Cork

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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 ;- The 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. But 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.

CRYSTAL, FROM CORK

stEWCJ1p.jpg-large

Picture courtesy Siobhan O’Mahony

 

Crystal were one of Alan Murphy’s outfits, in essence a more formed and focused version of his previous band, The How And Why Insects, with his girlfriend, Lisa, added on vocals and Kieran Curtin replacing Anthony Murray on guitar. They were one of a number of bands from the Turner’s Cross/Capwell/Glasheen Road side of Cork City, via Coláiste Chriost Rí, but who, drummer Keri Jones apart, had little else in common with their peers, notably Censored Vision and Serengeti Long Walk.

With Brian Quigley [bass] completing the line-up, they were easily the most academically qualified band to emerge in Cork as the eighties ground to a close. But they were keen students of classic and alternative sounds too ;- Alan, especially, had a far-ranging frame of reference that stretched back to the classics and forward into the contemporary margins. And, once Lisa integrated more fully into the line-up, Crystal developed a sinewy – but no less sparkly – guitar-pop sound. So much to that, for a while, I genuinely thought they had enough about them to really kiss the sun.

But they never received the credit their ambition warranted, especially around Cork, and their live shows were often pock-marked by poor sound and indifference from audiences. But Crystal, with a rich depth of field, a real attitude about them, and swarthy good looks, were well able to hold their own in any company and, for a number of years were prominent, but never over-bearingly so, on the local circuit.

Some of the band later embarked, inevitably enough, onto careers in full-time academica, after which Alan and Lisa re-grouped, re-charged and re-modelled themselves as Starchild, a far more ambient and considered outlet for Murphy’s songs.

But not before, in August, 1991, I gave them this review in Melody Maker magazine, capturing them at their peak, live in The Shelter on Tuckey Street. At the time, Tuam band The Sawdoctors and raggle-taggle period Waterboys dominated the general conversation but, lurking beneath them, a fresh wave of excellent, alternative regional acts had taken their starter’s orders and already had the mainstream squarely in their cross-hairs. And with Crystal among them, I thought.

And so, with the game on, I stepped out to bat and, not for the first or the last time, gave a decent, emerging band, the kiss of death.

QuFfE-7d

Picture courtesy of Siobhan O’Mahony

Crystal, (The Shelter, Cork)

Crystal are a million miles away from raggle-taggle and they couldn’t care less for sub-generic jangle guitar pop. Mention The Sawdoctors to them and, like Woody Allen on love and life, they’ll internalise. Grow tumours. They’re resolutely hip. Essential. And they’re completely un-Irish, rather like Toasted Heretic and Therapy? and The Cranberries and The Frank And Walters, I guess.

Crystal are indie-kids with style and attitude and looks. They’ve missed all of ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, and the repeats too, because they’ve been too busy listening to My Bloody Valentine and R.E.M. and The Who. They’ve just fallen for ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Revolver’ and ‘Rubber Soul’ and they make some of the most beautiful noise-pop in, well, months.

Tonight in this wonderful little pop hut, Crystal are like a whale out of water. Their comic-culture upbringing, their style, their attitude, their complete disdain for anything remotely linked to Irish pop actually confuses tonight’s pop kids. Songs like ‘Forbidden’ and ‘Touch The Sky’ are murmur-pop songs that we can actually hear. And hum. And remember tomorrow. And then there are three-minute rant-and-rave pop songs like the perfectly-formed ‘Too Late’ and the head-spinning,body-line bounce of ‘Free’.

There’s Lisa’s voice ;- a travelling companion in first class for Dolores Cranberries’. There’s her looks. There’s Brian’s top-heavy bass guitar and a drummer on loan from Anthrax. It’s a confusing little bag. Like Fatima Mansions, if you like.

Crystal might well be a product of their environment, but that patch is well away from here. That is where they’ll stand or fall. The only certainly is that, like My Bloody Valentine, they’ll never be seen as an Irish band. Because they’re not.

 

ACT LOCAL, THINK LOCAL

89FM

 

I know the riversides around Morrison’s Island, The South Terrace and George’s Quay very well and, over the years, burned many an idle hour on them. My father spent his entire adult life working from The City Hall, I started primary school in The Model on Anglesea Street and spent years in and out of the Cork School of Music. But just as importantly, I routinely ran the wickets between the The Lobby, The Phoenix and Mojos, three of Cork’s most vibrant live music venues during the 1980s and 1990s.

Cork Local Radio was an RTÉ opt-out service for the city and it’s out-lying areas that ran for the guts of twenty-five years from it’s base on Union Quay, in the heart of that same part of the city. In keeping with many of the public buildings constructed in Ireland during the 1930s, it looked and felt like a dental hospital, with it’s brown wooden panels, curved stairs and pea-green ceramics. Which was apt ;- much of it’s output was best listened to while under local anaesthetic.

Although RTÉ, as 2RN, had radio facilities in Cork since the late 1920s, Cork Local Radio – later re-branded as RTÉ 89FM and RTÉ Radio Cork – was launched during the mid 1970s, broadcasting for a couple of hours every day, initially during lunchtime and, subsequently, in the afternoons and early evenings. Pre-dating the arrival of the commercial radio stations into the Irish market – and rivalling Radio South for a couple of years after it surprisingly snagged the first local independent licence for the area in 1989– it added an unapologetic, partisan tinge to lifestyle, politics, music, sport and news. Cork Local Radio was exactly that ;- it was radio that told the people of Cork precisely what they wanted to hear, reminding them, on a regular basis, just how wonderful they were. You’d hear anything and anyone on Cork Local Radio but, for many of those who slogged on it’s schedules, it was a gateway to a bigger and more magical place :- Donnybrook. Or, as you’d often hear it referred to around the shop, ‘national’.

During my days in secondary school and even for a while during the years I spent in college, I’d pass many of my lunchtimes at home – often just myself and my mother – where the radio dial never moved. ‘Corkabout’ was, for years, the heart of the local schedule, an hour-long opt-out from the regular RTÉ Radio One slate presented, mostly, by Alf McCarthy and Donna O’Sullivan, with an unashamed Cork bent. It was like a radio version of The People’s Republic Of Cork website or a special, commemorative edition of a regional newspaper and, when it was good, it was excellent. Tim Horgan, with whom I later taught up in Farranferris, presented a terrific history slot called ‘Leeside Lore’, in which he delved into the local archives and unearthed what were often magical yarns and voices from the vault ;- the shared theme here was the sheer majesty of Cork and all of those who lived in her.

Theo Dorgan was, for years, the station’s excellent film critic, bringing the movie world alive with wonderful scripts and insights where every single word and opinion was dipped in gold. Theatre, animal welfare, [un]employment news, jazz notes, sport, local rows from the council chambers … these were the staples on which ‘Corkabout’ was founded. On top of which was layered a thick spread of actual news, presented and parsed by the exotically-handled Caimin Jones and Barraí Mescall and the less exotically-handled Pat Butler. The on-air crew played like the loosest, most freeform and eccentric jazz band ever ;- a disparate set of unique players bound by thread, never entirely sure where the riffs might take them and often playing in multiple time signatures.

And from that band you’d hear some of the most scarcely believable stuff. I remember one political panel discussion during the mid 1980s during which, when asked what he thought of a crucial contraceptive bill that was then before the Oireachtas, the high-profile local councillor, Bernie Murphy, replied :- ‘I think it should be paid’. Those who manned the desks in Union Quay will remember the occasion when Barraí Mescall asked earnestly if, indeed, ‘The Cork Harbour Commissioners had simply missed the boat on this issue’. And I was around the building myself, acting the goat, on the day that Barraí referred on air to the then German chancellor as Herr Kohl Helmut. Those were just some of of the exotic sounds that frequently popped the air there ;- a full, more exhaustive collection was collected by the station’s technicians and sound recordists over the years.

 

 

Buried deep within all of this was, for a couple of years, a weekly music insert presented by Tony O’Donoghue, now RTÉ’s football correspondent and a man who, over the years, has done the state no little service in some of the country’s most distinctive live music venues. Prominent among them, The Hi-Land in Newmarket, up in North Cork, known to many of us who fetched up there regularly as ‘Amityville’. Tony’s eight minute slot was an extended gig guide, basically, around which he scattered snippets of forthcoming releases, demo tapes and, on occasion, the odd plaintive essay on the vagaries of the music industry, filling handy time on a running order and also ticking at least one box on a public service check-list. But it would be wrong to dismiss that material as token ;- Cork Local Radio, and especially Aidan Stanley, one of it’s in-house producers, always had a real commitment to emerging music and, over the years, never shied away from it. The station hosted many excellent live performances and sessions from a litany of visiting acts and, in keeping with it’s focus, play-listed anything that had a remotely Cork twang. Over the years I brought the likes of In Motion, Sack, The Divine Comedy, Into Paradise, A House and Brian into the studios at Union Quay, all of whom were given five-star treatment and a pretty ace live sound while they performed, usually during the lunchtime or drivetime schedules.

Cork Local Radio was also, by extension, a prominent local partner on  some of the big live events run around the city by 2FM and RTÉ Television and certainly did it’s bit to keep Cork safe for rock and roll. Local would always feature on the undercard whenever ‘national’ breezed into town to do a Lark By The Lee, Telethon or a Cork Rocks and, while Barry Lang and Electric Eddie took care of the heavy business and introduced Aslan or Cactus World News to the sun-soaked crowds in the Lee Fields or the rain-sodden throngs on The Coal Quay, you’d also have Stevie Bolger, Alf himself or, God forbid, Terence The Hairdresser, minding the also-rans. The line between ‘national’ and ‘local’ was indeed a thin one but you’d be routinely reminded of it in all manner of ways.

Official state visits by ‘national’ weren’t just confined to big events but, to some in senior management, were usually regarded as such. The radio studios themselves were quite formidable and were well equipped to handle what was then the regular Radio One schedule. Union Quay would regularly host the heavy hitters – Pat Kenny was a frequent visitor to Cork, and still is – and Dave Fanning routinely did his 2FM Rock Show out of there. Indeed it was in Cork that he conducted one of his more memorable U2 shows when, on the eve of one of the group’s appearances in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1987, he interviewed some of their long-standing road-crew, many of whom were from Cork ;- Joe O’Herlihy, Sam O’Sullivan and Tom Mullally among them.

The relationship between every national broadcaster and it’s regional offices can often be a terse one and things were no different in Cork. Whether real or imagined, regional staff can often feel dislocated and removed from key decision making, set apart by geography, cut apart from the action, under-resourced and short-funded. This was an aspect of life in RTÉ Cork that we exploited during the early days of the ‘No Disco’ series to positive effect but which, ultimately, may not have really helped the programme at all.

But local had the knowledge too and, often, was an agile and nimble operator with it’s ears to the ground. ‘No Disco’ had just completed it’s first season when, on Friday afternoon, June 17th, 1994, I answered an internal call from the RTÉ Sport Department ;- Ireland were due to play Italy in their first World Cup game, in Giant’s Stadium in New York, the following day and the production team was looking for a favour. Joe Kinnear, the former Irish international defender and then manager of Wimbledon, had been added to the RTÉ football panel that summer and had told the producers that one of his charges, the one-time hod-carrier, Vinnie Jones, was bound for Cork, with a plane-load of his friends and family in tow, for his stag weekend.

 

Vinnie-Jones-Main

 

I was asked if I could locate Jones and, if possible, bag a short interview with him that would play just before RTÉ’s coverage of the Italy game. At the time, the high-profile midfield player was attempting to declare for our national team and had made several very public efforts, over the course of the previous few years, to locate legal proof of his connection to the country. The story had some manner of currency and, so, off we went.

I’ve repeated the view over the years that Cork is ostensibly a village masquerading as a town and trading as a city and I saw this play out in practice while myself and Pat McAuliffe, who was then free-lancing as a sports reporter for RTÉ Cork, literally horsed from hotel to hotel and bar to bar as we searched for a party of international stags. In the days when mobile phones were still primal, unreliable and physically enormous, we eventually located Jones and his entourage in a hotel on Morrison’s Island, across the river, as it happens, from the RTÉ Radio Cork offices and around the corner from the television building on Father Mathew Street.

We recognised John Fashanu and Warren Barton first. It was a stunning Summer’s evening in Cork and, on the banks of the river Lee, forty or fifty geezers – and they were, very much, geezers – were already well into the swing of it. Every single one of them wore his shirt outside of his trousers and the air in the bar hung heavy with the waft of male grooming products as wads of sterling were lashed across the bar.

We introduced ourselves to Vinnie and explained what we were at and, after a painless negotiation with his agent, during which we outlined the scale of the proposed RTÉ coverage, arranged an interview for 9AM on the following morning, outside Cork City Hall. Despite a night on the lash around town, Vinnie fetched up on time and, even better again, arrived wearing a white replica Ireland away top. Pat went to work on him, conducted a lovely interview – during which Vinnie stumbled over the word ‘affidavit’ – and Joe McCarthy, the veteran cameraman who’d shot much of the first season of ‘No Disco’, captured it all on tape. We cut the piece later that afternoon in RTÉ Cork and it played just before the Ireland game, which attracted one of the biggest television audiences in the history of the state. In front of which, as these things go, we put a local journalist with a minimal national profile boasting a pretty savage, old school scoop.

I still think it was Tony O’Donoghue, though, who broke the ground for this sort of carry-on, for tampering with the pieces, pushing out the boat. Which wasn’t easy, given that RTÉ Cork was, for years, run by Máire Ní Murchú, an old-style marm in a bouffant  Thatcher do, in whose style she too laid down the iron fist. She dispatched Tony home one afternoon and asked him to return only after he’d shaved. Meanwhile, down the corridors, the afternoon jock, Stevie Bolger, looking for all the world like Elton John did for most of the mid 1970s, was cranking up the dial and standing-by to drive Cork home. ‘This is Stevie Bee, by the banks of The Lee’ he’d roar, as he rode the faders and unleashed his jingles.

Tony was doing multi-platform content twenty years before Channel Four. Between his television work at Cork Multi-Channel and his numerous radio and print jobs, he gave real rope to any number of emerging bands who caught his imagination. And there’s still something mildly subversive about the way he sneaked the likes of ‘Snowball Down’ by A House or ‘The Bridge’ by Cactus World News or an unreleased Cypress, Mine ! track onto the lunchtime airwaves and into kitchens all over Cork. He has a lot to answer for.

The writing was on the wall for RTÉ Radio Cork once the local independents managed, eventually, to get their act together. The commercial stations took the same, shamelessly partisan editorial line but were also on air full-time, sounded way fresher and were far easier to brand and to sell. Audiences had simply drained away from Cork Local Radio over the years and, when the plug was eventually pulled in 2000, and when resources were re-directed into developing the output from the facility across the river on Father Mathew Street, it was a tender and inevitable mercy. I remember Alf McCarthy once saying that it didn’t auger well when the station knew it’s listeners by their first names. Although personally, I thought we’d crossed the Rubicon the day that Marty Morrissey suggested he pre-record the afternoon news bulletin so he could beat an early exit to a bigger engagement with ‘national’.

 

TEENAGE PUNKS FROM PLANET SEXY LOVE

 

Certain bands are inevitably linked with certain times of your life, and for me the noughties were knotted with the Sultans of Ping FC. While I would love to describe seeing singer Niall O’Flaherty get punched in the face in that infamous Limerick gig (“Good evening stab city”), or the time an unknown band called Radiohead supported the Sultans in ‘92, I cannot. I wasn’t there in Cork in the early days, never saw them in Sir Henry’s or had to make a ‘Blur or Oasis’ choice between them and the Frank and Walters.

So then, why the Sultans of Ping? Sure don’t they only sing about jumpers and Japanese girls?

Well, Galway has been responsible for many a strange life choice and it was there my obsession with the Sultans began. Like any Irish person I’ve always loved ‘Where’s me Jumper’. It’s a classic. Even your granny probably likes it! But my gateway drug into the Sultans was their second album “Teenage Drug”. I moved to Galway in 2004, and lived in a share house with four friends from Naas. None of us were doing much at the time; I was working in an Ice rink, getting paid to ice skate around and pick people up when they fell over. It was in this atmosphere of apathy that my friend Paul handed me a copy of Teenage Drug on tape. The punchy drum beat! The punky guitars! Niall shrieking “all the teenage punks come from planet-sexy-love”! It was ridiculous, and cool, and from the first blast of ‘Teenage Punks’ I was hooked. Listening to it now it’s not the greatest album of all time. The band had dropped the FC from their name, and tried to be a bit more serious. But it had something about it that kept making me hit the rewind button on my Walkman. If Teenage Drug was the gateway, it was not until I heard their debut album, Casual Sex in the Cineplex, that I was hooked.

Casual Sex in the Cineplex is a masterpiece. With the exception of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, or Van Morrisson’s Astral Weeks, I don’t think there’s a better Irish album. Cast in the same mould as the first three Ramones albums, every song on it could be a single. Equal measures sneering and insulting, hilarious and fun, it’s effortlessly catchy. No matter where I am in the world if I see a record store I immediately go to the second hand “S” section, and search for a copy on vinyl. I’ve looked for it in Berlin and Bangkok, in Wellington and Reykjavik and have yet to find it (I was given a copy as a Christmas present last year by a cheat who went online).

I think it’s often overlooked what good songwriters the Sultans were. Somehow they managed to write lyrics that were really intelligent in a really juvenile way. It’s because of the humour in their songs that they are often dismissed as a novelty act, or lumped in with the likes of Neds Atomic Dustbin. This is a travesty. They wrote perfect, pop-punk songs, without sounding like Blink 182!   Their lyrics could be funny;

“When we were young we would go pill popping dear, we’d be pill popping thought there was no stopping dear, we’d be pill popping thought there was no stopping dear, but right now I think I’d rather go shopping dear” (Let’s go shopping)

touching ;

“Saturday afternoon and I’m drinking with the guys, thinking of the day’s results and your lovely eyes”; (Two pints of Raza)

Insulting;

“And now I know you better well I’ve come to one conclusion, eight out of ten of your best friends deserve electrocution”. (Michiko)

They even had a song made of quotes Brian Clough said about his son Nigel;

He’s a nice young man, he has a lovely smile”! (Give him a ball and a yard of grass)

My current favourite lyric of theirs is when they evoke the spirit of the Reverend Martin Luther King to rally against the scourge of modern society – football being played on astro-turf pitches;

“It’s living in peace in harmony, it’s a holiday for referees, cause I’ve got a dream. Society without a class, where all of football’s played on grass, cause I’ve got a dream” (No More Plastic Pitches)

The Sultans reformed in 2005 and needless to say I was excited about seeing them. They announced a show at a festival in Berlin and myself and 3 friends headed over specifically to see them. The whole trip was a disaster! We missed our flight, we lost our wallets, and fell asleep in some of the dingiest ditches in Berlin! It was one of the greatest holiday’s I’ve ever had.

They played at a really weird, hokey little festival, located on a farm a half an hour outside the city. The whole festival seemed like something from the mind of David Lynch! There was a petting zoo beside the main stage, and every now and again, mid song, you would hear a peacock screeching. At night, the dance tent turned into a spontaneous football match, with points being scored for who could hit the DJ in the head with a football. In a line-up filled with tripe like the Klaxons, the Sultans arrived on stage like a whirlwind! Personified by Niall O’Flaherty’s Iggy Pop/Lux Interior like berating of the crowd, he seemed to glee in provoking the audience into some sort of a reaction. The predominately German audience looked like it had been slapped in the face, and they loved it! Or at least I did.

After the gig the we ended up chatting with the band, who seemed a bit shocked that four twenty something year olds would travel all the way to Berlin to see them, when they were already well past their peak. My friend Paul piped up told them we only went “cause we heard the Sultan’s of Ping were really shit and we wanted to see for ourselves”. Niall O’ Flaherty then put his arm around Paul, looked at me and said “Look after your friend… he’s a bit weird isn’t he?”

I still laugh about that today!

Following that show being a Sultan’s fan became like supporting a football club, we went to home and away games. I saw them in Whelan’s, lying on a beer stained, broken glass covered floor, kicking my legs in the air for Turnip Fish, and at the Mantua festival in Roscommon, when a member of the crowed drove a tractor into the dance tent. I was at their return gig in Limerick “it’s good to be back in stab city”; when they supported Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine in Brixton Academy, and when they played a squat in Amsterdam.

I kept hoping they would play Tokyo.

We joined the online Sultans fan forum – Shimmy Shammey Sultans, a melting pot of Sultans nerds (like myself) who would go to all their gigs. It was populated by people with unusual monikers like ‘Hairy Vince’, ‘Gary Coleman’ and ‘Deirdre Barlow’. At gigs you might sheepishly ask the person beside you “so, umm, what’s your shimmy shammy sultan’s name?”. I downloaded all their early B-sides (which are incredible), and listened to them to death, even giving a copy of them to a bemused Noel Fielding. At one stage I was working as an extra on the TV series the Tudors. On a break between takes I spotted Maria Doyle Kennedy and made a b-line for her. As she was pouring herself a cup of coffee I clumsily saddled up beside her and blurted out “hi Hi Maria… emm… you’re a big Sultans of Ping fan aren’t you?”. She almost choked on her coffee before gasping “How.Do.You… know that?”

After a few years the reunion seemed to be fizzling out. Much like their albums, the initial burst of excitement had passed, and the band seemed to be enjoying it less and less. They released a new single “Girl Watching” in 2007. While it’s fun to hear live, it paled in comparison to any of their early stuff. In 2010 I saw them play a gig in London. There were rumours in the crowd that the end was nigh, and they really didn’t seem that interested to be there. In a way I was kind of glad. I needed a break too.

I moved to Australia shortly after the gig and it would be four years before I saw them again. I sometimes went weeks without listening to Casual Sex.

Though the band didn’t split up, they did start to play fewer and fewer gigs. In 2014 The Sultans announced they were playing in Cypress Avenue in Cork, the same week I had tickets to see a reformed Jesus and Mary Chain in Dublin. The JAMC played one of the worst gigs I ever attended. They fought onstage, songs broke down mid song, and they looked like they could care less. After that debacle I was a little apprehensive about seeing the Sultans. I’d seen one over the hill reformed act, I really didn’t want to go to Cork to see another. But I did go, and my fears were unfounded. The Sultans were incredible, and I was transported back to when I lived on Dyke Road in Galway, listening to Teenage Drug on tape in heavy rotation.

I don’t know what the future holds for the Sultans. They will probably never have their picture on the Button Factory’s Irish ‘Rock N’Roll’ wall of fame, or top the Irish Times greatest Irish albums of all-time list. They will probably pack it in soon, but I don’t care. Some of the best nights of my life have been spent listening to the Sultans of Ping. Now, let’s all lie on the ground, kick our feet in the air and sing …

“I’m the kind of fish who likes to do my own thing,

I like to rock and roll with the Sultans of Ping,

All the other fish don’t understand,

The Sultans of Ping are my favourite band”

 

Mick O’Dwyer is a former Teenage Punk, who now works as a librarian in the European Parliamentary Research Service in Brussels, and the Forgotten Zine Archive in Dublin