Blackpool

THE LONG FELLA

Fanning Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GEMMA HAYES

The swagger of the remarkable hurling teams up in The North Mon during our secondary school years in the early 1980s would regularly entice entire slabs of Cork’s northside on tour beyond the county bounds and out of reach of regular reason. On assorted mid-week afternoons every winter, a slew of battered old buses and coaches would fetch up at the gates and deliver the school’s travelling army to remote, rural venues all over Munster for big colleges games. And these were all bleak, barren and backwards places ;- with our crudely-formed inner-city smarts, anywhere other than Blackpool was.

Decked out in our duffle coats and hooped blue-and-white scarves, and with our cheese sandwiches packed away in our pockets, we saw the very best of emerging locals like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan, Jim Murray, Liam Coffey and the mighty Connerys of Na Piarsaigh up close in their callow bodies and pimply faces in villages and towns all over South Tipperary and beyond. Those young men were never beaten and consistently left it all out there on the killing fields in the school’s cause and, back in The Mon, we made sure to commemorate their heroics.

We had a song, ‘Amhrán na Main’ – a bit like Amhrán Na bhFiann meets The Green Fields Of France – which we’d rehearse in class before big Dr. Harty Cup games and, on those occasions when we’d reach a provincial or national final, the school would produce it’s own hurling fanzine, a badly photocopied, Pravda-inspired issue called ‘Monsoon’. In which you were told all you needed to know about the teenagers on the panel – club, height, weight, the class they were in and their own favourite hurlers – with a cursory line at the end about their off-field peccadilloes.

Frankie Walsh was one of a small number of pupils who were trusted with loud-hailers and hand-picked to lead the cheering and chanting on the days of the big games. He had a smoker’s wheezy rasp and a fine beardy shadow and some of those in the staffroom clearly thought his sharp tongue and quick wit could be channelled a bit more positively. And, for a change, to the school’s benefit. So on the marquee occasions, he’d be given a bit more latitude than usual and enlisted as an official rabble-rouser.

Frankie was easily bored, though, and would sometimes deviate off-script and into more dangerous territory [‘Tax The Farmers’ was one of his better originals] and, from his seat at the back of the bus, would slyly drop the teachers’ nicknames into some of his post- watershed material. It took a brave boy to stare down The Christian Brothers but Frankie had a hard neck and a soft head and he’d give anything a decent old shot. And on the days immediately after we’d put one over on Thurles C.B.S. or Saint Flannans of Ennis or Saint Colman’s of Fermoy, he’d strut the ramp up to school like someone returned from a fortnight in America with a buffalo’s head in his holdall.

It was hurling that first took us to Emly, New Inn, Cahir, Clogheen and Ballyporeen, and they were vile places: one-bit, two-horse towns that whiffed of diesel and whose pop-up tuck shops and filthy chip vans lured the per diems from the sweaty palms of the day-trippers. How the locals, we imagined, must have feared the bumper days when The Northside, in it’s rattling fleet, rolled into town with it’s history, cocky young hurlers, loud-hailers and quotient of un-reconstructed tulls.

Decades later I married into the South Tipperary crowd and, for the last twenty years, I’ve routinely driven those roads through the same villages and towns deep within The Golden Vale, often over the hills into Kilworth and back home by stealth to Cork from my in-laws house in Ardfinnan. Every single time I drive the four-and-a half miles from Clogheen into Ballyporeen, a part of me is still fifteen years old, thick and back there with the Mon boys on tour, taxing the farmers. And another part of me is older but no less clueless, wondering which of the narrow by-roads around these parts could have inspired such wonder and magic in the songs of Gemma Hayes ?

Born and reared within a large family in Ballyporeen, Hayes remains a peripheral figure and real curiosity within Irish music circles and, even after nearly twenty years spent making records and keeping on, is frightfully difficult to pin down. Sitting neither in the fish bowl of the kooky left-field set populated by Lisa O’Neill and Julie Feeney or in the often ungainly mainstream of Imelda May or Sinéad, she’s long paid the price for her ambition and wanderlust and even more so for her indifference.

I’ll happily stand corrected but I’m still not convinced she’s been given the credit she deserves as one of Ireland’s most consistent, curious and captivating writers and solo performers, as engaging over long distance as Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien and even Sinéad herself. So much so that, when I see Imelda May vamping it one more time for the cameras, the latest in line of national sweethearts, I wonder if Ireland just likes it’s contemporary story-tellers far better if they’re more malleable and just available ?

During the summer of 2015, Gemma did a short radio insert with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio One ;- she was plugging her fifth album, ‘Bones And Longing’ and, from a remote studio in London, performed a couple of numbers on acoustic guitar and gave her host a terrific if all- too-brief interview. During that exchange she revealed that Louis Walsh, the one-time Boyzone and Westlife manager and now a well-known figure on British television, once suggested he take her under his wing and manage her career. ‘He wanted to work with me at the time. He was saying to me, ‘Gemma, you need to play the game more. We need to get you out dating another celebrity, we need to get you on the scene and in the papers’’, Gemma told Miriam.

Walsh, who she described as ‘a brilliant businessman’, also suggested that Hayes stop writing her own material and that he employ a team to do that on her behalf instead. And kicking the corpse once more for good luck, he assured her that she did indeed have ‘The X Factor’ which, no doubt, thrilled her no end.

Walsh is a diverting, often creepy and always boisterous figure with a traditional view of the entertainment industry – ‘the business we call ‘show’’ – who’s long understood the enduring benefits of good teeth and the utter pointlessness of the creative process. Alongside a couple of RTÉ presenters, Walsh is easily the most available ‘well-known face’ in the country and, to this extent, is a world removed from Gemma Hayes who remains at a distance and tends to hold her whisht unless she has a record to perform or promote or something of interest to impart.

Which has it’s advantages too, of course. Because if Gemma was more visible and closer to hand, like all national sweethearts, would her terrific songs still carry the same degree of mystery ? Does unsung and distant give her more room to roam, more of a licence to take risks and distort her sound ? Either way, she had a lucky escape with Louis Walsh.

Hayes first made herself heard during the late 1990s when, around the fringes of the post-raggle taggle Dublin scene dominated by the likes of The Frames, The Mary Janes and Mark Geary, you’d sometimes see her with the Whelans and Mother Redcaps set, often alongside the cellist Julian Lennon. There have been five albums since, all of them flushed with the soft, acoustic touch of the old school folkies, the frenetic, shoe-gaze blitz of Slowdive, the up-beat pop swagger of The Bangles and the giddy eclectics of Kate Bush. And every one of which, kicking against convention, has been progressively better and more ambitious than the last.

Foremost among which is 2008’s ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, a terrific break-up album seeking both ‘order in the chaos’ [and indeed ‘chaos in the order’ too] in the aftermath of a split, whether that be from a person, place or thing. Or indeed all three.

Sharply produced by David Odlum, one of the original members of The Frames and a member of Hayes’s kitchen cabinet for years, it’s easily one of the best Irish albums of the last two decades. And yet ‘The Hollow Of Morning’ rarely features on anyone’s list ;- another recurring theme of Hayes’s career. Unsurprisingly, the records that followed it –the excellent ‘Let It Break’ [2011] and 2014’s ‘Bones And Longing’, both of which, like ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, were independently issued – didn’t trouble the chart compilers either. Indeed despite a handsome cluster of terrific, guitar-fuelled albums, she is arguably best known fora cover version of Chris Issac’s ‘Wicked Game’, which featured on the soundtrack of the American teen drama series, ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and, to a lesser extent, for ‘Making My Way Back’, which sound-tracked the Lidl supermarket chain’s Christmas advertising campaign some years back.

But she remains one of my own favourite artists and I routinely return to Gemma’s songs ;- after a recent post here about Joe Chester, who’s collaborated with and featured alongside her for years, I’ve listened to practically nothing else since. And there’s a lot of material to suck in too, most of it determined by simple melodies and those gorgeous, breathy deliveries and smart, often arrant lyrics that have long been among her signatures.

Over the course of a random shuffle, she’ll divert and shift gear from the giddy, piano and plucked string staccato of ‘All I Need’ [from ‘Let It Break’] to the up-beat, guitar pop workouts of ‘Happy Sad’ [from ‘The Roads Don’t Love You’] and ‘Out Of Our Hands’ [from ‘The Hollow Of Morning’] to the introspective, fuzzy shoe-gazed tuning of ‘Laughter’ [from ‘Bones And Longing’]. And in spite of myself, I’m still suckered every time by the full-frontal pay-off in ‘Keep Running’, her 2011 single that, after a mildly-tempered rattle that name-checks some of the most interesting cities in the world in which the writer ‘might as well be lost’, proceeds to flail blindly, like a drunken uncle at an indie disco.

No one song captures the breath of Hayes’s ambition better than ‘I Let A Good Thing Go’, from her sturdy 2002 debut album, ‘Night On My Side’, which boasts all of her primary strike assets within it’s four minutes :- the carnal vocals, acoustic underlay and full-frontal thrashing that plays with skewed tunings and distorted lower ends. Ingredients she’s long favoured throughout her recording history, in which the most obvious variances have been in her increased use of beats, loops and dips ;- her most recent work is certainly infused with far more ambience and space. As if, almost, the more perceptive and confident she’s grown, the easier it’s become for her to pare her songs right back ;- on ‘Bones And Longing’ as if she’s often just corrupting the beauty.

A couple of summers ago, I produced ‘Saturday Night With Miriam’ for the RTÉ One television schedule and, with no little prompting from the show’s music booker, my old friend Caroline Henry, we invited Paul Noonan from Bell X1 and Gemma to come in and perform a live, acoustic version of ‘The Snowman’. Trading for the occasion as Printer Clips, a solo project of Paul’s, they fetched up in Studio Four without fanfare or fuss and, working the song through during afternoon rehearsals, had a core of us absolutely distracted as they did do.

Gemma had arrived bearing gifts ;- as well as her acoustic guitar, she also brought along her husband, who was also minding their first child, a little boy. And hours later, and in front of an audience of just over one hundred, Paul and herself delivered a mighty live performance, directed with her usual brio – in one shot only – by Niamh White and captured on camera in a single take by Gerry Hickey, a formidable and skilled operator. Once we’d downed tools for the night and repaired back-stage, Gemma told us that she’d successfully crowd-funded a new record, even if motherhood had given her far more pressing priorities and, as you’d expect, plenty else to occupy her mind and her time.

Months later she’d also delivered ‘Bones And Longing’, as absorbing a record as any and easily her most salient. And across much of the promotion she did in support of that record, she spoke about how becoming a mother had genuinely liberated her and about how music no longer absorbs her so intently or exclusively.

Life as a parent clearly suits her.

And her work.