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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.

 

 

 

 

ELVIS COSTELLO – TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

 

A friend of my father’s blagged me in through a side door to see Depeche Mode  at The City Hall in Cork in October, 1982 but, on the drive home afterwards, all I could really remember was the aggressive support set from a shambling local band called Microdisney, who were jeered and baited throughout. ‘Any requests ?’, enquired the singer at one point ? ‘Get off the fucking stage, ye’re shit’, came a response from the middle of the crowd. And maybe Microdisney were shit, who knows ? But they certainly left a mark of sorts and, for years thereafter, I slavishly followed their fortunes and numerous misfortunes.

I’m still not entirely sure what makes a great live show or an impactful set but I certainly know what makes a poor one and, over the many years I’ve since spent beside mixing desks all over the world, I’ve seen far more implosions than fireworks. That which makes live music so compelling and attractive in theory – unpredictability, surprise, potential, possibilities – also make it so unreliable and often so unsatisfactory an experience in practice.

There was a time when I saw twenty bands a week, every week. This was back when I had no meaningful ties or responsibilities, had few other interests and when I wore my social stamina like a badge. No show was too small, no band too pointless, no pint too flat, no toilet too nuclear, no venue too unwelcoming. During that decade in the fog, live music was one of the few things that really mattered ;- forget the quality, feel the width.

But during those years I was fortunate too to see some pretty blistering stuff and I’ve been floored on occasion by the sheer magic of a handful of acts who, in an absolutely subjective way and for whatever reason, spun my feet like they played with my heart. I saw a nascent Radiohead at very close quarters, saw Nirvana support Sonic Youth twice and The Frank And Walters play a magnificent set for an invited record company in a rehearsal room in Cork. I’ve seen The Pixies play to a largely disinterested crowd of three hundred people in Amherst, Massachusetts while they were the most exhilarating live band anywhere and saw Suede – ‘the best new band in Britain’ – a week after they  appeared on the front of Melody Maker before they’d released a single note. I’ve seen The Divine Comedy in a series of different pig-pens in London and U2 in football stadia all over Europe. I was there when The Cranberries played The College Bar in U.C.C., when Therapy? played upstairs in The White Horse and when Pulp played The Rock Garden in Crown Alley to 60 people one Saturday.

plecs Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello plecs. Pic Colm O’Callaghan

And yet I’m not sure if I’ll ever see a better live show than the one I saw Elvis Costello play in Dublin’s National Concert Hall in April, 1999. Backed only by Steve Nieve on piano and, for a handful of numbers, by himself on acoustic guitar, Elvis played thirty songs in two hours, scattering a typically wide-ranging set with the guts of ‘Painted From Memory’, a collection of sassy piano-based ballads he’d recently recorded in collaboration with Burt Bacharach.

Drawing from an exceptional and far-reaching body of work that transcends the years like it does the genres, The Beloved Entertainer made every single blow count and, from the top – a searing ‘Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone’ from ‘All This Useless Beauty’ his intentions were clear and his aim true. At his best, Elvis is a master craftsman and an often untouchable live performer and, even two hours later, was still reluctant to wrap and go. As the house lights came on, he laid into a remarkable a capella take on ‘Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4’ and, with all of the stage mics turned off, bounced his voice off of the walls of the NCH like a bored teenager working a bionic yo-yo.

But as always, there’s another context too ;- my companion that evening in the stalls was an Elvis fan who I’d met through friends. We had a shared love of good music and sport and, sixteen years, one marriage and three daughters later, still look back on our tentative first steps from Cassidy’s on Camden Street around to Earlsfort Terrace in the rain. And, although neither of us would probably care to admit it, thank Elvis for taking care of the real business.

NOTE : This piece also appears in ‘In Concert ;- Favourite Gigs Of Ireland’s Music Community’ [Hope Publications], published in December 2016 to raise money for the Irish Red Cross, especially in it’s efforts to assist those forced to flee their homes in Syria.

The book, which we seriously recommend, is available to buy via http://hopecollectiveireland.com/2016/12/15/supporting-syrian-refugees/

U2 – WELCOME TO THE CABARET

 

The announcements in early January that U2 were parking the release of an intended album and were instead loading their bases to tour ‘The Joshua Tree’ on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of it’s issue, won’t have taken regular watchers of the veteran band by surprise. ‘Songs Of Experience’ had initially been touted as a quick-fire follow-up and companion piece to 2014’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’, even if more specific detail wasn’t forthcoming, a tack favoured by a band that, even now, likes to play with a closed hand. ‘Innocence’ was recorded in a  myriad of locations by multiple producers and a team of engineers and sounds like it was a real struggle to complete. And so it’s easy to see why the band has re-ordered it’s to-do list ;- with a big birthday  looming, the associated commercial opportunities are simply too  attractive to ignore. The line between band and brand is indeed a fine  one and U2 have played fast and loose with it for years.

 

The band has always been as pragmatic as it’s been notoriously driven and competitive, especially in the corporate field. Writing about the ticketing mechanism used for the band’s date in Dublin’s Croke Park next July for instance, Jim Carroll has pointed out in his excellent Irish  Times blog, ‘On The Record’ how ‘the same corporate entity is  promoting the U2 [Joshua Tree] tour, managing the band, flogging the tickets and operating one of the biggest secondary ticket markets’.

 

On the day of the announcement of the forthcoming tour, Adam Clayton, the band’s bass player, told Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio One that  ‘desperate times’ motivated the band to re-visit ‘The Joshua Tree’ thirty years on. But while many believed he was referring to Donald Trump’s election to the office of American President and the growing sense of global anxiety that’s followed it, he could just as easily have been referencing U2’s creative and critical nose-dive, which started in earnest over ten years ago and which shows no sign of abating. Simply  put, U2 have ‘the drabs’ and have been re-cycling bitty old riffs and scraps of familiar lyrical conceits for ages.    

 

It’s not the first time that U2 has shelved a record, of course. The early sessions for what eventually became the band’s 2009 album, ‘No Line On The Horizon’ were started three years beforehand with Rick Rubin, one of the co-founders of the Def Jam label and unquestionably one of  the most important producers in the history of contemporary popular  music. The band’s previous album, ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’, was an uncomplicated, mildly diverting but ultimately familiar sounding U2 record. And so the prospect of a creative marriage with Rubin on it’s follow-up suggested, fleetingly as it transpired, the sort of possibilities realised a decade previously on the two most lateral of all of U2’s albums, ‘Zooropa’ and ‘Pop’, when the band cut loose while under the influence of producers Flood and Howie B. And paid dearly for the privilege at the hands of critics, who largely panned them, and fans,who rejected them.

  

But although Rubin’s ‘Beach’ sessions sound far more conventional than one might have expected, the marriage was dissolved quickly and the band returned instead to the more familiar arms of it’s long-time squad of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, aided by a large support cast of assistants and engineers. Rubin clearly wasn’t taken by, or had the patience for, the band’s preferred way of working ;- riff it out in studio and let’s see what gives. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, The Edge claimed that ‘it’s in the process of recording that we really do our writing’. And, with reference to the abandoned Rubin sessions added :- ‘we’d almost have to make a record with Brian [Eno] and Daniel [Lanois] first, then go and re-record it with Rick Rubin’. Even to those of us who’d grown accustomed to U2 at half-throttle, this was a pretty exceptional reveal.

 

Steve Lillywhite had first seen the band work this way during the studio sessions for it’s second album, 1981’s ‘October’. He’d already produced U2’s debut, ‘Boy’, in the relatively modest Windmill Lane facility in Dublin city and was back again behind the desk when an under-prepared band struggled to bring a follow-up record together on the studio floor. U2 have never traded as the most prolific of writers and, having flogged the best of their early material on 1980’s ‘Boy’, found themselves under real pressure to deliver a second album on schedule. But despite helping the band to make an initial splash in Britain, ‘October’ was really no more than a collection of loose ideas and half-imagined words stitched together in studio, a point made by Lillywhite some years back during an interview with the www.atu2.com website. ‘They pretty much exhausted all of their songs on ‘Boy’’, he said. ‘They were touring ‘Boy’ and they used to play ‘I Will Follow’ twice because they didn’t have enough songs. So when it came to doing ‘October’, they didn’t really have very long to prepare it’. And it shows :- the title track is Spinal Tap’s ‘Lick My Lovepump’, ‘I Threw A Brick Through A Window’ is a meandering jam, ‘Scarlet’ is random riffing and so on and so forth.

 

Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois go back with U2 to 1984’s ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ when, during a critical cross-over period in the band’s career, they succeeded in pushing them out of what had already become comfortable territory. They also pushed U2 out into the sticks :- the record was laid down, for the most part in the vast, ornate ballroom at Slane Castle in County Meath, and the layers of production and additional sound design on ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ reflect the extent of the surroundings in which slabs of it was conceived. Much of it brought to the table by Eno, in particular.

 

 

Barry Devlin’s documentary film, ‘The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire’ is an excellent portrait of a starry-eyed young band at work, especially revealing in how, as early as 1983/84, U2 were approaching the studio recording process and regarding the role of the producer. After three albums and the broader cut-through achieved by ‘War’, which was also produced by Steve Lillywhite, the band had of course earned the right to take a looser, more unhindered approach to studio work. But Brian Eno’s contribution to ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ is vast, none moreso than on ‘Pride’, the record’s signature piece, which he elevates – as seen in Devlin’s film – – from a series of sinewy riffs into something far more defined and magical. ‘The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire’ captures Eno variously as producer, mentor, writer, teacher and guru :- if Devlin were to document U2 at such close quarters today, what – and who – might he find inside the studio walls ?

 

In Joshua Klein’s 2009 Pitchfork interview with Eno, filed to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, the producer explained that the band wanted him on that album was because they wanted ‘to be changed unrecognisably’. And by effecting that change, Eno and Lanois became fundamental to the scale and extent of U2’s global breakthrough and, consequently, their entire raison d’etre. So much so that by the time the two producers had completed their work on ‘No Line On The Horizon’, they were also finally credited as co-writers and, to all intents, the fifth and sixth members of the group. If, as The Edge had previously explained, it was in the process of recording that the band did it’s writing, then what was it exactly that U2 brought to the studio with them at the start of that project ? Because ‘Horizon’, like ‘Songs Of Innocence’,  sounds exactly like a record painted by numbers and laid down by a committee.

 

U2 wouldn’t be the first, and certainly won’t be the last of the great bands to work in such a manner. Johnny Rogan reveals in ‘Morrissey And Marr : The Severed Alliance’, that much of The Smiths’ finest material came together very quickly during studio sessions, often from half-raw riffs that were vigorously jammed out on the fly. Indeed the band’s long-time producer, Stephen Street, maintains that during the recording of the group’s final album,‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, his input into the string arrangement on ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ was such that he could have been given a writing credit.

 

Although The Smiths were only ever together for barely five years, their career – like much of the early part of U2’s – was characterised by a relentless and often reckless touring-recording-touring schedule. ‘Strangeways’, for instance, was recorded off of the back of a long American tour and many of the songs that made it onto that album were seriously under-cooked before the formal sessions began. Its been decades since U2 have had those kind of scheduling problems and time pressures but, from 2000 onwards, they’ve been re-mining the same seam for ever-decreasing returns. And the more that basic songwriting has become an issue, the more desperate – and ultimately cluttered – their sound has become in search of those familiar, big statement pieces.

 

In that same http://www.atu2.com interview, Steve Lillywhite suggests that the band has consistently asked him back because he brings clarity to what they do. But by their own standards, U2’s recorded output has lacked real clarity and any sort of positive form line since ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, their last truly full-bodied album. And the Cinemascope cut of ‘The Joshua Tree’ that The Edge referred to recently in Rolling Stone magazine is far removed from the wedding video finish of the band’s last three elpees. With U2 cut adrift in the roaring forties, the suite of songs on ‘The Joshua Tree’, must pretty much haunt them now.

 

The more flaccid and middling U2’s records have become, the bigger and more complicated their accompanying live shows have been ;- spectacle and scale plastering over the obvious. To that end, the ‘Songs Of Innocence’ tour was essentially ‘U2 : The Musical’, a flabby and over- rated theatre show that only really kicked into gear up the final straight when the band dipped into it’s back-catalogue to just about salvage it from the ordinary. And ‘The Joshua Tree’ cabaret is an obvious extension of that broader theme, U2 celebrating themselves and their achievements – some of which are still scarcely believable – under-pinned by the shake and roll of some of their greatest hits.

 

The ‘Innocence’ tour in Dublin was the first time that the emotional under-lay that usually accompanies their Irish shows wasn’t enough to fully hold the weight of the band’s ambition. Bono’s voice, previously the fulcrum around which every single great U2 moment has resounded, sounded weary and weak, hindered by the lethargic set-list. And from my seat in the stalls, I found it difficult to buy into the giddy hoopla that surrounded the record’s lyrics ;- in the absence of imposing signature tunes, the autobiographical aspect of the words had attracted much of the critical focus beforehand. But Bono has long dealt in the confessional, themes of childhood, aspects of family life, parenting, adolescence and loss. And far more convincingly so on U2’s earliest records too. By comparison, the likes of ‘Iris’, ‘The Miracle of Joey Ramone’ and ‘Cedarwood Road’ just sound as hollow and incomplete as the most featherweight material on ‘October’, as if they’d been beaten into shape to accompany an elaborate set and lighting design.

 

A point that was also made over five years previously by the Dublin writer and journalist Michael Ross, who has observed the band at close quarters since it’s inception and has written with terrific insight on U2 over many years. And never more so than in a long feature for The Sunday Times in 2009 following the release of ‘No Line On The Horizon’- and the opulent live tour that accompanied it – that forensically deconstructed the band’s creative decline using thirty years of personal testimony and first-hand experience to scaffold his thesis. That prescient piece at atU2.Com. is essential for anyone with even a passing interest in the complicated and compelling history of Ireland’s most successful ever rock band, and it was foremost in my mind as I sat watching on in The Point.

 

I made the mistake of articulating my views on the ‘Innocence’ tour to my companion that night in November, 2015 ;- my wife. Devoted, loyal and steadfast, I pale into insignificance when she turns her focus onto the small matter of U2, with whom she’s been smitten for the guts of thirty years, for better and, this last while, for worse. And I’m still paying the price for my loose tongue. She’ll be there once again come July and, like most other long-standing U2 fans, will travel in good faith, delighted to have stayed the course with them, still fearless in devotion. And why not ?

 

Croke Park itself – and the organisation to which it belongs, The Gaelic Athletic Association – has changed beyond recognition in the thirty years since she first saw U2 anoint the holy ground to the strains of ‘The Joshua Tree’. The band itself may be caught in a long-term creative torpor but remain one of the most fascinating, infuriating, driven and ambitious acts in the history of popular music. Like the hurlers of Cork, who’ve long lapsed into listlessness, they have tradition and history on their side, even if that’s been eroded slowly over time. And yet, as we’ve seen over the years, they’re at their most lethal and dangerous when they’ve been counted out.

 

But for now that count continues, steady and backwards.

 

 

FANNING’S FAB FIFTY

Whenever I hear Dave Fanning on the radio these days, he’s either live on the weightier end of the RTÉ Radio One schedule paying respects on the nation’s behalf to the latest dead rock and roll superstar or else he’s presenting his own programme on 2FM and making like he’s always done ;- a fish out of water, a man out of breath. I strongly suspect he derives a menacing satisfaction from still battling the conditions, the prevailing public mood, general trendiness and cool, clinging to what he knows best and shaping like he’s always done. In a world gone bite-sized, he’s a comforting presence to those of us who, back when we were all less anxious, saw him as the king of kings.

But like many of those to whom he’s consistently devoted the air-waves, he’s of a dying breed himself now too ;- the weekend mornings must seem like a house of appalling horrors to someone who’s long been defined by the freedom and space of late nights and yet who’s also yearned for the centre of the mainstream weekday schedule too. The Dave Fanning Show now goes out on RTÉ Radio 2FM early every Saturday and Sunday morning, at 9AM, and yet, in spite of the slot and what surrounds him in it – a noisy playground, basically – the host still sounds as breezy, sussed and curious as he’s always done, only with the music pared back to a minimum. It’s the sort of light, untaxing and casual fare he can do – and quite probably does do – in his sleep.

Like many of you, there was a time when I was there with him on the frontline every single week-night, back when the names of Fanning and Ian Wilson, his long-time producer, were as important in their own way as those of Morrissey and Marr. I sucked in his every word, which was difficult enough given there were so many of them in his average sentence, and always had a fresh cassette standing by, ready to record a new session or a forthcoming ‘pre-release’. ‘One of four from them on tonight’s programme’, he’d often announce at the top of the show, referring to a new R.E.M. album or a Smiths track he’d been sent as a white-label exclusive, maybe even by the band itself ? And you’d often suffer through a Red Lorry Yellow Lorry single, an obtuse Ivor Cutler cut or a demo from Yes, Lets or Cuba Dares – [‘from Dublin but based in London’, as if that were an excuse ?] – knowing that, around the corner, were far more handsome pleasures.

Like ‘Sunday Lunch At The Geldofs’ by I, Ludicrous. Or ‘Kissing With Confidence’ by Will Powers or ‘Waiting For A Train’ by Flash And The Pan. And later, after Richard Crowley or Bob Powell interrupted the show at the halfway mark with a news bulletin, Dave might directly cue a new Prefab Sprout track taken from a forthcoming album weeks ahead of it’s scheduled release. Or something freshly minted from The Stars Of Heaven. Or Microdisney. Or a myriad of other left-field acts, each of them as pressing and urgent as the next.

Some of whom would then fetch up at the end of every year on what was variously called ‘Fanning’s Festive Fifty’ and ‘Fanning’s Fab Fifty’, a seasonal chart show compiled from the votes cast by the programme’s listeners who’d nominate their favourite songs played on The Rock Show during the previous twelve months. And which tended to consist of the same core of thirty songs every year, most of them by U2, R.E.M. and The Smiths, but augmented by the odd waif and stray from the margins out beyond the indie fringe. Like ‘Bike’, by Pink Floyd, from their acid-soaked ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ elpee.

Like much of Fanning’s schtick, the idea of a seasonal list show was lifted wholesale from John Peel’s long-running, stuck-in-the-periphery radio programme on BBC Radio One, where an end-of-year ‘Fab 50’ had endured since the mid 1970s. But this mattered little, at least not to those of us stranded along the Southern coast where it was often as difficult to get a decent international radio signal as it was to get onto the waiting list for a domestic telephone.

Admitting a fondness for Fanning would often mark you out as a strange one and I hear the same criticisms of him now, from colleagues and peers, as I did thirty years ago from my school friends. But as a radio broadcaster, I’d put Fanning at his peak up there among the most significant we’ve ever produced, with a breadth of reference and an easy curiosity that’s as wide and important in its own way as those of Pat Kenny, Olivia O’Leary and Andy O’Mahony. And, as with Kenny, I suspect that history will regard him far more favourably than many of those who have long taken him for granted and more recently, just written him off as a beaten docket. If all he’s ever done is to so passionately regard emerging, new and alternative music with courtesy and, even more critically, to afford that music – and those who made it – the oxygen of the national airwaves, then he’s done the country a real service.

And I say this as someone who, although I’ve long shared the wide RTÉ campus with him, don’t really know him at all. Beyond the odd, random salute or conversation around the shop and, one time, a couple of lovely pints with him down in The Leeson Lounge after work, for no other reason than it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. But in the event of a mass, RTÉ-wide fire drill, you’d certainly know what side of the car-park to line up on, and alongside whom.

I first became one of his regular listeners during the early 1980s after the show moved from its original slot at midnight to a more accessible one between 8 and 10, and when he’d come on air every night to the strains of a theme song, the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 single, ‘Oh Well’, written by Peter Green. That choice of signature is interesting in itself too :- despite Fanning’s long association with the left-of-field and the marginal, he’s as comfortable and as knowledgeable on the classics as he is on the new and emerging, especially strong on the likes of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Which was obvious yet again during the last twelve months when he provided some of the most dexterous, off-the-cuff critical analysis of the likes of Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen that was heard on any outlet.

The RTÉ Guide would list the show very simply, as ‘Dave Fanning’ – as it still does today – with a small credit beneath it for ‘Producer : Ian Wilson’. And I’d take myself into the good room each evening with my school books and the best of intentions and lose myself there for a couple of hours, distracted away from the likes of Seán Ó Ríordáin, Máirtín Ó Direáin, Yeats and Kavanagh by the more attractive couplets, meters and rhymes of Michael Stipe, Mike Scott and Bowie. And it was compulsive, addictive stuff :- I received a fine education up in the old school but I completed another entire curriculum outside of it at the same time, based on riveting work by the likes of Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, Pete Shelley and Ian McCulloch on a long, honours-level course delivered by Fanning and devised by Wilson, the impact of which still endures to this day.

On February 6th, 1984, RTÉ’s early-evening youth programme, Youngline, featured a short profile of Fanning, shot on film, in which he leaves a house somewhere on the southside of Dublin, ferrying a heap of albums under his arm, and sets out for work down the road in Montrose. He gets into a startlingly unspectacular car, slides a cassette into the stereo and R.E.M.’s ‘Radio Free Europe’ comes on. And, from my armchair at home in Blackpool, that’s how I genuinely believed Fanning spent his days ;- surrounded by vinyl, cassettes, demos and then, later, the vast vaults in the RTÉ basement, carefully hand-picking the songs that would, in the evening, help to make Ireland a safer place.

And I saw this up-close one night, maybe twelve or thirteen years later, when I dropped over to the radio building to watch Fanning in action in advance of a piece I was hoping to do for a music television series I’d devised for young teenagers. Sure enough, there he was, up to his neck in compact discs, live to the nation from one studio while, immediately next door, he was recording another show at the same time, with help on the cross-faders from his then producer, Jim Lockhart. And if, on either of the shows, it sounded like he’d lost his train of thought or forgotten what the last track he played was, then it’s very likely he had.

Lockhart would remind him of who was who and what went where and, if Dave didn’t make it from one studio to the other in time to pick up a link, Jim would just run in another disc or stop recording and do a quick edit on the fly. I thought it was one of the most chaotic, reckless and brazen – and ultimately brilliant – things I’d seen and it confirmed much of what I’d long suspected about the show.

But if Fanning was always occupied at the front-of-house, it was Ian Wilson, the faceless one back in the boiler-room, who made the whole operation click and who, I suspect, took most of the bullets for the pair of them for the guts of two decades. From the opening of Radio 2 onwards, the work they did was regarded by many, inside and outside of RTÉ, as just plain weird. And I’m sure there’ve been numerous folk within the walls of Montrose who’ve attempted to see this kind of enterprise off for good over the years ;- those who’ve long stressed the importance of bottom lines but for whom ‘Blue Lines’ and ‘Parallel Lines’ just don’t exist.

And, who knows, maybe one day those wishes will be granted ? But when the curtain finally does come down, Fanning and Wilson – like John Peel and his own long-standing side-kick and producer, John Walters – will stand to epitomise the very essence of a public purpose. It’s easy to spin and bend the great Reithian tenets of education, information and entertainment for all sorts of theoretical purposes but The Rock Show, wilfully alternative as it was in every respect, was where all that became manifest in reality on a nightly basis.

I heard it said glibly of Wilson once that, when it came to young bands recording for The Rock Show, the more out of tune you were, the more he liked you. But it’s certainly true that his outlook has always been rooted in the fundamental dogma of punk rock and, because of that, it’s unlikely I’d be doing the job I do now. In fact No Disco would never have even got off the page were it not for the trail he’d created and, when the series was taken off the air years later, it was no surprise to see himself and Fanning bat so publicly for it’s retention.

Given the changing shape of media, and the often deliberate blurring of the last remaining distinctions between commercial and public imperatives, Wilson’s logic, to my mind at least, determines the enduring value of citizen-funded output ;- just give everyone a voice, irrespective of how tuneless that voice may be. And although it’s unlikely they’ll ever commemorate him with a bronze bust around the grounds at RTÉ, he’ll certainly be remembered where it matters ;- within the music collections of a number of at least two generations who had their heads turned and their minds bent by the wonder of alternative sounds and the possibilities suggested by those sounds.

The history of what was first Radio 2 and is now RTÉ Radio 2FM, will be defined largely by the legacies of Gerry Ryan, Larry Gogan and The Rock Show which, although scheduled consistently on the fringes of the schedule, has arguably left the most enduring mark of all, given both it’s longevity and it’s parallel association with U2. Indeed as U2 were approaching their critical pomp during the early and mid 1990s, so too was Fanning who, unlike some of his more shameless peers, succeeded in landing a handful of tidy front-of-camera jobs on terrestrial television in Britain. And he did so because, at his best, he was a sharp presenter and deft interviewer, a fact not lost on those at Channel 4, for whom his lateral approach was perfectly in line with the channel’s founding principles.

It was U2 who, in 1980, recorded the first ever Fanning session, a regular feature of The Rock Show during it’s long history whereby young and emerging bands from all over Ireland were recorded in the studios in Montrose, usually over a two-day period, specifically for broadcast on the programme. Many of those recordings are wonderfully curated at http://fanningsessions.wordpress.com , an invaluable resource that’s forever worth dipping into.

‘The sessions are now part of the scenery of the Irish music industry’, Ian Wilson told Alan Corr in an RTÉ Guide feature piece in April, 1991. ‘We’ve grown up with the industry, the sessions are now part of the development of any Irish band’. And he was right :- practically every young Irish band worth it’s salt recorded at least one session in the studios in the RTÉ Radio building, faithfully engineered over the years by the likes of Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, Paddy McBreen and Pete Hollidai. With Wilson stalking the control room throughout, making sure the recordings all ran to schedule, that the bands had all been given lunch vouchers for the RTÉ canteen and that, before leaving the premises, they’d all signed the release forms that would allow him to broadcast the material. And get the bands paid.

And this was the way it was for numerous young bands from all over Ireland for the guts of twenty years. Wilson would get routinely excited by something he’d heard on a rough, unsolicited demo tape or at a random live show and, in an inimitable manner, would then summon what were often unsuspecting, un-prepared and under-cooked bands to the Donnybrook sprawl for a couple of days, where they’d record and mix three or four original songs for The Rock Show, subsidised by the licence-fee.

The Frank And Walters were one of those bands. They’ve enjoyed a long association with Fanning and Wilson and recorded an absolute belter of a session in Studio 8 during the early part of 1991, as they were gathering pace at a serious clip from their base in Sullivan’s Quay school in Cork. The band was back in Montrose in June, 1997, having enjoyed a scarcely believable six years and now, dropped by a major label, were in Dublin at the invitation of The Rock Show to commit another session to tape. After Wilson heard that some of the party planned to doss down in a car on the RTÉ campus over-night, he rang his wife and insisted that half of them stay with his own family instead. I took two others with me down the road to Sandymount, where I was sharing a small house at the time with an actor friend who awoke the following morning to find half of one of his favourite bands sprawled all over his well-kept front-room in their scunters.

Those Frank And Walters sessions are among a host of important, home-spun recordings commissioned by Wilson for the Fanning programmes over the course of almost twenty years. By their nature, given the vagaries of the music industry at non-league level and the traditional baggage carried by aspiring young musicians with notions, the quality and extent of that vast library is varied and wide, as you’d expect it to be. I had my own head turned over the years by sessions from the likes of The Dixons, Above The Thunderclouds and The Honey Thieves, but there are hundreds more ;- where those recordings now reside, and whether or not some of them even still exist, I couldn’t tell you. But I do know that, buried in attics and drawers in housing estates all over Ireland, there are old-style BASF cassettes, quarter inch reel-to-reels and dusty DAT tapes that contain, for better or for worse, the work of what were once young, nervy hands and big dreamers. And I imagine that there are grown men and women in their mid-fifties now who, from time to time, catch up as life-long friends and, whenever the conversation runs dry, maybe remember a time when, fleetingly, that phone-call from Ian Wilson opened up a world of opportunity and possibility in front of their eyes. And who, in the same breath, wonder what might have been had the RTÉ sound engineer who mixed their session hadn’t over-loaded their four best original songs with too much bass-end.

The odd time, a couple of those session tracks even made it onto The Fab Fifty, usually on the back of shameless gerrymandering and clever postcard campaigns co-ordinated often by a friend of the band who, in the absence of either good looks or even the most basic competence on an instrument, aspired instead to band management, and a namecheck as such in the Hot Press Yearbook. And for what, ultimately ? Because while Fanning would string out The Fab Fifty over the course of several nights in the run-up to Christmas, building up a moderate degree of suspense as he went, it would become apparent the further you drove on that the mighty live version of ‘Bad’, from U2’s ‘Wide Awake In America’ album had, once again, crossed the line as the nation’s Favourite ‘Rock Show’ track of the year.

For years, Ian Wilson had his considerable sights trained elsewhere too. Every June he’d assemble fifteen of the country’s brightest, best and most brazen new bands, often on the strength of radio sessions he’d recorded with them, and get them away on an annual showcase in Sir Henry’s in Cork over three consecutive nights. Cork Rock was where, once again, he took on the work of a murder of record company talent spotters and put the cream of the unsigned local crop on a plate for them in one of the best live music venues in the country over the course Bank Holiday weekend. And, it goes without saying, recorded all of the output for broadcast later on The Rock Show too. I’ve written at length about Cork Rock previously and these pieces are available to read here and here. But those live shows were essentially extensions of the work that Wilson and Fanning got through week in, week out back on 2FM and, by taking the show on the road, forged an even further connection with a loyal core of The Rock Show’s audience. For whom such things really, really mattered.

I usually hear The Dave Fanning Show now while I’m ferrying my daughters all over Dublin for matches, training and the like. Indeed, the only real positive about an early start in Saint Maurs of a Saturday or a Sunday morning is that, as currently constituted, Dave is there on the dial to break up the journey and put parents, mentors and under-age hurlers and footballers into ‘the zone’. And inevitably, during another of Dave’s long, meandering questions to a guest, one of the kids will ask me if we can switch to something – anything – else. And I can’t and I won’t because I’ve travelled so far with Fanning now that I don’t actually think that I can.

At which point the back-seat crew promptly leaves ‘the zone’ again.

NOTE :- A special radio documentary, ‘The Studio 8 Sessions’, goes out on RTÉ Radio 2FM on Thursday, December 29th next, at 6PM. And in it, the likes of Gavin Friday, Christy Dignam, Liam Ó Maonlaoí and others recall their own experiences when, as young musicians, they recorded radio sessions for ‘The Rock Show’.

THE WEDDING PRESENT LIVE IN LIMERICK, NOVEMBER 28TH, 2016

 

Almost thirty years after the release of their first album, ‘George Best’, and The Wedding Present are still perpetually on the verge of a tuning crisis. And while there have been several iterations of the group since, that point where noisy guitars, snarled vocals and electronic tuners collide has seldom sounded as unstable ;- its just one of a number of curious traits that help them mark out their turf.

Ireland has long been a regular stop-off for them, touring as incessantly as they’ve done over the decades, even if Limerick has often missed out when the live dates have been divvied out around the country. But tonight, five weeks from Christmas, the informed word out in the front bar is that advance sales are strong and that we’re in for a decent showing. And we are, on-stage and off of it.

Scanning Mick Dolan’s warehouse – one of the country’s most well-disposed venues and now an essential cog on the provincial circuit – I’d strongly suspect that many of those who’ve come out on a cold Monday night were also there, out in Castletroy back in December, 1993, when The Wedding Present were last around these parts. In the years since, the band has rarely ventured too far from their guiding principles, which are resoundingly on the fringe and defiantly self-sufficient. They’ve made several terrific records during that time too, many of them over-looked and that, on a surface level, have been pitched increasingly against the laws of diminishing returns. The most recent of which, ‘Going, Going’, underpins tonight’s sinewy twenty-song set.

As with all bands who’ve been active and as productive for so long, the songbook is so vast and wide now that much of the back-catalogue of 250-odd songs remains unwrapped and most of the requests from the nostalgics around the hall fall on deaf ears. And yet the gut of tonight’s set still references some of the most memorable records in the recent history of neat British indie ;- ‘Dalliance’ and ‘Dare’ from 1991’s terrific ‘Seamonsters’. The ageless ‘Brassneck’ from 1989’s ‘Bizarro’ and the scalding single, ‘Come Play With Me’ – with it’s ferocious coda – from 1993’s ‘Hit Parade’. And over the closing furlongs, ‘My Favourite Dress’, one of a number of stand-outs from ’George Best’, reminds the partisans – in the unlikely event any of them require the prompt – of just how vital and urgent those agitated, lashed guitars sounded when the band first emerged during the height of the NME’s c86 phase. Indeed one of the only concessions to the mildly modern tonight comes in the form of David Gedge’s set-list, which he appears to be reading from an iPod that’s been mounted at the front of the stage. Everything changes while nothing changes, as it were.

Gedge has long been the band’s essence and spiritual lead and, in his trademark black denim cuts a fit, robust and wry figure as line leader and life President where, beneath the gnarl, lies an unfailing ear for a tune and a pirate’s eye for a kitchen-sink paralysis. And even on some of the more recent material – like 2005’s ‘Always The Quiet One’ from the long-lost ‘Take Fountain’ album – the references are as humdrum as they’ve ever been. The sun rarely shines in Wedding Present songs and Gedge’s consistently unrequited cast of [mostly] men hardly ever drive and are almost always either on foot or on public transport on their way, one suspects, to shift-work on local industrial estates ;- if any one Wedding Present image captures a thirty-year history in a single breath it’s the line on ‘My Favourite Dress’ that mentions ‘a long walk home in the pouring rain’.

One of the band’s most vehement champions in the British music press, throughout the earlier part of their career especially, was the Melody Maker writer, Dave Jennings, who passed away suddenly back in 2014. I knew Jennings, who was from up around Bradford, back when we both freelanced in London in the early 1990s and during which he batted consistently and stridently for The Wedding Present, often in the face of pretty vicious peer cynicism. A regular on the terraces at Leyton Orient and a staunch Labour party member who canvassed for them in the Finchley constituency during a period when Margaret Thatcher enjoyed one of the largest personal votes in the history of British politics, Jennings was known to some of the Melody Maker staff as ‘The Patron Saint of Lost Causes’ ;- in many respects, himself and The Wedding Present were well got.

And that sense of ‘the lost cause’ permeates every single fibre of tonight’s show. If any one group has succeeded for so long to connect with the absolute ordinariness of life for the standard season-ticket holder down in the lower leagues, it’s The Wedding Present. A point borne out after the ninety minute set concludes and we convene afterwards for the post-mortem. Where we’re quickly joined by two slightly older men, one from Wythenshawe in Manchester, the other from Southport, just outside of Liverpool, both of whom have travelled to Limerick to see one of their favourite bands. The free-form, post-Hornby conversation that followed was dominated by pop music trivia and by detailed talk of the core British indie-scene from post-punk onwards, before veering casually into a long discussion about the best Everton starting eleven between the years 1975 and 1985. In the worst traditions of condescending journalists, we made our excuses and lost them both at the next lights, having been comprehensively out-anoraked.

Our new friends from the north certainly appreciated the appearance in tonight’s set of a rare cover of ‘Mothers’ by New Zealand’s Jean-Paul Sartre Experience and which appeared on that band’s 1989 album, ‘The Size Of Food’. And, cushioned in and around it, some of the many ace cuts on ‘Going, Going’, ‘Two Bridges’, ‘Rachel’ and ‘Little Silver’ prominent among them. They close it out with another new one, ‘Santa Monica’, during which they hit optimum chugging and after which Gedge promptly leaves the stage to take position at the band’s merchandising stall at the back of the venue. Where the new album is available and where there’s a brisk demand, unsurprisingly, for the vinyl version.