Conor O’Brien

TALES OF THE TAPE

 

The delicate art of just being there can be tricky enough to manage at the best of times, especially to those of us long gone from the streets that raised us, in exile. But just because we’re out of sight, keeping our eyes on the ball and one foot ahead of the other, doesn’t mean we think any less of those we’ve left behind. Distance, indeed, will often bring a far greater intensity and perspective to any relationship. And whenever I return home now – for family occasions, celebrations, at times of loss and grief or just, simply, to catch up with my parents and siblings and attempt to stay in touch – I’m dealing increasingly with a far more complicated backdrop :- the slow-dance with old ghosts.

My mother must have documented the lot. And anytime I’m home now, she’ll produce a series of photographs or a scrap-book or an old three-hour VHS tape, beaten and war-torn, its struggling body wrapped in vandalised cardboard casing and bearing random television programme titles from the last century scrawled in biro on it’s spine. She must have a bottomless treasury of old clippings, by-lines through the decades, a cache of old videotape, old press releases, band publicity photographs and under-age match reports. And its probably just as well :- as someone who struggles to remember what I did last month, the late 1980s are a daunting challenge.

She built up that store over decades knowing that the day would eventually come when, quietly and without fanfare, we’d be actively looking to pass the torch on. That there’d ultimately be an hour when what were once just fleeting snapshots in time would assume much more significance, as happens now with every trip home, every milestone reached, birthday celebrated, every year chalked down. And the more we’ve lost over-board along the way – mighty uncles, mighty aunts, a barely born niece, grand-parents, friends, enemies, relationships and time – the more that personal archive takes on more stature. And the more we’re thankful for the diligence and the soft hands of the record keeper.

My own children, no moreso than anyone elses, can’t believe that we ever lived like we did all the way back in the 1980s. That we ever dressed like we did or that we ever communicated to one another in a real world and not in an unreal, virtual one. Or that we ever played music directly from vinyl :- it’s a concept that, to those growing up at a time when one of the first motor instincts in any young child now can often be to try and swipe at a television screen with a finger, is just beyond them.

So where does one even start when it comes to the not insignificant matter of the Cassette Tape which, I’d contend, has always been the national music format of choice and one to which the country has been instinctively drawn for decades and across all aspects of society, from the most curious of collectors on the margins to the religious crackpots out there beyond the beyond.

I honestly thought we’d seen the last of the cassette which, during the 1980s and 1990s, was a vital tool in our armoury and one that we deployed in many different guises. But despite thirty years on death row, the format lingers on and, if recent trends continue to hold, may even be in line for a surprise pardon.

My first encounter with the cassette was up in my grandmother’s house in Farranree. She had a healthy supply of country and Irish compilation tapes stored alongside her favourite religious recordings and, when we’d swing by there on Sunday mornings, I’d often wade through her stash in the forlorn hope of locating something a bit more obtuse. In behind the work, perhaps, of Jimmy Shand, Isla Grant and Dónal Ring, a local accordion-playing ceilí band leader from out the road in Blarney who briefly – ‘featuring Paddy Carey’ – threatened a national chart breakthrough with ‘The Bold Christy Ring’ [‘his hurling’s most glorious, he’s always victorious, he’s Cork’s darling hurler, the bold Christy Ring’].

And although, against the honk of turnip on the boil outside in the small kitchen, this calibre of stuff was enough to scar you on sight, there was something unusually fetching about the cassette format itself. Like many of my favourite bands during this time, tapes were efficient, part magnetic, barely held together and, with the right amount of poking
with a pencil, would unravel in an instant.

I was reminded of the peculiar allure of the cassette recently when, during an unscheduled raid on Music Zone, a small, un-sung record shop in Douglas Shopping Centre in Cork, I saw that a couple of new releases – Morrissey’s ‘Low In High School’ among them – were also available on tape. And at a considerably lower price-point too. But although I rarely, if ever, bought any new music on cassette, tape was actually where the real business of my youth was done, the currency of the oik and the everyday language of the indie ghetto. Like fanzines, good brogues and satchels, tape separated the anoraks from the day-trippers and all of those who were simply passing through. Demo tapes, pre-release tapes, compilation tapes and crudely-recorded sessions, taped from the radio, were all part of the vernacular of the day, essential companions to any aspiring collection – and collector – of wax.

Much has been made in long magazine features, contemporary novels and even screenplays, of the impact and influence of ‘the mix-tape’, the preferred method of communication during the 1980s for indie snobs, show-offs, aspiring [usually perspiring] musos, trainspotters and enthusiasts. Many of whom struggled to finish their sentences whenever regular conversations veered off course and into areas that didn’t involve Morrissey and Robert Smith. And who almost always tended to be single and pitied.

Usually featuring a carefully curated selection of songs by left-field bands and artists and, more often than not, recorded crudely from vinyl originals to cassette via the domestic three-in-one, the mix tape used music in lieu of common discourse, sending out subtle messages, flirty hints, signals and political and personal suggestions. Ultimately, though, the mix tape was often just an awkward cri de coeur.

Showing scant regard for the baleful suggestions carried inside many international vinyl releases warning that home taping was illegal and, worse again – over an apocalyptic crossbones logo – that the practice was killing music, the home-grown compilation cassette worked on the same basic principle as the engagement ring. One only ever gave or received a mix tape after a period of courtship, often short and intensive, during which both sides had established common ground – a shared affection for The Cure, R.E.M, The Wedding Present and The Fall, usually – before moving on together, for better, worse and usually poorer, to the more challenging aspects of the human condition. Where the likes of The Stooges, vintage Bowie and The Velvet Underground were located.

Pickled with runes, tunes and indie metaphors, a standard mix-tape designed to make an immediate impression might have opened with ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ by The Smiths before gliding softly onto R.E.M.’s ‘Pretty Persuasion’, something lateral by The Beatles, Depeche Mode’s ‘See You’, The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’, ‘Always The Quiet One’ by The Wedding Present, an assortment of frankly unlistenable c86 codology [The Pastels, Eyeless in Gaza and Gene Loves Jezebel] before closing out with a plaintive question, disguised as an end-of-show statement :- Buzzcocks ‘What Do I Get ?’.

 

 

I made numerous such cassettes over the years, for men, for women, for folk I knew well and folk I hardly knew at all. And each one of them recklessly surfed the lines between what I considered to be studied cool, the vagaries of random personal selection and absolute pretentiousness. ‘Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fire’ by The Cocteau Twins and something more obtuse than usual by Einstürzende Neubauten were regular gold-plated cuts in this respect, even if what was often gained on the roundabout of hip was lost quickly on the swing of the practical reality. Because it was virtually impossible to fit longer titles and band-names onto the in-lay cards inside the cassette boxes without making an artless mess, which tended to defeat the purpose.

Bound by an enduring sense that, ultimately, I just knew better, I poured my heart and soul – and pints of Tippex – into those compilations, every single one of them constructed with the kind of care I used decades later when we took our first-born daughter home from hospital for the first time. Songs were inserted carefully into particular order, lovingly and pointedly selected and wrapped with real intent. And of course most of them were assembled while I could and should have had my head buried in text books instead. Indeed, had the fine art of ‘The Mix Tape’ been a core honours subject on The Leaving Certificate, I’d have rolled into U.C.C. on a scholarship to Electrical Engineering and featured on the main evening news as an over-achieving academic freak-show instead of just simply just stumbling up the main avenue into college looking like a failed lab experiment. But we were happy, apparently.

I received – and devoured – many mix tapes over the years too. The best and easily most influential of which was a compilation from a fellow traveller I met on a course on youth leadership, no less, in Newbridge in County Kildare during the early 1980s. Slightly older and also called Colm, he was a student of philosophy and theology at university in Northern Ireland and we bonded instantly. Or as quickly as it emerged we were fans of the same sort of music and, because he had a few years on me he was able to pull from a far deeper well of experience and reference, which he shared freely. This, to me, was a
definitive form of youth leadership.

We spent many hours on that course locked in intensive discussion about the importance of sharp lyrics and music with an edge and, during our last night on the campus, as everyone was preparing to pack up and leave, he gave a formidable, unscripted homily to the entire group about the power of friendship, signing off with a verse of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’. ‘May you always be courageous, stand up right and be strong. And may you stay forever young’. And after he’d finished, I felt like breaking out through the wall and running the journey back to Cork.

Within days of getting back home, an absurdly wide-ranging, home-produced cassette arrived for me. More or less synopsising, through an almighty breadth of styles and sounds, the conversations we’d had the previous week, it was a perfect diadem. In-set among which were lateral cuts from The Fall, Alain Stivell, Bob Dylan, Throbbing Gristle, Neil Young and Holger Czukay and, over the course of that bulging sixty minute, two-sided cassette, I saw the light and the light was good. Colm had shown me, basically, how to kill my darlings and set my snobbery to one side. Because it was obvious, from the expanse of new music at my elbow, that quality music could reside anywhere and everywhere and that there was real magic in diversity. And of course, as these things tend to go, that was the last I ever heard from him.

Morty McCarthy – the drummer, advocate and philosopher – was another enthusiastic tape trader around Cork and I’ve written previously about how, because of his energy, various peccadillos and his ear for a tune, I grew and developed a lifelong friendship with The Frank And Walters. He’d compile regular guitar-led manifestos onto tape and distribute them freely around his peer group, steadfast in his view that indie-pop would one day save civilisation from itself. God knows where he sourced some of the stuff that turned up on those tapes and yet, to this day, I’m thankful for the introduction he brokered between McCarthy [the politically-charged, no-frills, straight-in, no kissing indie janglers who, sadly, bore no direct family relation to him] and myself. That band’s three albums – ‘I Am A Wallet’, ‘The Enraged Will Inherit The Earth’ and ‘Banking, Violence And The Inner Life Today’ – are easily among my favourite records of all time and I can trace this life-long affair all the way back to a poorly-recorded, c60 cassette tape traded
under streetlight.

Morty dealt openly too in one of the more extreme aspects of the format – the demo tape – and I don’t think he was never more giddy than when some young local shower would emerge, direct from the eight-track cauldron at Elm Tree Studios on The Mardyke, with their three-song, two-chord calling card burning holes in their jeans, ready to take on all comers. I pored over hundreds of demo tapes down the years, often at Morty’s prompting, and spent many miserable hours – that I won’t ever get back – chasing fool’s gold.

 

 

But the rare glint of magic through the gap, and that instinctive sense that something rare was bubbling beneath the crude over-lay, always had me coming back. I can remember still, of course, the whiff of cordite that popped the air around me when I first played the uncouth, unpolished and unsteady studio demos from the likes of The Franks, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic and Whipping Boy. As Liam McMahon, who managed a teenage Roy Keane at Cobh Ramblers asked Dave Hannigan in our 1997 television documentary, ‘Have Boots, Will Travel’ ;- ‘What price do you put on potential ?’.

Easily the most jaw-dropping demo I can ever remember was the first tape sent to Setanta Records by Neil Hannon after he’d jettisoned his band and his shoe-gazing aspirations and retreated back to Enniskillen to re-invent himself as a solo performer.

Coarsely committed to tape using a basic four-track, Tascam machine and recorded in a shed behind his family home, that cassette featured, in skeletal form, the guts of what subsequently became The Divine Comedy’s ‘Liberation’ album. And still, even as a series of callow sketches and rough outlines, it just dripped with raw majesty :- it was for this kind of unexpected sorcery that I could excuse the bulk of what had gone before me and to which I had voluntarily subjected myself.

 

 

As an emerging and already respected label making waves and noise while our competitors were pulling in cash, Setanta received a regular barrage of cassettes from aspiring, hopeful acts, many of them Irish and most of which were plainly unlistenable. But because necessity is the mother of invention and because we were fervent re-cyclers, we found plenty of use for most of them :- in the spirit of punk rock and doing it for ourselves, we’d record over them with some of our own forthcoming material and re-distribute them as samplers to the loyal band of admirers on our mailing lists.

Keith Cullen, Setanta’s founder and chief strategist, never fully grasped the popularity of the cassette form back in Ireland and would mention this whenever he was arguing that the market there was irrelevant. Which was often. Long after tape had become a dead format in Britain – who remembers Minidiscs ? – Setanta would often have no other choice but to produce a special run of cassettes, at significant cost and with no little bother, whenever we released anything by A House, for instance.

One of the biggest regrets I have about many of my own relationships – with friends, girlfriends, colleagues, passing acquaintances – is the amount of quality music I lost or squandered along the way in the hope, like Morty all of those years previously, of maybe setting broader society on the right path. I loaned The Trashcan Sinatras’ ‘A Happy Pocket’ to so many different people over the years that I’ve had to replenish my own stock at least ten times and yet, up to recently, didn’t actually have a physical copy I could call my own. A sad state of affairs made sadder by the knowledge that, irrespective of how truly magnificent that record is, it served as either a coaster or a serving tray in some squalid Dublin flat long after I’d been given my marching orders or decided to up sticks because of irreconcilable music differences.

The moral being, I suppose, that while it’s never too late to repent, some souls just aren’t worth saving.

To accompany this piece there is a specially created Mix Tape… 

 

 

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GEMMA HAYES

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Life as a parent clearly suits her.

And her work.