Blue in Heaven

BACK TO THE GLENSIDE WITH INTO PARADISE

welcome to churchtown

I spent many, many hours with the excellent Dublin band, Into Paradise, devising numerous schemes and strategies intended to bring them in from the cold but that only ultimately moved them further out into the margins. And through the madness, I remember fondly the time I spent as the band’s butler, a bit like Scooter from The Muppet Show, during which I tried to help them put order on their affairs, publicise their cause and, briefly, even turn out for them as an additional member of their live retinue. Like a loyal handful of others I felt their material warranted way more attention and far greater audiences than it ever generated and I’ll go to my grave still stubbornly making that case for them. But whenever Into Paradise turn up, as they regularly do, on those lists that chronicle the great feats of chronic Irish under-achievement, another part of me melts away ;- is it right or just that these are the only charts in which the band has ever featured prominently ?

Exactly how ‘[Why Don’t You] Move Over’, the band’s most friendly pop song, failed to achieve broader recognition than it did when it was first released as a single in 1993, is as difficult to rationalise as the free-form roundabout in Walkinstown, which goes in many directions and none at the same time. But although Into Paradise has long since splintered in various directions, it must still rankle with one or two of them that they’re best remembered for what they didn’t achieve rather than for what they did.

I’ve never written at any great length about them: what goes on on the road and within small, confined spaces is often best left there. But although much of their story is an achingly familiar one, there’s another level on which it’s just far too complicated, even at this remove. The likes of Dónal Ryan and Emma Donohoe, with their deft hands and keen sense of the claustrophobic and the absurd, might struggle to do it justice.

My long-standing personal connection to them aside – and, like many aspects of their story, this was always intense and forever prone to fracture – they’ll always just be one of my favourite bands. And when I dip back into their material now, I can still hear the rare, punctured and sometimes reckless beauty that characterised much of their first two elpees and that was still flickering when they did two mini-albums back on the Setanta label towards the end of their decade-long history. Their back catalogue is like an extension of my body at this stage.

But that’s what happens when you soldier on the frontlines with a group as consistently keen-eyed and forever acute as they were. When, long before the internet or mobile phones, you’d drive for days with them across the continent, using old atlases and road maps to reach those small venues in Zurich or that large warehouse in Alicante or the bikers hut somewhere in Holland that whiffed of denim, soiled leather and questionable politics.

Every one of those trips began in hope and with a sense that, out there somewhere, new audiences – or indeed any audiences – awaited us. And it was that same hope, and the inevitable disappointment that followed Into Paradise around like a deranged hanger-on, that turned on you in the end. My own heart eventually just gave out when, near the finish, we travelled for an eternity to Castletownbere on the Beara peninsula in West Cork to play a local festival to less than twenty punters in a vast hall. While, in the venue across the road, Zig and Zag were doing ‘Never Mind The Zogabongs’ in its entirety to a full-house whose floor was buckling beneath the heft of feet. Ten years previously, in a parallel world, the fictional American band, Spinal Tap, were also up-staged by a puppet show during an ill-advised booking at Themeland Amusement Park in California. But at least Spinal Tap had the consolation of knowing they’d landed a bigger dressing room than the puppets ;- Into Paradise enjoyed no such luxury.

Purely by co-incidence, I moved onto the band’s manor twelve or so years ago. The second Into Paradise album, ‘Churchtown’, their only issue on a major label, is named after the south Dublin suburb in which the group grew up, took shape and in which it was based, on and off, for most of its existence. I drive through Churchtown practically every single day now, along those same tree-lined back-roads I once walked for hours to get to band meetings and rehearsals. Through a part of the south Dublin hinterland that, to some of us, is as well-known and historically important for the likes of Blue In Heaven and The Coletranes [later Revelino] as it is for Scoil Éanna and Patrick Pearse and where, for the guts of ten years, the best-known Into Paradise line-up – David Long, Rachel Tighe, Jimmy Eadie and Ronan Clarke – devised new spells and conjured up regular magic tricks, often in spite of themselves.

Many of the landmarks that pepper the band’s story are still standing and some of the others have been modified in the years since the band would regularly go to the well, summon its energies one more time, assemble in the practice room and make another last, often despairing stab at it. And, when I’m stuck in traffic during the early mornings on Lower Churchtown Road or when I’m caught for puff on as I shuffle past the back of Milltown Golf Club, its hard not to be reminded of the band’s magnificent body of work when the source of much of it is rooted all around me.

The Bottle Tower, now a gastro-pub with notions serving craft beer on the top end of Churchtown Road Upper and Nutgrove Avenue was, for years, a formidable local bolthole outside of which we’d assemble the troops at dawn before leaving for the ferry at Dún Laoghaire. Close-by, within touching distance of the long defunct Braemor Rooms – the long-time spiritual home of Dublin cabaret – is De La Salle Boys school where David Long, the formidable Into Paradise leader, seems not to be listed alongside the footballer, Damien Duff, the actor, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and the film director, John Carney, on the roll call of honour along it’s far-reaching hallways.

The old Mount Carmel hospital at the inter-section of Orwell Road and Braemor Park, is now largely un-occupied and infinitely less busy than it used to be at the height of the Celtic Tiger and its assorted insanities. But from outside on the roadway, I can make out ‘the grey, dirty white steps of the hospital greenhouse’ that begin ‘The Pleasure Is Over’, one of the many stellar cuts on the first Into Paradise album, ‘Under The Water’, released on the Setanta label in 1990. Further along the same road, towards the village end, the walls of the band’s old rehearsal rooms on the tip of Braemor Park and Braemor Road are still super- injuncted forever from talking, which is maybe for the best.

And then there’s The Glenside, an enormous, thatched boozer located half-way down Landscape Road, the setting for many a lively Into Paradise band meeting and whose pulling power often caused the early abandonment of a scheduled rehearsal. The Glenside has long been a fixture on Dublin’s formidable suburban entertainment circuit and, for years, The Evening Herald newspaper carried regular listings for the wide breath of exotica it hosted. Also on that circuit were the likes of The Addison Lodge in Glasnevin, The Patriots Inn in Kilmainham, The Old Mill in Tallaght, The Graduate in Killiney and The Towers in Ballymun, where I saw Aslan do a couple of blinding acoustic shows during their fallow years in the early 1990s while they were at a loose and uncertain point in their career, scrambling for life. That hinterland track gave them the space to re-group and re-calibrate, strictly out of the spotlight, and also put a few bob into their pockets for good measure.

All of these are sizeable premises that serve decent pints, good food and regular entertainment, the bulk of which is almost always booked from the cabaret network. It was in this territory that Brendan O’Carroll, for instance, first developed a reputation for what one might charitably refer to as a particular brand of comedy. And where, to this day, the likes of Roly Daniels and Who’s Eddie continue to defy the laws of science, taste and decency.

Every now and then an out-of-the-ordinary or quirky booking might pull a different sort of crowd out into the suburbs and away from the city- centre axis around which Dublin’s live music scene has long been rooted. It was up in what was once The Rathmines Inn in Dublin 6, for instance, that Bjorn Again – still easily the best of all of the Abba tribute bands – made their first tentative live appearances in Ireland while, during the early 1990s, The Dundrum House hosted a series of magnificent live shows by The Coletranes, a local guitar-doused outfit whose classy record collections and adroit command of music history shaped a terrific residency that took place on their own doorstep.

The Glenside still serves up regular live music in one of its well- appointed rooms upstairs and, from one week to the next, you’re never quite sure what or who you’ll find there. Earlier this year, while The Republic of Ireland were sleep-walking their way through a soporific friendly fixture against Iceland over at The Aviva Stadium, I was back in the place after for the first time in ages, lured by a friend promising a night of decent cover versions, old-school riffing and quality porter. And in that wood-lined room, up over the sprawling main bar that, on one side, is festooned with decades worth of vintage Dublin Gaelic football memorabilia and, on the other, the rolling screens that only always seem to carry Sky Sports, The Donal Kirk Band enlivened a slow night with a wide-ranging stock of standards, each one delivered with the careful precision of a surgeon’s nerveless hand.

The breath of their fare is unremarkable enough ;- ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘You Do Something To Me’, ‘Wish You Were Here’ and David Gray’s ‘Babylon’ all sitting in a set that also features the odd Vince Gill cover and early ZZ Top. What distinguishes them, though, – and at the risk of sounding like the esteemed Jazz Club host, Louis Balfour – is the quality of the performance, every one of the five men consistently winning their own ball. And what starts as high end pub rock, neat and tidy throughout, develops into something that eventually becomes far more than the sum of its parts as they kick for home after an hour or so.

Donal Kirk’s name will be familiar to those who frequented Slatterys on Capel Street or JJ Smyth’s on Aungier Street during the 1980s, when both venues resounded regularly to the strains of quality r and b and dirty rock and roll. A fine vocalist with a soft, easy delivery, he was part of a crew that also included Don Baker and the guitarist, Pat Farrell, serious men well-drilled in the deep, often difficult traditions of authentic blues. He’s backed these days by a vacuum-packed rhythm section that supports a series of elaborate solo runs on lead guitar and, to their credit, they’ve pulled sixty odd punters in – no cover charge – riffing out to a handful of friends and musos who’ve gathered by the side of the performance area and who intently devour every lick, turn, spank and run.

It wasn’t until the end of a peppy set that paid off with a frenetic blues work-out that the callow figure of the group’s lead guitarist finally emerged from out of the shadows ;- Jimmy Smyth, formerly of The Bogey Boys, and one of the most formidable and nimble musicians I’ve ever seen on any stage. Wearing a long grey pony-tail and standard rock and roll duds, Smyth is a diminutive character and an explosive player whose work I first encountered through someone who shares several of primary his traits, Ray O’Callaghan of Poles Apart, the Police-tinged Blackpool-based three-piece who shone briefly in the early 1980s and who, with their Fender straps and amps, briefly lit up the night skies around Mount Farran, close to the old Glen Hall.

It was after Ray’s prompting that I first sought out The Bogey Boys, fish out of water, resolutely old style rockers competing for space with what was then the second of the new waves. And they were all the better for that. Jimmy Smyth took many of his cues from Wilko Johnson of Doctor Feelgood and, especially in a live setting, the three-piece were a proud and powerful counterpoint to much of what was going on around them. To this end, their spiky debut album, ‘Friday Night’, released in 1979, is among the most arresting local issues of its time, capturing a youthful Smyth in full flight, wearing the swagger of youth lightly and defiantly on what is a fine opening card. Years later and he’s still doing it on a cold Tuesday night in Churchtown.

There’s something warmly re-assuring about how these old soldiers still have the energy for battle ;- all the more so when those battles take place on their own terms. The last time I saw Donal Kirk’s outfit was on the Friday night before the recent All-Ireland football semi-final replay between Mayo and Kerry when I travelled out to Stillorgan and when much of the talk among our number beforehand was on tactical formations and positional switches.

Donal Kirk had clearly done his own video analysis himself in the lead-up ;- Jimmy Smyth had been stood down for the night, replaced by Anto Drennan, another local who’s featured regularly on international stages when he’s fetched up over the years as a jobbing guitarist with the likes of The Corrs, Chris Rea and Genesis. Born in Luton – like another of my favourite musicians, Microdisney’s Seán O’Hagan – but raised around the corner in Kilmacud, Drennan is another whose name has decorated many, many records over a long and varied career. And yet he too is still drawn to the flame that often surrounds the local hustings :- towards the end of the set, he steps up during a cover of ‘Purple Rain’ and takes a solo that’s as potent as anything seen in Croke Park the following afternoon. During which, as tends to be customary in these situations, Donal Kirk and his pards gently stalk the small stage behind him, heads bowed as they go, drinking it all in. Up at the side of the venue, meanwhile, I spot a couple of faces I’d seen months earlier, upstairs at The Glenside, their stares fixed stage-wards, eyes closed, close enough to touch the hands of God.

I last saw half of Into Paradise at a live show in The Tivoli Theatre in the mid 1990s. I’m still in touch, infrequently over e-mail, with David Long, who now resides down south but who still releases records and writes music, both as a member of The Whens and under his own name. Much of which is as urgent and captivating as anything he did with Into Paradise between 1986 and 1993. His tender, barely-pulsing ambient album, ‘Cities’, is a far cry from the brooding Bunnymen/The Sound rattle that characterises much of Into Paradise’s catalogue and a sign that, on one level, at least one of the pair of us has moved on.

Rachel Tighe fetched up for a while in another well-regarded Dublin art-pop band, Luggage, while Jimmy Eadie, a magnificent musician in his own right, runs a small studio from which he composes soundtracks for theatre and installations while producing some of the country’s most interesting writers and performers, We Cut Corners, Jape and Cian Nugent among them. I haven’t seen or heard of the band’s drummer, Ronan Clarke, for almost twenty-five years.

And yet every single time I pass The Glenside, I think of Into Paradise and the many battles they fought – and invariably lost – on sites all over this country and far beyond. Proving once more, in a small way, that greatness isn’t always forged in victory.

A HOUSE: LOCAL HOUSING AUTHORITY

There were a few of them, back in the dark ages, that you’d think twice about looking crooked at. Declan Jones from Blue In Heaven, all seven foot odd of him in his leather keks and his Chelsea boots, was one. Half of Whipping Boy, a couple of The Gorehounds, Dave Lavelle from The Honey Thieves. And maybe the gruffest of all of them, Dave Couse of A House, who’d skewer you with a look or a one-liner if you tried to blackguard him. Or even if you didn’t.

The first time I met Couse in person was on the concourse at Kent Station in Cork as he’d stepped off of an incoming train from Dublin. ‘So’, he asks. ‘What have you done for A House today ?’. He was never one who hung around to get his eye in.

And in truth, I’d done little for A House that day and I’d done little most other days too for the band that Couse formed with Fergal Bunbury, Martin Healy and Dermot Wylie in West Dublin in the early 1980s. But  then they never struck me as either needing support or actively seeking assistance ;- from a remove, they looked like one of the most self-sufficient, durable and intense bands in the country and, to that end, were probably best left alone. And anyway, there were others, mostly on my own door-step in Cork, who were far more deserving of my first aid or, as history might record it, the hemlock kiss.

Maybe, alighted from a train ride from Dublin to Cork, Couse was just hungry and cranky ;- as one of those who regularly experienced the inter-city dining options during the 1980s and 1990s, its easy to appreciate how that may have been the case. Eitherway, once I’d fed and watered him, and after we’d completed a spiky exchange for an RTÉ youth television strand called ‘Scratch Saturday’, he certainly softened up a bit and I saw a hint of light beyond the blanket.

Over several subsequent years, I had a decent sideline view of A House while I worked with Keith Cullen at Setanta Records and, for a time, was close enough to see the meat on the bone. I never knew them particularly well  – nor they I – to go anywhere deeper than a clean cut on the finger but I was still privy enough to see just how driven and determined they were on so many levels. They rarely let up or let go and Couse was at the heart of it all, setting the tempo, consistency in a world slowly gazing at its shoes.

In his pomp he was a restless and forceful writer who saw merit in the malevolent vignette. Fronting a group whose considerable achievement  was often taken for granted and who were never entirely a common currency, one aspect often fuelled the other. A House, like many others before them and after them, were at their best when Couse was at his most tart. They consistently demanded the final word and, with Couse on the mic, it was often a bitter one ;- when the good times came, they were forever fleeting.

A House issued five studio albums for three different labels, most of which are among the finest Irish releases of their generation and, all things considered, the band endured for far longer than many of its peers. But their recorded output apart, it was the line they walked – and often deliberately played with – between charm, arrogance, resilience and bloody-mindedness that tended to define them.

In as much as the parameters of their original, four-square guitar-fused  line-up would allow, A House were as unique as any and better than most. And later, after they re-shuffled their pack in the aftermath of their second album – after which they were promptly dropped by their label – bolstering their line-up and adding finesse and steel in equal part, they refined their game and went for it again, baldly. But in both their iterations they were as difficult to pin down as their cover was difficult to penetrate ;- in an Irish context, the biggest issue many seemed to have with A House was that they weren’t Something Happens, with whom they were long associated and with whom they were consistently locked in a competitive, often truculent side-show.

Tony O’Donoghue, now RTÉ’s football correspondent, once pounded the  footpaths around Cork city to the point of fracture. In the days before mobile phones, you could always locate him if you wandered Patrick Street long enough and, in his leather jacket and pointy suedes, he certainly looked the part of a hip, young gunslinger. In the best and worst traditions of the freelancing hack, he held down a slew of wide-ranging jobs, one of the most interesting of which was a short, weekly slot on Cork Local Radio, where he’d play snippets of a couple of new releases, draw our attention to upcoming concerts and live events around town and jolt the RTÉ sound recordists from their torpor, however briefly.

As a clueless fresher still navigating his way around most things, I’d often still be at home during lunchtimes and would regularly catch Tony’s finely-tuned political broadcasts on behalf of quality independent Irish music. During a period in which emerging, indigenous rock music was in rude good health, and when the standard of its recorded output was mirrored by the development of a regular, sustainable national live circuit, Tony was rarely short of decent material. Broadcasting in short form long before the term was hi-jacked by digital marketing consultants and social media influencers, and while the regions were often starved of relevant music media, his weekly sermons cherried the cake for many of us, putting a partisan frosting on the national proselytising of the likes of Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on Radio 2FM.

And it was during one of Tony’s local homilies in 1987 that I heard the first shimmer of ‘Snowball Down’, A House’s second single and, for me, one of the most pressing, urgent cuts in the history of Irish alternative music. Produced by Chris O’Brien and released on the band’s own, self-funded imprint, RIP Records, it clocked in at just over 150 seconds, with its shades of The Bunnymen, The Blue Aeroplanes and some of the more subtle aspects – prominent, nimble bass, prominent acoustic strum – of the paisley underground. As opening statements go, both ‘Snowball Down’ and the band’s debut issue that preceded it months earlier, ‘Kick Me Again, Jesus’, punched far beyond the national qualifying standard.

To a handful of local anoraks, hangers-on and indie spotters, though, this was just another rung on a curve steeping progressively upwards.

The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street was a much-loved dive and, for a number of years, a small and important cog in the local machine, very strictly off-Broadway. [The site on which it stood is now occupied by a racy shop called ‘Condom Power’, an irony not lost on former regulars who fondly remember the old bar’s sardonic drayman, Big Johnny]. Run by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, the downstairs parlour was where, to my mind, the first and last great domestic music movement really took root hosting, as it did, frenetic and often chaotic early shows by the likes of Rex And Dino, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, Power Of Dreams, The Slowest Clock, [Backwards] Into Paradise, Whipping Boy, The Dixons and A House themselves.

The careless spirit of that period and the claustrophobic aspect of the tiny venue is captured naked on a short, six-song album, ‘Live At The  Underground’, that was recorded there over two nights in 1985 and issued by Jeff on his own, one-off label, ‘Fear And Loathing Records’. Four years earlier, Elvera Butler’s ‘Kaught At The Kampus’ also cuffed six live tracks onto tape during shows recorded at the famed, UCC-hosted shows at The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork and, even if neither album was ever intended to trouble the chart compilers, both records served real purpose nonetheless. Over thirty years later, what were clearly just calling cards for two highly-regarded live venues have become, absolutely by default, curios that capture some of the more unique sights, sounds and perhaps even smells of the time, for posterity.

a house setlist

Setlist Limelight Belfast, 1993 / 1994.  © Gary White

And A House are there on ‘Live At The Underground’, callow but recognisable, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, Something Happens and Hughie Purcell – contributing the shambling ‘On Your Bike, Wench, And Let’s Have The Back Of You’ to the party, before quickly moving on.

Indeed the band’s re-birth on the Setanta label between 1990 and 1992, during which they recorded and released the bridging [and aptly-titled, in my view] ‘Doodle’ EP and then the magnificent ‘I Am The Greatest’, is worth a long read in its own right. For a band down on it’s luck and back on the labour, the title of that record reflects A House’s constant, inerrant belief in it’s own ability. But then all five of their album titles can be read as sarcastic, sly references to the way the band saw itself, and especially it’s evolving relationship – good, mixed and mostly bad – with the music industry. From the shadowy optimism of the debut on a major label, ‘On Our Big Fat Merry Go-Round’ to the damning reality of a slow degeneration on it’s stubborn follow-up, ‘I Want Too Much’ through the life-affirming ‘I Am The Greatest’, the return to a major ‘Wide Eyed And Ignorant’ and the closing, sardonic chapter, ‘No More Apologies’, these were clear, political punch-lines that mashed a snotty face on the bay window of the industry that begot them. ‘The music business ?’, A House might have mused, summoning another doleful street philosopher, Norm Peterson . ‘Can’t live with it. Pass the beer-nuts’.

The band played it’s last ever show on February 28th, 1997, in Dublin’s  Olympia Theatre, a stone’s throw from The Underground Bar, aloof and diffident to the end. But although A House boasted a noisy and loyal support base all around the country, I long suspected they were far more comfortable outside of Ireland where, arguably, they were more critically valued and where they consistently had one up on Something Happens. But they were also clued in enough to know when to call time and, when the curtain fell, it was on the band’s own terms :- they scripted their own funeral in detail and organised the buffet afterwards.

In 2002, five years after A House packed up their tent, ‘Here Come The Good Times’, by a distance the band’s most contagious pop song, was selected as Ireland’s official World Cup anthem as the country’s international football team headed off to compete in that summer’s competition in Japan and Korea. Its beefed-up glam rock production and shiny pop veneer notwithstanding, the song is actually about a lifetime of personal disappointment [where good times occur ‘for a change’]  and, in hindsight, seemed like a perfectly prescient selection, given how Ireland’s World Cup campaign unfolded.

Remembered less for the team’s unfortunate and maybe unlucky exit from the tournament and far more for Roy Keane’s strop, after which he tore out of the team’s training camp on the island of Saipan and returned home, it was appropriate that the ghosts of A House were on hand to faithfully soundtrack the misfortunes of a nation.

Eight years and two World Cups previously, Parlophone Records, their second major label, had failed to crack ‘Here Come The Good Times’ into the mainstream. This achievement was at once so scarcely unbelievable and yet perfectly in keeping with the band’s long experiences in the middle ground ;- the writing was on the wall for that relationship and, one suspects, A House itself, thereafter.

A salvo from that stomping pop song had also featured briefly as part of a spectacular opening montage shot around Ireland for the opening of the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Mary Kennedy and broadcast live from The Point Depot in Dublin. And however fleetingly, it seemed as if A House had finally recovered some of the face they’d lost when Gay Byrne patronised them to within inches of their lives as he introduced them on The Late Late Show before they performed their excellent ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’ single back on the floor of Studio One on October 14th, 1988.

The last time I saw Dave Couse was from a distance after a Frank And Walters show in Dublin city many years ago. I hear him, from time to time, on his infrequent radio show where, from his song selections alone, I suspect he still holds many of those same beliefs he did when, a quarter of a century ago, we first locked horns in Cork. His band remain one of the real enigmas – and genuine successes – of contemporary Irish rock music and while, in the twenty years since that last curtain call, you’d expect all parties to have moved on, you’d suspect that no one felt the band’s lack of a broader breakthrough more keenly than Couse himself.

And whenever I hear him on the radio now – and he’s still as captivatingas he’s ever been – it just hardens my view that all disc jockeys, like television producers and music writers – are, at heart, just frustrated musicians who, because of events and an absence of good fortune, are doing the next best and closest things instead.

And then there’s the standing Couse enjoys in the recent history of Cork popular music. In the long traditions of keeping the best secrets on the inside, he produced the first Frank And Walters E.P. for the Setanta label and, in hindsight, should have gone on and finished the job by doing the band’s debut album as well. By the time he was back behind the bench with them, far too late, on their second – and still easily their best album, ‘Grand Parade’, the moment, you’d think, was lost, the spirit having flown. But Couse’s whipsmart production only highlights how under-cooked ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, The Franks’ nervous-sounding debut, was ;- in no way does the sound of that record do justice to many of it’s terrific cuts. ‘Trains’ has aged poorly and, twenty-five years on, sounds emaciated and tinny :- given the steroids Couse also infused into The Franks’ ‘Beauty Becomes More Than Life’ elpee in 2006, it’s difficult not to think now of what he could have done, years previously, with the debut.  And where that might have taken both parties.

Years later, several worlds collided and I was among the team tasked with producing RTÉ’s Late Late Show, immediately after Gay Byrne had stepped down as host and Pat Kenny moved up onto the crease. I felt it was only right, for several reasons, to move away from the show’s long-standing signature tune, an instrumental passage taken from Chris Andrews’ 1965 hit, ‘To Whom It Concerns’ and so I invited Dave, and a handful of others, to pitch any alternative suggestions they may have had. In my own mind, rightly or wrongly, I felt it was an opportunity to commission a contemporary Irish writer and to maybe sub-contract the work out to someone who may have had a fresh perspective on such matters. Which is what we did :- and it was Ray Harman of Something Happens who eventually composed a new theme for the programme. In the years since he’s carved out a terrific career for himself providing similar services to the feature film and documentary markets.

Dave Couse has stayed nicely busy too and, his radio work apart, has released a handful of records on several labels and under a variety of different band-names, in the years since. Among which the  ‘Batman And Robin’ single, released in September, 2005 under the band name Couse And The Impossible, is still easily the best of his solo material, some of which, his debut solo album ‘Genes’, in particular, is far more introspective and difficult than one might have expected.

For the last ten years or so I’ve spent far too much time in the shopping centre in Nutgrove, close to where I now life on the southside of Dublin. Where once I used it to do a regular family grocery shop and maybe pick  up an over-priced, over-caloried coffee on the hoof, its now one of my primary social outlets, somewhere to kill an hour during the insanity or whenever I want to lose my children. There’s a Credit Union office on the complex, an excellent off-licence and a couple of decent take-aways ;- a trip to Nutgrove is everything that a casual wander into the heart of Soho used to be.

The music piped into the centre and out over the tannoys must be among the most interesting and diverse anywhere in the country. Buried in among the sterile old standards you’ll hear, on a routine basis, selections from The Icicle Works, early New Order, The Lotus Eaters and The Fountains Of Wayne. And on a couple of occasions recently, I’ve heard ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’, still one of A House’s most distinctive cuts, as I’ve dallied in the aisles among the detergents and the toilet rolls.

But while I know that Dave Couse lives on that side of the city, I don’t remember him being invited down to cut the ribbon when they opened the re-furbished Argos branch there a few years back.

HINTERLAND

Hinterland [noun] :- The back of beyond, the middle of nowhere, the backwoods, the wilds, the bush, remote areas, a backwater.

If nothing else, they certainly choose the name well. Twenty-six years after the release of their excellent album, ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, you’ll struggle to find Hinterland mentioned in even the grass verges of contemporary Irish music history. Apart from their only long-player and the singles cut from it – the brooding ‘Dark Hill’ and ‘Desert Boots’, the breezy and most out-of-character chart hit – and one or two other minor issues, they’ve left little behind by way of prints and hard evidence. The usual on-line outlets are pretty scant on supporting detail and even the Hot Press digital archive which, to its credit, is usually a deep resource is, in this instance, practically empty.

And I suppose in many ways it’s always been thus. Hinterland never really ran with the pack and, even while signed to Island Records during the peak of the post-U2 insanity around Dublin, were generally regarded as an oddity. While lesser outfits made great welcomes for themselves, Hinterland were rarely seen and seldom heard ;- little was really known of them and they tended to give nothing away.

David Bowie’s death brought Gerry Leonard out from the shadows again and, once more, onto the national airwaves. The Dublin-born guitarist, now trading as Spooky Ghost had, for the previous fifteen years, been at Bowie’s elbow as a member of his backing band and as a sometime collaborator. Thirty years back, he was Donal Coghlan’s other half in Hinterland, a two-man operation that, according to Coghlan’s notes on a long-neglected website, formed in Denmark on January 7th, 1987.

Both Coghlan and Leonard had served their time on the Dublin circuit during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leonard most notably with Above The Thunderclouds [who, for genealogists, also featured Joey Barry, later of Thee Amazing Colossal Men and Compulsion] and The Spies. Coghlan had featured in The Departure – alongside a former RTÉ colleague of mine, Declan Lucas – but, beyond that, had tended to keep his distance.

Hinterland fell out of nowhere, more or less. By 1988, Dublin was often characterised as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ and, in the aftermath of U2’s breakthrough in America, was certainly a city caught in the footlights. We’ve dealt with this in a couple of previous posts, and those are available here and here. If Dublin was defined then by any dominant sound, it was the sound of crudely lashed guitars. And if it had a defining career path, that path started on the live stages in the dive bars and venues around the borough. Dublin’s best known bands of the period – U2 themselves, Aslan, Something Happens, The Slowest Clock, The Stars Of Heaven, Blue In Heaven, A House, Guernica – were all compelling live draws who’d cut their teeth in the dens. Reputations were hard earned – and as easily lost – on the unsteady stages in The Underground, The Baggot Inn, McGonagles, The White Horse, The New Inn and elsewhere. And many’s the callow, impressionable four or five piece that was simply swallowed whole and spat back out into the spray, finished.

In the decades before smart technology so drastically re-wrote the rules of the process, most local recordings were made in the various studios that had sprung up around the city. Even the cutting of demo material was often newsworthy stuff to anoraks and alickadoos and word was quick to get around about who was doing what, with whom and where. Like another of their peers, Swim, Hinterland were far more comfortable within the confined parameters of the studio and, having returned to Dublin, both Coghlan and Leonard were working out of a small recording facility on Aungier Street. The two-man line-up gave Hinterland a real cohesion but, like Steve Belton and Pat O’Donnell before them [and maybe We Cut Corners after them ?], restricted their impact as a live act. Where, despite the many sequenced sounds, loops and tapes brought into play, the subtleties at the core of their material ran the risk of being lost in unreliable live mixes and unwelcoming venues.

Like Belton and O’Donnell – who eventually augmented their ranks and re-positioned themselves as The Fountainhead – Hinterland were managed by Kieran Owens, a canny operator with excellent ears who, like many of the acts he worked with, is often under-appreciated in the history of that period. It was Owens who over-saw the band’s deal with Island Records – signed on the strength of strong demo tapes alone – and who brokered Hinterland’s relationship with the young Newbridge-raised producer and engineer, Chris O’Brien with whom, on April 27th, 1989, Donal Coghlan and Gerry Leonard began work on what was to be the band’s first and only album.

Like many before and after them, Hinterland’s career was pockmarked by a series of unfortunate events, many of them outside of their control and, in essence, they never really left the starting gate. Which, in many respects, only adds to their lustre. ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ is a brave, difficult record ;- it resides, for the sake of reference, in a drawer alongside ‘Til Tuesday, later-period Blue Nile and early-period Big Dish and it divided opinion on delivery. It’s a tender, gentle and unflinchingly personal collection of songs that, as well as piling on layers of nuanced sounds, doesn’t fear the space either. The record is at it’s most beautiful when it pauses for breath and crawls.

Chris remembers the record and the sessions that produced it fondly and was a real help to me as I sought to put flesh on some of my more crudely formed views on one of my favourite records. I owe him a real debt for dusting down his old diaries and for helping to join the dots.

‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ was put down over a fourteen week period in Ropewalk Studios in Ringsend in Dublin, even if much of it arrived pre-packed. Deep, ornate foundations had been laid by Leonard and Coghlan in their own small studio, where the vocals, guitars and keyboards were supported by ‘an Atari sequencer running Pro24 software’. That the band opted to record the album locally was typical ;- common practice at the time was to take long-form recording projects abroad, usually to the U.K.. But Hinterland were happier around the familiar ;- Ringsend was practically in their own back-yard.

Ropewalk was Dublin’s first fully digital studio and, once the band and studio crew fetched up, the primary objectives were to create a live drum sound and to layer-up and polish the general soundscape. Chris remembers the whole process in detail ;- he particularly recalls Gerry Leonard’s guitar sound [‘one of the three most recognisable players in Dublin, along with Ray Harman and The Edge, especially in his use of finger-picking and when he played slide’] and Donal’s lyrics, most of which were rooted in the darkly personal. The sessions were intensive and the working days were long ;- the core crew worked from 11 every morning until after midnight and the only concession to type was the catering that was provided daily on site. At one stage, Island’s flamboyant owner, Chris Blackwell, dropped by – replete in sunglasses and shorts – to listen to the work in progress and to cast an ear on the material.

The band was augmented during the recording – and later when they toured – by Wayne Sheehy, one of the country’s most physical and capable drummers and who, in a past life, had played with Cactus World News, among others. And yet on several tracks, his role was pared right back, often confined to complicated rhythms and rolls :- it was as if Coghlan and Leonard were challenging him, testing the cut of his gib.

 

 

But the playing throughout is magnificent and the record boasts many special moments. ‘Dark Hill’ apart, a soft magic runs through ‘Handle Me’ which, in my view, is the record’s heart. An unsettlingly personal song, it looks into the future and pictures the physical disintegration of a loyal lover’s spirit and body. Elsewhere, ‘Stanley’s Minutes’ records the death of ‘a down-and out from the The Iveagh Hostel’ in the shadows of the Pro Cathedral in Dublin and, over a trade-mark guitar entry concludes with a real cut ;- ‘Thanks be to God it wasn’t suicide. There’s no such thing as suicide’.

And there are others too ;- ‘Senior Romantics’, with it’s breathy backing vocals by Leslie Mooney, the airy ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Dive The Deepest’ among the diadem. And although ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s rattle and pluck, is out of character with both the rest of the record and with the band’s song-book generally, the warm, Mumford-esque gallivant name-checks St. Anne’s Park in Raheny, The Dandelion Market and The Burrow Beach in Sutton on it’s breezy journey through Dublin city. It is, in its own way, as poignant a local snapshot of youth as Whipping Boy’s ‘When We Were Young’.

I can remember the first time I clapped eyes on Hinterland. ‘Jo Maxi’ was a popular youth series that dominated the tea-time schedules on what was then Network 2 during the late 1980s and that, to it’s credit, consistently supported all manner of new music, much of it Irish. Sat there one evening on a small studio rostrum in his fresh black denims, stacked-sole shoes and fisherman’s hat, Donal Coghlan looked typically disconcerted, humble. Gerry and himself gave a basic synopsis of Hinterland’s story, mentioned their deal with a major label and then one of the presenters cued a short clip of the ‘Dark Hill’ video.

Apart from a subsequent Late Late Show appearance in support of ‘Desert Boots’, a couple of minor jousts with myself on another youth series, ‘Scratch Saturday’ and an afternoon encounter with Ray D’Arcy and Zig and Zag on ‘The Den’, not a whole lot more remains in the video archive. The album came and went and the band headed out into the open in support of it, playing one particular blinder in De Lacy House in Cork and opening for Prefab Sprout [with whom, philosophically, the band was very aligned] on the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ tour in The Point Depot in Dublin. ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s cutesy video and wide-screen notions, generated an amount of popular traction and airplay but, even then, you suspected that Hinterland were just a band out of time, destined to forever play catch-up.

In a terraced house in Ealing, West London, in 1991, myself and my landlord, Ken Sweeney, would marvel at them. Ken, who was recording for Setanta Records as Brian, had rescued me from a deranged set-up in a squat in Peckham and now, safe and warm and far away across town, we’d swap war stories in the evenings and talk long into the nights about Miracle Legion, Into Paradise and The Go-Betweens. Hinterland too were de-constructed at length in Ealing ;- I’d been sent a copy of ‘Resurrect’, a four-track E.P containing three new songs and also ‘Love Quarantine’, the magnificent ‘Desert Boots’ B-side that the band felt didn’t quite fit onto ‘Kissing The Roof of Heaven’, and we gorged on it. Donal and Gerry were looking ahead to a second album and were flouting their prowess with a handful of optimistic and ambitious songs, ‘Born Again [Excuse The Pun]’ most memorably among them.

But the ship failed to find port and, by 1994, Hinterland more or less ceased to be ;- the band’s efforts to crack the American market were unsuccessful and, eventually, they were let go by their record company. Hinterland exited the stage just as they’d entered onto it ;- quietly and without fanfare and to the sound of a loyal few clapping. When, years later, Donal Coghlan made a cameo appearance on Brian’s second Setanta album, 1999’s ‘Bring Trouble’, it completed a circle of sorts and also reminded a handful of us of what could, should and might have been.

By that stage, Gerry Leonard had already left Ireland for New York and, as he did so, Donal Coghlan repaired closer to home, coming to grips, literally, with the M.S., diagnosed years previously, that was impacting on his mobility, if not his spirit. It was only after the band had released ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ that he revealed his long struggle with the degenerative illness and, by so doing, maybe cast another light into some of the more personal songs on that album.

I last met Donal in 2000 in his apartment in Dublin city. He was in chipper form, confined increasingly to a wheelchair and was a proud father to a young son, Zac. The previous year he’d directed his first short film, ‘The Spa’, and had written another short, ‘Handy Andy’, both of which were made through the Lights, Disability, Action initiative and had been screened at The Galway Film Festival. He was, as always, terrific company, clear in his own mind that he’d left able-bodied society and wasn’t returning, already busy as a campaigner and advocate for disability issues.

I think about Donal Coghlan quite a bit and regularly return to ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ and, when I heard Gerry Leonard on radio paying tribute to David Bowie recently, he sprung across my mind once again. Donal Coghlan’s writing may not have re-defined popular music and the way we listened to it but, in his own way, has left it’s own kind of under-stated, under-regarded magic as a legacy.

Hinterland clearly mean little in the recent history of Irish popular music and, understandable as that is, they’re in good company. Into Paradise, Jubilee Allstars, Pony Club and Ten Speed Racer are among the notable others who, outside of the blind sadism of die-hards and anoraks, rarely command the acknowledgement they’re due. But ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, with it’s stories and it’s screams, is always worth re-visiting and, knowing more now than we ever did back then, deserves an all-over re-appraisal.

 

 

 

 

 

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.