Cork City Libraries

A SONG FOR CORK

So, ‘After All’ by The Frank And Walters is Cork’s favourite song, as voted by those who took part in an on-line campaign organised recently by the Cork City Library, in association with Creative Ireland. Popular polls like these aren’t intended to be taken in any way seriously and there are far more pressing issues with which to get carried away. So we won’t.

Indeed, that the call to find Cork’s favourite song cast a light on the phenomenal service afforded by the country’s library system, is perhaps its most significant achievement. ‘Celebrating Cork’s musical heritage and the contribution of The Music Library over the past 41 years’, ran the opening line of the press release to launch the event. And so say all of us.

‘After All’ is one of the best pop songs ever written or recorded by an Irish group, and it’s certainly one of the best ever committed to wax by a Cork act. As such, it sates the criteria laid down by the organisers when they called on the public to ‘think about songs unique to Cork that have helped to shape and define our city’. That The Franks’ home town has, and continues to be, so influential in the shaping of their work, will always give them a competitive edge during more partisan occasions like these. They’ve never attempted to cover their tracks: in marketing speak, they’ve long foregrounded their Corkness, particularly so during those magical years on the international circuit between 1992 and 1997. For which, I would contend, they paid dearly, even if their parochial carry-on anchored them forever in the hearts of their own people.

Although the band’s background is fundamental to everything that’s ever defined them, The Franks’ most popular song – and now, Cork’s favourite – deals instead with a well-worn broader theme and is devoid of the local reference points that populate so much of their other material. ‘After All’ is a straight-forward and efficient pop song that, like much of the band’s catalogue, sends an uncomplicated message to its subject; ‘after all … I’m glad you’re mine’.

I’ve written previously about both the band and the song but it’s worth re-iterating here how timeless ‘After All’ is. Written in Cork and London and first released in 1992, it clearly resonates with not only those who remember it from the time but plenty more who don’t. In the best and worst traditions of these things, there have been numerous versions of the song attempted in the decades since, from the stages of pre-school plays to the bus-hijack scene in Peter Foott’s terrific television drama series, ‘The Young Offenders’. Enough to consistently pump oxygen into the song and re-energise it for various different audiences, traditionally a hallmark of the really great songs. A recent case in point being a version of ‘After All’ performed last Christmas by a group of primary schoolchildren in Ballinspittle National School in Cork using Irish Sign language.

I’ve made numerous lofty claims on the band’s behalf over the many years I’ve known them but I was convinced that ‘After All’ had crossed the Rubicon after I heard it performed by a wedding band in Cork the year after its release. In the sprawling expanse of one of the ballrooms in The Rochestown Park Hotel, the song dragged the various generations away from the remnants of the carvery and out onto the dance-floor, all of them mouthing the sing-a-long. At which point ‘After All’ moved seamlessly into the same orbit as ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. You know you’ve arrived and that there’s no going back after you’ve been honoured in this manner by Larry And The Partners.

A generation of Cork cabaret bands have belted it out with varying degrees of success at social events in the years since. It’s a straight-forward enough song to perform and sing: infinitely more so than, say, either ‘Only Losers Take The Bus’ by The Fatima Mansions or ‘Kelly From Killeens’ by Five Go Down To The Sea, neither of which are heard too frequently at weddings or christenings. And maybe with good reason.

‘After All’ has a gentle Cork veneer about it but, beyond Paul’s pronunciation, nothing more. It’s certainly not a song about Cork and, in that respect, is nowhere near as unapologetically located as, say, Seán O’Callaghan’s ‘The Armoured Car’, among my own favourite Cork songs and one I first heard during the late 1970s. ‘The Armoured Car’ appeared on Jimmy Crowley’s debut album, ‘The Boys Of Fair Hill’, released on the Mulligan label in 1977, and details the remarkable, real-life exploits of a famous hunting dog owned by Connie Doyle of the Fair Hill Harriers.

Drag-hunting has long been a popular winter sport in Cork: at least it was during those years I spent growing up on the Ashgrove estate in Ballyvolane in the shadow of a well-known pub, The Fox And Hounds. Outside of which scores of foxhunters and road bowlers would regularly gather before hitting the back roads for sport out beyond Dublin Pike, Kilcully and Whitechurch.

Jimmy Crowley was, for many years, one of the most high-profile Corkmen in the country, arguably hitting his creative peak during Jack Lynch’s years as Taoiseach in the late 1970s and while Cork hurling was snaring three All-Ireland hurling titles in a row. As a curator and performer of traditional songs, local yarns and tall tales, he found a prescience and relevance during one of the more remarkable periods in the city’s recent social history, capturing the feats of Cork’s finest bowl players, hunting dogs, hurlers, nobbers and drinkers. Even if, by so doing, he often flouted the fine line between social historian and professional Corkman.

But as both a solo performer and as leader of a fine local ensemble, Stoker’s Lodge, he made – and continues to make – an enormous contribution to history and heritage matters in Cork. So much so that he can be forgiven, just about, for a reggae version of ‘The Boys Of Fairhill’ he released in 1982. An act which, at best, can be described as ill-advised.

For several years, Crowley attracted RTÉ camera crews into the city during a decade when, broadly speaking, Cork was on its knees. By capturing him at work and at play, those television appearances gave some of us – especially those of us on the Northside – a rare glimpse of our neighbours on a national canvas. An extraordinary insert shot in 1975 for an early-evening magazine programme, PM, produced and directed by Eoghan Harris, in which members of the Harriers discuss their dogs and wives over pints and chasers, has thankfully survived as another reminder of the way we were.

Jimmy Crowley’s repertoire was almost exclusively born and bred in Cork, and included faithful renditions of ‘Salonika’, ‘The Boys Of Fairhill’ and ‘Boozing’, all of which he sung in a distinctly local drawl. ‘The Armoured Car’, though, has long been my own favourite from that collection because, at its heart and in its lyrical detail, it unashamedly celebrates just how untouchable a people we are. ‘Twas on the green fields of Gurranabraher’ that The Armoured Car ‘first declared war on his terrible Southern foes’ but although the song celebrates the achievements of a hunting dog who slayed ‘all-comers from Castlebar to Timoleague’, ‘The Armoured Car’ can also be read as a metaphor for the unbreakable spirit of the northside. As such, it’s as edgy a song about Cork as anything that has followed it since.

Of which there are many. Any self-respecting list of great songs by Cork writers and performers would go on for an eternity, crossing the generations, languages and the genres. Off of the top of my head, the essentials might include ‘Follow Me’ and ‘Wheels Within Wheels’ by Gallagher, ‘Michiko’ and ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ by The Sultans, ‘Princes Street’ by The Stargazers, ‘Town To Town’ by Microdisney and Stump’s ‘Charlton Heston’. The Holy Trinity of The Belsonic Sound, Burning Embers and Cypress, Mine ! built the bridge from the new-wave of the 1980s to the newer wave of the 1990s and, in any case, ‘Colourblind’, ‘Now That You’re Gone’ and ‘Anxious’ are all fine, varied representations of three bands that perhaps, given what followed them, don’t tend to get the credit they deserve.

I’d make a strong case too for the likes of ‘Call Yossarian’ by LMNO Pelican, ‘Robin’s Party’ by Nothing Like Strauss, Benny’s Head’s ‘Backwater’, ‘William’ by The Emperors of Ice Cream, ‘The Darkness’ by Flex And The Fastweather, ‘Who’s Fooling Who’ by that group’s mainstay, Paul Tiernan, ‘Sparkle’ by Ruby Horse, ‘That’s Why We Lose Control’ by The Young Offenders, ‘Running’ by Fred, ‘There’s A Fish On Top of Shandon Swears He’s Elvis’ by Five Go Down To Sea, Mick Flannery’s ‘How High?’ and, of course, any one of numerous versions of ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’. With a special rosette to anyone who’s included the famous second verse, whose existence seems lost on many of those who perform it as a party piece.

I haven’t touched on the glut of contemporary dance sounds currently popping the city’s soundscape or, indeed, bands like Cyclefly, Boa Morte, Bass Odyssey, The Orange Fetishes, The Altered Hours, The Caroline Shout, Crystal, Sindikat, Censored Vision, Serengeti Long Walk, Scarlet Page and Jinx. All of whom, across a full spectrum of styles, repeatedly put their best feet bravely forward when it was neither profitable not fashionable. And all of whom have at least one, Cork-made banger to their names.

For what it’s worth, my own favourite song about Cork is ‘Down by The River Lee’, written and performed by Kooky, a long-lost one-man operation that burned briefly on a terrific album during the closing days of the last century. Kooky was – and remains, presumably – the creative preserve of Tony O’Sullivan, the improbably handsome former Soon vocalist who released his only elpee, ‘The Good Old Days’, on his own label in the spring of 1999. I’d first come across him years previously, when he was part of the ensemble at the Graffiti Theatre company, then an emerging and exciting young troupe under the formidable stewardship of Emelie Fitzgibbon. Graffiti staged two memorable but very different original productions at the old Ivernia Theatre on The Grand Parade during the mid-1980s, ‘Strong As Horses’ and ‘Silence The Ravens’ that melded a rock and roll sensibility to new writing for theatre in the city. The Graffiti cast also featured the not inconsiderable talent of a number of young locals, Liam Heffernan, Anne Callanan, Miriam Brady and Charlie Ruxton among them.

So it’s hardly surprising that Tony consistently brought a dramatic edge and no little theatre to his music and singing, be that with Soon, who also featured the guitarist, Giordhaí Ó Laoghaire, or another of his side-projects, The Love Handles, who gigged infrequently at The Rock Garden in Dublin during the early 90s. But he most effectively found his meter on ‘The Good Old Days’, which he recorded over time and on a tiny budget with a group of friends and confidantes, Maurice ‘Seezer’ Roycroft most prominently.

‘The Good Old Days’ – which opens with an old archive clip from the late Leonard Sachs, who hosted the popular BBC entertainment revue of the same name – is a powerful piece of work that’s dominated by Tony’s fine tenor and a writing sensibility that nods to vintage Scott Walker and the poppier ambition of The Divine Comedy. Under-cutting the entire enterprise is a warm nostalgia for, and keen insight into, life and society in Cork during the early 1980s, as hinted in the album’s title. ‘The Good Old Days’ is difficult, if not impossible, to locate now, which of course only adds to its allure: in the spirit of d.i.y., not a whole lot of copies were originally minted. But it’s rinsed through with numerous references to Cork and it’s people – Finbarr Donnelly, The Innisfallen, The English Market, The Long Valley, schoolyard vignettes and general local capers – and no more so than on ‘Down By The River Lee’.

With a floral brass decoration scaffolding its whopping chorus, it marries a partisan lyrical flourish – ‘Mary got a fifty on her first real date’ – with the saucy energy heard the previous year on Neil Hannon’s ‘The National Express’, a comparison for which the writer might not necessarily thank me. The rest of the album is more complicated: ‘Edwardian’ was the term used by Kevin Courtney when he reviewed it in The Irish Times. But there’s still something resoundingly and re-assuringly bold and brave about it, even twenty-one years later. Especially on the title-cut and certainly on the closer, ‘I’m Taking Her Away From You’, a mighty track by any stretch that showcases Tony’s vocal range and his gift as a writer.

Of course any search for Cork’s Favourite Song will, ultimately, be a fruitless one because, as is obvious from the last fifteen minutes you’ve spent with us here, Cork has many favourite songs. As indeed do all of us who registered votes with the recent poll. What’s most apparent, though, is just how many quality songs have been penned over the last forty years by Cork writers of all hues, particularly songs about Cork city and its many vagaries. The city’s physical and emotional landscape has long been a rich source for many of those involved in the arts, and given the glut of edgy contemporary acts still pulling from that supply line, shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. ‘After All’ is a worthy and deserved favourite song of Cork but there are many more where it came from and it’s no harm, the odd time, to remind ourselves of that.

Or, in old money, to take a step back and consider once again how great we are. Strong as horses, that’s us.

APPENDICES:

A playlist of (most) of the songs and bands featured in this post can be found here.

Some suggested Cork songs via our Twitter feed can be found here