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EMPEROR OF ICECREAM: HAIL TO THE CHIEF

One of the few positive aspects to the last six months has been the melding of the creative arts and music with science, technology and opportunity. I’m not equipped to capture this in a mathematical formula but, were it not for the spaces and gaps opened by the lockdown, and the ready availability of personal devices, might the forthcoming Power of Dreams album, for instance, completed remotely at several locations across Europe, have ever been made? Might numerous performers of all hues, out of either necessity or a desperation to be heard, not have taken to their kitchens, basements and, in one especially memorable instance, the prison at Kilmainham, to deliver the forceful live performances that have provided soul food, re-assurance and succour in equal part since last March? 

Might Denise Chaila, by a distance the country’s breakout performer of the year, not have so spectacularly bulleted herself to national sainthood so quickly? Might broadcasters not have turned so repeatedly to music programmes to plug the many holes that opened up across the radio and television schedules as the nation closed down?

This sort of stop-gapping and improvisation is far from ideal. It’s a familiar refrain for those of us invested in such matters but has there ever been a more critical period for the creative arts in this country? Yes, a central ‘stimulus package’ announced by the government last week as an emergency measure to aid the sector looks like a positive first step but, ultimately, it’s just that: a first step.

Irrespective of what supports are put into place to scaffold the creative space over the shorter or longer term, it consistently faces one fundamental difficulty: bean counters’ logic. Outside entirely of the obvious commercial and economic benefit that derives from live and recorded music, it’s impossible to measure the emotional and social value of art, and especially song. How does one, for example, put a figure on healing or comfort? On what line on a ledger might we find the cost of, God forbid, sheer joy?    

Cork band, Emperor of Icecream, fit into this matrix somewhere. The medium-paced, four-piece indie outfit was together for barely five years during the early 1990s and, like many of their peers, were failed ultimately by factors outside their control. Mugged by bad timing, industry politics and the vagaries of popular culture, they found themselves caught between trapezes and ran out of rope. But in some of their more introspective moments over the last two decades, they’ve obviously done what all bands and musicians do: dipped into their own body of work, re-evaluated it and, with the benefit of time and space, seen different values in it. Something that’s reflected, perhaps, in the title of the band’s debut album, ‘No Sound Ever Dies’, released last month and compiled from recordings first put to bed back when we still used reel-to-reel machines in recording studios.

The ten-cut elpee has had a remarkable gestation and, I’m glad to report, a safe and healthy landing. Like an over-complex practice drill from a cone-addicted football coach, The Emperors have had to scramble all the way back to close a circle in order to move forward. 

What passes for an Irish music industry had a far different pallor back in 1995. Emperor of Icecream were signed by a full-time scout, working for the local arm of a major international label and, for a while were watered and fed while they diligently went to work on a well-worm pathway. The band issued three fine EPs for a Sony-backed indie, Blow Records, located briefly to Perivale in London and worked initially with Adam Kviman, who’d produced the terrific debut album, ‘Lacquer’, by a mighty but largely under-regarded Stockholm band, Popsicle. They later recorded several cuts at Motorhead’s studio, over-seen by the late guitarist, Fast Eddie Clarke, three of which appear on ‘No Sound ..’ and lived to tell the tale. On a clear day, you could see where The Emperors, with their dreamy pop songs and serrated guitar toppings were possibly headed. 

They emerged in the slipstream of both The Frank and Walters and The Sultans of Ping FC, and on the not unreasonable expectation that there was more gold to be panned on The Lee Valley after the twin explosions of ‘After All’ and ‘Where’s Me Jumper ?’. Their story made a fine plot point on a developing narrative even if, in reality, The Emperors had nothing at all in common with either of their predecessors except, perhaps, a postal code. Pulling them into what was a Cork scene that briefly boxed above its weight abroad was as lazy as it was inevitable. 

Both The Franks and The Sultans – as we’ve long concluded here – combined classic rock and pop tropes with what were often crudely-drawn colloquialisms and local references. If The Franks, initially at least, were The Wedding Present performing ‘The Best of The Dixies’, The Sultans were The Cramps in Danny La Rue’s roll-on: thinking global, acting local. 

The Emperors, by comparison, could have come from anywhere, and in the band’s body of work there is no concession at all to their hometown or how, if at all, their various backgrounds had any influence whatsoever on them. They were, instead, an unashamed guitar pop band who proudly took their cues from wherever they found them which, for the most part, was at a popular curio of the period called ‘the indie disco’. 

If their lead singer, John ‘Haggis’ Hegarty, with his hands clasped behind his back, stalking, was The Emperors’ most marketable asset, it was the band’s guitarist, Graham Finn, who made the whole thing happen and gave them a dynamic edge. While they cut their teeth on a cluster of familiar indie staples – Ride’s ‘Leave Them All Behind’, ‘Soon’ by My Bloody Valentine, Lush’s ‘Superblast’, ‘Freak Scene’ by Dinosaur Jr. and so on – Graham was always one or two steps ahead of the curve. He was as restless with his music as he was in person and it was him – and the man who signed Emperor of Icecream to Sony Music, Olan McGowan – who opened my ears to a glut of quality dance and soul music.  

Proving the point, Graham fetched up almost immediately post-Emperors as part of an excellent trip-hop and electronica collective, Bass Odyssey, and has spent the last fifteen years in New York where he now performs alongside Dubliner Ken Griffin in August Wells. In the spirit of bringing it all back home, Griffin’s first bands, Shake and Rollerskate Skinny, were also students of the guitar noise school, albeit at a far more intense level than The Emperors, whose influences sat on a far sunnier side of the teacher’s desk. 

‘Here we go now’, Haggis optimistically sings on ‘William’, one of The Emperors’ earliest singles and the opening cut on ‘No Sound Ever Dies’. Looking back from a distance, his optimism was easy to understand: his band certainly had both the wind behind them and enough in their locker to make a decent racket. But after three EPs for Sony, their multi-national patrons went cold and plans for an album were shelved: the market had moved on, the band returned to Cork and, shortly afterwards, fell apart.

Decades later and timing is still an issue for The Emperors. The most potent Irish bands of the moment – Fontaines DC, Lankum and A Lazarus Soul – have little in common outwardly but, in the spirit of national commemoration and remembrance, all borrow from the impoverished Dublin working classes of O’Casey and Behan as they do from the punk rock spirit that coursed through London’s squatlands during the early 1980s. Their output is often defined by local accents so exaggerated that they skirt the inter-section between raw power and parody, where The Boomtown Rats meet Rats from Paths to Freedom. Against which The Emperors, with their lips curled and their soft London inflexions, couldn’t be further removed.

From early Oasis, Shed Seven, The Mock Turtles, The Charlatans and back via a slew of fine Irish bands like Sack, Power of Dreams and The Brilliant Trees, their influences are many and obvious. But it’s a warm, soft and fuzzy sound they make: nothing outrageous or overly radical, just a mild-tempered record on which the standouts, in time honoured tradition are the singles. ‘Lambent Eyes’ nods to The Bluetones’ ‘Are You Blue Or Are You Blind’, which itself thieved from Secret Affair’s terrific 1980 mod manifesto, ‘My World’, and ‘Everyone Looks So Fine’, which, on a silky guitar line and with a prominent bass thud bubbling away under, is the essence of the band’s career in four minutes.

And lest anyone forget how nimble they were with their instruments, both ‘It’s Alright to Show Yourself’ and ‘Grow As You Are’, the closer, remind us of how effective they could be once they hit their stride. Graham, as usual, shows off a frame of reference as wide as the Christy Ring Bridge but snuggled in there too, busy as you like behind the traps, an acquaintance with whom I go back many decades, the band’s drummer, Colum Young.

I spent many nights on the road with Colum, back when he served his time as Mick Finnegan’s unofficial apprentice on Cork’s live sound circuit and I was cadging lifts to shows all over the county in their van. I’d attempt to contribute to the work by lugging outboard gear and speakers into scaldy venues all over the deep South, but without as much as a miniature flash-light or an over-sized set of keys to hang from my belt loops, my career as a roadie was doomed before it started. Mick and Colum knew I couldn’t wrap a cable or multi-core to save my life but they indulged me politely and would discreetly un-do my amateur tangling without a word once my back was turned. 

I’d first come across Colum while he was rattling the tins with BFG, the outfit that morphed eventually into Ruby Horse, and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to read that he now bides his time playing jazz somewhere out there. He was living it and obsessing it as a gangly teenager, as hooked on his craft as those kids who sleep with their hurleys and are ear-marked to play for Cork from the minute they’re able to stand unaided. He was as passionate an advocate for new and emerging music as any and, when I heard that The Emperors were finally coming in to land with an album, I instinctively thought of him. I haven’t seen or spoken to Colum – or Mick, indeed – in a quarter of a century but I’m just delighted to know that he’s out there, still making the big noise.

Colum and the other Emperors – Haggis, Graham and the band’s lively bass player, Eddie Butt – won’t have appreciated the bigger picture back when life as a jobbing rock band with ambitions started to unravel for them. How could they have done? Even by the mid-90s they knew nothing and had only their dreams for company. In the broader story of popular music in Ireland, they’ll know now that they’re just another in a long line of footnotes but, more importantly, they’ll also know why that is. In finally assembling such a fine body of work and getting it out there – if only to themselves, their families, friends and supporters – they’ll have drawn to a close a significant chapter in their own story and, perhaps, have unwittingly started work on a sequel? 

But they’ll know too that being comfortable in each other’s company, bonded by a common purpose, all those years later, is their greatest achievement. And perhaps all that really matters.

ON AN EVENING IN ROMA: SERENGETI LONG WALK AND HOW AN OLD BAND CAME GOOD

Guest post by Mick Duggan, keyboard player, Serengeti Long Walk 

Every band, large or small, famous or otherwise, has its own geography, a little network of places in which they came to be, that is theirs and theirs alone, for the rest of time.  

This occurred to me recently when I was reading Nileism, Allan Brown’s riveting history of The Blue Nile, which immerses the reader in the west end of Glasgow and the cluster of streets, bars, cafes and bedsits that nursed a great but troubled band.  

My band, Serengeti Long Walk, had its own geography too.  Unlike The Blue Nile, we weren’t great and we weren’t troubled.  We didn’t make a single record and barely ventured out of mid-1980s Cork.   But we had a ball.  And when I think about those times, I think primarily of George’s Quay and its environs on the south side of the city.

We rehearsed in dusty rooms four storeys up at the top of Carpenters’ Hall, just along from the Holy Trinity.  We gigged most often in Mojo’s, a bar on Buckingham Place where the regulars, who mainly had a whiff of beard, bike grease and leather about them, seemed ready to put up with us and with the loyal crew of friends and family who cheered us on.  And we would spend our meagre earnings further along the road in Uncle Sam’s, which I still consider to be the best chip shop I’ve ever known.

We bore little resemblance to the blueprint of what a successful band should be.  We didn’t have one or two forceful leaders, creative visionaries that the others hitched themselves to on the hopeful path to fame.  We didn’t really have a coherent set of musical tastes or any fresh angle on the world.  But we liked each other’s company and we squeezed out a few catchy tunes, which we then proceeded to mangle, though in quite an agreeable way.  

This proved more than enough to fuel us for a few laps of the Cork gigging circuit, which yielded their own store of anecdotes for the ages, from my brother, Ger, the singer, electrocuting himself on stage at De Lacy House, to a low-slung stranger with a greasy ‘tache threatening to kill us all as we were walking over Thomas Davis Bridge on our way back to play a gig in the College Bar. The whole thing wound its way to a happy conclusion with a buoyant farewell concert at Triskel Arts Centre in 1988.  Colm, who has been kind enough now to host this piece on the Sentinel, was kind enough then to man the lighting rig, one of many, many favours he did for us.  (Indeed, it was our connection to Colm that earned us a fleeting reference in Mark McAvoy’s tome Cork Rock.)  

And then we split.  To the suburbs and the county.  To foreign shores.  To Dublin, even.  

The decades wound by, until – as Patrick Kavanagh found with Homer – Mojo’s ghost came whispering to the mind.  Or at least to the mind of Jon Heffernan, our erstwhile saxophone player and now an accomplished guitarist.  What if the lads got back together?  What if we dusted off the old songs and sprinkled them with all the added years of musicianship, listening, cop on?  What if, what if?  

Well, bands make their own importance.  We decided to give it a shot.  In the end, five of the original six answered nostalgia’s call.  Given the vicissitudes of life, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and where they can land, this felt like a good return.  Our lead guitarist Joe Dermody got in touch with Ray Clifford who joined us both to play the drums and also to play along genially with our half-cocked rescue mission.  

As well as remaking the band, we made ourselves a new geography.  Once a year, we took ourselves off to a house near Caherdaniel in County Kerry to play, write, record, and laugh our heads off.   Those road trips are now etched into our collective consciousness.  Loading up the gear on late autumn mornings.  Turning off the Killarney road at Clonkeen and plunging into the misty hillsides of the Iveragh Peninsula.  Pitstopping in Kenmare.  The first proper sightings of the ocean.

A regular shot in the arm, then, for a bunch of middle-aged buddies scattered across Ireland and England.  But so what?  Why take up space on the Sentinel with trips down a lane of memories that are only our own?  Perhaps to show that some bands never end.  They may go into long hibernation, but when they stir again, strange things can happen.  

Last October in Rome, in a nightclub on a barge on the Tiber, we played our first ever gig outside of Ireland, an adventure orchestrated by Des O’Mahony, bass player, entrepreneur, a man who could pull a few strings and hustle up a crowd in the Eternal City.  This came on the back of two studio albums, Glimmerless (2012) and Wave Signs (2018) in which we dusted off and polished up some of the old hits-that-never-were, paraded a slew of new songs we are all fiercely proud of, and celebrated a general uptick in our musicianship.  

Serengeti Mark II is not a completely different beast from the first incarnation.  There are still no big cheeses.  But we do have more of a sound: less poppy, more guitar-fired.    Our tastes have coalesced a bit more too, or perhaps the years have opened our minds more, so that it’s easier to find common ground.  A fresh burst of gigging in and around Cork, and the enthusiastic reactions we’ve received, have helped us to realize that we can rip up a venue like never before, that we can take audiences right into the heart of what we are doing and that they like it there.    And now we are releasing a third album, a live recording of the Rome gig made by Duncan O’Cleirigh of Blackwater Studios who has become a whole new source of energy, encouragement and know-how. 

Thinking back now to that original farewell gig in the Triskel, our encore was a song called ‘Gravity’ with a chorus that goes ‘Something’s keeping us, something’s keeping us together”.  So it has proven, more or less.  What is that something?  Who knows.  But I keep hearing Don Williams’s deep, velvety baritone: “Well, a measure of people don’t understand / The pleasures of life in a hillbilly band”.  

Serengeti Long Walk is not a hillbilly band [although, if a few of us had our way, things might be different].  But Don’s point was well made.  Being in a band like this is an enormous pleasure.  More than that, it is a joy, a real joy.  

Serengeti Long Walk ‘Live At Lian Club Rome’ is available on Apple Music, Spotify and all streaming services.  Website: https://serengetilongwalk.com/

CITIZENS OF BOOMTOWN: THE RATS v IRELAND’S SHOWBANDS

Billy McGrath’s excellent film about The Boomtown Rats, ‘Citizens Of Boomtown’, premiered recently at the Dublin International Film Festival and was broadcast subsequently on RTÉ Television in two parts. Its dedicated to the memory of Nigel Grainge, the London-born A and R man with the golden touch who, in 1977, signed the South Dublin outfit to Ensign Records, the label he founded and ran with his long-time side-kick, Chris Hill. Grainge, who died in 2017, is a recurring footnote in the history of modern Irish music: he also signed Sineád O’Connor and the Churchtown four-piece, Into Paradise, to Ensign and, during a previous posting at Phonogram Records, Thin Lizzy. In the directory of great music industry executives, he can be found in the section about good ears.  

When Nigel Grainge signed The Boomtown Rats in 1977, he wasn’t signing a punk rock band. The group was certainly pulled into a broader punk rock maelstrom once they’d left Dublin for London, but the notion that The Boomtown Rats were a punk band, or were rooted in any sort of punk rock sensibility, is wide of the mark. They were, rather, a filthy r and b outfit who took their cues from the backroom, pub-rock tropes of Doctor Feelgood, among others. The closest they came to punk rock was singer Bob Geldof’s potty mouth and his bad aim: he routinely plugged himself in the foot while shooting from the hip.

The Boomtown Rats recorded six albums, among them a couple of fine, uncompromising and intelligent pop records, 1978’s ‘A Tonic for The Troops’ and ‘The Fine Art of Surfacing’, released the following year, both of them produced by Mutt Lange. In Bob Geldof, the band boasted a smart, handsome and irascible frontman and, in Britain at least, audiences gave his coarseness a free pass. The Rats were quickly into their stride, scoring a string of Top Ten hit records.

Their transition from pub rock to pop music can be traced easily across their first three albums: they were restless, ambitious and evolved ahead of schedule. David Fricke, the long-time Rolling Stone writer and former Melody Maker correspondent – and a man who, like Geldof, obviously has a mirror in the attic – saw them play live for the first time in the summer of 1978. ‘They were not a punk band. They were a rock and roll band’, he tells ‘Citizens of Boomtown’. As such, they had far more in common with Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Blondie and XTC than The Plasmatics. And of course they could all play their instruments and saw the value in tuning up: keyboard player, Johnny ‘Fingers’ Moylett, guitarists Gerry Cott and Gary Roberts, bass player Pete Briquette and especially the band’s drummer, Simon Crowe, were all serious operators. 

Music documentary for television is a platform where contributors are expected to routinely talk through their holes. I know this only too well, having made music television programmes for way too long. In this regard, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ doesn’t disappoint, and some of the claims made on camera about The Boomtown Rats and the country that begot them are far-fetched beyond words. Far too many of the film’s contributors just mail in theory that collapses under the weight of the facts.

The idea that The Boomtown Rats – or any Irish group of the period, for that matter – were responsible for substantive change in Ireland is as mis-placed as the Rats’ representation as a punk outfit. ‘A unit for change’, says the U2 singer, Bono of the group. ‘A revolutionary council’. Exactly what that change or revolution is, or what it entailed, he doesn’t say.

Neil McCormick, an author, journalist, musician and a former school-friend of Bono, goes further and boldly claims that ‘the Rats changed this country’. In the same breath, he takes a sneery dig at Big Tom McBride, an Irish country singer who first came to national prominence on the showband circuit towards the end of the 1950s, a scene that was anathema to Geldof and many of his peers. As The Boomtown Rats were issuing their first singles, Big Tom was one of the biggest draws in the country, much to Neil McCormick’s amusement: ‘It’s a Weary, Weary World’ was clearly lost on the cooler set at both Mount Temple Comprehensive and Blackrock College. 

The Irish showband circuit – on which Big Tom and the Travellers were one of the most prolific outputters – was at its commercial and social apex towards the late 1960s, after which it’s bottom slowly came apart. In his book, ‘The Transformation of Ireland’, the historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, claims that, at its peak, the showband scene ‘became an industry employing 10,000 people, including 4,000 singers and musicians’. The circuit was eventually over-taken by the passage of time: the growth in the number of nightclubs and late licences around Ireland, in which disc jockeys instead of unwieldly groups of live musicians played the hits of the day, saw many of the showbands off. 

The glib dismissal of the showbands has long been a standard line of Irish critical patter. Geldof himself was one of the most virulent of the showband critics and, in his excellent 1986 biography, ‘Is That It ?’, describes them as ‘one of the most anodyne creations in the history of pop’. He goes on to claim that ‘the showband system has wasted an enormous number of talented musicians who are fed into the machine for a pittance of a wage’ and, in the same passage, talks about his desire to establish an alternative performance circuit around Ireland. To do this, he enlisted the help of the then Entertainment Officer at University College Dublin: Billy McGrath himself.

In response to the breadth of the showband influence – the circuit had its own television and radio programmes and a couple of high-profile magazines, for instance – Niall Stokes and a number of other young graduates founded Hot Press magazine in Dublin in 1977. ‘Keeping Ireland safe for rock and roll’, Stokes has been the editor of the magazine ever since and is another of the usual suspects who turn up on ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ to sing the praise. 

In an interview with Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone for their book, ‘Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before and After U2’ [2012], Stokes claims that some of the showbands ‘operated business practices that were reprehensible’, that ‘corruption was endemic’ and that ‘business practices were sloppy at best, dishonest at worst’. Is there an implication from him – long-regarded as an imposing businessman and shrewd operator – that the entertainment industry has cleaned up its nest in the years since the showbands ? Or that the showband circuit was an outlier in this regard ?

Most of the showbands performed faithful cover versions of the hits of the day, traditional Irish ballads and come-all-ye dirges: it was woejus stuff for the most part that bears no comparison with anything that followed it. But in terms of social and cultural impact, the showbands left far more of an impression on the country than The Boomtown Rats. By bringing live music to all corners of Ireland, seven nights a week, every week, with the exception of Lent – and by bringing with them the trappings that follow this kind of carry-on – they were far greater agents of change than any Irish band ever. Maybe even a revolutionary council.

The claim that, with Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh’s shrewd management, The Boomtown Rats created a circuit for subsequent acts to launch from may well indeed be the case. But twenty years previously, the likes of Albert and Jim Reynolds, Murt Lucey, Con Hynes, Oliver Barry and others also created a robust domestic entertainment industry from scratch, and then exploited it, much to Niall Stokes’s chagrin, for decades thereafter. They planted ballrooms all over rural Ireland, routinely filled them and booked widely. Albert Reynolds, for instance, put Roy Orbison into one of his own venues in the midlands to almost two thousand punters on a Tuesday night during the early 1960s. The showbands, and the industry that sprung up around them, facilitated congregation on a wide-scale and were central to the development of youth culture in Ireland during the 1960s.

The more interesting aspects of the showband story have long been obscured in a hail of convenient clichés and white-washing: for years, and with good reason, what went on on the road tended to stay on the road. While many of the bands were shagging and boozing for Ireland, managers, bookers and promoters kept the tills ringing out, often cynically and with scant regard for musicians and punters. But it’s not as if this was ever spoken about outside of the inner circle. What was presented as ‘the showband story’ was delivered with gusto from behind the pulpit by the likes of Jimmy Magee, Larry Gogan and Father Brian D’Arcy, a Passionist priest from County Fermanagh who, after contributing regular pieces to Spotlight magazine, became an unofficial Chaplin to the national entertainment industry and one of Ireland’s best-known celebrity clerics. 

To be fair, Vincent Power’s fine book, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’’, published in 1990, at least touches on some of the darker aspects of life for many showband musicians, some of whom were signed to scandalous personal contracts, many more of whom succumbed to alcoholism and other addictions. In a profile on the 2009 RTÉ series, ‘A Little Bit Showband’, Derek Dean, the lead singer with The Freshmen, a Beach Boys-inspired outfit from Ballymena, claimed that ‘the way the showbands are portrayed now, it’s as if Father Brian attended every gig and said a decade of the rosary’. Dean, who recounts his own long battle with chronic alcoholism in his 2007 book, ‘The Freshmen Unzipped’, tellingly remembers his band-mate, Billy Brown, as someone who, having earned a considerable amount of money as a jobbing musician, was eventually dragged down to a ‘determinedly dissolute life dominated by swift cars and fast women’. 

Another insightful read from the maverick corps of the circuit, the late Gerry Anderson’s ‘Heads’ [2006], paints a similar picture that’s clearly more faithful to the showband story than the raw nostalgia that has traditionally distorted its history. Given how two of Ireland’s most eminent historians, Diarmaid Ferriter and Roy Foster, both feature among the large cast of contributors to ‘Citizens of Boomtown’, it’s a pity that the film chose not to chase down some of the lazier social analysis just thrown up there and left hanging. 

The Boomtown Rats endured, more or less, for the ten years between 1975 and 1985, during which they enjoyed considerable commercial success in Britain and Europe. The country they left behind had joined the European Economic Union [the E.E.C.] in 1973 and, as the group was holding its first rehearsals, Fine Gael, a right-leaning political party was in power under its then leader, Liam Cosgrave. Under Garret FitzGerald, Fine Gael were in power when the band called it a day a decade later. The unemployment rate here doubled while the band was active, while thousands followed Geldof and his band and fled Ireland: emigration out of the country increased significantly during the 1980s.

It can be realistically argued that Ireland was as socially conservative in 1985 as it was in 1975 and, perhaps, even more so. In September, 1983, for instance, the country voted two to one in favour of The Eighth Amendment, to constitutionally prohibit abortion. In effect it gave equal rights to pregnant mothers and their unborn children. Remind me again of how The Boomtown Rats changed the country ?

What the Rats may have actually done, with the support of key actors like Ó Ceallaigh and Billy Magrath, was to establish a runway for those Irish rock bands who came after them, U2 in particular. The Rats were the first Irish group to enjoy a Number One single in Britain – 1978’s ‘Rat Trap’ – and the scale of this achievement, given the extent of the competition at the time, cannot be under-estimated. As the musicologists Gerry Smyth and Seán Campbell argue in ‘Beautiful Day: Forty Years of Irish Rock’, The Boomtown Rats ‘are amongst the most important names in Irish rock history, not only for the quality of the music they produced but also because they expanded the boundaries of what Irish popular music could be about’. 

To its credit, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ routinely reminds us of this, and of just how magnificent The Rats were at the peak of their powers. It reminds us too of Geldof’s absolute ridiness. Of Paula and Bob. The quiet magic of the band itself, the players. But beyond all of that, it reminds us that there is no one history of Irish popular music and that all history is contestable anyway.

AN EMOTIONAL FISH: A STRANGE KIND OF GLORY

Has any Irish band announced itself as spectacularly as An Emotional Fish ? The Dublin four-piece were, I’d argue, the last of the great major label indulgences in emerging Irish music, the poster child’s poster children for that mad, unprecedented decade from 1985 onwards. Rarely has so much coin been invested in any Irish band for so little commercial return and God knows how big a tab they’d run up before they were finally cut off at the bar. 

The band’s magnificent second single, ‘Celebrate’, is one of the most distinctive Irish pop songs from that period, so perfectly formed that it set subsequent ambitions for them unfeasibly high. ‘Celebrate’ was both an outrageous calling card and, ultimately, the rock on which the band eventually ran aground: try as they did, they never quite matched its lustre to the same extent thereafter. But as can often be the case, ‘Celebrate’ unduly distorts AEF’s legacy because, beyond the obvious, they always had far more going on. Much of which scarcely figures in their story.  

I was never completely convinced by them and, for a while, saw them as more of a sophisticated experiment hatched over a dinner party in Sandymount than a legitimate rock concern. And yet, once I’d killed my darlings and set my prejudices aside, I grew to love them. There was even a period of a couple of years where – as part of the travelling Into Paradise circus – I couldn’t physically shake them and ran into The Fish, often quite literally, in a variety of unlikely locations, in Ireland and beyond. They were decent, affable, generous and always good company.

On Saturday, May 27th, 1989, An Emotional Fish played the Cork Rock series for unsigned bands at Sir Henry’s and arrived in a hail of hyperbole and expectation I’d never encountered previously. Although a host of record companies had flown into Cork to see them play a short set – and they were, genuinely, the subject of an all-out bidding battle – the word was that they’d already done the bold thing with one of the major labels. If they hadn’t consummated the deal, they’d certainly been fumbling away on the sofa and so Cork Rock ’89 was more of a coronation than a live audition.

Given what went off in Sir Henry’s at the same event the following summer, when The Cranberries, The Frank and Walters, Therapy? and Toasted Heretic all donned the jersey, Cork Rock ‘89 tends to be consigned to the halfpenny place. Yet, in retrospect, those three sessions that May certainly had their moments. The Fish were joined on the Saturday night bill by Cork’s representatives on The Paisley Underground, Cypress, Mine !, Dublin’s formidable Hellfire Club, Fanning Show regulars The Malfunctions and If, who shared a name with a lesser-spotted U.K. prog rock outfit but, sadly, not a whole heap else besides.

The rest of that weekend was notable for a short, blistering set by Power of Dreams, featuring Robbie Callan on second guitar, and who, had some of them been carded, wouldn’t have been legally allowed to enter the premises. Elsewhere, the Galway-Dublin compound, The Swinging Swine, who later morphed into a variant called The Glee Club, gave it up with gusto for the dog-on-a-string set.

One of the more interesting sets at Cork Rock ’89 was performed by a Limerick troupe, Private World, who were fronted and led by Pearse Gilmore. He later founded Xeric Studios back in his home town and produced and managed The Cranberries to the point in their career where they’d started work on a first album. That night in Cork, he memorably stalked the compact stage at Sir Henry’s like Synge’s Old Mahon, spectacularly sprung back to life and with a loy planted in his crown. 

In such esoteric company, The Fish had a serious weight and reach advantage. The band’s management enjoyed a long-standing relationship with U2’s back-room and, on that first night in Cork, they arrived mob-handed with some of the best-known road crew in the world in tow. Those connections did them few favours ultimately, I think: the pat on the head from U2 has been counter-productive to practically every Irish band who’ve entered their orbit. In respect of patronage, well-meaning as it no doubt has always been, U2 have consistently had the Midas touch in reverse.  

Within weeks, An Emotional Fish released their first single, ‘Grey Matter/Cry Like A Baby’, on U2’s Mother Records label and, under the baton of their manager, Aidan Cosgrave, a formidable player in the Irish advertising industry, were fast-tracked to sainthood. The fundamental problem, as I saw it, was that An Emotional Fish had all the endorsements and supports but, ‘Celebrate’ apart, little else to justify the weight of expectation. The band’s half-baked debut album [‘An Emotional Fish’, 1990] only re-enforced that point for me: they just weren’t immediate or urgent enough and far too much of their material was determined by heavy-handed riffing and wafer-thin ideas. They seemed averse to choruses too: ‘Celebrate’, for all its glory, is missing a key part of the standard assembly. Not necessarily a deal-breaker, for sure, but when set against the breathlessness of the teenage Power of Dreams, who could knock out the bangers in their sleep, The Fish just sounded a bit laboured. Far too much of their material circled the parameters and, as unique selling points go, I’m not sure how effective it was. 

AEF laid their foundations on the dominant bass sound of Enda Wyatt who, from behind his out-sized specs, set the tone for the entire enterprise. Enda was a little older, calmer and impressively well read: he was also a phenomenal but under-stated musician. Outwardly, though, it was the band’s guitarist, David Frew, who looked to me to be driving the wagon. Away from the stage he was a terrific footballer and it was in our fondness for sport that we found a common bond. Always happy to do a turn with The Dancing Bastards from Hell whenever the opportunity arose, I’m not sure I’ve met someone as genuinely affable and downright decent during my decades hanging around the fringes of the entertainment industry.

He defended his corner with gusto, too, and he challenged me to see AEF for what they were and not for what they weren’t, which I was happy to do. So, although my reservations about the group remained largely unchanged, I certainly saw the point – and the quiet magic –of the band’s mighty second album, ‘Junk Puppets’, which was released in 1993.

The making of that record is a long and complicated chapter during which, with the label keen to see them kicking on quickly, An Emotional Fish cut loose and, I think, found their meter. I heard the first flushes of that album at a storming live show the band played at The Opera House in Cork in 1992, recorded for an RTÉ live music series directed by the late Anita Notaro, during which they gave early airings to ‘If God Was A Girl’ and ‘A Hole in My Heaven’. That show ended with a full-scale invasion of the stage and the splintering of the first three or four rows of seating. Central to the chaos was the band’s frontman, Gerard Whelan, who consistently brought drama and camp to the band’s live shows and is as good a focal point I’ve seen on any Irish stage. The Fish always put on a show – often featuring the sassy vocal backing of Violet Williams – and, for several years, were one of the most potent live draws in the country. 

The previous year, the board of directors at Setanta Records thought it might positively benefit one of its bands, Into Paradise, if they were de-camped from the distractions of Dublin and London and put out into the wilds. Far from the maddening crowds and the comforts of home, the hope was that they might up their work-rate and break the back on a new album. So, for a couple of months, Into Paradise were dispatched to a rented farmhouse in Ballyvourney in the West Cork Gaeltacht and their back-line set-up in a hay shed. It was the most ill-fated and far-fetched coupling since Elton John married Renate Blauel and my only regret was that we didn’t embed a small documentary crew with the band for the duration. 

The spirit of Seán Ó Riada and the maverick sounds of Cór Cúl Aodha were lost, sadly, on Into Paradise and I’m not sure if the experience benefited anyone save, perhaps, the owners of The Mills, the fine boozer in the heart of the village. Unbeknownst to us, in Tadhg Kelleher’s Súlán Studios on the very same drag, An Emotional Fish were hard at it: they were billeted in Ballyvourney too, recording songs for a second album. From fleeting dispatches, I’m not sure how much work was completed down in the heart of West Cork while both bands were on the loose.  

‘Junk Puppets’ was subsequently completed in three separate studios in London, with three different producers across it. Alan Moulder brought the noise and, in the search for more soothing sounds and a breakthrough hit, Clive Langer and David Stewart were enlisted to bring the sheen to the spit. None of the Ballyvourney labours survived the journey.

Although ‘Celebrate’ had picked up generous air-play in Britain, neither the band’s prodigious work-rate – and to be fair to them, they were constantly on the road, where they were at their strongest – or their label’s clout could force it higher than the mid-40s. I have no doubt that, had the band snared just one appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’, and had a mainstream British television audience been exposed to just three magnetic minutes of Gerry Whelan in full flow, AEF’s career might have taken a drastically different turn. 

Instead, the air was being slowly sucked from their balloon. By the time that Aidan Cosgrave invited me around to his office down in Windmill Lane to play me that second album, AEF were going for broke: in for a penny, in for a pound. Some of the songs had been through the hands, a couple of them had had structural make-overs and, when the record finally landed, it was to general indifference. The band’s best long-player by a distance, I was taken by how lavish and layered it was.

I’m unconvinced to this day that writing ever came easily to The Fish but, on the lead single, ‘Rain’, the full-on glam-stomp of ‘Hole in My Heaven’, the prissy ‘Sister Change’ and the re-worked ‘If God Was A Girl’, they’d certainly developed their game a bit. But nowhere is the sparkle of that record – and, indeed, the general insanity of that entire period – captured more succinctly than on a video shot by Dave Stewart himself in his own studio, The Church in North London, during the sessions that put AEF’s finest ever song, ‘Careless Child’ to bed. 

Apart from his long and varied career as a writer, performer and producer, Stewart has also dabbled in film and video and he was behind the camcorder himself as the band worked out the song on the vast studio floor. The video is intercut with sequences featuring a full orchestra adding considerable heft, no little veneer and, one suspects, a multiple-page invoice, to the final product. 

‘Careless Child’ is the standout cut on ‘Junk Puppets’, a consummate ballad that cuts loose half way through with a spectacular Disney-esque orchestral break. The idea that a band at AEF’s level would be so indulged by any record company now seems positively fanciful: orchestras, the ultimate indulgence, simply don’t feature on new music anymore. Playing from scripted, pre-prepared scores, Stewart’s home-movie captures the classical set in their smart casual gear andfoppish hair-dos, on the clock and largely disinterested as they wait to be counted into action by a fresh-faced conductor. They make an outrageous racket, of course, and there’s a satisfied smirk on Stewart’s face as he makes a brief cameo alongside the band at the end of the clip. 

By the time that ‘Junk Puppets’ saw the light of day, though, any momentum the band had was dis-placed. The Fish followed a familiar narrative thereafter: Warners let them go once the record was released and they hung around for a bit thereafter, putting out a third album. ‘Sloper’, on its own label.

Maybe it’s just received memory at this stage but I still find myself reaching for ‘Junk Puppets’. I also know that, out there on the live circuit, Whelan and Frew are still going strong. Gerard, re-born as Jerry Fish and still leading from the front as a veteran ring-master, Dave riffing away in a variety of guises. The band has re-grouped the odd time over the last decade and a couple of live shows at The Olympia – as part of a fund-raiser for Barretstown – and an impressive set at Féile Classical in 2018 can both be found, with the usual caveats and health warnings, on-line.

I can’t let any piece on An Emotional Fish go, though, without reference to the group’s drummer, Martin Murphy, who died suddenly in January, 2017. Martin cut his teeth with Eugene, fronted by Jil Turner and also featuring Dave McGinley, during the early 1980s, which is where I first came across his work. I remember him as a quiet and unassuming soul who was key to the Fish’s sound, a sound that, as I think we’ve established by now, was rarely straight-forward. He was integral to that band: like the best drummers, he was reluctantly seen but consistently heard. The full range of his ability is out there, on three albums, by way of a lasting and fitting memorial.

LARRY

It was inevitable, I suppose, that so many of today’s tributes to Larry Gogan would eventually lead back to the rogue answers he was given for decades on ‘The Sixty Second Quiz’, one of the recurring features of his long-running radio career. In one respect, that quiz – routinely stuffed with as many bizarre questions as it elicited bizarre responses – embodied much of the host’s own on-air personality. The affable disc jockey and presenter, whose death was announced this morning, was forever warm, good natured, never overly serious and a welcome respite on the broader running orders. But it’s easy to be side-blinded. 

For sure, Larry knew well that The Taj Mahal was a restaurant opposite The Dental Hospital and that Naomi Campbell was a bird with a long neck. But he was around long enough to know how essential that sort of knockabout codology was, particularly on live entertainment radio. Just as importantly, he also knew that Taj Mahal was a ground-breaking bluesman from Harlem and it was this kind of thing that stood him apart from the pack.  

Ian Wilson, the recently retired radio producer and one-time 2FM main-stay, had his dukes poised nicely earlier today when he made a telling contribution about Gogan to the Morning Ireland programme on RTÉ Radio One. In pointing out the tendency of some to view those who play music, particularly on radio, as a sort of lesser species, he was aiming a decent body-shot at those – in broadcasting and in public life – who simply do not or cannot see the value in popular music. You’d be wary enough of that shower. 

Larry Gogan saw that value, though. He was a genuine pioneer who can legitimately claim to have been there at the start, one of the first and best-known voices from the earliest days of popular music on Irish radio. Like one of his contemporaries, Gay Byrne, he was a link to the first wave of multi-discipline Irish broadcasting, a dual player who cut his teeth on sponsored radio programmes and then on the initial cluster of national entertainment television shows. During those years when Irish television amounted to a limited, single-channel service transmitting in monochrome and popular music on the wireless was an anomaly, Gogan was one of Irish broadcasting’s originals. 

He was an early convert to rock ‘n’ roll, seduced into a life-long dream sequence by the magic of Elvis Presley and the raw promise of boogie and groove. Byrne, by comparison, was a jazz snob, a trained actor who, in popular musicians and popular music saw, with notable exceptions, unnecessary disruption . Even if, as the long-time presenter and producer of The Late Late Show, he knew well the audience-baiting capacity of a freaky young fella with a safety pin in his eyebrow and a few half-baked opinions about The Guards.

In Vincent Power’s fine history of Ireland’s showband years, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’’, first published in 1990, Byrne refers to the groups who dominated that period as ‘by and large, with a few exceptions, fairly indifferent musicians banging out their few chords’.  ‘The music then on The Late Late Show’, he said, ‘was really an interruption of the talk’. 

Gogan saw things very differently and, in his world, music always trumped chat. He was an enthusiastic and partisan advocate from the get-go and his unflinching support for the showbands was indicative of a career-long commitment to domestic music, especially new and emerging Irish music. ‘Without the showbands’, he claimed in an interview in 1965, ‘the pop scene in this country would today be dominated by British artists, like America. No artists – except perhaps the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Cliff Richard – can create anything like the stir our top showbands do in halls around the country’.

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And he was well placed – and maybe compromised with it ? – in this respect. During the early 1960s, Larry Gogan presented fourteen different sponsored radio programmes a week, one of which was actually bank-rolled by a ballroom in Bundoran. He would routinely play relief or support sets for some of the showbands and, at one point, was as familiar an on-stage presence in the dancehalls as some of the bands themselves. Ultimately, he sounded like he just consistently got off on the music and just liked being around it.

No more so than when, on May 31st, 1979, Larry’s ‘Pop Around Ireland’ became the first show broadcast on the new Radio 2 [later 2FM] service. After an official address in front of a live studio audience by the then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Pádraig Faulkner, Larry took the mic at 12.37 and told his listeners how ‘we’ve been waiting for an all-day music radio station for a long time’ before, true to form, opening with a feisty number from an Irish band: ‘Like Clockwork’ by The Boomtown Rats. 

Released a full year earlier as one of the singles from the group’s second elpee, ‘A Tonic For The Troops’, it was an unusual choice of song with which to christen a national radio station. All the more so given that one of the subsequent cuts lifted from that album, ‘Rat Trap’, had given The Boomtown Rats their first Number One single in Britain and was, arguably, the better known track. 

But then Larry played consistently by his own rules, and so it went on for almost forty years, during which, on his impeccably pop-tastic playlists, you’d find all manner of emerging gold in among the hits of the day, the odd rare antique and the oldies-but-goodies. To this end, and as numerous musicians, pluggers and alickadoos have already attested, he made life much, much easier for those working in the local entertainment sector. And in that consistent championing, afforded a public service every bit as valuable and rich as that provided by news, current affairs, analysis and the gab that dominates much of the national radio schedules.

I saw this myself through the heft he consistently lent to a little known band from Churchtown, South Dublin, called Into Paradise, who battled manfully at the crease from 1988 until 1994 and released a series of fine records, to the sound of silence for the most part. In any other functioning democracy, Into Paradise would have neither been seen or heard before the witching hours. But in the band’s sweeping, six-minute cri de coeur, ‘Sleep’, Larry heard enough sparkle through the gloom to make him want to play it regularly on the national airwaves in the middle of the afternoon. Fifteen years after ‘Like Clockwork’ and he was still railing, forever politely but always pointedly, an observation made by several Irish musicians and activists since early morning.

Ultimately, like the television personality and band manager, Louis Walsh, and his own late colleague on 2FM, Tony Fenton, Larry Gogan knew what his strengths were, where his own weaknesses were and he made no pretentions to the contrary. He just consistently played the records instinctively assembled his play-lists and let the music do his persuading. 

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.