Cork

THE ROLLING STONES VERSUS IRELAND’S SHOWBANDS, 1965

 

The Rolling Stones bring their ‘No Filter’ tour to Croke Park on May 17th next for what might well be the band’s final ever bumper pay day in Ireland. The group has been visiting this country in various iterations and to various effect for over fifty years and one can confidently claim that the nation has grown and developed socially in tandem with the band’s popularity. But there was a time when the notion that Jagger, Richards and Watts might one day set foot on the consecrated sod up in Dublin 3, with their feisty antics, swagger and unconventional hair-dos, was just inconceivable.

 

The Gaelic Athletic Association is, by a distance, Ireland’s most unique and progressive sports body. But while it’s made huge advances on the field and off since the centenary of its foundation in 1984, the entertainment bookings in Croke Park – popular cabaret for the most part – are a throw-back to those years, from 1958 until 1968, when Ireland’s showbands, another of the country’s more consistently mis-represented cultural curiousities, were in their pomp.

 

The Gaelic Games themselves and the structures that under-pin and enable them are unrecognisable now than they were when the Cork County Board first worked with the Banteer-born promoter, Oliver Barry, to bring ‘Siamsa Cois Laoi’ – an afternoon festival of live international folk and domestic traditional music that ran yearly for a decade – to what was then the new Páirc Ui Chaoimh stadium in 1976. But even during its current  period of profound existential uncertainty, it’s re-assuring to know that, when it comes to putting live music onto its playing fields, the Gaelic Athletic Association takes a similar approach to it’s scheduling of club fixtures. Rack them, pack them, stack them and send everybody home sweating.

 

For the last decade or so, Croke Park has hosted big-ticket, high-volume contemporary cabaret with the sort of instinctive majesty one usually associates with Austin Gleeson or Joe Canning, out wide, beneath the stands, over-the-shoulder, through the black-spot without looking. From Neil Diamond and One Direction to the U2’s ‘Joshua Tree’ anniversary reprise there last year and upcoming shows by the Persil-treated likes of Ed Sheeran and Michael Buble, the best equipped stadium in the country continues the association’s long connection to the be-suited, be-quiffed culture of the ballrooms.

 

Ireland’s showband history has generated a considerable industry for itself and about itself – a slew of largely myopic written histories, numerous television and radio documentaries, DVD compilations, cassette tapes and live concert tours – since the advent of discotheques and disc jockeys put a serious hole in it’s boat during the early 1970s. In the half century since, the showband story has been faithfully re-cycled through a diffused lens that has corrupted its focus, notwithstanding the odd rogue contribution from the likes of Derek Dean of The Freshmen and the late Northern Irish broadcaster, Gerry Anderson, formerly of The Chessmen [and once of the legendary American blues outfit, Ronnie Hawkins And The Hawks]. Anderson’s 2008 book ‘Heads : A Day in The Life’, is among the most insightful, interesting and funny chronicles of that period because it ignores much of the popular showband narrative and presents the era instead with a candid, clinical eye and not merely as a softly-lit, badly-written romantic romp.

 

Ireland’s leading showbands were at their peak – playing long sets on an almost nightly basis to packed ballrooms all over the country – during those years when the Second Vatican Council was in session between 1962 and 1965 and while the imposing figure of the long-serving Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, was casting a considerable shadow over many aspects of Irish society, the showband scene itself prominent among them. And so its understandable that much of it’s history is still presented with a quasi-religious fervour, almost as a national parable where the meek always inherited the family farm and no one ever coveted their neighbour’s wife.

 

What we know for sure is that many of the musicians who hacked out decent careers on the showband circuit were gifted players, earning good coin knocking out note-perfect, multi-layered arrangements of the big hits of the day, in a range of styles, to order. And like every other movement of note, it was dominated by a colourful cast of performers and a support crew of promoters, impresarios and would-be supremos, many of them larger-than-life, many more of them tragic figures in their own right.

 

But the personal testimonies of Dean and Anderson, and indeed the complicated life stories of stalwarts like Eileen Reid of The Cadets and Dickie Rock of The Miami – both of which have been drastically revised over the last twenty years – suggest that Ireland’s showband circuit was far edgier and much darker than one has traditionally been led to believe. In this respect it should be noted that two of Ireland’s most complex, successful and influential international rock musicians, Van Morrison from Belfast and the Derry-born Corkman, Rory Gallagher, began their professional careers on the showband circuit, on which they became quickly disaffected.

 

But back in January, 1965, the showbands still dominated the domestic music market and in Cork, the largest and busiest venues in the county were arguably The Arcadia Ballroom on The Lower Road and The Majorca, in Crosshaven. These were – on paper at least – booze-free zones that took off as the pubs were closing but, while the venues were dry for the most part, many of those on stage were routinely flutered. The level of alcohol abuse within the showband movement is just one of a number of aspects of it’s history that’s routinely air-brushed.

 

Located not too far from The Arcadia, but far less visible, were Cork’s first alternative music venues. It’s maybe pushing it to describe either the Crypt, by the old Thompson’s bakery on MacCurtain Street, and The Cavern Club, around the back of The Ashley Hotel on Leitrim Street, as venues or clubs – they were what we’d describe now as pop-up coffee shops, at best – but they did serve as genuine antidotes to the larger, more traditional facilities elsewhere.

 

Catering for those with more lateral, left-field tastes, both spaces were sound-tracked by the more interesting British and American sounds of the time and, in the case of The Crypt, also provided rehearsal space to some of those young locals who’d started to dabble with electric instruments. The Cavern Club expanded its horizons quickly enough and, as tends to still be the case today in venues that attract small but enthusiastic, like-minded audiences, eventually hosted its own live shows, among them early appearances by the likes of Taste and Gary Moore, as well as a landmark visit by the renowned English blues player, John Mayall.

 

The Cavern – which was later re-named The 006 Club – has long been regarded as Cork’s first alternative music venue and features routinely in the well-worn reminiscences of some of it’s best known graduates, Donal Gallagher – Rory’s brother, long-time manager and the erstwhile guardian of his reputation and estate – among them.

 

In Mark McAvoy’s 2009 book, ‘Cork Rock : From Rory Gallagher to The Sultans of Ping’ [Collins Press], Donal Gallagher, one of the first DJs at The Cavern, recalls how : ‘I was trying to fashion myself as the Cork John Peel and play music like that. The scene developed and the club, particularly at the weekends, would have bands like The Misfits from Belfast’. [For the sake of accuracy, it’s worth noting that John Peel, the influential British broadcaster, spent much of the 1960s living and working in the United States and didn’t present any radio in England until at least 1967. Among the primary outside influences on the Gallagher brothers – Donal and Rory – would have been American Forces Network radio, some BBC output and Radio Luxembourg’s English language service, Fab 208].

 

You’d imagine that many of the Cavern Club regulars also fetched up at at The Savoy Cinema on Patrick Street on January 5th, 1965, when The Rolling Stones played their first – and last – live show in Cork. That day has long featured prominently in the city’s popular cultural history and is redolent in its own way of the night, a year earlier, when The Beatles first played in Ireland, at Dublin’s Adelphi Theatre. The story has been well worn over time even if, as often happens, some of the personal testimonies of those who attended are conflicted.

 

What we know for certain is that The Rolling Stones, then a dynamic, blues-fused rock band, had just enjoyed their second British Number One single with ‘Little Red Rooster’ and, four months before the release of ‘[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction’ were – alongside The Beatles, The Animals and The Yardbirds – leading a considerable U.K. assault on the American market.

 

But while the first Irish singles chart of 1965 was topped by The Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine’, formidable showband royalty like Dickie Rock, Brendan Bowyer, Butch Moore, Tommy Drennan and Larry Cunningham all featured immediately behind it in the top ten. Indeed ‘I Feel Fine’ was about to be toppled by one of Ireland’s biggest selling records of the year, Brendan Bowyer’s ‘The Hucklebuck’.

 

During the first week of January, Ireland was gripped by a prolonged snap of cold weather and heavy snowfall that forced the closure of some of the country’s roads, especially in the south and the south-east. While politically, and all the more interesting in light of current political discourse, the then Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, was busy appeasing one of the country’s most powerful economic groups.

 

Explaining to Ireland’s agricultural representative associations his thinking on the recently formed European Economic Community, Lemass told the National Farming Association Congress during a keynote address on January 6th, 1965 that : ‘We do not regard it as vacillating to decide not to rush headlong into a fog. We are having discussions with the British Government on future trade arrangements between the two countries. In any intelligent order of priorities these discussions must take place before we consider the alternative courses which may be possible for us’.

 

The Rolling Stones played three dates in Ireland between January 6th and January 8th, 1965, – in Belfast, Dublin and Cork respectively – and during which they performed two eight-song sets at every venue, at 6.30 PM and 9PM, travelling by train and car from city to city during their stay here. The classic, five-piece line-up – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones and Bill Wyman – was headlining a clustered tour, promoted by John Smith, that also included Checkmates, an American rhythm and blues outfit, The Gonks, a South African blues-flavoured band and Twinkle, a young London-born pop singer.

 

 

Twinkle’s name will be familiar to fans of The Smiths, who themselves played a brace of fabled live shows in The Savoy, in Cork city, in 1984. She came to popular attention in 1964 with her first hit single, ‘Terry’, released while she was still a teenager :- one of the kookier and more intriguing footnotes in the broader history of 60s British girl-pop, she was already retired from the music industry before she turned twenty-one. A later Twinkle release, ‘Golden Lights’, was covered by The Smiths and features as an additional track on their 1986 single, ‘Ask’.

 

The first Rolling Stones’ set at The Savoy half-filled the house but the later show sold out its allocation of 1,100 tickets at a venue better known then as one of the city’s busiest cinemas and the focal point of the yearly Cork Film Festival. The headliners took to the stage at 10.35 to begin the second of their short performances and a front-page story on the following morning’s Cork Examiner reported that Gardaí had been called to the show after ‘frenzied teenagers dashed from their seats and swarmed to the organ pit screaming and waving’. Later, a young man ‘climbed on the cinema organ but moved when Savoy manager, Jimmy Campbell, ordered him back’.

 

Describing the group as ‘long-haired and untidy and the bane of mums and dads of Britain because of this’, The Examiner’s account of events differs from that carried in a short review, on the same day, in The Irish Press. ‘There were no screams, no hysteria and no unmanageable crowds in The Savoy, Cork last night’, the Dublin-based newspaper claimed in a short uncredited piece, most likely filed by a full-time local stringer. ‘A large force of Gardaí was on duty in and around the cinema but an officer on duty said : ‘We were hardly needed’’.

 

The Cork leg seems to have been tame by comparison with the shows in Dublin and particularly in Belfast, where the front of the stage at the ABC Theatre was lined by R.U.C. men in an attempt to keep punters at an arm’s length from the band. The Rolling Stones’ first live appearance in Belfast the previous year had been abandoned after only twelve minutes and three songs when a full-scale riot broke out in the audience :- the show had been hugely over-subscribed and terrific film footage shot on the night captures some of the chaos that quickly developed inside The Ulster Hall.

 

Once bitten, The Irish Independent reported how, during the band’s return set at The ABC Theatre six months later, ‘dozens of girls fainted’ and that ‘outside the theatre, an ambulance waited to take the more hysterical ones to hospital’. And there was plenty of overtime for the local constabulary up north too ;- ‘dozens of extra police under a district inspector and two head constables patrolled inside and outside the theatre’, according to The Indo.

 

The Dublin daily papers – especially The Evening Herald – afforded the Stones short tour of Ireland a measured, mildly bemused degree of coverage and were present on the platform at the Amiens Street train station when the band arrived into the capital from Belfast as ‘a large force of Gardaí and C.I.E. public relations personnel guarded the barriers’. The Herald was there too on the morning after the show as the band departed for Cork in a fleet of cars from the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge [later known as Jury’s Hotel] where they’d been entertained after returning from The Adelphi Theatre, with a cocktail party hosted by the hotel manager.

 

‘As the cars pulled away, one young girl, a 14 year-old from Rathmines, waving to Bill Wyman, bass guitarist, cried out : ‘Write to me, Bill. Won’t you please ?’, according to the paper’s reporter on the hotel forecourt. ‘Then she and her companion, also from Rathmines, embraced each other and cried. They told me that they had given Bill stamped addressed envelopes and that he had promised to write to them’.

 

The Irish Independent’s uncredited review of the band’s Dublin shows referred, of course, to the group’s appearance and, like The Cork Examiner, described The Stones as a ‘long-haired, unconventionally attired quintet’. Clearly more concerned by the general fanfare outside of the venue than inside it, a front-page report head-lined ‘Screams and hysteria muffle the ‘beat’’, remarked how ‘The Adelphi staff, specially augmented by plainclothes Gardaí, did a wonderful job controlling the excited mob’. Adding that ‘even compere Billy Livingstone could not get two seconds piece to introduce them [the band]’.

 

And, concluding the piece, which just about mentioned the band, one of the more curious closing lines I’ve read in any piece on a live show ever :- ‘Normally Abbey Street is lined with cars on both sides at night. Last night, there were two parked cars, one on each side’.

 

In the great tradition of such events, the detail is once again provided by those who chose to attend the show as fans and who weren’t merely assigned there by their news editors. And at least one correspondent, from Dublin 6 and credited, perhaps slightly incorrectly as ‘Stone Fan’, took to the letters page in The Evening Herald to correct some of the factual inaccuracies that had pock-marked much of it’s coverage of the Adelphi shows. ‘The Rolling Stones played eight songs, not five’, the missive begins. ‘They were [in order] : ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Off The Hook’, ‘If You Need Me’, ‘Around And Around’, ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘It’s All Over Now’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. They were on stage for 31 minutes and 15 seconds’.

 

The band performed a slightly modified version of that set when they hit Cork the following night. And in a long feature by John Daly in The Daily Mail on October 13th, 2015, one of those who attended those Cork shows, Paddy Ryan, recalled to the writer the manner in which the show ended. ‘They played their hit, ‘This Could Be The Last Time’, as the curtain slowly descended in front of them on the stage. Then it raised up a second time and they played the final verse of the song, before coming down for the last time. And then the PA system announced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, The Rolling Stones have left the building’.

 

 

Never to return to Cork again, as it happens. Although The Stones did re-visit Ireland later that year, playing dates in Belfast and Dublin on September 2nd and 3rd, on a short lay-over on which they were accompanied by a film crew, working with the director, Mick Gochanour. An observational documentary – ‘Charlie is My Darling’, the first such film about the band – captures them at work and at play during that brief tour but didn’t officially see the light of day until 2012.

 

Overall, the reporting of the emergence of The Rolling Stones, and of the growing influence of British pop music in general, was even more condescending – and clearly politically-charged – in some of Ireland’s regional newspapers. Many of which were hard-wired to the showband scene and who regarded the emergence of the likes of The Beatles and The Animals as a genuine threat, not just to aspects of Irish cultural life and a comfortable older order but, judging from the tone of much of the editorial output, a real threat to the security of the Irish state itself.

 

‘The Rolling Stones came to Ireland last week’, stated one of the closing paragraphs of a weekly entertainment column in The Western People on January 16th, 1965. ‘Yes, these are the stones who gather a lot of mossy cash on their continuous travels. One of the group does not think very much of our showbands. In fact he says they are dreadful’.

 

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AFTER ALL AND THE YOUNG OFFENDERS

 

I’ve written previously – and at no little length – about The Frank And Walters, to my mind the best pound-for-pound pop band the country has ever produced. And it’s a story I know as well as anyone :- I have a long and proud association with the group – and especially with Paul and Ashley – that dates back to The Enterprise Bar at the end of Barrack Street in Cork during the memorable summer of 1990, when we first met. And after which it was clear we had plenty of work ahead of us.

 

I’ve long made a case too for the rare gifts bestowed somewhere, sometime, on Paul Linehan, the band’s singer and primary songwriter and easily among the most intriguing, complicated, compelling and consistently under-regarded of his kind to have emerged from Ireland during the last three decades. The Frank And Walters may never have had the stylish, renewable range of their former label-mates, The Divine Comedy, or the contrary, convex pull of another of the Setanta Records pack, A House. But beneath the surface, their body of work – and at this stage that canon is a considerable one – tells a long story that’s as formidable as any and more distinctive than most, much of it carved from banana-shaped, first-hand local testimony.

 

I’ve been beating the drum long and hard for The Franks for almost thirty years now which, no doubt, has significantly discomforted a band that has instinctively preferred life in the lower keys. Someone, I guess, has to do it. And still they come, in their own time, from deep in the shadows, with a new record or an anniversary tour to keep the old-timers happy and, perhaps, the home fires burning.

 

I saw them in a dive in Manchester last Autumn, on a dreary Sunday night around the back of The Arndale Centre where, to a partisan, mis-shaped crowd, they played every single song like they were doing so for the last time. But that’s The Franks for you ;- they’ve never known it any differently and, like Elvis, they’ve long had that knack to make everyone feel special.

 

But their story has never been a straight-forward one either and so, on one hand, I’m not overly surprised that, twenty-five years since they performed on Top Of The Pops and achieved their highest ever chart placing in Britain with ‘After All’ – the song that unfairly defines them –  they exist once again outside of their loyal support-base, however fleetingly.

 

Like much of the country, I’ve been gob-smacked by the tender genius of Peter Foott’s Cork-based drama, ‘The Young Offenders’, which has played on the RTÉ 2 schedules for the last number of weeks. And which, as a proud Corkman in exile, who left the city for good in 1994 to work at Ireland’s national broadcaster, makes me utterly compromised on at least two different levels.

 

But to borrow from one of many commentators on social media last week, the chatty coming-of-age drama series that follows the thickly-accented mis-adventures of Conor and Jock, is easily the most perceptive, pointed and outrageously insightful observational documentary series ever made about Cork city, it’s people and their many, many nuances.

 

The first series closed out earlier this week with a crowd scene on a hi-jacked double-decker bus that featured a fully-fledged choral singalong led by a knife-wielding, half-simple local gurrier, Billy Murphy. And when the hostages on board the Number 8 break into a mighty performance of ‘After All’, the series definitively cements its greatness. That scene – in which Sandra Bullock’s ‘Speed’ meets The Frank And Walters’ single, ‘The Happy Busman’ – is already among the country’s best ever television moments. To anyone from Cork, it’ll hardly be bettered.

 

 

Myself and ‘After All’ go way back to a semi-detached house in Morden, in South West London, where The Franks set up shop in 1992 after they’d first signed to Go Discs from Setanta Records, the small label run by Keith Cullen that had initially broken the band. That house became variously a rehearsal studio, a writing room, a merchandising lock-up, record company annex and refuge for the bewildered. Imagine the four-door dwelling in The Beatles’ film, ‘Help’, occupied by Cha and Mia, Billa O’Connell and Paddy Comerford and you’re getting there.

 

And it was in the kitchen there that Paul Linehan first played me the guts of ‘After All’ on an acoustic guitar, after which we went to work on the harmonies and the structure – I’m almost certain we made the original verse the chorus – as we used to do regularly back then. The band was preparing to record it’s first album and was well into the pre-production phase ;- ‘After All’ was one of the last of the new songs written for that elpee, ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, and was certainly worth waiting for.

 

I wish I could say now that I knew instinctively it was a hit single, but I can’t. I actually thought that ‘This Is Not A Song’ was a far better bet and will still make the case for it. But what I do know is that, on the long train ride back out to West Ealing the following morning, I could still remember every single line of ‘After All’.

 

Its greatness is in it’s simplicity – its actually a very easy song to play and, as I knew straight away, to remember – and then latterly in its darker aspects, which are almost always ignored. Ostensibly a love song that’s as persistent as it is beguiling, ‘After All’ nods to religion, distraction, loneliness and contemplation, all wrapped around a formidable Ian Broudie production. [Its worth noting here that the song was re-recorded several times and, by any standards, there is no comparison between the version on the album, produced by Edwyn Collins, and the eventual single version.]

 

Like the improbable television series on which it now features, ‘After All’ also has a broad, cross-generational appeal :- like any great pop song, it’s easily re-purposed and is as likely to feature at a wedding ceremony as it is at a wedding reception as it is to be sung on the football terraces.

 

And, as such, a giddy, full-on, unashamedly partisan performance of ‘After All’ was just a perfect – and maybe, just the only – way to conclude ‘The Young Offenders’, which shares not only many of the song’s characteristics in its dramatic tone and style but stars, basically, the full panoply of a cast routinely chronicled in numerous Frank And Walters songs since 1990. Long-time band watchers will, in that wonderful hi-jacking scene, have noted the likes of Andy James, the happy busman, John and Sue, the nervous lovers, Timmy, the trainspotter, Davy Chase, the local hard feen and Mrs. Xavier, the single-parent who’s been left behind, as prominent support characters. Variously love-sick, awkward, hopeless and, ultimately, tender and harmless, and with not a hint of malice in any of them.

 

And of course none moreso than the knife-wielding gom himself,  Billy Murphy, [played magnificently by Shane Casey], one of the year’s most supple and brilliantly improbably television heroes and who, in action, thought and deed, is redolent of those curious Cork chancers and gobdaws long considered to be outside, rogue, native and curious.

 

And who, since 1990, have been given a voice in the many, many terrific songs of The Frank And Walters.

CYPRESS, MINE ! :- TRASH TALK

 

Jim McCarthy’s photograph on the front of ‘Exit Trashtown’ could have been taken in Cork at any point during the 1980s. In that snap, a lorry’s fog-lights pop the mist as it passes an abandoned fishing boat that’s run aground on the banks of The River Lee. Take your pick of the metaphors ;- you’re spoilt for choice.

 

Two months after Cypress, Mine ! released that record in May, 1988, Michael Jackson, then the undisputed heavyweight champion of popular music, performed two sold-out shows at Páirc Uí Chaoimh that briefly sprinkled Cork with glamour and razzle. He later departed Ireland on a private jet, accompanied by his companion, 10 year-old Jimmy Safechuck, and the place quickly returned to normal. From beneath the grey, it was left to the likes of Cypress, Mine ! to keep the flag flying and the tunes rolling.

 

The city and its people that surrounded and informed them had long been left behind. In Cork, the 1980s carried on where the previous decade left off and the back-drop to Cypress, Mine !’s tenure was pockmarked by social, moral and financial austerity. The industrial fumes that often carried up on the wind from the docks left the city centre with an unwelcome whiff ;- something was indeed very rotten.

 

Back in 1987, Charles Haughey was returned to power as head of a minority Irish government. While in Cork, one of its most talked-about politicians, Bernie Murphy, a local councillor who couldn’t read or write, travelled to San Francisco in 1986 as a civic guest and returned with a new set of false teeth. A man who, when asked on local radio for his view on a contraceptive bill that was then before parliament replied ;- “I think it should be paid”.

 

In Daunt Square, at the Northern end of Cork’s main drag, protesters routinely railed against nuclear power, in favour of divorce and opposed The Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution which, in 1983, introduced a constitutional ban on abortion. And as ‘Exit Trashtown’ was still warm on the shelves of the handful of record shops around the city, a prominent voice – that of The Bishop Of Cork – denounced the screening of Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation Of Christ’ during the Cork Film Festival as an act of blasphemy. Had it really been only three years since a statue of The Blessed Virgin was reported to have moved, twenty odd miles out the road in Ballinspittle ?

 

Little wonder, then, that Cypress, Mine ! could be so angry, moody and vocal. And all those years later, I’m still grateful that they stuck around to channel it all and helped to illuminate the pit.

 

 

FÓGRA :-

These notes were written for the inside sleeve of the 30th anniversary re-issue of ‘Exit Trashtown’, released today on Pretty Olivia Records. The package also includes many previously unavailable Cypress, Mine ! cuts, including most of what was originally intended as the band’s second album. And is, of course, heartily recommended.

http://prettyolivia.bigcartel.com/product/cypress-mine-exit-trashtown-2lp

 

 

 

 

PETER SKELLERN

 

Peter Skellern, the Bury-born musician, songwriter and producer who died yesterday at the age of 69, is probably still best known for his 1972 hit single, ‘You’re A Lady’, which first brought him to prominence. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as a light-touch, middle-of-the-road troubadour ;- throughout his long and varied recording and performance career, Skellern was consistently diverting, always weighing-in at far more than the sum of his parts, of which there were many.

From Lancashire in the North-West of England, he trained as a classical musician and, as a young graduate from the Guildhall, originally served as a church organist in Bolton. And there are subtle traces of those credentials throughout his work ;- religion and faith became far more prominent themes during his later career. But much of his earlier material – his first five albums, especially – is characterised by a deft lyrical touch and a droll sense of the local and the ordinary and he was a consummate storyteller, both on record and off. His live solo shows were punctuated by tall yarns and short, sharp references, loaded colloquialisms and a wizard’s touch at the piano. And, to this end, in 1978 he took the fabled brassband from the works at Grimethorpe Colliery in Yorkshire and into the studio and, ultimately, onto the soundstage at Top Of The Pops to accompany him perform ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’. Three years previously, that same band had featured on Roy Harper’s epic ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’.

Like Gilbert O’Sullivan, it would be wrong to dismiss Peter Skellern as either a curiosity or a novelty and, parsing his considerable and diverse back catalogue, his influence extends as far as Morrissey’s lyrical dash and The Divine Comedy’s broader canvas. Indeed while Neil Hannon has frequently cited his long-standing affection for Jeff Lynne, his material actually owes far more to some of Skellern’s sweet, often self-deprecating parlour songs like ‘My Lonely Room’, ‘Where Do We Go To From Here’ and ‘Still Magic’ than it does to the more formidable, power-house sound of The Electric Light Orchestra.

Peter’s ambition always stretched far and wide :- he had the musical range and raw ability of Jimmy Webb, particularly in terms of composition and arrangement, and the lyrical touches of Alan Bennett. And so a typical live show or compilation album might lurch between Astaire-period, brushed-drum jazz to layered popular ballads to pithy, kitchen-sink smart-alecry like ‘Our Jackie’s Getting Married’, ‘Every Home Should Have One’ and ‘My Ideal Home’. Crisp and wry tunes from the drawing room that, beneath their bonnets, were knitted around sturdy melody lines and wide-ranging, ambitious production.

I saw this for myself at close quarters during two exceptional live shows that Skellern played in Cork city during the mid-1980s, the first of which I recorded on a portable Walkman and played to within an inch of its life for years afterwards. From my hard-backed chair deep within the city’s merchant and toff classes in one of the ballrooms in The Metropole Hotel in 1984, I watched on in awe as he gave a performance masterclass to an audience of four hundred or so during a typical set that went on for an eternity and that covered a vast range of genres and styles, pickled throughout with an easy, well-worn patter. One of his favourite yarns, the punchlines to which invariably rebounded on himself, involved the the English singer, Peter Sarstedt, best known for ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ [who himself passed away last month] and with whom Skellern was consistently confused.

He was back in Cork again the following year, this time in the infinitely less velveteen surroundings of Connolly Hall, but this time to a far larger and clearly more diverse audience. That show, which is easily among the best and most memorable I’ve ever seen, will forever be recalled for the fact that it took place despite a serious power outage in the middle of the city that plunged the venue and the streets around it into complete darkness. The show was delayed for an hour before Skellern eventually took to the stage carrying a lamp and proceeded to rip the night up, playing without amplification for the guts of ninety minutes, during which he projected his voice magnificently all over the vast hall.

As usual, he skirted around some of his own easy listening standards, adding a touch of jazz or a light classical piece when the mood, and the evening, took him. From ‘The Continental’ to ‘Love Is’ through ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, a couple of rag-time instrumentals and, stunningly, a magnificent reading of Debussy’s ‘The Girl With The Flaxen Hair’. And, with every note and flourish, reminded the partisan audience exactly how, for years, he’d enjoyed the unfailing devotion of Terry Wogan’s BBC radio audiences.

As well as his own body of work, Skellern was a frequent collaborator too, most notably with his friend Richard Stilgoe, with whom he wrote and released several records and toured regularly. And of course in 1984 he recorded and released an album as a member of Oasis, a five-piece that also featured the Welsh singer, Mary Hopkin and cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber among it’s number. That eponymously titled record, which can be filed under ‘easy listening’, saw the light of day a full ten years before ‘Definitely Maybe’ and features mostly Skellern compositions, the magnificent ‘If This Be The Last Time’ foremost among them and which, in its own way and to these ears, is just as magical as ‘Live Forever’.

I’ve long adored Skellern’s work in all of it’s guises and, in particular, his regal command of orchestration and the scale and ambition of his arrangements, the beauty of which are often lost behind a lazily-formed portrayal of him as mere fodder for the slacks, slip-over and high-waisted trouser set. As someone reared on the raw wonder of the likes of ‘And So It Passes’, ‘You’re A Lady’, ‘Still Magic’ and ‘My Lonely Room’, I defy anyone to tell me that he isn’t a far greater and unlikely influence than many of us might have imagined ? Himself almost certainly included.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NEW ORDER IN IRELAND

peace together

Picture courtesy of Pat O’Mahony

 

A few of us, caught in Nick Hornby’s slipstream, would while the time away drawing up lists of our own favourite music, making tapes and throwing shapes. It was harmless enough stuff, portable pub-games to backdrop those empty afternoons, decades ago, in O’Neills on Pearse Street and the balmy, mad nights everywhere else. But it was out of those sessions that we resolutely determined that the best, most consistent British singles bands of our generation were, in no real order ;- Buzzcocks, The Smiths, New Order, The Jam, Madness and The Pet Shop Boys. In the same way that all self-respecting football fans knew that Arsenal enjoyed the longest run in the top flight of English football without being relegated, or that Notts County were the oldest professional football club in the world, the names of the masters of the shorter form were instantly to hand whenever the great singles came up for discussion.

 

When it came to the not insignificant matters of Joy Division and New Order, my late friend, Philip Kennedy was, as usual, quickly out of the traps. Years earlier, he’d taken a punt on the ground-breaking singles, ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Confusion’ and, thereafter, canvassed vigorously on behalf of both bands. A few hundred yards down Redemption Road and right down the hill at Seminary Road, another neighbour of mine, Paul Daly, introduced me to ‘Ceremony’, which he’d brought home from London and which he too shared freely, proselytising. I adored it from the off and, even now, find it easier to take than the Arthur Baker/New York infused material, marvellous and all as it is. In school, a handful of us would marvel at the Peter Saville-designed art-work and, with set-squares and protractors that we had yet to de-commission, would work up imaginary designs for our make-believe bands on the back of Buntús Bitheolaíocht.

 

 

Paul Daly, who was a few years older than me and a couple of classes ahead of me in every respect, was among those who fetched up at New Order’s show at The Savoy in Cork in April, 1983 and, with his Walkman stuffed inside his belt-line, recorded the night’s events, as he’d often do at venues all over the city. On the evidence of his tape which, quickly thereafter, went through the hands of the alickadoos, it was a freakishly bad show for everyone concerned, the band stop-starting it’s way through a shambolic set as the crowd grew more impatient and rowdier. And, in respect of many of New Order’s earliest shows in Ireland, this pattern seems to have repeated itself routinely.

 

New Order were back in Cork again in January, 1986, this time at Connolly Hall, and they were just as disappointing. From my usual sport to the left of the sound desk, I found their inability to trigger the loops and tapes which, even then, scaffolded a serious spread of their sound, just ridiculous. On record, New Order were far removed from the tuneless, joyless d-i-y set and yet, on the live stage, were just as patchy as the worst of them. And from what I can remember, the band also lost themselves in a petty stand-off with some of the local gobdaws, one of whom threw what could have been a bottle or a glass towards the stage. Unlike The Smiths, who walked off in The Savoy a couple of years previously after similar eejitry from the front rows, New Order at least hung around to complete their set, patchy as it was.

 

But on record, they were a far more formidable force, a sparklesome outfit capable of real invention and no little magic and we gorged for ages on ‘Movement’, ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ and ‘Low Life’. And the more that New Order developed their sound – and, I guess, the more technically proficient they became in so doing – the more they cemented their hand-prints in our gallery of favourites. And to this day, one of the most set-upon records in my collection is ‘New Order – Singles’ ;- side one, especially, is a mighty, almost perfect fifteen-track beast, from ‘Ceremony’ to ‘Touched By The Hand Of God’.

 

New Order hadn’t played live for several years when, surprisingly, they were named as one of several top-line acts due to perform at an ambitious, three-pronged live event planned for May, 1993, in support of an All-Ireland charity called Peace Together. Founded a year earlier and co-ordinated, in the spirit of Live Aid, by Stiff Little Fingers’ bassist Ali McMordie and Robert Hamilton, the drummer with The Fat Lady Sings, Peace Together was a curious, if undoubtedly well-intentioned project, a charitable trust ‘dedicated to the promotion of reconciliation between the people of Northern Ireland through music’. During a period in the long-running peace talks process that was ripe with optimism for a genuine breakthrough , the charity planned three, large-scale concerts that would go live simultaneously in Dublin, Belfast and London, billed as ‘1 day 2 help 3 cities 4 Peace’. Among the others originally confirmed to take part were Sinéad O’Connor, Peter Gabriel, Del Amitri, The Orb and a slew of notables ;- BBC Radio One was even planning to take live coverage of the Belfast leg, such was the scale and extent of the line-up.

 

But as with many such events, the theory and the practice soon collided head-on. The Belfast concert was cancelled at short notice after the hotel in which all of acts, including headliner Peter Gabriel, were billeted, was bombed. The scheduled London show had already fallen, apathy and general indifference the reasons cited by the organisers. Indeed the Dublin show too looked, for a while, as if it too wasn’t going to fly. Sinéad O’Connor was a late – and controversial – withdrawal and, for all of Hamilton and McMordie’s good intentions and impressive connections, the show, which took place weeks later than first announced, was a hard sell. So that when the event’s compere, Pat O’Mahony, formally opened proceedings in The Point Theatre on Saturday evening, June 5th, 1993, the revised line-up looked as if it had been scrambled together randomly and not even the presence of New Order half-way up the bill was enough to stem the bleed. The vast hall was half-empty on the night and the air had long been sucked from Peace Together ;- the eventual cast, featuring the likes of The Stunning and Liam Ó’Maónlaoí, could have been lifted directly from the previous year’s People In Need Telethon.

 

A couple of months previously, Suede had released their magnificent first album and, four weeks before the Peace Together show in Dublin, another Manchester band, Oasis, signed to Creation Records. New Order had just issued it’s first album of the 1990’s, ‘Republic’ and, four years since ‘Technique’, the ground had moved and the goal-posts had been moved. And so it was against this back-drop that I walked the quay down to Peace Together to renew acquaintances with them ;- New Order, as always, appeared to be utterly out of synch with the sound of the underground. And although I was greatly unconvinced by Peace Together and absolutely confused about it’s outright ambition, I really wanted the Dublin show to work.

 

I’d long tried to advance the cause of The Fat Lady Sings, the fine Dublin pop group I first saw play to a loose handful in The Buckingham in Cork years earlier ;- I’ve written previously about that show as part of a much longer piece on Cork’s venues, and that’s available here. I’d briefly met Robert Hamilton at a couple of their early shows ;- one of his off-stage tasks was to collect names and contacts after gigs for the band’s mailing list and I found him gracious, decent and generous with his time. A good scout. And it was easy to see exactly how himself and McBrodie attracted such high-profile names to the Peace Together project even if, from early, I suspected they may both have been in over their heads in respect of the live shows. And even though the charity’s legacy also included a small, community-focused recording studio in Belfast and a compilation album of suitably targeted cover versions by the likes of U2, Therapy, My Bloody Valentine, Therapy? and The Fatima Mansions, my concerns for the concerts proved to be well-founded.

 

My review of New Order’s performance, re-printed below, was originally published in the issue of Melody Maker magazine dated June 19th, 1993. Donal Murphy, a terrific photographer from Charleville, in North Cork and a central cog in the DropOut magazine machine, took a terrific snap of Peter Hook’s crotch to accompany the piece and went to almighty lengths to get the stills across to London over-night to make the production dead-line. It really was another world then.

 

thumbnail_peacetogether

Picture courtesy of Daniel Harrison

NEW ORDER,

PEACE TOGETHER, POINT THEATRE,

DUBLIN

 

They couldn’t really have picked something and somewhere more auspicious. It’s been four years and here are New Order, one of pop’s most wonderful treasures, sandwiched on this peace show thing that has long since become a complete irrelevance. They’re up there on a line-up that’s so weak that most of it, I imagine, is later helped from the stage into a fleet of waiting wheelchairs.

 

There are lots of very apparent spaces in this vast railway hall ; the peace connection and a town filled with apathy have quite obviously thrown everyone. A quick vox-pop in the foyer tell us that the kids, almost one year on, know nothing about Peace Together, it’s origins, it’s intentions and it’s background. Fewer still actually care any.

 

So it’s with some half-relief then that, after what seems like an age, New Order finally ramble on. And they’re completely dreadful, basically. But then again, who can really blame them ?

 

They haven’t played for years, they’re doing this, quite obviously, out of necessity and they’ve stood on the touchlines and watched this peace shambles fall into splinters around their very feet. It’s when Bernard asks, ‘Is there anyone here from Dublin ?’ and he’s hit back with ‘Manchester, tra-la-la’ that it finally dawns on us how failed this whole thing has been. Up front there are, perhaps, 500 hard Manchester lads, lots of United’s rather unseemly blue and black away shirt and loads of that silly bag-fashion we’d all thought had actually died with The Farm. We obviously thought wrong. The locals have stayed well clear of this and that’s for sure.

 

It nearly falls apart for New Order right at the start. Barely into ‘Regret’ and all of the tapes and machines and sequenced techno stuff go loopy for some seconds. Bernard stumbles, the band look all around them and they just about hang on for life. That was the portent. New Order, like the rest of us, never ever got into this at all.

 

For a start, all of that rambling stuff from ‘Brotherhood’ sounds as mundane and awkward now as it did then, and the band are making some curious choices. At least they do the quite alluring ‘World’, with it’s compelling little choruses, but despite Hook’s clenched fists and his desperate impatience to get anywhere near the front, New Order quite clearly don’t want to be here.

 

There’s some manner of clarity and half-baked grace in the middle when they do ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and ‘True Faith’ back-to-back, with Hook flailing like a tulip in a gust. This is very much his show, but then you all knew that anyway. He still for all of the best cock-rock poses and at least has the good sense to treat this as nothing more than the piss-laugh it’s long since become.

 

Gillian hands us a snigger when she straps on a guitar and poses for four minutes without ever touching it. A surreal moment among many, that. And then Bernard stops to apologise for such a short stay telling us the band hasn’t really had the time to rehearse, but we smelt than an hour ago. After they encore ‘Blue Monday’, Bernard walks off in a different direction to everyone else, knowing in his heart that this was one great waste of time and space. He’s not alone. And I keep thinking about The Pet Shop Boys, for some reason.

 

Later, as Peace Together falls even flatter on it’s arse, New Order become some very distant memory. They may indeed be one of our finest singles bands ever, a curious pop-pearl among swine, but tonight they had as much presence as a string of abandoned and burnt-out cars. This should have been an evening to treasure, something to talk about tomorrow, something to swap notes on, to from which to eek out the bootlegs. It wasn’t.

Forgettable seems like too soft an adjective.