Peter Skellern, the Bury-born musician, songwriter and producer who died yesterday at the age of 69, is probably still best known for his 1972 hit single, ‘You’re A Lady’, which first brought him to prominence. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as a light-touch, middle-of-the-road troubadour ;- throughout his long and varied recording and performance career, Skellern was consistently diverting, always weighing-in at far more than the sum of his parts, of which there were many.

From Lancashire in the North-West of England, he trained as a classical musician and, as a young graduate from the Guildhall, originally served as a church organist in Bolton. And there are subtle traces of those credentials throughout his work ;- religion and faith became far more prominent themes during his later career. But much of his earlier material – his first five albums, especially – is characterised by a deft lyrical touch and a droll sense of the local and the ordinary and he was a consummate storyteller, both on record and off. His live solo shows were punctuated by tall yarns and short, sharp references, loaded colloquialisms and a wizard’s touch at the piano. And, to this end, in 1978 he took the fabled brassband from the works at Grimethorpe Colliery in Yorkshire and into the studio and, ultimately, onto the soundstage at Top Of The Pops to accompany him perform ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’. Three years previously, that same band had featured on Roy Harper’s epic ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’.

Like Gilbert O’Sullivan, it would be wrong to dismiss Peter Skellern as either a curiosity or a novelty and, parsing his considerable and diverse back catalogue, his influence extends as far as Morrissey’s lyrical dash and The Divine Comedy’s broader canvas. Indeed while Neil Hannon has frequently cited his long-standing affection for Jeff Lynne, his material actually owes far more to some of Skellern’s sweet, often self-deprecating parlour songs like ‘My Lonely Room’, ‘Where Do We Go To From Here’ and ‘Still Magic’ than it does to the more formidable, power-house sound of The Electric Light Orchestra.

Peter’s ambition always stretched far and wide :- he had the musical range and raw ability of Jimmy Webb, particularly in terms of composition and arrangement, and the lyrical touches of Alan Bennett. And so a typical live show or compilation album might lurch between Astaire-period, brushed-drum jazz to layered popular ballads to pithy, kitchen-sink smart-alecry like ‘Our Jackie’s Getting Married’, ‘Every Home Should Have One’ and ‘My Ideal Home’. Crisp and wry tunes from the drawing room that, beneath their bonnets, were knitted around sturdy melody lines and wide-ranging, ambitious production.

I saw this for myself at close quarters during two exceptional live shows that Skellern played in Cork city during the mid-1980s, the first of which I recorded on a portable Walkman and played to within an inch of its life for years afterwards. From my hard-backed chair deep within the city’s merchant and toff classes in one of the ballrooms in The Metropole Hotel in 1984, I watched on in awe as he gave a performance masterclass to an audience of four hundred or so during a typical set that went on for an eternity and that covered a vast range of genres and styles, pickled throughout with an easy, well-worn patter. One of his favourite yarns, the punchlines to which invariably rebounded on himself, involved the the English singer, Peter Sarstedt, best known for ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ [who himself passed away last month] and with whom Skellern was consistently confused.

He was back in Cork again the following year, this time in the infinitely less velveteen surroundings of Connolly Hall, but this time to a far larger and clearly more diverse audience. That show, which is easily among the best and most memorable I’ve ever seen, will forever be recalled for the fact that it took place despite a serious power outage in the middle of the city that plunged the venue and the streets around it into complete darkness. The show was delayed for an hour before Skellern eventually took to the stage carrying a lamp and proceeded to rip the night up, playing without amplification for the guts of ninety minutes, during which he projected his voice magnificently all over the vast hall.

As usual, he skirted around some of his own easy listening standards, adding a touch of jazz or a light classical piece when the mood, and the evening, took him. From ‘The Continental’ to ‘Love Is’ through ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, a couple of rag-time instrumentals and, stunningly, a magnificent reading of Debussy’s ‘The Girl With The Flaxen Hair’. And, with every note and flourish, reminded the partisan audience exactly how, for years, he’d enjoyed the unfailing devotion of Terry Wogan’s BBC radio audiences.

As well as his own body of work, Skellern was a frequent collaborator too, most notably with his friend Richard Stilgoe, with whom he wrote and released several records and toured regularly. And of course in 1984 he recorded and released an album as a member of Oasis, a five-piece that also featured the Welsh singer, Mary Hopkin and cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber among it’s number. That eponymously titled record, which can be filed under ‘easy listening’, saw the light of day a full ten years before ‘Definitely Maybe’ and features mostly Skellern compositions, the magnificent ‘If This Be The Last Time’ foremost among them and which, in its own way and to these ears, is just as magical as ‘Live Forever’.

I’ve long adored Skellern’s work in all of it’s guises and, in particular, his regal command of orchestration and the scale and ambition of his arrangements, the beauty of which are often lost behind a lazily-formed portrayal of him as mere fodder for the slacks, slip-over and high-waisted trouser set. As someone reared on the raw wonder of the likes of ‘And So It Passes’, ‘You’re A Lady’, ‘Still Magic’ and ‘My Lonely Room’, I defy anyone to tell me that he isn’t a far greater and unlikely influence than many of us might have imagined ? Himself almost certainly included.

















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



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 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 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.




While The Blades pre-date the wild record company feeding frenzies on  Dublin’s trading floors from the mid-1980s onwards, they too came pre-packed with the familiar, set-piece blessings from the usual sources, in this instance RTÉ television and radio and Hot Press magazine, both of which had pushed them on from early. And while its easy to view the early part of their stop-start career against the backdrop of U2’s unimaginable international success, The Blades were certainly a formidable antidote, for many years and on several levels, to their more celebrated peers who emerged with them from Dublin’s post-punk scene in the late 1970s. And all comparisons and contrasts are as relevant  now, on the release of The Blades’ second studio album, ‘Modernised’, as they were three decades ago.

As U2 prepare to return to the international arenas and Enormodomes to perform ‘The Joshua Tree’ in it’s entirety on the occasion of that record’s thirtieth anniversary, The Blades will spend the first months of 2017 promoting their first studio record since 1985 on a more meagre scale. But if the years since have seen Bono on one hell of a ride, The Blades too have taken just as unlikely a trip and, decades after both bands first weighed-in at The Magnet and The Dandelion Market, the whiff of raw nostalgia now pulls the pair of them back to same centre, albeit for different reasons and to different ends.

Avowedly working-class, The Blades formed in Ringsend, on the southside of inner-city Dublin, in the immediate aftermath of punk rock and their appeal, then as now, is summed up in their name :- they were sharp, dangerous and, on occasion, positively lethal. Originally comprised of brothers Lar and Paul Cleary [on guitar and bass, respectively] and busy drummer Pat Larkin, their sinewy, three-piece shtick was simple and uncomplicated, owing variously to the likes of The Jam, Secret Affair and classic American soul and, in their poppier moments, to Squeeze and even XTC. In Paul Cleary they boasted a songwriter and leader packing serious hardware and, within the narrow confines of what was still a fledgling domestic market, he carried political smarts and class-consciousness in his gun-belt. A barbed story-teller, he almost always preferred the direct lyrical route and it was this blunt, sometimes naïve, socio-political messaging that
definitively locked and loaded them.

For years they were one of the country’s most compelling live draws and many of their shows were marked by a genuine dash of cordite, both on-stage and off. By way of more detailed background, an excellent long-read on Come Here to Me documents the history of violence around live music in Dublin during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with specific mention of a Blades show at The TV Club in 1985, alongside visiting American ska band, The Untouchables, that was marred by fighting amongst the audience.

During the early part of 1992, Ken Sweeney – now a journalist and radio documentary maker, then an aspiring musician – rescued me from a squat in one of Peckham’s deserted high-rises and provided a welcome succour and a spare room in his rented terraced house across on the other side of London. Our address on Avalon Road in West Ealing was an apposite one :- although it often took me hours to get to where I worked in Camberwell, I found a genuine friendship and real warmth there, all of it rooted in a shared love of the same kind of music. Ken recorded two excellent albums for Setanta Records using the band name Brian, named after Brian Foley, the bass-player in what eventually became the best-known Blades line-up, and was a selfless and generous host. And we spent many long nights in Avalon Road poring intently over the likes of Miracle Legion, Into Paradise, Hinterland, The Blue Nile and The Go Betweens, fuelled as we went by thick cuts of toast.

On Sundays we’d make the journey over to an Australian greasy spoon in Earl’s Court where we’d tank up for the week on a massive cooked breakfast called ‘The Builder’, before hitting the record and tape exchange shops up around Notting Hill in which, with whatever spare change we could muster, we’d try and rescue a couple of bargains from the racks. Ken had a real fondness for The Blades and consistently made a strong case for them even if, for the most part, he was preaching to the converted. And he had real insider knowledge too :- his brother, David Sweeney, had played in a couple of fine Dublin bands, the angular, fondly-remembered Vipers [who also featured Brian Foley on bass] especially, and it was here that Ken’s connection to Dublin’s vibrant mod community was forged. On those long train rides across London, Ken would routinely sermonise about the importance of The Blades and, back on Avalon Road at night, we’d assess their place in what was then an emerging Irish music history.

And we’d agree, eventually, that yes, Paul Cleary’s gift had indeed been lost in the fog that had enveloped Irish music in the wake of U2. And in this respect, Ken had one up on me. As a Dubliner, he had a far more instinctive feel for The Blades [and indeed for U2] and for many of their fundamental points of reference. And certainly more so than those of us
from outside the capital, Cork especially, who were often, I think, inherently wary of any band we felt was being over-sold to us from above. Because despite my own long-standing affection for The Blades, there was certainly a point when I believed, rightly or wrongly, that they were being overly force-fed to us. And indeed while The Blades were regular visitors to Cork, and enjoyed a dedicated and passionate following there – the chorus led, as you’d suspect, by Irish Jack Lyons – I’m not entirely sure if they’ve ever been held in the regard there that they should have been. And for that I blame the fact that they presented, or were presented to us, as a little bit too overtly ‘of Dublin’.

By the time I fetched up on Avalon Road, The Blades had long been in cold storage. Although they’d signed an international deal after much brouhaha, their debut album, ‘The Last Man In Europe’, recorded for Elektra, eventually saw the light of day on Elvera Butler’s small Irish imprint, Reekus Records instead. And despite years of almost exclusively positive notices and the consistent support of the media here, the band just wasn’t sustainable on kindness alone and the arse eventually fell out from under The Blades.

So with this in mind, one of the more interesting songs on ‘Modernised’ is ‘The Magnets’ where Cleary, from a distance, sketches a snappy history of his own band that concludes with a reminder of their primary achievements. Asserting that the group had always been ‘working-class and proud’ and that they remain ‘on the left and there for you’, the song
eventually taps another familiar vein :- although wider commercial success eluded The Blades they at least, to Cleary’s mind, ‘stayed true to ourselves’. And this is a refrain you’ll hear from many Irish bands, especially those who pulled up just short of achieving more substantial breakthroughs outside of the country. Even if, in most cases, the trait is simply impossible to measure.

I’ve long suspected that, privately, Cleary must have often pondered the great what-if ;- it’s just un-natural for someone so sussed and media-savvy not to have. But the passing of time and the shift in the context allows him to do this more blatantly now, and without the risk of  sounding churlish. And in the same breath it’s also worth noting the relationship between The Blades and The Radiators [From Space], another band from across town who emerged during the post-punk period and who I’d long imagined stood for everything The Blades didn’t. But the premature passing of Philip Chevron, the one-time Radiators frontman and subsequent Pogues bulwark in October, 2013, has clearly had far more of an impact on Cleary than some could have imagined.

Because it was a testimonial show for Chevron at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre weeks before he died that seems to have triggered The Blades’ full-scale return to the bear-pit. At the late songwriter’s invitation, Cleary performed two songs at that Olympia show to a knowledgeable and sussed home crowd, comprised largely of peers, friends and fans.

By Christmas, The Blades – bolstered with brass and keyboards – were  back in the same venue, headlining a pair of excellent, high-octane, sold-out shows of their own to practically the same audience.

Chevron’s ghost underpins one of the stronger of Cleary’s new songs, ‘A  Love We Won’t Deny’ which, nodding to last year’s marriage equality referendum result and to social equality generally, name-checks The Radiators’ magnificent ‘Under Clery’s Clock’ as it does. To these ears one of the most sadly affecting songs ever committed to tape in  modern Ireland, Chevron’s ballad is located in the middle of Dublin city centre – ‘an lár’ – during a time in the country’s history when same-sex relations were still illegal and where the song’s central character, a gay man, pines for the embrace of his partner ‘by the street light, like other lovers do without disgrace’. As with much of Chevron’s most powerful and
evocative material – ‘Song Of The Faithful Departed’, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ and even his version of Brendan Behan’s ‘The Captains And The Kings’ – ‘Under Clery’s Clock’ is a song of struggle, a cry for empathy and a call to man to do the right thing in the face of provocation and challenge ;- to stay true to himself. A theme that now predicates much of the jagged nostalgia at the heart of ‘Modernised’.

By the mid-1990s, Cleary was in a self-imposed semi-exile, contributing  regular journalism to Hot Press and In Dublin magazines while also leading The Cajun Kings, a pub rock and covers outfit that was a regular fixture on the Dublin live circuit for several years. As a young producer in RTÉ, I’d often see Paul pushing his young children around
Donnybrook village in their buggies while out and about at lunchtime :- it was an image that always struck me as being so utterly in keeping with many of the scenarios he’d previously sketched in his songs. But I’d sometimes see Cleary inside the gates of RTÉ as well ;- one of his summer side-lines during this time was as a question setter, alongside the late George Byrne, on the youth television quiz series ‘Blackboard Jungle’, which was block-recorded by David and Gerald Heffernan’s production company, Frontier Films, on the campus at Montrose during breaks in the school calendar.

That connection between Paul Cleary, Frontier Films and RTÉ is another  long-standing one. Like many others, my first encounters with The Blades were on RTÉ Television and radio, especially the live, three-hour, Saturday morning series for young people, ‘Anything Goes’. One of the presenters on that series, David Heffernan, was a long-time champion of The Blades and his name surfaces regularly around the Paul Cleary archive, starting with a performance of ‘The Reunion’ on ‘Anything Goes’ as far back as 1980. And he turns up again in relation to one of the most compelling pieces of popular music archive in the RTÉ libraries, a 1982 video for The Blades’ ‘The Bride Wore White’, which was commissioned specially for the post-noon rock insert he hosted within the programme.

Directed with a real cinematic ambition by the late Bob Collins, who later went on to produce and direct ‘Top Of The Pops’, the three minute insert was shot on 16mm black and white film over two days around Dublin’s south inner-city. In among the numerous shots of urban deriliction, pushed prams, general street scenes and young kids on the loose, Cleary and the band, in their smart Crombies, line-up in a variety of set-pieces. It was an earnest, high-end piece of work that took an amount of resources to complete and, in keeping with much about The Blades during this period, was a class apart.

And there are many other memorable clips of Paul Cleary at work still available in the RTÉ libraries, a testament to just how strongly and consistently his case was espoused – and continues to be so – by numerous producers, in television and radio, throughout his career. A suited and booted solo performance of the magnificent ‘Some People Smile’ on The Late Late Show in 1983 is another highlight, as is the pared-back delivery of ‘Too Late’ with the country singer, Ray Lynam, from the late night youth series, TV GaGa, in 1987. Cleary and Lynam had already worked together a couple of years previously when, in the
aftermath of Band Aid, he wrote and fronted an Irish single for the Concern charity. ‘Show Some Concern’ featured what looks now, in hindsight, like a most bizarre line-up of personalities and performers, with Maura O’Connell, Maxi, Freddie White, Christy Moore and Gay Woods prominent on the gang-chorus alongside Red Hurley, Twink, Larry Gogan, Pat Kenny and Lynam himself.

Show Some Concern’ did indeed top the singles chart in Ireland and, by so doing, delivered on it’s primary purpose, but it’s Cleary’s more elemental work, ‘Some People Smile’, ‘Animation’ and ‘Too Late’, that has endured far more comfortably easily over time. Indeed ‘Too Late’ is easily one of the great Irish songs of the period, Cleary at his most sophisticated on a song that, completing a familiar circle, shares common stylistic ground with Philip Chevron’s ‘Under Clery’s Clock’. By the mid-1980s, Ray Lynam was in his commercial pomp as leader of his own formidable country outfit, The Hillbillies. But beyond the crudely formed stereotype there was, and remains, a unique and remarkable voice, a fact not lost on his collaborator. And in retrospect, ‘Too Late’ represents a clear line in the sand for Cleary ;- increasingly restless, restrained and frustrated, it was no surprise when he pulled the shutters down on The Blades after another raucous live show in The Olympic Ballroom the following year.

‘Too Late’ closes the thirteen-song compilation, ‘Raytown Revisited’, the second, and superior, of the band’s two albums released in 1985, months after their debut ;- it is, to all intents, The Blades’ own ‘Hatful Of Hollow’. ‘The Last Man In Europe’ which, like The Smiths’ debut album, was produced by John Porter, had been released earlier that year but, having been on hold for so long, sounded slightly flat by comparison. And although that album features the outstanding title-track, the imperious ‘Downmarket’ and the resilient ‘Boy One’, all given a smooth, lacquered pop finish, The Blades were far, far better than ‘The Last Man’ may have suggested to those coming at them for the first time.

A fact to which Cleary himself may have been alluding when he gave Dave Fanning a long and insightful interview on Sandymount strand for Billy Magra’s excellent 1987 profile of him as part of the RTÉ One arts series, ‘Visual Eyes’. Having finally settled on a more settled line-up for his first post-Blades project, The Partisans, Cleary was in prickly form ;- in making a case for his new band he claimed, more than once, that The Blades weren’t nearly as good as many had made them out to be.

But that was then and this is now and, notwithstanding the fact that he was attempting to affect some sense of separation from one project as he was pushing another, we can mark this now as just frisky loose-talk, played primarily for effect. Because by any stretch of the imagination, The Blades forever gave as good as they got, pound for pound and, in Cleary, enjoyed one of the most potent and robust song-writers in the history of popular Irish music. With the band now back in tidy working order, playing the odd live show and even releasing new material, Cleary evidently feels that there’s unfinished business to be done. And in the year that’s in it, with the trace of raw, uncompromised nostalgia already set thick in the air, who knows where events may yet take them ?


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 , 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’.