An Emotional Fish

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.

LOST IN MUSIK

Our recent post about Roddy Frame took me down into a rabbit hole that led, eventually to Tony Mansfield, the songwriter and producer who played a small and largely forgotten role in the Aztec Camera story. But about whom details are a bit scant.

I first came across Tony because of his band, New Musik, one of the more curious footnotes to the poppier end of the new wave story. And whose signature pop songs – like those of Martha And The Muffins, The Vapors and The Lotus Eaters – detonated without warning from our three-in-ones during those years when we were trying to determine the differences between good, bad and ugly. Decades later and I’m still unable to fully shake ‘Echo Beach, ‘Turning Japanese’ and ‘The First Picture Of You’, the most pressing, gold-plated bangers of the period. Indeed, I can still recite the lyrics to Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ even though I often struggle to remember my daughters’ middle-names.

New Musik was Tony’s band, more or less, and it’s hard to think of them as anything other than a group of session players, at their most comfortable within the studio walls, who fell into the one groove and released a run of excellent, synth-built pop singles as the 1970s cross-faded into the 80s. ‘Straight Lines’, ‘Living By Numbers’, ‘This World Of Water’ and ‘On Islands’ are easily the pick of them and turn up now, the very odd time, on those BBC4 re-runs of vintage ‘Top Of The Tops’. Where New Musik are perennially stuck just outside of the Top Thirty, forever bubbling under.

The spelling of the band name isn’t the only thing that dates them. In the most primal traditions of popular music, they defined the moment – or certainly took a reckless enough swing at it – in their coloured blazers, geeky specs, cute bow ties and with their battery of electronic kit. And like most others from that period – Kate Bush, Blondie and Buzzcocks excepted, naturally – look faintly ridiculous with it. In most of the on-line clips pirated from various television archives – and there isn’t a huge amount – keyboard player, Clive Gates, in his horned rims and hunched over the plate of tits and knobs on his Prophet synth, looks like a skinny Frankenstein hooked up to a mind-altering device.

Out front, centre-mid, Mansfield himself looks like Frankie Gavin from De Danann in an out-sized pair of Clark Kent’s glimmers while the well-assembled, bearded bassist, Tony Hibbert preferred the more minimal, barely breathing look – another pose du jour – that, on one television archive clip, has him miming his basslines with one hand clung inside the pocket of his trousers. With an excellent drummer, Phil Towner, completing their number, the eventual New Musik line-up reads like the spine of a typical Ipswich Town line-up during their pomp years under the late Bobby Robson from 1980 until 1982.

New Musik’s sound – layered synthetic keyboard lines and toothsome vocal harmonies spooned over old school acoustic foundations – has dated better than their look, just about. But although they never enjoyed the same level of success as some of their peers – Buggles, Naked Eyes and A Flock of Seagulls loosely fit the same bill although all of them were far more defined and rounded – that string of singles certainly cut a dash. And created, for their writer, a spring-board from where Mansfield launched a career as a fine pop producer with good ears. ‘Such a digital lifetime’, he sang on ‘Living By Numbers’, the band’s biggest-selling single even if, in reality, New Musik’s best known material has more in common with Owen Paul’s version of Marshall Crenshaw’s ‘My Favourite Waste Of Time’ than with the ground-shifting European electronica of Can and Kraftwerk.

With my own radar starting to locate regular targets, I took to New Musik with the same gusto as I did the likes of Adam and the Ants, Gary Numan, John Foxx and Squeeze. To the point that 1978 is defined, for me, by Charlie McCarthy’s speech after Cork won the All-Ireland hurling final win and Pete Shelley’s last vocal line on Buzzcocks’ ‘What Do I Get’.

New Musik looked as other-worldly as they sounded on my over-worked three-in-one: even within the pages of Smash Hits they seemed to forever occupy the hard shoulder, and this only added to their lustre. [We know now, of course, that New Musik didn’t just spring up over-night. Three of them had been involved with The Nick Straker Band who, marching in tandem, enjoyed a 1980 hit single with ‘A Walk In The Park’. While Phil Towner had played the drum parts on Buggles’ imperious ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’].

New Musik released three albums but all of their best known songs appear on the band’s fine debut, ‘From A To B’. ‘Anywhere’ [1981] is the bridge to their final, and easily most interesting elpee, ‘Warp’, a far more tech-skewed record, featuring a clutch of instrumentals and released in 1983. By which stage Towner and Hibbert were gone and Mansfield was basically directing the operation from behind a Fairlight synthesiser.

The earliest Fairlight* was an extravagant, pricey and unquestionably game-changing piece of digital technology that enabled users to ‘sample’ or record acoustic sounds [instruments, vocals and percussion] – rather than electronically ‘synthesise’ them – and then play these back at different pitches.

Its first iteration came onto the market at the same time that New Musik were getting their act together. Subsequent versions featured sequencing and workstation capabilities, offering revolutionary sound palettes that were quickly embraced by many of those more comfortable working on their own or in more considered surrounds, off the road. Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Buggles [there’s a sub-plot emerging here, isn’t there?] and Thomas Dolby were primary among them, taken by the potential and the self-sufficiency that came with what was an unwieldly piece of kit.

Tony Mansfield was another of those early adapters and his fondness for, and proficiency with the Fairlight can be heard, not just on New Musik’s material but on the many subsequent production projects he took on after the curtain fell on his band following the release of the ‘Warp’ elpee in 1983. And nowhere more so than on Aztec Camera’s ‘Walk Out To Winter’, which he re-recorded and produced later that same year.

The original version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ appears on Aztec Camera’s debut album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’, and was produced by Bernie Clarke and John Brand. Brand followed a pretty standard career trajectory and worked first as a jobbing studio engineer on sessions with the likes of XTC and Magazine before going on to produce The Waterboys’ ‘A Pagan Place’ and The Go-Betweens’ ‘Before Hollywood’ elpees. Himself and Clarke, a keyboard player and arranger who also features on a couple of those earlier Go-Betweens albums, certainly succeeded in nailing the raw confidence in that early collection of Aztec Camera songs even if, as can often be the case with first albums, some of the excellent material sounded callow enough once it was committed to wax.

During the decades of insanity when the music industry was awash with more money and cocaine than cop-on, the recording process could often be grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unregulated. Far too many records, especially those pitched at the higher end of the commercial market, went through scores of executives, marketing heads and assorted flunkeys who would often insist on priority material being re-visited, re-mixed and re-recorded. Often for legitimate, quality-related reasons and often not.

The Smiths’ debut album, also recorded in 1983 for the Rough Trade label, was famously re-recorded from scratch and, even after the band switched producers – John Porter for Troy Tate – the album still managed to sound hollow and far more underwhelming than the band sounded on their first singles or live in concert. Closer to home, The Frank And Walters’ ‘After All’ and the sweeping ‘This Is Not A Song’ were both was re-recorded after the Edwyn Collins-produced originals were deemed, rightly in my view, to lack the sparkle and urgency of the band’s earlier material.

The initial, Pearse Gilmore-produced sessions for the first Cranberries album were scrapped and, after a trial period with Stephen Street, the project was eventually re-started from the floor up. The making of the second An Emotional Fish album, ‘Junk Puppets’, was another protracted affair that went through numerous hands, locations and producers and, invariably, cost an arm and a leg. The final cut was produced by Alan Moulder [the brooding, guitar-heavy parts] and Clive Langer [the more up-beat, instant parts], while David Stewart was later enlisted to add confetti canons and balloon drops to a couple of key cuts on what is, to my mind, a formidable and largely under-rated album.

It’s Tony Mansfield’s version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ with which most of you will be familiar, even if the single failed to do the chart business expected of it and the band remained on the margins until the re-issue of the breezy ‘Oblivious’ towards the end of 1983. And it’s a version that, as you’d expect, has long divided opinion among Aztec Camera watchers, many of whom have stayed steadfast to the tender opening strum of the original.

The primary differences between the two versions are in the first four bars, where Mansfield adds a distinctive intro, and the broader Fairlight-derived scaffolding he uses to bolster the foundations throughout, devices familiar to fans of New Musik, where they were used liberally. These bespoke sounds, touches and finishes can also be heard, in variously evolved form, across most of the subsequent production work Tony over-saw after New Musik folded. Most notably The B52s’ album, ‘Bouncing Off The Satellites’ [1986], Naked Eyes’ cover of the Bacharach and David number, ‘[There’s] Always Something There To Remind Me’ and Captain Sensible’s ‘Glad It’s All Over’, which he co-wrote and which charted in 1984.

But as a producer, Mansfield is probably best known for his contribution to the first A-ha elpee, ‘Hunting High And Low’, which was recorded in Pete Townsend’s Eel Pie Studio in Twickenham in 1984. The Norwegian band had relocated to London the previous year, from where they became one of the great, defining pop groups of that decade, selling over eleven million copies of their debut album. And although he takes a producer’s credit on nine of the cuts on ‘Hunting High And Low’, the relationship between the producer and the band – or perhaps the record company? – wasn’t a wholly positive one and, after six weeks, he was off the job. But only after he’d taken an early stab at the song that would later become A-ha’s breakthrough single, ‘Take On Me’.

The song was subsequently re-recorded by Alan Tarney and, supported by a distinctive, semi-animated promotional video, gave the band its first chart success. Tarney, a noted songwriter and musician – he was a member of The Shadows at one point during the 1970s – had written and produced Cliff Richard’s ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ and, in several key respects, was cut from the same cloth as Tony Mansfield. ‘Wrapped in warm synths, propelled by shiny hard guitar, hits like ‘Take On Me’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ are the essence of the Alan Tarney sound’, wrote Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley as part of a Guardian feature piece in 2015. And he’d have known better than anyone; – Tarney produced ‘You’re In a Bad Way’ for Stanley’s group, Saint Etienne, over twenty years previously.

In an interview with ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine in March, 2011, Tarney, who also co-wrote and produced Cliff’s imperious ‘Wired For Sound’ and later sprinkled the glitter on terrific pop songs by the likes of Dream Academy, Barbara Dickson, Squeeze, Bow Wow Wow and Pulp – told Richard Buskin that ‘the Tony Mansfield version [of ‘Take On Me’] employed a Fairlight and it just didn’t sound like A-ha at all’. ‘All I did was recreate the original demo. Its ingredients were good – nothing was really wrong other than it just didn’t quite sound like a finished record’.

And, he continued: – ‘I actually worked with Tony on another project, so I knew what to expect. At that time he was totally a Fairlight man and I can imagine why Warners [A-ha’s record company] felt his version wasn’t quite right’.

‘Hunting High And Low’ went on to break A-ha worldwide and Alan Tarney was back on duty with them on their next two albums, ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘Stay On These Roads’. They never worked with Tony Mansfield again.

*My thanks, as usual, to one of my own favourite producers, Chris O’Brien, who I besiege with technical and sound queries and who, in this instance, put me right about the Fairlight. And without whom etc …

APPENDIX

We received a number of comments on this piece. One comment came from John Dundon who mentioned having come across a great article in Record Collector. He dug it out, scanned it and sent on. We now share that here. If you enjoyed our piece, you should really enjoy this piece. Thanks John…

Record Collector
Record Collector

Record Collector
Record Collector
Record Collector

LIMERICK’S LARK IN THE PARK, 1991

I started contributing to The Irish Examiner, then The Cork Examiner, back in the late 1980s and I really hadn’t a clue. I wrote oodles of copy for my local paper over the years, much of it impenetrable and most of it salvaged by the excellent sub-editors I never met and know now by reputation only.

I reviewed many concerts and live events for The Examiner and filled an awful lot of space for them during times when news was slow. I’d often ring in late at night from off-site, usually before 11PM, and my stuff was received at the copy-desk by whoever was unfortunate enough to connect with me at base. From an unreliable pay-phone, often in the middle of town, I’d roar my four-hundred poorly-formed words back to headquarters, especially concerned that we’d spell band names and song titles correctly. ‘That’s ‘Casual Sex In The Cineplex’, I’d shout. ‘C for Cork, I for Ireland, N for Nigel’ while, outside on the street, someone was always waiting impatiently to use the phone box to anxiously call a parent or drug dealer or to just piss or gawk into it. ‘L for Leo, E for Eugene, X for X-Ray’.

There was plenty going on in Limerick during my time freelancing with The Examiner and, whenever an opportunity arose, I’d blag a lift or a bus down there to cover the ground. I thought Limerick was far less self-conscious and precious than what I was used to in Cork: all the more so, I guess, because I was only ever passing through. I remember Tony O’Donoghue telling me once about a Hot Press interview he’d done with Tuesday Blue, before which the singer insisted that they both assumed the Lotus Position and do a yoga session together. That sort of talk only teased me further: I loved Limerick.

I first come across The Hitchers in The Cresent Hall, off Limerick’s main drag, on a Saturday afternoon in 1989. I’d been summoned for jury duty on a national school band competition run by the long-time Cork promoter, Denis Desmond and, far more importantly, was delighted to be scoping out the hall where U2 had played a chaotic live show back in 1980. The Hitchers – then a five-piece, led by Eoin O’Kelly – were head and shoulders above anything else I saw during that competition and it was no surprise when they romped home during the final in Connolly Hall later that year. From behind the traps, Niall Quinn was clearly the band’s driving force and, despite the tinny sound in the venue, I can still hum my way through some of their set, of which ‘There’s A Bomb In That Basket Of Fruit’, ‘Which Leg Of A Chicken Is More Tender ?’ and ‘Alice Is Here’ were the obvious stand-outs among many.

The Hitchers also featured on ‘The Reindeer Age’, a compendium of various odds and ends released on the Xeric label which, as a compilation of the numerous emerging bands around Limerick was a damned fine calling card one, hinting at a wide breath of activity and ambition within the old walls. It was through The Hitchers, and especially their manager and mentor, John Moriarty, that I first established a real connection there and, subsequently, a couple of good leads on some of the other young bands in the city, among them The Cranberries and Those Stilted Boys.

Those Stilted Boys were highly regarded among their peers and I heard an awful lot about them before I actually heard a single note from them. Their stuff was very, very ambitious and they reminded me then, as they still do now, of a nervy marriage of early Prefab Sprout, Woodentops and late-period Pixies, with their restless structures, honours-level chords and smart, knowing lyrics. What seems like their entire recorded canon can be accessed on their website and, listening back almost a quarter of a century later, I am certain that I called them correctly way back and that Those Stilted Boys – led by Ciaran Culligan and Ian Dodson – were, without question, one of the country’s great unsung bands during the early 1990s. I tried long and hard to progress – unsuccessfully – a deal for them at the time and I defy anyone to listen to ‘Blow’, ‘Havana’ or ‘Akimbo’ now and tell me I was out of order and off the mark ?

The Cranberries story was already nicely formed by the summer of 1991 and, after a pretty intensive courtship, the band had recently thrown in its chips with Island Records, a deal I’m convinced was consummated after their appearance at the Cork Rock event in Sir Henry’s weeks earlier. They were still based locally and, billeted in Xeric Studios, were working on a debut album against the sound of incessant love-bombing by the likes of Jim Carroll, Shane Fitzsimons, Stuart Clark and myself.

And so it was that, on July 14th, 1991, The Cranberries found themselves half- way down a wholly-Irish line-up assembled in The Peoples’ Park in the heart of Limerick city for what was billed as a ‘Lark In The Park’. The show was headlined by Wexford band Cry Before Dawn, with support sets from An Emotional FishThe Blue Angels, They Do It With Mirrors and Those Stilted Boys.

I had a vested interest in The Mirrors. Keith Cullen had recently signed them to Setanta Records and I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about. On tape at least they were a slow burn but quickly became one of my own favourite bands on the label. Indeed I ended up back in Limerick with them years later, working in Xeric on an unreleased third E.P.: one of the four outstanding cuts from which, ‘Police Me’, is now available here.

Shane Fitzsimons, who wrote an important long-running music column in The Evening Echo, was by now staging live shows in a venue called The Shelter on Tuckey Street in Cork and some of those performances have rightly assumed mythical status in local music history. Those Stitled Boys, The Cranberries and They Do It With Mirrors all took to the small stage there to enthusiastic crowds and left real smoke in their slipstreams.

From Churchtown on the southside of Dublin, Shane had a long standing connection with The Blue Angels, who also featured on the ‘Lark In The Park’ bill in Limerick and who too played at least one raucous set in The Shelter. The Blue Angels were a secondary iteration of Blue In Heaven, traditionally a serious and regular live draw in Cork. They’d added a new guitarist to their existing line- up and were continuing on the more considered and broader pathway they’d built on their second album, ‘Explicit Material’: less Martin Hannett and more Jimmy Miller, basically. Where once they’d been a dank, mid-range indie-outfit, they now rocked a fuller, more rounded sound. Blue In Heaven will feature prominently in a future post here about their long-standing contemporaries from Churchtown, Into Paradise, but suffice to say for now that I was a staunch supporter.

The Blue Angels released one very tidy if unspectacular album on Solid Records, ‘Coming Out Of Nowhere’, and, in theory, I should have despised everything about them. They represented, in so many ways, the very worst aspects of the scene built on sand around ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ but, in practice, I found their angular Stones/stoned shapes just too hard to resist. I saw them whenever I could and reviewed them enthusiastically:  as with far too many bands over the years, I regularly ditched perspective for hyperbole and The Angels received several very public fan-letters from me over the years.

By the summer of 1991, An Emotional Fish were one of the country’s biggest live draws and ‘Celebrate’ was an obvious ace in their pack. I found them lumpy at the best of times and was never completely convinced by the hoopla around them. It wasn’t until their second album, ‘Junk Puppets’ – and specifically the exceptional ‘Careless Child’, which was produced by Dave Stewart – that I heard anything of substance to write home about. Working closely with Into Paradise, I subsequently encountered An Emotional Fish all over Britain and Europe: there was a time when we seemed to be following each other around the same circuit for ages. But in a field in Limerick, back in August 1991, I found far more comfort in all that I knew best and, on the day, even The Beatles would have struggled to live with Those Stitled Boys, They Do It With Mirrors, The Cranberries and The Blue Angels.

And as for Cry Before Dawn, who headlined the show ? God loves a trier. My review of the event was carried in the following morning’s Cork Examiner and it’s re-produced in full below.

Published in The Cork Examiner July 15th, 1991, under the headline ‘Limerick rocks near pop heaven’ 

There was no sun, just lots of light rain, but we didn’t mind one bit. Limerick is always a pleasure and it’s bands are better. Yesterday we stood through six hours of free, live outdoor pop at the town’s People’s Park and we left smiling.

This was Limerick’s Lark In The Park and 6,000 people came. Lots danced. Those Stilted Boys are up and all over us with jazz guitars and affected voices and wonderfully pretty songs like ‘Akimbo’ and ‘Havana’ and it stops raining. Clever lines and Chris Issak smirks and Those Stilted Boys are on the elevator to the top floors of pop’s hotels.

They Do It With Mirrors are Keith Cullen’s brand new Setanta band, four guitar funksters on the lunatic fringes. They’ve got a tiny frontman, Kevin, and an enormously strange voice. Lots of off-beat guitar and frothy-headed bass. See them play Shane’s Shelter on Wednesday. Please.

The Blue Angels are here with a vengeance. This band plays dirty, grimy rock songs with little keyboard bits. ‘Get It Back’ and ‘Candy’ are the singles that owe bits to U2’s ‘With Or Without You’. Now, let’s not gripe :- Shane O’Neill is still very much a star and today, Limerick loves him.

The Cranberries too. This is the band with the reviews, the new Island Records band, and that voice. They’re brilliantly good again. ‘The Same Old Story’ spills all over us and, with ‘Put Me Down’, we are gobsmacked once again at the voice and the untouched pop songs. They’re innocent and they’re charmingly naïve. They might be too twee, buy hey, today they were top.

An Emotional Fish followed with that sound and Cry Before Dawn lead us out and bore us halfway to tears. We’re tired and emotional. Limerick is near pop heaven, 60 miles west. Don’t drive idly by.

WOULD YOU LOOK AT THE STATE OF US ? MUSIC IN CORK, 1992.

As a college student in Cork between 1985 and 1989, The Triskel Arts Centre was where I believed some of the more off-beat cultural stuff in the city was going down. Located in an alleyway off of the junction of Washington Street and The Grand Parade, it was a bespoke venue that was certainly on my radar, albeit one that I visited sparingly. Over the years I saw a handful of excellent theatre performances there, as well as a couple of smashing live music shows. I can especially remember seeing Anthony And De Confidence do a ‘multi-media show’ there in 1988 and I also helped to promote a live Serengeti Long Walk gig at The Triskel, which was recorded by Ray O’Callaghan [no relation] of Poles Apart.

de-Confidence-Feb-14-742x745

De Confidence via http://www.ansanctoir.ie

Later, as producer of the No Disco television series, I returned to film some acoustic sessions there, most notably with The Harvest Ministers, Martin Stephenson of The Daintees and the wonderful Kerry singer-songwriter, John Hegarty. My most recent visit to Triskel was in 2001 when, in another guise, we hired the theatre to premiere a documentary film a bout the footballer, Denis Irwin.

I’d always considered Triskel to be just a little bit beyond me, even if this had more to do with my own ignorance than anything else. That said, I recall very vividly the venue’s former Administrator, Robbie McDonald, making many an impassioned and literate contribution in the media on behalf of arts life in Cork city.

So I was genuinely taken aback when, in the Autumn of 1992, I was asked by Triskel to make a contribution to The Cork Review, a yearly over-view of cultural life in the city published by the Centre. My task was to offer a breezy snap-shot of how Cork was faring in the worlds of rock and pop music.

At the time I was free-lancing, writing largely about music but also working on a short-lived television series for RTE 2 called ‘Rant’. It was put to me that my piece could counterpoint some of the other, more formal pieces that had been commissioned for that issue of The Cork Review and it’s clear now that I followed that instruction very literally. And then some.

The best that can be said for my piece is that it’s enthusiastic and passionate :- I clearly had a bee in my bonnet about how incestuous and trite the local scene was but didn’t have the ability to articulate it properly. I’d started to believe that regional bands – and Cork bands, particularly – simply didn’t generate the national recognition some of them deserved. I also felt that some bands didn’t do themselves any favours when it came to making the most of what they had :- frustratingly, some really great young Cork bands just didn’t want to push on and were content to lord it over their peers in The College Bar or The Liberty Bar and no further. And of course this was – and is – absolutely fine too :- it’s just that I didn’t appreciate that back in 1992.

And then there were those bands who just refused or were unable to accept any form of criticism, however well-intentioned. This sensitivity was heightened in Cork :- a friend of mine says that no-one does ‘indignant’ like Cork people, and she’s right.

But 1991 and 1992 were real breakthrough years and so, with no little relish, I polished off my crystal ball, lowered the blades, and set to work.

Up   Your   Arts

All right then, so where do I begin ? I’m not really sure. It’s just that there have been so many bands, so many songs, so many singers in funny haircuts. Some have been great and some could have been great and some have been just plain horrible, but then that was never an issue. I mean, really ?

We laughed then and we still laugh now and at least we’ve got lots of little stories for when we’re walking home late at night and it’s raining heavily and we haven’t brought our umbrellas. But right now ? Well … Cork pop is in more eyes than ever before. And this time it’s in other people’s eyes too. And that makes for some change.

You see, Cork pop, just like Cork folk or Cork theatre or Cork classical, well, it’s horribly self-contained. It’s too bloody close and too bloody narrow-minded for its own good. We are wary of opinions and we hold lots of petty little grudges. And we’re still, like it or not, as vulnerable as we ever were. We’re paranoid as hell too, too slow to let go. Too many of us just don’t want to share our bands. We want to know all of the details all of the time. There should be room for talk, sure, but not for theft and lies and vendettas. But at least most of us understand that now. After all, hey, it’s only songs.

But Cork is cooler than most right now. Both The Frank And Walters and The Sultans of Ping FC have become big and notorious and have made great records and, for once, well, we’re not fooling ourselves. And sure, we’re had bands before but we’ve never had bands quite like these. These bands aren’t just big pop kids in their own underpants. Others have taken the message and bought the records. These bands don’t just exist in the pages of the music papers. They play to loads of people in loads of places. We’re not exactly sure where all of this is going, of course, but then neither are they. But at least they are going. And at least they’re thinking big. Narrow streets, you know, breed too many narrow minds. And this is a great big world.

But I’m not here to bitch and gripe, I guess. No. Cork is where I come from and it’s where I saw my first shows and it’s where I bought my first records and it’s where I wrote my first reviews and stuff. But for me, well, for me The Frank And Walters kind of say it all, you know. It’s no big secret, but I know them and I work with them and I’ve helped them from time to time and I still get all chilled-up when they bring around some new songs on a noisy cassette.

But The Frank And Walters are, quite probably, pop’s most unaffected band. And the more that I live and the more that I see, well, the more I’m impressed and the more I want to hear some more. Alright, so maybe they’re ‘essentially Cork’ or maybe they’re ‘whacky’ or maybe they’re ‘quaint’ ? I don’t know and, in all honesty, I’m way past caring. But they’ve got a barrowload of great songs and a free and easy talent. They just write the songs :- some of the best songs that I’ve heard and that’s for sure. And I know that they’ll sell tankerloads of records. And I know that they’ll be on bedroom walls. I just know. Believe me.

But The Frank And Walters, unlike too many bands, know that all of this is just one big rotten game. At least they’ve got songs, which is more than most. But they’ve also got a manager with a tight haircut and some wits, they’ve got luck because they make their own and they’ve got marketing and press and they’ve played every toilet from Dudley to Buckley and back. But it helps too when you’ve got parents who don’t gripe when you’re making yet another cross-channel call ; when you’ve got parents who help to put your posters up and who take out subscriptions to Spiral Scratch and who know Verve’s mid-week chart position. It all adds up.

But looking back is kind of fun too, you know. I mean, did we really try to record once in a studio which had no reel-to-reel recording tape ? Did we really wrangle a live show in U.C.C. just so that we could review ourselves in Hot Press ? Did singer Paul pose with his bass-guitar on the front of The Cork Examiner ? In colour ? Ah, the ways in which we were raised.

Five go down to the sea

Five go Down to the Sea via  https://www.youtube.com

But there were others too. And there were other songs : and other times. Did Five Go Down To Sea really have songs called ‘What Happened Your Leg?’ and ‘Kelly From Killeen’ and ‘Carrots From Clonmel’ ? Did Sindikat really break a bass-guitar string during a City Carnival show in The Ivernia car-park ? And did singer Pat really drop his tartan punk trousers during a show in The Underground ? Were Censored Vision really serious ? Did Without The really have a song called ‘Sit on my face, Elaine’. Were there really fifty-three record company pigs in Sir Henry’s to see An Emotional Fish play at Cork Rock ? And did we really  spend an endless weekend at Euro Rock two years ago, where we saw fifteen bands back-to-back ? And then The Sisters of Mercy ?

And then That Petrol Emotion ? And did Scarlet Page splay their legs and thank people during a song called ‘In The City’ in front of seventeen people ? In The Opera House ? And did Serengeti Long Walk really have a band logo that had a little man in a trilby hat ?

But there are little frustrations too, of course. Like that Cypress, Mine ! broke Up and that they never got to put ‘Last Night I Met The Man For Me’ out. Or that Lift aren’t huge. And that we still sneer and gripe and complain about everything and see things through parochial glasses and that. But hey, that’s pop and that’s life and we’re never quite sure what’s around the next corner anyway. I’m just glad that I’ve been and seen.

I like to think that the best is yet to come. One day I may even get to have a real job. But just not yet.

This piece was originally printed in The Cork Review, 1992. Published by Triskel Arts Centre.

THE CRANBERRIES: THE FIRST REVIEW

Cranberries - pre signed - first Henrys gig

Picture Courtesy of Siobhan O Mahony

 

Strange as it sounds now but there was a time when The Cranberries were easily the most remarkable young band in Ireland having emerged, quite literally, from out of nowhere. Theirs is of course a well-worn and hoary old story, albeit one pock-marked with crudely-formed testimonials and urban myths. And this is something I’ll return to in a future post.

 

One of the early driving forces behind the band was, I think, Pearse Gilmore who, among other things, fronted his own group, Private World, and also ran Xeric, a studio and rehearsal complex located on Edward Street in Limerick city. A curious sampler album, ‘The Reindeer Age’, released in early 1990, showcased a mixed bag of Limerick bands, all of them captured on tape in Xeric by Gilmore. The likes of They Do It With Mirrors, Tuesday Blue, Toucandance, The Hitchers and Private World themselves were notables among the large cast. Something was clearly afoot.

 

The Cranberries didn’t feature on ‘The Reindeer Age’ and yet, within six months, had over-taken their peers on every level.I was on a watching brief at this time :- apart from [over] enthusing about them in a variety of different outlets, I was also scouting them for Setanta Records. Our attention had been drawn the previous year to a slipshod demo that featured an early version of ‘Linger’ and that had been circulated under the name The Cranberry Saw Us.  Indeed there was a point when Keith Cullen at Setanta felt he’d finally snared them. In the end, after a year-long harry-and-chase, the band signed with Island Records instead.

 

Myself and another young writer, Jim Carroll, reviewed them frequently and with no little zest around this time, often travelling together to shows in Limerick. The fact that The Cranberries were from outside of Dublin – well protected from the scene that celebrated itself– only made them more alluring. By the summer of 1991, a handful of emerging bands based in Ireland’s regions were cutting ferocious shapes. And the strength of that scene was reflected in the line-up at that year’s Cork Rock event in Sir Henry’s, which featured The Frank And Walters, The Sultans of Ping, Therapy, Toasted Heretic and The I.R.S. among others. It was The Cranberries, who also played, who went on to dominate them all.

 

I first met them for an early Hot Press interview one warm Saturday afternoon in Limerick and I couldn’t get over how naïve they were. They told me that they had very few, if any influences, didn’t listen to many records and that their songs ‘just came out’. Noel Hogan was gilding the lily, without question, but Dolores was genuinely clueless.

 

Cranberries - number 2

Picture courtesy of Siobhan O Mahony

 

Live they were fragile and very, very basic. Gilmore had given them a stylish spit-and-polish in studio, something they struggled to replicate when they played live. Noel and Mike were struggling with their instruments [guitar and bass respectively] and the drummer, Fergal Lawlor, was the band’s pivot. But even then it was Dolores who dominated. In a flicked page-boy cut, standard indie duds and fresh Doc Marten boots, she cut a familiar but magnetic presence :- after gigs she’d routinely change into a multi-coloured tracksuit and couldn’t really give a flying one.

 

This review, for Melody Maker magazine, is an earnest and awkward attempt to capture the band’s charm and their incredible promise, while alluding also to their gormlessness.I was struggling with my craft as manfully as The Cranberries were struggling with their instruments, resorting to An Emotional Fish for my sign-off.

 

The show in question took place in the confined spaces of the College Bar in University College Cork in October, 1991, to a small but very keen audience. Pearse Gilmore – a tall, lean and most distinctive man – was very prominent around the venue on the night, and especially around the sound-desk. The venue was a well-known sound-trap and quality audio there was often a difficult ask. Not that it mattered.

 

The Cranberries, in their own mild way, blew the place asunder.

 

This review appeared originally in Melody Maker magazine on October 19th, 1991. I’ve made some minor edits to the original copy.

 

The Cranberries

College Bar, U.C.C., October, 1991

 

The Cranberries are probably too tender for all of this but, right now, they have all of our hopes to weigh them down. They’re charming little innocents, so untouched, so perfect, so astoundingly pure. They’ve come from a city that isn’t Dublin, from a county where politics are conservative and where Gaelic games and rugby offer some small social hope. They think small, embarrassed by what they’ve suddenly become. By what we’ve painted them up to be.

 

To singer Dolores, pop songs have no truck with video and make-up, nothing to do with fanciful clothes. She’s stopped reading her band’s press because she doesn’t need us to tell her who she is. And when she stands still, saying little, in place like this, it’s because she’s unsure about all of the fuss. The Cranberries, understand, are charmingly naïve ;- its their single greatest attribute. They have no idea how good they are, of how important they might yet become.

 

The Cranberries had never heard of The Sundays or The Throwing Muses nine months ago – their songs just happened, ‘they just came out’, and we believe that. They’re too frail to be contrived. And while lines like ‘I was just 16 years old when I married you, and now its just a stupid mess, I don’t know what to do’ seem trite, then you should understand that Dolores is eighteen years old and coming from what is essentially a very narrow rural tradition. And she writes nothing like The Saw Doctors.

 

Tonight is all very full ; lots of songs, gorgeous songs. ‘Put Me Down’ with its spine-shrill, jangle-and-hum, ‘Linger’ with its spellbound simplicity, ‘Dreams’ with its curious drum thud. Dolores even plays some acoustic guitar but it just looks all wrong, all too cumbersome for her. It still sounds very fine, of course, and ‘Reason’ and ‘Pathetic Senses’ become the huge, simmering pop songs that Johnny Marr, for instance, would collect and play. ‘Liar’ owes to Pixies’ ‘Is She Weird’ but we’re not here to look for clues.

 

We’re here to love a band wholly. To hug and kiss. Beauty does what beauty does best. Be beautiful.