The decorated American singer-songwriter, John Prine, died last month at the age of 73. In this guest post, the television producer, writer and presenter, David Heffernan – who worked closely with John – remembers the magic of the man and his music.
The English translation of the Spanish word Eldorado is ‘gilded one’. The Cadillac car company bestowed the name on one of its most sought after models, which also featured a soft-top version. This edition became hugely desirable, most notably from the 1950’s to the ’70, among entertainers and singers, not just in Los Angeles but in the southern states, especially and perhaps not surprisingly, Nashville.
In Tennessee’s climate, summertime temperatures generally hit the low 30s but can reach highs of 42 degrees. Factor in the humidity and it’s a pretty stifling environment, day and night, for anyone not accustomed to it. So it was with much relief that John Prine and I took to Broadway, Nashville’s main street, on a balmy July evening in the mid 1990s, in his white vintage Cadillac Eldorado convertible, its glistening chrome bumpers reflecting the heady mix of the street’s distinctive amber glow with the promise of an encroaching dusk. We were gliding along in fine old style.
Our destination was a seafood restaurant, L&N, for a meeting with a programme executive from TNN, a local music television station that pumped out a selection of country music-based programming to many parts of America. Over dinner we were set to discuss a new music series that Frontier Films wished to produce. We had worked previously with John on The Session, which Frontier had produced with RTÉ and which went on to win an ACE Award, the Cable television equivalent of an Emmy, and he was keen to get involved in a new project, Town and County, which Channel 4 would eventually fund. In the unending quest of ‘raising finance’ the TNN meet was a long shot but I was well up to the caper. Nashville at night, John Prine and his white Eldorado convertible, you bet.
Unsurprisingly, the TNN exec., while clearly enthralled by John’s storytelling, wasn’t in a position to part with any money for our project. Undeterred – and well-fed and watered – we said our goodbyes and headed into the night. The Bluebird, a noted haunt of song-writers, is situated in a suburb called Greenhills, not far from John’s house, and was our point of call. And so the talk turned to songs and song-writing, the lingua franca of everyday life in Music City, U.S.A.
I was first off the bat. Mervin Henderson was a journeyman singer who, mid-way through the last century, performed with The Blind Boys of Alabama. His daughter, the angel-voiced Dorothy Moore, recorded a song in 1973 that had previously been a hit for a number of performers, including mainstream country act, Eddie Arnold. That song, ‘Misty Blue’, is now considered a country and blues standard. I’d long been fascinated by this recording – realised in one take for Malaco Records in Jacksonville, Mississippi – and wondered what John’s recollection of the song might be ?.
‘Well David’, he recalled, ‘I first heard it while on the road. It came on the radio and I asked Gary Fish, who was driving and acting as my road manager, to head to the nearest town and find a record store. When we got there, I asked the owner would he mind playing the song three times onto a cassette: that way I could hear it while driving and wouldn’t have to keep re-winding’. So we were off and running.
The conversation soon turned to John’s own songs. Having worked with him over previous years, I’d heard most of them many times during rehearsals for television. I’d grown to love more than a few of them: the rueful acceptance of a relationship gone sadly awry in ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’, the tender, compassionate request for dignity in ‘Hello in There’ and the whimsical meanderings of ‘Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian’.
Yet there was a haunting quality to one of the songs he’d recorded earlier in his career and which he’d performed during the second series of The Session – an event that marked the opening night of The Point Theatre – that has long fascinated me and remains a personal highlight from the series.
The Point was once a nineteenth century train depot which, after substantial renovation, subsequently hosted three Eurovision Song contests: the interval dance act performed during the 1994 event was Riverdance. But prior to all that, it was The Session, featuring John Prine that played the first notes of music in Ireland’s première venue.
John was accompanied on the night in question by a stellar band, comprising Irish, US and British musicians. These included former David Bowie drummer, Tony Newman, the legendary Don Everly, the remarkable and gifted ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, producer, songwriter and close ally Jim Rooney, a youthful Marty Stuart and special guest Lyle Lovett, together with John’s long time music side-kick and close friend, Philip Donnelly. In The Point’s cavernous setting, ‘Saddle in the Rain’ reflected, in stark terms, a dark subject matter that reverberated amongst the audience and was at odds with the rest of John’s song selections on the night.
‘Saddle in the Rain’ was first recorded in 1975 for the ‘Common Sense’ album, produced by legendary Stax guitar player, and subsequent Blues Brother, Steve Cropper. It’s a ‘big’ up-tempo production featuring a full brass section, all-girl backing vocalists and more than a passing nod to the Disco boom of the time: not exactly standard John Prine territory. As we drove towards The Bluebird, it seemed like a good opportunity to ask about this enigmatic and, as performed in The Point, most unsettling of songs.
It’s worth pointing out that, when not on the road, John enjoyed the company of others and was a warm host who loved to cook BBQ, sing songs and generally ‘hang out’. While deeply private in many respects, he was also naturally convivial and, invariably, in his own understated way, extremely generous to his guests. On our journey to The Bluebird, John told me that on one occasion, a male acquaintance came around to where he was living at the time: it subsequently transpired he’d come to be on the wrong side of the law. Rather than hand himself in, he took his own life by gunshot. John found his body and ‘Saddle in the Rain’ was clearly informed by this traumatic event.
The pared back version he performed in The Point echoed the exhortation of shock and deep disappointment he must have felt at the time of writing – yet without bitterness or recrimination – as the empathy and compassion contained within the performance amply demonstrates. Its dark subject matter is similar to ‘Lake Marie’, from 1995’s ‘Lost Day’s and Mixed Blessings’ album, also recorded in Los Angeles under the aegis of Heartbreakers’ bass player. Howie Epstein. The starting point for which was the reporting of a series of gruesome murders committed in Maywood, a suburb of Chicago: it is, by all accounts, Bob Dylan’s favourite John Prine song.
Within the constraints of popular music – teenage love affairs and subsequent heartbreak being the foremost narrative tropes – John Prine is one of a handful of writers whose song-writing reflects a broader, more complex range of human emotions and life experiences that many of us will encounter, in one way or another, over our lifetimes. Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan are other figures from that generation who have stretched those constraints and hence transformed the possibilities of what popular music can do. And John Prine deserves to be considered a member of this august company.
As we drove around Nashville in his Eldorado all those years ago, I suspect John never considered he’d be included in such a gilded group of twentieth century artists. Yet, in 2005, he became the first singer-songwriter to read and perform at the US Library of Congress. No mean feat for a former postman from Chicago who found that writing, as he put it, ‘his little ditties’, to pass the time on his postal round, would produce a body of work that will, I suspect, not just stand the test of time but, through the situations that made his songs happen, enable us to feel a tad more human, a little better about ourselves and the world we live in.
So thank you for the memories, John. And the Eldorado evening.
An earthy Breton harpist, Alan Stivell, topped the bill at the first Siamsa Cois Laoí, a day-long festival of folk and traditional music that took place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork on July 17th, 1978. Then in his mid-30s, Stivell was a prominent figure in the electrification of Celtic music and was already a fixture on the live circuit here. Nine albums into what was then – and what has continued to be – an extraordinary and prolific career, his prints are all over what we might respectfully refer to as Celtic rock music.
Adding electric instruments and lavish arrangements to traditional Breton tunes and spikey originals, Alan Stivell was one of those leading the way and carrying the light: his 1975 album, ‘Live In Dublin’, is one of Celtic rock’s essential foundation pieces. Recorded over a couple of nights at The National Stadium in November, 1974, that elpee features bagpipes, Breton woodwind, flutes and harp over a blanket of progressive electric rock riffing. Onto which Alan spoons vocals and general caterwauling to a record that, forty-five years later, straddles the junction between invention, genius and parody. On the eve of an upcoming world tour, Stivell repeated one of his regular mantras in Cork: ‘I’m trying to preserve the Celtic culture through music’, he told one of the local newspapers.
His set-up in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was pared back and un-plugged: Alan, seated, on harp and tin whistle, flanked by fiddle, acoustic guitar and basic, hand-held percussion. The 1978 Siamsa Cois Laoí – which translates as Festival by the [river] Lee – was captured on film by an RTÉ outside broadcast unit and subsequently transmitted as a multi-part performance series by the national broadcaster. In the early evening balm at the great bowl deep in Cork city’s dockland, Stivell’s ornate, Breton vibes are lost in the outdoors.
The lingering shots of attractive young women, couples shifting and youths necking beer suggest that RTÉ’s live director was looking to distract from the subdued humours on the main stage, on which Alan never looks entirely comfortable. Over coffee with Vincent Power of The Evening Echo the following day, he claimed that while ‘the [Siamsa] organisers are nice people, they don’t know anything about sound’. Although pleased with the reception he received in The Páirc, ongoing issues with the stage monitors didn’t help his cause and, he claimed, his small band had found it ‘difficult to play together’.
As well as hosting thousands of games and training sessions during its lifetime, the original Páirc Uí Chaoimh also staged ten consecutive Siamsa Cois Laoí shows and numerous other high profile and profitable live events after it opened in June 1976. The stadium endured until 2015, after which it was razed to the ground and re-built. Over the last couple of years, my friend Michael Moynihan has highlighted, in a series of scarcely-believable exclusives in The Irish Examiner, the extent of the over-spend on that project. Peter McKenna, the Stadium Director at Croke Park and an influential figure within the G.A.A. hierarchy, has suggested that the eventual cost of the project will be close to €110m: the venture was originally budgeted at €67m. At a meeting of the Cork County Board in February, 2019, Michael O’Flynn, on behalf of the current Stadium Committee, predicted that the final cost of the re-development will be closer to €96m. By any measure, the over-spend on the recent re-fit is staggering. The cost of the re-construction of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, whatever the final figure might be, will have consequences for Gaelic Games in Cork for decades to come.
Some of the veteran delegates and officers of the Cork County Board will know this feeling only too well, though, because they’ve been in this territory previously. When Páirc Uí Chaoimh was first opened in June 1976, it did so at twice the projected cost and it too left a mouth-watering debt in its wake. Using terms that’ll sound very familiar, it was presented as a strikingly modern, state-of-the-art, consumer-friendly operation: the most contemporary facility of its sort in the country. The final cost, even allowing for the rate of inflation during this period, was off the charts.
In May, 1978, the then chairman of the Cork County Board, Donal O’Sullivan, told The Cork Examiner that ‘even though the County Board succeeded in raising £650,000 from its own resources [towards the cost of building the stadium], and received considerable grants from other units of the Association, there is a debt of £800,000 still due, and the repayment of this loan means that a big sum must be found annually’.
He was speaking in Dublin at the launch of the first ever Siamsa Cois Laoí, one of a number of innovative schemes devised to help alleviate the Páirc Uí Chaoimh debt. Siamsa was promoted during its ten-year history by Oliver Barry, from Banteer in North Cork, who served his time on the fledgling entertainment industry that sprung up around the Irish showbands during the 1960s. He was a formidable operator with strong G.A.A. credentials and I credit him as one of the most important, innovative and unheralded figures in the history of Irish entertainment.
Because of the G.A.A.’s constitution – ‘the Association promotes Irish music, song and dance and the Irish language as an integral part of its objectives’ – the early Siamsa line-ups needed to recognise the organisation’s ethos while also being commercially attractive. With the Grounds Committee of the Cork County Board, Barry put together a first line-up that spoke, in broad brush-strokes, to the association’s cultural remit. Apart from Alan Stivell, Siamsa 1978 also featured The Chieftains, The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones, the Dublin-born fiddler, Paddy Glackin, and a group of set dancers from Youghal. Tickets were priced at £3 and the show attracted over 12,000 paying punters, grossing almost £40,000 in sales, half of which went towards the stadium debt.
Siamsa Cois Laoí is a seminal concert series in the history of live music in Ireland and, by the mid-1980s, had re-drawn the entire pitch for entertainment promotions here. After ten years, it was seamlessly morphed into bigger, international-scale shows by the likes of U2, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Prince, all run by the same principal partners: Cork G.A.A. and Oliver Barry. Its line-ups bear witness to the development of cultural imagination in Ireland during the 1980s, not least of all within the upper reaches of the Gaelic Athletic Association.
In 1984, the G.A.A. marked the centenary of its foundation by pointedly staging its annual congress in Belfast during the height of ‘the troubles’. It is to the credit of those driving G.A.A. matters in Cork that they could look out beyond the narrow rhetoric and cultural focus that often characterised their organisation. What went on within the concrete wrap at Páirc Uí Chaoimh from 1978 until 1987 was utterly game-changing: Siamsa set the course for U2’s show at Croke Park in 1985, Féile in Thurles in 1990 and all outdoor live music events in this country ever since. It is a hugely important cultural pivot point.
The last event held under the Siamsa Cois Laoí banner took place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh during the weekend of August 8th and 9th, 1987, when U2 and Status Quo headlined two consecutive nights at the ground, a series co-promoted by Oliver Barry and Jim Aiken. The melding of the two live shows back-to-back, and the re-scheduling of that summer’s senior inter-county championship calendar to accommodate live music in Cork, was as profound a development in its own way as the opening of Croke Park to rugby and soccer decades later. Status Quo, legs-splayed, denim-clad rock and roll scruffs from London, were the last ever Siamsa head-liners: the roll-of-honour also includes Don McLean, Joan Baez, Glen Campbell, Kris Kristofferson, Leo Sayer and John Denver.
The broadcaster, Donncha Ó Dúlaing, was keenly aware of the G.A.A.’s cultural bent. From Doneraile in North Cork, he began his broadcasting career in the RTÉ radio studios in Cork during the early 1960s as Denis Dowling, before his name was changed at the suggestion of one of the station heads. He compered the first Siamsa concerts and, as he did throughout his long career on the wireless and on television, oscillated between English and Irish, the first language of the Irish state and the Gaelic Athletic Association. During his long career, Ó Dúlaing conducted a number of interviews with the fabled Cork hurler, Christy Ring, including the only surviving television sit down, which was recorded for a series called ‘Donncha’s Travelling Roadshow’ shortly before Ring’s death in 1979.
During The Dubliners’ Siamsa Cois Laoí set in 1980, Ó Dúlaing invited the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, to join the group onstage. The Fianna Fáil leader reluctantly took the mic and belted out a line of an old Dublin song, ‘Monto’. As he was being glad-handled back down the ramp at the side of the stage, Haughey quipped ‘What about my fee?’
On-stage in front of The City End and with a live mic in his hand, Ó Dúlaing’s schtick was peppered with tribal old guff. ‘Two years ago, I had the distinction of being called a republican by The Irish Times’, he told the Siamsa crowd on that same afternoon in 1980. ‘Well, since this is a republic, I suppose we must all be republicans’. A review of the event in Magill magazine mentions how he later called for ‘a round of applause for the late Tom Barry’, the Kerry-born commander of the West Cork Flying Column during the War of Independence and the Civil War, who died a couple of weeks previously. In remembering Barry, Ó Dúlaing played fast and loose with history, telling that crowd that people like Tom Barry ‘gave us the Ireland we love – the thirty-two county Ireland’.
The Wolfe Tones, a four-piece ballad group from Dublin, were well known to Ó Dúlaing: he’d cut them a couple of decent breaks during the earlier part of their career. Trading in old school folk and rebel songs and anti-British sentiment, they were managed by Oliver Barry and have the distinction of being the only act to play at all ten Siamsas. At every single one, they’d amble on-stage in the mid-afternoon and rouse the crowds with some of their most popular material, much of which, like ‘A Nation Once Again’, ‘Some Say The Devil Is Dead’, ‘On The One Road’ and ‘God Save Ireland’, was politically-charged. They were unapologetic opportunists who didn’t do nuance: a popular live draw all over Ireland at this time, they were also regulars in the Irish charts.
During the weeks that preceded the first Siamsa Cois Laoí, a number of atrocities took place in Northern Ireland, as had been the case all too frequently since 1969. On June 17th, 1978, the I.R.A. carried out a gun attack on an R.U.C. patrol car near Crossmaglen, County Armagh. One officer was killed at the scene and a second was kidnapped. A Catholic priest was kidnapped the following day as a reprisal and, later that year, three R.U.C. officers were charged with the offence. The same officers were also charged, along with two other officers, with the killing of a Catholic shopkeeper in Ahoghill the previous April. Three members of the I.R.A. and a passing Protestant civilian were shot dead by undercover members of the British Army during an attempted bomb attack on a Post office depot in Belfast.
This backdrop wasn’t lost on The Evening Echo’s traditional music columnist, Bob O’Donoghue who, the week after that first Siamsa, claimed that The Wolfe Tones’ left him ‘as cold as death in Belfast’. Drawing parallels between the power of Irish and American Negro folk music, he concluded his piece by reminding readers that wounds are healed by justice, a combination of ‘reason and feeling’. Justice does not lie, he signed off, ‘in the song of the bullet’.
It’s unlikely that his sentiments were shared by the Cork County Board’s Registrar, Denis Conroy, who was back at Páirc Uí Chaoimh early on the morning of July 18th, 1978. The long-serving Carrigtwohill delegate, who never hid his republican sympathies, was leading a group of fifteen young helpers to clear the ‘massive amount of debris left behind’ after Siamsa. A trial match between the Cork senior and under-21 footballers set for Tuesday evening meant that time was precious and the clean-up crew was up against the clock. Describing Siamsa as ‘an unqualified success’, Conroy paid special tribute to The Wolfe Tones who, he reminded reporter Maurice Gubbins, ‘almost brought the house down’. ‘I never saw anything like it’, he said.
Siamsa was notable also for the first appearance at the venue of pint-sized cans of beer, which, up until the mid-1970s, were almost unheard of in Ireland. From the evidence left behind by thirsty punters, they were a popular choice of refreshment, a fact not lost on Denis Conroy. Noting that the cans were imported, he suggested that ‘there was surely an opening for an industry manufacturing them in Cork’.
A decade later, the people of Cork had a far greater choice of beers and soft drinks available to them, in cans, bottles and on tap, both inside Páirc Uí Chaoimh and outside it. During the weekend of that last Siamsa, local hotels and guest houses were, as reported by The Cork Examiner, ‘jam packed for 20 miles around’ while restaurants and bars across town were ‘turning away customers on Friday and Saturday nights’. Not only was Siamsa now generating considerable ticket revenue, it had also developed its brand more widely: for three years from 1984, the event was supported by a title sponsor, the Ford Motor Company. A media partnership was formalised with local and national outlets, side deals were concluded with stall holders and hospitality providers around the event and the net value to the city was determined to have been in the millions of pounds. This during a period when 248,462 Irish people were registered as unemployed.
Live music in Cork that weekend wasn’t confined to Páirc Uí Chaoimh either, and most other venues of note piggy-backed the occasion and ran well-supported shows of their own. A formidable local outfit, The Belsonic Sound, played Sir Henry’s that Friday, introduced on-stage by RTÉ’s Dave Fanning, while In Tua Nua took the boards at De Lacy House as their patrons, U2, were half way through their set down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. An emerging young band from Bray, County Wicklow, The Icon Trial, played the first date of a four-date residency in Mojo’s.
Such was the expected influx of crowds into the city over the couple of nights that Fine Gael councillor, John Blair, was fearful of a breakdown in public order. He warned a meeting of Cork Corporation in July, 1987, of possible clashes between rival followers of U2 and Status Quo on the city’s streets. From Ballintemple, in the shadow of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, John Blair’s late brother, Des, was one of the best known local promoters working the seam in Cork at the time. In respect of live music, Des Blair, who died in 2014, is best remembered for booking the Sonic Youth/Nirvana double bill into Sir Henry’s in 1991 and also B.B. King’s shows at The Neptune Stadium in 1988 and 1990.
John Blair was lending his voice to the worries of some of his constituents: those living in close proximity to Páirc Uí Chaoimh have long had concerns about public safety, access, lighting and general crowd control around that part of the city. With over 80,000 concert-goers moving in and out of The Marina that weekend, additional Gardaí were drafted onto the city roster from Mallow, Fermoy, Cobh and Midleton. As it turned out, most of those fears were unfounded: Chief Superintendent Larry McKeon told The Examiner on Monday that ‘the number of arrests or incidents in the city were on a par with any other weekend’.
A familiar public safety concern at the time concerned the use of small, unlicensed boats, dozens of which – some of them home-made and most of them without life-jackets – would ferry concert and match-goers across the river from Tivoli. One of them sunk on the afternoon of Siamsa, without any casualties.
Cork G.A.A. eventually knocked forty years out of the original Páirc Uí Chaoimh but, by the 2000s, the cracks, literally, began to appear in its structure. The stadium was eventually over-taken by the demands of the modern consumer and, on the days of bigger games and concerts, it was just too much of a challenge to get in and out of. Large-scale, live music events feature prominently in the stadium’s history and, looking at the financial strategy under-pinning the recent re-build, will continue to do so. Two high-profile British performers, Ed Sheeran and Rod Stewart have already played there.
But if Siamsa is another story of an emerging Ireland and, within that frame, the evolution of the Gaelic Athletic Association, it’s also another chapter in the remarkable story of Oliver Barry. From show-running dance bands at The Crystal Ballroom in Dublin during the 1960s, to the vagaries of the cabaret circuit that followed it, he was just as comfortable running with the international jet set during the 1980s and thereafter. With the Wexford businessman, James Stafford, Barry was one of the founding directors of Century Radio, Ireland’s first independent national radio station, that opened in 1989.
Supported by high-profile backers like the radio and television personality, Terry Wogan, and the singer, Chris De Burgh, Barry attempted to lure Gay Byrne, then the best-known broadcaster in Ireland, away from his long-time home at RTÉ. Despite the promise of a salary of £1m a year, and all of the supports and benefits he required, Byrne wouldn’t bite. ‘When all is said and done, RTÉ is my home, and a pleasant one’, Byrne wrote in his 1989 autobiography, ‘The Time Of My Life’. Century collapsed within two years and Barry took a considerable financial bath, estimated at the time to be close to £3m.
He was also compelled to appear at the Flood Tribunal, a mammoth tribunal of enquiry, set up in 1997 to investigate irregularities in high-profile planning procedures in Dublin. In May 1989, four months after Century Radio won it’s commercial radio licence, Barry gave €35,000 in cash to Ray Burke, the Fianna Fáil Communications minister, at one of his departmental offices. Mr. Justice Flood found that Barry, and James Stafford, among many others, had obstructed the Tribunal’s work.
In the telling of the history of popular music in Ireland, Oliver Barry’s name features largely. The Gaelic Athletic Association features far less so. By consistently evolving from its tentative beginnings with Alan Stivell in 1978, Siamsa Cois Laoí – an initiative of the Cork County Board in partnership with the promoter – has had a considerable impact on the development of live entertainment in Ireland, and the industry that has grown up around it. Maybe far more than even the G.A.A. itself might admit.
‘Anyone for the Paul Weller headbands ?’ was an in-joke that often popped the air at the twin desks in RTÉ Cork that once constituted the No Disco production office. I heard this question put one night by a hawker outside The City Hall in Cork and, juveniles that we were, would deflect to it whenever we felt harassed by pluggers, chuggers, colleagues and life itself. The thought of anyone in a Paul Weller headband was so preposterous that it could dilute any situation.
But there’s always a side-story. One of the more memorable inserts aired during the first season of the No Disco music television series in 1993/94 was an interview with Weller, the former Jam and Style Council frontman and song-writer who’d roared back to life with a couple of cracking solo elpees. I don’t recall that exchange as particularly revelatory or ground-breaking but it certainly struck a chord because, at the time, Paul wasn’t doing a lot of media. Just to get him in front of a camera was the first achievement and anything after that was a bonus.
The success of Paul’s first, self-titled solo album had confounded many seasoned industry-watchers. Difficult to credit it now given the career he’s enjoyed since but, after the demise of The Style Council in 1989, and still in his early-30s, Weller was thought by many to be a beaten docket. Little wonder that, in the spring of 1994, he had the music weeklies in his cross-hairs.
Paul was on the road with a terrific live band touring a second solo album, ‘Wild Wood’, into which Donal Dineen – the No Disco chairman – and myself had fallen head-first. Enthusiastic students of all points from Traffic and Van Morrison to Nick Drake and Neil Young, we were smitten by the pastoral vibes that sprinkled it, and played some of its key cuts from to a thread on the series.
Like many contemporary male novelists, I too have parked a series of pivotal Top of the Pops memories, among which The Jam – Weller’s first group – blasting through ‘Going Underground’ in the BBC Studios one Thursday night, is among the most enduring. The spiky three-piece he led from 1973 to 1982, is easily among the finest British bands in popular music history. Indeed, alongside The Pet Shop Boys, Madness, Buzzcocks, The Smiths and New Order, I mark The Jam as one of the best post-Beatles British singles bands of all time. Channelling my inner and outer, Alan Partridge, the double album best-of, ‘Snap’, should be in every self-respecting music collection. It was certainly very prominent in mine and, once I’d played it to a crisp and devoured the sleeve notes, I worked my way backwards into the mighty Jam albums that under-pinned it, ‘Setting Sons’, ‘All Mod Cons’ and ‘Sound Effects’ especially.
[As an aside, The Jam regularly surface on lists of the best and most influential three-piece groups of the last sixty years. It was maybe pre-determined, therefore, that, years later, Weller found himself sharing a label with my own all-time favourite three-piece, The Frank and Walters].
It was because of Paul Weller that I went full septic and re-shaped my bowl-cut, wearing my do for several years like he does on the front of ‘Snap’, with a canyon-wide centre-parting lashed into shape using two combs. The centre-parting was a popular look for feens in Cork during the 70s and 80s: in most instances more a spotty face look than a Small Faces one.
I had to explain this to the progressive, denim-doused rockers in another-worldly barbershop on Paul Street called ‘Heads Only’, where I’d started to go as soon as I was allowed to have my hair cut without parental supervision. ‘Heads Only’ was sound-tracked by the double-album indulgences of Pink Floyd and Genesis, the walls lined with Roger Dean pastiches and the ceiling splattered with painted-on planets and stars. Had I asked them for a Roger Waters or a Steve Howe look, it’s unlikely I’d have had to go into such detail.
In much the same stylistic vein, an influential Irish promoter, Pat Egan, opened a couple of record shops in Cork during the late 1970s and I was a regular nuisance around the bargain bins inside Rainbow Records, at the top of Patrick Street, next to The Swan and Cygnet pub. Pat didn’t just deal in vinyl and wax: Rainbow’s narrow body was lined with groovy badges, tee-shirts and life-sized posters of young wans who were so eager to get out onto the tennis courts that they neglected to pull on their drawers. Every week the staff would take a print-out of the week’s Top Forty singles and albums from Music Week magazine and sellotape it onto the counter. Many’s the hour I idled away in there poring over the detail, noting the names of the various bands, writers, producers and record labels listed on those charts. It was on that counter that I first encountered the name Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, The Jam’s long-time producer who, I later learned, and to no little disappointment, had actually been working with the band for years using his real name, Vic Smith.
I bought my first ever record – ‘Shine A Little Love’ by Electric Light Orchestra – in Rainbow Records and, just as importantly, my first ever skinny-tie, on which The Who’s logo was printed half way down. I’d only ever heard one of their songs, ‘My Generation’, but read that Weller regarded them highly. I wore that tie proudly for several years thereafter and, much later, decided to finally investigate The Who more fully. I thought they were average.
I was in from the get-go with Weller’s next operation, The Style Council, who were a poppier, bulkier and marvellously grandiose concern. I gathered up as much of their material as I could – and there was an awful lot of it, some even sung in French – and lost myself in the over-blown sleeve notes and the magnificent packaging, marvelling again at how and where popular music might take a fella. A year previously, The Jam were documenting the daily soap opera of life for suburban Britain’s working classes: months later, Weller was lounging, bare-chested, on a gondola, his unkempt mop-top now swept back and creamed-up. The video clip for the band’s third single, ‘Long Hot Summer’, was a study in homo-erotica, had any of us been clued in enough to appreciate it.
Apart entirely from the music, The Style Council personified what some of us were aspiring to from our desolate perches in Blackpool and Saint Mary’s Road. They were pretentious, engaged, politically in tune and sharp, and Weller was magnificently turned out. On the band’s inconsistent debut album, ‘Café Bleu’ and, later, on the mighty ‘Our Favourite Shop’ – which came in the most affected sleeve I’d seen – they were both outside the curve and firmly in the moment. On one level, they were the antithesis to my other favourite bands of the period – The Smiths, Prefab Sprout and R.E.M. – all of whom traded more in substance than sass and looked like they were togged out in dead navvies’ gear.
The Style Council aspired to look good in order to play good but were an important musical counterpoint too: they dabbled freely and with more abandon than most, often with woejesus results. But they opened the door for us also to stuff that might otherwise have been lost in a welter of jangly guitars.
I loved ‘Money Go ‘Round’ for all its clumsiness and, despite its student thesis, even ‘Soul Deep’ – released as The Council Collective – with its funky synths, percussion and shared soul vocals. ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ even began with the line ‘You don’t have to take this crap’ which, as opening gambits go, is certainly on the braver side: I just found it impossible to take issue with them. And, in one key respect, how could I have ? All that had really changed was the wrapping and much of that early Style Council material wasn’t too far removed from where The Jam had left off. From ‘The Bitterest Pill’ and ‘Beat Surrender’ to ‘Speak Like A Child’ is no distance at all, really, and that beefed-up sound had been a feature of The Jam’s lengthy last tour, where the three-piece core was augmented by brass, keyboards and backing vocals.
The Style Council took off at a ferocious gallop altogether; Weller sounded like he was in a real hurry and it’s been regularly argued – not least of all by our hero – that he just felt increasingly restricted by the limits of the three-piece, guitar-led line-up. No harm reminding ourselves here that, when he announced he was breaking up The Jam, Paul was twenty-four years old.
After a sterling five years, The Style Council just ran out of puff. I will, if pushed, make a case for the band’s third album, ‘The Cost of Loving’, the weakest of its five elpees, even if it certainly sounds like the work of tired hands. Failing to crack the Top Ten with a fourth album, ‘Confessions of a Pop Group’ – a rare occurrence during what had been, by any standards, a spectacular and prodigious fifteen years – the band was dropped by it’s label and the main man disappeared for air off-Broadway. Weller had started the 1980s with The Jam’s terrific ‘Setting Sons’ album in the British Top Ten and ended the decade without a record deal for the first time in his adult life.
Once a regular cover-star across all of the different weekly music magazines, there was a spell during the early 1990s when Weller’s appearances in the inkies were confined to small box ads in the listings sections towards the back of Melody Maker and New Music Express. Those low-key classifieds were promoting new solo material, like the singles ‘Uh Huh, Oh Yeah’ and ‘Into Tomorrow’, which were available on his own label, Freedom High Records, the name of which told its own story. The success of the first solo album that followed saw him quickly back in harness at Go Discs, the label founded and run by Andy MacDonald that, at the time, boasted a small but spectacular roster. On which resided The Las, The Beautiful South, Billy Bragg, Beats International, The Stairs, Portishead, Trashcan Sinatras and also one of our own: The Franks.
‘Wild Wood’ was produced by Paul with Brendan Lynch and picked up where the first solo elpee left off: two of the central themes are the natural world and Paul’s reflections on his own writing. The politics and campaigning, which had routinely deflected away from the music and perhaps even de-railed The Style Council a bit, were gone: pared back and spacious, the politics on those early solo albums are purely personal. ‘Wild Wood’ was released during the first urgings of what would becoming a defining British music movement led by Blur, Oasis and Pulp, and repeated an old trick of Paul’s: he was distinctly outside the curve and still central to the moment.
As part of the tour to promote that album, Weller played a live show at The City Hall in Cork on Sunday, February 27th, 1994. I was there, lost in the spread of velvet bleachers up in the balcony during the late afternoon while the formidable band, featuring Yolanda Charles, Steve White, Helen Turner and Steve Craddock, went through it’s sound-check. After which Paul joined us on a small, pre-lit perch where we’d set up our gear, accompanied by a couple of record company handlers and the formidable presence of his father, John, his career-long manager, replete in a fashionable polo shirt and leather jacket. Despite the heads-up I’d been given, he talked freely and at length about his music, politics and creative freedom. About fifteen seconds into his first answer he brought up Red Wedge, socialism, the British left and the value of protest songs. We could have gone on talking all night and he needed little or no prompting: he was terrific company.
The cameraman on that shoot, and on many of the other first No Disco set-pieces, was Joe McCarthy, one of the real greats – and earliest innovators – of Irish film and television. Among his many other talents, Joe was an award-winning director, a fine technician and an outstanding story-teller. He recognised John Weller’s name – and then his face – having seen him box at amateur level for England during the 1950s, and the pair of them were off.
As we wrapped up the interview, and Paul was shuffled away and out of the venue, Joe and Paul Weller’s old man were still locked into a fervent conversation about an amateur bout somewhere from years earlier. I can’t remember a single note of Weller’s show later that night but I can recall the important things.
Every band, large or small, famous or otherwise, has its own geography, a little network of places in which they came to be, that is theirs and theirs alone, for the rest of time.
This occurred to me recently when I was reading Nileism, Allan Brown’s riveting history of The Blue Nile, which immerses the reader in the west end of Glasgow and the cluster of streets, bars, cafes and bedsits that nursed a great but troubled band.
My band, Serengeti Long Walk, had its own geography too. Unlike The Blue Nile, we weren’t great and we weren’t troubled. We didn’t make a single record and barely ventured out of mid-1980s Cork. But we had a ball. And when I think about those times, I think primarily of George’s Quay and its environs on the south side of the city.
We rehearsed in dusty rooms four storeys up at the top of Carpenters’ Hall, just along from the Holy Trinity. We gigged most often in Mojo’s, a bar on Buckingham Place where the regulars, who mainly had a whiff of beard, bike grease and leather about them, seemed ready to put up with us and with the loyal crew of friends and family who cheered us on. And we would spend our meagre earnings further along the road in Uncle Sam’s, which I still consider to be the best chip shop I’ve ever known.
We bore little resemblance to the blueprint of what a successful band should be. We didn’t have one or two forceful leaders, creative visionaries that the others hitched themselves to on the hopeful path to fame. We didn’t really have a coherent set of musical tastes or any fresh angle on the world. But we liked each other’s company and we squeezed out a few catchy tunes, which we then proceeded to mangle, though in quite an agreeable way.
This proved more than enough to fuel us for a few laps of the Cork gigging circuit, which yielded their own store of anecdotes for the ages, from my brother, Ger, the singer, electrocuting himself on stage at De Lacy House, to a low-slung stranger with a greasy ‘tache threatening to kill us all as we were walking over Thomas Davis Bridge on our way back to play a gig in the College Bar. The whole thing wound its way to a happy conclusion with a buoyant farewell concert at Triskel Arts Centre in 1988. Colm, who has been kind enough now to host this piece on the Sentinel, was kind enough then to man the lighting rig, one of many, many favours he did for us. (Indeed, it was our connection to Colm that earned us a fleeting reference in Mark McAvoy’s tome Cork Rock.)
And then we split. To the suburbs and the county. To foreign shores. To Dublin, even.
The decades wound by, until – as Patrick Kavanagh found with Homer – Mojo’s ghost came whispering to the mind. Or at least to the mind of Jon Heffernan, our erstwhile saxophone player and now an accomplished guitarist. What if the lads got back together? What if we dusted off the old songs and sprinkled them with all the added years of musicianship, listening, cop on? What if, what if?
Well, bands make their own importance. We decided to give it a shot. In the end, five of the original six answered nostalgia’s call. Given the vicissitudes of life, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and where they can land, this felt like a good return. Our lead guitarist Joe Dermody got in touch with Ray Clifford who joined us both to play the drums and also to play along genially with our half-cocked rescue mission.
As well as remaking the band, we made ourselves a new geography. Once a year, we took ourselves off to a house near Caherdaniel in County Kerry to play, write, record, and laugh our heads off. Those road trips are now etched into our collective consciousness. Loading up the gear on late autumn mornings. Turning off the Killarney road at Clonkeen and plunging into the misty hillsides of the Iveragh Peninsula. Pitstopping in Kenmare. The first proper sightings of the ocean.
A regular shot in the arm, then, for a bunch of middle-aged buddies scattered across Ireland and England. But so what? Why take up space on the Sentinel with trips down a lane of memories that are only our own? Perhaps to show that some bands never end. They may go into long hibernation, but when they stir again, strange things can happen.
Last October in Rome, in a nightclub on a barge on the Tiber, we played our first ever gig outside of Ireland, an adventure orchestrated by Des O’Mahony, bass player, entrepreneur, a man who could pull a few strings and hustle up a crowd in the Eternal City. This came on the back of two studio albums, Glimmerless (2012) and Wave Signs (2018) in which we dusted off and polished up some of the old hits-that-never-were, paraded a slew of new songs we are all fiercely proud of, and celebrated a general uptick in our musicianship.
Serengeti Mark II is not a completely different beast from the first incarnation. There are still no big cheeses. But we do have more of a sound: less poppy, more guitar-fired. Our tastes have coalesced a bit more too, or perhaps the years have opened our minds more, so that it’s easier to find common ground. A fresh burst of gigging in and around Cork, and the enthusiastic reactions we’ve received, have helped us to realize that we can rip up a venue like never before, that we can take audiences right into the heart of what we are doing and that they like it there. And now we are releasing a third album, a live recording of the Rome gig made by Duncan O’Cleirigh of Blackwater Studios who has become a whole new source of energy, encouragement and know-how.
Thinking back now to that original farewell gig in the Triskel, our encore was a song called ‘Gravity’ with a chorus that goes ‘Something’s keeping us, something’s keeping us together”. So it has proven, more or less. What is that something? Who knows. But I keep hearing Don Williams’s deep, velvety baritone: “Well, a measure of people don’t understand / The pleasures of life in a hillbilly band”.
Serengeti Long Walk is not a hillbilly band [although, if a few of us had our way, things might be different]. But Don’s point was well made. Being in a band like this is an enormous pleasure. More than that, it is a joy, a real joy.
Billy McGrath’s excellent film about The Boomtown Rats, ‘Citizens Of Boomtown’, premiered recently at the Dublin International Film Festival and was broadcast subsequently on RTÉ Television in two parts. Its dedicated to the memory of Nigel Grainge, the London-born A and R man with the golden touch who, in 1977, signed the South Dublin outfit to Ensign Records, the label he founded and ran with his long-time side-kick, Chris Hill. Grainge, who died in 2017, is a recurring footnote in the history of modern Irish music: he also signed Sineád O’Connor and the Churchtown four-piece, Into Paradise, to Ensign and, during a previous posting at Phonogram Records, Thin Lizzy. In the directory of great music industry executives, he can be found in the section about good ears.
When Nigel Grainge signed The Boomtown Rats in 1977, he wasn’t signing a punk rock band. The group was certainly pulled into a broader punk rock maelstrom once they’d left Dublin for London, but the notion that The Boomtown Rats were a punk band, or were rooted in any sort of punk rock sensibility, is wide of the mark. They were, rather, a filthy r and b outfit who took their cues from the backroom, pub-rock tropes of Doctor Feelgood, among others. The closest they came to punk rock was singer Bob Geldof’s potty mouth and his bad aim: he routinely plugged himself in the foot while shooting from the hip.
The Boomtown Rats recorded six albums, among them a couple of fine, uncompromising and intelligent pop records, 1978’s ‘A Tonic for The Troops’ and ‘The Fine Art of Surfacing’, released the following year, both of them produced by Mutt Lange. In Bob Geldof, the band boasted a smart, handsome and irascible frontman and, in Britain at least, audiences gave his coarseness a free pass. The Rats were quickly into their stride, scoring a string of Top Ten hit records.
Their transition from pub rock to pop music can be traced easily across their first three albums: they were restless, ambitious and evolved ahead of schedule. David Fricke, the long-time Rolling Stone writer and former Melody Maker correspondent – and a man who, like Geldof, obviously has a mirror in the attic – saw them play live for the first time in the summer of 1978. ‘They were not a punk band. They were a rock and roll band’, he tells ‘Citizens of Boomtown’. As such, they had far more in common with Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Blondie and XTC than The Plasmatics. And of course they could all play their instruments and saw the value in tuning up: keyboard player, Johnny ‘Fingers’ Moylett, guitarists Gerry Cott and Gary Roberts, bass player Pete Briquette and especially the band’s drummer, Simon Crowe, were all serious operators.
Music documentary for television is a platform where contributors are expected to routinely talk through their holes. I know this only too well, having made music television programmes for way too long. In this regard, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ doesn’t disappoint, and some of the claims made on camera about The Boomtown Rats and the country that begot them are far-fetched beyond words. Far too many of the film’s contributors just mail in theory that collapses under the weight of the facts.
The idea that The Boomtown Rats – or any Irish group of the period, for that matter – were responsible for substantive change in Ireland is as mis-placed as the Rats’ representation as a punk outfit. ‘A unit for change’, says the U2 singer, Bono of the group. ‘A revolutionary council’. Exactly what that change or revolution is, or what it entailed, he doesn’t say.
Neil McCormick, an author, journalist, musician and a former school-friend of Bono, goes further and boldly claims that ‘the Rats changed this country’. In the same breath, he takes a sneery dig at Big Tom McBride, an Irish country singer who first came to national prominence on the showband circuit towards the end of the 1950s, a scene that was anathema to Geldof and many of his peers. As The Boomtown Rats were issuing their first singles, Big Tom was one of the biggest draws in the country, much to Neil McCormick’s amusement: ‘It’s a Weary, Weary World’ was clearly lost on the cooler set at both Mount Temple Comprehensive and Blackrock College.
The Irish showband circuit – on which Big Tom and the Travellers were one of the most prolific outputters – was at its commercial and social apex towards the late 1960s, after which it’s bottom slowly came apart. In his book, ‘The Transformation of Ireland’, the historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, claims that, at its peak, the showband scene ‘became an industry employing 10,000 people, including 4,000 singers and musicians’. The circuit was eventually over-taken by the passage of time: the growth in the number of nightclubs and late licences around Ireland, in which disc jockeys instead of unwieldly groups of live musicians played the hits of the day, saw many of the showbands off.
The glib dismissal of the showbands has long been a standard line of Irish critical patter. Geldof himself was one of the most virulent of the showband critics and, in his excellent 1986 biography, ‘Is That It ?’, describes them as ‘one of the most anodyne creations in the history of pop’. He goes on to claim that ‘the showband system has wasted an enormous number of talented musicians who are fed into the machine for a pittance of a wage’ and, in the same passage, talks about his desire to establish an alternative performance circuit around Ireland. To do this, he enlisted the help of the then Entertainment Officer at University College Dublin: Billy McGrath himself.
In response to the breadth of the showband influence – the circuit had its own television and radio programmes and a couple of high-profile magazines, for instance – Niall Stokes and a number of other young graduates founded Hot Press magazine in Dublin in 1977. ‘Keeping Ireland safe for rock and roll’, Stokes has been the editor of the magazine ever since and is another of the usual suspects who turn up on ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ to sing the praise.
In an interview with Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone for their book, ‘Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before and After U2’ , Stokes claims that some of the showbands ‘operated business practices that were reprehensible’, that ‘corruption was endemic’ and that ‘business practices were sloppy at best, dishonest at worst’. Is there an implication from him – long-regarded as an imposing businessman and shrewd operator – that the entertainment industry has cleaned up its nest in the years since the showbands ? Or that the showband circuit was an outlier in this regard ?
Most of the showbands performed faithful cover versions of the hits of the day, traditional Irish ballads and come-all-ye dirges: it was woejus stuff for the most part that bears no comparison with anything that followed it. But in terms of social and cultural impact, the showbands left far more of an impression on the country than The Boomtown Rats. By bringing live music to all corners of Ireland, seven nights a week, every week, with the exception of Lent – and by bringing with them the trappings that follow this kind of carry-on – they were far greater agents of change than any Irish band ever. Maybe even a revolutionary council.
The claim that, with Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh’s shrewd management, The Boomtown Rats created a circuit for subsequent acts to launch from may well indeed be the case. But twenty years previously, the likes of Albert and Jim Reynolds, Murt Lucey, Con Hynes, Oliver Barry and others also created a robust domestic entertainment industry from scratch, and then exploited it, much to Niall Stokes’s chagrin, for decades thereafter. They planted ballrooms all over rural Ireland, routinely filled them and booked widely. Albert Reynolds, for instance, put Roy Orbison into one of his own venues in the midlands to almost two thousand punters on a Tuesday night during the early 1960s. The showbands, and the industry that sprung up around them, facilitated congregation on a wide-scale and were central to the development of youth culture in Ireland during the 1960s.
The more interesting aspects of the showband story have long been obscured in a hail of convenient clichés and white-washing: for years, and with good reason, what went on on the road tended to stay on the road. While many of the bands were shagging and boozing for Ireland, managers, bookers and promoters kept the tills ringing out, often cynically and with scant regard for musicians and punters. But it’s not as if this was ever spoken about outside of the inner circle. What was presented as ‘the showband story’ was delivered with gusto from behind the pulpit by the likes of Jimmy Magee, Larry Gogan and Father Brian D’Arcy, a Passionist priest from County Fermanagh who, after contributing regular pieces to Spotlight magazine, became an unofficial Chaplin to the national entertainment industry and one of Ireland’s best-known celebrity clerics.
To be fair, Vincent Power’s fine book, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’’, published in 1990, at least touches on some of the darker aspects of life for many showband musicians, some of whom were signed to scandalous personal contracts, many more of whom succumbed to alcoholism and other addictions. In a profile on the 2009 RTÉ series, ‘A Little Bit Showband’, Derek Dean, the lead singer with The Freshmen, a Beach Boys-inspired outfit from Ballymena, claimed that ‘the way the showbands are portrayed now, it’s as if Father Brian attended every gig and said a decade of the rosary’. Dean, who recounts his own long battle with chronic alcoholism in his 2007 book, ‘The Freshmen Unzipped’, tellingly remembers his band-mate, Billy Brown, as someone who, having earned a considerable amount of money as a jobbing musician, was eventually dragged down to a ‘determinedly dissolute life dominated by swift cars and fast women’.
Another insightful read from the maverick corps of the circuit, the late Gerry Anderson’s ‘Heads’ , paints a similar picture that’s clearly more faithful to the showband story than the raw nostalgia that has traditionally distorted its history. Given how two of Ireland’s most eminent historians, Diarmaid Ferriter and Roy Foster, both feature among the large cast of contributors to ‘Citizens of Boomtown’, it’s a pity that the film chose not to chase down some of the lazier social analysis just thrown up there and left hanging.
The Boomtown Rats endured, more or less, for the ten years between 1975 and 1985, during which they enjoyed considerable commercial success in Britain and Europe. The country they left behind had joined the European Economic Union [the E.E.C.] in 1973 and, as the group was holding its first rehearsals, Fine Gael, a right-leaning political party was in power under its then leader, Liam Cosgrave. Under Garret FitzGerald, Fine Gael were in power when the band called it a day a decade later. The unemployment rate here doubled while the band was active, while thousands followed Geldof and his band and fled Ireland: emigration out of the country increased significantly during the 1980s.
It can be realistically argued that Ireland was as socially conservative in 1985 as it was in 1975 and, perhaps, even more so. In September, 1983, for instance, the country voted two to one in favour of The Eighth Amendment, to constitutionally prohibit abortion. In effect it gave equal rights to pregnant mothers and their unborn children. Remind me again of how The Boomtown Rats changed the country ?
What the Rats may have actually done, with the support of key actors like Ó Ceallaigh and Billy Magrath, was to establish a runway for those Irish rock bands who came after them, U2 in particular. The Rats were the first Irish group to enjoy a Number One single in Britain – 1978’s ‘Rat Trap’ – and the scale of this achievement, given the extent of the competition at the time, cannot be under-estimated. As the musicologists Gerry Smyth and Seán Campbell argue in ‘Beautiful Day: Forty Years of Irish Rock’, The Boomtown Rats ‘are amongst the most important names in Irish rock history, not only for the quality of the music they produced but also because they expanded the boundaries of what Irish popular music could be about’.
To its credit, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ routinely reminds us of this, and of just how magnificent The Rats were at the peak of their powers. It reminds us too of Geldof’s absolute ridiness. Of Paula and Bob. The quiet magic of the band itself, the players. But beyond all of that, it reminds us that there is no one history of Irish popular music and that all history is contestable anyway.