Blink

FINN’S CORNER

The summer of 1994 is still primarily recalled by many of us for that year’s World Cup football finals in America, and especially for The Republic of Ireland’s unlikely victory over Italy in The Giant’s Stadium in New York. A game in which Paul McGrath put in an imperious defensive shift that, apart from helping to repel his opponents, also distilled much of the nation’s complicated history into ninety scarcely believable minutes of physical endeavour. For the first couple of weeks of that tournament, much of the country was suspended in time and space and we absolutely lost the run of ourselves. It was brilliant.

I watched that match, which was played on Saturday night, June 18th, with some of my friends from a Cork band called Serengeti Long Walk, on a large screen in an unlikely setting. A small, back-street venue called The Cork Arts And Theatre Club had been festooned and customized for the night :- even the luvvies had hopped the wagon. Two worlds briefly collided and, for a couple of hours, the world was upside down and back to front.

The theatre was packed well before the 9PM kick-off but a couple of us had already been on the go since much earlier. Myself and a local sports hack, Pat McAuliffe, had fetched up with a television news crew outside The City Hall for a pre-breakfast interview with a well-known Premiership footballer, Vinnie Jones, who we’d located in a hotel on Morrison’s Island the previous evening. He was in Cork with a party of acquaintances and friends on his stag weekend but, true to his word, arrived fresh and on time, helpfully kitted out in a white Ireland away top and trendy golf-shorts.

During the course of an exchange that went to air just before kick-off to an enormous television audience, he outlined to Pat his Irish connections, which sounded tenuous enough to me, and his hopes for an international call-up from Jack Charlton, the Irish manager, which turned out to be even more so.

A week previously, at the Vince Power-promoted Fleadh event in Finsbury Park in North London, the head-lining New Zealand/Australian band, Crowded House, emerged for an encore also wearing Republic of Ireland tops. They’d just played a cracking set to a partisan audience featuring many Irish emigrants and second and third-generationists and the reaction, as they returned to ice the cake, was exactly as you’d expect.

Those tops had been gifted to them by Thomas Black, then EMI Records’ local spotter in Ireland and Aiden Lambert, the manager of Dublin four-piece, Blink, who were led by one of his brothers, Dermot. Aiden’s street-trader instinct for an opportunity and a quick win were matched only by his generousity, and I’ve gone into this in more detail in a previous piece.

Whether they realized it or not, Crowded House were making a couple of weighty statements by pulling on those shirts. Outwardly the band was of course being carried on the usual wave of end-of-tour giddiness and knew well the audience they were playing to. But during yet another phase of uncertainty around Anglo-Irish relations, they were also touching on the contentious issue of identity. A theme that also ran through the album they’d released the previous year, ‘Together Alone’, and which they’d been promoting on a far-reaching world tour that had finally come to a halt in in London N4.

Blink had supported Crowded House on the U.K. leg of that haul and while, musically at least, the bands had little in common, it was a decent match and an easy meeting of like minds. Affable, funny and with a common sense of purpose, the groups also shared the same record label at a time when Crowded House were a popular live draw in Ireland. In this respect they can be filed in the same drawer as Chris Rea, Aimee Mann and David Gray, all of whom found regular respite and decent audiences here while they were still looking for commercial footholds in other territories.

We’d recently completed work on the first season of the music television series, No Disco and, unsure whether or not it was returning to the RTE 2 schedules, and with no ties to speak of, I was intent on making the most of the summer. So with the World Cup looming, I threw in my with Blink and joined them for some of the dates on that Crowded House tour in May, 1994. Old habits die hard and what better way to re-charge, I thought, than in the company of two excellent bands ?

I’d blagged my way around Britain and Europe for years in a series of tour vans and in a variety of different guises, sometimes legitimately working and often just hanging on. For many years there was nothing more intoxicating – and of course ultimately demoralising – than the promise of the road ahead and the prospect of where the endless motorways might take you. Those were the days before the engine finally gave up the ghost somewhere beyond the dark valley and when, after too many tours on the same loop, it became obvious to me that the road loves the few and eats the many. In my more introspective moments, I wonder how we ever made it to some of the most remote locations in Europe – and why ? – or indeed how we all made it back home at all ?

Blink were one of those outfits with whom I regularly took off. For a couple of years during the mid-1990s they were one of Ireland’s most interesting and exciting new bands, having formed from the remains of another Dublin combo, Rex And Dino, who themselves had released one terrific single for Solid Records, ‘Someone There To Love’, in 1988. With Aiden’s fingers on the pulse and his eyes constantly peeled, they made the right kind of noise to land a local deal with EMI, and they had plenty to recommend them too. With a strong grasp of the raw mechanics of the pop song – and boasting a top, top rhythm section – they were never either overly precious or indulgent.

Knowing the importance and power of the moment, Blink saw more merit in the hi-energy pop of Mel And Kim as they did in the left-field ache of Kim Gordon. And that Steve Hillage, the one-time Gong guitarist, produced much of their first album, ‘A Map Of The Universe’, tells its own story. By any standards the singles lifted from that elpee – particularly ‘Going To Nepal’, ‘Happy Day’ and ‘Its Not My Fault’ – are memorable cuts that still stand up to scrutiny.

And then there was Crowded House. I was first turned onto them by Mark Cagney – who else ? – on what was then Radio 2FM and who, with added heft from Dave Fanning, relentlessly pushed the band’s first two albums, ‘Crowded House’ [1986] and ‘Temple Of Low Men’ [1988]. Indeed if ever a band was designed for Cagney it was Crowded House ;- Neil Finn’s songs could be simple, efficient and orthodox but he was just as comfortable as a southpaw, effortlessly switching styles mid-combo. Tracts of the band’s first four albums are testament to his command of structure and what, in technical terms, we might call ‘the middle eight’ and the surprise fill. The imperious ‘Better Be Home Soon’, with its closing organ run and the switch during ‘Fall At Your Feet’ being two absolute cases – of many – in point.

Neil’s blueprint was as clear and simple as the messages he conveyed in his songs and as constant as the mop-top he’s modelled for the guts of forty years. And it all came together for them, I think, on ‘Together Alone’, to my mind Crowded House’s best ever album, released in 1993, and which they toured long and hard.

I was fortunate enough to see them unpack the guts of that album, in high definition and in unusual circumstances, during a handful of dates on that tour where, as part of Blink’s travelling retinue and with a considerable lanyard to legitimize me, I had access to them at their most exposed. For all Neil’s writing prowess, the band’s popular appeal had much to do with its congeniality, much of which was generated by Crowded House’s rhythm section, and particularly by the band’s original drummer and one of the group’s founders, Paul Hester. Paul was a fine musician who, from behind the kit, would regularly interrupt live proceedings with bad puns, one-liners and self-deprecating patter. But far from distracting from the band’s core business, this carry-on only contributed to it’s allure. On the face if it at least, Crowded House, although they took their work very seriously, had few real notions and weren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves.

During the long American leg of the ‘Together Alone’ tour, Hester took off abruptly and returned to Melbourne, where his girlfriend was expecting a baby. Into the live line-up and onto the drum stool came an old friend of the band, Pete Jones, a Liverpool-born session player based in Sydney, who was scrambled half-way across the world to join Crowded House as they were touching down in Britain. And although the band and its management could clearly have done without the inconvenience and the organizational headaches, its not as if you’d have noticed.

Business went on as usual and so, over the course of consecutive sound-checks, I had the scarcely-believable pleasure of watching the band work through their set with a brand new member of their live ensemble. And it was remarkable stuff, really ;- the band walking Pete through the finer points of its songbook – replete with those changes and lost chords – as they rehearsed with him during afternoon soundchecks.

I was standing sentry as usual, half-way down the vast, concrete arenas the band had long sold out, taking it all in. And I’m not sure if, even to this day, I’ve seen anything as mind-blowing in a live setting as Crowded House stepping into the mics on hitting the break on ‘In My Command’, one of the stand-out cuts from ‘Together Alone’. During which the band was actually pulling a stand-in drummer along in its slipstream and, using a series of nods, tics and foot gestures, carrying him through the material.

The band’s line-up on that tour was complimented – and greatly enhanced, I think – by the addition of a wonderful American musician, Mark Hart, on keyboards and guitar. He’d been centrally involved in the recording of ‘Together Alone’ and has been part of the group’s core line-up ever since. From where I stood, though, he was making up more than the numbers ;- he looked like he was the group’s informal musical director.

The band has long lined up with him in the centre-stage, flanked by Neil to his right and Nick to his left while, behind them on that leg of the tour, Pete was busy learning his lines and flaking everything that moved. Neil may well have been the primary creative but, from where I was watching, Mark was playing as an enforcer and, during the uncertainty around that tour, much of the on-stage activity seemed to channel through him.

‘Together Alone’ is arguably best remembered for the first singles lifted from it, ‘Distant Sun’ and ‘Nails In Your Feet’, although over half of the elpee was eventually released in the shorter form. The gut of the album was recorded in a small studio on Kare Kare beach in New Zealand with the London-born producer, Youth, whose colourful past included stints in both Killing Joke and The Orb before he became one of the more unlikely but innovative producers of his generation. Far more layered and subtle than it’s predecessor, ‘Woodface’, the album closes with its magnificent title-track, whose coda features a specially written piece performed by the Te Waka Huia Cultural Group, a Maori choir. Many of whom, in elaborate dress, also joined Crowded House on tour :- the live show would close every night with the singers and log drummers on-stage with the band and making an almighty racket.

And deep in the back-stage, long after the house lights had come up, a full-on hooley would break out, led by the choir and the drummers, and into which the band and their families would fall head first. Traditional songs and stories were swapped well into the night and, whenever Blink were called on for an old song or two from Ireland, they’d contribute with gusto.

My memory of those nights is very sharp, and maybe sharper than it might otherwise be. And over the last twenty-five years, I’ve regularly re-told many of these stories, during good times and bad. Prompted, way too often, by circumstances beyond our control.

And so this one goes out to Paul Hester [1958 – 2005], Pete Jones [1963 –2012], Aiden Lambert [1959 – 2015] and Pat McAuliffe [1958 – 2019].

IN THE ROCK GARDEN

 

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

 

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

 

live at the underground

IrishRock.org

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

RockGarden

Courtesy of Nessa Carter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BRILLIANT TREES :- GOLDFINGLAS

I absolutely loved The Brilliant Trees and, listening back to their two excellent albums from a distance, time hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for them. Some had them marked as being as good as early Oasis, others cited a Blur influence and there were times when, with the vocals stripped out, they had the classic reach of The Trash Can Sinatras. Eitherway, the band’s ambition stretched out far beyond their base in the Dublin suburb of Finglas. And further again from the tender, hesitant soul of the David Sylvian album from which they took their name.

 

The Oasis references would haunt them and, I think, undermine them a bit eventually. Both bands shared many traits and the comparisons are obvious and well-founded ;- from working-class backgrounds on the outskirts of big cities, both groups had an axis of brothers among their number. Both played a sinewy and uncomplicated guitar pop with unsophisticated lyrics, were led by brooding, good-looking frontmen and had an unshakeable belief in their own ability. But I never once heard The Brilliant Trees crow about how good they were. And, in their pomp, they were damned good.

 

I worked alongside Jeff Brennan in The Rock Garden for eighteen months at the start of the 1990s. My job, ostensibly, was to promote the venue and to generate coverage for the bands we had in-coming but, in reality, I just hung around the place and annoyed the bar staff and the waitresses. Jeff had made the short move across from The Underground Bar on Dame Street, where he had developed the small, downstairs venue into Dublin’s most vibrant live draw. When last I passed by, The Underground had been replaced by a lap-dancing club and, knowing Jeff, the irony won’t be lost on him. Or, no doubt, on the hundreds of noisy oiks who played there over the years, all of whom put their own arses on the line for the smell of a few pound.

 

 

The Rock Garden had opened in a blaze of publicity, an Irish take on the Covent Garden original, paying decent coin to international and local acts to keep live music going nightly inside it’s cavernous belly on Crown Alley, in Dublin’s Temple Bar. The Cranberries once played there to eighteen people and died a slow, slow death. Pulp arrived one sunny Saturday afternoon, unimpressed that they’d been booked into Dublin’s cheapest hovel, off Gardiner Street, and having had half of their back line stolen after a London show the previous night. ‘Ah, sorry to hear that’, Jeff told the band’s sour-pussed tour manager. ‘The other half is bound to be stolen tonight’. Less than a hundred turned up to see them, a matter of months before they released ‘Common People’. To the best of our knowledge, their equipment survived the trip.

 

Radiohead played their first Irish show at The Rock Garden, as did The Auteurs. The Sultans Of Ping FC, The Frames, A House, The Frank And Walters, The Golden Horde, Into Paradise and a litany of workmanlike British indie acts also visited and, for a couple of great years, The Rock Garden really had an edge.

 

The Brilliant Trees were one of a number of high-profile Dublin bands who played the venue regularly – Blink and Sack were other notables – and they consistently rammed the place. Not only that but they rammed it with a different kind of crowd, bringing a large, partisan following into town from their hub out in the North-West. Like Aslan, they actively ploughed a furrow deep in the suburbs and mobilised a pretty serious audience that was far from the usual alickadoos and liggers.

 

Tony Barrett, the band’s guitarist and driving force, worked with Dublin Corporation and I’d often see him around town during the day. I loved the cut of his jib, his relentless enthusiasm and his absolute belief in the power of music. The Brilliant Trees may not have been the most original band in the world but they were certainly one of the most spirited Irish acts I encountered during the early 1990s. For a while they were seriously courted, and rightly so.

 

They were still honing their craft when they played the famous Cork Rock bill in 1991 alongside The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic, Therapy?, The I.R.S. and The Sultans of Ping F.C. and, after No Disco first went to air in the Autumn of 1993, Dónal Dineen, Rory Cobbe and myself got behind them with no little gusto. Tony would phone us regularly with up-dates and we’d make sure that the lo-fi videos for ‘Home’ and ‘Talent’ – with their plaintive images and no-budget feel courtesy of directors Donal Scannell, Eamonn Crudden and Niamh Guckian – featured regularly. In fact listening to ‘Home’ over twenty years on – a reflection on the destruction of the heart of inner city Dublin against the shadow of cranes on the sky-line – one is reminded that while The Brilliant Trees were a pop band at heart, they had a keen and prescient eye too. Which, I felt, set them apart from the pack.

 

 

And so when No Disco required a headliner for the Dublin Aids Alliance benefit concert we ran at Whelans in May, 1994, we went first to The Brilliant Trees. They were as obliging as they were enthralling and, of course, we were guaranteed that they’d stuff the place.

 

 

Probably later than they’d either wanted or expected, they released their first album, ‘Friday Night’, in the early summer of 1996. Later that year, I sat down with Tony Barrett, singer Alan Hoey and the band’s articulate drummer, Dave Farrell, in advance of what was to be the band’s biggest headline show ever, at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre. The band was clearly at a cross-roads and, beyond the thoughtful and considered tone of our exchange, there was a real frustration too, and I tried to capture this in the gut of the piece. By now The Brilliant Trees had been on the go for a while and, although ‘Friday Night’ had been released to no little acclaim, the entire project had come at a cost.

My piece ran originally in The Sunday Tribune on November 10th, 1996, under the heading ‘Money grows on Trees’ and is re-produced in full here

M o n e y   g r o w s   o n   T r e e s

 

It’s a rusted chestnut to be sure, but great records needn’t cost the world and it’s left leg. Rather, most record company debts are mounted by promotional budgets, mismanagement and by impractical and bloated band hand-outs.

 

Dublin’s Brilliant Trees would no doubt concur, an endearing and enterprising guitar pop group that have, in seven years, served their time, played their score of odds and that are still very squarely, however happily or unhappily, at an impasse.

 

The Brilliant Trees have been around long enough and hard enough to see both sides and, despite their noble if blind faith in popular music’s theories, it’s the industry’s defined sense of commerce and practice that has caused their greatest and most recurring problems.

 

And still The Brilliant Trees are arguably the only unsigned domestic act that can actually justify their press release hyperbole with fact. Their last Dublin show drew a capacity crowd to The Mean Fiddler. Which is probably what you’d expect from a band that was once described by the N.M.E., over-rashly and quite possibly in an over-flush of zeal, as being better than The Smiths. These days, over mid-afternoon, weekend lagers, they can afford to laugh. But only just. And while size and history may count for little when push comes to shove, The Brilliant Trees, a band that would rather do than talk, at least deserve a hearing.

 

‘We more or less pay for our own records’, Tony Barrett – the band’s guitarist and primary motivator – tells us. ‘We have a management company that, out of necessity, has become a record company and they bring out our records. We repay them the money that they’ve invested in us, but we’re thankfully at the stage where we’re almost quits with them now’. So while The Brilliant Trees may coyly shake all of this off as some sort of mild debt of love and devotion, the reality is that, for them, for now, it’s empty at the bottom.

 

Their first album, ‘Friday Night’, released shortly before the start of last summer, should have been their defining calling card ;- a pick and mix of wholesome, efficient and sinewy guitar pop songs that wear their hearts very blatantly but that make no apologies or outrageous claims. But the exercise has instead woken the band to the very essence of the music industry, to the point where these days band meetings are more about money and less about songs.

 

‘All in all, between the recording and the manufacture and artwork, the record cost us about £11,000’, reckons drummer Dave Farrell. ‘All of the money that we take in at gigs goes straight back to paying off the album debt. It’s not particularly easy at the best of times, but we do this because we love it, simple as that’.

 

Popular music has traditionally been the playground of the middle classes, rarely venturing to beyond the beyonds, and while The Brilliant Trees make light of their backgrounds in the working-class suburb of Finglas, many of their concerns are far more real than popular culture’s glamour guides would have us believe.

 

‘I’ve got a job doing wages in Dublin Corporation’, says Barrett. ‘I’ve got a young daughter, I’ve got a mortgage and I’ve already taken next year’s holidays so that we could play some American shows earlier this year.There was a time when we used to buy 20 cans and rehearse down at the shed for hours on end but we don’t even seem to have done that in an age. It’s probably a sign of the times’.

 

‘The reality is that we need regular record company money to make the kind of records we desperately want to make’, says Farrell. ‘With the ‘Heart Strings’ single, we just didn’t have the money and the clout to advertise the thing on radio or to do fly-posters and basic stuff like that which can mean so much. Ultimately it’s all very well and good making great singles but it’s another thing entirely trying to get the songs heard’.

 

‘To be perfectly honest’, Tony Barrett confides, ‘we’re very disappointed that ‘Heart Strings’ didn’t go into the Top 30. We were desperately looking for a genuine hit on this one because we know the song is good enough. It’s just a shame that it comes down to not having enough money to push the thing over the cliff’.

 

A well-received American jaunt earlier this year offers them a shard of hope, although again The Brilliant Trees move shyly. ‘We’re old enough and smart enough to know that it’s not going to happen for us in England’, claims Farrell, ‘and the only option open to us now is in America because America seems to be far more open to what we’re doing and what we’re about. The last time around we played nine shows in Boston and New York and we went down so well that we’ll probably move over there, however temporarily, at the start of next year’.

 

‘We were genuinely taken aback by the response we received in America’, singer Alan Hoey recalls. ‘Once again we know faraway fields are always greener but the thought of playing to a whole new audience and dealing with a new set of people is all very exciting for us, even after all this time’.

 

In an industry that works largely on a tissue of mutual lies, deceits and distortions, The Brilliant Trees have at least come this far with their dignity intact. These days, however, they’re dealing in far more abstracts and with far more numbers than they probably ever imagined.

 

‘No matter how well you do in this country, you’re never going to be able to support the band in the long-term’, Dave Farrell concludes. ‘The point is that if there were 800 people at our last show in Dublin, then there may easily be another 800 out there, and if there’s another 800 out there, then there may be another 8,000 out there. Who knows ?’.

NOTE :- The Brilliant Trees did roll on, doing what they’d promised they would. And in 1999, with Florida-based management in place, released a second, excellent album, ‘Wake Up And Dream’. Tony Barrett is currently part of Elevens, alongside Sack’s Martin McCann and Mark Healy from The Josephs.