POWER OF DREAMS and NORMAL PEOPLE

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Word that a new Power of Dreams album is on its way comes as a nice surprise to long-time fans and nostalgics who hopped the bus with them as far back as 1988. I’m not sure if anyone, least of all the band itself, expects this fresh body of work to shake the world or to even rupture a replaced hip. But there’s clearly business to be finished and a bit more to be said. In the thirty years since the band released its debut album, ‘Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’, the country that informed much of its lyrical gut has both changed out of all recognition and barely changed at all. 

Power of Dreams released four elpees during what was a short, sharp and prolific seven years on the go. As powerful on the live stage as they were on wax they had, in their leader and principal song-writer, Craig Walker, a rare talent with shoulders broad enough to carry both the band’s creative burden and the weight of expectation directed at it. Like another of Dublin’s slew of fine guitar bands from that period, Something Happens, Power of Dreams got better and more interesting the more they dabbled. But although they never ventured too far from their primary sources – indie guitarscapes and angsty, first personal reflections on love and life – by the time of a more industrial and darker last elpee, ‘Become Yourself’, in 1994, the vagaries of the market had smothered them.   

Four years earlier, Power of Dreams had the world in their hands. That first album was a manifesto for youth in three-minute bursts delivered with no little fury and, with the odd exception, at breakneck speed. But it’s not as if we hadn’t been expecting them: they’d played a series of sinewy live shows in Dublin before the release of an excellent debut four-tracker for Setanta Records, in 1988.  

‘A Little Piece of God’ was produced by John O’Neill of That Petrol Emotion, previously of The Undertones and about to take flight as an over-looked Setanta outfit, Rare. It was committed to tape in the imposing, brutalist bunker at Elephant Studios in Wapping, the label’s go-to facility during its early years, where an excellent engineer, Nick Robbins, came as part of the deal. The E.P. roars into life with a naivete that reflects the fearlessness of youth: still in their teens when they completed it – Keith Walker, the drummer, wasn’t yet sixteen – the stand-out is one of the group’s best ever songs, ‘My Average Day’. 

More a slender diary entry than an elaborate essay on the quirks of infidelity, Craig suggests that his vain female lead ‘will pay some day’ for her betrayal. With its acoustic under-carriage and malevolent shadow, the song is redolent of another Dublin act who followed Power of Dreams onto the Setanta roster, Brian. 

‘A Little Piece of God’ was the third release on the London-based, Irish-facing independent label, and can be found in its catalogue between two Into Paradise EPs, ‘Blue Light’ and ‘Change’. Given how the Setanta Records story subsequently unfolded, Power of Dreams’ brief tenure on the roster tends to often be forgotten. Like many of their songs, they didn’t hang about and, after positive notices from the music weeklies and another round of explosive live shows, including a memorable half-hour set at Cork Rock in Sir Henry’s in June, 1989, they were quickly away to a major label, Polydor.

The fact that Power of Dreams were so disarmingly young – they’re celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the release of their debut album and the original members of the band still haven’t yet turned fifty – meant they were often unintentionally patronised on this basis. Indeed, I’ve repeated the same crime several times here already. But they were clear-eyed social documentarians too and perhaps more prescient than they were given credit for, the title of that first EP being a case in point.

‘A Little Piece of God’ nods to an odd newspaper column, ‘A Little Bit of Religion’, which has been written by a high-profile Irish priest, Father Brian D’Arcy, in Ireland’s best known and biggest selling tabloid newspaper, The Sunday World, for nearly fifty years. The location of a weekly Christian sermon into a space otherwise dominated by drug-dealers, local crime bosses, terrorists and lusty suburban housewives as a broader metaphor for the city in which they were growing up, wasn’t lost on Power of Dreams.   

The original band members are former pupils of two long-gone Dublin live venues, The Underground on Dame Street and McGonagles on South Anne Street, where they received the kind of bespoke education you’ll not find through the CAO. Alongside the likes of Rex and Dino, Backwards Into Paradise and Whipping Boy, they were part of a second wave of capital-based guitar groups emerging in the slipstream of Something Happens, The Stars Of Heaven, The Slowest Clock and A House. Who themselves were leading the post-U2 peloton, gamely competing at altitude.

The Underground was an unlikely starting point for many of them. A downstairs, down-tempo speakeasy on Dame Street, it’s been lionised at least twice in song for what went on inside its poster-pocked walls for five glorious years during the 1980s. But beyond the dewy-eyed looking glass of its history, the venue was at the heart of all that was good about Dublin’s throbbing live music scene in the aftermath of ‘The Joshua Tree’. A pared-back antidote to the nonsense that had started to wash through the local entertainment sector, The Underground did things differently because it could. It was never driven by commercial considerations, for instance. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the father-and-son team who ran the venue, Noel and Jeff Brennan, were motivated far less by gaps in the local market and way more by a desire to keep themselves entertained.

Like many of their peers, Power of Dreams were callow teenagers in second hand Paisley shirts when they first illegally set foot inside The Underground. From the same Dublin suburb as A House, and with a similar sense of their own worth, they were quickly part of the fabric on Dame Street, as indeed they were further up-town at McGonagles, off of Grafton Street. On the top floor of what was previously The Crystal Ballroom on South Anne Street, Conor Brookes and Killian Forde were pirate radio jocks who also ran a series of live shows on Saturday afternoons on the venue’s ground floor. Pitched at the unwaged and the under-aged, it was at that McGonagles series that Power of Dreams found their feet and, in Brookes and Forde, a keen management team that rowed in squarely behind them. 

With Craig and Keith almost always looking after media duties, Power of Dreams were rarely caught for things to say and, from the get-go, they gave terrific copy. It helped, of course, that they had the goods to support their chutzpah, and the group’s motto – or was it a mission statement ? – proclaimed as much. Emblazoned across their early output was the slogan ‘This is It’, a play on the title of Bob Geldof’s loud 1986 autobiography, ‘Is that it ?’. Walking the walk and talking the talk, they were continuing a fine, boisterous strain: in the same way that The Boomtown Rats had turned up their noses at the cabaret and showband set fifteen years previously, Power of Dreams were now shuffling Geldof off of the stage.  

‘Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’ is a fine debut album in a ferocious rush altogether. It opens with thirty seconds of acoustic strumming before one of the band’s earliest numbers, ‘Joke’s on Me’, head-butts the record into life. And, with the odd exception, it retains its fury for the course of its dozen tracks, few of which breach the three-minute protocol. Driving the whole thing from behind the traps was Keith Walker who, as well as having serious physical capacity in his arms and feet, has always been a spectacular time-keeper. The late sound engineer, Dennis Herlihy, who worked with Power of Dreams for years, referred to him as a machine. Over the decades I’ve spent in live venues and studios, I’ve seldom heard a more powerful, instinctive or naturally balanced rock drummer.  

There was plenty of order to them too, though. ‘Máire, I Don’t Love You’ is one of the more considered cuts on that record, painting a familiar domestic scenario: Máire is pregnant by John, who doesn’t love her. ‘Is he going to marry out of conscience, is he going to marry out of fear ?’, Craig wondered. Not that it mattered one way or the other because the outcome was going to be grim: that’s just how it was in Power of Dreams songs. Elsewhere, ‘Never Been To Texas’, one of the singles lifted from the album, landed a couple of half-hearted body shots at the baggy scene in Manchester and ‘Rattle and Hum’-vintage Bono, but it was the lead cut that announced the group and it’s prowess in earnest. 

‘100 Ways to Kill A Love’, one of the more pressing Irish pop songs of the last fifty years, looked to Paul Simon’s ’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ not just for its title but for its thematic heart. Over another furious guitar squall, it features a recurring Power of Dreams theme: relationships defined, and routinely destroyed, by a lack of clarity and understanding. ‘When you said yes, did you mean no, how could I believe you ?’, Craig asks. Twenty-eight years before the publication of one of the most significant books in modern Irish fiction, ‘100 Ways To Kill A Love’ now looks like an early synopsis of Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’. 

If McGonagles was their Trinity College, then Cork was the band’s Carricklea, a bolthole to which they’d retire at key intervals and in which some of the more visceral scenes in their story were played out. Power of Dreams enjoyed strong connections with the city from the get-go and they’re one of that handful of Dublin guitar bands from this period – Blue In Heaven, The Golden Horde and An Emotional Fish are others – who enjoyed blind devotion there. Indeed, on a couple of levels, one could claim that Power of Dreams had as much in common with the emerging Cork outfits of the time as they had with many of their contemporaries in Dublin. It seemed only natural, then, that the group was eventually joined by guitarist Ian Olney, from Cork band, Cypress, Mine !, the Paisley Undergrounders who wielded an obvious influence on them. 

Ian’s sorcery certainly siliconed the bands live sound and brought them up to senior championship standard in studio. The inclusion of one of his former group’s best songs, ‘Anxious’, on the reverse of a later single, ‘There I Go Again’, consummated the relationship between the two bands and, indeed, the two cities.   

With the benefit of thirty years of hindsight, its clear that Power of Dreams did an awful lot of their growing up on record. Those first two albums in particular – ‘Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’ was followed in 1992 by the heavier and more rounded ‘2 Hell with Common Sense’ – can be read now like two coming-of-age short stories set to high-octane indie-pop soundtracks. To this end, I would argue that some of Craig’s best and more developed Power of Dreams songs feature on the band’s final two elpees, ‘Positivity’ and ‘Become Yourself’.

Music writers and critics have long referred to groups, musicians and records that sound like they’re in a hurry. Mad for road, impatience is found deep inside many songs, and often for the better. I’d instinctively put the likes of The Jam, Buzzcocks and The Smiths, three of my own favourite groups, into this category. On some of their records, it’s possible to actually feel the rush and be swept away by it. Sometimes that feeling comes from an urgency in the writing and a craving to be heard and, often, is determined by constrained budgets and the pressure of deadlines. Frequently, it can result from a compound of both, and this was certainly the case with Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’. 

Power of Dreams were together for barely seven years, even if seems like they were around for far longer. They were prodigious, smart, energetic and curious, and ‘Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’ certainly captures all of that. But it’s also a typical debut album: the band is still growing into its body, prone to injury, finding its feet and locating its voice. But at a thirty year remove, the record has aged as well as those responsible for it: Power of Dreams certainly made better albums but only ever made one debut.

BRENDAN BOWYER: 1938 – 2020.

Brendan Bowyer, who has died in Las Vegas at the age of eighty-one, was Ireland’s first pop music superstar and is easily one of the most influential figures in the entire history of Irish entertainment. As lead singer with The Royal Showband, and subsequently The Big 8, the Waterford-born singer and musician was a formidable vocalist with a terrific range, not just in respect of scale, but in his breadth of musical influence. He dominated live concerts, studio recordings and, for at least fifteen years, Ireland’s showband circuit.

The nascent scene from which he emerged during the late 1950s has long been one of the most lazily mis-represented within Irish popular cultural history. By consistently failing to properly frame the impact of the showbands as a driver of wide-scale congregation across all parts of the country, rural and urban, Bowyer’s legacy tends to be unfairly lost. But with their odd compound of external influences and homespun sensibilities, the showbands were a distinctive and hugely important force in the re-drawing of an Irish cultural identity which, into the early 1960s, became increasingly youth-led. He was a key actor in that evolution.

Fronting The Royal Showband during the decade in which dance halls and live venues sprung up all over Ireland, and around which a formative entertainment industry took root, Bowyer was an unprecedented commercial draw. Like many of those who served their time on that circuit, he was an asset that was relentlessly sweated, to the point where he became the definitive break-out figure from that period. With a swagger in his hips, a permanent pout and a fine set of pipes, he was home-grown and dangerous. 

Born in 1938, Brendan Bowyer represented a constituency for whom access to international popular cultural influences was at a premium. ‘The only way we could hear rock ‘n’ roll was on Radio Luxembourg, and we didn’t have a television set, so another place to encounter that was in the local picture house in Waterford’, he told the music writer and journalist Joe Jackson, in an excellent Hot Press interview in 1995. So, unsurprisingly, he modelled his stage personae on that of one of his heroes, Elvis Presley.

But while Presley deliberately played with fire, attracting moral outrage after his first television appearances in 1956, Bowyer, carefully handled by his management, was more cautious. He could pop his fine frame just as spectacularly as Elvis, and frequently did. Yet, mindful of the sensibilities of his audiences and, one suspects, of those booking venues all over the country, he could just as easily knock out maudlin traditional ballads like ‘Danny Boy’. And to the same effect.

Typically, Irish music history pays scant attention to what went on in and around live venues in this country before Rory Gallagher’s now legendary tour in 1974. As a teenager, Gallagher himself enjoyed a formative if restrictive stint with The Fontana Showband in Cork, while another graduate of that school, Van Morrison, has always acknowledged his days as a young jobbing musician with The Monarchs, the Belfast-based outfit with whom he served his own apprenticeship. But Brendan Bowyer pre-dates both of them, and in the timeline of Irish entertainment history, he connects Mick Delahunty’s big band with Philip Lynott’s Thin Lizzy. 

Led initially by The Clipper Carlton, Ireland’s showband circuit evolved out of a far more serene, ballroom-skewed, big-band scene where musicians were usually seated, dressed formally and read from sheet music. Lining-out as mini-orchestras, the likes of Delahunty, Maurice Mulcahy and Johnny Quigley dominated the live circuit here, often in the face of considerable condemnation from the pulpit and behind the altar. But men and women danced on regardless, increasingly in commercial halls where standard house rules were rigidly enforced at live shows that often ran for five or six hours, drenched in etiquette and notions. At The National Ballroom, on Parnell Square in Dublin, for instance, women and men were seated on long benches, separated by gender, on opposite sides of the hall, and no close physical contact was permitted. Those who flouted the conditions – randy blokes, for the most part – were shown the door. 

Nodding to the increased availability of British and American cultural influences – music, motion pictures, books and magazines – the showbands took live entertainment in Ireland to another level. For starters, they performed on their feet and, with electric instruments and amplified sounds, were a far more forceful and sensuous concern. Communion, contact and the working up of sweat in barely-built ballrooms that were often airless and spartan, became the new normal: within this frame, few performers were as potent as Brendan Bowyer. 

I have written previously about how the showbands enabled and powered the congregation of Ireland’s young in venues and locations all over the country. About how, intensely for the guts of a decade, those bands had a far more reaching impact on Irish popular culture and society than many of those who long derided them, Bob Geldof and Philip Lynott most prominently. The music peddled by most of the showbands, The Royal among them, is rank: what is far more important is how, in their customised vans and with their slicked-back hair-dos and smart suits, they so physically mobilised Irish society. A national, state-led initiative to bring electricity to rural Ireland began in 1946 but, inside and outside the ballrooms, the showbands culturally lit-up villages and towns all over the island. 

Bono apart, I mark Brendan Bowyer as the single most influential Irish male performer in the country’s history. Paul McGuinness apart, I mark T.J. Byrne, The Royal Showband’s manager, as the country’s most ground-breaking and important band manager, Ireland’s first self-styled Svengali. Indeed when Louis Walsh, himself a product of Ireland’s chicken-in-a-basket circuit, was sketching an artist-mentor template for Boyzone during the early 1990s, it was Byrne’s homework that he cogged.

Always bigger than any of the acts he represented, Byrne was a former furniture salesman from Carlow who, far from fearful of the country’s emerging print and broadcast media, actively sought to manipulate it. Sensing a demand for constant content, he was selling a product first and foremost, based on a carefully drawn and diligently styled formula: The Royal were attractive, athletic young men in sharp suits and snazzy hair-dos performing faithful renditions of the pop songs du jour as well as the odd local come-all-ye. Boyzone are commonly held up as a knock-off, cheap-as-plywood tribute to Take That when, in effect, they were modelled, from the top down, on The Royal Showband. Walsh lifted his own shtick entirely from T.J. Byrne and Ronan Keating, Boyzone’s hapless frontman was photo-copied from Brendan Bowyer’s likeness on a printer without any toner that had been left outdoors during the winter. 

Nowhere is any of this more apparent than in Peter Collinson’s exceptional documentary film about The Royal Showband, ‘The One Nighters’, which was premiered in 1963 and which was broadcast on the nascent Teilifís Éireann schedules the following year. Although pre-dating Richard Lester’s film about The Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, the movies have much in common. In his book, ‘Real Ireland’, Harvey O’Brien notes how the two projects depict their subjects as ‘happy-go-lucky boys with clearly-defined semi-comic personae’. But in keeping with a popular showband theme, ‘The One Nighters’ is distinguished more by what it doesn’t cover as for what it does.

Its a remarkable film on many levels, especially in terms of its cinematic ambition: at the time Peter Collinson was a floor manager in RTÉ but he went on to direct a number of feature films, of which ‘The Italian Job’ is probably the best known. An embedded, fly-on-the-wall documentary film that follows the band over the course of a typical twenty-four hours in its working life, none of the band members actually speak on camera. All of their contributions are made using clumsily-delivered voice-overs, while T.J. Byrne steals every scene in which he features. And there are many.

Collinson – clearly with Byrne’s executive input – portrays The Royal and their audiences in line with a vision of Ireland outlined by Eamon De Valera in a Saint Patrick’s Day speech in 1943. With its carefully-selected nuances, ‘The One Nighters’ is scripted in the spirit of ‘cosy homesteads’ and ‘the sounds of industry’ and presents, from its opening scenes onwards, the contest of athletic youth and the laughter of happy maidens’.

Although playing a fresher, more risqué form of music that routinely attracted the ire of political, establishment and church figures, The Royal are deferential throughout to an older order and to family values, especially. By performing well-known traditional ballads like ‘The Auld Triangle’ and ‘Danny Boy’ for Collinson and his cameraman, Robert Monks, alongside what were known at the time as ‘jazz’ numbers, they’re showcasing an ideology as much as a technical ability. ‘The difference between them and any other international stars is that they refuse anything that usually goes with the money and the fame’, runs Frank Hall’s voice-over. ‘They live in ordinary little houses in a quiet little town in Ireland’.

The reality, of course, was much different. The Royal were Brendan Bowyer’s band and, when he left them in 1971 and formed The Big 8, neither of the two outfits did anything like the same degree of business again. Bowyer led a complicated life thereafter, one of a host of high-profile showband figures to fall prey to chronic alcoholism, and was fortunate to survive a number of drink-fuelled episodes in later life. Given his life-long Presley fixation, its only appropriate that he died in his adopted home in Las Vegas where, like Elvis before him, he had long become his own tribute act.

The obvious temptation is to commemorate Brendan Bowyer with The Royal’s best-known song, a cover of ‘The Hucklebuck’, written in 1949 by Andy Gibson and first recorded by Paul Williams and The Hucklebuckers. Or by the well-worn story of how, in a Liverpool theatre in 1962, The Royal were supported by an emerging local band, The Beatles. But Brendan Bowyer leaves a far greater and much more interesting legacy behind him: a huge amount of good, bad and ugly accompanied his life as Ireland’s first runaway pop music idol. But it’s a legacy that, because of the sepia-tinted way we’ve chosen to traditionally tell the story of Ireland’s showbands, isn’t as easy to locate as it might otherwise be. 

JOHN PRINE AND THE ELDORADO EVENING

On location during recording of the Town and Country series, London.
L to R- Studio Director, Bob Collins, Executive Producer, Gerald Heffernan, Nanci Griffith, Clint Black, John Prine and Series Producer, David Heffernan 

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.   

SIAMSA COIS LAOÍ

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 ?’

‘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.