Benny’s Head

GIDDY-UP

Photo : Greg Canty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘IF YOU COULDN’T PERSUADE HENRY’S, YOU DIDN’T MATTER WHERE IT MATTERED’

Sign

Image courtesy of Theresa Lucey

 

This post first appeared last year on the blog for the Sir Henrys 2014 Exhibition held at Boole Library, University College Cork. It is reproduced here in full.

 

I can’t remember the first time I set foot inside Sir Henrys and I can’t remember the last time either but I remember clearly where the rose was sown.

 

I was a weedy teenager during the summer of 1982 [and for several other summers thereafter] when my father arranged a part-time job for me, my first. For eight weeks I stacked shelves and packed shopping bags, without any great distinction, in Roches Stores on Patrick Street. On my first day I was assigned to the biscuit aisle ;- on my second, to stack sanitary towels in the female toiletries section. I was asked by one of my co-workers – an older man whose hands were pock-marked with Indian ink – if I’d ever been ‘inside’. I was a teenage boy from Blackpool and, even thirty years ago, it was an obvious question.

 

Before the end of the summer I’d struck up with another pair of part-timers who made like they knew their music. One was obsessed with a nascent Dublin group called U2 and appeared to have form. He wore a bouffant centre parting in his hair, managed regularly by twin combs, clearly in honour of the band’s drummer. The other seemed to know quite a bit about Ireland’s darker underbelly. Dave Fanning, Hot Press, hash. Such things.

 

There was loose banter in the store-room one day about Sir Henry’s, with which both of my colleagues were familiar. There was a framed U2 poster to one side of the venue, apparently. Signed by the band. U2 liked Cork and someone’s relation helped them to set up their drums. I’d regularly seen Sir Henry’s from the outside. Hadden’s Bakery on North Main Street was on my family’s regular beat and, in the days long before paid parking, we’d frequently pull the car up outside. The place looked like a right toilet, but I never imagined that it would look even worse on the inside.

 

Myself and my friends were regulars at Sir Henry’s from around 1987 until 1994, when I left Cork for good. It was somewhere we went to hear live music and see bands, good, bad and often un-naturally ugly. Back then, when we knew nothing and cared less, music meant the world. And Sir Henry’s was one of the foundation blocks.

 

The place hosted some truly memorable nights and some remarkable live shows and, even at a distance of twenty five years I can clearly recall the most minor moments of some of the better ones.

 

In terms of Irish bands, it was in Sir Henry’s that Power of Dreams, The Sultans, The Franks, Engine Alley, The Subterraneans and Therapy? flowered in their pomp. It was in Henry’s too that arguably the finest and most perpetually ignored of them all, Into Paradise, played like their necks were on the line to a meagre scattering of, maybe, fifty people at a push. If anything captured their career in a snapshot, it was the continued indifference of Cork audiences. If you couldn’t persuade Henry’s, you didn’t matter where it mattered. Sir Henry’s could be cold and unforgiving and, while many were called, only the few were eventually annointed.

 

The Blue Angels being a particular case in point. Blue In Heaven were contemporaries and peers of Into Paradise from Churchtown, a suburb in South Dublin. A dirty and easily detonated live act, they found particular favour in Cork, and amongst the Sir Henry’s frontline especially.

 

Most of Blue In Heaven eventually evolved into a more considered and mildly diverting sub-species, The Blue Angels. But the Sir Henry’s crowd were having none of it and more or less refused to acknowledge they existed. The Blue Angels were famously sent packing for Dublin to the sound of one man clapping. They were a fickle crowd, the Henry’s lot.

 

But they adored their own too and I can still feel the fuzzy urgency with which my favourite Cork bands went about their thing on the live stage at Sir Henry’s [although plenty of other business was conducted off-stage too]. LMNO Pelican – who I later had the pleasure of producing – were restless, busy and catchy. I remember encountering a nervous and sensibly sober Brendan Butler for the first time, the Pelican’s drummer and heartbeat. ‘Alright player’, he opened, before heading straight to the gut of the matter :- he was chasing a critical view on a new Guadalcanal Diary compilation. We lost Brendan at a desperately young age in February, 2013 and its only right and proper that, in any potted history of Cork music, he is appropriately remembered and acknowledged. Rest easily, champ.

 

I concede now, as I did very openly then, to a soft-spot for local bands like The Bedroom Convention, Lift, Benny’s Head, Treehouse, Real Mayonnaise and The How And Why Insects, who later became Starchild and Crystal. These were the names that stood out then like they still do so now, a rangey peleton of domestiques in support of the prestige riders, lead by Cypress, Mine !, Burning Embers and The Belsonic Sound.

 

Of the blow-ins, my strongest recollections include live shows by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, The Wedding Present, Babes In Toyland, The Sisters Of Mercy and That Petrol Emotion. It still rankles that I never saw either Microdisney or The Fatima Mansions live in Sir Henry’s :- in the great traditions of Cork politics, The Fatima Mansions tended to favour De Lacy House while Microdisney [although I first saw them support Depeche Mode in The City Hall in 1982] and me just didn’t have our clocks in sync and they’d fled Ireland years before I’d ventured out of Blackpool.

 

But while Sir Henry’s could destroy even the most vaunted of visitors, the inverse could be true too. Transvision Vamp played there once and, to my mind, blew the place limb from limb. ‘I wanna be your dog’ roared a leery drunk from the front row at the lead singer. ‘Woof woof’, responded Wendy James, as she sank a prozzie’s heel into his snout.

 

To my mind, Sir Henry’s rightful reputation as the country’s best live music venue bar-none was franked and sealed over three consecutive nights during the Summer of 1991. Facilitated through the offices of Ian Wilson and his team at Radio 2FM, Cork Rock was an annual shindig that assembled fifteen of the country’s best, aspiring and unsigned bands and flashed them in short-set form to sussed audiences speckled with talent spotters flown in – on generous expenses – from Britain and elsewhere.

 

The line-up in 1991 tells its own story and, among those bucks who faced the starter’s gun were The Frank And Walters, The Sultans Of Ping F.C., The Cranberries, Therapy?, The Brilliant Trees and Toasted Heretic.

 

It was, without question, the single most exhilirating weekend I can recall in my short, personal relationship with Sir Henry’s. And I still meet friends and acquaintances, now well into their forties and beyond, who legitimately lay claim to having been there before the finest generation of young Irish bands ever took flight with The Man.

 

Work subsequently took me to many more live venues all over Britain and Europe throughout the 1990s. And with a fresh perspective it was clear to me that, whatever we thought back then, Sir Henry’s was in many ways less artifice and more franchise. Every city that assumes a love of new music and a fostering of new acts has venues that sound, look and smell like Henry’s used to do at its peak. London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Paris, New York.

 

In hindsight, Sir Henry’s was where the more intense kids went after they’d outgrown the secondary school disco and re-calibrated their ambitions. To me, one of the venue’s primary attractions was that it was on our doorstep [and not in Dublin] and, to those of us who, by 1986 and 1987 had grown into angry young men and women, this was of no little import.

 

My fellow traveller at this time was a friend I’d met in school, Philip Kennedy. During the summers from 1982 onwards, we’d started another, far more attractive form of rote learning and, in so doing, developed a love of Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, REM and, memorably, the frenetic political jangle of McCarthy [Morty McCarthy [no relation], was the key dealer here].

 

We spent our evenings swapping albums, battered cassettes, taped radio programmes, bootlegs and even demos. It was through Philip [and his regular dealer, Morty] that I first heard the famous first Frank And Walters demo, a tape that genuinely blew me away and which kick-started a long-standing connection that endures to this day.

 

It was Philip who, while I was away in America in 1988, harrassed Ciaran O’Tuama, then manning Comet Records with Jim O’Mahony, on a regular basis about a likely release date for the second Cypress, Mine ! album. That record, which is magnificent, has still to see the light of day, although I remain hopelessly optimistic, as I always did for that band.

 

Phil and myself hung out into the long summer nights on the railings outside his house on Saint Mary’s Road, by Neptune Stadium, talking the big music. Or just talking big about music. In our heads we cut an artsy dash along Redemption Road as we ferried our albums, always under-arm, for everyone to see. In reality, our parents may have hoped this was all just a fad, a passing thing. Sir Henrys became a natural extension of those nights, but it wasn’t the only one. My own favourite Cork venue was Mojos. Or De Lacy House. Or The Shelter. Or, briefly, The Underground, down a side alley around the back of Roches Stores. It was there that I once saw Sindikat, one of my favourite ever Cork bands, comprised mostly of past pupils of our old school. I may even have seen The Stars of Heaven there, a band who, had their store of stellar notices converted to sales, could have retired to stud after the release of their first album, ‘Speak Slowly’. Philip passed away on April 28th, 2006. He hadn’t yet turned 40 years of age and I never hear a cracking new album or see a storming new live band without thinking of how he’d so forensically de-construct them. And he was sharp and funny with it too.

 

One night we encountered Margaret Dorgan on Parnell Bridge ;- she was off to see a local band, The Pretty Persuasions, in The Phoenix. Margaret shared her concerns for the band’s well-being, worried that there might be were too many ‘posers’ in the audience.

 

‘The only posers there’, Philip told her, ‘will be on the stage’.

 

He was there at my elbow for years, through the good times and the even better times. He saw Sir Henry’s claim its many trophies and also bury a hell of a lot of bands who simply couldn’t cut muster. From wherever he is now, he knows where the bodies lie and, more importantly, why Sir Henry’s took shovels to their crowns.