Blue Angels

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.

‘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.