Cypress Mine!

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

 

 

 

 

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THE HARVEST MINISTERS TAKE DUNDALK

It’s over twenty-five years ago now since, one Saturday evening, Ken Sweeney set his mother’s runaround for Dundalk and sped the pair of us up the road, out of Glasnevin and onwards to Mister Ridley’s. The two of us were softly obsessive about one of our many favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, a Dublin outfit who’d been making decent headway for a while, earnestly kicking against every single convention of the time, often maybe over-earnestly so. With their boy-girl twin lead vocals and deft lyrical flourishes, they’d been ludicrously compared to Prefab Sprout on a shoestring. But burrow in behind their fragile frontage and William Merriman’s dark introspection owed far more to Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ than Paddy McAloon’s ‘If You Don’t Love Me’.

 

Five years after they formed in the initial afterglow of post-‘Joshua Tree’ optimism, and representing the absolute antithesis of all that that record stood for, they were making a rare foray out of Dublin and Ken and myself were anxious to see how they got on. Or, indeed, if they’d complete the course at all. On paper, the prospect of The Harvest Ministers taking on a nightclub crowd in Dundalk looked like a real mis- match and Ken had the runaround primed, immediately outside the venue, for a quick getaway. Just in case.

 

I knew little of the scene in that part of the world. Anything I did was informed by the ribald, souped-up yarns imparted by the late George Byrne and, in print, by the delicate hands of Tony Clayton-Lea in Hot Press, who handled much of the constituency work in the North-East and who got through a fair amount of mileage on his beat. There was also the storied battle-front experience of Cypress, Mine !, the paisleyed Cork undergrounders who, one Saturday afternoon, may or may not have been hastened out of County Louth during an eventful double-bill in Drogheda Boxing Club, possibly by local youths bionic on apples.

 

Ken and myself were briefly back in Ireland from London, where we were both based at the time. He was one of the small number of fledgling artists on our books at Setanta Records and had, months previously, rescued me from a squat in Peckham and taken me in under his own roof, far across town in West London. I was stick-thin at the time and, lost in the music and in the giddy rush of an emerging story – I was working closely with The Frank And Walters – hadn’t been minding myself. In spite of all the shimmer, I just wasn’t having a good time ;- I didn’t like London because I wasn’t clued in enough or sussed enough for it and so I fairly welcomed the prospect of a few days of respite.

 

We set up base in Ken’s family home for the duration :- Mrs. Sweeney was a terrific and gracious host who afforded me a mighty welcome and, unusually for that time, regular, healthy meals. And although I’m not sure if she completely appreciated the ambition in her son’s work, it wasn’t as if she let on. I was helping him to promote his first album, the excellent eight-song ‘Understand’, which he’d released on the Setanta label under the band name, Brian, and had set up a range of interviews and live appearances for him around the country. ‘Understand’ was clearly a compelling piece of work but, as with much of the Setanta output at the time, I wasn’t convinced we had enough access to the pipes and wires down which we could distribute the message as widely as it deserved.

 

And so, hastily around the country, kitted out in our long-sleeved Setanta sweatshirts, we proselytised for the week, the highlight of which, I think, was Ken’s live acoustic performance on the RTÉ television series, ‘Nighthawks’. But the purpose of our trip wasn’t just to promote the Brian album ;- we were blazing a trail for Keith Cullen’s asset-rich but still emerging imprint which, at the time, also boasted the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Divine Comedy and A House on it’s roster.

 

And it was to this end that, hours before The Ministers took the stage in Mister Ridley’s, we’d fetched up at the local radio studios of LMFM, where Ken did a short piece with the aforementioned Tony Clayton-Lea, who at the time also presented a weekly show there. We did likewise in RTÉ Cork Local Radio and at other selected stop-offs around Ireland ;- I had a cluster of Setanta samplers in my ruck-sack which we’d leave behind us as we left ;- the definitive calling cards, we thought.

 

Mister Ridley’s was – and remains, by all accounts – a popular nightclub in Dundalk, a serious provincial discotheque with notions, even if the shape and scale of the place has changed enormously in the years since. God knows how The Harvest Ministers, with their brittle, barely-pulsing songs ever ended up playing there, but then the band’s long history is pock-marked routinely with this sort of thing. An eternal search for God Knows How.

 

They’ve been on the go now for over thirty years and yet you’ll struggle to locate them in any of the annals that document contemporary music in Dublin from 1985 onwards. I first saw them at one of the heats at the Carling/Hot Press Band of The Year competition in Sir Henry’s in Cork during the late 1980s where, then as now, they stood out because they didn’t stand out at all ;- they were reluctant, callow, soft and hardly there. In a broader salad of paisley, black denim and long, swept-back hair, they were hunched and cut apart in their charity-shop jackets and dead men’s shoes. They were far from perfect and, in one way, still are – which is why, I think, I took to them so quickly and so intently.

 

Will Merriman first patched his group together during a period when U2 had just gone global and when a single, anthemic chorus got you to first base and a positive Hot Press notice without ever breaking sweat. He’s seen many summers – and indeed many drummers too – in the decades since and The Harvest Ministers’ family tree certainly extends far, deep and wide. But on that night in Mister Ridley’s, Will – the band’s leader, songwriter and constant, led what is easily the band’s best-known and most cohesive line-up, supported by the long-serving Padraig McCaul on guitar, piano and sax, the tearaway Pat Dillon on drums, Gerardette Bailey on sweet, sweet backing vocals, Brian Foley, then previously of The Blades on bass and Aingeala De Burca on violin. And it was this line- up that featured on the band’s first album, ‘Little Dark Mansion’, which was released later that year on the Bristol-based Sarah Records label.

 

You’d never, were you so pushed, expect The Harvest Ministers to get a disco crowd going, post-midnight, but that’s what was expected of them in Mister Ridley’s. And, at the time, there was nothing unusual about that :- given that many venues, especially those outside of Dublin, were located in nightclubs, many excellent live bands were routinely booked to bridge an hour or so over the course of what were long nights and, by so doing, up the intensity – and the take – at the bars. Indeed the one-time Ultravox singer, Midge Ure, once just refused to take the stage at The Bridge Hotel in Waterford when he was told he was going on-stage in the venue’s faux-Roman classical finished dance-hall as a support act to a disco.

 

And so, when The Harvest Ministers ambled onto a small space in the corner of the main floor at Mister Ridley’s, caught in the flickered glitter shapes cast by the numerous disco balls mounted overhead, they looked, as they’ve often tended to, like Nemo and his friends set free from the tank. Opening with a spartan, skewed new number called ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’ can’t have endeared them to the revellers, many of them already well flutered. And, for a while, patronising as you like, Ken and myself worried if The Ministers would make it through.

But they were quickly into their groove and went on to play a protracted and often wild set that featured several of what have long been staples :- ‘Forfeit Trials’, ‘Theresa’, ‘Silent House’ and ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’ among them. And, maybe with a calculated nod to their surroundings – or maybe not ? – the jerky ‘Oliver Cromwell’, with its convulsive sax and frantic snare over which Will repeatedly sings the big money-line – ‘Oliver Cromwell … is a pansy’. And as I recalled in a review in Melody Maker magazine subsequently, ‘by the end of the night there are couples waltzing around at the front and not an evil word is spoken’.

 

I’m consistently drawn back to that night in Dundalk for many reasons, not least of all because, not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I saw exactly how music, in this instance neither obvious, direct or immediate, can often forge a direct emotional contact even in the most unlikely of settings. Where, kicking against all reasonable theory or argument, The Harvest Ministers absolutely aced it. Of all of the live shows I’ve seen – and I’ve seen far too many at this stage – it is easily one of the more memorable and certainly on any list of favourites.

 

And that’s maybe why, I think, The Harvest Ministers continue to be such an unremarkable and yet at the same time wholly remarkable force. Because notwithstanding their exceptional back catalogue, and the scope inherent in what Will is still trying to do, it’s just impossible to dislike them.

 

In a curious twist of fate, they went on to release two terrific albums for the Setanta label, ‘A Feeling Mission’, produced by Phil Thornalley in 1995 and 1997’s magnificent ‘Orbit’, which was over-seen by John Parish, a long-time side-kick of P.J. Harvey. And betimes during this period, it looked as if the band might, almost in spite of itself, achieve some manner of cross-over, especially when the sound was bolstered up on the likes of ‘If It Kills Me [And It Will]’. But that they’ve remained resolutely stuck in the hedges and caught on the margins ever since shouldn’t in any way devalue Will’s song-writing stock :- all that’s really changed in that respect is the manner in which he now records his material, and with whom.

 

Most recently he’s been buttressed by Andy Fitzpatrick, the New York- based, former Dadas frontman who’s been an ancillary member of The Ministers for years and it’s the pair of them who, ostensibly, laid down the down the core of The Harvest Ministers’ current album, ‘Back To Harbour’, which was recorded in Fitzpatrick’s apartment and released last week.

 

And, as we’ve come to expect [and long since come to take for granted], it’s another pretty special instalment that, over the course of it’s eleven tracks, plots a familiar course dominated by casual strumming, brushed drums, delicate melodies, layered strings, a soft organ wash here or there, over-laid with Will’s vocals which, to this day, are sometimes barely there at all. Especially strong over the home straight, you’d have to wonder if he’s ever written a cluster as impactful as ‘The Debutante With The Nose Ring’, ‘Through The Trap Doors Of Insanity’, ‘No Feelings For You’ and the absurdly beautiful ‘The Heron’ ? All of which, yet again, come highly recommended.

 

Several years later I returned to Mister Ridleys. Plenty of water had roared out past Dundalk Bay in the seven years since I’d last darkened it’s doors and I was now working as, of all things, a television producer. Myself and my friend, Dave Hannigan, were making a documentary for RTÉ about the retired Irish footballer, Paul McGrath, and were picking up an important aspect of the story.

 

McGrath was, and remains, a fascinating subject and, in our efforts to unravel what was a complicated and often difficult past, we’d come looking to speak with another Irish footballer, Barry Kehoe, who had also, like Paul, played in the League of Ireland before briefly trying his luck at Manchester United. Barry’s story was no less complicated :- he was a magnificent midfield player at his hometown club, Dundalk, but his career was curtailed by injury and, later, by a long battle with cancer. As a contemporary of McGrath’s at Manchester United, however briefly, he was an obvious contributor to our film. And I located him quickly and easily enough ;- he was living and working in Dundalk, managing a nightclub in the town. Mister Ridleys.

 

Myself and Dave remember the time we spent on that Paul McGrath documentary very fondly and, across the Atlantic, we’ll still trade short messages about those wonderful months, back in 1998, as we pieced together ‘They Called Him God’. And as the cast list passes away one by one – Tommy Heffernan, Charlie Walker, Graham Taylor and Barry Kehoe himself, who eventually lost that cancer battle in 2002, those memories take on added significance for us.

 

On Barry’s suggestion, we conducted the interview with him at his place of work and, while our crew began to set their equipment into place, he proudly took us on a tour around Mister Ridleys and, as he did, The Harvest Ministers, from out of nowhere, flashed through my mind. The mirror balls, the waltzing couples, ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’, Ken and the runaround.

 

‘And over there’, said Barry in a warm but typically flat Dundalk accent as he pointed to a small alcove area touching onto the dance floor, ‘that’s what we call The Erection Section’. And, for whatever reason, The Harvest Ministers disappeared back to the dim recesses of my mind, as did any thoughts I had about lunch for the cast and crew.

Brian

Via Ken Sweeney

 

THE FRANK AND WALTERS #1

A version of this post originally appeared at Sir Henrys 2014. 

I first met The Frank And Walters in Cork in the summer of 1990, back when I was rapt and ready to roll into the breach on their behalf, whatever the job. The years since have taken all of us to places we’d probably dreamt of but hardly expected to see in the flesh. And while I no longer see them as often as I should, this doesn’t mean I consider them any less than I used. These days I‘m their eternal shadow, a ghost who stalks.

Morty McCarthy was the dealer. Morty and I were first introduced by a school-friend and I was quickly taken by his breath of reference. He was as comfortable talking about The Primitives and The Fall as he was about Junior B Hurling in Ballinlough ;- he was a genuine one-off and there was no side to him. Morty was also the youngest person I knew who held a legitimate driver’s licence. He drove a delivery van for a living, spending his days on the roads with a bagful of cassettes and a cargo of cash and carry for company.

In another of his guises – as editor and writer-at-large on a fanzine he ran, Sunny Days – he’d mention gigs he’d seen in places like Myrtleville, Youghal and Kinsale. And it was at one of those shambolic shows that he’d snagged a copy of an early Frank And Walters demo tape. Which, true to form, he’d copied and passed on.

I was into my twenties, gormless and arsing around, looking for any sort of summer distraction as long as it involved music and sport. The song of the season was ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’, sound-tracking Ireland’s first ever World Cup Finals campaign in Italy. But fans of Cork GAA – Morty very prominent among them – were revelling during a heady couple of months in exploits far closer to home.

It was live music that kept us hydrated. A Derry band, The Carrellines – fronted by Paul McLoone – won the Carling/Hot Press Band Of The Year in Sir Henry’s. During the June Bank Holiday weekend, Meat Loaf headlined the first of a new three-day event in Thurles called Féile, supported by an undercard that also featured Dublin’s Into Paradise and Thee Amazing Colosssal Men [with Garrett ‘Jacknife’ Lee on guitar]. Back in Henry’s, meanwhile, the yearly Cork Rock bash attracted the usual coven of record company executives, lured by the prospect of landing An Emotional Fish.

Prince played Pairc Ui Chaoimh and featured a king-sized bed as part of his stage show, although fears that he’d blaspheme the sacred ground with his tarty pop proved unfounded, sadly. As I reported at the time in The Cork Examiner, the most shocking thing about the Prince show was how unshocking it was. Those expecting a non-stop erotic cabaret were left disappointed and, on the long walk back up The Marina, some Pairc Ui Chaoimh regulars remarked how monthly County Board meetings were usually far more explicit.

An independent music retailer, Comet Records, had opened on Oliver Plunkett Street the previous year and quickly became a focal point for local anoraks. That small shop often resembled an AA meeting room for pale young indie addicts seeking peer support from those with similar problems. In the best traditions of ‘the exotic local record shop’, the in-house soundtracks were varied and mixed, veering from the extremes of the underground to the erratic sounds of Cork’s suburbs. In part an outlet, refuge and primary source, the shop had already became yet another tentacle of what was now a burgeoning local scene. Into which came The Frank And Walters.

By the end of September, Cork’s hurlers and Gaelic footballers had delivered a memorable All-Ireland double and the three-piece from Bishopstown had started to move through the gears.

It was on the wall of Joe Mac’s coffee shop in The Queen’s Old Castle arcade that I first clocked the name :- The Frank And Walters. The Queens was a real magnet for posers, wannabes and goms [with myself prominent among them] and its insides were lined with posters advertising live gigs of every hue. All sorts of sub-species – Goths, Mods, Cureheads and decrepit old punks, primarily – would congregate around the Patrick Street entrance, some of them often bearing instruments and amps. Out front, Daunt Square was one of Cork’s most exotic pitches, where the ghosts of early Microdisney hung in the air around their old rehearsal room, down by what was once Woodford Bourne’s wine-shop. And, when the Square wasn’t hosting left-wing political discourse and intellectual loitering it was, maybe more importantly, leading the way into Mandy’s, then Cork’s stellar fast food restaurant.

It was around The Queens Old Castle that you’d catch mention of the likes of Takapuna, Burning Embers, Jinx, Expresso Mambo, Without The, Cypress, Mine !, No Sangoma, The How And Why Insects, Porcelyn Tears, Shimpu Zig Zag, Scarlet Page, Blunt, The Electric Hedgehogs, De Confidence, Serengeti Longwalk, Censored Vision, The Outside and a host of other local acts, all of them rehearsing loud and thinking big all over the county. None moreso than The Franks.

I met them for the first time in The Enterprise Bar at the end of Barrack Street on the night that England played West Germany in a famous World Cup semi-final :- July 4th, 1990. They’d recently recorded three songs in Studio Fiona in Fermoy with Brian O’Reilly from Loudest Whisper working the desk and were seeking a kind ear and good advices. And I gave them some of what they were looking for.

Within minutes of our first session together in their rehearsal space in Brother Cusack’s room in Sullivan’s Quay school, I was already behind their eyes and under their skin. They were electric and clueless, loud and ambitious and, twenty-five years later, I don’t think I’ve ever loved them or obsessed about them more.

Once we’d plugged up, it was obvious enough how exceptional Paul was. Apart entirely from his song-writing, his incredible voice was a real boon. He’d struggle manfully with the higher end of his register, but that rarely stopped him from pushing and pushing, often to the point of fracture.

But he knew how to mind himself too. Proudly tee-total, hot water with honey and lemon was often his twist after rehearsals. And the years have been kind to him ;- he looks younger now than he did back then and his voice hasn’t diminished with the years either. So much so that his vocal performance at the band’s show in The Opera House last October was among the finest I’ve heard from him.

In the other corner, Paul’s brother, Niall, played guitar loudly and aggressively, as if he had his axe in a headlock and was frenzily mashing it with a breeze-block. You’d often have to roar at him to get a response and he’d invariably lash right back at you. He kept a store of old riffs on a cassette tape and, whenever the occasion demanded, would reach in and pull a pre-made guitar line from the stash.

Behind the traps, Ashley pulled the whole thing together. He was the spiritual leader of the band, its heartbeat and heart-throb in equal measure and a man for whom league positions [Cork City and Chelsea, strictly] meant as much as chart positions did. He was a fine, sinewy drummer to boot, always nice and busy around the kit.

Outwardly at least, The Franks cut an absurd dash with their loons and big hair but, beyond that, they took their music very, very seriously. Ashley had even run off a stock of gammy business cards that bore the words ‘Frank And Walters, Indie band’, his home address in Bishopstown and a contact number. And those cards captured every contradiction about them :- they were a serious lot, clever young men playing the fool only never at the expense of the music.

The first year disappeared in a blur. Paul had a heap of material ready to go and, within monhs, we’d knocked out another pair of decent demos, one in Caroline Studios in Blackpool and another back in Brian O’Reilly’s in Fermoy. During rehearsals in the school we’d look at how the songs started and ended, always mindful of how they’d detonate when played live. Several of the early songs – ‘The Never Ending Staircase’ and ‘Davy Chase’ especially – sped up as they developed, ending in a blur of guitars and drums. And we always kept a close eye on the clock, editing savagely, and very few of the songs now exceeded three minutes in length.

Often we’d just pull the songs asunder and re-position the various bits, noting the new structures in chalk on the broad blackboard that dominated the room. Niall would regularly locate suitable middle-eights and bridges from his collection of pre-made riffs and we’d routinely transplant bits in and out.

The band had already flirted with one record company, Revolver Records, the London-based label that issued the first Stone Roses releases, and had been encouraged down a particular path as a result. ‘Indie dance’, they answered once when I asked them to describe the band’s sound.

But I heard in them, rather, an out-and-out pop band with a mischievous indie streak and a lot of tradition in the backbone. To me they were nodding to bands as diverse as The Wedding Present, The Beatles, The Monkees and that other incendiary three-piece, The Jam. There are other clues too, especially in the songs they’ve covered over the years and ‘I’m a Believer’, ‘Funky Cold Medina’, ‘The Model’, Julian Cope’s ‘Elegant Chaos’ and ‘Pop Muzik’ by M suggest a far broader breath of reference than you’d think.

But they drew too from the Irish showband traditions and, with their stage uniforms and the slaggy banter led from behind the drum-kit, were far more Dixies than they were Pixies.

The straight Franks And Walters narrative is well worn by now and, as a no-frills biog, ‘Irish’ Jack Lyons’ 2007 book, ‘A Renewed Interest In Reading’ is the last word and won’t be bettered. But on the back of last October’s twenty-fifth anniversary performance at The Opera House in Cork, its maybe worth re-tracing the band’s steps and establishing some sort of retrospective context.

My own bottom line is clear enough :- The Frank And Walters are one of the great contemporary Irish popular music stories but seldom get the respect they deserve for that. A moot point, perhaps, but the band’s first ever Late Late Show appearance, for example, occurred in 2011, twenty years after the release of their first EP. Notwithstanding the vagaries of television and the demands of producers and bookers, just how do we square that ?

But The Franks are a resilient lot who have an unshakable belief in their own ability, matched only by Paul’s devotion to the healing power of the song. To that end, hes easily one of the most consistent and fluid song-writers the country has ever produced, and with a pretty serious body of work behind him at this stage too. But is anyone really listening ?

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dublin was routinely billed as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’. Which would have been a fine marketing tag-line were not most of those thousand bands unfit for purpose. Jim Carroll and myself wrote at length around this time about how the most pressing, urgent new music in Ireland was emerging in the regions and, between us, cited The Cranberries, Therapy?, The IRS, Engine Alley, Toasted Heretic, The Sultans and The Franks. We coined a counter-slogan – ‘Dublin Is Dead’ – more out of a sense of stubborn devilment than anything else and proselytized widely, keen to present a growing nationwide scene as more than just a regional curio. Notwithstanding the gifts bestowed on Stephen Ryan, Dave Couse and a smattering of others, most of the Dublin guitar bands operating at this time usually boasted two songs – one fast, one slow – that leant heavily on REM’s magnificent 1985 album, ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’.

The Franks, of course, sounded nothing like REM and, more importantly to me, didn’t want to sound like REM either. A point not lost on Keith Cullen, who heard in them the kind of recklessness that was already hallmarking his emerging Setanta imprint. And so they fled to a hostel in South East London and instead took their chances in England.

Run from a squat in Camberwell, Setanta had already developed a niche as a launch-pad label – sussed, connected and regarded – if not so much in Ireland then certainly with the London-based music press. But before The Franks left Cork, there was one last piece of business.

pic courtesy Siobhan O'Mahony

pic courtesy Siobhan O’Mahony

On the sunny afternoon in June, 1991, when the Cork Rock event opened in Sir Henrys, we’d arranged a private rehearsal back in Sullivan’s Quay School for one of the visiting major labels, out of sight and away from the numbers. The band laid into a cracking short set, debuting a belting new song, ‘Fashion Crisis Hits New York’, alongside regular set features like ‘Walter’s Trip’, ‘Angela Cray’ and ‘Davy Chase’ and, five feet away, the magic was lost on The Man, who sat impassively throughout. Later that weekend, The Frank And Walters levelled Cork Rock with more or less the same set and the word was out in earnest. They were recording for Setanta before Halloween.

I followed them to England during the early weeks of 1992, ostensibly to help out at Setanta while earning a crust working as a freelancer with Melody Maker magazine. The Franks had a head-start on me and, settled in Wimbledon, were receiving good notices for their first EP releases, which were produced by Dave Couse of A House. Pretty soon the band was playing the industry and even dining out on it. Within a year The Frank And Walters were on the pay-roll at Go Discs and I was headed back home, putting together a new music television series for RTÉ Two called No Disco.

I worked with them – formally, for the last time – on the songs that formed the spine of their debut album, pushing them hard in an echoey rehearsal room in a small industrial unit in Camberwell. We shaped the edges of many of the songs that would back-bone ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’ and, of the newer songs, ‘Time’, ‘John And Sue’ and ‘Transpotters’ were well basted before they left the room.

And I was there too in the band’s house in Morden in South East London when Paul played me a spartan version of ‘After All’ for the first time on an acoustic guitar. It was one of the last songs written for the album and, over the course of an hour in the kitchen, we’d re-worked it, harmonised it and, if memory serves, written a middle eight for it.

There have been far better Frank And Walters albums since and there will be many more again, but none have attracted anything near the same level of attention as the eleven-track debut. But in the year when the band releases its seventh studio album, the omens are good :- when they’re playing the seldom heard ‘Russian Ship’, you know there’s something going off in the cauldron.

Following the highly-charged triumph at The Opera House show last October, I recalled two events from around the release of the band’s fourth album, ‘Glass’, back towards the end of 2000. The first was a review of that record on an Irish music website called Cluas that savaged them as brutally as they’d ever been savaged anywhere. The other was a bizarre appearance on an afternoon television programme on RTE where they mimed their way listlessly through the lead single on that album, ‘Underground’. While they weren’t necessarily being counted out on the canvas, the band that once shared a dressing room at Top Of The Pops with Paul McCartney were now holding court on Live At Three with Marty Whelan.

I hooked up with Paul and Ashley that afternoon and we had a decent chat about the record and about how things were, laughed in all the right places and I lauded them about the album. But it was hollow enough stuff on both sides of the table and I couldn’t get over just how lethargic and miserable they seemed. Maybe I’d caught them on a bad day – or maybe I just amplified the lethargy out in them – but the joy that once so clearly defined them was missing.

The Frank And Walters may not have appreciated it at the time, but ‘Glass’ is now one of the primary defining moments in their history. Produced by Flood and engineered by Rob Kirwan, it’s the band’s most difficult album by an ocean and, Paul’s vocals aside, sounds nothing like what went before it. They’d dropped a couple of hints on the previous album, ‘Beauty Becomes More Than Life’, which featured more keyboard sounds and samples than previously. And they’d also added a fourth member, Sarah De Courcy, to fill out the live sound.

But the bleeps, tinny synths and workmanlike beats couldn’t mask the fact that ‘Glass’ was the very difficult sound of a band coming apart at the seams. And so it proved :- it was their last record for Setanta and the last to feature Niall as part of the band. And yet, beneath the sound of implosion, a pulse was still audible. ‘New York’ [revived in The Opera House and starring the well-known Cork soprano Mary Hegarty performing the female vocals originally taken by Marlene Buck], the magnificent ‘Talking About You’ and ‘Isn’t It Time’ and the cracking, old school sing-along ‘Forgiveness’ were all defiant and proud. As was the aforementioned ‘Underground’ which, I am convinced to this day, was magpied the following year and re-versioned as ‘The Sound Of The Underground’, eventually a debut hit for Girls Aloud. But against that, a distinctly average record closed with two of the worst Franks songs ever committed to tape, ‘I Will Be King’ and ‘Looking For America’, studio-doodles both.

During the period immediately following the release of ‘Glass’, the band couldn’t get arrested and, despite sporadic appearances here and there, the thrill had gone. It took them ages to re-group and re-calibrate and, with Niall no longer in the picture, it was six years before their next album. And a pretty striking return to form it was too, with the title revealing the mood in the camp :- ‘A Renewed Interest In Happiness’.

The Franks had every opportunity and every good reason to check out for good after ‘Glass’. That they choose instead to go back to first principles and re-appraise where they were most comfortable only confirms the view that I’ve held since those early days back in 1990 :- that the Keating-Linehan axis is simply unbreakable.

The band has now outlived most of those magazines that slapped them on their front covers way back, the label that issued its first records, the website that gave them their most aggressive pasting and most of the bands they shared the stage with back in Sir Henry’s at Cork Rock in 1991. Friends, family and fellow travellers have been lost along the way too. But as they prepare to release yet another album, haven’t The Franks finally put the last remaining stereotypes to the sword ? And doesn’t such a rich and expansive catalogue stretching back so long warrant some sort of sound critical footing ?

I’ve seen The Frank And Walters play live more than any other band and I honestly couldn’t believe how fresh and optimistic they sounded at The Opera House, belting through a long set that featured no new material.. On the trip home I drafted an alternative set-list of songs they didn’t perform on the night but that would have knocked the socks off of any audience in the country. I gripped my fist tight on the walk across Emmet Place, clenched my teeth and prayed a silent ‘Yesssssssss’.

Little did I suspect, back in the summer of 1990, that we’d still be here, years later, picking over The Frank And Walters. In one way, we should have all moved on years since but very often its only by looking back that can we truly comfort ourselves in the present and the future. All the more so when there’s so much history in the can and water under the bridge.

Its to The Franks’ credit that they’ve stayed the distance, lapped the flashier pace-makers and are still running personal bests. The last twenty-five years are pock-marked with many, many highlights and just as many surprises and land-mines. I can’t really recall a record collection of mine they weren’t in and can’t forsee one where they won’t hold centre-stage. With the band’s best work still to come, God knows what they’ll sound like in 2040.

WOULD YOU LOOK AT THE STATE OF US ? MUSIC IN CORK, 1992.

As a college student in Cork between 1985 and 1989, The Triskel Arts Centre was where I believed some of the more off-beat cultural stuff in the city was going down. Located in an alleyway off of the junction of Washington Street and The Grand Parade, it was a bespoke venue that was certainly on my radar, albeit one that I visited sparingly. Over the years I saw a handful of excellent theatre performances there, as well as a couple of smashing live music shows. I can especially remember seeing Anthony And De Confidence do a ‘multi-media show’ there in 1988 and I also helped to promote a live Serengeti Long Walk gig at The Triskel, which was recorded by Ray O’Callaghan [no relation] of Poles Apart.

de-Confidence-Feb-14-742x745

De Confidence via http://www.ansanctoir.ie

Later, as producer of the No Disco television series, I returned to film some acoustic sessions there, most notably with The Harvest Ministers, Martin Stephenson of The Daintees and the wonderful Kerry singer-songwriter, John Hegarty. My most recent visit to Triskel was in 2001 when, in another guise, we hired the theatre to premiere a documentary film a bout the footballer, Denis Irwin.

I’d always considered Triskel to be just a little bit beyond me, even if this had more to do with my own ignorance than anything else. That said, I recall very vividly the venue’s former Administrator, Robbie McDonald, making many an impassioned and literate contribution in the media on behalf of arts life in Cork city.

So I was genuinely taken aback when, in the Autumn of 1992, I was asked by Triskel to make a contribution to The Cork Review, a yearly over-view of cultural life in the city published by the Centre. My task was to offer a breezy snap-shot of how Cork was faring in the worlds of rock and pop music.

At the time I was free-lancing, writing largely about music but also working on a short-lived television series for RTE 2 called ‘Rant’. It was put to me that my piece could counterpoint some of the other, more formal pieces that had been commissioned for that issue of The Cork Review and it’s clear now that I followed that instruction very literally. And then some.

The best that can be said for my piece is that it’s enthusiastic and passionate :- I clearly had a bee in my bonnet about how incestuous and trite the local scene was but didn’t have the ability to articulate it properly. I’d started to believe that regional bands – and Cork bands, particularly – simply didn’t generate the national recognition some of them deserved. I also felt that some bands didn’t do themselves any favours when it came to making the most of what they had :- frustratingly, some really great young Cork bands just didn’t want to push on and were content to lord it over their peers in The College Bar or The Liberty Bar and no further. And of course this was – and is – absolutely fine too :- it’s just that I didn’t appreciate that back in 1992.

And then there were those bands who just refused or were unable to accept any form of criticism, however well-intentioned. This sensitivity was heightened in Cork :- a friend of mine says that no-one does ‘indignant’ like Cork people, and she’s right.

But 1991 and 1992 were real breakthrough years and so, with no little relish, I polished off my crystal ball, lowered the blades, and set to work.

Up   Your   Arts

All right then, so where do I begin ? I’m not really sure. It’s just that there have been so many bands, so many songs, so many singers in funny haircuts. Some have been great and some could have been great and some have been just plain horrible, but then that was never an issue. I mean, really ?

We laughed then and we still laugh now and at least we’ve got lots of little stories for when we’re walking home late at night and it’s raining heavily and we haven’t brought our umbrellas. But right now ? Well … Cork pop is in more eyes than ever before. And this time it’s in other people’s eyes too. And that makes for some change.

You see, Cork pop, just like Cork folk or Cork theatre or Cork classical, well, it’s horribly self-contained. It’s too bloody close and too bloody narrow-minded for its own good. We are wary of opinions and we hold lots of petty little grudges. And we’re still, like it or not, as vulnerable as we ever were. We’re paranoid as hell too, too slow to let go. Too many of us just don’t want to share our bands. We want to know all of the details all of the time. There should be room for talk, sure, but not for theft and lies and vendettas. But at least most of us understand that now. After all, hey, it’s only songs.

But Cork is cooler than most right now. Both The Frank And Walters and The Sultans of Ping FC have become big and notorious and have made great records and, for once, well, we’re not fooling ourselves. And sure, we’re had bands before but we’ve never had bands quite like these. These bands aren’t just big pop kids in their own underpants. Others have taken the message and bought the records. These bands don’t just exist in the pages of the music papers. They play to loads of people in loads of places. We’re not exactly sure where all of this is going, of course, but then neither are they. But at least they are going. And at least they’re thinking big. Narrow streets, you know, breed too many narrow minds. And this is a great big world.

But I’m not here to bitch and gripe, I guess. No. Cork is where I come from and it’s where I saw my first shows and it’s where I bought my first records and it’s where I wrote my first reviews and stuff. But for me, well, for me The Frank And Walters kind of say it all, you know. It’s no big secret, but I know them and I work with them and I’ve helped them from time to time and I still get all chilled-up when they bring around some new songs on a noisy cassette.

But The Frank And Walters are, quite probably, pop’s most unaffected band. And the more that I live and the more that I see, well, the more I’m impressed and the more I want to hear some more. Alright, so maybe they’re ‘essentially Cork’ or maybe they’re ‘whacky’ or maybe they’re ‘quaint’ ? I don’t know and, in all honesty, I’m way past caring. But they’ve got a barrowload of great songs and a free and easy talent. They just write the songs :- some of the best songs that I’ve heard and that’s for sure. And I know that they’ll sell tankerloads of records. And I know that they’ll be on bedroom walls. I just know. Believe me.

But The Frank And Walters, unlike too many bands, know that all of this is just one big rotten game. At least they’ve got songs, which is more than most. But they’ve also got a manager with a tight haircut and some wits, they’ve got luck because they make their own and they’ve got marketing and press and they’ve played every toilet from Dudley to Buckley and back. But it helps too when you’ve got parents who don’t gripe when you’re making yet another cross-channel call ; when you’ve got parents who help to put your posters up and who take out subscriptions to Spiral Scratch and who know Verve’s mid-week chart position. It all adds up.

But looking back is kind of fun too, you know. I mean, did we really try to record once in a studio which had no reel-to-reel recording tape ? Did we really wrangle a live show in U.C.C. just so that we could review ourselves in Hot Press ? Did singer Paul pose with his bass-guitar on the front of The Cork Examiner ? In colour ? Ah, the ways in which we were raised.

Five go down to the sea

Five go Down to the Sea via  https://www.youtube.com

But there were others too. And there were other songs : and other times. Did Five Go Down To Sea really have songs called ‘What Happened Your Leg?’ and ‘Kelly From Killeen’ and ‘Carrots From Clonmel’ ? Did Sindikat really break a bass-guitar string during a City Carnival show in The Ivernia car-park ? And did singer Pat really drop his tartan punk trousers during a show in The Underground ? Were Censored Vision really serious ? Did Without The really have a song called ‘Sit on my face, Elaine’. Were there really fifty-three record company pigs in Sir Henry’s to see An Emotional Fish play at Cork Rock ? And did we really  spend an endless weekend at Euro Rock two years ago, where we saw fifteen bands back-to-back ? And then The Sisters of Mercy ?

And then That Petrol Emotion ? And did Scarlet Page splay their legs and thank people during a song called ‘In The City’ in front of seventeen people ? In The Opera House ? And did Serengeti Long Walk really have a band logo that had a little man in a trilby hat ?

But there are little frustrations too, of course. Like that Cypress, Mine ! broke Up and that they never got to put ‘Last Night I Met The Man For Me’ out. Or that Lift aren’t huge. And that we still sneer and gripe and complain about everything and see things through parochial glasses and that. But hey, that’s pop and that’s life and we’re never quite sure what’s around the next corner anyway. I’m just glad that I’ve been and seen.

I like to think that the best is yet to come. One day I may even get to have a real job. But just not yet.

This piece was originally printed in The Cork Review, 1992. Published by Triskel Arts Centre.