THE STARS, THE THRILLS AND THE CLOCKS

 

One of the more attractive and visceral away trips for many of those involved in Gaelic games in Dublin is the winding drive up to Johnny Fox’s pub in Glengullen, the short walk across the wild mountainside and over to Stars Of Erin, one of the smallest clubs in the county and one of the most unique.

I’ve made my way up there regularly over the years with my daughters:- they play for a neighbouring club and so matches and local blitzes at The Stars are a regular fixture for us. And if the games aren’t going well, the furze, the thin air and the views will invariably break the fall. So when your pocket-sized, eight year-old goalkeeper is having hassle with her air hurling, or if her ear-muffs aren’t fitting as comfortably as they might beneath her out-sized helmet, you’re still close enough and high enough to touch the face of God.

And then there’s the trip back down ;- the sort of journey that can easily lead off-track. Often the four miles or so across county bounds and into the new-age village of Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, where the artisan coffee and ice cream will quickly deaden a fella’s wallet. The essence of The Stars Of Erin is captured here in a terrific, re-assuring Irish Times profile by Ian O’Riordan that should be required reading for anyone swamped in the existential quagmire that goes with volunteering in the country’s largest sports organisation.

But while the bigger, more populated local clubs that surround them – Ballyboden St. Endas, Kilmacud Crokes, Cuala and even our own up in Ballinteer Saint Johns – have the numbers, scale, sponsors and profile to keep them trucking on another plane altogether, none of them have the rare beauty you get up at The Stars.

Which might explain how and why, every time I set foot up there, my mind is distracted towards another, off-road local wonder, The Stars Of Heaven, the one-time Dublin guitar band who, every bit as rarefied as their cosmic brothers and sisters in the mountains, still have an enigma of their own. Matched only, over many years, by the extent of their legend to a small but fiercely loyal band of anoraks and collectors.

 

 

If positive critical notices and unquestioning, die-hard fanaticism could be harvested, measured and sold, The Stars would have been one of the best-selling Irish acts of the last millennium. But they were never designed for that in the first place and their billing in contemporary Irish music history – honourable mentions alongside some of the city’s bigger beasts, references in the index and the odd footnote in broader pieces about guitars and the side-influence of country music – is fitting.

And to this end they’re still name-dropped frequently by men – and its practically always men – of a certain shape, age and short-sightedness – who invariably remember them more for what they weren’t and not for what they were.

The Stars might not have appreciated it at the time, but the rolling uncertainty that seemed to dog them throughout their six year existence may actually have conspired to bring the best from them. And they consistently did it their own way, regardless of how cack-handed that way sometimes looked and felt.

Sound-wise, they stood tall as an imperious guitar band with a wide frame of reference that went far beyond the obvious indie tropes of the period. Even if it was R.E.M., in the first instance, who enabled The Stars Of Heaven with whom, on many levels, they had plenty of common ground. Their bloodline went back to classic Americana, from Gram Parsons and The Byrds to The Band, with a flush Velvets finish and, often, a country swagger.

 

In the great traditions of the Australian band, The Go-Betweens – to whom they weren’t entirely dissimilar either – the writing duties were shared between the band’s primary pointmen, Stephen Ryan and Stan Erraught and, in their pomp, their material was as terrific as any and, generally, better and more tentacled than most. And yet The Stars could often be a frustrating and inconsistent live ticket – understandable enough given how fragile they often sounded on record – conveying a regular sense they might simply disintegrate mid-number and have to be carried off of a sound-stage somewhere. All of which only added to their lustre, of course, as regulars at what was once The Underground Bar on Dame Street will attest.

The Stars were on the fringes of a cluster of emerging, guitar-driven Dublin groups that built up their earliest stock at that small downstairs venue operated by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, during the mid- 1980s. Among them Something Happens, A House, Rex And Dino, Backwards Into Paradise, Guernica, The Slowest Clock and, later, Power Of Dreams and Whipping Boy. And as such, The Underground is rightly remembered as a vital and doggedly free-thinking stepping stone in the development of many of the country’s best and most interesting bands and performers during this time.

I’ve referred to Jeff, Noel and the venue on several occasions previously but easily the most perceptive and adroit piece on what is still one of Dublin’s most fondly-recalled dives is this written by one of the venue’s best-known graduates and a man who saw the place from every angle, including the tiny stage and what passed for the toilets.

The spirit of that bar and it’s small but obscenely colourful cohort of staff, patrons and various hangers-on – you’d go there as quickly for the nightly floorshow as you would for the music or the beer – is also captured, with contributions from some of its other alumni, on a short album, ‘Live At The Underground’, that was recorded there over consecutive nights in September, 1985. Released on Jeff’s own, strictly one-off label, Fear And Loathing Records, the record was primarily sold – or in many cases just given away – from behind the bar. And on it, early warning notices were served by Something Happens and A House, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, who contributed ‘Hey Little Child’ to the short, sharp six-tracker.

The history of Irish rock music during the 1980s is defined to a huge degree by U2’s global breakthrough and, in its slipstream, the industry’s determination – doomed and reckless as it was – to locate others like them around Ireland. But unlike Something Happens and A House, their contemporaries on ‘Live At The Underground’ and in whose company they’re frequently referenced, The Stars Of Heaven never got away on a major label :- they fetched up, instead, on Rough Trade Records, whose revered founder, Geoff Travis, in keeping with much of the band’s narrative, just didn’t like their first and only fully-formed studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’.

And so while, in their broken frame, The Stars were the absolute antithesis of U2’s stadium-sized ballast, they stayed outside many of the left-field conventions of the day too. Even if, in one of those unlikely codas so typical of the cracked looking glass of Irish popular music history, they briefly consorted with U2’s label, Mother Records, towards the end of their career. For whom they recorded – with the one-time R.E.M. producer, Mitch Easter – but never actually released any material.

I first came across The Stars on Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on what was then RTÉ Radio 2FM – where else ? – during that period in 1985 when they’d released their debut single, ‘Clothes Of Pride/’All About You’, on Eamonn Carr’s Hotwire label and were making regular cameos at The Underground. And after which they seemed to stay resident on the edge of everything, perhaps too tender and lyrically delicate for the general mood of the period, which could all be a bit rushed, loud and frantic and into which many of their peers slipped seamlessly.

And I should say that, to my mind, Stephen Ryan is easily the best Irish lyricist I’ve come across in my years spent hunting and collecting and, as recently as his 2015 album with The Drays, ‘Look Away Down Collins Avenue’, was still at it, working both ‘antihistamine’ and ‘Roger from Supertramp’ into one of the many magnificent songs on that elpee. His ability to knit words and sentiment so easily and convincingly would be worth a long-read of its own if one didn’t feel so consistently inadequate by comparison just looking at his work laid out.

It’s no surprise that The Stars seemed to keep their best work for the small hours. They recorded a number of mesmerising late night radio sessions over the years, initially for Fanning’s ‘Rock Show’ and then more notably for John Peel’s BBC One show where, in the dead of night, they sounded for once like they were perfectly in synch with time and space. Those recordings were made available on the Rough Trade mini-albums, ‘Sacred Heart Hotel’ and ‘Rain On The Sea’, which were both released in 1987. [The latter is actually the former, with an additional four track E.P. attached].

The Stars had everything and nothing in common with their peers back at The Underground. In their suede jackets, plaid shirts and smart boots – the uniform of the time, the clothes of pride – even at their loudest they still kept their guitars in check, in open defiance of many of the core conventions of the time. Like several of those who came after them – Hinterland, Brian, Villagers and Jubilee Allstars, particularly – it was the quiet and the space between the bars that determined them and set them apart. The Stars really did come alive in the dark.

Which is why I always found it funny that the front cover of The Stars’1988 studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’, featured a close-up shot of a solid steel wheel on one of C.I.É.’s rolling stock of trains. Carefully assembled and crafted in the old school, The Stars’ own casters often moved very slowly too and they were also just as liable to break down without warning.

Which isn’t to say that The Stars lacked sturdy engineering and heft ;- they could wig out with the best and indeed the worst of them but they were often far too delicate for their own bodies and in this respect, had far more in common with the likes of another local band, Hey Paulette, than they did with the more forceful, psychotic characters in The Underground. Apart, perhaps, from The Slowest Clock, with whom they shared a kindred philosophy far more than they ever did a sound.

The Slowest Clock were another of the Dublin bands of that period who were far too interesting – and all too frequently bored – for their own good. Powered by a furious guitar sound that regularly filled the premium spaces left by angled, full-bodied bass runs, they were an American underground outfit in all but birth-certificate – classic Velvets, Television, Husker Du – that set Sir Henry’s alight once or twice over the years. They sounded nothing at all like The Stars and yet shared far more of their characteristics than one might imagine.

But I don’t think that The Stars’ influence has been heard as obviously or as overtly on any Irish band as it was in the early 2000s when the South Dublin pop band, The Thrills, were making hay, front covers and commercially successful, sun-blushed records. The Thrills were ardent students – and fawning fans – of Whipping Boy, the Dublin/Kildare outfit that first cut a memorable dash as noisy, sneering young men at The Underground.

 

 

They released three terrific albums on Virgin Records that, to my mind, just got better and more interesting – and less commercially popular – as they went. And from the get-go, I detected a real Stars influence at work in them. Apart, entirely, from the shared set of influences and the incorrigible, horizontal feel to much of their output, Conor Deasy’s breathy vocal delivery – and that perennial struggle to scale the top of his register – was instantly redolent of Stephen Ryan’s most attractive vocal feature.

The Thrills were enthusiastic collectors in their own right and were well plugged into the history of contemporary Irish music. And to that end, they’d have been more than familiar with The Stars and their fine back catalogue.

Much of which, in one form or another, is compiled on ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, a substantial compendium of the band’s material that was eventually released in 1999 after a painstaking gestation of many years on the small Dublin label, Independent Records. And lovingly curated by David O’Grady, who I first encountered around the fringes of the Dublin left-field scene thirty years ago and who has evidently defied science in the decades since by looking younger now than when he was first clocking me into venues on Engine Alley’s guestlists.

On one of the versions of ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, The Stars are snapped on the front sleeve, outside of someone’s sash window, looking in as forlornly as usual, at an ornately decorated front room. As self-aware and as self-deprecating until the end, they’re still speaking to us from beyond the tomb.

CODA :– All four members of the band stayed involved in music to Varying extents. Stephen Ryan went on to lead the rowdy Revenants and then subsequently, and currently, The Drays, while Stan fetched up as a member of The Sewing Room, who laid the extent of their ambition bare on their debut album, ‘And Nico’. Peter O’Sullivan, the bass player, went on to play with a good-time, loosely-formed Tex-Mex collective, The Wilf Brothers. And I last encountered the band’s drummer, Bernard Walsh, when he sat in as a member of one of the regular backing bands we used to use on The Late Late Show, although eagle-eyed Stars- watchers will frequently see him credited as a stills photographer on numerous Irish-produced dramas and feature films. His name often cited alongside Ray Harman, the Something Happens guitarist and now an award-winning composer for the big screen.

 

R4wnhdiD

© Colm O’Callaghan

 

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AFTER ALL AND THE YOUNG OFFENDERS

 

I’ve written previously – and at no little length – about The Frank And Walters, to my mind the best pound-for-pound pop band the country has ever produced. And it’s a story I know as well as anyone :- I have a long and proud association with the group – and especially with Paul and Ashley – that dates back to The Enterprise Bar at the end of Barrack Street in Cork during the memorable summer of 1990, when we first met. And after which it was clear we had plenty of work ahead of us.

 

I’ve long made a case too for the rare gifts bestowed somewhere, sometime, on Paul Linehan, the band’s singer and primary songwriter and easily among the most intriguing, complicated, compelling and consistently under-regarded of his kind to have emerged from Ireland during the last three decades. The Frank And Walters may never have had the stylish, renewable range of their former label-mates, The Divine Comedy, or the contrary, convex pull of another of the Setanta Records pack, A House. But beneath the surface, their body of work – and at this stage that canon is a considerable one – tells a long story that’s as formidable as any and more distinctive than most, much of it carved from banana-shaped, first-hand local testimony.

 

I’ve been beating the drum long and hard for The Franks for almost thirty years now which, no doubt, has significantly discomforted a band that has instinctively preferred life in the lower keys. Someone, I guess, has to do it. And still they come, in their own time, from deep in the shadows, with a new record or an anniversary tour to keep the old-timers happy and, perhaps, the home fires burning.

 

I saw them in a dive in Manchester last Autumn, on a dreary Sunday night around the back of The Arndale Centre where, to a partisan, mis-shaped crowd, they played every single song like they were doing so for the last time. But that’s The Franks for you ;- they’ve never known it any differently and, like Elvis, they’ve long had that knack to make everyone feel special.

 

But their story has never been a straight-forward one either and so, on one hand, I’m not overly surprised that, twenty-five years since they performed on Top Of The Pops and achieved their highest ever chart placing in Britain with ‘After All’ – the song that unfairly defines them –  they exist once again outside of their loyal support-base, however fleetingly.

 

Like much of the country, I’ve been gob-smacked by the tender genius of Peter Foott’s Cork-based drama, ‘The Young Offenders’, which has played on the RTÉ 2 schedules for the last number of weeks. And which, as a proud Corkman in exile, who left the city for good in 1994 to work at Ireland’s national broadcaster, makes me utterly compromised on at least two different levels.

 

But to borrow from one of many commentators on social media last week, the chatty coming-of-age drama series that follows the thickly-accented mis-adventures of Conor and Jock, is easily the most perceptive, pointed and outrageously insightful observational documentary series ever made about Cork city, it’s people and their many, many nuances.

 

The first series closed out earlier this week with a crowd scene on a hi-jacked double-decker bus that featured a fully-fledged choral singalong led by a knife-wielding, half-simple local gurrier, Billy Murphy. And when the hostages on board the Number 8 break into a mighty performance of ‘After All’, the series definitively cements its greatness. That scene – in which Sandra Bullock’s ‘Speed’ meets The Frank And Walters’ single, ‘The Happy Busman’ – is already among the country’s best ever television moments. To anyone from Cork, it’ll hardly be bettered.

 

 

Myself and ‘After All’ go way back to a semi-detached house in Morden, in South West London, where The Franks set up shop in 1992 after they’d first signed to Go Discs from Setanta Records, the small label run by Keith Cullen that had initially broken the band. That house became variously a rehearsal studio, a writing room, a merchandising lock-up, record company annex and refuge for the bewildered. Imagine the four-door dwelling in The Beatles’ film, ‘Help’, occupied by Cha and Mia, Billa O’Connell and Paddy Comerford and you’re getting there.

 

And it was in the kitchen there that Paul Linehan first played me the guts of ‘After All’ on an acoustic guitar, after which we went to work on the harmonies and the structure – I’m almost certain we made the original verse the chorus – as we used to do regularly back then. The band was preparing to record it’s first album and was well into the pre-production phase ;- ‘After All’ was one of the last of the new songs written for that elpee, ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, and was certainly worth waiting for.

 

I wish I could say now that I knew instinctively it was a hit single, but I can’t. I actually thought that ‘This Is Not A Song’ was a far better bet and will still make the case for it. But what I do know is that, on the long train ride back out to West Ealing the following morning, I could still remember every single line of ‘After All’.

 

Its greatness is in it’s simplicity – its actually a very easy song to play and, as I knew straight away, to remember – and then latterly in its darker aspects, which are almost always ignored. Ostensibly a love song that’s as persistent as it is beguiling, ‘After All’ nods to religion, distraction, loneliness and contemplation, all wrapped around a formidable Ian Broudie production. [Its worth noting here that the song was re-recorded several times and, by any standards, there is no comparison between the version on the album, produced by Edwyn Collins, and the eventual single version.]

 

Like the improbable television series on which it now features, ‘After All’ also has a broad, cross-generational appeal :- like any great pop song, it’s easily re-purposed and is as likely to feature at a wedding ceremony as it is at a wedding reception as it is to be sung on the football terraces.

 

And, as such, a giddy, full-on, unashamedly partisan performance of ‘After All’ was just a perfect – and maybe, just the only – way to conclude ‘The Young Offenders’, which shares not only many of the song’s characteristics in its dramatic tone and style but stars, basically, the full panoply of a cast routinely chronicled in numerous Frank And Walters songs since 1990. Long-time band watchers will, in that wonderful hi-jacking scene, have noted the likes of Andy James, the happy busman, John and Sue, the nervous lovers, Timmy, the trainspotter, Davy Chase, the local hard feen and Mrs. Xavier, the single-parent who’s been left behind, as prominent support characters. Variously love-sick, awkward, hopeless and, ultimately, tender and harmless, and with not a hint of malice in any of them.

 

And of course none moreso than the knife-wielding gom himself,  Billy Murphy, [played magnificently by Shane Casey], one of the year’s most supple and brilliantly improbably television heroes and who, in action, thought and deed, is redolent of those curious Cork chancers and gobdaws long considered to be outside, rogue, native and curious.

 

And who, since 1990, have been given a voice in the many, many terrific songs of The Frank And Walters.

MUSIC IN THE SNOW, SNOW IN THE MUSIC

 

 

 

Regular subscribers to The Blackpool Sentinel – one of the advantages  of digital media means that we have identified someone in West Cork  and possibly another in Eastern Europe – will need no introduction to  the magnificent Scottish band, Trashcan Sinatras, and their seductive,  smart and startlingly soothing pop songs. They are in part the patron  saints of under-achievement and the brothers of perpetual succour and,  over the course of a near flawless thirty-year career – during which time  they’ve dropped six wonderful studio albums – have covered a huge  amount of thematic ground.

The Trashcans are one of a number of bands – Prefab Sprout and The  Go-Betweens are others – to whom I default in times of major events  like births, deaths, anniversaries, personal anxiety and general  uncertainty. Because like all of the truly great artists and writers, they  can bring a serenity and a calm to every occasion, no matter how difficult.

Neither will our regulars need any introduction to snow, in either the  literal sense – and certainly not our regular in Eastern Europe – nor in  the more metaphorical one. Snow – a long-time industry slang word for cocaine – has long been a buzz-word [in every sense] within the entertainment industry, and particularly inside music circles. Many is the coked-up flunkey I’ve encountered around the circuit over the years  :- toot has long been the peccadillo of choice for an entire demographic  sweep since when our Lord determined there would be music.

It was the late comedian and actor Robin Williams’ – no stranger to  snow himself – who asserted that ‘cocaine is God’s way of telling you  you are making too much money’. Which might come as a surprise to  many of those chemical enthusiasts working across all aspects of the  music scene and who tend to be perennially penniless.

It was the inveterate drug addict, Eric Clapton – who also found time to play guitar and make a series of unfortunate records as an addled solo artist – who immortalised the phrase ‘no snow, no show’ back in 1978 as  he was transitioning from one dependency to the next. And his is one of  the most celebrated – if certainly nowhere near the worst – example of  a career that was spectacularly derailed by dust.

Indeed there are numerous lists of albums made by paranoid, agitated and utterly uncoordinated artists while under the very obvious influence of bump, most of which are impenetrable, unlistenable and inconsistent affairs. The Band, The Eagles, Miles Davis, David Bowie, Oasis, Sly And  The Family Stone and Blur are just some of the bigger and better known  artists who’ve ignored the Status Orange warnings and suffered the inevitable collateral damage that tends to follow extreme snow-storms.  Just, indeed, as there are lists of essential records too that were made  and produced in a blizzard of blow, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ easily  one of the best of them. And an album whose enormous international  sales numbers directly mirrors the mountain of cocaine consumed as it was being conceived and recorded.

Elsewhere, the producer Gary Katz oversaw the recording of an entire  Steely Dan album in Los Angeles that neither Donald Fagen or the late Walter Becker – the creative core of the band – could actually recall being present at. The sessions for David Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ and  the third Oasis album, ‘Be Here Now’, are just as celebrated and for similar reasons.

As Ireland prepares for the arrival of what the Portuguese Meteorological  Office have named ‘Storm Emma’, and what looks like an unprecedented  and havoc-wrecking weather event, its worth noting that the last time  so much snow damage was forecast for Ireland was after Oasis were confirmed as headliners at Slane Castle back in 2009.

But snow – in the literal, meteorological sense – has long been a useful metaphor too and practically every writer and performer of note has  dropped a lyrical reference to it at some point. One of the more obtuse – and, naturally enough, one of my own personal favourites – is the The Cocteau Twins’ ‘Snow’ special Christmas E.P. from 1993, on which  they covered, as only they might, both ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Frosty  The Snowman’. But everyone’s done snow at some point :- from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to The Go-Betweens, it is literally all around  us.

 

 

And yet no one’s done it as beautifully as our old friends, Trashcan  Sinatras and, given the serious weather event incoming, it’s only right  and proper that they’ll be soundtracking the snowfall across Ireland for  as long as it endures. In my own house, at any rate.

‘Snow’, written by Randy Newman and first recorded by Harry Nilsson, the American singer-songwriter for an album called ‘Nilsson Sings Newman’ released in 1970, presents in the spirit of The Beatles’ ‘Dear Prudence’ [or perhaps The Smiths’ ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’ ?] and is another of those soft, tender and dangerously loaded love songs in which they specialise. ‘Its all over and you’re gone’, Frank Reader sings over a slow, rumbling air. ‘But the memory lives on, although our dreams lie buried in the snow’. And apart  altogether from the quality of the writing – ‘Snow’ is easily as gorgeous  as anything they’ve committed to tape themselves and man, have they consistently shot the  lights out in that respect– they’ve also managed a rare sensory feat.  ‘Snow’ has a rare, mesmerising quality :- if snowfall had a sound to accompany it, this would be it.

‘Snow’ doesn’t feature on any of the band’s studio albums :- they’ve  used it twice over the years instead as a bridging piece between  elpees. It first saw the light of day in 1999, post ‘A Happy Pocket’ and  still five years before their fourth album, ‘Weightlifting’. And ‘Snow’ was re-issued in 2006 between the release of ‘Weightlighting’ in 2004  and ‘In The Music’ five years later, even if the record itself remains difficult to find.

The weather, the outdoors, natural history and geography have long  been strong themes across much of The Trashcans material. Snow  features as a backdrop on their magnificent ‘Wild Mountainside’ [‘snow  is falling all over, out of clear blue sky] while, as far back as the band’s  second album, ‘I’ve Seen Everything’, the curious ninety second  shuffle, ‘Iceberg’ remarked how ‘through thaw and freeze, my life’s a  breeze’.

In light of the current weather cycle, The National Emergency Co-Ordination Group has recommended that all Irish citizens, where possible, remain indoors for the bulk of the next couple of days.

Their advice – and it’s sound – is to be careful of the snow. And especially what lurks underneath it.

Appendix

Following a back and forth on the best song about Snow on Twitter we have put together a list of the possible contenders that have been suggested… thanks all. (We will keep adding as we get more suggestions)

Suggested by @mosstinpowers

 

Suggested by @ccferrie

 

Suggested by @Lyricfeature

 

Suggested by @boamorteband 

 

Another one Suggested by @boamorteband 

 

@aslinndubh suggests another 

 

Suggested by @Tconlononthecouch

 

suggested by @westcorkpaul (& @Boamorteband – really pulling out the stops guys.

 

Suggested by @kevsul47

LLOYD COLE

cole pic

 

One of the most complete and impressive live guitar performances I’ve seen during my decades spent going slowly deaf in large rooms was on the wide stage at The City Hall in Cork on November 2nd, 1987. Neil Clark lined-up to Lloyd Cole’s right that night, stage left as I looked on from half-way down the long hall on Anglesea Street and, using a full range of styles, buttressed The Commotions sound like he did for the seven years the band endured. During which he routinely played with his fists bound in velvet.

Lloyd Cole and The Commotions were touring ‘Mainstream’, their third album and, during that short stop-over in Ireland, where they were always well received, also played a clutch of dates in Limerick, Dublin and Belfast. There was a time when this sort of carry-on was more rule than exception, even for the bigger bands on the circuit. And in November, 1987, The Commotions were a serious draw.

Some of the more potent live shows played here over the last forty years have gone off, if not completely under the radar, then certainly far from the traditional seat of cool and in less obvious, smaller venues outside of Dublin. Nirvana with Sonic Youth in Cork, famously. The Smiths in Letterkenny and Dundalk, Radiohead in Galway and Prefab Sprout with Paul Brady in Belfast foremost among them too. And to which I would certainly add any one of a number of Commotions shows.

 

 

That ‘Mainstream’ tour was back-dropped by the sort of mixed signals that often define a band or artist up a critical and creative junction. The album’s excellent lead single, ‘My Bag’ – ‘excuse me one moment while I powder my nose’ – had been a more difficult sell than it should have been and struggled to recapture commercial formlines. Discommoding some of the day-trippers who’d latterly come on board with the group, ‘Mainstream’ would be the last of the band’s three studio albums.

In the two years since those radio and chart hits – ‘Brand New Friend’ and ‘Lost Weekend’ – and the patchy second album on which they featured, ‘Easy Pieces’, the band’s ambitions had been pulled between the soft edges of ‘Smash Hits’, the market’s influential pop weekly on which Lloyd had featured as brooding pop totty and the noisier, more unforgiving pages of what was then regarded as the more serious music press, New Music Express and Melody Maker especially. And where Lloyd and the band had enjoyed a strong critical footing since the release of ‘Forest Fire’ in 1984.

‘My Bag’ – a terrific, full-bodied, guitar led pop song narrated by a cocaine addict who was walking his bag ‘through a twenty-storey non-stop snow-storm’ – captured that tension in four minutes flat.

One of the Commotions, keyboard player Blair Cowan, had already left the fray, with his accordion under his arm, presumably. But while the ‘Mainstream’ sessions had been laboured – as was much of the tour – it’s not that you’d have guessed that from either the record or the live dates that accompanied it. ‘My Bag’ is indicative of an album that’s meatier and more ambitious than what went previously ;- the songs are stronger and Lloyd has grown into his voice, developing apace as a lyricist as he did so.

But the cross-over, popular market successes delivered by ‘Easy Pieces’ had come at a price. I’m not convinced that The Commotions were ever designed to hold the sort of weight that goes with success in the middle-ground – they wouldn’t be the first, either – and I’ve long felt that much of their subtlety and lyrical magic was just lost in the unpredictable wind of the mainstream. And if the band itself was uncertain about the record, then what about us ?

Lloyd himself re-visited ‘Lost Weekend’ and ‘Brand New Friend’ several years later on a song called ‘Past Imperfect’, the opening cut on an excellent, eponymously-titled album he made in 2000 as part of a New York-based group, featuring Jill Sobule, called The Negatives. ‘I can’t unwrite the tune or discount the cost’ he sings on an album that also features the mighty ‘That Boy’, co-written by Lloyd with Gary Clark of Danny Wilson and King L [and, latterly, the writer of the ‘Sing Street’ soundtrack]. Fifteen years later and he was still seeing the writing on the wall. And yet all that notwithstanding, Neil Clark gave a real masterclass that night in Cork back in 1987 ;- I just couldn’t believe how effortless his playing was or how central he was to every single one of The Commotions’ key plays. And I remember it in detail.

Thirteen years previously, the influential British film-maker, Tony Palmer, had captured another guitarist at work and play in the same venue. ‘Rory Gallagher : Irish Tour, 1974’ is still, at least on my count, the most rounded and insightful documentary portrait of the gifted but troubled Ballyshannon-born, Cork-shaped guitarist who died, aged 47, in 1995. Completed without voice-over or commentary, Palmer’s highly-charged but skilfully stitched tour film allows the music and the cinematography to link the narrative. And the director’s style in this instance clearly suited his subject, who was notoriously shy and who, once again on this film, is at his most animated when talking about strings, tunings and his guitar’s battered body.

 

 

But ‘Irish Tour, 1974’ is far more than just a live performance piece. In the scenes shot with Rory around Cork city and Cobh – and especially the material gathered around Belfast at the height of ‘the troubles’ – the film becomes a formidable social history document as it goes. Whether that be in those shots of keyboard player, Lou Martin uncapping a beer bottle using his belt buckle in a spartan, barely functional dressing room, the smog-filtered general views of Cork’s heavily-industrialised harbour, the Leeds United scarf held aloft proudly in the audience at the City Hall show or the exterior shots of some of Cork’s best known pubs during this time, The Sextant and The Swan And Cygnet among them.

And while presumably a director’s in-joke, the only white powder seen in any of the backstage material is that from a branded Scholl can :- drummer Rod D’Ath is captured by Palmer on 16mm film applying foot talc in the dressing room before he laces up his rubber dollies and takes his opening position behind the traps ahead of one of the live concerts. ‘Not chasing anything, just jogging’, as Lloyd Cole would later sing on ‘My Bag’.

In terms of style, influence, tone and substance, Rory Gallagher and Neil Clark stood oceans apart. Gallagher’s primary influences were in the improvised skiffle riffs of Lonnie Donegan and the bluesy American rock sounds of Leadbelly, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry ;- he was a magnetic virtuoso guitarist – electric and acoustic – who, at one stage, was invited to replace Mick Taylor in The Rolling Stones.

And his impact stretches far and wide :- he was regarded as much for how he played as for what he played and, as such, has been name-checked by the likes of Johnny Marr, The Edge, Tim Wheeler of Ash, Noel Gallagher and all points between. And in the great traditions of critical cliché, there were times, routinely during his career, when his guitar appeared as if it were simply an extension of his body.

Neil Clark might well have been aware of Gallagher’s standing – in Cork, especially -but was far more determined, one suspects, by the grittier can-do of Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols and the delicate flowers of Scotland that sprung into life on the Postcard label in the post-punk era. But like Rory, he too was a nimble and flexible player – if far less showy – and was comfortable in a myriad of styles, often within the same verse-chorus-verse structure. And I was lucky enough to see him at the peak of his powers that night in The City Hall as The Commotions exploded in front of me.

As someone who missed Gallagher’s legendary live performances in Cork by a decade, but who had heard the many tall tales and general mythology, that had surrounded those shows, this must have been how he sounded, ten years previously, to the duffle-coated, Innisfallen-bound generation that went before me.

I’d seen Johnny Marr at close quarters three years previously in The Savoy on Patrick Street when The Smiths played two shows there in 1984, but those performances were dominated from top to tail by Morrissey, the band’s singer and from whom you diverted your attention at your peril, and by a series of fractious side-shows that were going on deep in the belly of the audience. So while I’d been captivated by magnetic lead singers at live shows previously – a young Cathal Coughlan set the bar far too high – this was the first time I’d felt the raw clout of a live guitar and the possibilities it brought with it.

Neil was Lloyd Cole’s guitar side-kick from the early 1980s onwards and it was his fluent and wide-ranging guitar sound that shaped much of the band’s material and reputation. His humble jangle – alongside Cole’s arch lyrics and melody lines and Cowan’s soft keyboard fills – made The Commotions one of the more interesting and powerful bands of the British indie-pop set during a magical period from 1984 until 1987.

I adored ‘Rattlesnakes’, the band’s imperial 1984 debut album. Apart entirely from the magic underpinning it’s smart pop chops, and Lloyd’s outrageous name-dropping – Simone de Beauvoir, Arthur Lee, Eve Marie Saint, Greta Garbo – he had also delivered one of the greatest lines I’d heard. On ‘Four Flights Up’, over a skittish, country-flavoured Long Ryders-style rattling riff, Lloyd posed the question – ‘Must you tell me all your secrets when its hard enough to love you knowing nothing ?’. And, by so doing, pulled the rug from under anyone serious about pulling with confidence at U.C.C.’s English Literature Society outings to The Rockview Bar.

 

 

Lloyd and Neil share a couple of memorable co-writes on that record – to my mind the album’s best cuts, ‘Forest Fire’ and ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’ – but our hero contributes widely and wildly across the full deck of ten cuts, numerous acoustic signatures, thundering lead riffs, passive fills and gorgeous foundation lines. But he reserved his most sterling work for ‘Mainstream’.

Lloyd Cole will be forever best remembered – unfairly so and in the worst traditions of his trade – for ‘Rattlesnakes’ and for the snappy pop market singles from its follow up.  But ‘Mainstream’ is by far the band’s best record.

Apart from the strength of the material – ‘From The Hip’, ‘Mister Malcontent’, ‘Sean Penn Blues’ and ‘Hey Rusty’ are ace by any standards – the record is underpinned at every turn by Neil’s magnificent contributions :- the album drips with layers of guitar, much of which is un-obtrusive. And that night in The City Hall just sealed the deal for me :- no moreso than on the grandiose ‘Hey Rusty’, which he coaxed lovingly over the middle-distance before making for home with the sort of champion kick seen earlier than year in Indianapolis when a remarkable local athlete, Marcus O’Sullivan, one Cork’s finest ever sportsmen or women, took the first of his three World Indoor 1500m championships.

 

 

Earlier that year, a friend of mine produced a copy of ‘The Joshua Tree’ out of a Golden Discs carrier bag up on the third floor of The Boole Library in U.C.C. and, on the back of an intensive morning he’d spent with it, was already proclaiming U2’s fifth studio album as the most essential and important record of our generation. By the end of that summer, The Smiths had broken up, R.E.M. released ‘Document’ and The Jesus And Mary Chain released ‘Darklands’. And that – and Marcus O’Sullivan – was pretty much how 1987 was for me.

The night after The Commotions played in Cork, I watched Lloyd do an interview with Shay Healy on a pre-watershed RTÉ magazine programme called ‘Evening Extra’. Unshaven, clearly well-read, studied and bored, Lloyd sported one of his signature black polo-necks during that encounter and, en homage, I wore a selection of similar sweaters for many years thereafter myself. Hoping, forlornly as it happened, that some of his allure might rub off on me.

And I revealed as much to the man himself on May 13th, 1999, when we had the pleasure of hosting Lloyd Cole on an RTÉ light entertainment series I produced called ‘Kenny Live’ and for which he travelled over specially from New York. He played an acoustic Negatives number for us by way of promoting an upcoming live date in Dublin and was as gracious, smart, witty and swarthy as I’d long imagined he might be. And once I’d finished mortifying the pair of us after the show, he dropped a pre-release copy of The Negatives’ album into my lap and signed my copy of ‘Love Story’, his terrific 1995 solo elpee.

Curiously, he wasn’t the last member of The Commotions I encountered on that circuit either. The band’s bass-player, Lawrence Donegan, began a career in journalism immediately after the curtain came down for the group in 1989 and went on to become one of the most perceptive and insightful golf writers on the planet. During the mid-1990s, he spent twelve months in Creeslough in County Donegal – where he has family connections – and captured that experience, which included a stretch spent working the newsdesk at a local paper, in a terrific book, ‘No News At Throat Lake’. We welcomed Lawrence onto an episode of ‘The Late Late Show’ in October, 1999, during which he plugged his book and discussed Daniel O’Donnell at length with the presenter, Pat Kenny.

And after which, having embarrassed myself so spectacularly with his former colleague in the same green room six months earlier, I opted to leave well enough alone and made a point of not discussing the past. Perfect, imperfect or otherwise.

 

 

MORRISSEY IN DUBLIN

 

Next week I’ll take the long walk down the quay to see Morrissey perform live for the umpteenth time. It’s more of a duty than anything else at this stage, I think :- like my annual subscription to the Resident’s Association here, none of whom I really know, whose purpose I don’t really understand and yet who, one day, may spring to my rescue when I most need them. So yes, I live in hope that, maybe once more for old time’s sake, Morrissey may discover his form in front of goal, keep his gob locked shut and pull himself up off the floor. Which isn’t beyond the contrary old street slugger, even if his recent formlines are far from convincing.

 

Indeed the last couple of shows he’s played at The Point Theatre in Dublin have captured much of his long solo career in microcosm. Uneven and disengaged affairs, by and large, with the odd dash of brilliance ;-enough to help retain an interest and to ultimately frustrate you. The impotence of Ernest, if you like.

 

The venue itself is a real problem. With its wide-open spaces, cold concrete finish and notorious sound traps, The Point is a depressing place to see any kind of half-interesting act ;- subtlety and lateral thinking are simply impossible there. And it certainly hasn’t been a happy setting for Morrissey for whom, as his audiences have become more selective and older, the place has just become too big. That the venue boasts all the charm of a working abattoir brings another layer altogether to his performances there.

 

A few of us still well up when we remember the night, back in November 1995, when Morrissey opened for David Bowie on a doomed double-bill that, in theory, was a dream ticket. But, plugging his atrocious fifth album, ‘Southpaw Grammar’ [diehards and disciples refer to it as ‘misunderstood’], he languidly ploughed through a dozen numbers,  struggling to stroke up the engine in front of a half-empty hall.

 

Morrissey despised that tour by all accounts – the idea that he might play second fiddle to anyone, even Bowie, was far less attractive in reality than it might have been on paper – and, from where we stood, just in front of the sound-desk, desperately trying to work up a thirst, that feeling was mutual. We lasted half an hour of Bowie’s set – he was promoting a misunderstood issue of his own – ‘Outside’ – and couldn’t wait to get back up into the familiar, welcoming arms of The Stag’s Head, where the porter and the loose talk took us well into the small hours. During which we cursed both of them long and hard.

 

It’s no co-incidence that Morrissey’s most magnetic solo shows in Dublin – from his very first in The National Stadium in April, 1991, when he was supported by a startlingly fresh-faced Would Bes – have gone off far from the hollow blow down in the docklands. To my mind he’s been at his most dynamic in The Ambassador [October, 2002], The Olympia Theatre [December 1999 and April, 2006] and Vicar Street [July, 2011] when, in good voice and injury free – and plugging his better material – he came alive at close quarters, making light work of the fourth wall as he ploughed head first through it.

 

 

Morrissey’s appeal – and to be fair, he can still clearly mobilise a crew and inspire a mania of sorts – has long been determined by the instinctive, direct-to-the-face connection he forges from author to reader, from stage to pit. Many of his live shows in this country, as has long been routine elsewhere, have been hijacked by those fervent loyalists who see them, not merely as concerts, but as semi-private novenas. Biding their time and scoping the geography, they’ll eventually take their chances with the security detail, mounting the stage and hoping for a quick touch of Morrissey’s relic before being escorted off.

 

However unpredictible he can be – on record, on stage, on tape, on the printed page – Morrissey is still a formidable concern when he’s fully fit. But into the veteran stage of his career now, it’s far more difficult for him to shake the routine knocks, many of which he inflicts himself. And the more he’s been unable to keep his mouth in check, the rattier and more dislikeable he’s become.

 

Reading some of his more bizarre – and dangerously loose – political views might lead long-time watchers to conclude that, perhaps, he’s just given up the ghost. Knowing that, on another level, the ghost – the media, the music industry, the marketplace – has long since given up on him.

 

It wasn’t always like that, of course. I was there on Saturday night, April 27th, 1991, on Dublin’s South Circular Road for what was, in effect, Morrissey’s first full-bodied live date as a solo performer. Pre-internet, pre-smart phone and when organised ticket swindling was far less sophisticated but no less an issue than it is now, that show sold out in less than an hour, during which he was the hottest – and most relevant – ticket in town.

 

The occasion – and it was very definitely an occasion – was every bit as raucous, chaotic, sweaty and scintillating as you might imagine, on a night when the partisan home end was swelled by a noisy travelling support, most of it male and pale and almost all of which had made it over to Leonard’s Corner on the ferry from Britain. And my sports analogies are deliberate :- much of the general hullabaloo that night had its origins on the football terraces and, from the off, the energy inside and outside the hall – one of the hearts of Irish amateur boxing – resembled that which you’d find at a feisty local lower-league derby or a decent card at York Hall, Bethnal Green.

 

As I made my way up past The Headline Bar, it was clear that Dublin 8 had been invaded ;- I’d never before seen such a range of spectacular quiffs, turn-ups, glasses, leather brogues and floral tributes. A terrific piece here documents in no little detail the fevered hoopla that surrounded that show, before and especially during it.

 

Morrissey has long been a moody and crabby tourist and both Johnny Marr’s biography, ‘Set The Boy Free’ and Johnny Rogan’s ‘The Severed Alliance’ paint unattractive, odd-ball portraits from both inside and outside of The Smiths camp of a performer prone to indecision, erratic behaviour, reckless decision making and routine hissy-fitting. And yet,  certainly at the beginning of his solo career, he seemed energised and re-focused – rested and finally in complete control, perhaps ? – and his good humour was reflected in many of his earliest live shows, some of which I saw at home and in Britain and most of which were electric.

 

Both the full-bodied quiffs – especially Morrissey’s own – and the floral tributes are long diminished now :- and much of the singer’s charm has wilted with them. He was in his creative pomp when his Trumper’s-tended wedge had the cut of an elaborate French stick but, like the rest of us, he’s struggled clearly for any real kind of elevation this last while. And I know this because I’ve seen that head close-up :- several years back I found myself sitting immediately behind Morrissey on a delayed British Airlines flight to London, days after he’d performed in Dublin on the ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ tour. And no, I didn’t reach out over the cold leather seats to touch it, much and all as I was sorely tempted to.

 

But he carries on regardless.

 

And he’s back in Dublin next week to plug his most recent album, ‘Low In High School’ which, like much of his solo material, is not without it’s moments – the first four cuts and the imperious, multiple phase ‘I Bury The Living’ take the laurels – although its nowhere near his best and most cohesive work. Which, for the sake of reference, and in order of appearance, I mark as ‘Your Arsenal’ [1992], ‘Vauxhall And I’ [1994], ‘You Are The Quarry’ [2004] and ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ [2006]. And like another increasingly frequent visitor to The Point Theatre, U2 – whose audiences [customers ?] have also become far more selective – there’s trouble afoot in the writing room.

 

 

Morrissey’s sound now mirrors his own physical shape and the depth of tone in his voice :- fuller, rich and scarcely recognisable from the nervy tenor he cut in 1983, when pitching up in tune was frequently beyond him. But far too often that production bulk just sounds like well-intentioned plodding around crudely-formed riff-making. Awash with keyboards and familiar lyrical tropes, too much of ‘Low in High School’ just sounds tired and incomplete, the ambitious ‘I Bury The Living’ the exception. In the anti-war lyrical tradition of Donovan’s ‘Universal Soldier’, it bedrocks the record in the middle-order and, in length and in spirit, resembles previous sinewy anchor tenants like ‘Life Is A Pigsty’ [from ‘Ringleaders’], ‘Its Not Your Birthday Anymore’ [from ‘Years of Refusal’] and ‘The Teachers Are Afraid of The Pupils’ [from ‘Southpaw Grammar’]. All of whom stretch out, over time, beyond the obvious.

 

With the co-writing credits now shared more loosely around various members of his backing band, cohesion is an issue too and, again like U2 over the last decade, much of ‘High School’ just sounds forced and way less than the sum of it’s parts.

 

Indeed Morrissey’s best and most lucid record since ‘Ringleader’ is a compilation of odds, sods, the odd cover and assembled rarities released in 2009 – and honking of contractual obligation – as ‘Swords’. Eighteen cuts long, it captures some of his lesser known tracks recorded over the previous decade, ‘Ganglord’, ‘Teenage Dad On His Estate’, ‘Munich Air Disaster, 1958’, ‘Children In Pieces’, ‘Friday Mourning’ and ‘Because Of My Poor Education’ among them, as well as a meaty live take on Bowie’s ‘Drive-In Saturday’. And it has the not inconsiderable hand of Alain Whyte all over it.

 

 

Whyte might not be the most flamboyant and creative writer in recent music history but he’s certainly been Morrissey’s most ambitious and consequential partner since Johnny Marr. His songs buttressed the spine of every one of those solo albums from ‘Your Arsenal’ to ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ and he was a constant in Morrissey’s live retinue from 1991 until 2004. And, as with many of those who’ve worked so intrinsically inside the singer’s inner circle, he left the set-up under a cloud – how else ? – and was roundly disparaged, like a myriad of others, in the singer’s 2014 book, ‘Autobiography’.

 

While many of Whyte’s songs are as one-dimensional as the mercurial League Of Ireland wing wizard returned from England’s lower leagues, his credits – ‘Hold Onto Your Friends’, ‘Sunny’, First Of The Gang To Die’, ‘Life Is A Pigsty’, ‘I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now’, ‘Its Not Your Birthday Anymore’, ‘Certain People I Know’ and a myriad of others – tell their own story. And he may, perhaps, have been far more central to Morrissey’s machine than the singer might otherwise concede

 

A considerable amount of water, record company spats, quality b-sides, bass-players and unseemly aggro have passed beneath the bridges in the many years since I first fell under Morrissey’s spell – mano a boyo – feet away from the stage at The Savoy in Cork in 1984. And in that time, I suspect I’ve become one of those hopelessly forlorn suburban cases, just keeping on keeping on, head down, that so dominate many of his songs. The sickly boyfriend who went down on one knee because, well, he only had one knee. And, when I fetch up next week in The Point, I’ll meet many more just like me. And worse.

 

Morrissey has consistently entertained me, appalled me, disgusted me, humoured me and, for many years, just obsessed me ;- for ages he was a conversation starter and a friendship former. We’ve been thirty-five years together now and, like many other couples who first got it on in secondary school, should probably have called it quits for good years ago. With the thrill far more irregular and the unquestioning lustre long worn, we’re doing it more for the kids than for ourselves at this stage. That and the promise, unlikely as it might be, of the occasional ride for old time’s sake knowing that, back in the day, when we were good we were, if not unstoppable, at least moderately compatible.

 

The odd time I hear the frankly preposterous notion that The Smiths were a) over-rated and b) not half as influential as history records them. This sort of half-baked pub argument is seen off quickly ;- the band was together for five years during which they were prolific, consistently challenging and when they profoundly turned popular music on its head. And there was a time too, difficult as it might be to believe now, when Morrissey, the solo artist, was just as important, provocative and relevant.

 

A number of years ago, a friend sneaked me a copy of Morrissey’s rider from 2009’s ‘Years of Refusal’ tour and, to be fair, it certainly lived up to, and on every one of it’s 28 pages greatly exceeded, everything I expected of the old tart – of Irish blood, English heart – in respect of his general demands and back-stage considerations. From a man who name-checks The Christian Brothers in one of his songs, how could it have been any other way ?

 

Apart entirely from the standard guff about clean towels, chilled water, toilets and executive travel to and from venues, I was especially taken by some of Morrissey’s demands for his own dressing room. And particularly his requests for Dubliner brand ‘organic mature vegetarian cheddar cheese’ and ‘Real Irish Kerrygold salted butter.

 

My father turned 80 last November. With a considerable quiff of his own that I can only but marvel at, he uses a basic mobile telephone that he never answers but on which he texts me irregularly. Usually using a stream of consciousness style, with no capital letters or punctuation, he’ll often prompt me about my mother’s birthday, various hospital appointments and the inadequacies of the Cork hurling teams.

 

Late one Friday night last October, he sent me the following message :- ‘mam says your friend Morrissey is on graham norton’. And I know that I will never, ever receive such a casually perceptive, subversive and pointed text again as long as I live.

 

Keeping it in the family, that’s us.