paddy path


From the gawkily posed photographs that have survived the decades, its clear they stood steadfastly out of step with their peers and, you’d think, knew that much best themselves. But although Prefab Sprout’s shape and style has evolved out of all recognition in the years since 1977, it’s that same sense of mis-match – the uneasy young buck in an out-sized dinner jacket and cheap shades – which has consistently defined them through the many moons and their many moods since.

Beyond the obvious, much of the band’s story is still soaked in loose talk and urban myth. Music’s mainstream, with which they flirted briefly, gave up on them twenty odd years ago and, ever since, the gaps in Prefab Sprout’s narrative have been filled by obsessive, fan-fuelled levels of hearsay, suggestion and general tattle. But nothing really changes there, either :- the band’s frontman and writer, Paddy McAloon – the eldest son of an Irish Catholic immigrant family – was initially presented as a former seminarian.

What we do know for certain is that McAloon’s band first took root in the small village of Witton Gilbert in the North East of England, seventeen miles from Newcastle, during a peculiar period in British music history. The Clash had released their first album, The Sex Pistols had hi-jacked the Queen’s silver jubilee year – 1977 – and unofficially sound-tracked it while disco was approaching it’s commercial and creative pomp, flirting increasingly in the margins with electronica as it went. By the end of the following year, The Bee Gees were out-selling the field and Sid Vicious was arrested in New York for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

Worlds away in every respect, Paddy McAloon was twenty years old and lugging Prefab Sprout’s improbably ambitious songs – and the group’s cheap equipment – out into a variety of pub venues around County Durham for the first time. The band had been in gestation for years – in theory, in dreams – and although Paddy’s earliest hand-drawn outlines were far removed from the gormless aspects of punk rock or the sleazy veneer of cheap disco, he was certainly propelled forward by the more irresistible forces of both codes.



Punk rock unquestionably drove McAloon on – if you can, just do so he did – and the dizzying, dance-floor sass of Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, among numerous others, has long underlaid much of the band’s output. A point he acknowledges specifically on ‘I Love Music’, one of the many stand-outs on Prefab Sprout’s ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ elpee, belatedly released in 2009.

Like every one of my favourite groups – The Blue Nile, R.E.M., The Go-Betweens, Trashcan Sinatras, The Smiths, E.L.O., The Frank And Walters, Into Paradise – Prefab Sprout struck me, initially at least, as much for the cut of their jib – their sound was distinctly at odds with their look, which was innocuous – as they did for the power of their writing.

Knowing little else, I thought that all of my formative pet sounds were peerless which, I suppose, is exactly as it should be during those first unsuspecting meets with the heady power of song. But while I know now that Teenage Fanclub borrowed influences freely – from Big Star, most obviously – and that Into Paradise magpied likewise from The Sound, its just impossible for me to clearly trace Paddy McAloon’s form lines. Prefab Sprout’s first single, ‘Lions In My Own Garden [Exit Someone]’ and debut album, ‘Swoon’, sound like what and sound like whom ? Aztec Camera ? Steely Dan ? XTC ? Mike Oldfield ? All of the above and nothing on earth ?

Which is all the more baffling given that no modern songwriter – to my mind, at least – has dropped so many references to music, writers and musicians so deeply inside his or her own material. Is there another contemporary writer for whom songs and the transcendence of sound have been celebrated so explicitly across such a vast body of work ? A career that now spans thirty-six years and nine studio albums.

From the very earliest Prefab Sprout songs – ‘Faron Young’ and ‘Radio Love’ were staples in their first live sets – to ‘Mysterious’ and ‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’ on 2013’s ‘Crimson Red’ album, McAloon has consistently used the pull of the of song and the craft of the writer as one of his primary lyrical motifs. ‘Hallelujah’, ‘The Devil Has All The Best Tunes’, ‘Donna Summer’, ‘I Love Music’, ‘The Wedding March’, ‘Nero The Zero’, ‘Electric Guitars’, ‘Nightingales’ and the imperious ‘Doo Wop In Harlem’ ;- the references are as manifold as they are varied and widely spread.



Indeed that same 2009 album, ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, a mighty and relatively unheralded record among the band’s catalogue, is ostensibly a concept album paying respect to those whose influences have long-driven the writer’s ambition, from classical and avant-garde to gospel, soul music and disco, Clair De Lune to Mozart to Pierre Boulez. McAloon sets his stall out early across a sweeping selection of cuts – ‘Let There be Music’, ‘I Love Music’, ‘Music Is A Princess’, ‘Sweet Gospel Music’ – and, awed and under some sort of spell [another of the writer’s favourite themes], the pervading fear that ‘music is a princess’ while he’ll always be ‘just a boy in rags’ is forced home over the record’s closing furlongs.

When the singer finally meets ‘the new Mozart’, he finds the composer ‘in the bed where commerce sleeps with art’. And ‘who can blame him ?’, he asks ?. ‘So much for the divine spark. It flagged and left me in the dark. Next time I won’t be so pure. Dreaming big, dying poor’. Knowing what we know now, and given McAloon’s unsettling and unsteady relationship with the industry that so engulfs music, ‘Meet The New Mozart’ may well be among his most revealing autobiographical songs.



Forty years after the band committed it’s first original songs to tape in the cramped confines of a custom-designed studio attached to the music department at a local college, Prefab Sprout remain very much an acquired taste, although no less intriguing or enigmatic for that. Indeed the most recent McAloon composition to see the light of day is an evocative protest ballad called ‘America’, possibly recorded on a smart phone or a small camcorder, and posted up onto YouTube ten months ago by Prefab Sprout’s long-time manager, Keith Armstrong.

Performed by Paddy on acoustic guitar in what, for the last decade, have been his trademark duds – trilby hat and shades, off-set with long grey hair and a full beard – ‘America’ is absolutely bulls-eye Prefab Sprout. Over a series of gentle progressions, McAloon works his fingers into almost impossible positions along the fret-board, effortlessly filling the spaces with unlikely moves, his voice as familiar as ever as he begs of America ;– ‘don’t reject the stranger knocking at your door’. To long-time band watchers, the song’s unheralded appearance on-line was a tender reassurance that yes, work was still ongoing at Andromeda Heights, McAloon’s home studio where, legend has it, decades of unreleased songs and albums remain under lock and key.

In Robert Forster’s recent memoir, ‘Grant And I’ – the Australian writer and musician who fronted The Go-Betweens, on and off, with Grant McLennan from 1978 until 2006 – takes issue with one review of his band that categorised them in the same vein as Prefab Sprout. ‘Grant And I’ is a terrific and breezy read – part buddy novel, part manifesto, part band biography – with a lovely, bitchy undertone. [Long-standing Go-Betweens’ fans have suggested the book should have been titled simply ‘I’ instead].

Perhaps Prefab Sprout were just too tailored, complicated and subtle for him, but The Go-Betweens have far more in common with them than Robert might like to think. Apart entirely from being among the most consistently successful unsuccessful outfits in contemporary pop music, both groups, through a series of different iterations, still managed to sound forever out of kilter with the times. A point I put to Paddy McAloon back in 1997, when I met him for the first and only time.

He was on the publicity circuit plugging Prefab Sprout’s hugely under-rated album [and there’s a theme emerging, isn’t there ?], ‘Andromeda Heights’ and I was a music columnist at The Sunday Tribune newspaper in Dublin. The band’s Irish record company, Sony Music, had flown him into town for the day and had packed his diary with a succession of one-to-one engagements with the local press and whatever television and radio interest they could muster. Which, almost ten years after ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’ and seven years after the band’s previous elpee, ‘Jordan : The Comeback’, didn’t amount to a whole lot.

I fetched up dutifully, mid-afternoon, at the old Berkeley Court Hotel in the shadow of the old Lansdowne Road stadium – don’t look for either, they’re not there anymore – and, as is the case with these encounters, was immediately on the clock. I had thirty minutes with one of my favourite ever songwriters and was implored not to over-run.

Paddy was exactly as I imagined he’d be. In a crisp white shirt, black jacket and practical leather shoes, he politely trotted out a couple of well-rehearsed lines about ‘Andromeda Heights’ and, as polite and erudite as you’d expect, directed me gently through the exchange. During which, overcome with stage fright, I fluffed my lines badly and broke one of the most basic rules of journalism.

The eventual piece shone nothing new on him or his music – I just don’t think that’s possible anyway in most instances from any of those cosy set-pieces – and was sloppily written as an open love letter, one of the flattest pieces I’ve ever filed. I adored ‘Andromeda Heights’ then like I still do now and made that point forcibly on the page. But beyond that, nothing. For the bulk of our forty minutes together I was just a hapless fan with a biro, a list of obvious questions and a tape machine. And all I really wanted to do was get home, play my Prefab Sprout albums and get the dinner on.

Prefab Sprout

Courtesy Anthony Casey

But buried inside that sit-down – and not entirely lost on me at the time – was an interesting couple of minutes where we discussed the growing number of bands and artists who’d started to cover Paddy’s songs. Three years previously, Kylie Minogue had taken on ‘If You Don’t Love Me’, a non-album single originally released to support a Sony-released Prefab Sprout ‘best of’ in 1992. In 1995, Cher released an album called ‘It’s A Man’s World’ where she performed a dozen songs by male songwriters ;- as well as covering Paul Brady’s ‘Paradise Is Here’, she also performed a new McAloon original, ‘The Gunman’, which he wrote especially for that record.

But it was Jimmy Nail, the Newcastle-born actor, writer and musician who eventually took McAloon’s songs back into the heart of the mainstream and, in so doing, gave him some of his biggest commercial successes. Nail wrote – and took the lead role in – a BBC drama series called ‘Crocodile Shoes’, in which he played a factory worker, Jed Sheppard, who quits his job to become a country and western singer. Over the course of the two series of what was a soft-focus, family-skewed drama, Nail performed five McAloon originals written for the strand :- ‘Blue Roses’, ‘Cowboy Dreams’, ‘Love Will Find Someone For You’, ‘Dragons’ and the magnificent ‘Troubled Man’. All of which featured on two soundtrack compilations that accompanied the drama and that were eventually re-recorded by Paddy and Martin McAloon on a distinctly mediocre collection of Prefab Sprout oddities, produced by Tony Visconti, and released as ‘The Gunman And Other Stories’ in 2001.

Weeks before our date, ITV had debuted another gentle drama series in the same vein called ‘Where The Heart Is’. Based on the fictional adventures of a group of district nurses, it featured a strong, well-known cast and, at its top and tail, a piano-led theme tune commissioned from Paddy McAloon. This cut featured initially as a b-side to the Prefab Sprout single, ‘Prisoner Of The Past’ and ‘Where The Heart Is’ quickly became a staple of the ITV weekend schedules, eventually running for almost ten years.

Back in The Berkeley Court Hotel, Paddy and myself had moved the conversation on and, once we’d done our duty and agreed the claims for ‘Andromeda Heights’, I asked him about the cover versions and the television work and, specifically, how he felt this reflected on his own group. ‘Well’, he told me, ‘at the end of the day I have bills to pay and I need to look after the band’.

Paddy and myself : our destinies had been inter-twined for fifteen years. As with most of the best and most important things in life, I’d first come across Prefab Sprout during the early 1980s on both Dave Fanning’s ‘Rock Show’ on RTÉ radio and on David Heffernan’s Saturday lunchtime music slot on the RTÉ One youth television strand, ‘Anything Goes’. [As an aside for anoraks, its worth noting that it was also on this slot that I was first introduced to Thomas Dolby’s magnificent ‘Airwaves’].



My love for Prefab Sprout was instant and unquestioning :- windswept, lispy and smart, they stood tall on Marsden Rock, a National Trust-owned coastal site on South Shields, where they performed ‘Don’t Sing’, miles removed from the sounds du jour.

And although the band’s earliest shows in Ireland – their 1983 stop-off at The Buttery in Trinity College and a support to Paul Brady in Belfast the following year – were out of bounds to me on the grounds of age and distance, I was there, in thrall, when they played The Point Theatre in Dublin on the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ tour in December, 1990. Supported on the night by one of my favourite local bands, Hinterland, Prefab Sprout were bulked up for the duration of that tour and, playing as a seven piece and with McAloon leading the line in a white suit,  covered a huge amount of ground over the course of a mammoth set.

And I was there ten years later in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on April 15th and 16th, 2000, when the band played two consecutive dates – and two meaty greatest-hits-based sets – to close out a short tour that sat between the release of a Sony/CBS compilation album, ’38 Carat Collection’ and the aforementioned 2001 carnet, ‘The Gunman And Other Stories’. Paddy had put on a fair bit of weight in the years since and that white suit had been temporarily consigned to the back of a wardrobe, replaced for the occasion by standard rock and roll, denim-and-leather duds.

Sporting a full beard and long hair, his appearance attracted the odd barb from the stalls. And with Wendy Smith marked absent, the band on that tour also featured long-time sidekicks Martin McAloon on bass guitar and drummer Neil Conti, augmented and, to my mind, well and truly dominated, by the remarkable keyboard player, Jess Bailey. Strange days indeed, and most peculiar.

But while Prefab Sprout faithfully played through the hits, misses and maybes – they even did a rousing, barely-rehearsed version of ‘Lions In My Own Garden [Exit Someone]’ – and took deserved ovations from the locals, I left Dame Street that night thinking that I’d just seen the bolting of a door. Paddy – as quick-witted as ever and in terrific voice throughout – would rather, I imagined, have just been somewhere, anywhere else. In the great traditions of many of his own primary influences and heroes, his songs and his music had simply outgrown the crude parameters of the live circuit, temporarily or otherwise. No way, I thought, were Prefab Sprout ever conceived as a touring entity who, deep in their live sets, performed television themes and music made flesh by Jimmy Nail.

To this end, the liner notes Paddy penned for ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, are especially significant, I think. The songs that comprise this record were originally written and recorded as an intended follow-up to 1990’s vast double album, ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ and, for reasons we can assume have more to do with record company direction or lack of it, went unreleased for fifteen years, during which time the writer moved on as clinically as he’s always done.

‘It goes without saying that I would have liked to have recorded ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ with Marty, Wendy, Neil and Thomas [Dolby]. I believe they wanted to, but we missed our moment and it wasn’t to be. Why ? I have no idea. Beats me. Anyway, one day in May, ’93, we made a bad move. But hey, water under the bridge’. McAloon eventually put the record together on his own, with technical help from Calum Malcolm.

Another of Paddy’s party pieces is his long-standing capacity to de-rail his own  interviews by talking freely and in-depth about the music and the merits of others. He  does this on the ‘Let’s Change’ sleeve-notes too, where he gushes at length about the mythical Beach Boys album, ‘Smile’. And he concludes those notes by observing that ‘the ‘Smile myth is only partly to do with music. It’s also about the dull, grey stuff that  musicians are often slow to address, yet ignore at their peril. And it may even have something to say about ego ; about blithely, and unrealistically assuming that everyone sees things the way you do. But ultimately, it is probably just a story about entropy ; the natural tendency for all things – however lovely – to eventually fly apart’.

Tellingly, the record is dedicated ‘for robust and unsentimental reasons’ to Martin McAloon, Wendy Smith, Neil Conti, Thomas Dolby and Michael Salmon [the band’s first drummer]. For the good times’.

During the press campaign around that record, McAloon told at least one writer that the album was eventually released in order to generate income and only saw the light of day after the continued promptings of his manager. And because he’s long been so uneasy about much of his own music anyway, the commercial death of his avant garde solo album, the largely ignored ‘I Trawl The Megahertz’ in 2003, the numerous contractual obligations he’s had to fulfil since ‘Jordan’ and the on-line leaking of the ‘Crimson Red’ album [2013] before it’s scheduled release won’t have appeased that sense. The bed where commerce sleeps with art isn’t always one decorated with roses.

Paddy McAloon is now sixty years old and leads, by all accounts, a quiet life with his wife and three daughters back in County Durham, making the odd public appearance and snapped, from time to time, by well-intentioned fans as he picks up his groceries in the local supermarkets. Piecing together the clues he’s left within his songs over the last thirty-five years, one might now well ask :-will we ever again hear fresh Prefab Sprout material ?

And, given the majesty of much of what has already gone before, and how plenty of what is already out there remains largely unexplored, some of it just neglected, would that really be such an issue ?



To accompany Tales of the Tape – I thought it might be interesting for Colm to make up a mix tape. This ‘mix-tape’ was created Sunday 26 November. As is the nature of these things if I had asked today, it may have been a completely different selection of tunes… Enjoy (Martin O’Connor)

1] The Smiths – ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’

2] Johnny Marr – ‘Upstarts’

3] The The – ‘The Beaten Generation’

4] The Go Gos – ‘We Got The Beat’

5] Jane Wiedlin – ‘Rush Hour’

6] Julianna Hatfield – ‘My Sister’

7] This Mortal Coil – ‘You And Your Sister’

8] The Cocteau Twins – ‘Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires’

9] The Fleet Foxes – ‘White Winter Hymnal’

10] Lord John White – ‘Jungle Burger’

11] Villagers – ‘Courage’

12] Gemma Hayes – ‘Keep Running’

13] Joe Chester – ‘Somewhere For The Animals’

14] The Animals – ‘Don’t Let Me Be Understood’

15] Elvis Costello – ‘Still’

16] Madness – ‘We Are London’

17] The Fatima Mansions – ‘North Atlantic Wind’

18] The High Llamas – ‘The Sun Beats Down’

19] Sharon Van Etten – ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’

20] Silver Sun – ‘Service’

21] This Is The Kit – ‘Silver John’

22] R.E.M. – ‘Nightswimming’

23] The Blue Nile – ‘Saturday Night’

24] New York Dolls – ‘Trash’

25] The Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock – ‘Sweeney’s Frenzy’

26] Fionn Regan – ‘Cormorant Bird’

27] We Cut Corners – ‘Sound’

28] Into Paradise – ‘Sleep’

29] Jimmy Webb – ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’

30] Prefab Sprout – ‘The Old Magician’

31] The Buzzcocks – ‘What Do I Get ?’




Our latest post is another guest post. This is the second piece we have posted from Mick O’Dwyer. Mick lives in Brussels and works as a librarian in the European Council. His first guest post for The Blackpool Sentinel was a great, widely read, piece on The Sultans of Ping This time round he writes about seminal New Zealand label Flying Nun Records. Over to Mick now … 


It all started with a keyboard riff. Simple and raw and under produced.

I moved to New Zealand in early 2011. My knowledge of their music scene was only Crowded House, Bic Runga and the unquestionable classic, “How Bizarre”.

Not an overly inspiring list.

I had been living in Australia at the time, in Melbourne. I loved Melbourne; Sydney Road and Brunswick, all the dingy punk venues, The Nova, Lord of the Fries and the Tote. It killed me to leave.  I landed in Christchurch just after the earthquake and got out of there as fast as I could, taking the ferry across the Tasmin Sea.  The sea was so rough people fainted on the trip over. Finally we arrived in Wellington. In windy Wellington. I disembarked the boat in the midst of a gale, battered with that sideways rain that’s impossible to walk in.


My ambivalence was fleeting.

Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, and nicknamed the “coolest little capital in the world”. Its a pretty apt description. Its undoubtedly cool, bursting with hipster coffee shops and independent cinemas showing movies like ‘The Room’ on a regular basis. But its also definitely ‘little’. Its sorta half way between Cork and Galway in size. Its prettier than both, but devoid of Buckfast. Like Galway, when something happens in Wellington everyone knows about it. Walking down Cuba Mall on a Saturday is much like walking through Shop Street ; it takes forever as you’re constantly bumping into people every few yards.

I moved there to buzz around for a bit. I didn’t feel like going back to Ireland and had heard Wellington was like the Melbourne of Aotearoa. I moved into a hostel where I looked for a job and an apartment and had the craic with the other guests. Shortly after moving there, I awoke to find the city covered in posters for a monthly post-punk night called Atomic.  All of my hostel ended up going to it, everyone in good spirits, everyone drunk. ‘Echo Beach’ was belted out one minute, ‘Damaged Goods’ the next. At some ungodly hour I was shaken out of my senses by a keyboard riff.  It sounded like it was played on a child’s Casio and the only lyric I could make out was ‘Tally Ho, Tally Ho’. The reaction it got took me aback ; the dancefloor swamped with cool Kiwis shouting along. Everyone who knew it seemed to love it. It was almost like a badge of honour being able to dance to it, a NZ ‘Where’s Me Jumper’. I had no idea who it was, I just knew it was perfect in every way.

Later, as I was leaving, I remembered the flyers for the night had included a listing of all the bands featured in it. So my eyes scoured the room before honing in on a well-trodden one that I rescued, putting it in my pocket. As I didn’t have a laptop or smart phone, the next day I went to an internet café and played all the acts named on the flyer that I didn’t know, going through them one by one. Eventually I hit the jackpot.

I landed on The Clean, and opened a door to Flying Nun.

Flying Nun is more than just a record label, it’s a Kiwi institution.

Launched on a shoestring by record store employee Roger Shepherd, its renowned as the label of the much fabled ‘Dunedin sound’ ; the term used to describe the acts emerging from Dunedin for most of the 80s. The scene took the ethos of punk, post-punk, jangle, folk, garage and DIY culture, and used those influences to forge original, independent music that has had continuing reverberations internationally for over 30 years. Be it Sub Pop, Creation or Rough Trade, the early Flying Nun collection holds its own against any of them.



What was it about Dunedin that spawned this ‘sound’ ? I spent a weekend there once, during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and it’s not a wholly remarkable place. Being a student town, it has plenty of bars and venues. It has a Cadburys factory and a beach. In my hostel I was told one of the main tourist attractions was the really, really steep hill.

Though in fairness, you should see this hill!

The town was founded by Scottish Presbyterian settlers, and I can see why they chose Dunedin.  It’s cold and green, like their homeland. The music coming out of Dunedin bore a similar vein to that which came out of Glasgow in the 80’s, a definite jangle twang is evident in both places [Glasgow even had its own iconic indie record label – Postcard].  The joke in Dunedin is that the reason there was so many bands there was because the weather was so cold that students formed bands just to keep warm. I’d say there is a degree of truth in that.



Its an isolated city, but geographic isolation did not mean cultural isolation. NME was sold there, record stores imported vinyl from the UK, US and Europe. Punk and post-punk had an impact. This geographical isolation manifested itself in a yearning, a recognition of what was happening in the rest of the world and a yearning to be part of something bigger. If anything I think it is more accurate to describe a shared Dunedin feeling than a common sound. Many of the songs have a magical jangle, but the range of music released is too broad to be lumped in together under the one heading.

After listening to ‘Tally Ho’ on repeat, I watched the video for The Clean’s ‘Anything Could Happen’.  I loved everything about it.  I’m not sure whether it was the perfect pop-sing-along chorus or the jangly melody or the fact that the video looks like something Bob Dylan made during his 1966 London press conferences, it’s amazing! After listening to it on repeat I was desperate to discover more!

YouTube is great and all, but if you want a real understanding, you go to the library, and Wellington has the one of the most marvellous public libraries I’ve stepped foot in. Wedged in the bosom of Wellington harbour, its warm with high ceilings and ample natural light. It has a zine collection, a really nice coffee shop and, most importantly for this story, an extensive CD collection with loads of Flying Nun.  I spent hours in there, immersing myself in Flying Nun Records, educating myself about Kiwi culture.

I first attacked the heavyweights of the label: The Clean, The Chills and The Bats.

No band embodies the ‘Dunedin Sound’ quite like The Clean. They are the cornerstone of Flying Nun and it’s most influential act. And they’re just so effortlessly cool.  From the release of their iconic debut EP, ‘Boodle Boodle Boodle’, right throughout their career, they have never conformed. Most of their early stuff was released as EPs rather than full length albums [as was the Flying Nun policy at the time]. Just as they were beginning to make waves, they split up, only to reform and release albums sporadically, whenever they feel like it. It was on the back of The Clean’s early commercial success that Flying Nun was able to provide a platform for countless independent Kiwi acts. Their influence is apparent in and referenced across the spectrum, from indie royalty like Sonic Youth and Pavement to Irish garage punks Sissy and the #1s [who even have a savage cover of Oddity].  I don’t know how there’s not statues of the band built all over the Land of the Long White Cloud.  There should at least be a statue placed at the top of the really, really steep hill.



Out of all the Flying Nun bands the Chills came closest to making it internationally. They almost did with their song ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’, which had a good stab at the US charts. Their song ‘Pink Frost’ is a masterpiece. It has a timeless quality to it. It could have been made 20 years ago – or 20 years from now – and it always sounds fresh.  They wrote perfect pop songs and it’s good to see that in Europe they seem to finally be getting the recognition they deserve, having toured here several times over the past few years, including a gig in The Button Factory.

I saw The Bats play the San Francisco Bathhouse during the Flying Nun 30th anniversary celebrations. Kinda looking like a bunch of cool teachers in your school who formed a band, they were wonderful. Although I love the Orange Juice-esque strum of their early stuff, like ‘Claudine’ or ‘Made Up in Blue’, 2011’s ‘Free All Monsters’ album is up there with anything they have made.

Arguably there is no one more important to the Flying Nun label than Chris Knox. A legendary figure on the Kiwi punk scene, it was after watching Chris’s punk band, The Enemy, that members of early Flying Nun bands decided to form their own groups, much in the same way The Sex Pistols’ Manchester gigs spawned a million bands. There’s something about him ; an underlying air of a troublemaker, a shroud of menace of a man who would be wild after a few beers. Knox had a bad experience recording in a studio in Australia early on in his career, which he never shook. When he returned to New Zealand, he purchased a 4 track. It was the best decision he ever made. It was on this 4 track that he would produce most of the early Flying Nun output, and become synonymous with DIY recording with his band, The Tall Dwarfs.

While Flying Nun’s output is not necessarily punk, it’s a punk label – DIY in its purest sense! Roger Shepherd formed the label because he recognised something was happening that needed to be recorded and no major labels would touch the acts. Most of the bands didn’t have contracts. It was run out of a tiny little office in Christchurch, with the work done by a handful of friends. The artwork had a fanzine, cut and paste feel to it. No one made much money at the time, though they released sheer gold.

This DIY element is even apparent in their videos. The early Flying Nun videos are great. You can clearly tell there wasn’t much money put into them. Despite looking endearingly amateurish, they’ve stood the test of time, and look far superior to most big budget videos being made today. I think my favourite is ‘Death and the Maiden’ by The Verlaines. The concept is just the band playing in a house, as their mates drink while a few rabbits hop around. It’s perfect.



Delving through the Flying Nun catalogue, you constantly seem to unearth hidden gems, like ‘Coat’ by The Pin Group. Though having the honour of being the premier release of the label when it was launched, The Pin Group are often written off as a Joy Division covers band. To me this is just too obvious a criticism. Do they sound like Joy Division – yes. But are their songs incredible in their own right? Fucking sure !

Sounding like a Garage punk warp spasm, The Stones are criminally overlooked. Their compilation album, ‘Three Blind Mice’, is magnificent, in particular the song ‘Down and around’. It’s easily one of the greatest pieces of music in the whole Flying Nun catalogue. Vocals are spat out with a sneering contempt for the listener. Vibrant, aggressive and exciting, The Gordons are the same. One listen to ‘Coalminer’s song’ shows they were making grunge music over 10 years before it became popular in Seattle.



Of all the Flying Nun acts, no one holds as much mystery to me as Dunedin’s tragic, unsung hero, Peter Gutteridge. Gutteridge’s story is heart-breaking. He was a founding member of The Clean and The Chills but left early on in both their careers. He battled through years of addictions and substance abuse before finally killing himself just after he played his first ever gigs in America. He was a raw talent that got lost, though he burned ever so brightly on numerous occasions. At just 17, he co-wrote The Clean’s motorik classic ‘Point that thing somewhere else’. His post-Clean band with the Kilgour brothers – The Great Unwashed – moved the dial even further for what was acceptable in New Zealand as experimental, commercial pop-music. But it’s his work with Snapper that really stands out.

Snapper were years ahead of their time. Though released in 1988, their debut EP was built on the blueprint laid by Krautrock to form the repetitive, heavy drone sound bands like Moon Duo and Folkazoid became renowned for, 25 years later. Listening to it is like being hit repeatedly by waves of noise, every song a classic. My favourite story I heard about him is how during gigs he would bark things like “SEND OUT THE SNAKES” to his band-mates. They would then have to try and work out what the hell type of a sound he was on about!

If Snapper had been around today they would be headlining psychfests around the globe.  Unfortunately they are not, though they did leave us with ‘Gentle Hour’. ‘Gentle Hour’ is a wonder. It’s got none of the heavy drone of their later albums or the sonic DIY ambiance of some of Gutteridge’s solo stuff. It’s crafted from beautiful, lo-fi distortion and hushed noise, like early Jesus and Mary Chain. Simple, powerful lyrics showcase his understated genius.  Lines like ‘you’re in my mind all the time’, ‘its such a pleasure to touch your heart, I can hardly breath’ or ‘I couldn’t have done anything else’, have never felt so desperate or so pure.



The first time I heard the song was as a cover version by Yo La Tengo on the charity album ‘Dark was the night’. On an otherwise utterly forgettable compilation, ‘Gentle Hour’ stuck out like a sore thumb. Gone was Snapper’s beautiful fuzz, replaced by an ethereal, haunting yearn.  It sounds almost otherworldly!

If I was on Desert Island Discs, The Clean’s cover of ‘Gentle Hour’ would be one of my picks. They completely reinvent the song again, upping the tempo, morphing it into a jangle guitar record that has attached itself to my very core. It never leaves me, just lays there dormant, waiting to be summoned when a certain mood moves me.

Since leaving New Zealand, I’ve preached the Flying Nuns gospel to anyone who will listen. It’s become easier to do so with Spotify, having ample full albums by most of the bands. In 2009, Rodger Shepherd was able to buy back the label and began re-mastering and re-releasing it’s eclectic back catalogue and unleashing a whole new wave of acts. Fazerdaze is particularly exciting ;- sounding a bit like a shoegaze Cat Power, her debut EP is sublime.

But when I think of Flying Nun Records, I am always reminded of the year I spent in Wellington. To me it’s as synonymous with New Zealand as Jonah Lomu or The Lord of the Rings. Whenever I listen to The Chills or The Stones it takes me back to the hours I spent in Wellington public library, digging through treasure. Or the time I convinced a big, Mauri bouncer to let me into a sold-out show by The Clean, just so I could buy a t-shirt for my brother, and then asking the bouncer for fashion advice on which t-shirt to buy [‘that one looks sweet-as, mate’].

But mostly I think of a keyboard riff.

Simple and raw and under produced.

Tally ho tally ho!


Mick will have a fanzine about Peter Gutteridge – “Turning to the Grave”, released in the near future.

[Want more of the music? Check out this Mick-compiled playlist on YouTube]




U2 - UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 copyright Pat Galvin

U2 – UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 © Pat Galvin


In December, 1992, the Cork-born showband singer, Tony Stevens, sustained multiple injuries when the van in which he was travelling back home after a show in the West of Ireland was involved in a serious road collision. He spent the best part of a year recovering in hospital, endured many subsequent years when he was physically unable to perform and saw his career locked in the sidings and his considerable national profile all but lost. Five years later, the full details of the accident and the extent of it’s impact emerged during a High Court case in Cork, in which he settled an action for damages.


Stevens, whose real name is Tony Murphy, was a welder from Cork who, during the mid-1970s, went full-time onto Ireland’s lucrative cabaret circuit and quickly developed a decent domestic standing. Clean-cut and affable, he pitched himself as a young, middle-of-the-road crooner among an established cohort of old-school performers. Backed by his band, Western Union, he gigged early and often, playing inoffensive covers and making regular appearances on RTÉ’s light entertainment shows, plugging his numerous releases, of which a cover of ‘To All The Girls I Loved Before’ is easily his best known. And as such, he’s an unlikely starting point for a story about U2 and that group’s long association with Cork city and it’s people.


During the summer of 1977, the main canteen on the U.C.D. campus at Belfield hosted what was billed as ‘Ireland’s first punk rock festival’. The line-up featured some of the country’s most exciting and freshest punk-pop and new-wave outfits, headed-up by The Radiators From Space, who’d released their debut single, ‘Television Screen’, months Earlier. Among those on the undercard were the emerging Derry outfit, The Undertones and The Vipers, a local mod-fused power-pop band who, among their number, was Brian Foley, who later fetched up alongside Paul Cleary as a member of The Blades.


The UCD event was marred by – and is, sadly, best remembered for – the death of an eighteen year old man, Patrick Coultry, from Cabra, who was stabbed after a row broke out in the crowd during the concert. Over thirty years later, John Fisher, who promoted the show and who went on to manage the career of the comedian, Dermot Morgan, recalled in a piece for the excellent Hidden History of UCD blog how, at the time, ‘gigs in Ireland were pretty simple affairs. They were run by enthusiastic amateurs, with very little security. After Belfield it became more regulated, more professional and safe’.


Elvera Butler, from Thurles, County Tipperary was, by her own admission, one of those enthusiastic amateurs who, from humble beginnings, and possibly more by default than design, went on to become, like John Fisher and a slew of others from that period, key players in the domestic entertainment industry.


She had become the recently-installed Entertainment Officer on the Student’s Union at University College, Cork during that period when, in Britain, The Sex Pistols released ‘God Save The Queen’ and The Clash unleashed their vital, self-titled debut album. And, by so doing, fundamentally democratised many of the long-established tenets that tended to under-pin the entertainment industry. Punk rock was, in many respects, just doing it for itself and urging everyone else to do likewise.


As part of her brief, Butler staged regular live music shows – mostly low-key, often solo acoustic affairs – on the U.C.C. campus, primarily in The College Bar. But from time to time, she’d book bigger and more established acts like Sleepy Hollow and Stagalee to perform in The Kampus Kitchen, a large, low-ceilinged restaurant buried deep in what was then the college’s Science block. When, towards the end of 1977, an opportunity to move those shows into a bigger venue off-site presented itself, the College travelled the three mile distance downtown, to what was then known as The New Arcadia Ballroom on The Lower Road, opposite Kent Station.


The first ever live show advertised in the local press as a Downtown Kampus event, took place in it’s new home on Thursday, November 24th, 1977, when The Memories played live at that year’s ‘Cowpuncher’s Ball’ ;- admission was one pound. The following night, down in the belly of the building, Tweed, a Kilkenny-based, pub-rock seven-piece headlined the night that formally christened The Downtown Kampus. ‘UCC Kampus Kitchen moves downtown to New Arcadia MacCurtain St’ [sic], ran the text that accompanied the small box advert in The Evening Echo.


And on Saturday, November 26th, the Cobh-born Freddie White [and his band, Fake], and Dublin hard rocker, Jimi Slevin, played a two-handed headliner that book-ended the venue’s opening weekend ;- The Arc was up and running.


The Downtown Kampus rightly enjoys a mythical standing in the history of contemporary music in Cork, as much for the quality and spirit of the music it hosted as for what it represented in wider socio-cultural terms. Over the course of it’s three-and-a-half year life-span, it hosted a series of often chaotic, widely diverse and fondly recalled live shows at a time when, in the after-glow of punk rock, Cork was a city light on glamour. And during the late 1970s, Ireland’s second city, over-dependent on a cluster of long-standing, traditional industries, could indeed be a grim and dank place. Albeit one with serious notions and a long-standing creative under-belly.


During the summer of 1977, Fianna Fáil had been returned to power following a landslide victory in that year’s general election and the party’s leader, Jack Lynch, in whose constituency in Cork North Central The Arcadia Ballroom was located, was elected Taoiseach with a huge majority. In early September, Martin O’Doherty of Glen Rovers, the fabled northside club of Christy Ring, Josie Hartnett, John Lyons and Jack Lynch himself, captained the Cork senior hurling team to their second All-Ireland hurling title in a row :- they’d memorably complete a famous three-in-a-row the following year.


But it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that those live shows at The Arcadia gave a young and clued-in sub-section of Cork society a real glimpse of something more arresting and moderately glamorous ;- a cracked window beyond which was another time and another place, far from the the more traditional influences of establishment politics and Gaelic Games.


And this is reflected in the full list of acts that performed there – local, national and international – that’s as varied as it is long and that runs the line fully from the likes of John Otway to The Beat, The Specials to Nun Attax, XTC to Sleepy Hollow and that also includes The Only Ones, The Blades, UB40, The Undertones, The Cure, The Damned, Doctor Feelgood, The Virgin Prunes and hundreds of others. Practically all of them enticed to perform at The Arcadia by Elvera Butler who promoted most of those shows and, betimes, by Denis Desmond, then a fledgling agent working in the U.K., now one of the biggest and most powerful players on the international music circuit.


Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980

Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980 © David Corio


The U.C.C. Downtown Kampus at The Arcadia Ballroom is still best known, however, because of the many live shows played there between 1978 and 1980 by U2, the young Dublin band who, during this period, were in search of a beginning. Like every teenage band with ambition, they were still trying to locate a distinguishing voice in a crowded field while also building up flying-hours, putting money in the bank. In Paul McGuinness, they had a connected manager who was sussed in the dark arts of public relations and marketing and, unusually enough, they appeared to have a strategy. Part of which was to play as many shows as they could as often as they could and wherever they could while, in parallel, developing their song-writing.


Contrary to popular belief, U2’s first Cork show wasn’t in The Arcadia at all but, rather, in The Stardust, now The Grand Parade Hotel, on July 7th, 1978. On that night, they were supported by a young local outfit, Asylum, featuring Sam O’Sullivan on drums :- he has long been part of U2’s core road crew working, to this day, as the band’s drum technician.


The band’s first appearance in The Arc took place later that same year when, on September 30th, they supported the Swindon new wave band, XTC, and were paid £80 for their troubles. Its not entirely clear how many shows U2 played at The Arcadia – its either nine or ten – but what is certain is that, by the time they took the stage there for the last time – in December, 1980, when they were supported by a young local band, Microdisney – they’d built up a decent and loyal following around Cork and, as has long been documented, had also assembled the bulk of a road crew plucked from the scene there, many of whom would serve them for decades thereafter. Primary among them Joe O’Herlihy, who did their front-of-house sound in The Arc and who remains an integral component of U2’s operation, listed these days as the band’s ‘audio director’.



On Saturday, March 1st, 1980, U2’s set at The Arcadia was witnessed by the young British music writer, Paul Morley, who was assigned to write the band’s first major feature piece for the influential London-based music weekly, New Musical Express. And on the morning after that show, he sat down with Bono in ‘the cheaply luxurious lounge of The Country Club hotel’ to gauge the extent of the band’s ambition a matter of weeks before U2 signed a major recording deal with Island Records. According to the piece, which appeared in print on March 22nd, 1980, the band was then ‘at the rare-in-Eire point where they’re recognised in the streets, hounded for autographs at Gaelic Football matches’.


U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980

U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980 © David Corio

Thirty-seven years on, that two-pager – off-set by a series of terrific snaps by David Corio, then a young free-lancer who has since gone on to photograph some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry – makes for terrific, if sometimes bizarre reading. In part a considered policy paper from Bono – who, in outlining U2’s plans to take their shtick beyond Ireland, takes aim at a number of his peers – and in part an over-excited, fanzine-style sermon by Morley about the vagaries of the music business and the state of the Irish nation, it concludes over its closing furlongs with the following quote from
the singer :


We’ve been given Lego, and we’re learning to put things together in new ways. This is a stage that we’ve got to that I’m not ashamed of, but I believe we will get much stronger’.


Later that afternoon, a fleet of cars carrying the band, it’s small crew and Paul Morley, left Cork to play yet another live show, this time at The Garden Of Eden, a dance-hall in Tullamore, County Offaly, then a four-hour drive away, where U2 were scheduled to play a ninety-minute set. Supporting the night’s head-liner, Tony Stevens and his band.


Tullamore is referred to throughout Paul Morley’s NME piece as Tullermeny [Bono’s real-name is also mistakenly noted as ‘Paul Houston’], possibly because the writer is especially scathing of the town and it’s youth ;– ‘they rarely smile and there is a far away look in their eyes’, he writes. But he reserves his most savage lines for the showband culture and for Tony Stevens in particular, whom he frames, not unreasonably, as a cultural counter-point to post-punk and the very antithesis of what U2, at the time, were attempting to do. ‘Showbands are slick, soulless, plastic’, he writes. ‘The showbands are failed rock musicians, their faces shine with aftershave … their technique is improbably over-competent’. Even if, whenever the definitive, unfiltered history of Ireland’s showbands is eventually captured, the darker realities of that scene will be far removed from such casual stereotyping.


By Bono’s own reckoning, U2 died miserably on-stage at The Garden Of Eden. Taking the carpeted floor shortly after 11PM, they were greeted, at best, by a minimal audience response. ‘Sat along the front of the stage’, Morley wrote in his NME piece, ‘bored looking girls can’t even be bothered to turn around and see what all the commotion is about’. The venue manager was just as bemused :- ‘Very good’, he quipped. ‘Much different from Horslips’.


I felt ashamed because we didn’t work’, Bono told Morley. ‘I actually saw it as a great challenge. It became like slow motion. We blew the challenge, and that’s bad’. But Tony Stevens and his band fared far better in Tullamore and, shortly after they opened their two-hour set, comprised in the main of contemporary chart hits, the dance floor began to fill.


The story of Tony Stevens’s fleeting dalliance with U2 one Sunday night in 1980, deep inside Ireland’s midlands, was one of a number that didn’t make the final cut of ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, Tony McCarthy’s film about that period that airs on RTÉ One television on July 20th next. Because in many respects, the commercial half-hour just isn’t enough to do justice to a story that, although rooted in music and the culture of youth, also extends way beyond that.


The last ever Downtown Kampus show at The Arcadia took place on May  30th, 1981 when four Cork bands ;- a nascent Belson, a noisy, multi-part Microdisney, Sabre – who included a young John Spillane among their number – and Prague Over Here, featuring the future RTÉ radio reporter Fergal Keane on bass – brought the curtain down on what, in hindsight, is a wholly distinctive local history.


Months earlier, forty-eight people lost their lives when a fire broke out during the early hours of Valentine’s Day at a disco at The Stardust nightclub in Artane, on Dublin’s northside. That disaster, and the scale of the loss of life and the age profile of those who died, had a profound impact – politically, socially and legally – on many of the day-to-day dealings of the state. Particularly so on those, like Elvera Butler, who were promoting big, live social events to the same age cohort in similarly-sized venues across the country. In an interview with the Irish Mail on Sunday in March, 2012, Butler told Danny McElhinney that ‘after the Stardust disaster, insurance premiums for gigs rocketed and we knew we couldn’t go on for long. Then the hunger strikes happened not long after that and a lot of bands were avoiding Ireland altogether’.


Not long afterwards, she decamped to London with her partner, Andy Foster, from where she initially ran a small independent imprint, Reekus Records, that issued quality wax by a series of superb Irish bands, The Blades and the epic Big Self among them. The label continues to release new material, albeit on a more ad hoc basis and, now living back in Ireland, Elvera retains a direct involvement in the development of young, emerging Irish talent.


After many years off of the track, Tony Stevens made his way back very slowly onto the cabaret circuit and eventually resumed a career of sorts, albeit to nowhere like the same extent he once enjoyed. He still performs live, at home and abroad, with his current band, The Rusty Roosters.


And U2 ? Within ten years of their last show in The Acradia, U2 were among the biggest and most influential rock bands on the planet and, for many years thereafter, the most compelling and distinctive live draw anywhere. And yet there are those around Cork who remember those magical nights on The Lower Road when many a noisy local rival or an international peer blitzed them off-stage, handed them their arses and sent them packing back out on the road to Dublin.


And they may well be right and they may well be wrong.


Ghostown: The Dublin Music Scene 1976 – 1980


FÓGRA :- ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, directed by Tony McCarthy, airs on RTÉ One television on Thursday, July 20th, at 7PM.


FÓGRA EILE :- Cork librarian, Gerry Desmond, has compiled a definitive list of all of the Downtown Kampus shows and this typically thorough undertaking was of huge benefit to us in compiling this piece. And is, of course, a fine public service. Go raibh maith agat.




Image courtesy of Ciarán Ó Tuama


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.