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SEND OUT THE SNAKES [AN ODE TO FLYING NUN RECORDS]

 

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.

“Great”.

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]

 

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U2 AND THE ARC

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.

MICRODISNEY AND THE VILLAGE OF CORK

microdisney

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.

 

THE HARVEST MINISTERS TAKE DUNDALK

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Brian

Via Ken Sweeney

 

HOLY JOE CHESTER

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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