ve earned their badges, have that right.

CODA :- An expanded, anniversary edition of ‘Mute’ comes out at the
end of June. Further details can be found on the band’s Facebook page.

Dale and Alice will also play live shows in France around this time.

But for those who’d like to hear more now, https://catchers.bandcamp.com/

LOST IN MUSIK

Our recent post about Roddy Frame took me down into a rabbit hole that led, eventually to Tony Mansfield, the songwriter and producer who played a small and largely forgotten role in the Aztec Camera story. And about whom details are a bit scant.

I first came across Tony because of his band, New Musik, one of the more curious footnotes to the poppier end of the new wave story. And whose signature pop songs – like those of Martha And The Muffins, The Vapors and The Lotus Eaters – detonated without warning from our three-in-ones during those years when we were trying to determine the differences between good, bad and ugly. Decades later and I’m still unable to fully shake ‘Echo Beach, ‘Turning Japanese’ and ‘The First Picture Of You’, the most pressing, gold-plated bangers of the period. Indeed, I can still recite the lyrics to Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ even though I often struggle to remember my daughters’ middle-names.

New Musik was Tony’s band, more or less, and it’s hard to think of them as anything other than a group of session players, at their most comfortable within the studio walls, who fell into the one groove and released a run of excellent, synth-built pop singles as the 1970s cross-faded into the 80s. ‘Straight Lines’, ‘Living By Numbers’, ‘This World Of Water’ and ‘On Islands’ are easily the pick of them and turn up now, the very odd time, on those BBC4 re-runs of vintage ‘Top Of The Tops’. Where New Musik are perennially stuck just outside of the Top Thirty, forever bubbling under.

The spelling of the band name isn’t the only thing that dates them. In the most primal traditions of popular music, they defined the moment – or certainly took a reckless enough swing at it – in their coloured blazers, geeky specs, cute bow ties and with their battery of electronic kit. And like most others from that period – Kate Bush, Blondie and Buzzcocks excepted, naturally – look faintly ridiculous with it. In most of the on-line clips pirated from various television archives – and there isn’t a huge amount – keyboard player, Clive Gates, in his horned rims and hunched over the plate of tits and knobs on his Prophet synth, looks like a skinny Frankenstein hooked up to a mind-altering device.

Out front, centre-mid, Mansfield himself looks like Frankie Gavin from De Danann in an out-sized pair of Clark Kent’s glimmers while the well-assembled, bearded bassist, Tony Hibbert preferred the more minimal, barely breathing look – another pose du jour – that, on one television archive clip, has him miming his basslines with one hand clung inside the pocket of his trousers. And with an excellent drummer, Phil Towner, completing their number, the eventual New Musik line-up reads like the spine of a typical Ipswich Town line-up during their pomp years under the late Bobby Robson from 1980 until 1982.

New Musik’s sound – layered synthetic keyboard lines and toothsome vocal harmonies spooned over old school acoustic foundations – has dated better than their look, just about. But although they never enjoyed the same level of success as some of their peers – Buggles, Naked Eyes and A Flock of Seagulls loosely fit the same bill although all of them were far more defined and rounded – that string of singles certainly cut a dash. And created, for their writer, a strong spring-board from where Mansfield launched a fine reputation as a pop producer with good ears. ‘Such a digital lifetime’, he sang on ‘Living By Numbers’, the band’s biggest-selling single even if, in reality, New Musik’s best known material has more in common with Owen Paul’s version of Marshall Crenshaw’s ‘My Favourite Waste Of Time’ than with the ground-shifting European electronica of Can and Kraftwerk.

But with my own radar starting to locate regular targets, I took to New Musik with the same gusto as I did the likes of Adam and the Ants, Gary Numan, John Foxx and Squeeze. To the point that 1978 is defined for me by Charlie McCarthy’s speech after Cork won the All-Ireland hurling final win and Pete Shelly’s last vocal line on Buzzcocks’ ‘What Do I Get’.

With nothing to rate them against except other bands, New Musik looked as other-worldly as they sounded on my over-worked three-in-one. And that even within the pages of Smash Hits they seemed to forever occupy the hard shoulder only added to their lustre. [We know now, of course, that New Musik didn’t just spring up like over-night. Three of them had been involved with The Nick Straker Band who, marching in tandem, enjoyed a 1980 hit single with ‘A Walk In The Park’. While Phil Towner had played the drum parts on Buggles’ imperious ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’].

New Musik released three albums but all of their best known songs appear on the band’s fine debut, ‘From A To B’. While ‘Anywhere’ [1981] is the bridge to their final, and easily most interesting elpee, ‘Warp’, a far more tech-skewed record, featuring a clutch of instrumentals and released in 1983. By which stage Towner and Hibbert were gone and Mansfield was basically directing the operation from behind a Fairlight synthesiser.

The earliest Fairlight* was an extravagant, pricey and unquestionably game-changing piece of digital technology that enabled users to ‘sample’ or record acoustic sounds [instruments, vocals and percussion] – rather than electronically ‘synthesise’ them – and then play these back at different pitches.

Its first iteration came onto the market at the same time that New Musik were getting their act together. Subsequent versions featured sequencing and workstation capabilities, offering revolutionary sound palettes that were quickly embraced by many of those more comfortable working on their own or in more considered surrounds, off the road. Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Buggles [there’s a sub-plot emerging here, isn’t there?] and Thomas Dolby were primary among them, taken by the potential and the self-sufficiency that came with what was an unwieldly piece of kit.

Tony Mansfield was another of those early adapters and his fondness for, and proficiency with the Fairlight can be heard, not just on New Musik’s material but on the many subsequent production projects he took on after the curtain fell on his band following the release of the ‘Warp’ elpee in 1983. And nowhere more so than on Aztec Camera’s ‘Walk Out To Winter’, which he re-recorded and produced later that same year.

The original version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ appears on Aztec Camera’s debut album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’, and was produced by Bernie Clarke and John Brand. Brand followed a pretty standard career trajectory and worked first as a jobbing studio engineer on sessions with the likes of XTC and Magazine before going on to produce The Waterboys’ ‘A Pagan Place’ and The Go-Betweens’ ‘Before Hollywood’ elpees. Himself and Clarke, a keyboard player and arranger who also features on a couple of those earlier Go-Betweens albums, certainly succeeded in nailing the raw confidence in that early collection of Aztec Camera songs even if, as can often be the case with first albums, some of the excellent material sounded callow enough once it was committed to wax.

During the decades of insanity when the music industry was awash with more money and cocaine than cop-on, the recording process could often be grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unregulated. Far too many records, especially those pitched at the higher end of the commercial market, went through scores of executives, marketing heads and assorted flunkeys who would often insist on priority material being re-visited, re-mixed and re-recorded. Often for legitimate, quality-related reasons and often not.

The Smiths’ debut album, also recorded in 1983 for the Rough Trade label, was famously re-recorded from scratch and, even after the band switched producers – Troy Tate for John Porter – the album still managed to sound hollow and far more underwhelming than the band sounded on their first singles or live in concert. Closer to home, The Frank And Walters’ ‘After All’ and the sweeping ‘This Is Not A Song’ were both was re-recorded after the Edwyn Collins-produced originals were deemed, rightly in my view, to lack the sparkle and urgency of the band’s earlier material.

The initial, Pearse Gilmore-produced sessions for the first Cranberries album were scrapped and, after a trial period with Stephen Street, the project was eventually re-started from the floor up. The making of the second An Emotional Fish album, ‘Junk Puppets’, was another protracted affair that went through numerous hands, locations and producers and, invariably, cost an arm and a leg. The final cut was produced by Alan Moulder [the brooding, guitar-heavy parts] and Clive Langer [the more up-beat, instant parts], while David Stewart was later enlisted to add confetti canons and balloon drops to a couple of key cuts on what is, to my mind, a formidable and largely under-rated album.

It’s Tony Mansfield’s version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ with which most of you will be familiar, even if the single failed to do the chart business expected of it and the band remained on the margins until the re-issue of the breezy ‘Oblivious’ towards the end of 1983. And it’s a version that, as you’d expect, has long divided opinion among Aztec Camera watchers, many of whom have stayed steadfast to the tender opening strum of the original.

The primary differences between the two versions are in the first four bars, where Mansfield adds a distinctive intro, and the broader Fairlight-derived scaffolding he uses to bolster the foundations throughout, devices familiar to fans of New Musik, where they were used liberally. And these bespoke sounds, touches and finishes can also be heard, in variously evolved form, across most of the subsequent production work Tony over-saw after New Musik folded. Most notably The B52s’ album, ‘Bouncing Off The Satellites’ [1986], Naked Eyes’ cover of the Bacharach and David number, ‘[There’s] Always Something There To Remind Me’ and Captain Sensible’s ‘Glad It’s All Over’, which he co-wrote and which charted in 1984.

But as a producer, Mansfield is probably best known for his contribution to the first A-ha elpee, ‘Hunting High And Low’, which was recorded in Pete Townsend’s Eel Pie Studio in Twickenham in 1984. The Norwegian band had relocated to London the previous year, from where they became one of the great, defining pop groups of that decade, selling over eleven million copies of their debut album. And although he takes a producer’s credit on nine of the cuts on ‘Hunting High And Low’, the relationship between the producer and the band – or perhaps the record company? – wasn’t a wholly positive one and, after six weeks, he was off the job. But only after he’d taken an early stab at the song that would later become A-ha’s breakthrough single, ‘Take On Me’.

The song was subsequently re-recorded by Alan Tarney and, supported by a distinctive, semi-animated promotional video, gave the band its first chart success. Tarney, a noted songwriter and musician – he was a member of The Shadows at one point during the 1970s – had written and produced Cliff Richard’s ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ and, in several key respects, was cut from the same cloth as Tony Mansfield. ‘Wrapped in warm synths, propelled by shiny hard guitar, hits like ‘Take On Me’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ are the essence of the Alan Tarney sound’, wrote Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley as part of a Guardian feature piece in 2015. And he’d have known better than anyone; – Tarney produced ‘You’re In a Bad Way’ for Stanley’s group, Saint Etienne, over twenty years previously.

In an interview with ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine in March, 2011, Tarney, who also co-wrote and produced Cliff’s imperious ‘Wired For Sound’ and later sprinkled the glitter on terrific pop songs by the likes of Dream Academy, Barbara Dickson, Squeeze, Bow Wow Wow and Pulp – told Richard Buskin that ‘the Tony Mansfield version [of ‘Take On Me’] employed a Fairlight and it just didn’t sound like A-ha at all’. ‘All I did was recreate the original demo. Its ingredients were good – nothing was really wrong other than it just didn’t quite sound like a finished record’.

And, he continued: – ‘I actually worked with Tony on another project, so I knew what to expect. At that time he was totally a Fairlight man and I can imagine why Warners [A-ha’s record company] felt his version wasn’t quite right’.

Hunting High And Low’ went on to break A-ha worldwide and Alan Tarney was back on duty with them on their next two albums, ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘Stay On These Roads’. They never worked with Tony Mansfield again.

*My thanks, as usual, to one of my own favourite producers, Chris O’Brien, who I besiege with technical and sound queries and who, in this instance, put me right about the Fairlight. And without whom etc …

APPENDIX

We received a number of comments on this piece. One comment came from John Dundon who mentioned having come across a great article in Record Collector. He dug it out, scanned it and sent on. We now share that here. If you enjoyed our piece, you should really enjoy this piece. Thanks John…

Record Collector
Record Collector

Record Collector
Record Collector
Record Collector

JOHNNY MARR AND THE LONG SHADOWS

Into Paradise

courtesy of Fanning Sessions

 

Johnny Marr’s kept his Into Paradise hang-ups very quiet, hasn’t he ?

The Dublin band, who endured for the guts of a decade from the mid-1980s, were one of the first acts signed to Keith Cullen’s then-fledgling Setanta Records imprint and paved a path on many levels for a far better known slew who came after them. They were never the coolest or the most radical band on that label but were certainly one of its most complicated and, consequently, its most interesting. And they certainly generated no little blind devotion :- it’s just that there was never quite enough of it to help them pay their way.

 

 

David Long, the band’s formidable singer and leader, is easily among my favourite ever Irish songwriters and performers. For those who still haven’t converted, and history tells us that there may be a few, I respectfully suggest the band’s debut E.P. ‘Blue Light’ [1989], it’s 1992 single, ‘[Why Don’t You] Move Over’ and ‘Sleep’ [1991], Into Paradise’s own ‘How Soon Is Now’. That epic, seven-minute riff-song first featured as a b-side and was once played in its entirety on Irish national afternoon radio by Larry Gogan, a long-time champion of the band, as he was indeed of all new Irish music. And I recommend it as as good a starting point as any.

 

All three cuts – and I could have easily mentioned twenty-five – are fine representative aspects of the band’s more dominant personalities ;- serrated guitar pop, Crombie-cut indie and sulphurous rock music.

 

I’m happy to report that, although we’ve basically completed a full-on life swap in the twenty-five years since we last shared a bar tab, I’m still in touch with Long, even if its  irregular enough stuff.  He e-mails on links to his most recent work and general updates from his garret in An Ríocht and sounds, on the surface at least, like he’s keeping busy and well.

 

That once-furious, dense Into Paradise sound has been lazily characterised, diluted and transubstantiated over the years but I can still picture Long – with respect to Seamus Heaney and his gorgeous poem, ‘North’ – ‘hammering away at the curve of a bay with the powers of the Atlantic thundering behind him’. A vintage craftsman, whiling the small hours in an improvised studio, knocking out the riffs, whipping it up on the biscuit tins, sorcering out the tunes.

 

I’ve been thinking of him a lot over the last few weeks – him and the secular powers of the Atlantic – as I’ve lazily warmed to the new Johnny Marr album, ‘Call The Comet’. Which, like a lot of David’s own solo material – and at this stage there’s been quite a bit, even if you have to search hard for it – is another personable, breezy affair cut in the restless likeness of its creator.

 

 

Marr’s story is a remarkable one by any standards and although those who came of age during the 1980s with a love of music have long been familiar with the bones, I’d contend that its body lacked real meat until his first fully-blown solo album, ‘The Messenger’, in 2013, after which he finally cut loose. His fine memoir, ‘Set The Boy Free’, released three years later and in which he captured the topline aspects of a long, prolific and varied career, joined many of the dots. While beyond on the main stage, the stick-thin bridesmaid, long-time sidekick and flexible hand-for-hire, finally made it up the aisle and found a genuine voice and an escape route out of the shadow.

 

‘Call The Comet’ will almost certainly be troubling the All-Star selectors at the end of the season as they try and get the year’s best and most stylish fifteen releases into their best positions. Its certainly the most cohesive of Marr’s three solo albums to date, for sure. And even after almost forty years at the crease, there’s something perennially re-assuring about his work. Indeed it’s instructive to see it listed chronologically if only to remind oneself of its scale, spread and the diversity of it, and the easy command of the fundamentals that have long under-pinned it.

 

But he’s never been one to pause it on the past, either. Like the great Cork hurler, Christy Ring, he’s long known that better is always around the corner.

 

Into Paradise were never as overtly influenced by The Smiths as they were by two other Manchester bands, Joy Division and Magazine, the group founded by Howard Devoto after he left Buzzcocks in 1977. Like many other sussed young bands during that period, they certainly saw how The Smiths took a more lateral approach, not just in respect of their sound and demeanour but in how they related to the music industry itself. Even if  much of it was uncompromising to the point of being ultimately self-defeating.

 

And Into Paradise would have certainly seen merit and possibilities in there somewhere :- every half awake, semi-decent emerging group at the time did.

 

The band’s most dominant primary influence, though, was a relatively outlying band from South London called The Sound, founded and led by the late Adrian Borland, who subsequently produced the first two Into Paradise albums, ‘Under The Water’ and ‘Churchtown’. The Sound, whose positive critical notices never translated into either a broader breakthrough or good coin, were themselves a powerful cross-breed ;- a pent-up, new wave combo who took many of their lyrical cues from the cold simplicity of Joy Division and who sound, for the sake of reference, like a compound of the best of Echo and the Bunnymen, early Cure and even earlier U2.

 

 

The Sound were falling apart at the same time as The Smiths. Johnny Marr ended 1988 playing live with Bryan Ferry and was quickly co-opted into the ranks of The The while  Adrian Borland was recovering from a serious mental breakdown as his band – critically-acclaimed and a commercial disaster – had reached the end of its days. A world away in Dublin 14, meanwhile, Into Paradise were finally making hay, natural heirs on the move.

 

Several of their peers – Something Happens, The Stars Of Heaven, A House and especially their South Dublin neighbours, Blue In Heaven, with whom they’ve had a long-standing association – had already driven on, inked deals and were dropping quality wax. But Into Paradise were late bloomers in this respect – a recurring theme across the group’s career – and were never so much behind the curve as utterly unsuited to it, almost disdainful of it.

 

Its not that they were in any way less personable than any of their associates within the milieu at The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street ;- if anything, they were terrific fun and always great company. Its just they just lacked a simple signature dish. But quick wins and affable pop songs never came easily to them, and there was no ‘Snowball Down’, ‘Burn Clear’, ‘Widow’s Walk’ or ‘Across My Heart’ to remember them by. While others tied themselves to verse-chorus-verse-bridge-verse-fade, Into Paradise preferred to deal in texture, sound, nuance and fracture instead.

 

They sounded like they just wanted to implode live on stage, where they were genetically incapable of being as playful, flippant or fey as they were off of it. And they were also exceptionally straight – you could say they were dour, albeit smelling of cordite – and, both live and on record, just couldn’t do the light stuff. Which is to their credit, but …

 

Into Paradise aspired, instead, to the layered, grimly fiendish industrial sound pioneered by another late producer, Manchester-born Martin Hannett, at Cargo Studios on Kenion Street in Rochdale during the late 1970s. A sound that’s arguably best captured on early releases by the self-same Joy Division and Magazine, and perhaps also on key releases by Gang Of Four and Psychedelic Furs.

 

[As an aside, I don’t believe its entirely co-incidental that Into Paradise were so well got with another of their peers, An Emotional Fish. A meaty four-piece who, beyond their obvious pop songs, also traded in the same sort of depth. And much of whose later and more interesting material, especially that produced and engineered by Alan Moulder, is as curious and expansive, if not always as successfully executed, as anything that emerged from Ireland during the 1990s. And I include My Bloody Valentine here].

 

The Smiths were together for only five years, during which Johnny Marr was at his most prolific. He regularly reminds folk that he was 24 when the band split and that he’s now spent six times as long working for himself as he did as Morrissey’s writing partner. But even as a callow youth, he boasted a fine, broad frame of reference, from where he borrowed and lifted as he pleased.

 

Morrissey and Marr might well have invented indie – Marr also does a fine line in self-deprecation – but in as much as Morrissey routinely dipped into his own catalogue of favourite books, plays and films for couplets, one-liners and pay-offs, Marr too would infrequently pull a familiar riff or an old refrain from beneath his fisherman’s hat.

 

 

And he’s even borrowing from himself at this stage. One of the softer cuts from ‘Call The Comet’, ‘Hi Hello’, lifts its gut from two old Smiths numbers, ‘Half A Person’ and, particularly, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, which itself pulls from Patti Smith’s ‘Walking Barefoot’. While over the course of its dozen other cuts, ‘Call The Comet’ is an anorak’s all-you-can-eat buffet.

 

A record that lyrically imagines a future where human values [must] trump commercial and economic ones, Marr moves wilfully from one past further into another, at several junctures all the way back to Rochdale. And at its most interesting, ‘Call The Comet’ summons the emerging, desolate sound of Manchester just before The Smiths. The titles alone – ‘My Eternal’, ‘New Dominions’, ‘Actor Attractor’ – nod to those two ground-breaking Joy Division albums, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and ‘Closer’ that, perhaps above everything else, succeeded in capturing the mood and humours of the forlorn suburbs in which they were conceived.

 

Elsewhere, the raw popular mandate is served by the radio-friendly, souped-up opener, ‘Rise’, the fibrous ‘Hey Angel’ and the closer, ‘Different Gun’. While in the middle order, ‘Spiral Cities’ borrows a guitar strain from ‘A Love Like Blood’ by Killing Joke. No bad thing, either.

 

But I can’t listen to it without thinking of Into Paradise. ‘Call The Comet’ is awash with familiar David Long and Adrian Borland tropes :- the melodies are multi-layered and, lyrically, the world is presented as a daunting prospect, the future riven with fear. To trainspotters and long-time Into Paradise oiks, the record is flecked with familiar bits, riffs and progressions.

 

‘The Tracers’ – the first single could, for instance, be any one of a number of  Into Paradise cuts, but particularly ‘Burns My Skin’, from the band’s only major label album, ‘Churchtown’, released in 1991. And when Marr takes those lethal guitar solos – some of which are even up there with the magnificent lead lick on ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’ – and then spoons on those production layers and the insulation – I’m reminded of that prime Into Paradise cargo. Much of which has long been ignored, still-born, derelict and forgotten.

 

I’m reminded of those greatest hits that never quite cut through :- ‘Here With You’, ‘Piece Of Paradise’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Bring Me Closer’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Red Light’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Sleep’, ‘Move Over’ and ‘Stand Still’. And you’d be thinking of Long, squirreled away down in An Riócht, laughing away to himself against the sound of the Atlantic thunder.

 

 

But ‘Call The Comet’ is also the sound of contemporary technology, time and money, luxuries rarely afforded Into Paradise, and Marr’s grasp of production is as finely-honed and precise now as it was since he first began to formally direct the sound of The Smiths thirty years ago.

 

Into Paradise were never blessed with Johnny Marr’s gift for casually knocking out the  wonder so effortlessly and so prodigiously. But thirty years on, its interesting to hear their many ghosts, deliberately or, more than likely not, on one of the spikiest and most robust records of the year.

 

‘Call The Comet’ is a terrific Johnny Marr album, easily his best full-blooded solo elpee. But much of it, to these ears, is also the biggest and brightest sounding album Into Paradise never quite made.

 

Adrian Borland endured an adult lifetime of mental illness and took his own life in April, 1999, when he threw himself in front of a train in London. He was 41 years old when he died. A number of years previously, he arrived unannounced into Dublin and, for a while, was taken in and minded by Into Paradise. He was drinking heavily, was in a bad way and it required a real effort to have him repatriated with his family in London.

 

This aspect of his life is covered in depth and at length – as of course is his career in music – in Marc Waltman’s 2016 feature-length documentary film, ‘Walking In The Opposite Direction’.

 

His band, The Sound, were a primary influence on many bands, not just Into Paradise.  And perhaps, consciously or not, even Johnny Marr.