SQUAT IF? BRIAN AND SETANTA RECORDS

Whatever about the balming and transcendent powers of music, maybe best felt in my own case by the magic of Prefab Sprout, Van Morrison and The Blue Nile, I owe a long-time debt to one Irish songwriter and musician who physically rescued me from the havoc and harm of the other side.

During the early 1990s, buoyed by the optimism of a new decade and a sense that I was maybe cruising a small bit, I threw caution to the wind and fetched up with a small, emerging Irish record label based in South East London. By hopping onto the sixteen -wheel articulated trailer that was Keith Cullen’s Setanta imprint, I could work with The Frank And Walters, who’d signed to the label and were making hay, dabble a bit in journalism and see some of the world’s most interesting destinations. Like the back room at The Bull And Gate in Kentish Town and a number of exotic spots around Camden where apparitions happened regularly.

I’d met Keith a couple of years previously as the label was finding its feet and after he’d released Beethoven’s ‘Him Goolie Goolie Man Dem’, Into Paradise’s ‘Blue Light’ E.P., ‘A Little Piece Of God’ by Power of Dreams’ and Rare’s ‘Set Me On Fire’. And, like many before and after me, was quickly dragged under by the formidable cut of his jib. Hewn from the best and worst of the unfiltered spirit of punk rock, he made a compelling argument for most things, but particularly for his roster. But even beyond that, it just seemed like the right thing to do ;- sacrificing the sanctuary of home in the name of quality music and all who were devoted to her.

The full, unabridged story of Setanta Records is another off of the wide canvas of contemporary Irish music – from Rory Gallagher to Boyzone to Ruby Horse via The Thrills – that has never been faithfully told and, in all likelihood, it never will. Keith was only able to keep Setanta going for so long because of an absolute lack of sentiment and an ability to move on quickly. ‘If you want a friend, get a goldfish’, he once told one of his acts. And so after the label was finally wound down a decade ago, that was always likely to be that :- the supremo was never one for taking the podium and drawing undue attention on himself.

But notwithstanding the quality of the catalogue and the all-consuming vitality of the music, our leader saw this as just taking care of business in the moment, and nothing more. I just can’t imagine him ever looking into his heart before bedtime and asking himself what he could have done better. Regrets ? Nah.

And yet for at least fifteen years, Setanta was as valid an Irish music success story as U2’s onward march through the nations or Louis Walsh’s one-man revival of Irish cabaret. Even if, for far too long, the label was seen as a souped-up fanzine and struggled for a foothold outside of the niche. In the pre-digital era, many of its capers and achievements just went under-reported, and maybe thankfully so ? Part soap opera and absurdist theatre and frequently just a free-style street brawl, it’s a yarn that doesn’t want for colour, characters or a compelling story arc. In which Keith, with his out-sized personality, dominates every single scene.

The death earlier this year of the Dublin-born, Belfast-raised music writer, David Cavanagh, and the many eulogies and personal reminiscences that followed, reminded me once again of the raw impulse that characterized much of that decade from the mid-80s onwards. Cavanagh was one of the first onboard the Into Paradise wagon – they were Setanta’s breakthrough band – and remained an ally of both the group and the label until the end. He once joined them on tour and stayed on as part of the travelling number not because he was working on a commissioned piece but because he liked the racket they made and enjoyed the band’s company. And that, back then, was how some of us rolled :- with no responsibilities to speak of, you bought in, signed up and blindly followed the path, irrespective of how treacherous it felt underfoot.

Setanta rarely suffered fools and although I can’t ever remember Keith demanding contracts be signed in blood, he had an instinctive sense of whether you were in or out. His mind worked at a different pace to most and he was relentless in his pursuit of the next scheme, the next band and the next song. History was what we were all doing tomorrow.

He also had a spectacular disdain for waste, squander and spoofers too, a result I suspect of his own previous. From the southside of Dublin, he jacked out of school early and lived on his wits in London, pounding the streets around the city for years as a teenage courier on a bicycle. And as tended to be the case with many of those who came of age in squats all over Britain during Margaret Thatcher’s dozen years as Prime Minister, nothing seemed to faze him, particularly authority. And certainly not the insanity that underpinned much what was then a fully-formed industry. Indeed for many years, Setanta Records was itself run on a day-to-day basis from a modified squat in Camberwell and, as a mission statement, that much succinctly captured the essence of the company’s values and how it saw itself.

And so every Tuesday lunchtime, after the weekly editorial meeting at Melody Maker magazine, where I was getting free-lance work, I’d scope the offices at King’s Reach Tower for recyclable Jiffy bags that I’d rescue from the bins and take back to Setanta in black refuse sacks. Where we’d then use them to post out various bits and pieces from a mail order catalogue we’d started. That’s how Setanta did its business ;- living on its wits for the most part because it had little else to fall back on.

One of the lesser known but certainly more interesting acts on the label during this time was Brian, initially a quietly reflective two-piece from Dublin whose soft, delicate touch was at odds with much of the sound of the rest of the imprint and who rarely get the credit they deserve. It was Jim Carroll – my long-time friend and a man with whom I’ve stood proudly for many years – who first introduced me to the band when, during one of our regular journeys from Cork to Dublin, he played me Brian’s second single, ‘You Don’t Want A Boyfriend’, on an old Walkman. During that same sitting he also played me an early version of Azure Days’ ‘Anything For You’ and, to this day, I can’t think of one of those songs without recalling the other.

Azure Days were a fine, well-upholstered guitar band from Carlow and, in their neat black denims and fresh leather jackets, represented the sound of the crowd. They’d won one of the early Hot Press-backed Band Of The Year competitions in Sir Henry’s some years previously and, led by Gala Hutton, certainly had many of the fundamentals in place. Like numerous others during that period, they sparkled briefly but never really had enough curve to convincingly stand apart from the slew.

Brian, on the other hand, sounded nothing at all like what was then the emerging sound of young Dublin. Ken Sweeney’s songs borrowed instead from the under-strength suburban balm of early Go-Betweens, the anxious, wafer-thin racket of Postcard Records and the more pastoral strokes of The Stars Of Heaven. Indeed ‘Boyfriend’, which was originally a b-side, barely had a pulse at all and very pointedly eschewed the big choruses and boisterous production that hallmarked much of the output of the time.

Neither did Ken do overt messaging, cheap puns or smart-alecy metaphors :- ‘Boyfriend’ is about a relationship that’s come to an end abruptly but with a sting in it’s telling. ‘Maybe you leaving, wasn’t a bad thing ?’, he ponders as he heads for the outro. And these lyrical pipe-bombs were part and parcel of Brian’s rolling stock where, much of the time, he could have been channeling psychological trauma. ‘I remember coming home, shaking for a very long time’, he sings at the top of ‘It Never Crossed Your Mind’, one of the many stand-outs on ‘Understand’, the outfit’s 1992 debut elpee.

This was the sort of thing that occupied our days down at Setanta. One of the more pleasurable aspects of life in the squat was the music itself and, in this respect, Keith gave me a considerable schooling. And although we had a cavalier attitude to food and eating, there was always a fresh cut on the sound system to sustain us. ‘Understand’ was the fourth album issued on the label and I couldn’t believe just how sharp and affecting it was when we first played it back ;- eight terrific, confessional songs, one better than the next, and all the more remarkable given that these were cut-price studio sketches, more or less.

Brian is/are seldom mentioned in the regular histories of Irish popular music. Indeed they’re rarely mentioned in the regular history of Setanta Records either even if ‘Understand’ and its follow-up, ‘Bring Trouble’ [1999] are easily among the most fetching albums on a label whose back catalogue also includes ‘Under The Water’ by Into Paradise, ‘I Am The Greatest’ by A House and ‘Promenade’ by The Divine Comedy. But then Ken had different objectives to every other act on the imprint and I never once got the impression that he was panning for gold. Instead, he had a series of public confessions to make via his work and that catharsis mattered far more to him than sales figures and mid-weeks.

And to this end he was an appalling salesman ;- in interviews he’d rather talk about the songs of Stephen Ryan, Paul Cleary, William Merriman and F.M. Cornog than he would his own. Which may have been an issue for the label’s supremo but which only attracted me even further to him and his work.

His signature dish was the first person vignette that placed familiar themes of love, loss, betrayal and fear into mundane local landscapes. Our nervy hero is routinely found in cars or on bus journeys and there are numerous references across Brian’s canon to various parts of West London – points along The Western Avenue or outside the sprawling Hoover factory in Perivale – where it’s almost always the dead of night and where the writer is perennially at odds with much of what surrounds him. But never more so than he is with himself.

And in that context, the use of such an unspectacular umbrella name might be explained away. Like Prefab Sprout and The Divine Comedy, both of whom were prominent in his orbit, Brian was ostensibly just Ken hiding under the blanket of a band handle by the time that ‘Understand’ saw the light of day. His original side-kick, Niall Austin, was back in Dublin and the main man was working instead with a handful of like-minded session musicians and producers like Ian Catt and Marcus Holdaway, who brought more shape than weight of numbers to the set-up.

But although one of the strongest cuts on ‘Understand’, ‘You Can’t Call Home’ might indeed have been cut from the same ash as ‘Anything For You’ by Azure Days – an irony that hasn’t been lost on me – that was as rowdy as Brian got, initially at least. ‘Understand’ is at its best when its at its most reserved, as shy and nervous as the young man standing in the hallway on its standout track, ‘A Million Miles’, one of Ken’s best ever songs. ‘Tonight when the whole world sleeps, my world will turn to you. A million miles away’, he sings, before a skeletal guitar solo takes us home.

I had almost exclusive access to Ken for a couple of months. I answered the land-line at Setanta to him one Saturday morning and, within hours, he’d rescued me from squalor and a pill-addled Scotsman in a squat on one of the high-rises in Peckham where the baths were located in the kitchens. Try as I did, I just couldn’t see the romance in that sort of carry-on and jumped at Ken’s kind offer to move onto a sofa in the front room of the terraced house he was sharing in West London. This was as far from the Setanta aesthetic as it was possible to get on at least two levels :- comfort and distance.

The late Kirsty MacColl and her family were neighbours of ours on Avalon Road in Ealing where, playing to form, Ken and myself would sit up long and late into the night and work our way through our favourite records and writers. It was harmless but obsessive stuff as we deconstructed our red-raw love for Miracle Legion, REM, Into Paradise, The Go-Betweens and a curious Dublin outfit called Hinterland. Who, in the great atlas of Irish popular music, will one day share the same chapter as Brian.

Ken had served a short but colourful apprenticeship around the fringes of the Dublin mod scene in the early 1980s. Brian might or might not have been named after the erstwhile bass player in The Blades, a band who, if they didn’t overly influence his sound, certainly influenced many of the values he brought to bear on his writing. ‘I thought you only released music when you were feeling it’, he’s told me more than once over the years. And anyway, the band name story was a decent yarn that, in interviews, enabled Ken to wax lyrically about Paul and Lar Cleary, the Dublin brothers who founded and led the Ringsend mod combo.

We talked at length about Paul Cleary during the months I spent dossing on his floor and during which Ken was holding down an archivist’s job at the BBC. And on Sunday mornings we’d head down to Benjy’s, an Australian greasy spoon on Earl’s Court Road for a lavish fry-up called ‘The Builder’, before making our way onwards to Notting Hill and the racks of the second hand record and tape exchanges. Which we’d devour with the same vigour as we did those fried breakfasts, like cavemen hollowing out carcasses in search of rare slivers of fat. And it went on and it still goes on.

I came back to Ireland with Ken during the Autumn of 1992 to help him promote ‘Understand’, the magnificent four-tracker that followed it, ‘Planes’, and the Setanta brand generally, during which he performed a couple of acoustic numbers on RTE’s ‘Nighthawks’ programme and did a round of radio and newspaper interviews. And, while we were at it, saw another of our favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, play a bizarre show in Mister Ripley’s in Dundalk, which I’ve previously recalled in a piece here.

Like an awful lot of what went down during that time, I remember our trip home in no little detail. Our mothers – exceptional women who both died in the past year – greeted us as you’d expect and treated us like prodigals during the few days we spent back in Dublin and Cork. And of course with every passing hour, the prospect of returning to England became more and more unappealing. Although I boarded the plane back to Stansted at the end of the week, I never really left Ireland again.

I tried hard and gave London a decent shot. I still have my numerous post codes, underground stops and bus routes etched into my brain decades later and refer to them instinctively whenever I’m back there. But from as far north as Bound’s Green and as far east as Forest Gate, I just couldn’t really settle ;- I did my best to lay my hat but someone always seemed to just want to sit on it and flatten it.

And I’m not sure that Ken ever re-settled there either. Because although ‘Understand’ was one of Setanta’s best-selling albums – big enough, in fact, for Virgin to later re-issue it – it took him an eternity to complete a follow-up. Having taken a redundancy package from the BBC in 1995, he re-located to Termonfeckin in County Louth and penned the songs that saw the light of day as ‘Bring Trouble’ four years later. That record, a far bulkier affair, captures a contented writer at play and, recorded at September Sound, the studio owned by The Cocteau Twins, features Simon Raymonde on one of it’s more circumspect cuts, ‘Light Years’.

Both ‘Bring Trouble’ and the ‘Planes’ E.P. are both worthy of much more consideration and I’ll return to them in a specific piece down the line. Suffice to say for now that ‘Planes’, released in the immediate slipstream of ‘Understand’, was a terrific, souped-up four-tracker led by the rollicking ‘Knowing’ and also featuring the quiet but deadly ‘Planes Stacking Up’ and, in my view, one of Ken’s best ever songs, ‘She Takes You Away’. And on those tracks, the ground had fundamentally shifted :- our hero was now returning to a warmer house, where an ashtray was still smoking, a pair of shows had been discarded and the lights were still on. The air was ripe with promise ;- ‘Planes’ was shaped in the arc of some manner of an affair, imagined or otherwise.

Nearly thirty years on and Ken and myself are still in contact. It’s far more infrequent and way less intense these days but, like with many of those with whom I soldiered through the carnage, the music helps us to pick up the conversations easily enough. We have far more substantial matters to deal with now – families, work, anxiety and health – even if, invariably, our conversations inevitably lead back to Robert Forster, Stephen Ryan, Mark Mulcahy, Peter Buck or whoever happens to be taking the stage at a venue close-by.

Ken hasn’t released a record in twenty years although I’m happy to report that he’s as lost in music now as he was when Brian – and Setanta Records – were in their pomp. Proof of which can be heard on a number of terrific, award-winning radio documentaries he’s made for RTÉ Radio One over the last while. ‘Michael Jackson’s Irish Driver, ‘REM : Out Of Athens’ and ‘In Search Of The Blue Nile’ all spill over with the same unflinching passion that marked those late, lost nights and Sunday afternoons in London when we searched our souls as we devoured the bargain bins.

We both escaped the city but neither of us seem completely capable of hiding from the past we shared there. But sure, knowing what we know, would we really want to ?

GIDDY-UP

Photo : Greg Canty

Within the distinctive history of popular music in Cork, it’s far too easy – and maybe even stipulated by order of The Knights Of Cool – to over-look the achievements of the most outwardly successful of all those local bands who entered the fray during the 1990s : Rubyhorse. An easy-to-read, un-fussy pop band who blazed a trail far from home and did what all of their more decorated predecessors and peers couldn’t :- make a splash in America, the final frontier.

The wide, unyielding American freeways are central to the upward aspects of their story – and there are several of those – but that vast expanse of tarmac is also at the heart of the band’s implosion. Which, as can often be the case with this sort of carry-on, was maybe more interesting to the gawkers back at home who were taken by surprise by their success in the first place.

Numerous volumes have been completed and documented about the insatiable demands of the American entertainment industry, a market in which numerous Irish hopefuls have been physically destroyed and emotionally splintered since the 1970s. The circuit there just doesn’t do love on the cheap.

It’s against this curtain that the remarkable achievements of both U2 and The Cranberries – and, who knows, perhaps eventually Hozier too ? – will ultimately be best determined, irrespective of how one might critically evaluate their recorded output. That U2 can continue to function as they do and appear, on the surface at least, to still possibly enjoy their own company after so many years spent hawking themselves on the inter-state highway system, might well be the band’s most powerful ever statement. History will recall that, beyond everything else, U2 survived America reasonably intact.

Incredulous as it sounds, Rubyhorse too were themselves driving it on apace in the American mainstream and, for several years, took a considerable swing at the most volatile and expansive market of all, battered to bits for their troubles. And yet despite their successes, not a whole lot is known about them.

That Rubyhorse took their name from a song by The Wonder Stuff is maybe the most obvious concession the group ever made towards the more traditional indie aesthetic. And it’s around the thorny issue of identity that the band’s issues begin :- to my mind at least, they were perennially conflicted. Instinctively a well-upholstered, global-facing pop band with natural writing sensibilities, they found themselves, by dint of birth, at odds with much of what was going down on their own door-step. Most notably that distinctive racket, performed in often impenetrable Corkese, by the likes of The Frank And Walters and The Sultans Of Ping and by many of those who boldly went before and came after them.

Without the sort of jagged weird that has long characterized the Cork food-chain from Nun Attax and Microdisney via the class of 1990 and onwards to The Rulers Of The Planet and even Cyclefly, Ruby Horse were just far too clean for many of the local alickadoos. For a band that could play so smartly, Rubyhorse were consistently out of time.

It’s not like they were the first either, and indeed much of the story of new music in Cork post-1980 can be read as a philosophical struggle with clear lines. The Franks and The Sultans were terrific pop bands by any measure and yet, despite the strength of their writing, were still rooted in the faintly absurd and tended to defer there as a default. That colloquial edge gave them both an early leg-up and de-coupled them from the over-earnestness that characterized much of the emerging music across the country. But it was also key to their critical undoing :- that sort of stuff just doesn’t travel well and tends to grate after a while.

But popular music in Cork has long tended towards the margins. Having had one of the more remarkable aspects of its social history, The Arcadia Ballroom years, hi-jacked by the success of U2 – the ultimate colonial outsiders who not only own that entire period now but also pillaged it for staff – the city has made a defiant, post-trauma statement ever since. One where wider mainstream ambitions – notions, you might say – can go and whistle for it.

Among the best pop songs out of Cork over the last forty years are Kooky’s ‘The Good Old Days’, ‘The Darkness’ by Flex And The Fastweather, ‘Scorch Avenue’ by The Chapter House, ‘Backwater’ by Benny’s Head and ‘Sparkle’ by Rubyhorse. But it’s not as if any of them spring instinctively to mind or feature in the more considered overviews of music in the county. Instead they’ve been lost in a blizzard of loud guitars, standard indie shapes and what the guitarist Giordhai Ui Laoghaire has described as ‘spadgy rhythms’.

It was against this backdrop that Rubyhorse – good-looking, bright boys from Bishopstown and a world removed from their noisy neighbours, The Frank And Walters – took their first tentative steps, thinking big from the moment they could stand unaided. They looked like the male cast of The Breakfast Club and didn’t sound like The Wedding Present ;- they were studied, sharp, under-age and had their hands full.

I first came across them after they’d just about started secondary school and when, as B.F.G., they performed a couple of lunchtime shows in an halla mór at Coláiste An Spioraid Naoimh. After which Tony O’Donoghue, then working with one of the bigger national promoters, snared them a couple of decent support slots in city venues they weren’t legally allowed to enter. And even then they were a band apart ;- callow kids on a serious growth kick, their sturdy sound – more Genesis than Genesis P. Orridge. – built on layers of guitars and keyboards. I couldn’t believe how determined and driven they were.

But yet, like practically everyone else who encountered them during the early 1990s – apart from maybe their parents – I was gob-smacked by the scale of what they went on to achieve. Delighted, for sure, but genuinely taken aback because ultimately, all they ever really presented was a rock-solid body of work, a decent ethic, a couple of key personal connections and a pretty pointed desire to get on.

They checked out, years later, with four albums to their name – including one for Island Records – a slew of high-profile American television appearances and years of non-stop live shows. Indeed decades before the emerging Dublin band, Fontaines DC, performed for Jimmy Fallon, Rubyhorse were regulars on that same circuit. It’s seldom that young Irish upstarts are invited into the mainstream American chat circle but, back in the pre-internet era, they did the Letterman and Conan O’Brien shows with no fanfare or fuss. And when Rubyhorse fetched up on those sets, they were doing so because, for a time, they were simply too big a noise to ignore.

They were also zippy enough to briefly entice George Harrison out of exile and into their match-day squad in what might well one of the most high-profile cameos in the entire history of contemporary Irish music. Harrison contributed slide guitar to ‘Punchdrunk’, one of the stand-out cuts on the band’s second album, ‘Rise’, released in 2002, and although that back-story is well worn by now, it still bears repeating here if only to remind folk of the level at which the band, approaching its pomp, was batting.

In May, 1997, Ireland staged The Eurovision Song Contest at Dublin’s Point Depot for the seventh time ;- it was the fourth occasion in five years that the country had hosted the event. The show was presented by a television presenter, actress and singer from Waterford called Carrie Crowley and by Ronan Keating, then the lead vocalist and de facto frontman with a local male vocal group called Boyzone. Keating also wrote and, on the night, performed one of the most dismal interval pieces in the long and bizarre history of the competition and I’ve previously dealt with this in more detail in a piece here.

Boyzone’s story is as fascinating as anyone’s but it’s never been definitively told :- the group has been the subject of numerous management-endorsed biographies that, sadly, never leave the surface. In essence, they were a knock-off and talent-free Take That who were routinely snapped in the tabloids leading champagne lifestyles on the back of Mi-Wadi-level ability. And all under the direction of Louis Walsh, a local booker in the best and worst traditions of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose and whose nose for an opening and a quick-win was matched only by his devotion to those acts he represented. Which was often commendably fever-pitched, myopic and obsessive.

That same year, 1997, also marked the end of the line for The Sultans Of Ping, who were packing up their latex trousers for the last time just as The Frank And Walters were finally releasing their second – and still, to my mind, best – album, ‘The Grand Parade’. It had been an over-long and over-complicated gestation, at the end of which the air had well and truly been sucked from the balloons that populate the front sleeve of that record.

Universes removed, U2 were also releasing a new album :- ‘Pop’ was easily their most ambitious and difficult record to date and the tour that accompanied it, ‘Popmart’, reflected the scale of that aspiration as clearly as it marked a saucy crossing of a Rubicon. U2 had earned the right to do whatever it was they wanted and ‘Pop’, dripping in irony and self-deprecation, was an almighty and unexpected undertaking.

Boyzone, The Frank And Walters, The Sultans Of Ping and U2 are, now as then, the unlikeliest of bedfellows and yet, when Ruby Horse looked into their hearts in 1997, these were the dominant local and national influences they might have seen. Two years after the release of a patchy, self-financed debut album, ‘A Lifetime In One Day’, they moved their operation to Boston and took their chances.

Boyzone’s commercial breakthrough across Europe, particularly in Britain, was a landmark achievement, the first time a home-grown, centrally-cast Irish pop act had achieved such cut-through. And to their credit, they gave hope to the hopeless ;- unlike many of the country’s more critically-vaunted outfits, a generation of guitar-wielding indie bands primary among them, Boyzone had a real go at the markets. In which their blandness was irrelevant because, hitting landfall at the same time as The Celtic Tiger, they were simply a crass entertainment embodiment of that period in the country’s history ;- a pop group laced with Pyrite.

So against a background where U2 were radically re-defining themselves with subversive pop tropes, with Boyzone giving a fluoride sheen to clean, family-friendly entertainment and fetching up routinely on Top Of The Pops and with the optimism after Cork Rock ’91 well and truly withered on the vine, Rubyhorse found themselves at an interesting turn in the road. Out on a limb in every respect, they put their heads down and just followed their hearts, sight unseen, until they eventually found their moment. They may never have reached the right place at exactly the right time but they defiantly made the most of wherever it was they found themselves. But the fact that they did so in America – in Boston, initially – in an era before social media, means that tracts of their story remain, if not entirely unreported then certainly under-represented.

Rubyhorse had just cracked the Billboard Top Twenty with the lusty single, ‘Sparkle’, before an almost inevitable outbreak of bad luck infected their camp and up-turned their curve. The premature death of their booking agent and the usual record company re-structuring – with the attendant mess this almost invariably leaves in its wake – only amplified the distance back to Cork. Rubyhorse and Boyzone may have had little ever in common but both groups know only too well the sort of fracture that can develop between even the closest of friends after years intensely spent as jobbing entertainers at close quarters.

I’ve written previously about the magic that can often occur whenever like minds get together, however implausibly or infrequently, and take on the not insignificant business of making music. And, in so doing, find emotional connections and important conversation starters that might otherwise be beyond them. So when I bumped into Joe Philpott after many years at a friend’s wedding in West Cork – what else and where else ? – where he was doing his thing as part of a terrific local guitar ensemble, the conversation was only ever going in one direction.

Joe is one of the three remaining original members of Rubyhorse alongside the band’s bass player, Declan Lucey, and its formidable frontman, Dave Farrell. Drummer Gordon Ashe, who previously bashed the biscuit tins with Burning Embers, lives these days in Newport, Massachusetts while Owen Fegan, the band’s original keyboard player, also stayed behind in America, where he’s done stints as a graphic designer for the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin magazines.

And I found it quietly uplifting to hear that the band is still thrashing away, working on new material, dropping the odd new track and even venturing out to play live the odd time. But that, far more importantly given the insanity of much of what Rubyhorse encountered in those ten years to 2007, they’re still touch-tight. Helped, no doubt, by a lack of deadlines and an absence of itineraries.

The roads that surround them might have changed beyond recognition in the years since they first took flight as callow teens but now, holding down jobs, working their own businesses and rearing families, it might be that they’ve been belatedly liberated by the routine of the real world and the spectre of responsibility. In which case that next album could well be their most thoughtful and relevant yet.

HAS THE LOSS OF SIR HENRY’S BROKEN THE LINK WITH THE PAST?

Our latest guest post is from Kilian McCann. Kilian is a sociology and history undergrad from Cork city. This year, he finished a research project analysing the Cork music scene. One of the major aspects of the study was the disconnect that young people have with past artists in the scene.


The post below is adapted from his chapter on Sir Henrys contained within this research.

I recently did a study on Cork’s music identity. I wanted to find how linked the current Cork music scene was to the huge history of music in the city, and how much of an influence that the bands from the past are on the scene. The results varied a lot, but what was obvious was that the younger generation don’t care near as much about Sir Henry’s as the older generation. In the sixteen years since Henry’s closed and was demolished, young people seem to have forgotten about it and its legendary status.

Dr. Eileen Hogan, a researcher at UCC who has studied the Cork music scene, found that there is a sort of disdain amongst the younger generations regarding the harking towards Cork’s music past. Younger generations want those who look back in nostalgia to appreciate what is happening currently in Cork city. Stevie G wondered if when Sir Henry’s closed, it was actually getting less fun, or if it was just that his generation was getting older. As Aidan Lynch of The Slut Club stated, “what’s so great about Sir Henry’s is that there’s no Sir Henry’s, ironically”.

Hogan noted that younger musicians feel detached from the history. There’s a lack of cross-generational musical awareness in Cork. That said, local music journalist Mike McGrath-Bryan agreed that this break occurred, but that there is still some kind of continuity in sensibility, “I think the past is a ghost that constantly haunts Cork music…obviously, there was a break in the 1990s…there was a discontinuity alright, but also, more so than that, there’s a thematic continuity in Cork music in that since 1981-1982 with the Kaught at the Kampus Record.”

Caoilian Sherlock of Quarter Block Party describes growing up in a period between two cycles: “I think I witnessed the death of a cycle and the birth of a new one over the last 6 years. I mean, there’s a moment where both the waves crash in on each other, and that’s what the last couple of years have been, where artists see the route to their success being record labels, management based in London or Dublin, that whole thing kind of ended over the last couple of years.”

After the closure of Sir Henry’s, many people involved in it, most notably Stevie G, went on to guide emerging members of the Cork scene through opening the Pavilion. Eileen Hogan and Martin O’Connor, a librarian at UCC, state this to be the case: “There is, I would say, a big cohort of leaders in the Cork music scene who came through the Pav, like Caoilian Sherlock for example, who set up the Quarter Block Party. People like that were shaped by or influenced by people who themselves came through the Sir Henry’s scene…A lot of them are very active now in the music scene, the media scene, it’s not even if it’s not necessarily a case where they have the guitars and the drums except they might be working in the media and they promote the younger now”

Sound engineer Cormac Daly thinks this as well: “One thing I will say about Cork, and it’s probably not unique, but there is a strong sense of heritage and history there, even aside from the music itself, but just culturally, the way people talk about Sir Henry’s, massive nostalgia for the place. So there’s definitely a sense of connection with the past, from the people who have been in the scene longer than myself, they’re very open, they’re very approachable, they have like, speaking of Sir Henry’s, Stevie G, is very much about shedding light on the new talent, that’s what he does, so it goes both ways.” Though Sir Henry’s was lost, the legacy lived on and shed light on the new generation.

Abbey Blake, lead guitarist in Pretty Happy, does feel inspiration from Cork’s music past, especially the high standards: “Cos I remember listening to, my Dad has an LP that his band were on, and it was all Cork, Irish bands, and it’s cool to listen to and these bands disappeared now. There’s some fuckin class songs. Especially since there’s no social media presence for any of them, they’re just fuckin gone like. It’s so cool. I think that definitely influenced me like…I think, the only way I feel a connection is through hearing the stories, like, class, I want to gig like that, you know what I mean? I want to hold myself to that accord that they did. Like, they were constantly polished, constantly practising, hated having a shit gig, and I like that kind of standard.”

The Slut Club also had a similar experience, with bassist Aidan Lynch telling of how he heard stories of Sir Henry’s “My mother dated Niall from the Sultans of Ping, so I would have heard plenty of the stories from Henry’s. …There’s a precedent set like, there’s a lot of great music that’s come from Cork, and there’s an attitude, and you’ve got to uphold that kind of thing”

Alex O’Regan of Gilbert, or the Unfathomable Loneliness of the Deep Space Prospector also stated an awareness of Cork music, especially of Stump, and of Rory Gallagher: “My Dad was mad into them [Stump] as well, got a bunch of his stuff, laid around the house. I could probably recognise a bunch of their songs without even knowing the names of them to be fair. It’s that kind thing, it’s in the background. And then, at the same time, we’re all a little bit obsessed with Rory Gallagher”.

Drew Linehan of Hausu believes that there is a lack of awareness of Cork’s music history in the city overall: “I was kind of interested to know and find out, and that’s how I found out about Microdisney, and Nun Attax, and all those kind of weird ones…I think it could be more important, but I don’t know, you don’t hear about those bands a lot. People don’t talk about them, you know”. Donagh Sugrue of Teletext Records thinks that music should be celebrated more in Cork, much in the same way as it is done in Glasgow. This would respect the position music should have in Cork city.

The tangible link between the present and the past in Cork city is largely severed, broken, but many bands and collectives are still aware of the history. That is mainly because of their parents being involved before, transmitting their stories onwards. But for those not from Cork, it’s harder to come across the stories. They’re only told in certain circles who don’t communicate with the younger generation.

The reason for the break in the link is interesting to explore, since every interviewee has a different opinion on why it happened. Mike McGrath-Bryan believes the economic boom caused the break, but John Dwyer of Bunker Vinyl on Camden Quay believes that emigration was a major factor: “I think years ago it was really cheap to have rehearsal spaces, and everyone was on dole in the 80s and 90s, there was no work in Ireland, everyone emigrated and stuff. So…in the 80s, everyone seemed to move to London and stuff, with people moving and emigration, probably a lot of talent left the city as well, and the kind of city, people just needed work and to get out of Ireland. So, we lost a lot of good musicians and we lost a lot of people who were involved in the scene in those days.”

Jack Corrigan of Hausu cites the lack of Sir Henry’s being a reason for the break: If you were to go to Sir Henry’s you could look at the wall and see a poster of this band played here and x and y, you see all the names and stuff. Like, when I was in Galway, I was in Róisín Dubh, and I was looking at the posters and it was like Brian Wilson played here, fuckin like, you can see the history. It’s there in front of you.”

Many of the interviewees believed that the internet and accessibility to music played a role. Caoilian Sherlock of Quarter Block Party illustrated living how the change occurred during his coming-of-age, between the old and new periods, in which Hot Press died, and Napster and LimeWire were emerging. The Internet hadn’t begun to be important yet, and there was still the influence of the older generation. But as the internet got more important, the voices of the older generation began to get lost on Cork’s youth.

What is clear, though, is that the cultural touchpoint Henry’s was and the commonness it gave to the generations beforehand was lost with its closure. Every musical generation before the 2000s had it as a frame of reference in their minds and knew the legendary status it held within the country. Even the physical presence of the building can create that sense of heritage, rather than the empty plot of land that holds the ghost of where Henry’s once stood. Though the EPs lived on and were transmitted to the some of younger generation through their parents, they’re an endangered species. But time moves on. This generation’s Henry’s needs to be somewhere else.

THE LONG FELLA

Fanning Sessions

My mother died almost one year ago and my family will mark that first anniversary as she’d have wanted ;- a quiet mass for the handful, a decent feed afterwards and then a long trade of general tittle-tattle during which we’ll remind ourselves of the quirks that set her apart and the exacting standards she set for herself everywhere.

It’s not as if she’s gone too far, either. Her ashes sit in a small box on top of a piano back in the house and, every morning, my father comes in and switches on her favourite radio station for her ;- in life and in death she is wrapped up in music and adored by her husband.

Joan kept a keen eye on all those performers and singers she encountered over the years, whether they were rank amateurs and hams treading the boards around town or some of the better known cadre who dossed down with us unannounced in Blackpool over the years ;- it was like her own personal investment portfolio. She loved showbiz and the stage and respected all of those brave enough to take the floor and let their voices, fingers and feet do the talking.

And she was charitable with it too :- our house served for the first year as the unofficial accommodation partner to the No Disco television series. We literally took the do-it-yourself, no frills, no budget ethos of that series home with us to the northside. For years, my mother and father provided regular bed and board to the those acts who were travelling through and maybe doing us a favour and never once was a question asked or a bob sought.

David Long, the one-time Into Paradise mainstay, was one of my mother’s favourites and, from on top of that piano, she’ll be glad to know that he’s still out there, making a racket, slowly changing the world verse by verse. He passed through the house a couple of times over the years but that was enough ;- behind his imposing frame is a soft, sensitive and funny soul and one not to be confused with his band’s gritty outward appearance. And he clearly left an impression, ‘the boy from Into Paradise’.

Togged out in their familiar home kit of funeral coats and working boots, and with their heads often bowed, Into Paradise rocked a look that was in keeping with their sometimes heavy, post-industrial and clinical new-wave sound. But contrary to popular – or in their case, largely unpopular – perception, behind the veneer the band was witty, well-read and sharp. And I should know :- I spent an inordinate amount of time as Into Paradise’s butler and saw miles of European motorway from the front of their tour van.

There was a consistent internal tension about Into Paradise too, even if much of their legend has been freely gilded over the years. The band was genetically drawn to the precipice and, although this was to ultimately un-do them, it gave them a competitive edge for many years, during which they were as compelling a draw as they were as engaging in company. Anything was liable to happen, and frequently did, with Into Paradise :- the band specialized in emotional self-harm, regularly claiming defeat from the jaws of victory and usually in spectacular fashion.

I haven’t seen any of the four of them in twenty-five years, not since the band finally called time in 1993 when, after years of slow cutting, their body just gave in. Once Into Paradise lost their deal with Ensign after the release of a fine, fine debut album, ‘Churchtown’, in 1991, there was really no recovering the ground ;- there’s only so long one can continue to push a wheelchair across sand.

Long fronted them and was, to all intents, their primary heartbeat from 1986 until their very end, although he’d been active on the Dublin 16 beat for several years before that alongside the likes of Shane O’Neill and Declan Jones, who went on to form Blue In Heaven. And, in the quarter of a century since we last clapped eyes on one another, he’s posted regular dispatches from well below the radar :- he’s made more music as a solo artist than he did as a member of a band and it can be difficult enough to keep up with him.

I first met him in Cork in 1990 when he travelled south to do a piece with me for a youth television series called ‘Scratch Saturday’. And after which we repaired to, appropriately enough, The Long Valley on Winthrop Street where I fed the weary traveler with one of those remarkable door-step cheese salad sandwiches and a quart of porter. And it was there, around one of the iron-wrought tables just inside the door, that a long relationship was born.

I’m as fascinated by Long now as I was that afternoon ;- he’s one of my favourite Irish songwriters, another of those who rarely gets the credit owed to him. Into Paradise have long been purged from the history of contemporary Irish music even if, as Setanta Records’ first significant breakthrough band, they pioneered a pathway that, at the time, was less travelled by Ireland’s countless wannabes. It may be no harm to re-instate history as a core subject for all of those currently writing regularly about Irish music.

I’m not sure if I ever fell out with Long because I’m not sure if he’s ever worked like that, not even towards the end of the road. We both saw a band slowly, painfully and maybe inevitably come asunder – one of us from the inside, the other from immediately outside – and, like any long-term relationship running its course, the deathbed weeks can often be the most difficult of all. But Into Paradise, to my mind, died with their docs on and, as can often be the case, completed some of their best work in the shadow of the angel of death. I’m not sure what more any of us could have done to prolong the trip and, in the end, nature just took its own course anyway.

Our relationship is helped, bizarre as it sounds, by the fact that I actually know very little about him. We have a shared love of music, we soldiered together in the trenches in the name of the cause and, I think, have a healthy respect for one another :- ultimately, that’s as much as some of us ever need. He’s an enigmatic friend who, when the time is right and when he has new material or something of value to share, gets in touch by e-mail. And he rarely wastes his words.

For the last number of years, the pair of us have been back in more regular contact, trading tips, connections and links over the lines between South Dublin and North Kerry, where he’s billeted. The seaside air in An Riocht suits him too because he’s in a ripe, prodigious vein of form. And, earlier this month, he released his fourth solo album, ‘In Headphones’, a nine-track assembly of curios, new songs and re-worked old ones ;- his own ‘A Hatful Of Hollow’.

There’s a restlessness to much of his solo output, and no clear form line to speak of. Dave’s own material – and there’s a lot of it available on-line at this stage, especially if we consider his work with The Whens, a lively, experimental, three-piece – veers wildly and widely, often from track-to-track and routinely from smoggy, metal-machine music to elegiac, pared-back folk song. It took him a full twenty years to issue his first, full-bodied solo album, 2013’s ‘Water Has Memory’ and, ever since, it’s like he’s frantically making up for lost time.

Those expecting familiar guitar tropes will be disappointed :- the closest Long has ever come to re-purposing Into Paradise, up to now, is on the circular drawl of the epic ‘Gravel’, from that first elpee. A simple riff song with a repeated, angry refrain – a long-time speciality – ‘Gravel’ gives a teasy glimpse of where the band was going and the shape it was in just at the point of implosion decades earlier. Otherwise it’s an exotic pick and mix. Dave’s 2017 album, ‘Cities’, for instance, has no guitars at all on it:- it’s an ambient concept album that captures the sights, sounds – and perhaps even the smells – of twelve well-known cities in a series of quirky sound vignettes.

Into Paradise diehards will be far more comforted by ‘In Headphones’, an uncomplicated and far more confident affair that, like James Iha’s ‘Let It Come Down’ solo elpee [1998], barely breaks a sweat. Acoustic-led for the most part, the album was recorded with the guitarist, Adrian O’Connell and producer, David Ayers, who has worked previously with another Setanta act, David Donoghue of The Floors. And who have both put real shape and quality tanking underneath it :- it is easily the most convincing of Long’s solo material.

It’s also his most retrospective and personal by a distance, and a thick stream of nostalgia and memory courses through it from the off. The opening cut, ‘Underground Song’, appeared in a more spartan form on Long’s ‘The Cult Of Two’ album as ‘Mysterious Sorrow’ and namechecks Fearghal McKee from Whipping Boy and Jeff Brennan, the booker at the fabled Underground Bar in Dublin. ‘Me and Fearghal in The Underground, waiting on Jeff to turn on the sound’, Long sings, before clipping a couple of lines from the Whipping Boy single, ‘Twinkle’, as the song races off and Long calls out to his peers from the small Dame Street venue that shut its doors at the end of the 1980s.

It was on the tiny stage in a corner of The Underground Bar that Into Paradise first road-tested one of their signature songs, ‘I Want You’ and, in keeping with the overall mood, Long rescues it from the drawer here, douses it with fresh guitar lines and delivers a fine take on one of his own best songs. Originally included on the band’s 1989 E.P., ‘Blue Light’, ‘I Want You’ is as magnificent a tortured love song in its own way as the Elvis Costello number of the same name, even if, unsurprisingly, it enjoys far fewer plaudits

A couple of the other cuts will also be familiar to regular Long-watchers ;- ‘London Is Fog’ and ‘Time Passes’ re-surface here having first featured on ‘Water is Memory’. ‘If She Stays’ is older again and initially appeared on the eponymously-titled 1997 debut album by Supernaut – which briefly re-united Long with Shane O’Neill – and which is up there with the best of Dave’s formidable canon, rolling with the easy efficiency of Turin Brakes or Grant McLennan. Indeed, the only time the record takes the lower road is on ‘Herons Fly’ which, with its stabby synths and noisy clutter, is out of kilter with the slide guitar lines and brushed drums that dominate the gut of ‘In Headphones’.

But its quietly reassuring to my middle-aged self to know that he’s still kicking out the jams and doing so strictly on his own terms. Anathema as it might be to some of the die-hards, he’s also included a Christmas song on ‘In Headphones’ even if, at this stage, it’s unlikely to propel him into the middle ground.

And that, I’m sure, is all fine too. Long has always been a peripheral figure on the home front anyway and, even during those years when Into Paradise were in their pomp – and like Stump and Microdisney before them – the scale of their achievement elsewhere was often lost back in Ireland. Where the band’s billing was at odds with its status in Britain, initially at least, and where, among their most zealous advocates was the late music writer, David Cavanagh, who captured the band’s magic in a series of terrific pieces from the late 1980s onwards and was generally enthralled by the racket they made.

There was always a bravery – and maybe a naivete too ? – to the manner in which Into Paradise went about their work. And, I’m glad to say, Dave has remained loyal to that ethos well into his solo career. He shows no signs of easing off any time soon, either.

Having completed his most sure-footed collection of songs yet, and about to take the boards again in Dublin, one could say that the comeback is underway. Except that Long never went away in the first place ;- he just took his time.

CODA :- ‘In Headphones’, like all of Dave’s solo material, is available on-
line. He supports A Lazarus Soul in The Workman’s Club in Dublin on May
3rd next.

PAUL SIMON’S ‘ HEARTS AND BONES’.

PaulSimon.com

Paul Simon’s 1983 album, ‘Hearts And Bones’, is easily one of my favourite elpees even if it took me many years to realise just how magnificent it is. Released in the same year as R.E.M.’s ‘Murmur’, ‘War’ by U2 and New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption And Lies’, it was certainly lost in the hail of political noise and clumsy cool that defined, for me, much of that period. But while ‘Hearts And Bones’ might not have sounded as edgy or urgent as some of the more highly-regarded issues of the time it may, in the decades since, have dated better than some of those albums we once thought were unassailable.

I began to gently obsess about ‘Hearts And Bones’ about fifteen years after I was first introduced to it :- it helps, I think, if you’ve been through at least one messy break-up. It’s as significant a release in its own right as it is in the broader sweep of Paul Simon’s own considerable catalogue mapping, in no little detail, the nuances of a number of relationships, all of them in flux. And I’m not sure if I still get all of its many subtleties and sides ;- in this regard, it bears as many hallmarks of a great painting as it does a great record.

One of my daughters recently performed Simon And Garfunkel’s ‘59th Street Bridge Song’ as part of a National Children’s Choir hooley out in Tallaght. It was just one of twenty-odd numbers the massed ranks had committed to memory as part of their excellent set and, although I’m neither a Paul or Art diehard, I found it weirdly re-assuring to hear so many Irish primary-schoolers remind their parents, guardians, teachers and ultimately themselves, of the undisputable value of just feeling groovy.

I heard that song for the first time on Simon And Garfunkel’s 1972 best-of album that we’d inherited from a neighbour and into which I’d dip my nose the odd time. Paul, in a flat cap and gurrier’s ronnie cuts a scutty enough figure on the front alongside Art, togged out like one of the trendier teachers up in The Mon. There was plenty of gold-dust on that elpee, of course, but for every one of Paul’s epic magic tricks – ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘America’, ‘Homeward Bound’ – there was a toothy hound immediately behind it, waiting to spring.

We’d already gang-murdered ‘Scarborough Fair’ as an enthusiastic but tuneless class of eight year-old tin-whistlers, and those wounds weren’t especially quick to heal. And I’d already started to associate Simon And Garfunkel – wrongly, as it happens – with the well-meaning folk mass brigade and, worse again, the continuity units among them who were dabbling with European liturgical material. This would change over time.

I’ve referred previously to Ray O’Callaghan from Poles Apart, a sinewy and unashamedly straightforward three-piece rock outfit who emerged from, of all places, Mount Farran and The Glen, during the early 1980s. And who, just by taking guitars into their hands and making a racket, showed that there was maybe another, lesser-travelled road out of Blackpool. It was Ray who first turned me onto ‘Hearts And Bones’ ;- broadening my mind by peeling back my ears, as it were. And instinctively it just sounded planets removed from the likes of ‘Cecelia’, ‘The Boxer’ and Art’s dire 1979 chart-topper, ‘Bright Eyes’. It was as if Paul had just moved to a different job.

But I knew little or nothing of Simon and Garfunkel beyond the obvious and that best-of elpee and I knew even less about Paul’s solo career ;- he’d already released five solo albums. In hindsight, though, it was probably best that I found him the way I did and with the album I did, arseways and all as that might have been.

Collecting music is, to a large degree, an irrational and ultimately harmless way to pass the dark nights and I’ve written previously about this here. One of the more interesting aspects to which is retrospective discovery ;- it’s never too late to have one’s ears pierced and head turned by a song, record or artist that may have, for all manner of reasons, just failed to previously register.

It was because of Teenage Fanclub – or, more specifically, the strength of Steve Sutherland’s sustained case for the prosecution within the pages of Melody Maker magazine – that led me back to Big Star, for instance. And it was R.E.M. who brought me to The Byrds, and back the road ultimately to old school Bob Dylan and so on.

Paul Simon had an unlikely competitive edge, though. His girlfriend at the time of ‘Hearts And Bones’ was Carrie Fisher, better known to most of us as Princess Leia from ‘Star Wars’ and who, alongside the female leads on the television cop series, ‘Charlie’s Angels’, had long dominated some of the bawdier conversations above in the schoolyard. And I’d take a good look at Paul on the cover of that Greatest Hits elpee, with his feen’s hat and his tache and, in those moments, I’d see hope for every single one of us.

CDANDLP.COM

Carrie’s considerable shadow extends across ‘Hearts And Bones’ too. The record was released shortly after herself and Paul were married and shortly before they separated, even if it only dawned on me many years later that the immortal title-track could have been about her. So absolutely thick was I that I long thought the song’s opening lines – ‘One and one-half wandering Jews, free to wander wherever they chose’ – referred to Art and Paul and that Paul was enjoying an in-joke about his lack of height.

That title cut is imperious, sketching in elegant, easy detail the whimsy of love, ‘the arc of a love affair waiting to be restored’. Now, you hear an awful lot of old guff about how the great songwriters – like the great poets or painters – are often determined by an ability to find majesty in the mundane and the ordinary and to reduce wide, existential themes into vivid, but simple and usually intensely personal flourishes. Even if popular music, at its most impactful, is often just about a moment captured.

‘Hearts And Bones’ blends both strains seamlessly and a couple of familiar local voices were quick to highlight this. Both Mark Cagney and Dave Fanning played some of its core tracks off the air on Radio 2FM and, one night, Fanning very helpfully deconstructed ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’ like he was leading a class of seventeen year-old English honours students into the mocks.

It’s an incredible piece of work by any stretch :- deceptively simple at the top before veering off-course mid-way and closing with a one-minute instrumental coda written by Philip Glass. I’ve certainly heard better songs during my many years going deaf as a hanger-on but, particularly now, given the funeral cycle we all eventually fall into, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more emotionally charged one. It’s fair to say that its relevance and numerous resonances just take off as the years carry us on.

‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’ is the most structurally interesting of the ten tracks on ‘Hearts And Bones’ and references the deaths of three high- profile figures, all of them called John and all of whom were killed by gun-shots. The song shares numerous stylistic traits with The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’ and begins in 1954 with the death of Johnny Ace, an R and B singer who accidentally shot himself in the head. It later refers to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and John Lennon in 1980.

On hearing the death of Johnny Ace announced on the radio, the writer sends off to a Texas mailing address for a photograph, which duly arrives :- ‘the sad and simple face’ is signed on the bottom ‘From the late, great Johnny Ace’. And it is there, in that very moment, that Simon captures the primary lyrical essence of that entire album :- the grand impact of the simple gesture, for good and bad, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.

The song also serves as a remarkable tribute to Lennon. Simon changes gears as he slips into a dream sequence half-way through in which, ten years after hearing of the death of Johnny Ace, he’s in London, larging it in female company, his mind warped by the possibilities of rock and roll. Until his peace is disturbed when, on the streets of New York City in December, 1980, a stranger stops to tell him that John Lennon has been shot dead. By any standards, it is quite the requiem.

By virtue of the scale of his popularity and the extent of his back catalogue
across fifty odd years in the public eye, Paul Simon is routinely pitched as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation and, who knows, maybe he is ? But he’s also one of his own most perceptive critics and, in a series of telling contributions to various biographies and documentaries, has consistently parsed his own material better than anyone.

And he certainly rates ‘Hearts And Bones’, or at least some of the key cuts on it, although I’m certainly not alone in thinking it seldom gets the credit it deserves. The record flaunts numerous imperfections throughout but suffers most, I think, from the circumstances in which it was recorded. It was written around the time of Simon And Garfunkel’s high-profile reunion during the autumn of 1981 when the pair, then barely even on nodding terms, played a memorable benefit concert in New York’s Central Park. During which Paul performed ‘The Great, Late Johnny Ace’ for the first time as one of three solo numbers and was manhandled by a stage invader for his troubles.

Indeed ‘Hearts And Bones’ was initially intended as a Simon And Garfunkel
comeback album until the tensions that had long under-pinned their relationship just rendered that impractical. The record took an eternity to complete and the credits list reads like the voting register in a small Dublin Council ward. Commercially, it died on its hoop.

But even at its most trite and uneven – ‘When Numbers Get Serious’ and ‘Cars Are Cars’, on which Paul dabbles unsteadily with technology and programmed patterns – there’s still a terrific sense of wonder running right through the record. The ubiquitous Nile Rogers, who’s done more special guest turns over the years than even Marty Morrissey, turns up on a couple of tracks, alongside a directory of high-profile session musicians, musos and aficionados. And this, I think, is how and where the album becomes uneven and unsteady on its feet.

And yet ‘Hearts And Bones’ contains four of Simon’s most magnificent and, in my view, significant, solo numbers :- the title cut and ‘Johnny Ace’ apart, the album also features the immortal ‘Train In The Distance’, about the break-up of his first marriage and ‘Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’, an epic and ambitious ballad that depicts the Belgian surrealist painter and his wife as fans of, among other things, American doo-wop groups of the 1950s.

And when Paul, into the chorus, namechecks ‘The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles and The Five Satins’ – and when The Harptones, a vintage New York outfit join him before the end of the song to add vocal harmony magic and a spiritual balm to the closing sequence – you’d wonder if popular music ever sounded better ?

Much of which was washed away, three years later, when ‘Graceland’ came from nowhere to become Paul Simon’s biggest selling and most successful record ever and, with our hero acting the goat on film with Chevy Chase, re-determined and re-invented him forever through the offices of MTV. ‘Hearts And Bones’ may well be the best support album in the history of contemporary popular music ;- in volleyball, they’d call it a setter.

Whatever about the merits of ‘Graceland’, though – and it has many – its worth recalling too the album that pre-dates ‘Hearts And Bones’, a 1980 issue called ‘One-Trick Pony’ that was released to accompany a film of the same name in which Paul Simon starred. I rescued a second-hand cassette copy of it way back from one of Cork’s terrific second-hand shops and, with hope in my heart, couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

That album is probably best remembered for the single, ‘Late In The Evening’ and, sadly, not a whole lot else besides. Try as I did – and I went in hard looking for clues – I just couldn’t find a decent connection with it, and certainly nothing, the title apart, perhaps ?, that even hinted at what was about to transpire next. ‘One-Trick Pony’ lives up to its billing and is, by any stretch, a turkey.

Which, on another level again, makes ‘Hearts And Bones’, coming so strongly out of the curve without warning, all the more exceptional. Losing to win, some call it.