Cork

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

BRIAN O’DONNELL AND THE ORDERS OF THE HIBERNIAN

Brian O’Donnell

I don’t envy whoever is charged with delivering Brian O’Donnell’s eulogy before he’s sent on his way next week. His formidable reputation preceded him, and everyone who ever set foot inside the bar he ran, The Hi-B, on the corner of Oliver Plunkett Street and Winthrop Street in the middle of Cork city, will have left with a story, a scream and often a flea in the ear. Brian was a prolific hit factory and, since news of his death was announced this morning, many of his greatest put-downs, one-liners and japes have already had an airing. There are volumes more in the vaults.

In the best traditions of the great bars, The Hi-B was cut in the likeness of its owner, whose tics and traits could be read in the absence of anything remotely new-fangled or contemporary on the premises. His only aesthetic concession within the four walls of the tiny pub was to classical music and, in some of his balmier moments, he’d come out from behind the bar and blast out a couple of verses from an aria. The bar was utterly pretentious in its outward lack of pretentiousness and, once inside the door, no one was allowed to be more intelligent, or to enjoy more intelligent pursuits, than the owner himself.

I killed many an hour in The Hi-B, either avoiding the grim inevitability of work or, as was often the case, preparing to go on somewhere else. From the leather seats in the window, you’d be able to look down onto Winthrop Street and get a sense of the mood around town. This was especially so during the clammy evenings in summer while the buskers – Mark O’Sullivan and Tony Campagno, most prominently – were going at it on that pitch just beside The Long Valley, in many respects The Hi-B’s spiritual companion across the street.

Try as I did – and I made numerous efforts – I found it impossible to ever spend an entire night in The Hi-B because of the constant honk of cordite. You never knew when Brian might wire into you and it was always better to get out of there while the scores were level. And so he became my regular support act whenever any artist of note – and plenty more without a note – were playing at De Lacy House, down at the other end of Oliver Plunkett Street. From high culture to popular culture in the length of a street, this, for many years, was my routine.

For a bar whose regulars fetched up from all arts and parts – think of the cast of Cheers and then think of the absolute polar opposite, many of them in tweeds and twill, and you’re close – The Hi-B was perennially popular with students, and students were popular with Brian. Many of whom he saw, I suspect, as fresh meat in need of intellectual seasoning and proper finishing, which he provided in abundance. To that end, and ever so slightly mis-calibrated, The Hi-B was the most interesting and tangential bar in the city, like something that Quentin Blake might have drawn for a Roald Dahl short-story co-written with Seán Ó Faoláin. Shabbily chic – or, in old money, dusty and dilapidated – it boasted a considerable beard quotient too and, despite its contempt for trends and trend-setters, certainly attracted its share of posers, poets, fashionistas and thinkers. The odd time, you’d even see a woman there.

But Brian was quick to adapt, too. In Dan Buckley’s profile of Brian in The Irish Examiner in 2012, the writer mentions how his subject grew to despise mobile phones and technology with the same ferocity as he long disregarded radio, television and broadcasters. His philosophy was simple: bars were for drinking and socialising in and, therefore, that space needed to be tended and protected. And so although it always looked to me like it was plugged in, I can never remember the old television set ever once being turned on, even if regulars assure me it was briefly defibrillated into life during the penalty shoot-out at the Ireland-Romania World Cup match in Genoa in 1990. A game which clearly took place while Brian was elsewhere.

Sport was just too coarse for a publican of far more sophisticated tastes. Which is ironic given how Brian sits into Cork’s canon of public personalities – Sonia, Seán Óg, Roy – known popularly by their first names only and for their heroics on the fields and tracks. Indeed it was only when I had to interview him for a short Hot Press preview years ago that it dawned on me to ask him what his surname was. For years, he’d simply been ‘Brian’ or, at a push, ‘Brian from The Hi-B’.

By then, and like practically everyone else who set foot inside the door of his first-floor speakeasy, I’d routinely been abused by him from behind the bar, threatened with various suspensions and warned about my manners. And like most of his other customers, I kept going back there because, in my more reflective moments, and once I’d looked into my heart, I knew he was right in everything he said.

But the cabaret and the burlesque was really seductive too, what strategists and marketing executives now refer to as ‘unique selling points’: and precisely the kind of guff that Brian would put the run on you for. During the summer of 1990, I was helping out on an RTÉ Current Affairs investigative piece on some bent goings-on out the road and, every evening, I’d convene with the producer and reporter in The Hi-B to assess our progress. My colleagues, neither of whom are from Cork, were captivated by Brian, his bar and what they termed ‘The Floor Show’: like The Late Late Show in its pomp, The Hi-B was unscripted, live and you were never quite sure who was going to turn up, how drunk they were going to be and what was going to kick off. With Brian producing, directing and presenting, naturally.

Like everywhere else, Cork has long had its share of cranky bar owners, male and female, and Brian was as frequently discourteous as the worst of them. He was the antithesis of anything they ever taught you about protocol and etiquette in what we describe as ‘the hospitality sector’, but then, while he ran his bar, he never regarded himself as anything other than an old-school publican. ‘Support your local breweries’, he once chided a friend of mine whose crime was to order a bottle of sparkling water.

Because beyond everything else, Brian knew how a bar worked. This wasn’t just a business or a trade. It was far more important than that.

OPERATION TRANSFORMATION

De Lacy House, with its multiple floors, was an often-unheralded venue in the cardo of Cork city during those glory years from the mid-1980s onwards. But under the management of Don Forde – the original Dapper Don – it eventually became one of the more important and lucrative stop-offs on the national live circuit.

De Lacys operated a catholic booking policy and hosted a vast and varied array of acts – folk, trad, jazz, blues and alternative rock music – over the course of at least fifteen years. But it was at the very top of the house that the real magic shook down and, although it never quite enjoyed Sir Henry’s lustre, De Lacys was a terrific venue in its own right and is just as entitled to its place in local music lore. 

I saw, on that top floor, a series of electric performances over the years by A House, Roddy Frame, Martin Stephenson, The Fatima Mansions, Power Of Dreams, The Wannadies and numerous others, during which the parquet boards would come under savage pressure from those floating across it. Many of those shows were promoted by the late and fondly remembered local promoter, Des Blair. 

The tone at De Lacys was set at the main door and, in particular, by the elaborately coiffured figure of Tony Hennessy. Who, when he wasn’t kicking imaginary footballs down Barrack Street or refereeing juvenile soccer fixtures, manned the front of house for years with the manners and good humour of an experienced sommelier.   

For years Tony also doubled up as my first line of critical thinking and, on my way past him, he’d offer up pithy previews based on the calibre of punter already inside the venue or the noise levels he’d endured at the soundchecks. Its fair to say that, during his many years on patrol, the live music crowd caused him few, if any, problems and I suspect that many of his views were framed by that: – he had a healthy regard for the music and those who supported it even if, the odd time, I’d see him with plugs discreetly lodged in both ears.     

Tony was one of the handful present on a slow Sunday night late in 1988 when The Fat Lady Sings – a Dublin four-piece in exile in London – played live in Cork for the first time. De Lacys, located towards the Grand Parade end of Oliver Plunkett Street and an absolute hoor to get a sound rig in and out of, had over-estimated the group’s pulling power and, by any standards, Tony and his crew enjoyed one of their quieter nights on the drag. Inside, meanwhile, TFLS were tearing the house down. 

In terms of how it supports live music, Cork has always been a law unto itself and I’ve referred to this previously in multiple posts. Sunday nights were always difficult to sell anyway, all the more so when it came to the not insignificant matter of new Dublin bands still learning to fly. Jeff Lynne famously wrote that, at some of the earlier Electric Light Orchestra gigs, the fledgling seven-piece band often out-numbered the paying audience. And although The Fat Lady Sings didn’t quite touch those levels at De Lacys, it was certainly touch-and-go for a while.

Those of us who did take the punt saw a terrific show from an outwardly cheery, emerging four-piece on the up who, two independently-released singles in, were bedding a couple of fresh recruits into their number. The night ended with the band on the dance floor with some of the doormen and the entire audience up on the stage, wigging out.

I picked up the band’s first two singles from the tat stall as I made my way out; – the jangled ‘Fear And Favour’, released on Good Vibrations a couple of years previously, and the delayed follow-up, the more rounded ‘Be Still’. I also added my name to the band’s mailing list and, for my troubles, was briefed routinely on their adventures for several years afterwards via a series of regular newsletters. Decades before GDPR and social media, I left De Lacys that night feeling uniquely invested in a new band and, as can often be the case after these kinds of blind encounters, followed their progress intently until the end.   

Even at this stage in their development, The Fat Lady Sings were a decent pop band with good ears and this much was evident within minutes of them mounting the boards in Cork. Fronted and led by Nick Kelly, whose good humour and broad smile were matched only by the ease with which he knocked out smart couplets, that first pair of singles had attracted decent notices that marked him as a canny writer with a leading edge. ‘Fear And Favour’, begins with the line ‘I’ve got a talent I’d rather be without’ which, as opening statements go, is straight in at elite level and certainly strong enough to prick the ears of even the most stupored free-lancer.  

The line-up on that single included David Sweeney on guitar and Finbarr O’Riordan on bass. Sweeney was a formidable musician who’d served his time on the Dublin mod scene, most notably with The Vipers, and founded The Fat Lady Sings with Kelly. I later worked closely with his brother, Ken, who recorded two fine albums for Setanta Records as Brian, and whose story I’ve attempted to capture here in a previous piece.  

Brian seldom came out from under the covers and Ken only ever played a handful of live shows during the decade he was aligned to Setanta. One of the most memorable of which was a support set before A House played The University of London Union in 1992, when Robert Hamilton – another of the original members of The Fat Lady Sings – fetched up on drums as part of the live Brian line-up.   

Nick’s stock-in-trade, then as forever, was the intelligent, lyrically astute love song and, unsurprisingly, the band attracted critical comparisons to Prefab Sprout who, at the time, were the standard bearers for anything even mildly bookish and self-effacing. In reality, The Fat Lady Sings had far more in common with the more straight-forward likes of The Bible, The Big Dish and even Deacon Blue and it was in this mildly left-of-centre space that the band eventually took root and, for a while, flourished.

It didn’t take them too long to return to Cork either :- within months, a missive from the group alerted me to another upcoming live show, this time in Mojos, then still known then by its maiden name, The Buckingham, over on George’s Quay. Having learned the hard way about the hierarchy of the city’s live music venues, the band was going for broke with its set-up: – an electric piano now dominated the tiny stage at the back of the pub. The Fat Lady Sings had, on the one hand, scaled down and, on the other, scaled up. 

TFLS were on the roads in Britain and Europe incessantly as the 1980s bled into the 90s and during which their tour van, known as Gloria Esther, was racking up the miles as quickly as the band itself was acquiring a decent live following. Off of the back of which it released two further self-financed singles, ‘Arclight’ and ‘Dronning Maud Land’, both issued on the band’s own label, Fourth Base, and which continued to propel them forward at pace.  

‘Arclight’ was a genuine gear-shifter for them and, with the added heft of the piano, saw them cut through on mainstream radio in Ireland and shake a number of record companies to attention. Thirty years on, it resounds with the same urgency as it did when I first heard it, still the band’s signature number and one of that familiar set, alongside ‘Celebrate’, ‘Parachute’, ‘Brewing Up A Storm’, ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ and ‘After All’ that, for many, soundtrack an intense period of opportunity and unprecedented optimism for new Irish popular music.   

‘Arclight’ is the band’s ‘Dignity’, and not just stylistically. Because although The Fat Lady Sings released far more ambitious and, to my mind, many better songs – the immediate follow-up, ‘Dronning Maud Land’, for instance, is a waltz that bravely features a piano accordion – I’m not sure if the wider public ever really saw past it? Or wanted to. So, while you’d hardly describe ‘Arclight’ as an albatross, I’m not sure if any of the band’s ensuing material ever really matched its punch.  

The song featured prominently on the band’s first album, ‘Twist’, released in May 1991, and produced by Paul Hardiman, Mike Roarty and the band. Alongside old reliables like ‘Be Still’, which was re-recorded – unsatisfactorily, in my own view – and the imperious ‘Gravy Train’, the record was intelligent, hummable and getting there. Caught in a hail of fire from all angles – Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ and U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ were among its many competitors for attention and had already closed off much of the space – ‘Twist’ was a fine debut. But, like too many of those Irish debuts issued between 1985 and 1995, just didn’t have enough about it and struggled to be heard above the general racket. 

The band’s second album, ‘Johnson’, released in 1993, was a far sturdier affair and, produced by Steve Osborne, is much steadier on its feet. The piano was less prominent, the accordion decommissioned and the heft, instead, was provided by layers of guitar, various synths and backing vocals. Robert Hamilton was no longer behind the traps either – he’d left the group to work on the Peace Together project – and the drums on the record were laid down by a terrific session player called Nic France. Ostensibly a jazz musician who, at the time, was part of Tanita Tikaram’s live band, those anoraks among us will note his influence all over the record: – the drums on ‘Johnson’ are magnificent.

It’s a far from breezy album, though. The opener, ‘Boil’, is a sulky affair that burbles away darkly until it bursts open over the final furlongs. ‘Strip the paint, drain the oil. Let it boil’, Nick sings, signaling perhaps the band’s change of tone as much as he’s detailing the vagaries of yet another relationship. The first single pulled from ‘Johnson’, ‘Show Of Myself’, opens with twin female vocals at the stand, sharing duties throughout with Nick’s plummy South Dublin drawl, a style of delivery heard years later on the songs of another fine pop band from the same part of the world, The Thrills. ‘Show Of Myself’ was, in hindsight, a peculiar choice to lead the charge and there are certainly a cluster of far more instant cuts in the middle-order, ‘World Exploding Touch’, ‘This Guitar’ and ‘Stealing A Plane’ most prominently.

‘World Exploding Touch’ also contains one of Nick’s finest stanzas when he sings, ‘I used to float inches off the ground, I was too weightless to ever be hurt. And I never knew the truth about untrue until I saw you in his shirt’. Which is redolent, and obviously so, of the ease with which the late Grant McLennan consistently captured the softness of the ordinary in the heart of broader, far more complicated themes.

The album also features what I consider to be the band’s best ever song, ‘Drunkard Logic’, the second cut lifted from ‘Johnson’ and the group’s most commercially successful single. Which, intentionally or otherwise, was still resonating years later on McLennan’s ‘Can You See The Lights’, one of the highlights on his 1997 elpee, ‘In Your Bright Ray’. And on which Nick reaches back to his years as a law student when he regally claims that ‘we don’t leave ourselves in many things, just in letters, leases, writs and rings’. Elsewhere, there are echoes of ‘Be Still’ on the gorgeous ‘Horse, Water, Wind’ and, given the band’s almost blemish-free history, I’m happy to grant them a free pass for the tin whistle and didgeridoo on the closer, ‘Providence’.

And then it was over. 

After years on the treadmill, The Fat Lady Sings had finally found a setting that suited the shape of their legs and the capacity of their lungs. But the course to the gains they’d made had taken a toll on their limbs and the eventual pay-off wasn’t exactly as had been promised in the brochures. Life on the road as a jobbing musician and writer had simply run into one cul-de-sac too many and Nick was off to pursue other ambitions. 

Decades on and he’s still keeping his hand in and, when he isn’t directing films or ads for television and cinema, Nick performs and records – as infrequently as can be expected of a man with multiple interests – as Alien Envoy. He’s released a brace of fine albums under his own name, ‘Between Trapezes’ [1997] and ‘Running Dog’ [2005], both on his own Self Possessed label. And from which the sombre, pared-back ‘Grey And Blue’, from that debut solo record, is worth the admission on its own.

But it’s for his body of work during that scarcely believable period from 1986 until 1994 that he’s still best remembered; – those songs tell their own stories and are still strong enough to do their own bidding. The Fat Lady Sings were a fine, fine band who got out while they were still ahead and just after they’d completed their best work. 

Who among us can say we’ve done that?

MICRODISNEY : THE END

Photograph © Fanning Sessions

If anything, they’re probably the best accidental band of our time, a haphazard and unlikely collision – or collusion ? – of reference, diffidence and influence that in theory, and maybe every other way too, never stood a chance. Like the central character in their opening number on this week’s farewell dates, ‘Mrs. Simpson’, they made ‘like a head on legs and the rest of person’. And it’ll not be lost on Cathal, in particular, that at the very end, Microdisney finally sold out in Cork.

I’m sure that, on some sort of emotional level, it was appropriate they called it to a halt in the city where they started it off almost forty years previously. In as much as Microdisney – forever Cathal and Sean and in that order – ever followed formal process, last night’s show in Cork was as close as they got to the convention of completing a circle. But where it leaves them in the history of popular music – in Cork, Ireland or beyond – is irrelevant for now :- Microdisney were far too free-spirited, cranky and loose with their ambitions to ever sit comfortably in general company.

Buried somewhere in that line of thinking is, I think, the essence of their allure. They were so wrong and so utterly disconnected on every level and yet, whenever the sun broke through onto their palsied, malformed view of life in the drain, they could glisten with the best of them. They were defined to the very end by the endless pull-and-drag of the sweet against the sour, maybe best captured on ‘464’, one of their most potent songs, that opens in anger over a hail of shouting, spit and guitar noise but that quickly finds its feet in the mellow. And, this last nine months, by the peerless vocal interplay between Cathal’s full-bodied tenor – he has never, to these ears, been in better voice – and Eileen Gogan’s soft touch around the edges.

Photograph © Jim O’Mahony

Microdisney were never completely at ease in their hometown and I’ve written at length about that aspect of the band’s story here. And still they consistently represented, far better than many of Cork’s better known ambassadors, the city’s best, worst and most bizarre attributes, often for comic effect within their songs and often not. For many years, weird as it sounds now, they actually blazed a trail and led the way :- by taking the Innisfallen and upping sticks in the early 1980s, they gave Cork the middle finger and, for years afterwards, a fleeting glimpse of something more exotic and glamorous abroad. The ‘big fat matron with turquoise hair’ left behind so the band could dream more freely.

We now know, of course, that the reality of Microdisney’s life in London was far more chaotic, undercut like much of the largely untold Irish emigrant experience at that time by pills, hooch, squatting, general blackguarding and penury. But their story was, for many, the story of Cork city itself too, the boat at its core as an escape from the despair and torpor. Even if, once you reached Fishguard, you were almost certainly on your own.

Outwardly at least, that truth was just an inconvenient one, especially irrelevant on the old broadsheet pages of The Evening Echo where, in the odd dispatch from London, the local boys were clearly having a right old cruel-up, leading a charge, making hay.

Photograph © Siobhan Bardsley

What we can say with certainty is that there is no clear lineage between what came before Microdisney and what came afterwards ;- they literally fell from the sky, consistently out of reach and constantly out of time. It took them many years to finally grow into their bodies and, even then, I was never wholly convinced that they were built to accommodate the scale of their ambition, such as it was. And so, even when under the gun of a major label to crack the mainstream market, they just couldn’t help themselves. On the band’s best known song, the lavish ‘Town To Town’, with its shine, polish and spit, the lover is in the past, the winter is sick, the harvest has failed and, maybe as tellingly as anything, the singer’s name is still being mis-pronounced.

When Cathal, as he did on-stage in Vicar Street on Monday night, refers to the band’s later material – the Virgin years – as ‘joined up writing’, he’s talking about the well-upholstered gut of the likes of ‘Gale Force Wind’, ‘High And Dry’ and ‘Singer’s Hampstead Home’, ‘not cursive or grown-up but joined-up’ and over which he continued to sprinkle the petrol with a heavy hand. Only the really brave or the perennially diffident aspire to love songs where the moon is shapeless and dim but then that was Microdisney’s stock-in-trade until the very end, the closest they may have ever come to consistency.

From ‘Everybody Is Dead’, a stand-out from the band’s debut album, to ‘Loftholdingswood’, their best song and in which Dan McGrath’s liver just eventually gives out, the sweetness of the sound is counter-pointed and warped by the vicious malady of the grotesque. ‘Sulphates and slap bass’, one of Cathal’s off-the-cuff quips on Monday could, for years, have well been their mission statement.

Photograph © Siobhan Bardsley

And because of that, it’s easy to forget just how intelligent they were with their sound. With seven players on stage for much of this week’s farewell – Cathal and Sean joined, for the occasion, by Rhodri Marsden on keyboards, the imperious John Bennett on lead guitars, most potently on twelve string acoustic and Eileen backing-up on vocals – they’re at their most fetching when they bring five harmonies to the mic. And become, maybe even in spite of themselves, an unflinching, all-out pop band.

Which won’t surprise those long familiar with the breadth of their primary references and source material, Sean’s, in particular. Microdisney borrowed liberally, and as freely from Steely Dan and The Beach Boys as they did from Lee Perry and Lee Hazelwood. And much of Sean’s body of work in the decades post-Microdisney, especially that formidable High Llamas canon, is testament to that.

It’s just as easy to be side-blinded too by the attention long-afforded the band’s second album, ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’, ostensibly the trigger behind those four live shows over the last nine months. And for which they were garlanded, formally, on stage at Dublin’s National Concert Hall last summer.

Because far from being one of the greatest Irish albums of all time – and that’s a dark valley of a discussion in itself – ‘The Clock’ may not even be Microdisney’s best album, even if, given the circumstances that begot it, it’s the record about which the band feels most proud. As strong a case can be made for ‘Crooked Mile’ [1987], the band’s major label debut that saw the dinner-jacketed five-piece seamlessly master the dark art of the velveteen pop song wrapped in a knuckle-duster. While Andrew Mueller, one of the best and more perceptive music writers of his generation – and recently a member of The North Sea Scrolls alongside Cathal and Luke Haines – has long batted for Microdisney’s last album, ’39 Minutes’ [1988]. Which, if it is indeed the sound of a band on the precipice, certainly captures, in vivid colour, the full spread of a magnificent view across the valley of death.

So, why did they go back for afters and why now ? Time, of course, is as much of a cleanser as it is of a healer and those most recent Dublin shows saw an older, possibly wiser, certainly far fitter, sober and way less anxious band roll back the years without either the fuss or the general codology that pock-marks much of Microdisney’s story. And without saying as much, the band clearly believed it had unfinished business or an unpaid personal debt somewhere :- was there a sense that they never really did those terrific songs justice at the time ? Or, perhaps, that others – the market, the public, the industry – didn’t cut them an even break ? Or did they simply fancy taking the music out of its casing one last time just because they could ?

I’ve never had Microdisney pegged as old nostalgics, Cathal in particular. And so it was interesting to hear him, in Dublin on Monday, dip into the earliest chapters in the band’s history to reference Dave Clifford, their first manager and Elvera Butler, who committed their first track to vinyl and who ran many of their most formative shows in The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork. Indeed in prefacing their closer, Frankie Valli’s ‘The Night’, Cathal referred to a Lene Lovich live show in that same venue in January, 1980, where himself and his long-time writing partner and friend heard that song performed for the first time.

In introducing the band, there’s an unusually fuzzy outbreak of bonhomie as Cathal and Sean reference each other and their long, colourful and no doubt often bizarre and fractured friendship. Cathal – maybe half-jokingly and maybe not ? – cautions against too much good-will as if it might just sooth the edge a bit too much. And then they’re gone and it’s over.

On the walk back into town after the Vicar Street show on Monday night, I remembered an old yarn that Cathal once told Dave Fanning during one of their many memorable radio interviews. During the band’s early years, the singer would regularly take the mainline train – a battered, bone-shaking and deeply unpleasant experience at the best of times – from Cork to Dublin, during which he’d dress in priest’s garb and pickle himself with booze, effing and blinding at all-comers during what could often be a torturous four-hour journey.

Photograph © Jim O’Mahony

One of the more frustrating aspects of that long, long haul – and, believe me, there were many – invariably came at Limerick Junction, a desolate outpost that’s actually in Tipperary and where, as a regular passenger, I spent far too long stuck in the sidings, waiting in the worst possible kind of limbo for something, anything, to happen before we’d eventually stutter back into life and re-commence our journey onwards.

You’d see and hear all sort of mad stuff as you were trapped in Limerick Junction, caught quite literally between worlds, gazing listlessly out of the window at the spread of verdure and the thickets beyond. I spent far too many languid hours paralyzed there, listening to Cathal and Sean’s alchemy on a variety of different devices.

As metaphors go in respect of Microdisney, Limerick Junction is as valid as any. Forever crippled and consistently failed by the machine, witnesses to the bizarre and the grotesque, waiting endlessly for another stuttering start and the next inevitable breakdown.

And yet for all of that they were consistently magnificent and leave behind a terrific body of work beyond the catalogue of carnage.

Photograph © Fanning Sessions

RORY’S STORIES

Unknown

Although like Michael D., Bertie, Miriam, Gay and Daniel he’s often referred to in Ireland by his first name only, the implied familiarity here is well out of line with the broader picture: little of substance is really known about the guitarist and songwriter, Rory Gallagher. By a distance the biggest and most influential figure in Cork’s cultural history – and unquestionably one of Ireland’s most interesting and ground-breaking arts exports – much of his story remains, if not entirely untold, then certainly under-cooked. Even back home in the valley of dead cars and squinting widows, where everybody knows your name and, invariably, your business too.

What we do know is well-worn, light on scope and generally easy on the ears. Rory, like another of Cork’s more introspective and quieter exports, the Togher-reared footballer, Denis Irwin, preferred to let his craft do his bidding and, by and large, tended to keep his iron fists out of public view. And its not as if there hasn’t been a sustained effort to commemorate his many remarkable achievements and creative legacies in the popular consciousness. Its just that, with Rory’s estate curated for the most part by his brother and manager, Donal Gallagher, much of that effort tends to centre on the surface only.

A plaza in the centre of Cork city bears his name. He’s been immortalized with a statue in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, where he was born, and he’s even been featured on commemorative stamps and coins. All under-pinned by an enduring dedication, almost exclusively among those of a particular age, to Gallagher’s music, his considerable body of recorded work and a slew of remarkable live shows. Many of which, in Dublin, Cork and particularly in Belfast during the darkest chapters of modern Irish history throughout the 1970s, might well have served as informal inter-state events.

Radio and television producers have bravely taken their chances with him over the years too. The RTÉ archives hold plenty of Gallagher-related material, assembled over the decades, but those documentaries and features are, with the odd exception, well-intentioned but soft and inconsequential affairs.

And there has of course been an amount of written biography and critical analysis, much of which tends to stay on the outer ring-roads, circling the circumference. Hagiography, for the most part. Easily the best of which are ‘Riding Shotgun’, co-written by Gallagher’s long-time bass-player, Gerry McAvoy, and published in 2005 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the guitarist’s premature death and the relevant passages of Dan Muise’s ‘Gallagher, Marriott, Derringer and Trower’, [2002], a music equivalent of George Kimball’s magnificent boxing book, ‘Four Kings’.

Of the mountain of newspaper and magazine archive on Gallagher and his music, much of it Irish, the most enduring and incisive are still, to this mind, landmark pieces by the late Bill Graham in Hot Press and by the Dublin writer and journalist, Michael Ross, in a variety of publications, but especially The Sunday Times.

But the primary difficulty for any documentarian or biographer is with the subject himself, who was notoriously shy and self-effacing. As Donal Gallagher told Ross for a Sunday Times feature twenty years ago: ‘I can’t say that we [Rory and I] ever had an in-depth personal conversation’. And so little exists by way of genuine, close-quarter insight with which to compile a defined photo-fit. In the absence of first person testimony, the gaps have long been filled by rumour, innuendo and speculation.

I never saw Gallagher perform live but, like many others born just as his first rock band, Taste, was releasing its first album, still feel like I’ve sucked in every single note played at The City Hall in Cork, the scene of some of his most spectacular and incendiary live shows. Even if, by the time I’d been roused to the wonder of popular music, Rory was well past his creative and critical peak. There was a world of difference between 1975 – when he was arguably at his apex – and 1985, by which time he was struggling to write and was among the more traditional targets against which an emerging indie set could rail.

One of the great ironies here, of course, is that the shock of that new, led in the early 1980s by The Smiths and driven by Johnny Marr’s remarkable guitar lines, could ultimately be traced back to Gallagher himself who, among others, was a primary formative influence on the young buck of Irish extraction as he grew up in the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe a decade earlier. Marr acknowledged as much in Ian Thuillier’s 2010 RTÉ television documentary, ‘Ghost Blues’ even if, one suspects, he was taken far more by Gallagher’s ability as a guitarist – and more specifically his use of the instrument as a weapon – and less so by Rory’s song-writing.

Like seemingly everyone else in Cork, I had my own direct connection to Rory. I attended The North Monastery school on the northside of the city during the mid-1970s from where, a decade earlier, Gallagher had been removed by his mother at a point in his fledgling career when he was playing regularly with the Fontana showband. And although his name features far more overtly now in the history of that fine school, I can’t recall him or his deeds being as wildly celebrated there at that time as those of his more academic or athletic-inclined peers.

We know now, though, that Rory Gallagher certainly was a topic of regular discussion inside the school’s staff-room, at least among some of the younger elements of the teaching team. My second class teacher, Herman Kemp, from Kilrush in County Clare, was the young photographer, film fan and Stoke City supporter who, in 1977, snapped a series of magnificent live shots of Gallagher on-stage at the Macroom Mountain Dew Festival in West Cork, and that surfaced recently on-line. That show was also attended, the internet tells us, by a fifteen year-old Rory fan from Dublin, David Evans, better known known now as The Edge, a guitarist.

At a period in Cork city’s history dominated by poverty, unemployment and social and moral bankruptcy – the centre of town’s pallor was, for fifteen years, deathlike – Gallagher’s international successes and eternal cross-continent touring gave the gawkers back home a rare glimpse, on the surface at least, of something moderately exotic. His was a real jet-set story and, as such, his exploits sat up there alongside that small handful of artisans, athletes and public figures that were distinguishing us beyond the county bounds.

Of course if you stood on Patrick Street long enough, you might have even bumped into him. Gallagher, up until the early 1980s at least, was an accessible figure: at the height of his popularity and, in a distinctive take on the concept of bringing it all back home, he would regularly accompany his mother, Monica, to mass in Douglas when he wasn’t abroad on one of his endless tours of duty.

Indeed there was something slightly disconcerting about how mundane he was, forever dressed down in plaid shirts and rubber dollies, handsome in his absolute ordinariness. Because although his records, his playing and especially his live shows often touched the sky, Gallagher’s feet rarely left the deck. To the loyal support back home, and especially in Cork, he made like he had no notions, and stressed as much routinely. Its almost as if he was afraid of the extraordinary.

Years after I left The North Mon, I fetched up in another classroom, far removed from the northside of Cork, alongside Julian Vignoles, and spent six months in and out of his company as a trainee television producer in RTÉ. I already knew Julian’s name, of course – it’s a distinctive one, hard to forget – and had seen it for years on the radio listings in The RTÉ Guide, where he was credited as a producer on some of the more interesting and lateral Radio 2FM shows. Pat Kenny’s excellent review series, ‘The Outside Track’, among them.

We had music in common from the off: we’d both served our time and cut our teeth, albeit a decade apart, at Hot Press magazine, and had similar views on the importance of quality music programming on radio and television. Music has always been a useful ice-breaker, especially to those of us who struggle to make small-talk in general company, and many of my most enduring friendships have originated in casual, impromptu conversations about albums, singles, live shows and general trivia.

And although Julian’s tastes and mine were varied and rarely in-synch, we could both work up a decent head of steam quickly and, I suspect, there was a quiet respect between us from the get-go.

Rory Gallagher : The Man Behind The Guitar’ is Vignoles’s third book and is formally launched next week on The Collins Press imprint. Gallagher’s music has long been one of Julian’s primary passions and we’ve discussed and de-constructed Rory and his work at length in the years since we were first thrown together on the grounds of RTÉ back in 1994.

And now, eventually, he’s managed to stand up much of what was once just ad hoc theory, in print, even if the trip to completion has been a long and, I suspect, often arduous one. He’ll get little by way of thanks for it either, of course, but to those of us who appreciate such piddling matters as historical accuracy, archiving and balanced critical analysis, he’s done the history of popular Irish music no little service.

He doesn’t hang around either and, typically, Vignoles is quickly down to business. In the introductory chapter, the singer-songwriter Christy Moore is quoted as follows: ‘He [Rory] was a beautiful man who, I think, died real lonely’. In those eleven words, Moore sets out the book’s primary ambitions. ‘The Man Behind The Guitar’ does what it says in the title: it’s a forensic trawl into Gallagher’s modus in an effort to define a fully-formed portrait of a complicated, difficult and still largely unknown artist.

In so doing, Vignoles uncovers an overly-anxious, perennially fearful, sleep deprived, bizarrely superstitious, religiously devout and subsequently alcohol dependent and ultimately lonely writer with a long-standing stubborn streak who, in respect of his music, could be obsessive, impulsive and spontaneous. He shines a considerable torch too onto one of the primary contradictions at the heart of Gallagher’s story: the manner in which he consistently kicked against one stereotype – that of the hell raising, boisterous rock star – while conforming to another, that of the musician who only really comes alive with a guitar in his hand.

‘The Man Behind The Guitar’ has already drawn predictable, and indeed understandable fire from Donal Gallagher. Neither he nor Tom O’Driscoll, Rory’s long-time roadie, or indeed Gerry McAvoy, contributed to the book even if, given the broad breadth of third-party archive material unearthed by the author, their voices are still prominent throughout, albeit from a distance.

Over which Vignoles spoons a fine, full-bodied critical over-view of the writer and performer that doesn’t hold back or pull its punches. Because whereas Gallagher was undoubtedly a gifted player and stage performer, he was never the most instinctive, creative or prodigious writer. And while his career can be parceled into three or four distinctive lyrical phases – for which, Vignoles and his critical right-hand, Dave McHugh, rightly assert he is never properly credited – he struggled manfully, or perhaps just blithely refused, to ever really move on musically.

[Its probably worth noting too that, in relative terms, Gallagher was never a huge seller: ‘Live in Europe’, his 1972 elpee, was his only ever Top Ten success in Britain].

And which is why one of the more recurring critical conclusions in respect of much of Gallagher’s output after his ‘Top Priority’ album [1978] – rightly or wrongly – is that his songs just eventually became vessels for his next long, and often far too-predictable solo.

Given the sensitivity with which Vignoles deals with much of the more speculative aspects of Gallagher’s personal life – he was alcohol dependent for much of his later life, may have been [undiagnosed] on the autism spectrum, certainly suffered from depression from as far back as his teens and endured a long-running series of medical ailments – you feel that Gallagher’s younger brother missed a real opportunity here to contribute to what is a vivid, insightful and important profile.

There’s plenty in ‘The Man Behind The Guitar’ too that’s strictly anorak and technical enough for the musos, even if Gallagher’s influence as a player on the generations that came directly after him – The Edge, Johnny Marr, Slash, Noel Gallagher – isn’t developed. Nor does the author fully attempt to place Rory in the creative pantheon, even in Irish terms: its just assumed, from the off, that he was, ergo he is.

But these are moot points. The author suppresses his fan’s instincts from the get-go and, as is invariably the case in documentary and biography, the most difficult passages are the most riveting. Describing the last decade of Rory’s life after the protracted release of his ‘Defender’ elpee in 1987 – which finally saw the light of day in the shadow of the global emergence of U2, who unveiled ‘The Joshua Tree’ in the same year – Vignoles, on an uncharacteristic bitterness that had started to emerge in some of Gallagher’s interviews, is at his most pointed and perceptive.

‘When the touring is less frequent, when the adulation is less apparent, when your fingers may no longer have the dexterity they had, what do you do if you’re not taken up with family or investments or golf ? How does the sensitive human being ‘come down’ from fame ? With difficulty, perhaps, is the answer’.

‘Rory Gallagher : The Man Behind The Guitar’ by Julian Vignoles is published by The Collins Press and is on sale now.