CITIZENS OF BOOMTOWN: THE RATS v IRELAND’S SHOWBANDS

Billy McGrath’s excellent film about The Boomtown Rats, ‘Citizens Of Boomtown’, premiered recently at the Dublin International Film Festival and was broadcast subsequently on RTÉ Television in two parts. Its dedicated to the memory of Nigel Grainge, the London-born A and R man with the golden touch who, in 1977, signed the South Dublin outfit to Ensign Records, the label he founded and ran with his long-time side-kick, Chris Hill. Grainge, who died in 2017, is a recurring footnote in the history of modern Irish music: he also signed Sineád O’Connor and the Churchtown four-piece, Into Paradise, to Ensign and, during a previous posting at Phonogram Records, Thin Lizzy. In the directory of great music industry executives, he can be found in the section about good ears.  

When Nigel Grainge signed The Boomtown Rats in 1977, he wasn’t signing a punk rock band. The group was certainly pulled into a broader punk rock maelstrom once they’d left Dublin for London, but the notion that The Boomtown Rats were a punk band, or were rooted in any sort of punk rock sensibility, is wide of the mark. They were, rather, a filthy r and b outfit who took their cues from the backroom, pub-rock tropes of Doctor Feelgood, among others. The closest they came to punk rock was singer Bob Geldof’s potty mouth and his bad aim: he routinely plugged himself in the foot while shooting from the hip.

The Boomtown Rats recorded six albums, among them a couple of fine, uncompromising and intelligent pop records, 1978’s ‘A Tonic for The Troops’ and ‘The Fine Art of Surfacing’, released the following year, both of them produced by Mutt Lange. In Bob Geldof, the band boasted a smart, handsome and irascible frontman and, in Britain at least, audiences gave his coarseness a free pass. The Rats were quickly into their stride, scoring a string of Top Ten hit records.

Their transition from pub rock to pop music can be traced easily across their first three albums: they were restless, ambitious and evolved ahead of schedule. David Fricke, the long-time Rolling Stone writer and former Melody Maker correspondent – and a man who, like Geldof, obviously has a mirror in the attic – saw them play live for the first time in the summer of 1978. ‘They were not a punk band. They were a rock and roll band’, he tells ‘Citizens of Boomtown’. As such, they had far more in common with Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Blondie and XTC than The Plasmatics. And of course they could all play their instruments and saw the value in tuning up: keyboard player, Johnny ‘Fingers’ Moylett, guitarists Gerry Cott and Gary Roberts, bass player Pete Briquette and especially the band’s drummer, Simon Crowe, were all serious operators. 

Music documentary for television is a platform where contributors are expected to routinely talk through their holes. I know this only too well, having made music television programmes for way too long. In this regard, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ doesn’t disappoint, and some of the claims made on camera about The Boomtown Rats and the country that begot them are far-fetched beyond words. Far too many of the film’s contributors just mail in theory that collapses under the weight of the facts.

The idea that The Boomtown Rats – or any Irish group of the period, for that matter – were responsible for substantive change in Ireland is as mis-placed as the Rats’ representation as a punk outfit. ‘A unit for change’, says the U2 singer, Bono of the group. ‘A revolutionary council’. Exactly what that change or revolution is, or what it entailed, he doesn’t say.

Neil McCormick, an author, journalist, musician and a former school-friend of Bono, goes further and boldly claims that ‘the Rats changed this country’. In the same breath, he takes a sneery dig at Big Tom McBride, an Irish country singer who first came to national prominence on the showband circuit towards the end of the 1950s, a scene that was anathema to Geldof and many of his peers. As The Boomtown Rats were issuing their first singles, Big Tom was one of the biggest draws in the country, much to Neil McCormick’s amusement: ‘It’s a Weary, Weary World’ was clearly lost on the cooler set at both Mount Temple Comprehensive and Blackrock College. 

The Irish showband circuit – on which Big Tom and the Travellers were one of the most prolific outputters – was at its commercial and social apex towards the late 1960s, after which it’s bottom slowly came apart. In his book, ‘The Transformation of Ireland’, the historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, claims that, at its peak, the showband scene ‘became an industry employing 10,000 people, including 4,000 singers and musicians’. The circuit was eventually over-taken by the passage of time: the growth in the number of nightclubs and late licences around Ireland, in which disc jockeys instead of unwieldly groups of live musicians played the hits of the day, saw many of the showbands off. 

The glib dismissal of the showbands has long been a standard line of Irish critical patter. Geldof himself was one of the most virulent of the showband critics and, in his excellent 1986 biography, ‘Is That It ?’, describes them as ‘one of the most anodyne creations in the history of pop’. He goes on to claim that ‘the showband system has wasted an enormous number of talented musicians who are fed into the machine for a pittance of a wage’ and, in the same passage, talks about his desire to establish an alternative performance circuit around Ireland. To do this, he enlisted the help of the then Entertainment Officer at University College Dublin: Billy McGrath himself.

In response to the breadth of the showband influence – the circuit had its own television and radio programmes and a couple of high-profile magazines, for instance – Niall Stokes and a number of other young graduates founded Hot Press magazine in Dublin in 1977. ‘Keeping Ireland safe for rock and roll’, Stokes has been the editor of the magazine ever since and is another of the usual suspects who turn up on ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ to sing the praise. 

In an interview with Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone for their book, ‘Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before and After U2’ [2012], Stokes claims that some of the showbands ‘operated business practices that were reprehensible’, that ‘corruption was endemic’ and that ‘business practices were sloppy at best, dishonest at worst’. Is there an implication from him – long-regarded as an imposing businessman and shrewd operator – that the entertainment industry has cleaned up its nest in the years since the showbands ? Or that the showband circuit was an outlier in this regard ?

Most of the showbands performed faithful cover versions of the hits of the day, traditional Irish ballads and come-all-ye dirges: it was woejus stuff for the most part that bears no comparison with anything that followed it. But in terms of social and cultural impact, the showbands left far more of an impression on the country than The Boomtown Rats. By bringing live music to all corners of Ireland, seven nights a week, every week, with the exception of Lent – and by bringing with them the trappings that follow this kind of carry-on – they were far greater agents of change than any Irish band ever. Maybe even a revolutionary council.

The claim that, with Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh’s shrewd management, The Boomtown Rats created a circuit for subsequent acts to launch from may well indeed be the case. But twenty years previously, the likes of Albert and Jim Reynolds, Murt Lucey, Con Hynes, Oliver Barry and others also created a robust domestic entertainment industry from scratch, and then exploited it, much to Niall Stokes’s chagrin, for decades thereafter. They planted ballrooms all over rural Ireland, routinely filled them and booked widely. Albert Reynolds, for instance, put Roy Orbison into one of his own venues in the midlands to almost two thousand punters on a Tuesday night during the early 1960s. The showbands, and the industry that sprung up around them, facilitated congregation on a wide-scale and were central to the development of youth culture in Ireland during the 1960s.

The more interesting aspects of the showband story have long been obscured in a hail of convenient clichés and white-washing: for years, and with good reason, what went on on the road tended to stay on the road. While many of the bands were shagging and boozing for Ireland, managers, bookers and promoters kept the tills ringing out, often cynically and with scant regard for musicians and punters. But it’s not as if this was ever spoken about outside of the inner circle. What was presented as ‘the showband story’ was delivered with gusto from behind the pulpit by the likes of Jimmy Magee, Larry Gogan and Father Brian D’Arcy, a Passionist priest from County Fermanagh who, after contributing regular pieces to Spotlight magazine, became an unofficial Chaplin to the national entertainment industry and one of Ireland’s best-known celebrity clerics. 

To be fair, Vincent Power’s fine book, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’’, published in 1990, at least touches on some of the darker aspects of life for many showband musicians, some of whom were signed to scandalous personal contracts, many more of whom succumbed to alcoholism and other addictions. In a profile on the 2009 RTÉ series, ‘A Little Bit Showband’, Derek Dean, the lead singer with The Freshmen, a Beach Boys-inspired outfit from Ballymena, claimed that ‘the way the showbands are portrayed now, it’s as if Father Brian attended every gig and said a decade of the rosary’. Dean, who recounts his own long battle with chronic alcoholism in his 2007 book, ‘The Freshmen Unzipped’, tellingly remembers his band-mate, Billy Brown, as someone who, having earned a considerable amount of money as a jobbing musician, was eventually dragged down to a ‘determinedly dissolute life dominated by swift cars and fast women’. 

Another insightful read from the maverick corps of the circuit, the late Gerry Anderson’s ‘Heads’ [2006], paints a similar picture that’s clearly more faithful to the showband story than the raw nostalgia that has traditionally distorted its history. Given how two of Ireland’s most eminent historians, Diarmaid Ferriter and Roy Foster, both feature among the large cast of contributors to ‘Citizens of Boomtown’, it’s a pity that the film chose not to chase down some of the lazier social analysis just thrown up there and left hanging. 

The Boomtown Rats endured, more or less, for the ten years between 1975 and 1985, during which they enjoyed considerable commercial success in Britain and Europe. The country they left behind had joined the European Economic Union [the E.E.C.] in 1973 and, as the group was holding its first rehearsals, Fine Gael, a right-leaning political party was in power under its then leader, Liam Cosgrave. Under Garret FitzGerald, Fine Gael were in power when the band called it a day a decade later. The unemployment rate here doubled while the band was active, while thousands followed Geldof and his band and fled Ireland: emigration out of the country increased significantly during the 1980s.

It can be realistically argued that Ireland was as socially conservative in 1985 as it was in 1975 and, perhaps, even more so. In September, 1983, for instance, the country voted two to one in favour of The Eighth Amendment, to constitutionally prohibit abortion. In effect it gave equal rights to pregnant mothers and their unborn children. Remind me again of how The Boomtown Rats changed the country ?

What the Rats may have actually done, with the support of key actors like Ó Ceallaigh and Billy Magrath, was to establish a runway for those Irish rock bands who came after them, U2 in particular. The Rats were the first Irish group to enjoy a Number One single in Britain – 1978’s ‘Rat Trap’ – and the scale of this achievement, given the extent of the competition at the time, cannot be under-estimated. As the musicologists Gerry Smyth and Seán Campbell argue in ‘Beautiful Day: Forty Years of Irish Rock’, The Boomtown Rats ‘are amongst the most important names in Irish rock history, not only for the quality of the music they produced but also because they expanded the boundaries of what Irish popular music could be about’. 

To its credit, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ routinely reminds us of this, and of just how magnificent The Rats were at the peak of their powers. It reminds us too of Geldof’s absolute ridiness. Of Paula and Bob. The quiet magic of the band itself, the players. But beyond all of that, it reminds us that there is no one history of Irish popular music and that all history is contestable anyway.

ST PATRICKS DAY – CURATED IRISH PLAYLIST

On St Patricks Day we put a call out on our Twitter asking folk to share their favourite Irish Track. The response, to put it mildly, was fantastic. Most stuck to the brief, as tough as it was, of the one song – some offered up more than one track (one indecisive person offered us double figures tracks…)

We’ve now put all these songs into a playlist. And what a brilliant playlist it is. The playlist contains more than 100 tracks. And what an eclectic mix it is. It has many of the expected favourites but many a lesser known track. And we would like to think if you would like to introduce somebody to the best of Irish that there are worse places you could start…

A big massive thanks to each and everyone of you shared your favourite(s). You have great musical taste.

Happy listening.

The original tweet can be followed here….

A reminder tweet can be followed here…

AN EMOTIONAL FISH: A STRANGE KIND OF GLORY

Has any Irish band announced itself as spectacularly as An Emotional Fish ? The Dublin four-piece were, I’d argue, the last of the great major label indulgences in emerging Irish music, the poster child’s poster children for that mad, unprecedented decade from 1985 onwards. Rarely has so much coin been invested in any Irish band for so little commercial return and God knows how big a tab they’d run up before they were finally cut off at the bar. 

The band’s magnificent second single, ‘Celebrate’, is one of the most distinctive Irish pop songs from that period, so perfectly formed that it set subsequent ambitions for them unfeasibly high. ‘Celebrate’ was both an outrageous calling card and, ultimately, the rock on which the band eventually ran aground: try as they did, they never quite matched its lustre to the same extent thereafter. But as can often be the case, ‘Celebrate’ unduly distorts AEF’s legacy because, beyond the obvious, they always had far more going on. Much of which scarcely figures in their story.  

I was never completely convinced by them and, for a while, saw them as more of a sophisticated experiment hatched over a dinner party in Sandymount than a legitimate rock concern. And yet, once I’d killed my darlings and set my prejudices aside, I grew to love them. There was even a period of a couple of years where – as part of the travelling Into Paradise circus – I couldn’t physically shake them and ran into The Fish, often quite literally, in a variety of unlikely locations, in Ireland and beyond. They were decent, affable, generous and always good company.

On Saturday, May 27th, 1989, An Emotional Fish played the Cork Rock series for unsigned bands at Sir Henry’s and arrived in a hail of hyperbole and expectation I’d never encountered previously. Although a host of record companies had flown into Cork to see them play a short set – and they were, genuinely, the subject of an all-out bidding battle – the word was that they’d already done the bold thing with one of the major labels. If they hadn’t consummated the deal, they’d certainly been fumbling away on the sofa and so Cork Rock ’89 was more of a coronation than a live audition.

Given what went off in Sir Henry’s at the same event the following summer, when The Cranberries, The Frank and Walters, Therapy? and Toasted Heretic all donned the jersey, Cork Rock ‘89 tends to be consigned to the halfpenny place. Yet, in retrospect, those three sessions that May certainly had their moments. The Fish were joined on the Saturday night bill by Cork’s representatives on The Paisley Underground, Cypress, Mine !, Dublin’s formidable Hellfire Club, Fanning Show regulars The Malfunctions and If, who shared a name with a lesser-spotted U.K. prog rock outfit but, sadly, not a whole heap else besides.

The rest of that weekend was notable for a short, blistering set by Power of Dreams, featuring Robbie Callan on second guitar, and who, had some of them been carded, wouldn’t have been legally allowed to enter the premises. Elsewhere, the Galway-Dublin compound, The Swinging Swine, who later morphed into a variant called The Glee Club, gave it up with gusto for the dog-on-a-string set.

One of the more interesting sets at Cork Rock ’89 was performed by a Limerick troupe, Private World, who were fronted and led by Pearse Gilmore. He later founded Xeric Studios back in his home town and produced and managed The Cranberries to the point in their career where they’d started work on a first album. That night in Cork, he memorably stalked the compact stage at Sir Henry’s like Synge’s Old Mahon, spectacularly sprung back to life and with a loy planted in his crown. 

In such esoteric company, The Fish had a serious weight and reach advantage. The band’s management enjoyed a long-standing relationship with U2’s back-room and, on that first night in Cork, they arrived mob-handed with some of the best-known road crew in the world in tow. Those connections did them few favours ultimately, I think: the pat on the head from U2 has been counter-productive to practically every Irish band who’ve entered their orbit. In respect of patronage, well-meaning as it no doubt has always been, U2 have consistently had the Midas touch in reverse.  

Within weeks, An Emotional Fish released their first single, ‘Grey Matter/Cry Like A Baby’, on U2’s Mother Records label and, under the baton of their manager, Aidan Cosgrave, a formidable player in the Irish advertising industry, were fast-tracked to sainthood. The fundamental problem, as I saw it, was that An Emotional Fish had all the endorsements and supports but, ‘Celebrate’ apart, little else to justify the weight of expectation. The band’s half-baked debut album [‘An Emotional Fish’, 1990] only re-enforced that point for me: they just weren’t immediate or urgent enough and far too much of their material was determined by heavy-handed riffing and wafer-thin ideas. They seemed averse to choruses too: ‘Celebrate’, for all its glory, is missing a key part of the standard assembly. Not necessarily a deal-breaker, for sure, but when set against the breathlessness of the teenage Power of Dreams, who could knock out the bangers in their sleep, The Fish just sounded a bit laboured. Far too much of their material circled the parameters and, as unique selling points go, I’m not sure how effective it was. 

AEF laid their foundations on the dominant bass sound of Enda Wyatt who, from behind his out-sized specs, set the tone for the entire enterprise. Enda was a little older, calmer and impressively well read: he was also a phenomenal but under-stated musician. Outwardly, though, it was the band’s guitarist, David Frew, who looked to me to be driving the wagon. Away from the stage he was a terrific footballer and it was in our fondness for sport that we found a common bond. Always happy to do a turn with The Dancing Bastards from Hell whenever the opportunity arose, I’m not sure I’ve met someone as genuinely affable and downright decent during my decades hanging around the fringes of the entertainment industry.

He defended his corner with gusto, too, and he challenged me to see AEF for what they were and not for what they weren’t, which I was happy to do. So, although my reservations about the group remained largely unchanged, I certainly saw the point – and the quiet magic –of the band’s mighty second album, ‘Junk Puppets’, which was released in 1993.

The making of that record is a long and complicated chapter during which, with the label keen to see them kicking on quickly, An Emotional Fish cut loose and, I think, found their meter. I heard the first flushes of that album at a storming live show the band played at The Opera House in Cork in 1992, recorded for an RTÉ live music series directed by the late Anita Notaro, during which they gave early airings to ‘If God Was A Girl’ and ‘A Hole in My Heaven’. That show ended with a full-scale invasion of the stage and the splintering of the first three or four rows of seating. Central to the chaos was the band’s frontman, Gerard Whelan, who consistently brought drama and camp to the band’s live shows and is as good a focal point I’ve seen on any Irish stage. The Fish always put on a show – often featuring the sassy vocal backing of Violet Williams – and, for several years, were one of the most potent live draws in the country. 

The previous year, the board of directors at Setanta Records thought it might positively benefit one of its bands, Into Paradise, if they were de-camped from the distractions of Dublin and London and put out into the wilds. Far from the maddening crowds and the comforts of home, the hope was that they might up their work-rate and break the back on a new album. So, for a couple of months, Into Paradise were dispatched to a rented farmhouse in Ballyvourney in the West Cork Gaeltacht and their back-line set-up in a hay shed. It was the most ill-fated and far-fetched coupling since Elton John married Renate Blauel and my only regret was that we didn’t embed a small documentary crew with the band for the duration. 

The spirit of Seán Ó Riada and the maverick sounds of Cór Cúl Aodha were lost, sadly, on Into Paradise and I’m not sure if the experience benefited anyone save, perhaps, the owners of The Mills, the fine boozer in the heart of the village. Unbeknownst to us, in Tadhg Kelleher’s Súlán Studios on the very same drag, An Emotional Fish were hard at it: they were billeted in Ballyvourney too, recording songs for a second album. From fleeting dispatches, I’m not sure how much work was completed down in the heart of West Cork while both bands were on the loose.  

‘Junk Puppets’ was subsequently completed in three separate studios in London, with three different producers across it. Alan Moulder brought the noise and, in the search for more soothing sounds and a breakthrough hit, Clive Langer and David Stewart were enlisted to bring the sheen to the spit. None of the Ballyvourney labours survived the journey.

Although ‘Celebrate’ had picked up generous air-play in Britain, neither the band’s prodigious work-rate – and to be fair to them, they were constantly on the road, where they were at their strongest – or their label’s clout could force it higher than the mid-40s. I have no doubt that, had the band snared just one appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’, and had a mainstream British television audience been exposed to just three magnetic minutes of Gerry Whelan in full flow, AEF’s career might have taken a drastically different turn. 

Instead, the air was being slowly sucked from their balloon. By the time that Aidan Cosgrave invited me around to his office down in Windmill Lane to play me that second album, AEF were going for broke: in for a penny, in for a pound. Some of the songs had been through the hands, a couple of them had had structural make-overs and, when the record finally landed, it was to general indifference. The band’s best long-player by a distance, I was taken by how lavish and layered it was.

I’m unconvinced to this day that writing ever came easily to The Fish but, on the lead single, ‘Rain’, the full-on glam-stomp of ‘Hole in My Heaven’, the prissy ‘Sister Change’ and the re-worked ‘If God Was A Girl’, they’d certainly developed their game a bit. But nowhere is the sparkle of that record – and, indeed, the general insanity of that entire period – captured more succinctly than on a video shot by Dave Stewart himself in his own studio, The Church in North London, during the sessions that put AEF’s finest ever song, ‘Careless Child’ to bed. 

Apart from his long and varied career as a writer, performer and producer, Stewart has also dabbled in film and video and he was behind the camcorder himself as the band worked out the song on the vast studio floor. The video is intercut with sequences featuring a full orchestra adding considerable heft, no little veneer and, one suspects, a multiple-page invoice, to the final product. 

‘Careless Child’ is the standout cut on ‘Junk Puppets’, a consummate ballad that cuts loose half way through with a spectacular Disney-esque orchestral break. The idea that a band at AEF’s level would be so indulged by any record company now seems positively fanciful: orchestras, the ultimate indulgence, simply don’t feature on new music anymore. Playing from scripted, pre-prepared scores, Stewart’s home-movie captures the classical set in their smart casual gear andfoppish hair-dos, on the clock and largely disinterested as they wait to be counted into action by a fresh-faced conductor. They make an outrageous racket, of course, and there’s a satisfied smirk on Stewart’s face as he makes a brief cameo alongside the band at the end of the clip. 

By the time that ‘Junk Puppets’ saw the light of day, though, any momentum the band had was dis-placed. The Fish followed a familiar narrative thereafter: Warners let them go once the record was released and they hung around for a bit thereafter, putting out a third album. ‘Sloper’, on its own label.

Maybe it’s just received memory at this stage but I still find myself reaching for ‘Junk Puppets’. I also know that, out there on the live circuit, Whelan and Frew are still going strong. Gerard, re-born as Jerry Fish and still leading from the front as a veteran ring-master, Dave riffing away in a variety of guises. The band has re-grouped the odd time over the last decade and a couple of live shows at The Olympia – as part of a fund-raiser for Barretstown – and an impressive set at Féile Classical in 2018 can both be found, with the usual caveats and health warnings, on-line.

I can’t let any piece on An Emotional Fish go, though, without reference to the group’s drummer, Martin Murphy, who died suddenly in January, 2017. Martin cut his teeth with Eugene, fronted by Jil Turner and also featuring Dave McGinley, during the early 1980s, which is where I first came across his work. I remember him as a quiet and unassuming soul who was key to the Fish’s sound, a sound that, as I think we’ve established by now, was rarely straight-forward. He was integral to that band: like the best drummers, he was reluctantly seen but consistently heard. The full range of his ability is out there, on three albums, by way of a lasting and fitting memorial.

A SHORT MESSAGE FROM THE BLACKPOOL SENTINEL

Evening Echo

The observant and nosy among you will have noticed that The Blackpool Sentinel has been decorated by those who run the Cork Person Of The Year Award. ‘This is all about the ‘Soundtrack of our Life’, the singers, musicians and music that influenced us over the years, and I thank Colm and Martin for preserving that social history’, said the event organizer, Manus O’Callaghan. And in that one line, I think he summed up this blog and its purpose as well as, if not better, than any of the overly long reads currently on it.

In the best and worst traditions of Irish people of a particular generation, we’re both mortified and delighted in equal part. Clearly, the organisers were stuck, let down at the last minute by someone else: like The Sentinel itself, we’re glad to fill a void.

We started TBS six years ago in response to a lot of the more fanciful and factually inaccurate stuff we were reading on-line. Received memory is a dangerous thing and our primary purpose, then as now, was to get our facts right. After that, we wanted to avoid making a holy show of ourselves. There is work still to be done on this front but we’ll continue to try and do our best.

The organisers have invited us to a lunch in The Rochestown Park Hotel next year, and, provided we’re still hale enough, we’ll be taking up that kind offer. In an ideal world, we’ll be sharing a table with members of the Cork senior hurling and football teams and be placed in designated seating alongside Liam McCarthy and Sam Maguire.

In the meantime, we’ll keep going with the usual stuff and see where that takes us.

Go raibh maith agaibh uile as ucht an tacaíocht.

TBS

A SONG FOR CORK

So, ‘After All’ by The Frank And Walters is Cork’s favourite song, as voted by those who took part in an on-line campaign organised recently by the Cork City Library, in association with Creative Ireland. Popular polls like these aren’t intended to be taken in any way seriously and there are far more pressing issues with which to get carried away. So we won’t.

Indeed, that the call to find Cork’s favourite song cast a light on the phenomenal service afforded by the country’s library system, is perhaps its most significant achievement. ‘Celebrating Cork’s musical heritage and the contribution of The Music Library over the past 41 years’, ran the opening line of the press release to launch the event. And so say all of us.

‘After All’ is one of the best pop songs ever written or recorded by an Irish group, and it’s certainly one of the best ever committed to wax by a Cork act. As such, it sates the criteria laid down by the organisers when they called on the public to ‘think about songs unique to Cork that have helped to shape and define our city’. That The Franks’ home town has, and continues to be, so influential in the shaping of their work, will always give them a competitive edge during more partisan occasions like these. They’ve never attempted to cover their tracks: in marketing speak, they’ve long foregrounded their Corkness, particularly so during those magical years on the international circuit between 1992 and 1997. For which, I would contend, they paid dearly, even if their parochial carry-on anchored them forever in the hearts of their own people.

Although the band’s background is fundamental to everything that’s ever defined them, The Franks’ most popular song – and now, Cork’s favourite – deals instead with a well-worn broader theme and is devoid of the local reference points that populate so much of their other material. ‘After All’ is a straight-forward and efficient pop song that, like much of the band’s catalogue, sends an uncomplicated message to its subject; ‘after all … I’m glad you’re mine’.

I’ve written previously about both the band and the song but it’s worth re-iterating here how timeless ‘After All’ is. Written in Cork and London and first released in 1992, it clearly resonates with not only those who remember it from the time but plenty more who don’t. In the best and worst traditions of these things, there have been numerous versions of the song attempted in the decades since, from the stages of pre-school plays to the bus-hijack scene in Peter Foott’s terrific television drama series, ‘The Young Offenders’. Enough to consistently pump oxygen into the song and re-energise it for various different audiences, traditionally a hallmark of the really great songs. A recent case in point being a version of ‘After All’ performed last Christmas by a group of primary schoolchildren in Ballinspittle National School in Cork using Irish Sign language.

I’ve made numerous lofty claims on the band’s behalf over the many years I’ve known them but I was convinced that ‘After All’ had crossed the Rubicon after I heard it performed by a wedding band in Cork the year after its release. In the sprawling expanse of one of the ballrooms in The Rochestown Park Hotel, the song dragged the various generations away from the remnants of the carvery and out onto the dance-floor, all of them mouthing the sing-a-long. At which point ‘After All’ moved seamlessly into the same orbit as ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. You know you’ve arrived and that there’s no going back after you’ve been honoured in this manner by Larry And The Partners.

A generation of Cork cabaret bands have belted it out with varying degrees of success at social events in the years since. It’s a straight-forward enough song to perform and sing: infinitely more so than, say, either ‘Only Losers Take The Bus’ by The Fatima Mansions or ‘Kelly From Killeens’ by Five Go Down To The Sea, neither of which are heard too frequently at weddings or christenings. And maybe with good reason.

‘After All’ has a gentle Cork veneer about it but, beyond Paul’s pronunciation, nothing more. It’s certainly not a song about Cork and, in that respect, is nowhere near as unapologetically located as, say, Seán O’Callaghan’s ‘The Armoured Car’, among my own favourite Cork songs and one I first heard during the late 1970s. ‘The Armoured Car’ appeared on Jimmy Crowley’s debut album, ‘The Boys Of Fair Hill’, released on the Mulligan label in 1977, and details the remarkable, real-life exploits of a famous hunting dog owned by Connie Doyle of the Fair Hill Harriers.

Drag-hunting has long been a popular winter sport in Cork: at least it was during those years I spent growing up on the Ashgrove estate in Ballyvolane in the shadow of a well-known pub, The Fox And Hounds. Outside of which scores of foxhunters and road bowlers would regularly gather before hitting the back roads for sport out beyond Dublin Pike, Kilcully and Whitechurch.

Jimmy Crowley was, for many years, one of the most high-profile Corkmen in the country, arguably hitting his creative peak during Jack Lynch’s years as Taoiseach in the late 1970s and while Cork hurling was snaring three All-Ireland hurling titles in a row. As a curator and performer of traditional songs, local yarns and tall tales, he found a prescience and relevance during one of the more remarkable periods in the city’s recent social history, capturing the feats of Cork’s finest bowl players, hunting dogs, hurlers, nobbers and drinkers. Even if, by so doing, he often flouted the fine line between social historian and professional Corkman.

But as both a solo performer and as leader of a fine local ensemble, Stoker’s Lodge, he made – and continues to make – an enormous contribution to history and heritage matters in Cork. So much so that he can be forgiven, just about, for a reggae version of ‘The Boys Of Fairhill’ he released in 1982. An act which, at best, can be described as ill-advised.

For several years, Crowley attracted RTÉ camera crews into the city during a decade when, broadly speaking, Cork was on its knees. By capturing him at work and at play, those television appearances gave some of us – especially those of us on the Northside – a rare glimpse of our neighbours on a national canvas. An extraordinary insert shot in 1975 for an early-evening magazine programme, PM, produced and directed by Eoghan Harris, in which members of the Harriers discuss their dogs and wives over pints and chasers, has thankfully survived as another reminder of the way we were.

Jimmy Crowley’s repertoire was almost exclusively born and bred in Cork, and included faithful renditions of ‘Salonika’, ‘The Boys Of Fairhill’ and ‘Boozing’, all of which he sung in a distinctly local drawl. ‘The Armoured Car’, though, has long been my own favourite from that collection because, at its heart and in its lyrical detail, it unashamedly celebrates just how untouchable a people we are. ‘Twas on the green fields of Gurranabraher’ that The Armoured Car ‘first declared war on his terrible Southern foes’ but although the song celebrates the achievements of a hunting dog who slayed ‘all-comers from Castlebar to Timoleague’, ‘The Armoured Car’ can also be read as a metaphor for the unbreakable spirit of the northside. As such, it’s as edgy a song about Cork as anything that has followed it since.

Of which there are many. Any self-respecting list of great songs by Cork writers and performers would go on for an eternity, crossing the generations, languages and the genres. Off of the top of my head, the essentials might include ‘Follow Me’ and ‘Wheels Within Wheels’ by Gallagher, ‘Michiko’ and ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ by The Sultans, ‘Princes Street’ by The Stargazers, ‘Town To Town’ by Microdisney and Stump’s ‘Charlton Heston’. The Holy Trinity of The Belsonic Sound, Burning Embers and Cypress, Mine ! built the bridge from the new-wave of the 1980s to the newer wave of the 1990s and, in any case, ‘Colourblind’, ‘Now That You’re Gone’ and ‘Anxious’ are all fine, varied representations of three bands that perhaps, given what followed them, don’t tend to get the credit they deserve.

I’d make a strong case too for the likes of ‘Call Yossarian’ by LMNO Pelican, ‘Robin’s Party’ by Nothing Like Strauss, Benny’s Head’s ‘Backwater’, ‘William’ by The Emperors of Ice Cream, ‘The Darkness’ by Flex And The Fastweather, ‘Who’s Fooling Who’ by that group’s mainstay, Paul Tiernan, ‘Sparkle’ by Ruby Horse, ‘That’s Why We Lose Control’ by The Young Offenders, ‘Running’ by Fred, ‘There’s A Fish On Top of Shandon Swears He’s Elvis’ by Five Go Down To Sea, Mick Flannery’s ‘How High?’ and, of course, any one of numerous versions of ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’. With a special rosette to anyone who’s included the famous second verse, whose existence seems lost on many of those who perform it as a party piece.

I haven’t touched on the glut of contemporary dance sounds currently popping the city’s soundscape or, indeed, bands like Cyclefly, Boa Morte, Bass Odyssey, The Orange Fetishes, The Altered Hours, The Caroline Shout, Crystal, Sindikat, Censored Vision, Serengeti Long Walk, Scarlet Page and Jinx. All of whom, across a full spectrum of styles, repeatedly put their best feet bravely forward when it was neither profitable not fashionable. And all of whom have at least one, Cork-made banger to their names.

For what it’s worth, my own favourite song about Cork is ‘Down by The River Lee’, written and performed by Kooky, a long-lost one-man operation that burned briefly on a terrific album during the closing days of the last century. Kooky was – and remains, presumably – the creative preserve of Tony O’Sullivan, the improbably handsome former Soon vocalist who released his only elpee, ‘The Good Old Days’, on his own label in the spring of 1999. I’d first come across him years previously, when he was part of the ensemble at the Graffiti Theatre company, then an emerging and exciting young troupe under the formidable stewardship of Emelie Fitzgibbon. Graffiti staged two memorable but very different original productions at the old Ivernia Theatre on The Grand Parade during the mid-1980s, ‘Strong As Horses’ and ‘Silence The Ravens’ that melded a rock and roll sensibility to new writing for theatre in the city. The Graffiti cast also featured the not inconsiderable talent of a number of young locals, Liam Heffernan, Anne Callanan, Miriam Brady and Charlie Ruxton among them.

So it’s hardly surprising that Tony consistently brought a dramatic edge and no little theatre to his music and singing, be that with Soon, who also featured the guitarist, Giordhaí Ó Laoghaire, or another of his side-projects, The Love Handles, who gigged infrequently at The Rock Garden in Dublin during the early 90s. But he most effectively found his meter on ‘The Good Old Days’, which he recorded over time and on a tiny budget with a group of friends and confidantes, Maurice ‘Seezer’ Roycroft most prominently.

‘The Good Old Days’ – which opens with an old archive clip from the late Leonard Sachs, who hosted the popular BBC entertainment revue of the same name – is a powerful piece of work that’s dominated by Tony’s fine tenor and a writing sensibility that nods to vintage Scott Walker and the poppier ambition of The Divine Comedy. Under-cutting the entire enterprise is a warm nostalgia for, and keen insight into, life and society in Cork during the early 1980s, as hinted in the album’s title. ‘The Good Old Days’ is difficult, if not impossible, to locate now, which of course only adds to its allure: in the spirit of d.i.y., not a whole lot of copies were originally minted. But it’s rinsed through with numerous references to Cork and it’s people – Finbarr Donnelly, The Innisfallen, The English Market, The Long Valley, schoolyard vignettes and general local capers – and no more so than on ‘Down By The River Lee’.

With a floral brass decoration scaffolding its whopping chorus, it marries a partisan lyrical flourish – ‘Mary got a fifty on her first real date’ – with the saucy energy heard the previous year on Neil Hannon’s ‘The National Express’, a comparison for which the writer might not necessarily thank me. The rest of the album is more complicated: ‘Edwardian’ was the term used by Kevin Courtney when he reviewed it in The Irish Times. But there’s still something resoundingly and re-assuringly bold and brave about it, even twenty-one years later. Especially on the title-cut and certainly on the closer, ‘I’m Taking Her Away From You’, a mighty track by any stretch that showcases Tony’s vocal range and his gift as a writer.

Of course any search for Cork’s Favourite Song will, ultimately, be a fruitless one because, as is obvious from the last fifteen minutes you’ve spent with us here, Cork has many favourite songs. As indeed do all of us who registered votes with the recent poll. What’s most apparent, though, is just how many quality songs have been penned over the last forty years by Cork writers of all hues, particularly songs about Cork city and its many vagaries. The city’s physical and emotional landscape has long been a rich source for many of those involved in the arts, and given the glut of edgy contemporary acts still pulling from that supply line, shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. ‘After All’ is a worthy and deserved favourite song of Cork but there are many more where it came from and it’s no harm, the odd time, to remind ourselves of that.

Or, in old money, to take a step back and consider once again how great we are. Strong as horses, that’s us.

APPENDICES:

A playlist of (most) of the songs and bands featured in this post can be found here.

Some suggested Cork songs via our Twitter feed can be found here