DOLORES O’RIORDAN [1971 – 2018].


During the first series of the RTÉ music show, ‘No Disco’, the presenter, Donal Dineen and myself travelled west to Limerick on a couple of occasions to pick up long interviews that we’d use to populate what was, in essence, a niche video clip show. And because the show didn’t have a bob in its budget, our filming model – if we had one – was based on piggybacking regional news gathering units and working in tandem with the often irregular schedules of some of the RTÉ correspondents who were based outside of Dublin.


And this worked for the most part, at least during those early days, even if we routinely left high-profile musicians and songwriters hanging-on indefinitely in hotel lobbies and cafés while we awaited the return of a veteran film crew from the scene of a crash or a local political press jaunt.


On December 17th, 1993, The Cranberries were back in Limerick, their home-town, where, having recently become the first Irish band to sell one million copies of a debut album in America, they were being feted by the city council, local dignitaries, hail fellas and the great and the good of the local social circuit. At that time Limerick’s physical heart – like many other large Irish cities – was ailing and in need of urgent renovation and an infusion of imagination and renewal. And its reputation wasn’t helped either by cheap national stereotyping.


But not too far beneath the surface, Limerick was far more a fab city than stab city, and this was nowhere more apparent than in its emerging alternative music scene which, for at least ten years from the early 1980s onwards, was as energetic and diverse as anywhere in the country, and often far moreso. If Tuesday Blue and Toucandance maybe set the early pace, and while The Cranberries would eventually become the focus, the real heavy lifting was done for years by distinctive, urgent pop groups like The Hitchers, They Do It With Mirrors, Those Stilted Boys and A Touch Of Oliver. To this day, the music they produced between them during that period provides a formidable soundtrack to a formidable city of formidable people.


I’ve written previously about that scene and I consistently return to it to remind myself of the prominent gulf that existed at this time between some of the loftier aspects of Dublin’s music establishment and those movers and groovers who emerged and took shape far from it. And often in spite of it. From 1988 until 1994, give or take, easily the most breathtaking and enthralling new Irish music was being stewed far from the capital, and it was easy to understand how and why.


Without the distraction of the maddening crowd, removed from the lazy sloganeering and what could often be an insidious and self-celebratory circuit, a handful of bands emerged from around Ireland that displayed as instinctive a grasp of the potential of sheer pop dynamics as they did brass neck. And they were bonded, not by geography or [dis]location, but by a shared sense that they neither knew better or cared less.


They crawled from Larne, Downpatrick, Enniskillen, Limerick, Galway and Cork and, the sterling, energetic fumes of a selection of local promoters, hacks, hangers-on and the odd national radio producer apart, were left largely to their own devices. At least until such time as the pennies dropped – literally – and, on the back of positive press abroad and genuine label deals for Therapy?, Ash, The Divine Comedy, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic, The Sultans of Ping F.C. and The Frank And Walters, this crack squad ceased to be mere disconnected curiosities [‘there’s something in the water, boys’] and, instead became attractive propositions in many different aspects. Unlike many of their better-known, over-hyped Dublin-sponsored contemporaries who, to me at least, seemed to often exist in name only.


Donal Dineen fetched up in Limerick that afternoon, December 1993, for a pre-arranged exchange with Dolores O’Riordan and Fergal Lawlor, The Cranberries’ enigmatic singer and lyricist and practical pulse, respectively. The interview, which was aired on ‘No Disco’ in early 1994, had been arranged to coincide with the broader hometown celebration of the returning minstrels. To which they responded with typical courtesy and no little bafflement ;- for the band, it was an opportunity to thank their parents and their road-crew in the presence of their peers.


Fresh off of what could often be a torturous train ride from Cork, Donal dutifully bode his time until RTÉ’s mid-West correspondent, Cathy Halloran, had completed her own filming, satisfied that she had enough raw material for the two-minute report on the triumphant return of The Cranberries she was filing for that evening’s Six One News. At which point the master went to work.


Dolores was instantly taken by Donal’s choice of trouser :- he was kitted out in one of his preferred ensembles of the time, a serious designer hoodie and salmon-pink corduroys. And as opening gambits go, ‘I love your pants’, delivered in the singer’s trademark Ballybricken accent, became one of the more memorable ice-breakers from the entire ‘No Disco’ canon. One million albums sold, still not caring less.


But Donal had been formidably briefed and knew well what he was dealing with. I’d enjoyed a long-running game of fox and hounds with The Cranberries and, without ever enjoying their patronage or breaching their inner circle, just wrote glowingly and consistently about them wherever and whenever I could. I was also, in a roundabout way, attempting to coax them onto the growing roster at Keith Cullen’s fledgling label, Setanta Records and, as I did so, I kept encountering some of the major, London-based scouts – Premier League opposition – in the most unlikely venues in the country. All of us chasing the same thing.


By now I’d profiled The Cranberries for the first time in Hot Press magazine, reviewed their stunning set at Cork Rock 1991 for the same publication and also for what was then The Cork Examiner [where, alarmingly, I managed to make a prediction that was to hold water] and saw them live in The College Bar in University College Cork and The Stables in what is now the University of Limerick campus, both times to what was general audience indifference.


I saw them live in The Shelter, a small patched-together venue on Cork’s Tuckey Street, on a magical bill assembled by Shane Fitzsimons and although they often appeared fragile and nervous, I just felt from early that Noel, Mike and Fergal were still just learning their instruments. And while Dolores may indeed have been socially awkward – she was a teenager – I never fell for the line that she was overly shy. The Cranberries knew well how to gild the lily.


And of course Dolores had already mastered her instrument ;- her voice, from the off, was heaven sent and, behind her, the boys were playing perennial catch-up. That learning process went on for several years, during which time the band was forced to grow up quickly and adjust or be lost. And any claims that The Cranberries landed fully-formed is just wrong :- the facts see that off.


The first sessions for their debut album, ‘Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We ?’ were junked and the producer, Pearse Gilmore, who also managed The Cranberries [a reveal in itself] was dropped from both portfolios. The singles lifted from that record, ‘Linger’ and ‘Dreams’ were all but ignored, as was the album itself when it was first released in March, 1993. An early, holding E.P. for Island Records, ‘Uncertain’, was critically panned and while the band was always assured of a warm welcome back in Limerick, they were still a difficult and niche sell outside of it. One live show at Dublin’s Rock Garden during this time was attended by a score of paying punters.


And by any critical standards, The Cranberries were far from the best band to emerge from Ireland during the early 1990s. Indeed, to my mind, they were far from the best band to emerge from Limerick. But they went on to become the biggest and the brightest of them all because, at their core, they had Dolores, whose voice and whose personality masked a multitude.



On the weekend of my twenty-third birthday in June, 1991, I saw fifteen of Ireland’s best emerging young bands perform over three nights as part of the Cork Rock shindig at the fabled Sir Henry’s venue in Cork city. The Cranberries performed half-way up the bill on the second night, surrounded on either side by the bulkier, more sophisticated and ultimately faceless pop sound of The Chelsea Drugstore [featuring Colin and Peter Devlin] and The Brilliant Trees, the terrific Finglas guitar band.


The Cranberries stood out because they didn’t physically stand out at all. And of the fifteen participating acts, they were one of only two – the other being the jazzy, swing-pop act, Bird – to feature a woman.


She was from another world altogether. Then, now and forever.






As popular seasonal songs go, Mariah Carey’s high-octane body-shaker, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, is certainly among the more memorable of the recent cluster even if, in thought, word and deed, its also one of the more obvious. Nodding at Wizzard’s meaty glam-stomp, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, Mariah’s multi-layered pop whopper, first released in November, 1994, sits astride a formidable bells-whistles-and-more bells production that, as usual, showcases her powerful pipes and mighty vocal range. And, in this respect, its long been popular with your local karaoke champion who may, one time, have featured on ‘The Voice Of Ireland’ and who’s loudly dominated any staff event since, flaunting the capacity of their lungs like a balloon blowing entertainer at a pre-schooler’s birthday party.


Which isn’t to demean ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ even if, to these ears, its just far too jolly and straight-forward to in any way capture the heart of what is easily the darkest of all the seasons. As an unreconstructed music snob, I steadfastly hold the view that the best and most powerful Christmas songs are also the saddest and most subtle of the kind. And to this end and for what it’s worth, my own personal favourites are ‘Family Life’ by The Blue Nile – by a distance the most gut-wrenching song ever written – ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell from her remarkable 1971 album, ‘Blue’ [which also features a Joni original called ‘Carey’] and this year’s ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ by St. Vincent, which is as malicious as it is a spectacular hybrid of both. And yet I’ll still happily bat for Mariah because, unlikely as it seems, we have form.



I’ve made numerous television programmes over the last twenty-five years and, wherever possible, I’ve tried to consistently support new and established bands and musicians, be that on the fringes of the schedules in specific music shows and children’s television strands or on the bigger, more high-profile chat and entertainment strands. I’m one of those who believes that– and there are others in my trade who might disagree – when used properly and respectfully, music can elevate any programme up a level, even the most listless.


I’ve written previously about the presenter and journalist, Pat Kenny, and particularly his interest in – and his career-long support for – music of all hues. I worked as Pat’s producer on the RTÉ One chat shows ‘Kenny Live’ and ‘The Late Late Show’ for several years from 1998 onwards and, during that time, we booked the widest span of music we could. Some of those entertainment bookings – over which we often agonised – were frequently among my own personal highlights and many of those performances have lingered far longer and deeper in my mind than much of the more fleeting, low-end celebrity-skewed fluff we’d also trot out.


Leading those bigger, broader-focused shows puts you on an absolute hiding to nothing and thickens your skin quickly. The size and diversity of the audiences, even still, and the demands of those audiences, means that you’re often damned if you do and you’re even more damned if you don’t. And in the best traditions of Ireland at large, everyone else knows exactly how to do a better and more effective job than you and isn’t too slow to remind you.


But those shows can often be terrific fun to work on too, largely because of the frankly absurd situations that regularly go with the territory and the dark humour that tends to under-pin the background teams who backbone these strands and keep them afloat. I fundamentally disagreed with Pat on many things over the years and reluctantly signed off on some of the bookings we made through gritted teeth. But over time I learned how to clinically poison my own prejudices – for better and, often, for worse – and put my personal leanings into cold storage for the sake of what I felt was a broader good.


Our music bookings were handled by a couple of formidable, practical and experienced operators who were as committed to their work as they were passionate, connected and knowledgeable about their music and who’d bring all manner of stuff to the table. And while I’d routinely get giddy over an artist or a performer I knew and liked, I learned over the years to assess such things with a broad perspective ;- or, in other words, learned to admit whenever I was wrong. Which was often. And so I know now, for instance, that there are fewer greater privileges in life than just sitting there, a matter of feet away, while the traditional singer Seán Keane rehearses a fully live version of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, supported by a small ensemble of top-end players. Or in watching Paul Brady work his way through another skilfully woven original with some of the best session musicians in the country, all of them working a groove.


I enjoyed many such moments over the years when, during afternoon rehearsals on thefloor of Studio 4 in Montrose, I was able to kick back for a few minutes, hide from the chaos, switch my mobile off and, from a seat in the bleachers, marvel at the artistry on the sound-stages wondering if I was actually working at all ? An unlikely vocal performance or an unscripted diversion during camera rehearsals and soundchecks were often enough to make my week and I hope that any musician or performer we invited in felt that we genuinely respected whatever it was they may have been trying to do.


Some of those performances are, of course, more indelible than others, and betimes for the off-beat carry-on that surrounded them in a trade not renowned for reliability. During Pat’s last year on ‘Kenny Live’ in 1998/99, we hosted a full-live Meat Loaf performance which was as mammoth an undertaking as you’d expect and which we carried off, I think, with no little aplomb. The backing band’s equipment ran the length of the performance area to the right of the studio as I looked on from the cheap seats :- indeed, so much hardware was rolled into the studio that we had to specially extend the sound-stage and eat into some of the other aspects of the set.


But with a mighty in-house sound-crew working hand-in-hand with the visitors, Meat Loaf literally raised the roof :- not since those sulphurous nights a decade previously, when Charles Haughey regularly locked horns with Brian Farrell on ‘Today Tonight’, had the studio building in Donnybrook witnessed such a whiff of raw, undiluted menace.


As tends to be the case on some of those bigger state visits, I was rolled out to formally greet Meat himself after he landed in the reception area and he was every bit the gentleman I imagined, warmly taking my hand and sincerely thanking us for hosting him. His career was again on a steady up-swing after several years spent, in many respects, in the wild and during which, wheelchair bound, he famously under-took a bizarre three-week tour of some of Ireland’s most remote ballrooms and local halls.


Caught deep in a critical and commercial sewer, and flogging a spectacularly dire album called ‘Blind Before I Stop’, Meat Loaf spent the guts of a month on Ireland’s provincial circuit in 1989, far from the arenas and stadia in towns as remote as Moate in County Westmeath and scanty villages like Dundrum, in Tipperary, where he headlined at The Golden Vale Ballroom. Playing largely to the line dancing set, he rammed every hall he headlined and, by all accounts, barely made it alive out of some of them.


This chapter of Meat Loaf’s long, varied and loud story, during which his audiences had clearly became more selective, if no less passionate, was touched on by Pat Kenny in a terrific interview that same night but is covered in far more detail in an excellent post by Ronan Casey  that’s well worth your time and attention.


We did a fully live Frames performance that same year when the band fetched up to perform ‘Pavement Song’ and, again, with an entire studio team on the one page working closely with the band and their crew and with an excellent director just going for it, created three epic minutes that I can still see clearly in my mind’s eye. Cinerama too, featuring another of my many heroes, David Gedge of The Wedding Present, also checked in and did a gorgeous version of ‘Hard, Fast And Beautiful’ from their first album, ‘Va Va Voom’. And, after the singer had flirted as usual with the higher reaches of his register, straining to tip them one-by-one, the band took the applause of the studio audience, promptly began to dismantle its back-line and carried it back out to their tour bus in jig time. Like most of those we hosted on campus in Montrose, they were travelling light, with the minimum of fuss and without either the fanfare or the flash.


And then there was Mariah.


By March, 1999, Mariah Carey was easily one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’d enjoyed a dozen or so chart-topping singles in the U.S. alone, was prime tabloid fodder and her rags-to-riches back-story – she literally threw herself at the mogul who signed her, later married him and, along the way, had radically transformed herself physically – was already well worn. The New York-born singer was in Ireland for the best part of a week, during which she was combining promotional duties for her latest single, a basic enough knock-off of the syrupy Brenda K. Starr song, ‘I Still Believe’, while apparently tracing down aspects of her mother’s family line.


The daughter of an American-Irish mother and an African-Venezuelan father, Carey’s family line stretches back, on her mother’s side, to the Hickey and Egan families of Cork and, perhaps with that in mind, the singer was offered to the ‘Kenny Live’ programme for a performance and an interview. Which we committed to tape on Monday morning, March 8th, 1999, for broadcast on our live show the following Saturday night.



Carey was trailed incessantly by the media and a myriad of assorted hangers-on from the moment she landed in Dublin and was hounded in time-honoured fashion whenever she left the swanky city centre hotel in which she was billeted. Much of which, to my mind, was carefully and deliberately stage-managed. Her retinue was enormous and, from what we’d heard from our snouts in the press corps, resembled a travelling freak show. And on the morning she fetched up in RTÉ, we saw proof of that close-up.


Although we’d been tic-tacking in granular detail with Mariah’s record company for the best part of a month beforehand, and were long familiar with many of the more celebrated vagaries of the entertainment business, the general hullabaloo that surrounded her even took the more hardened and cynical of us by surprise.


I took my first call of the day shortly after 7AM on the morning of the record ;- one of Mariah’s cortege was concerned that our campus wouldn’t be big enough to take the fleet of limousines and customised vans that were set to land in Donnybrook. The tone and the bar had been set early.


We were eventually deluged by the single biggest support crew I have ever seen accompany any one performer, from security, media handlers and personal assistants to stylists, production personnel and record company flunkeys. In all – and bearing in mind she was about to completely mime her song, barely open her mouth and was performing without a band – there must have been at least twenty of them, three of whom were backing vocalists and many of whom looked like they were trying hard to make work for themselves.


And yet for all the pantomime, their primary concern was far more pointed :- the studio lighting. For the duration of the forty odd minutes Mariah spent on the studio floor, her personal lighting director sat in the production gallery upstairs with his eyes set on the exposure levels ;- at his request, we pushed all of the lamps to the point of almost white-out. Carey’s representatives also requested sight of the director’s shooting script – a not entirely unfamiliar ask, although unusual enough – and, after even more consultation, we agreed to keep all shots looser than we normally would. The performance features not a single close-up of the star turn.


I’d met Mariah very briefly after she’d alighted from the back of a high-powered, blacked-out van that had parked up outside our studio building and, in her tracksuit and with minimal make-up, looked as regular as anyone. In behind the Olympic level of corporate codology and away from the supporting madness was someone of roughly my own age, late 20s, with what was clearly a terrific voice and who, at one level, must have been utterly mind-spun by the circus by which she was engulfed. And for which, of course, she was picking up the tab.


What should have been a relatively quick-and-easy studio shoot became an elaborate, overly-fussy drama job :- if Mariah’s hairdresser sprung in from side-stage once and delayed the recording, he did so at least ten times, spray can and combs in hand, carefully sculpting an imaginary stray wisp back into place. Earning his corn and his spot in the squad. In the circumstances, I genuinely thought that Pat pulled a decent interview from her. Or at least as good as, swarmed by the branding police, we were ever really going to get. She spoke eloquently and well about her family background, her mother and the various difficulties she’d encountered growing up in New York, before launching back into auto-pilot. And the odd time, you know, I detected a real warmth from the kid :- and, even at that point in her career, she was simply that. A kid.


And then, with ten minutes of chat on the clock, and with her over-eager body of alickadoos pointing at their watches and intruding on our floor manager, we wrapped it up and wound it all down ;- Mariah and her entourage were gone within minutes. Off, no doubt, to a hotel or an airport or another lay-over in Dubai, Doha or Dallas.


And once we’d eventually seen the last of them off the premises, and once the hire-cars had all pulled away from the concourse, a small group of us made for the upstairs room we’d decorated to spec for our guest. Buried in among the freshly pressed towels and the flowers, and beyond an air that was hung thick with lotions, potions and hair spray, we uncorked the bottle of Cristal champagne put aside for Mariah by her record company and that she’d left untouched.


We belted into it like savages.






The delicate art of just being there can be tricky enough to manage at the best of times, especially to those of us long gone from the streets that raised us, in exile. But just because we’re out of sight, keeping our eyes on the ball and one foot ahead of the other, doesn’t mean we think any less of those we’ve left behind. Distance, indeed, will often bring a far greater intensity and perspective to any relationship. And whenever I return home now – for family occasions, celebrations, at times of loss and grief or just, simply, to catch up with my parents and siblings and attempt to stay in touch – I’m dealing increasingly with a far more complicated backdrop :- the slow-dance with old ghosts.

My mother must have documented the lot. And anytime I’m home now, she’ll produce a series of photographs or a scrap-book or an old three-hour VHS tape, beaten and war-torn, its struggling body wrapped in vandalised cardboard casing and bearing random television programme titles from the last century scrawled in biro on it’s spine. She must have a bottomless treasury of old clippings, by-lines through the decades, a cache of old videotape, old press releases, band publicity photographs and under-age match reports. And its probably just as well :- as someone who struggles to remember what I did last month, the late 1980s are a daunting challenge.

She built up that store over decades knowing that the day would eventually come when, quietly and without fanfare, we’d be actively looking to pass the torch on. That there’d ultimately be an hour when what were once just fleeting snapshots in time would assume much more significance, as happens now with every trip home, every milestone reached, birthday celebrated, every year chalked down. And the more we’ve lost over-board along the way – mighty uncles, mighty aunts, a barely born niece, grand-parents, friends, enemies, relationships and time – the more that personal archive takes on more stature. And the more we’re thankful for the diligence and the soft hands of the record keeper.

My own children, no moreso than anyone elses, can’t believe that we ever lived like we did all the way back in the 1980s. That we ever dressed like we did or that we ever communicated to one another in a real world and not in an unreal, virtual one. Or that we ever played music directly from vinyl :- it’s a concept that, to those growing up at a time when one of the first motor instincts in any young child now can often be to try and swipe at a television screen with a finger, is just beyond them.

So where does one even start when it comes to the not insignificant matter of the Cassette Tape which, I’d contend, has always been the national music format of choice and one to which the country has been instinctively drawn for decades and across all aspects of society, from the most curious of collectors on the margins to the religious crackpots out there beyond the beyond.

I honestly thought we’d seen the last of the cassette which, during the 1980s and 1990s, was a vital tool in our armoury and one that we deployed in many different guises. But despite thirty years on death row, the format lingers on and, if recent trends continue to hold, may even be in line for a surprise pardon.

My first encounter with the cassette was up in my grandmother’s house in Farranree. She had a healthy supply of country and Irish compilation tapes stored alongside her favourite religious recordings and, when we’d swing by there on Sunday mornings, I’d often wade through her stash in the forlorn hope of locating something a bit more obtuse. In behind the work, perhaps, of Jimmy Shand, Isla Grant and Dónal Ring, a local accordion-playing ceilí band leader from out the road in Blarney who briefly – ‘featuring Paddy Carey’ – threatened a national chart breakthrough with ‘The Bold Christy Ring’ [‘his hurling’s most glorious, he’s always victorious, he’s Cork’s darling hurler, the bold Christy Ring’].

And although, against the honk of turnip on the boil outside in the small kitchen, this calibre of stuff was enough to scar you on sight, there was something unusually fetching about the cassette format itself. Like many of my favourite bands during this time, tapes were efficient, part magnetic, barely held together and, with the right amount of poking
with a pencil, would unravel in an instant.

I was reminded of the peculiar allure of the cassette recently when, during an unscheduled raid on Music Zone, a small, un-sung record shop in Douglas Shopping Centre in Cork, I saw that a couple of new releases – Morrissey’s ‘Low In High School’ among them – were also available on tape. And at a considerably lower price-point too. But although I rarely, if ever, bought any new music on cassette, tape was actually where the real business of my youth was done, the currency of the oik and the everyday language of the indie ghetto. Like fanzines, good brogues and satchels, tape separated the anoraks from the day-trippers and all of those who were simply passing through. Demo tapes, pre-release tapes, compilation tapes and crudely-recorded sessions, taped from the radio, were all part of the vernacular of the day, essential companions to any aspiring collection – and collector – of wax.

Much has been made in long magazine features, contemporary novels and even screenplays, of the impact and influence of ‘the mix-tape’, the preferred method of communication during the 1980s for indie snobs, show-offs, aspiring [usually perspiring] musos, trainspotters and enthusiasts. Many of whom struggled to finish their sentences whenever regular conversations veered off course and into areas that didn’t involve Morrissey and Robert Smith. And who almost always tended to be single and pitied.

Usually featuring a carefully curated selection of songs by left-field bands and artists and, more often than not, recorded crudely from vinyl originals to cassette via the domestic three-in-one, the mix tape used music in lieu of common discourse, sending out subtle messages, flirty hints, signals and political and personal suggestions. Ultimately, though, the mix tape was often just an awkward cri de coeur.

Showing scant regard for the baleful suggestions carried inside many international vinyl releases warning that home taping was illegal and, worse again – over an apocalyptic crossbones logo – that the practice was killing music, the home-grown compilation cassette worked on the same basic principle as the engagement ring. One only ever gave or received a mix tape after a period of courtship, often short and intensive, during which both sides had established common ground – a shared affection for The Cure, R.E.M, The Wedding Present and The Fall, usually – before moving on together, for better, worse and usually poorer, to the more challenging aspects of the human condition. Where the likes of The Stooges, vintage Bowie and The Velvet Underground were located.

Pickled with runes, tunes and indie metaphors, a standard mix-tape designed to make an immediate impression might have opened with ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ by The Smiths before gliding softly onto R.E.M.’s ‘Pretty Persuasion’, something lateral by The Beatles, Depeche Mode’s ‘See You’, The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’, ‘Always The Quiet One’ by The Wedding Present, an assortment of frankly unlistenable c86 codology [The Pastels, Eyeless in Gaza and Gene Loves Jezebel] before closing out with a plaintive question, disguised as an end-of-show statement :- Buzzcocks ‘What Do I Get ?’.



I made numerous such cassettes over the years, for men, for women, for folk I knew well and folk I hardly knew at all. And each one of them recklessly surfed the lines between what I considered to be studied cool, the vagaries of random personal selection and absolute pretentiousness. ‘Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fire’ by The Cocteau Twins and something more obtuse than usual by Einstürzende Neubauten were regular gold-plated cuts in this respect, even if what was often gained on the roundabout of hip was lost quickly on the swing of the practical reality. Because it was virtually impossible to fit longer titles and band-names onto the in-lay cards inside the cassette boxes without making an artless mess, which tended to defeat the purpose.

Bound by an enduring sense that, ultimately, I just knew better, I poured my heart and soul – and pints of Tippex – into those compilations, every single one of them constructed with the kind of care I used decades later when we took our first-born daughter home from hospital for the first time. Songs were inserted carefully into particular order, lovingly and pointedly selected and wrapped with real intent. And of course most of them were assembled while I could and should have had my head buried in text books instead. Indeed, had the fine art of ‘The Mix Tape’ been a core honours subject on The Leaving Certificate, I’d have rolled into U.C.C. on a scholarship to Electrical Engineering and featured on the main evening news as an over-achieving academic freak-show instead of just simply just stumbling up the main avenue into college looking like a failed lab experiment. But we were happy, apparently.

I received – and devoured – many mix tapes over the years too. The best and easily most influential of which was a compilation from a fellow traveller I met on a course on youth leadership, no less, in Newbridge in County Kildare during the early 1980s. Slightly older and also called Colm, he was a student of philosophy and theology at university in Northern Ireland and we bonded instantly. Or as quickly as it emerged we were fans of the same sort of music and, because he had a few years on me he was able to pull from a far deeper well of experience and reference, which he shared freely. This, to me, was a
definitive form of youth leadership.

We spent many hours on that course locked in intensive discussion about the importance of sharp lyrics and music with an edge and, during our last night on the campus, as everyone was preparing to pack up and leave, he gave a formidable, unscripted homily to the entire group about the power of friendship, signing off with a verse of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’. ‘May you always be courageous, stand up right and be strong. And may you stay forever young’. And after he’d finished, I felt like breaking out through the wall and running the journey back to Cork.

Within days of getting back home, an absurdly wide-ranging, home-produced cassette arrived for me. More or less synopsising, through an almighty breadth of styles and sounds, the conversations we’d had the previous week, it was a perfect diadem. In-set among which were lateral cuts from The Fall, Alain Stivell, Bob Dylan, Throbbing Gristle, Neil Young and Holger Czukay and, over the course of that bulging sixty minute, two-sided cassette, I saw the light and the light was good. Colm had shown me, basically, how to kill my darlings and set my snobbery to one side. Because it was obvious, from the expanse of new music at my elbow, that quality music could reside anywhere and everywhere and that there was real magic in diversity. And of course, as these things tend to go, that was the last I ever heard from him.

Morty McCarthy – the drummer, advocate and philosopher – was another enthusiastic tape trader around Cork and I’ve written previously about how, because of his energy, various peccadillos and his ear for a tune, I grew and developed a lifelong friendship with The Frank And Walters. He’d compile regular guitar-led manifestos onto tape and distribute them freely around his peer group, steadfast in his view that indie-pop would one day save civilisation from itself. God knows where he sourced some of the stuff that turned up on those tapes and yet, to this day, I’m thankful for the introduction he brokered between McCarthy [the politically-charged, no-frills, straight-in, no kissing indie janglers who, sadly, bore no direct family relation to him] and myself. That band’s three albums – ‘I Am A Wallet’, ‘The Enraged Will Inherit The Earth’ and ‘Banking, Violence And The Inner Life Today’ – are easily among my favourite records of all time and I can trace this life-long affair all the way back to a poorly-recorded, c60 cassette tape traded
under streetlight.

Morty dealt openly too in one of the more extreme aspects of the format – the demo tape – and I don’t think he was never more giddy than when some young local shower would emerge, direct from the eight-track cauldron at Elm Tree Studios on The Mardyke, with their three-song, two-chord calling card burning holes in their jeans, ready to take on all comers. I pored over hundreds of demo tapes down the years, often at Morty’s prompting, and spent many miserable hours – that I won’t ever get back – chasing fool’s gold.



But the rare glint of magic through the gap, and that instinctive sense that something rare was bubbling beneath the crude over-lay, always had me coming back. I can remember still, of course, the whiff of cordite that popped the air around me when I first played the uncouth, unpolished and unsteady studio demos from the likes of The Franks, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic and Whipping Boy. As Liam McMahon, who managed a teenage Roy Keane at Cobh Ramblers asked Dave Hannigan in our 1997 television documentary, ‘Have Boots, Will Travel’ ;- ‘What price do you put on potential ?’.

Easily the most jaw-dropping demo I can ever remember was the first tape sent to Setanta Records by Neil Hannon after he’d jettisoned his band and his shoe-gazing aspirations and retreated back to Enniskillen to re-invent himself as a solo performer.

Coarsely committed to tape using a basic four-track, Tascam machine and recorded in a shed behind his family home, that cassette featured, in skeletal form, the guts of what subsequently became The Divine Comedy’s ‘Liberation’ album. And still, even as a series of callow sketches and rough outlines, it just dripped with raw majesty :- it was for this kind of unexpected sorcery that I could excuse the bulk of what had gone before me and to which I had voluntarily subjected myself.



As an emerging and already respected label making waves and noise while our competitors were pulling in cash, Setanta received a regular barrage of cassettes from aspiring, hopeful acts, many of them Irish and most of which were plainly unlistenable. But because necessity is the mother of invention and because we were fervent re-cyclers, we found plenty of use for most of them :- in the spirit of punk rock and doing it for ourselves, we’d record over them with some of our own forthcoming material and re-distribute them as samplers to the loyal band of admirers on our mailing lists.

Keith Cullen, Setanta’s founder and chief strategist, never fully grasped the popularity of the cassette form back in Ireland and would mention this whenever he was arguing that the market there was irrelevant. Which was often. Long after tape had become a dead format in Britain – who remembers Minidiscs ? – Setanta would often have no other choice but to produce a special run of cassettes, at significant cost and with no little bother, whenever we released anything by A House, for instance.

One of the biggest regrets I have about many of my own relationships – with friends, girlfriends, colleagues, passing acquaintances – is the amount of quality music I lost or squandered along the way in the hope, like Morty all of those years previously, of maybe setting broader society on the right path. I loaned The Trashcan Sinatras’ ‘A Happy Pocket’ to so many different people over the years that I’ve had to replenish my own stock at least ten times and yet, up to recently, didn’t actually have a physical copy I could call my own. A sad state of affairs made sadder by the knowledge that, irrespective of how truly magnificent that record is, it served as either a coaster or a serving tray in some squalid Dublin flat long after I’d been given my marching orders or decided to up sticks because of irreconcilable music differences.

The moral being, I suppose, that while it’s never too late to repent, some souls just aren’t worth saving.

To accompany this piece there is a specially created Mix Tape… 





To accompany Tales of the Tape – I thought it might be interesting for Colm to make up a mix tape. This ‘mix-tape’ was created Sunday 26 November. As is the nature of these things if I had asked today, it may have been a completely different selection of tunes… Enjoy (Martin O’Connor)

1] The Smiths – ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’

2] Johnny Marr – ‘Upstarts’

3] The The – ‘The Beaten Generation’

4] The Go Gos – ‘We Got The Beat’

5] Jane Wiedlin – ‘Rush Hour’

6] Julianna Hatfield – ‘My Sister’

7] This Mortal Coil – ‘You And Your Sister’

8] The Cocteau Twins – ‘Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires’

9] The Fleet Foxes – ‘White Winter Hymnal’

10] Lord John White – ‘Jungle Burger’

11] Villagers – ‘Courage’

12] Gemma Hayes – ‘Keep Running’

13] Joe Chester – ‘Somewhere For The Animals’

14] The Animals – ‘Don’t Let Me Be Understood’

15] Elvis Costello – ‘Still’

16] Madness – ‘We Are London’

17] The Fatima Mansions – ‘North Atlantic Wind’

18] The High Llamas – ‘The Sun Beats Down’

19] Sharon Van Etten – ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’

20] Silver Sun – ‘Service’

21] This Is The Kit – ‘Silver John’

22] R.E.M. – ‘Nightswimming’

23] The Blue Nile – ‘Saturday Night’

24] New York Dolls – ‘Trash’

25] The Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock – ‘Sweeney’s Frenzy’

26] Fionn Regan – ‘Cormorant Bird’

27] We Cut Corners – ‘Sound’

28] Into Paradise – ‘Sleep’

29] Jimmy Webb – ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’

30] Prefab Sprout – ‘The Old Magician’

31] The Buzzcocks – ‘What Do I Get ?’





You’d miss R.E.M. all the same, wouldn’t you ? Easily one of the best, certainly one of the most prolific and without doubt one of the most subversive of them all stepped off of the travellator for the last time in  2011, thirty-one years after they’d assembled in Athens, Georgia, from where they launched some of the most breath-taking and influential records in the entire history of popular music. And although the quality of some of the band’s later material definitely tailed off – I’d point to a dilution of structural tension before anything else, if pushed – at least ten of R.E.M.’s fifteen studio albums should, by any standards, reside in any self-respecting music collection.

Once they’d found traction and, literally, their voice, on ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’, their third album, released in 1985, they remained a real threat until the very end and, as recently as the band’s last elpee, ‘Collapse Into Now’, were freely minting the magic :- ‘Walk It Back’ is easily one of their best ever songs on a record that’s much, much more than a mere swansong. R.E.M. might well have been struggling to maintain the all-killer consistency that had long hall-marked them but it wasn’t overly difficult, after twenty-five years at the crease, to pardon them ;- very few will ever again come close to their batting average.



It’s easy to point to the departure of the group’s founder, drummer Bill Berry, back in 1997, as a nail in their tube and the start of a slow puncture. But while the loss of their founder and, to my mind at least, the band’s spiritual leader, certainly impacted on R.E.M.’s complicated blood circulation system, I’d be mindful of an over-simplistic diagnosis. Berry was certainly an under-rated writing influence and many of the band’s more impactful offensives were launched from behind his traps. But it’s worth considering the following question :- name one band or artist of such distinction and influence – and I include Bowie, Dylan and Neil Young here – whose body of work retained its earlier consistency beyond ten albums ?


There was much about R.E.M. that set them apart during their three decades together, but leaving the stage with the same easy command of their craft on ‘Collapse Into Now’ as they did on arrival, albeit through a far narrower lens, on the ‘Chronic Town’ mini-album and then the ‘Murmur’ album [1983], is one of their greatest definers. During which time they crawled from the south to become the unlikeliest biggest band in the world ever. And in my more introspective moments – and there have been more and more of those this last twelve months as my children grow older and the world struggles for order – I often think about the damage that R.E.M. might cause were they still actively recording in this, the year of the rancid, venal, racist, neo-liberal sociopath ?


Thirty years ago, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ [1986] and ‘Document’ [1987], the band’s fourth and fifth albums, were powered on many levels by the darker shadows of Ronald Reagan’s American presidency and the many unsettling, often inflammatory, policy positions adopted by his administration at home and abroad during his term of office. That R.E.M. crossed over into the mainstream during the Reagan years and released its angriest, most insurgent and best records during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, who held office between 1989 and 1993, may not be co-incidental either.


I was a recent college graduate, mooching the streets in search of a start and, like many others like me, was as comforted and confounded by those records as I was informed and scared by them. R.E.M. were taking sharply-informed, highly-charged political and social rhetoric into the arenas and stadia without once sounding like an over-earnest, empty-at-the-bottom rock band in search of a slogan. Of which, during the 1980s, there were far too many, few of whom showed any grasp at all of nuance and subtlety. Unlike R.E.M., who were masters of this sort of carry-on, routinely wrapping their nail bombs in the softest of suggestion and allusion.


I’ve obsessively gone back to both ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and ‘Document’ over the last six months ;- like David Szalay’s novels or any of the Father Ted episodes, new dimensions still emerge within their work on every engagement. Because while R.E.M. of course brought astute, often implied political messaging, their range carried far higher and much wider. They routinely dealt with the far more complex politics of human engagement too and are responsible for some of the most bewitching love songs in the history of the genre.


Many of which, like the bulk of the band’s canon, have dated extremely well. Even on their first, tentative albums, ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’ [1984] their shyness – parts of their debut, Michael Stipe’s vocals especially, are buried to the point of being barely audible – there was always a real intent deep within the sound of their silence. Manifest from early on the likes of ‘Talk About The Passion’, ‘Perfect Circle’,and ‘Camera’ and on numerous junctions thereafter.




The more curious among us were well and truly under the band’s spell from the first bars of ‘Radio Free Europe’ onwards. As well as the songs –  most of which were stellar – the band itself was remote and mysterious enough for those who were instinctively dragged to the margins and who preferred their music served at an angle. Myself and my friend, Philip, spent hours poring over R.E.M., particularly their first four albums, which we adored and which were released during that period in our friendship when we lived, pretty much, in each other’s pockets. And during which time we made numerous attempts to decipher some of R.E.M.’s enigma. Or which there was an awful lot.


Basic as it sounds, but we spent far too much time trying to work out, from their mug-shots on the back of ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’, exactly which of them was which. Their names, ‘Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe’ – always in alphabetical order and briefly, on ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’, with added initials – quickly became embedded in our vernacular, tripping off of the tongue as easily as any of the band’s songs. [A special nod here, for the anoraks, to the mysterious N. Bogan, who received a once-off writing credit on ‘West Of The Fields’]. R.E.M. rarely, if ever, succumbed to the obvious and, on those early sleeves, are deliberately playing with their identity and with how the band fronted-up ;- they look completely different, Berry’s distinctive eyebrows apart, on the first two albums.


Indeed it wasn’t until the band appeared on the BBC music television series, ‘The Od Grey Whistle Test’, in November 1984, during which they performed fully live versions of ‘Pretty Persuasion’, from ‘Reckoning’, and debuted a new song, ‘Old Man Kensey’ [from ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’], that we first caught sight of them behind their instruments and were able to definitively join the dots.




Identity – for R.E.M., for myself and Philip – was often a common puzzle during the years when The Paisley Underground, the flag of convenience under which several terrific American guitar bands traded briefly during the early to mid-1980s, was in its pomp. Many of the key figures in that cluster were involved with, or circling around, several other bands at the same time and some of the associations extended far and wide. And although R.E.M., given their Byrds/Love tenor, were only ever loosely aligned to this party, they quickly grew to dominate it and so, on their prompting, we were soon seeking out new music from the likes of Let’s Active, featuring R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, The Long Ryders, Green On Red, Love Tractor, the imperious Jason And The Scorchers, Oh OK [featuring one of Michael Stipe’s sisters, Lynda] and Guadalcanal Diary, a powerful guitar band that also took root in Georgia. Some of which was very difficult to locate and for which we depended, for several years, on friends and acquaintances on J1 Visas in the United States, to import for us.


R.E.M. championed their lesser-known – and ultimately just lesser – peers at every opportunity and if Peter Buck didn’t physically contribute guitar to much of this output, then he certainly exerted a serious philosophical influence on it. And by so doing, made a household name of John Keane’s studio, initially a small recording facility local to R.E.M. that was also name-checked so routinely that it sounded like a magnet around which many largely unreported planets revolved.


We’d recently returned to school during the autumn of 1984 when I wrote to the P.O. box number listed on the inside sleeve of R.E.M’s second album, ‘Reckoning’. I sent a mournful note to the group – the first and only time I’ve done so with any band – explaining just how difficult it was to follow the fortunes of such an important, emerging band when, like themselves, I too was based far from the action in a regional outpost. I just knew that they’d understand.


And for my troubles I received, by return post some weeks later, a hand written reply ;- a free-form note on photocopied paper that also doubled as an artily-designed, type-written merchandising list enclosed within Airmail paper, no less, inviting me to their show in Dublin’s SFX later that year. The band would, the note said, set aside a pair of tickets for me on the night and were hopeful I’d be able to join them afterwards. Irrespective of whether or not this was the work of one of the band, an office junior or someone’s fluffer, it didn’t matter. R.E.M. had heard me like, in my head, I always imagined they would do. And with that scrawled note, a lifelong friendship was forever hewn :- I stayed loyal, steadfast and besotted until the end. And long after the end.


That R.E.M. show in Dublin, on December 4th, 1984, has long dominated the colourful war stories of live music veterans in this country. I hear it still referenced to this day, and in the most unlikeliest of settings ;- it’s long been the centre of conversation among a cohort of hardy anoraks  in the small village of Ardfinnan, in South Tipperary, where I gift an annual quota of Corkness to my in-laws.


But in one of the most egregious acts of poor judgement in my entire life – and there have been many – I passed up the band’s kind offer to join them for what would be the first of many subsequent live appearances in Ireland. Given that the show was scheduled for a Tuesday night, far from home and during our final year in school, my formal education was deemed to have been more important and, like the Dublin senior footballers, fatigue and work commitments meant that I didn’t make the trip.


It’s a wound that’s never entirely healed properly and one that’s been regularly salted over the years. To add insult to it, my letter from R.E.M. – in its own right as important a love note as anything Michael Collins ever wrote to Kitty Kiernan – has been long mislaid. Stuck, more than likely, inside an album that was loaned out to some fleeting love interest years ago in an effort to radicalise her, never to be returned.


But I didn’t have to wait too long to see R.E.M. in the flesh. They were back in Dublin the following summer when they appeared at Croke Park as part of the undercard at U2’s ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ show when, in the late afternoon sunshine on July 29th, 1985, they were greeted with a shower of bottles. Their cause may not have been entirely helped by Michael’s decision to start the band’s short slot with his back to the crowd and, in an overcoat and pork-pie hat, to open proceedings with the very antithesis of stadium anthemry, the jagged ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’.



And from our seats high up in The Cusack Stand, and having recently completed secondary school, we marvelled at the size of their neck. The fact that the partisan home support couldn’t find it in itself to extend the hand to them only drove the point home further :- R.E.M. had decent cutting, our instincts were soundly founded and they were far too subtle for the mainstream. I was, of course, far more careful about where and when I saw my favourite groups thereafter ;- once bitten, twice shy, I  always preferred R.E.M. indoors and always resisted the urge to ever see them in the open air again.


I’ve written previously about the profile of the radio presenter, Dave Fanning on RTÉ television’s youth magazine series, ‘Youngline’, that aired in February, 1984 and in which the then late-night disc jockey was shown spinning into his place of work in a battered old beater. He slips a random cassette into the car’s sound system and the life-affirming ‘Radio Free Europe’, the opening cut on R.E.M.’s debut album, ‘Murmur’, comes on. And it was on – and indeed for – those infrequent crumbs that myself and Philip sustained ourselves for ages.


That crack Radio 2 squad of Fanning, Mark Cagney and B.P. Fallon were all early R.E.M. acolytes and more or less spun the band off the air as, from the get-go, did the BBC’s John Peel. Fanning and his producer, Ian Wilson, also nailed them for an excellent ‘Rock Show’ interview during that brief 1984 stop-over in Dublin which, far from affording me cold comfort, only succeeded in making my sense of solitary confinement back home seem far, far worse.


But we replayed it back incessantly anyway, our ears and eyes opened by the band’s drawly accents and the manner in which they dropped, as usual, the names of several other emerging groups from within their orbit. Philip took his devotion to them much further and, at some point in the early 1990s, made what was then an unprecedented leap when he attempted to grow what remains one of the worst ever beards known to man. This was just one of his many personal tributes over the years to Michael Stipe, who’d recently started to experiment with face furniture and body paint. And it remains one of a number of vivid, sometimes bizarre memories I have of my late friend, with whom I soldiered long and hard in the trenches, usually playing the gormless wingman to his ascetic, corduroy-jacketed people’s poet.


R.E.M. were one of a number of compelling, urgent and special groups that we discovered together and through whose many songs we played out the guts of a friendship that was forever as intense as it was complicated. And often at the expense of what we might, and maybe should, have been dealing with instead. But they were easily the most dominant band of that number because, apart from the music, they developed as a force as quickly and as fiercely as myself and Philip were growing up – and moving on – back in Ireland. Twenty-five years after the release of R.E.M.’s most remarkable and most vital album, ‘Automatic For The People’, and I don’t think I’ve ever missed them more. And I don’t think that I’ve ever missed him more either.