A House

DAVE COUSE, A HOUSE AND THE POINT OF EVERYTHING

Irish Times

I’m regularly struck jealous by the capacity of some of my colleagues, friends and peers to devour so much material so quickly and to be so consistently boned up on the latest albums, books, on-line posts, international drama serials and edgy films. I honestly couldn’t tell you where my own time goes, by comparison.

It might be that I’m just a slow reader who wades through far too much of what some now refer to as older, traditional media, when my days might be better spent hoovering up bite-sized cuts, hot takes and ignoring my children instead ? Or perhaps I need to be far less obsessive about the things I like and spread my wings further but less diligently ? But it’s easy, eitherway, to be over-whelmed by the noise levels on the super-highway.

And so I’m always grateful for the good advices of those trusted correspondents who, when they feel my focus isn’t what it might be, point me in the direction of key peaks on the mountain of output I’m missing on a daily basis.

‘You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV’, claimed the would-be big shot, Suzanne Stone Maretto, brilliantly played by Nicole Kidman, in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film, ‘To Die For’. ‘On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching ?’. I’m not sure if ‘To Die For’ always gets the credit it deserves but it’s long been a favourite film of mine and, as someone who’s spent a lifetime working in television, I have real difficulty defining the fiction from the reality in some of its key scenes.

Ostensibly a morality tale about society’s obsession with celebrity and the stupidity that often under-pins it, the film has already gone full circle to the point where it’s long since lapped itself dizzy. Almost twenty five years after it was premiered, and despite the absolute fracture of all media in the decades since, ‘To Die For’ looks more and more prescient by the week. Kidman’s wildly ambitious weather-woman, with her front leg on the lower rungs at a small, local television station might, in 2019, be an Instagram sensation or ‘influencer’ but the core message is as was.

I think of ‘To Die For’ and that incessant struggle to be heard from miles across the valley whenever I’m recommended – and inevitably frustrated by – another lackluster podcast that promises rabbits from hats and delivers aural myxomatosis instead. Our regular readers will know exactly what I mean ;- no doubt well-meaning and often full-bodied social broadcasts that often just add crudely-formed, half-baked opinions to the unsustainable levels of global clutter already out there. [I appreciate, of course, that a similar charge can be levelled at this site].

The journalist Michael O’Toole once memorably described Twitter – on Twitter – as a place where ‘every expert is a clown and every clown is an expert’. It doesn’t always follow, I guess, that just because you have a smart phone, you have anything smart to impart. But we continue to confront the mountain because of the enduring promise of a decent view of the sunrise. And, from time to time, my head will be turned and my ears pricked, as they were by a recent exchange conducted by The Point Of Everything blog and podcast with Dave Couse, the formidable singer and frontman with a revered but long-lost Dublin band, A House. An iteration of which performed live for the first time in over 22 years at the National Concert Hall last weekend.

By the end of its 38 minutes, TPOE’s host, Eoghan O’Sullivan – who I don’t know – has clearly touched a couple of his subject’s nerves, pulling reams of colour and insight from him by simply asking pertinent questions and allowing Couse the space to reflect before responding. Redolent of those long Fanning Show interviews where the guest’s seat in the small radio studio in RTE Radio 2 often became a psychiatrist’s couch – and current, high-profile new media versions like Dion Fanning’s ‘Ireland Unfiltered’ or Jarlath Regan’s ‘An Irishman Abroad’ – this too takes its time to get going and eventually just soars. Its easily one of the more compelling Couse interviews I’ve heard over the last thirty years and, for my troubles, I’ve heard many.

I’m conflicted on a number of levels here, though. First of all, The Point Of Everything is kind and generous enough at the top of the podcast to reference The Blackpool Sentinel as he sets up the context for the interview. Secondly, regular readers will be aware of how dominant the shadow of A House is on much of the ground we attempt to cover here and the respect with which we hold both the band and its frontman. And I’m especially minded, by even thinking as much, of another popular social media affliction ;- the hollow chorus of the echo chamber where you stroke my back and I’ll re-tweet you long and hard in return.

I need to be careful too not to patronize. I’m at an age now where its easy to sound like those labored sports pundits who go on at length about the majesty of sport in the 1980s, often at the expense of the magic flying around their ears in 2019. The good old days, as we all know, weren’t always necessarily as good as we’d like to think.

But all of that apart, to anyone with even the most passing interest in alternative music in Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s worth parsing TPOE’s exchange with Couse on several levels. On a canvas where speed and opinion regularly trump clarity and consideration, it’s interesting to hear what falls out when the emphasis stays slow and the lights stay low.

And so we’ve re-posted the podcast with permission here, in which the host stays consistently on the right side of the mic and allows Couse the floor. It’s an ancient and reliable way of working, simple enough to get right and easier again to get completely arseways.

I haven’t seen or spoken to Couse in decades but he’s long been an engaging and often uncompromising interviewee that, by the sounds of it, hasn’t been dimmed by either the passing of time or his re-location up the country. The longer this conversation goes on, the more swear words he uses, not for dramatic effect or because he has little else to defer to but because, as with all of the best exchanges, he grows more and more into it as it rolls. And as the interview draws to a close, he sounds as cosy, comfortable and, I think, genuinely grateful as he gets.

On the end of a telephone line from his home in County Cavan, Couse is as cranky, smart and bellicose as I recall him from way back. I’m not going to blow the podcast’s cover and go into the guts of it in any great detail here but, when he refers to his age – he’s 55 now – the implication is obvious enough. Like all of the great entertainers, he’s old enough and talented enough to be as contrary and confrontational as he wants or needs to be.

At the outset the interviewer admits that he’s a generation removed from Couse, A House and the Dublin indie scene of the 1980s from which they emerged and that, ergo, his acquired knowledge of that period might not be what it should be. It’s an honourable and bold concession and a welcome respite from another chronic podcast ailment, especially those that are author-led :- knowallism. Ultimately, it just helps to frame and scaffold the following thirty odd minutes, parts of which sound like a social history tutorial.

When it comes to de-constructing the unprecedented and scarcely believable years from 1985 to 1997, during which Dublin was routinely bannered as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’, few Irish musicians can sieve it out better than Couse. Six albums on three different labels, two droppings and a stubborn streak that feral teenagers only dream about, A House were the prolific guitar band whose work-rate was matched only by their capacity to shoot themselves in the groin with staple-guns. And even when the good times briefly rolled, there was always another calamity – often self-inflicted – waiting to further derail them and, ultimately, to embitter them further. Indeed one of the recurring themes across the band’s wide catalogue is how easily defeat can be clutched from the jaws of victory.

The Point Of Everything, by his own admission, was born long after A House first took the stage in The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street during the mid-80s. But Couse is only too happy to talk him through much of the insanity of that period – or, as he’d probably say himself, put him right – even if there’s a real sense of resignation about how he now views his lot. Perhaps he’s right when he says that we may never see or hear its likes again ?

He’s also strong and typically unsentimental about the original A House line-up, laying to rest any lingering sense that the band was anything other than himself and guitarist Fergal Bunbury at its heart and that all and any others who joined the line-up over the years were never more than the sum of their parts. Which may come as a surprise to a couple of notable players among the band’s number who soldiered long and far with them on-stage and off from the get-go. Or maybe not ?

But Couse opens new frontiers when he refers to the economic reality he faced during the twelve years he fronted A House and, more starkly, once the band tired of beating its head off of concrete after the release of its sixth album, ‘No More Apologies’, in 1996. Penniless in their early 30s, there’s something especially grim in such a reveal, even if the image of the struggling artist in penury, railing against the dying of the light, is an old and familiar one. Preferring to deal with the topic through the front door and without the use of code – irreconcilable musical differences was never going to sit well with Couse anyway – I’m not sure I’ve heard an Irish writer of that caliber refer to brutal economics and the break-up of a band with such honesty.

Last week’s live show by Couse, Bunbury and a cast of guest musicians – including, at one point, their daughters – was the culmination of a broader campaign, led by Gary Sheehan, IMRO and The National Concert Hall, to recognise ‘I Am The Greatest’, arguably A House’s best known album, for its enduring excellence. Even if, to these ears, all of the band’s long-players could have sated the basic qualification criteria.

But beyond bringing half of the original A House line-up back onto the same stage at the same time, the last number of weeks have also served to further remind us of just how captivating a performer Couse can be. In a radio interview with Tom Dunne on Newstalk to promote the NCH show, he admitted that he’s still writing songs and, reading between the lines, there’s almost certainly another live show or two in this. Beyond that, who knows ? He tells TPOE that he’d love to play in Cork, for instance, and refers to Microdisney who, this time last year, played the same venue under many of the same conditions.

I wondered, after I saw A House play their last show at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in February, 1997, if we’d ever see another local band like them again and, in the decades since, I’m not convinced that we have. And clearly, neither does Couse. So, unfinished business, unfinished dreaming or both ?

THE THRILLS

To my mind, far too much contemporary music writing – and indeed arts coverage in general – has become identity politics by another name. Show me your Amazon, Spotify and Twitter history and I’ll tell you who you are, what you’re thinking and who I think you should be, basically.

Maybe it’s always been thus and the growth of the internet has just made it easier to join the dots and to compartmentalise ? Either way, the politics of identity – and the politics of class, arguably the last taboo for journalism – are central to any faithful telling of the story of The Thrills, the South Dublin pop band who, for five years, cut a considerable dash and made a real indent into the mainstream. But if their rise was meteoric – and notwithstanding their earlier incarnations and a rudderless spell spent hacking around the local circuit, I still contend that it was – then their implosion was just as spectacular.

The Thrills have a terrific yarn to tell and, who knows ?, they may opt to tell it someday. In the meantime, we’re left with three albums on a major label, decent commercial headway and a series of paper-thin stereotypes and crudely formed generalisations for our troubles.

The short history of the band can be read, on one level, as the parable of the Irish state between 2002 and 2008. The band embodied, especially on their carefree debut album, ‘So Much For The City’, much of the mood of the country during it’s Celtic Tiger period, those years of sustained, unprecedented growth and, for many, mindless and reckless optimism and abandon. And during which Ireland, a state then not yet one hundred years old, encountered widespread economic prosperity for the first time in its short life. Much of which, as we sadly know now, was constructed, with little oversight or self-regulation, by a compliant banking system – on sand and with pyrite-contaminated concrete. The consequences of that national giddiness are still being severely felt all over Ireland, ten years after the inevitable crash that provided the sting in the tiger’s tail.

The Thrills – good-looking, aspirational, young, ambitious and naïve – epitomised much of the pimped-up confidence of the Tiger years. And, for as long as they were active on a major label, provided a welcome antidote to many of the more monochrome Dublin outfits who’d gone before them.

The Blades, for instance, had rooted many of their songs in the long-running social soap opera of Dublin’s south inner-city during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In their slipstream, A House, from West Dublin, were determined by a cynicism rarely seen previously in Irish popular music and hardly seen again since. While across on the Northside, The Brilliant Trees, Damien Dempsey and Aslan were minding their manors and giving authentic voices to the many they encountered who were without.

And all of these outfits shared sharp, finely-tuned pop sensibilities, as well as a decent command of the short form. With which they brought varying degrees of insight and pain from a markedly different world located a matter of post-codes away from the capital’s main drags. So much for the city, indeed.

The Thrills, on the other hand, did what their name suggested ;- they were the urgent, hormone-fused sound of young graduates on a prolonged frat party a long way from home. For better and for worse – and there are many who scored them way down for it – there isn’t a hint of malice in anything they’ve ever committed to tape.

Dublin bands at a particular level have traditionally been photographed either on local beaches, against grainy, industrial back-drops or inside their rehearsal spaces, where they’ve routinely looked either frozen, scared, po-faced and often a combination of all three. The Thrills were almost always snapped, instead, in glorious technicolour and in exotic locations that were always more Venice Beach and less Dollymount Strand.

And it helped, of course, that they could take a decent close-up and looked like they enjoyed being photographed. In their carefully- styled vintage duds, they made like they were having a good time all of the time. And with a stash of irrepressible, radio-friendly pop songs in their locker, there was a time when they fleetingly had the world in their hands.

It’s an indication of the scale of their impact – and a reflection too of the dearth of genuine personalities in Ireland – that, as soon as they’d made an initial chart breakthrough in Britain, they found themselves regularly lampooned on ‘Gift Grub’, a comedy insert on ‘The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show’, a weekday radio programme on the the national station, Today FM, where they featured alongside some of the more prominent political, entertainment and sports figures of the day.

‘Gift Grub’ has long given a soft soaping to the lighter end of the daily news lists and, in the absence of consistent writing and strong editing, its focus tends instead towards characters whose distinctive accents and verbal tics can be most easily replicated. And so The Thrills, with their soft, unfeasibly polite and American-blend South Dublin accents, became easy radio comedy fodder alongside staple characters like the Cork-born footballer, Roy Keane, the Donegal-born entertainer, Daniel O’Donnell and the rambling, shambling Drumcondra-born Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

But back in the real world, The Thrills career was on the crescent of one of those dramatic rollercoasters that often back-dropped their publicity photographs or their videos ;- they quickly gained a decent commercial foothold, sold records and made a real noise. Just as easy to lampoon was the shameless thievery that characterised their  sound, had the country’s comedy writers bothered to root around under the bonnet.

Well-read students of popular music history, The Thrills borrowed freely and to good effect. From the sun-kissed aspects of The Beach Boys to the clinical, designer-built friendliness of The Monkees and the confident but surly swagger of The Byrds, they were, at their peak, clinically re-parcelling old school tropes and, to the trained ear, the odd re-cycled riff. And they were a terrific burn.

But The Thrills came of age on record and an upward critical curve is clear to anyone who stayed the course with them for the four years from ‘So Much For The City’ in 2003 until ‘Teenager’ in 2007. Over the course of three albums on Virgin Records/EMI, they left a footprint that is as considerable as the division in Irish public opinion they created as they did so. And while they’ve not been entirely purged from the recent history of contemporary Irish music, their achievements – and, by current standards, those have been considerable – are far too easily lost in the wash.

By the time their pedalo ran aground – just after their record company heard the final mixes of ‘Teenager’, I suspect – not only had much of The Thrills’ fanbase moved on but the national optimism they’d sound-tracked back in Ireland had been spectacularly sundered. Against the backdrop of an international economic collapse – that led to the nationalisation of the Irish banking system, a period of prolonged austerity and a re-alignment of established political thinking – The Thrills just sounded utterly out of time. Like many others all over the country they were made redundant almost over-night.

But on record they’d developed a second skin and it’s a real shame that, just as they’d started to incorporate some of the more interesting aspects of the R.E.M. style-book into their sound, they were already whistling in the wind. Indeed creatively, they’d come very far very quickly and, by 2007, The Thrills were a much more sinewy proposition to the green-beats hand-picked by Morrissey to open for him during his fine comeback shows in Dublin’s Ambassador Theatre five years previously. And where they looked wafer-thin but to the manor born.

It’s to the band’s credit too that, unlike Bradford, The Ordinary Boys, Phranc and a host of others, The Thrills survived Morrissey’s infamous patronage – when it comes to endorsing new bands, he has the Midas touch in reverse – and went on to achieve mainstream success quickly thereafter.

Led by Conor Deasy, the band’s unconscionably good-looking and hirsute lead singer and their heartbeat and pulse, bass-player and guitarist Daniel Ryan, The Thrills’ debut album, ‘So Much For The City’ became, for many, a free-wheeling national soundtrack of sorts after its release in 2002. Apart from the singles, ‘Santa Cruz’, ‘One Horse Town’, ‘Big Sur’ and ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’, that elpee also contains the mighty ‘Your Love Is Like Las Vegas’ and, across its eleven tracks, not a single word or accent to suggest where the band came from.

One of the recurring criticisms levelled at them – and, by any standards, The Thrills seemed to be held to account far more aggressively than many of their peers – is that their horizontal, JI-visa view of the world was just far too flimsy and narrow. The suggestion being that The Thrills could instead – like one of their own favourite Irish bands, Whipping Boy – have been documenting the minutiae of [sub]urban life in Dublin as opposed to that in San Diego, New York and California. They were scarcely believable, basically.

I can’t recall the same charges being ever put, though, to Snow Patrol, a band who share many of The Thrills key characteristics and who, at the same time, emerged in similar fashion and to the same effect. But I can certainly recall the core argument.

So I am reminded of the guts of the 1991 pamphlet by the writer and academic, Desmond Fennell – ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ – in which he took the poet Seamus Heaney to task for what the author perceived to be a failure to adequately address the plight of Northern Catholics within much of the poet and writer’s work.

Fennell, now in his 80s, has long been an engaging and free-thinking chronicler of Irish society and the nation’s character and, by 1991, had plenty of form. Throughout his considerable career – much of it spent abroad or on the fringes – he has rarely held back, especially on what he felt was the colonization of Irish art at the expense of more prevalent national issues ;- the ‘cleansing of Irish literature of Irishness’.

And yes, The Thrills were far from perfect. Lyrically, especially, they could be unforgivably naïve, while Conor was never the most gifted singer :- he had a limited vocal range at the best of times and, live, he often struggled to tip the top end. All three of the band’s albums also feature an amount of rockwool – more draught filler than decoration piece – while their specific cultural references, as these things do, have dated them quickly and badly.

But then there was the elephant loose on the beach :- the matter of the band’s background. They grew up in the South Dublin suburbs of Blackrock, Stillorgan and Ballinteer – and their education. Deasy and Ben Carrigan, the band’s drummer, are past pupils of Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, one of Dublin’s most elite and expensive fee-paying schools and more renowned, historically, for producing more lawyers and judges than rock and rollers.

And it would be naïve to think that – either consciously or not – this was never a factor in how the band was initially received and, latterly, how The Thrills were critically assessed at home. Indeed The Irish Times was quick out of the blocks and, by July, 2003, was already sniping away under the cover of a ‘style over substance’ piece as if the band were bringing nothing but connections and good looks to the party. And whatever questions that existed around the band’s frame of reference were amplified by the sense that they were simply killing time, just monkeying around.

Which is, in my view, to seriously under-estimate the records they left behind them. And which got better – and less commercially successful – as they went. Their last album, ‘Teenager’ was led by the sturdy single, ‘Nothing Changes Around Here’ but that title was a real misnomer ;- by then everything had changed and The Thrills were burning oil. Curiously enough, the promo video featured Conor Deasy, alone, walking yet another sea-front, with the rest of the band nowhere. It had been merely five years since the clip for ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’ where, in the worst traditions of The Monkees, a gang of pale Irish goofballs fetch up to shoot hoops on a public court with local slam-dunking magicians.

And this much was apparent throughout the exchange that Conor Deasy conducted with Michael Ross for a long feature piece in The Sunday Times’ Irish edition in 2007 where  he sounded like he’d just been ground down. It had been a relentless half-decade of record-tour-write-record-tour, underpinned by The Thrills’ dual efforts to impact in America and, as a pop group, to remain in the moment. And to this end they’re not the first band – and certainly not the first Irish band – to have been torn asunder by the scale of the U.S. inter-state highways and all that they bring with them.

The Thrills were never the finished article but, for five years, they were one of the most interesting and freshest Irish bands at play in the deeper end of the pool. And like many of the successful domestic acts who have divided the popular court here over the last forty years – U2, Sinéad O’Connor and The Boomtown Rats – The Thrills too have had their authenticity – or is it their audacity ? – fiercely questioned in their own backyards.

But it’s important and only fair that, in accurately assessing them, we play the ball and not the men.

A HOUSE :- LOCAL HOUSING AUTHORITY

There were a few of them, back in the dark ages, that you’d think twice about looking crooked at. Declan Jones from Blue In Heaven, all seven foot odd of him in his leather keks and his Chelsea boots, was one. Half of Whipping Boy, a couple of The Gorehounds, Dave Lavelle from The Honey Thieves. And maybe the gruffest of all of them, Dave Couse of A House, who’d skewer you with a look or a one-liner if you tried to blackguard him. Or even if you didn’t.

The first time I met Couse in person was on the concourse at Kent Station in Cork as he’d stepped off of an incoming train from Dublin. ‘So’, he asks. ‘What have you done for A House today ?’. He was never one who hung around to get his eye in.

And in truth, I’d done little for A House that day and I’d done little most other days too for the band that Couse formed with Fergal Bunbury, Martin Healy and Dermot Wylie in West Dublin in the early 1980s. But  then they never struck me as either needing support or actively seeking assistance ;- from a remove, they looked like one of the most self-sufficient, durable and intense bands in the country and, to that end, were probably best left alone. And anyway, there were others, mostly on my own door-step in Cork, who were far more deserving of my first aid or, as history might record it, the hemlock kiss.

Maybe, alighted from a train ride from Dublin to Cork, Couse was just hungry and cranky ;- as one of those who regularly experienced the inter-city dining options during the 1980s and 1990s, its easy to appreciate how that may have been the case. Eitherway, once I’d fed and watered him, and after we’d completed a spiky exchange for an RTÉ youth television strand called ‘Scratch Saturday’, he certainly softened up a bit and I saw a hint of light beyond the blanket.

Over several subsequent years, I had a decent sideline view of A House while I worked with Keith Cullen at Setanta Records and, for a time, was close enough to see the meat on the bone. I never knew them particularly well  – nor they I – to go anywhere deeper than a clean cut on the finger but I was still privy enough to see just how driven and determined they were on so many levels. They rarely let up or let go and Couse was at the heart of it all, setting the tempo, consistency in a world slowly gazing at its shoes.

In his pomp he was a restless and forceful writer who saw merit in the malevolent vignette. Fronting a group whose considerable achievement  was often taken for granted and who were never entirely a common currency, one aspect often fuelled the other. A House, like many others before them and after them, were at their best when Couse was at his most tart. They consistently demanded the final word and, with Couse on the mic, it was often a bitter one ;- when the good times came, they were forever fleeting.

A House issued five studio albums for three different labels, most of which are among the finest Irish releases of their generation and, all things considered, the band endured for far longer than many of its peers. But their recorded output apart, it was the line they walked – and often deliberately played with – between charm, arrogance, resilience and bloody-mindedness that tended to define them.

In as much as the parameters of their original, four-square guitar-fused  line-up would allow, A House were as unique as any and better than most. And later, after they re-shuffled their pack in the aftermath of their second album – after which they were promptly dropped by their label – bolstering their line-up and adding finesse and steel in equal part, they refined their game and went for it again, baldly. But in both their iterations they were as difficult to pin down as their cover was difficult to penetrate ;- in an Irish context, the biggest issue many seemed to have with A House was that they weren’t Something Happens, with whom they were long associated and with whom they were consistently locked in a competitive, often truculent side-show.

Tony O’Donoghue, now RTÉ’s football correspondent, once pounded the  footpaths around Cork city to the point of fracture. In the days before mobile phones, you could always locate him if you wandered Patrick Street long enough and, in his leather jacket and pointy suedes, he certainly looked the part of a hip, young gunslinger. In the best and worst traditions of the freelancing hack, he held down a slew of wide-ranging jobs, one of the most interesting of which was a short, weekly slot on Cork Local Radio, where he’d play snippets of a couple of new releases, draw our attention to upcoming concerts and live events around town and jolt the RTÉ sound recordists from their torpor, however briefly.

As a clueless fresher still navigating his way around most things, I’d often still be at home during lunchtimes and would regularly catch Tony’s finely-tuned political broadcasts on behalf of quality independent Irish music. During a period in which emerging, indigenous rock music was in rude good health, and when the standard of its recorded output was mirrored by the development of a regular, sustainable national live circuit, Tony was rarely short of decent material. Broadcasting in short form long before the term was hi-jacked by digital marketing consultants and social media influencers, and while the regions were often starved of relevant music media, his weekly sermons cherried the cake for many of us, putting a partisan frosting on the national proselytising of the likes of Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on Radio 2FM.

And it was during one of Tony’s local homilies in 1987 that I heard the first shimmer of ‘Snowball Down’, A House’s second single and, for me, one of the most pressing, urgent cuts in the history of Irish alternative music. Produced by Chris O’Brien and released on the band’s own, self-funded imprint, RIP Records, it clocked in at just over 150 seconds, with its shades of The Bunnymen, The Blue Aeroplanes and some of the more subtle aspects – prominent, nimble bass, prominent acoustic strum – of the paisley underground. As opening statements go, both ‘Snowball Down’ and the band’s debut issue that preceded it months earlier, ‘Kick Me Again, Jesus’, punched far beyond the national qualifying standard.

To a handful of local anoraks, hangers-on and indie spotters, though, this was just another rung on a curve steeping progressively upwards.

The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street was a much-loved dive and, for a number of years, a small and important cog in the local machine, very strictly off-Broadway. [The site on which it stood is now occupied by a racy shop called ‘Condom Power’, an irony not lost on former regulars who fondly remember the old bar’s sardonic drayman, Big Johnny]. Run by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, the downstairs parlour was where, to my mind, the first and last great domestic music movement really took root hosting, as it did, frenetic and often chaotic early shows by the likes of Rex And Dino, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, Power Of Dreams, The Slowest Clock, [Backwards] Into Paradise, Whipping Boy, The Dixons and A House themselves.

The careless spirit of that period and the claustrophobic aspect of the tiny venue is captured naked on a short, six-song album, ‘Live At The  Underground’, that was recorded there over two nights in 1985 and issued by Jeff on his own, one-off label, ‘Fear And Loathing Records’. Four years earlier, Elvera Butler’s ‘Kaught At The Kampus’ also cuffed six live tracks onto tape during shows recorded at the famed, UCC-hosted shows at The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork and, even if neither album was ever intended to trouble the chart compilers, both records served real purpose nonetheless. Over thirty years later, what were clearly just calling cards for two highly-regarded live venues have become, absolutely by default, curios that capture some of the more unique sights, sounds and perhaps even smells of the time, for posterity.

a house setlist

Setlist Limelight Belfast, 1993 / 1994.  © Gary White

And A House are there on ‘Live At The Underground’, callow but recognisable, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, Something Happens and Hughie Purcell – contributing the shambling ‘On Your Bike, Wench, And Let’s Have The Back Of You’ to the party, before quickly moving on.

Indeed the band’s re-birth on the Setanta label between 1990 and 1992, during which they recorded and released the bridging [and aptly-titled, in my view] ‘Doodle’ EP and then the magnificent ‘I Am The Greatest’, is worth a long read in its own right. For a band down on it’s luck and back on the labour, the title of that record reflects A House’s constant, inerrant belief in it’s own ability. But then all five of their album titles can be read as sarcastic, sly references to the way the band saw itself, and especially it’s evolving relationship – good, mixed and mostly bad – with the music industry. From the shadowy optimism of the debut on a major label, ‘On Our Big Fat Merry Go-Round’ to the damning reality of a slow degeneration on it’s stubborn follow-up, ‘I Want Too Much’ through the life-affirming ‘I Am The Greatest’, the return to a major ‘Wide Eyed And Ignorant’ and the closing, sardonic chapter, ‘No More Apologies’, these were clear, political punch-lines that mashed a snotty face on the bay window of the industry that begot them. ‘The music business ?’, A House might have mused, summoning another doleful street philosopher, Norm Peterson . ‘Can’t live with it. Pass the beer-nuts’.

The band played it’s last ever show on February 28th, 1997, in Dublin’s  Olympia Theatre, a stone’s throw from The Underground Bar, aloof and diffident to the end. But although A House boasted a noisy and loyal support base all around the country, I long suspected they were far more comfortable outside of Ireland where, arguably, they were more critically valued and where they consistently had one up on Something Happens. But they were also clued in enough to know when to call time and, when the curtain fell, it was on the band’s own terms :- they scripted their own funeral in detail and organised the buffet afterwards.

In 2002, five years after A House packed up their tent, ‘Here Come The Good Times’, by a distance the band’s most contagious pop song, was selected as Ireland’s official World Cup anthem as the country’s international football team headed off to compete in that summer’s competition in Japan and Korea. Its beefed-up glam rock production and shiny pop veneer notwithstanding, the song is actually about a lifetime of personal disappointment [where good times occur ‘for a change’]  and, in hindsight, seemed like a perfectly prescient selection, given how Ireland’s World Cup campaign unfolded.

Remembered less for the team’s unfortunate and maybe unlucky exit from the tournament and far more for Roy Keane’s strop, after which he tore out of the team’s training camp on the island of Saipan and returned home, it was appropriate that the ghosts of A House were on hand to faithfully soundtrack the misfortunes of a nation.

Eight years and two World Cups previously, Parlophone Records, their second major label, had failed to crack ‘Here Come The Good Times’ into the mainstream. This achievement was at once so scarcely unbelievable and yet perfectly in keeping with the band’s long experiences in the middle ground ;- the writing was on the wall for that relationship and, one suspects, A House itself, thereafter.

A salvo from that stomping pop song had also featured briefly as part of a spectacular opening montage shot around Ireland for the opening of the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Mary Kennedy and broadcast live from The Point Depot in Dublin. And however fleetingly, it seemed as if A House had finally recovered some of the face they’d lost when Gay Byrne patronised them to within inches of their lives as he introduced them on The Late Late Show before they performed their excellent ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’ single back on the floor of Studio One on October 14th, 1988.

The last time I saw Dave Couse was from a distance after a Frank And Walters show in Dublin city many years ago. I hear him, from time to time, on his infrequent radio show where, from his song selections alone, I suspect he still holds many of those same beliefs he did when, a quarter of a century ago, we first locked horns in Cork. His band remain one of the real enigmas – and genuine successes – of contemporary Irish rock music and while, in the twenty years since that last curtain call, you’d expect all parties to have moved on, you’d suspect that no one felt the band’s lack of a broader breakthrough more keenly than Couse himself.

And whenever I hear him on the radio now – and he’s still as captivatingas he’s ever been – it just hardens my view that all disc jockeys, like television producers and music writers – are, at heart, just frustrated musicians who, because of events and an absence of good fortune, are doing the next best and closest things instead.

And then there’s the standing Couse enjoys in the recent history of Cork popular music. In the long traditions of keeping the best secrets on the inside, he produced the first Frank And Walters E.P. for the Setanta label and, in hindsight, should have gone on and finished the job by doing the band’s debut album as well. By the time he was back behind the bench with them, far too late, on their second – and still easily their best album, ‘Grand Parade’, the moment, you’d think, was lost, the spirit having flown. But Couse’s whipsmart production only highlights how under-cooked ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, The Franks’ nervous-sounding debut, was ;- in no way does the sound of that record do justice to many of it’s terrific cuts. ‘Trains’ has aged poorly and, twenty-five years on, sounds emaciated and tinny :- given the steroids Couse also infused into The Franks’ ‘Beauty Becomes More Than Life’ elpee in 2006, it’s difficult not to think now of what he could have done, years previously, with the debut.  And where that might have taken both parties.

Years later, several worlds collided and I was among the team tasked with producing RTÉ’s Late Late Show, immediately after Gay Byrne had stepped down as host and Pat Kenny moved up onto the crease. I felt it was only right, for several reasons, to move away from the show’s long-standing signature tune, an instrumental passage taken from Chris Andrews’ 1965 hit, ‘To Whom It Concerns’ and so I invited Dave, and a handful of others, to pitch any alternative suggestions they may have had. In my own mind, rightly or wrongly, I felt it was an opportunity to commission a contemporary Irish writer and to maybe sub-contract the work out to someone who may have had a fresh perspective on such matters. Which is what we did :- and it was Ray Harman of Something Happens who eventually composed a new theme for the programme. In the years since he’s carved out a terrific career for himself providing similar services to the feature film and documentary markets.

Dave Couse has stayed nicely busy too and, his radio work apart, has released a handful of records on several labels and under a variety of different band-names, in the years since. Among which the  ‘Batman And Robin’ single, released in September, 2005 under the band name Couse And The Impossible, is still easily the best of his solo material, some of which, his debut solo album ‘Genes’, in particular, is far more introspective and difficult than one might have expected.

For the last ten years or so I’ve spent far too much time in the shopping centre in Nutgrove, close to where I now life on the southside of Dublin. Where once I used it to do a regular family grocery shop and maybe pick  up an over-priced, over-caloried coffee on the hoof, its now one of my primary social outlets, somewhere to kill an hour during the insanity or whenever I want to lose my children. There’s a Credit Union office on the complex, an excellent off-licence and a couple of decent take-aways ;- a trip to Nutgrove is everything that a casual wander into the heart of Soho used to be.

The music piped into the centre and out over the tannoys must be among the most interesting and diverse anywhere in the country. Buried in among the sterile old standards you’ll hear, on a routine basis, selections from The Icicle Works, early New Order, The Lotus Eaters and The Fountains Of Wayne. And on a couple of occasions recently, I’ve heard ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’, still one of A House’s most distinctive cuts, as I’ve dallied in the aisles among the detergents and the toilet rolls.

But while I know that Dave Couse lives on that side of the city, I don’t remember him being invited down to cut the ribbon when they opened the re-furbished Argos branch there a few years back.

HINTERLAND

Hinterland [noun] :- The back of beyond, the middle of nowhere, the backwoods, the wilds, the bush, remote areas, a backwater.

If nothing else, they certainly choose the name well. Twenty-six years after the release of their excellent album, ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, you’ll struggle to find Hinterland mentioned in even the grass verges of contemporary Irish music history. Apart from their only long-player and the singles cut from it – the brooding ‘Dark Hill’ and ‘Desert Boots’, the breezy and most out-of-character chart hit – and one or two other minor issues, they’ve left little behind by way of prints and hard evidence. The usual on-line outlets are pretty scant on supporting detail and even the Hot Press digital archive which, to its credit, is usually a deep resource is, in this instance, practically empty.

And I suppose in many ways it’s always been thus. Hinterland never really ran with the pack and, even while signed to Island Records during the peak of the post-U2 insanity around Dublin, were generally regarded as an oddity. While lesser outfits made great welcomes for themselves, Hinterland were rarely seen and seldom heard ;- little was really known of them and they tended to give nothing away.

David Bowie’s death brought Gerry Leonard out from the shadows again and, once more, onto the national airwaves. The Dublin-born guitarist, now trading as Spooky Ghost had, for the previous fifteen years, been at Bowie’s elbow as a member of his backing band and as a sometime collaborator. Thirty years back, he was Donal Coghlan’s other half in Hinterland, a two-man operation that, according to Coghlan’s notes on a long-neglected website, formed in Denmark on January 7th, 1987.

Both Coghlan and Leonard had served their time on the Dublin circuit during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leonard most notably with Above The Thunderclouds [who, for genealogists, also featured Joey Barry, later of Thee Amazing Colossal Men and Compulsion] and The Spies. Coghlan had featured in The Departure – alongside a former RTÉ colleague of mine, Declan Lucas – but, beyond that, had tended to keep his distance.

Hinterland fell out of nowhere, more or less. By 1988, Dublin was often characterised as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ and, in the aftermath of U2’s breakthrough in America, was certainly a city caught in the footlights. We’ve dealt with this in a couple of previous posts, and those are available here and here. If Dublin was defined then by any dominant sound, it was the sound of crudely lashed guitars. And if it had a defining career path, that path started on the live stages in the dive bars and venues around the borough. Dublin’s best known bands of the period – U2 themselves, Aslan, Something Happens, The Slowest Clock, The Stars Of Heaven, Blue In Heaven, A House, Guernica – were all compelling live draws who’d cut their teeth in the dens. Reputations were hard earned – and as easily lost – on the unsteady stages in The Underground, The Baggot Inn, McGonagles, The White Horse, The New Inn and elsewhere. And many’s the callow, impressionable four or five piece that was simply swallowed whole and spat back out into the spray, finished.

In the decades before smart technology so drastically re-wrote the rules of the process, most local recordings were made in the various studios that had sprung up around the city. Even the cutting of demo material was often newsworthy stuff to anoraks and alickadoos and word was quick to get around about who was doing what, with whom and where. Like another of their peers, Swim, Hinterland were far more comfortable within the confined parameters of the studio and, having returned to Dublin, both Coghlan and Leonard were working out of a small recording facility on Aungier Street. The two-man line-up gave Hinterland a real cohesion but, like Steve Belton and Pat O’Donnell before them [and maybe We Cut Corners after them ?], restricted their impact as a live act. Where, despite the many sequenced sounds, loops and tapes brought into play, the subtleties at the core of their material ran the risk of being lost in unreliable live mixes and unwelcoming venues.

Like Belton and O’Donnell – who eventually augmented their ranks and re-positioned themselves as The Fountainhead – Hinterland were managed by Kieran Owens, a canny operator with excellent ears who, like many of the acts he worked with, is often under-appreciated in the history of that period. It was Owens who over-saw the band’s deal with Island Records – signed on the strength of strong demo tapes alone – and who brokered Hinterland’s relationship with the young Newbridge-raised producer and engineer, Chris O’Brien with whom, on April 27th, 1989, Donal Coghlan and Gerry Leonard began work on what was to be the band’s first and only album.

Like many before and after them, Hinterland’s career was pockmarked by a series of unfortunate events, many of them outside of their control and, in essence, they never really left the starting gate. Which, in many respects, only adds to their lustre. ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ is a brave, difficult record ;- it resides, for the sake of reference, in a drawer alongside ‘Til Tuesday, later-period Blue Nile and early-period Big Dish and it divided opinion on delivery. It’s a tender, gentle and unflinchingly personal collection of songs that, as well as piling on layers of nuanced sounds, doesn’t fear the space either. The record is at it’s most beautiful when it pauses for breath and crawls.

Chris remembers the record and the sessions that produced it fondly and was a real help to me as I sought to put flesh on some of my more crudely formed views on one of my favourite records. I owe him a real debt for dusting down his old diaries and for helping to join the dots.

‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ was put down over a fourteen week period in Ropewalk Studios in Ringsend in Dublin, even if much of it arrived pre-packed. Deep, ornate foundations had been laid by Leonard and Coghlan in their own small studio, where the vocals, guitars and keyboards were supported by ‘an Atari sequencer running Pro24 software’. That the band opted to record the album locally was typical ;- common practice at the time was to take long-form recording projects abroad, usually to the U.K.. But Hinterland were happier around the familiar ;- Ringsend was practically in their own back-yard.

Ropewalk was Dublin’s first fully digital studio and, once the band and studio crew fetched up, the primary objectives were to create a live drum sound and to layer-up and polish the general soundscape. Chris remembers the whole process in detail ;- he particularly recalls Gerry Leonard’s guitar sound [‘one of the three most recognisable players in Dublin, along with Ray Harman and The Edge, especially in his use of finger-picking and when he played slide’] and Donal’s lyrics, most of which were rooted in the darkly personal. The sessions were intensive and the working days were long ;- the core crew worked from 11 every morning until after midnight and the only concession to type was the catering that was provided daily on site. At one stage, Island’s flamboyant owner, Chris Blackwell, dropped by – replete in sunglasses and shorts – to listen to the work in progress and to cast an ear on the material.

The band was augmented during the recording – and later when they toured – by Wayne Sheehy, one of the country’s most physical and capable drummers and who, in a past life, had played with Cactus World News, among others. And yet on several tracks, his role was pared right back, often confined to complicated rhythms and rolls :- it was as if Coghlan and Leonard were challenging him, testing the cut of his gib.

 

 

But the playing throughout is magnificent and the record boasts many special moments. ‘Dark Hill’ apart, a soft magic runs through ‘Handle Me’ which, in my view, is the record’s heart. An unsettlingly personal song, it looks into the future and pictures the physical disintegration of a loyal lover’s spirit and body. Elsewhere, ‘Stanley’s Minutes’ records the death of ‘a down-and out from the The Iveagh Hostel’ in the shadows of the Pro Cathedral in Dublin and, over a trade-mark guitar entry concludes with a real cut ;- ‘Thanks be to God it wasn’t suicide. There’s no such thing as suicide’.

And there are others too ;- ‘Senior Romantics’, with it’s breathy backing vocals by Leslie Mooney, the airy ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Dive The Deepest’ among the diadem. And although ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s rattle and pluck, is out of character with both the rest of the record and with the band’s song-book generally, the warm, Mumford-esque gallivant name-checks St. Anne’s Park in Raheny, The Dandelion Market and The Burrow Beach in Sutton on it’s breezy journey through Dublin city. It is, in its own way, as poignant a local snapshot of youth as Whipping Boy’s ‘When We Were Young’.

I can remember the first time I clapped eyes on Hinterland. ‘Jo Maxi’ was a popular youth series that dominated the tea-time schedules on what was then Network 2 during the late 1980s and that, to it’s credit, consistently supported all manner of new music, much of it Irish. Sat there one evening on a small studio rostrum in his fresh black denims, stacked-sole shoes and fisherman’s hat, Donal Coghlan looked typically disconcerted, humble. Gerry and himself gave a basic synopsis of Hinterland’s story, mentioned their deal with a major label and then one of the presenters cued a short clip of the ‘Dark Hill’ video.

Apart from a subsequent Late Late Show appearance in support of ‘Desert Boots’, a couple of minor jousts with myself on another youth series, ‘Scratch Saturday’ and an afternoon encounter with Ray D’Arcy and Zig and Zag on ‘The Den’, not a whole lot more remains in the video archive. The album came and went and the band headed out into the open in support of it, playing one particular blinder in De Lacy House in Cork and opening for Prefab Sprout [with whom, philosophically, the band was very aligned] on the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ tour in The Point Depot in Dublin. ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s cutesy video and wide-screen notions, generated an amount of popular traction and airplay but, even then, you suspected that Hinterland were just a band out of time, destined to forever play catch-up.

In a terraced house in Ealing, West London, in 1991, myself and my landlord, Ken Sweeney, would marvel at them. Ken, who was recording for Setanta Records as Brian, had rescued me from a deranged set-up in a squat in Peckham and now, safe and warm and far away across town, we’d swap war stories in the evenings and talk long into the nights about Miracle Legion, Into Paradise and The Go-Betweens. Hinterland too were de-constructed at length in Ealing ;- I’d been sent a copy of ‘Resurrect’, a four-track E.P containing three new songs and also ‘Love Quarantine’, the magnificent ‘Desert Boots’ B-side that the band felt didn’t quite fit onto ‘Kissing The Roof of Heaven’, and we gorged on it. Donal and Gerry were looking ahead to a second album and were flouting their prowess with a handful of optimistic and ambitious songs, ‘Born Again [Excuse The Pun]’ most memorably among them.

But the ship failed to find port and, by 1994, Hinterland more or less ceased to be ;- the band’s efforts to crack the American market were unsuccessful and, eventually, they were let go by their record company. Hinterland exited the stage just as they’d entered onto it ;- quietly and without fanfare and to the sound of a loyal few clapping. When, years later, Donal Coghlan made a cameo appearance on Brian’s second Setanta album, 1999’s ‘Bring Trouble’, it completed a circle of sorts and also reminded a handful of us of what could, should and might have been.

By that stage, Gerry Leonard had already left Ireland for New York and, as he did so, Donal Coghlan repaired closer to home, coming to grips, literally, with the M.S., diagnosed years previously, that was impacting on his mobility, if not his spirit. It was only after the band had released ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ that he revealed his long struggle with the degenerative illness and, by so doing, maybe cast another light into some of the more personal songs on that album.

I last met Donal in 2000 in his apartment in Dublin city. He was in chipper form, confined increasingly to a wheelchair and was a proud father to a young son, Zac. The previous year he’d directed his first short film, ‘The Spa’, and had written another short, ‘Handy Andy’, both of which were made through the Lights, Disability, Action initiative and had been screened at The Galway Film Festival. He was, as always, terrific company, clear in his own mind that he’d left able-bodied society and wasn’t returning, already busy as a campaigner and advocate for disability issues.

I think about Donal Coghlan quite a bit and regularly return to ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ and, when I heard Gerry Leonard on radio paying tribute to David Bowie recently, he sprung across my mind once again. Donal Coghlan’s writing may not have re-defined popular music and the way we listened to it but, in his own way, has left it’s own kind of under-stated, under-regarded magic as a legacy.

Hinterland clearly mean little in the recent history of Irish popular music and, understandable as that is, they’re in good company. Into Paradise, Jubilee Allstars, Pony Club and Ten Speed Racer are among the notable others who, outside of the blind sadism of die-hards and anoraks, rarely command the acknowledgement they’re due. But ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, with it’s stories and it’s screams, is always worth re-visiting and, knowing more now than we ever did back then, deserves an all-over re-appraisal.

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE ROCK GARDEN

 

I worked for a couple of years with my friend, Jeff Brennan, in The Rock Garden, the live music venue and sometime restaurant that opened in Crown Alley, in Temple Bar, Dublin, almost 25 years ago. It was the late Aiden Lambert, Blink’s manager, who brokered that job for me and I’ve written about our relationship here. Officially, I was charged with publicising the wide disparity of acts booked into the old cellar but, in reality, I was hired to play a straight bat to Jeff’s jokes and routines. And there were many.

 

He’d moved the short distance to The Rock Garden from The Underground Bar on Dame Street where, working with his father, Noel and Johnny, the weary drayman, he held court and booked bands for most of the 1980s, during a period of terrific optimism and no little quality for alternative Irish music. Bands like A House, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, The Slowest Clock, Rex And Dino, Power Of Dreams and [Backwards] Into Paradise took root in The Underground and, for years, were regulars on the tiny stage that often defied the laws of, if not physics, then certainly health and safety. Paul Page, Whipping Boy’s guitarist, was also one of that number – onstage and off – during The Underground’s heyday and has written about the peculiar sense of purpose that characterised the place in an excellent post on his own blog. That piece is available here

 

live at the underground

IrishRock.org

 

The Underground Bar features prominently in any credible history of the live music circus that pitched up around Dublin in the wake of U2’s initial breakthroughs in Europe and America. The venue hosted many fine emerging bands between 1984 and 1989, helping several of them to add muscle, over time, to what were often callow bodies at source. And to this end, Jeff’s role in the real affairs of state shouldn’t be under-estimated. Although he took his music very seriously, and while he was a generous support to any number of dreamers who landed in on top of him from all sides, he treated the more helium-filled aspects of ‘the industry’ with a healthy suspicion.

 

From behind the small bar, he traduced many reputations over the years while running a decent and honest shop founded on the principles of fair play and good spirits. What was once The Underground – ‘don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore’ – is now a lap dancing club and, tellingly, the old venue isn’t commemorated by either a plaque on the wall or by Jeff’s hand-prints on the pavement outside.

 

During his first couple of years at The Rock Garden, Jeff certainly had the place fizzing. The step up in scale, size and budget – if not necessarily class – gave him a bit more leeway and he snagged memorable live shows from the likes of The Frames, Radiohead, The Afghan Whigs, Pavement, Swervedriver, The Young Gods, The Sultans, The Frank And Walters, The Senseless Things, Adorable and countless others, all of whom lugged their back-lines in around the back of Crown Alley and down the concrete and iron stairs to set up.

 

New Year’s Eve was always a real highlight at The Rock Garden and I’d make sure I was back up from Cork in good time to see out the old and to ring in the new there. Maintaining a long-standing tradition started back in The Underground, Jeff would opt for heft, clout and loud guitars to headline the last night of the year. Sack, Blink and The Brilliant Trees in their pomp regularly stuffed the place and, playing to fans, friends and families, they’d always blister through mighty sets. And then, as the night wore on, Tony St. James and The Las Vegas Sound would take the late-shift and carry us over the threshold and out into the open promise of the twelve months ahead.

 

Along one whole side of the venue, meanwhile, the bar staff would be royally lashed and the punters at the taps would often stand six, seven or eight deep, all of them roaring for porter. Jeff and myself would mingle readily around the place, annoying the door-staff, insulting the easily insulted and roll out what was a well-honed double act. And, once the doors were eventually locked behind us, well into the tiny hours, we’d kick back with a handful of regulars, stretch the New Year out in front of us and begin to unpick the world and many of those – saps, twits and dibbicks among them – who sailed in her.

 

I formed some wonderful friendships down in The Rock Garden and I fell out with as many people there again. But never once did I feel like I was actually working. In the early evenings I’d often drop whatever I was doing and slip down into the belly of the beast to eavesdrop during a sound-check. From deep in the shadows I heard Sack repeatedly do ‘What Did The Christians Ever Do For Us’, ‘How The Stars Became Stars’ and ‘Omnilust’ one afternoon as they were fine-tuning their shapes. And those, indeed, were the days.

 

We answered to a bearded, heavy-set American boss called Mark Furst, who fronted the venue. Jeff was tasked with booking decent live music into the place on a nightly basis and, given the vagaries of live music, we had some right old disasters over time, some of which defied all odds. Pulp and The Cranberries both died spectacularly in The Rock Garden ;- The Cranberries attracted eighteen paying punters and, at one point, the band and it’s handlers out-numbered the crowd.

 

Pulp pulled into Crown Alley one lazy Saturday afternoon and, although the band was on the cusp of a real commercial cross-over in Britain, they attracted less than one hundred die-hards on the night. Half of the band’s backline had been stolen after a show in London the previous evening and, compounding their humour, Pulp’s dowdy tour manager wasn’t overly pleased to find that Jeff had billeted them in what was then proudly slugged as ‘Dublin’s cheapest hotel’ – a ten-buck-a-night bed-and-breakfast up on Gardiner Street. ‘Sorry to hear about the gear’, Jeff told the group. ‘But I’m sure the rest of it will be robbed on ye tonight’.

 

I had a real soft spot for The Dadas, a Northside combo led by Andy Fitzpatrick, who later went on to buttress William Merriman’s excellent Harvest Ministers ;- I honestly thought that The Dadas’ honey-coated canon had a real sparkle to it. After they attracted less than a score of paying punters into what could often be an unforgiving old cavern, Fursty took off on one in the offices upstairs. Like Brian Blessed in leather biker’s keks, he upped the ante and the volume ;- ‘The Dodos [sic]’, he drawled, ‘will never be booked here again’. An arrangement that, I suspect, suited the band as much as it suited the venue.

 

But we had our nights of glory too. The Rock Garden was accessible, available and well-equipped and, during the time I spent there, we hosted a wide range of artistes, musos, pissheads, chancers, thieves and poets – the full travelling circus. Indeed one of the most memorable performances there was actually by  a circus ;- The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow fetched up with bearded ladies and a bloke who hung breeze blocks off of his nipples and his penis. The queue outside wasn’t the only thing that stretched far and long around The Rock Garden that night.

 

We’ve lost a fair few of our own stellar performers in the years since and, when Jeff and myself meet each other these days, it’s more likely to be at a removal or a funeral than it is at a venue. We met twice last year ;- at our friend Aiden Lambert’s funeral last month and back last April when we waved off George Byrne, the writer and collector. I always doubted whether George actually liked The Rock Garden, and he certainly didn’t like it as much as he did The Underground where, over the years, he saw frenetic live sets from a host of his local fancies.

 

One Easter Saturday night, during a Something Happens/Cypress, Mine ! double-bill – and after a hard few days of it with both bands in Cork – he fell down the end of the stairs and onto the stage. This trick was far more difficult to complete in The Rock Garden although, to be fair, George manfully attempted it on several occasions. I wrote a longer piece about George after his funeral in April, 2015, and that piece is available here.

 

It was in The Rock Garden that I first met Uaneen Fitzsimons. She’d been a college-mate of the two Dónals – Dineen and Scannell – and, like the rest of us, was standing-by, waiting for a break. And it was in The Rock Garden, with the Dónals, Des Fahy, Jeanne McDonagh, Jim Carroll, Ritchie Flynn and Eamonn Crudden and many others that the basic idea for the No Disco music television series started to form. When Uaneen took No Disco’s reins from Dónal Dineen, it just felt like we’d completed another circle and made good on a conversation that may, or may not have been had years previously in Wild, one of the many clubs run upstairs at The Rock Garden.

 

Martin Egan was another gentle soul who’d turn up unannounced in Crown Alley every now and again and he’d leave with a handy support ;- Jeff would always make sure that he was looked after and sorted. Martin is one of that number of decent scouts we lost in the trenches during the last twelve months.

 

It’ll be ten years next April since I stood under my friend Philip’s box up in The North Cathedral in Cork and, with his brother and a handful of others, lifted him out and on his way. I think about Phil a lot ;- we lived in each other’s pockets as we dreamt our way through our teens and into our twenties and yet I often wonder if I ever really knew him at all ? But when The Trash Can Sinatras unveil their upcoming album later this year, I’ll instinctively ponder how he would have rated it ? He once ended up backstage with them after a sparsely-attended show in Nancy Spains in Cork and spooked the band by knowing their back catalogue more intimately than they did themselves.

 

I moved out of Cork twenty-five years ago and, for the most part, tend to keep a respectful distance now. I love the streets and the lanes around the Northside but I’m not one of those exiles who consistently yearn to get back there ;- I left for a reason. But for an important few days every Christmas, I’d make my way back home from Dublin and, before I’d even get to my family, I’d have already dropped in on Phil at the shop on Patrick Street where he worked.

 

And, from the door of the premises, we’d determine the year’s best releases and consider the previous twelve months, just rabbiting on. He’d make sure I knew just how great everything was and it would never dawn on me to probe a bit deeper ;- it just wasn’t how we rolled. Music and records brought us together in the first place and it was music and records that we last spoke meaningfully of. Indeed in truth, music and records were all we really ever spoke of meaningfully, more’s the pity.

 

That journey home becomes harder and more important by the year. Three weeks ago I hit the road South straight after Aiden Lambert’s funeral and I couldn’t wait to leave Dublin behind me. I made several other car trips over Christmas and ran up a fair few miles and, every now and again, from behind the wheel, my mind would drift off a bit. And I’d think about Aiden. And George Byrne, Tony Fenton, Mick Lynch and Martin Egan. In the low light I’d picture Uaneen and Pat Neville and Eugene Moloney and Brendan Butler ;- some of whom I knew well, some of whom I barely knew and yet all of whom, back the road somewhere, were there with us during the bright nights and the dark nights down in The Rock Garden and The Underground and Sir Henry’s and wherever else.

 

But I’d keep driving on. Because we’re always just driving on.

RockGarden

Courtesy of Nessa Carter