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.
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’ , 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’ , 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.
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.
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’.
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.
I’ve written at length about my old school, The North Monastery which, on many levels, dominated my upbringing on the northside of Cork city during the 1970s and 1980s. For a number of us, The Mon provided a structure and an order during a period when much of the area around us was just dilapidated and sore. Strange as it seems but there were days when some of us were glad to go to school.
I last set foot on the grounds up on Our Lady’s Mount during the filming of a short television insert on the week of the All-Ireland hurling final in 2004. As these things tend to go, some of my friends and neighbours are now among the senior teaching staff there and, with the school’s vast canvas of adventure now captured so thoroughly on new media, I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of the breadth of what’s going on there. But there was always an awful lot going on up in The Mon – good, bad and ugly – except that, for years, most of us were blissfully unaware of much of it.
Herman Kemp was a young teacher from Kilrush in County Clare who was unfortunate enough to have encountered us as a class of forty-four noisy young boys in 1976 and 1977. The date is important here: – history recalls that Cork’s swashbuckling hurlers were winning All-Ireland senior titles, Christy Ring still walked among us whenever he tired of walking on water and one of the unlikely pop stars du jour, John Lydon, who’d spat his way into the popular British consciousness as Johnny Rotten, had strong connections to our city that went pretty much unreported.
Teachers among you will know that second and third class are among the most developmentally important years in the Irish primary school cycle. The work-load of the pupil increases and there’s a subtle shift in tone from baby-sitting to, if not full-blown independence, then certainly a greater emphasis on autonomy. Even in Cork during the 1970s, and especially up in The North Mon, they didn’t just hand out those classroom assignments to any old lags or chancers. Which is why, I suppose, that some of us still remember Herman’s classes so clearly.
In his loons, denim shirts and lusty tache, he rarely proselytized the case for hurling and Gaelic football and the more traditional cultural pillars on which the school traded didn’t seem to overly interest him. He looked like a member of The Band and was a proud Stoke City supporter at a time when Liverpool and Manchester United were the only two British clubs that mattered around our way.
On his watch, our class was as likely to debate the merits of contemporary blockbuster films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’ as we were to struggle with the vagaries of long division. One morning he broke down a Chris De Burgh number for us and went through it line by line as a piece of important literary text. And although this did little to endear me to the rubber-faced songwriter, Herman was clearly thinking on a different plane. Like the best teachers and coaches, he not only instilled in us a sense of the exotica that waited for us outside the school’s sash windows but constantly allowed us to picture ourselves knee-deep in it. To those of us with any sort of a creative streak, he was our go-to.
The North Monastery has long prided itself on its academic achievements and its many notable successes on the playing fields and in Irish public life. It isn’t absolutely clear if Cork have ever won a senior All-Ireland hurling title without at least one former pupil involved somewhere or if Ireland’s state class has ever operated at elite level without our graduates leading out, but it certainly feels like this should be the case. What I do know is that I left our school with a fully-formed love of books and sport and, I hope, good basic manners.
Beyond the most basic stipulations of the curriculum, and notwithstanding the regular sideshow performances of The Christian Brothers, one of whom would shove a piece of bamboo in and out of his gob to make a variety of bird calls, music was hardly a priority up in the school. Indeed, the handful who did experiment with drums and wires, or indeed those who just liked alternative music, tended to do so under the cloak of darkness. I’ve written about this in a previous piece here.
As Herman was getting his classroom ready for a new school year during the summer of 1978, we now know he was also busy elsewhere indulging a couple of his other interests; – rock music and photography. The father of three school-going daughters myself – and as a one-time teacher – I’m forever surprised at how children cannot believe that those who front their classrooms every day might also lead interesting lives of their own once the long bell goes in the afternoons. In this respect, Herman left a trail of dots for us that we’re only now joining properly.
The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival is one of the more intriguing outdoor events to have taken place in Ireland during the 1970s. Launched in June, 1976, as a week-long community-focused enterprise, it was conceived by a group of young locals led by a publican, John Martin Fitzgerald, and ran for seven years in total. The highlight of that first year was a live show by Marianne Faithfull, who performed in a customized marquee borrowed, for the occasion, from The Rose of Tralee committee fifty miles up the road. The festival was formally launched by the broadcaster and journalist, Frank Hall.
And it certainly achieved its primary ambition, attracting decent crowds into what was then a small market town, located twenty-five miles west of Cork city. By washing its own face financially, and perhaps against all perceived wisdom, the organisers developed the event in its second year and moved into the outdoors at Macroom Castle.
That setting is central to any broader telling of the history of contemporary Irish popular culture. Despite what its people might think, Macroom was never the most sophisticated town and, in the late 1970s, wouldn’t have been best served by general infrastructure and was difficult enough to access. A point touched on in Roz Crowley’s fine book, ‘Memories Of Ireland’s First Rock Festival’, published by On Stream Books in 2016.
That book includes several first-person testimonies from some of those who made their way to Macroom having either walked the distance from Cork or having hitched lifts on the road out from the city’s western suburbs. Many of whom did so against a backdrop of disdain from the local authorities and clergy who, in voicing their concerns for law, order and basic morality, were re-cycling familiar riffs dating back to Ireland’s dance-hall culture during the earliest days of The Free State.
During the mid-1970s, rock music in Ireland’s outdoors – either one-offs or festivals – just didn’t exist. Dalymount Park, on the northside of Dublin, had indeed hosted a one-off show featuring Mungo Jerry and Thin Lizzy as far back as 1971 but that, pretty much, was that. So in terms of chronology, Rory Gallagher’s performance on the grounds of Macroom Castle in June, 1977, pre-dates Thin Lizzy’s famous home-coming show – again at Dalymount Park – by a couple of months. And because The Mountain Dew series took place over the course of several days, it is widely accepted as being Ireland’s first ever outdoor rock music festival.
The commercial success of those early Macroom shows also reflected an obvious appetite for rock music in what we might loosely term rural Ireland, kicking against a couple of crudely formed stereotypes as it did. As such, The Mountain Dew Festival can be seen as an important pre-cursor to other similar events that ran subsequently in Leixlip, Ballisodore, Lisdoonvarna and even Thurles, where Féile: The Trip to Tipp, was launched in 1990.
Over the course of its seven-year history, Macroom attracted a number of well-known headline acts and Van Morrison, The Boomtown Rats, Wishbone Ash, Elvis Costello and Paul Brady all feature prominently in its story. The ability to attract such high-profile names to a small town in West Cork is all the more remarkable given that Ireland’s biggest concert promoters had given Macroom a wide berth: – the ambition was deemed, understandably so, to be just not realizable.
It’s for the two Gallagher headline appearances there on Sunday, June 26th, 1977 and Saturday, June 24th, 1978, for which The Mountain Dew Festival is most memorably recalled, though. Between 1975 and 1979, Rory released four albums – among them two of his best long-players, ‘Calling Card’ and ‘Top Priority’ – and was a prodigious live performer. Then at his creative peak and kicking in the face of punk rock, which had broken the British mainstream in earnest during Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977, the first of those shows also co-incided with the launch of ‘Hot Press’, Ireland’s long-standing music and social affairs magazine.
Conceived and edited, as it is today, by Niall Stokes, and founded by him and a cohort of like-minded Dublin college graduates, the remarkable story of that publication – and Niall’s constant re-invention of the paper in the decades since – is worthy of a Ken Burns-style documentary series. Rory Gallagher was the first ever Hot Press cover star and, until his death almost twenty years later, both parties were tied at the waist.
Rory played many explosive live shows in Ireland during his career, several of them within the ornate indoors at The City Hall in Cork and The Ulster Hall in Belfast. But the Mountain Dew Festival was his first ever outdoor headliner in this country and, following years of high-profile festival shows across Europe, marks another important crossing of the line for him: – was he scaling up and, perhaps, finally finding the mainstream himself?
With tickets priced at 2.50, and with a support bill that also featured The Joe O’Donnell Band and the Flemish bluesman, Ronald Van Campenhout, that 1978 show certainly commanded attention and audience. Estimates of the size of the crowd vary wildly but, using some of the stills shot around the castle on the day, we can realistically put the attendance at around six or seven thousand people and certainly no more than that.
The following summer, on Saturday, June 26th, 1978, Gallagher returned to headline again at Macroom, and Hot Press magazine was once more prominent around the fringes. Still finding its feet in the local marketplace, where it was still regarded as a curiosity, Stokes and his small team succeeded in attracting a number of high-profile musicians and personal guests into the belly of the beast, among them Bob Geldof and Johnny Rotten, and built an improvised awards ceremony into the weekend’s proceedings. And so the first ever Hot Press music awards took place in Coolcower House Hotel, outside Macroom, once Gallagher had completed his set.
Rotten’s journey to Cork, and then onwards to the festival site, has long been the stuff of local legend. His band, The Sex Pistols, had recently come asunder as spectacularly as they’d briefly turned popular music on its head and, now trading as John Lydon, he had re-established himself quickly. With a new band, Public Image Limited, already on the go and about to record its first album, he boarded a flight from London to Cork dressed in priest’s garb. Following an encounter on-board with a couple of nuns, it was only the intervention of Niall Stokes and B.P. Fallon, who was working as a publicist for the event in Macroom, that helped him avoid arrest on landing in Ireland.
Both of Johnny Rotten’s parents are Irish: – his mother, Mary Barry, is from Carrigrohane, twenty miles from Macroom, and the singer spent many of his childhood summers back in Ireland among his cousins. By fetching up in County Cork, even on such tenuous grounds, Rotten – like Rory Gallagher – was in effect ‘coming home’.
Herman Kemp was also at that Gallagher show. And in the days before carefully curated media access and strong-armed public relations, took a number of terrific snaps at both the live show and, afterwards, around the tables at those Hot Press awards. He’d travelled down from the city with his friend, Con Downing, his Pentax camera and a bag of high-end lenses borrowed from a colleague on the teaching staff up in The Mon, Brother Leader. Leader’s name will be well known to northside men of a particular generation :- he also ran a film club in the primary school and played westerns and war films in the school hall using his own projector.
Con Downing was another keen music fan and nascent writer who went on to be a mainstay on the Cork journalism circuit, eventually becoming editor of ‘The Southern Star’ newspaper, where he still resides.
Savvy young rakes on the go, Herman and Con’s passes allowed them to drive right into the grounds of Macroom Castle, past the security cordon provided by the local Gaelic football club and straight to a specially constructed front-of-stage hospitality area set aside for the great and the good. In which they enjoyed themselves royally.
And I know this now because, after forty-three years, Herman and myself have recently been re-connected; – it’s difficult to hide around these parts when you have such a distinctive handle and live in a small country. By way of standing up his story, he’s given us a number of his original photographs from The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival, 1978 – and the subsequent do – and also his permission to use them here.
Now ten years retired from teaching, having entered the trade as a callow and energetic nineteen year-old, we are grateful to him and humbled in equal part.