Danny Wilson

THERE’S ONLY TWO DANNY WILSONS

I was twenty-one years old when I spent the second half of 1989 on a JI visa in New England. I’d fetched up in a small city ninety miles outside of Boston looking to do as many shifts as I could in a local restaurant and trying to squirrel away a few bob, and I loved every minute of it. The view from the front of The Log Cabin, on the road to Easthampton, was spectacular, the grub inside was decent and the kitchen and waiting staff were on the colourful side of well oiled. In the great traditions of the hospitality sector, several of them were running away and looking to turn a fast buck: one of them was a fine jazz musician who, after a ruck in the fish kitchen one night, we never saw again. 

The punters were just as mixed and varied. One of the local bishops dined with us once a week, ate at his own table in a back room and only took his food after he’d settled himself with a couple of Rob Roys that were generous with the measures. A foursome of obscenely wealthy old dears regularly drove over from Connecticut in their vintage Cadillacs and rarely ventured from the cheapest options on the menu, for which they were avoided by the more experienced waiting staff using an effort v reward-based theorem. The race-going set, on their way to or from the multi-track at Saratoga, were far more attractive: they’d roll in and, to a woman and man, splash freely. 

Between the barrel-topped bar on the terrace – where a local businessman would gauge the level of hooch in his cocktail with a home-made device – and the long aisles inside, you were kept going. The good days at The Log Cabin were very good and the nights often went on far too long: a restaurant of the same name still exists on the same site but bears no resemblance, physically or otherwise, to the operation run for decades by Edna Williams and Frank McAvin.

I’d just finished college and was in no rush to do anything more taxing than bussing crockery and waiting tables. Cork city was in rag order, good news was scarce on the ground and the new decade couldn’t come quickly enough. Groomed for either a job in teaching or in the state service, the view down into South Hadley from the front of the restaurant looked more and more appealing by the day. 

I spent little or no time in Holyoke city centre itself during my time in Hampden County: very few did, I think. Boasting the birth of volleyball and the drummer from Steppenwolf among its most notable achievements, the city was as unremarkable as its contributions to popular culture. And it was nowhere near as pleasant or chilled out as some of the places that circle it. 

On my days off, I’d spend hours rifling the bins and racks in record shops in Northampton, Easthampton and Amherst, the trendier college towns close-by. My fledgling collection of albums and the half-cocked over-view I had of popular music history was an enormous help and a real ice-breaker. The staff and the punters at The Cabin regarded the Irish kids there very fondly anyway but, beyond the courtesy, music was a real leveller in the back-room and unlocked several doors. One of the older waitresses had lived through the first Summer of Love and was still paying the price for it, twenty years on. During down-time and breaks, she gave me a post-graduate schooling on the genius of Van Morrison, for which I’ll forever be in her debt.

In that space where bravery and stupidity merge, I travelled down to Boston in a borrowed beater with four local chemical enthusiasts to see an extended panel of Damned members, past and present, put on an almighty display at The Channel and I have no idea how we made it back up the motorway afterwards. The show itself I remember, of course, in fine detail: a greatest hits pantomime featuring Gary Tibbs at one point on bass and that ended with Captain Sensible chased off the stage, bollock naked.  

One of the waiters drove us up to New Haven in Connecticut to see Pixies on the ‘Doolittle’ tour in a hall that was far from full: at the time they were one of the most essential and urgent new bands in Britain and were largely unheralded in their own back yard. In return, I took him to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst – where Pixies first took shape years previously – to see another magnificent live consideration, The Waterboys, in their pomp, powerfully plugging ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and putting on as energetic a show as I’d seen from them, despite having been on the road for what seemed like forever. 

Amherst was a beautiful town, and all the more so when it was over-run with students. I saw the Dublin folk singer, Mary Black, outside a coffee shop there one day and, with nothing better to do, ended up at a concert she was doing that night, more out of a sense of patriotic duty than any real desire to hear the best bits from ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’ and ‘No Frontiers’. And I swear, I left there in the dead of night thinking I’d just seen a J1 version of Nick Drake perform ‘Five Leaves Left’ for his parents and his sister in their drawing room in 1969. 

The moustachioed Liverpool striker, Ian Rush, spent the 1987/1988 season in Turin, where he endured a difficult year at Juventus before returning home quickly. Whether or not he ever described his only season in Italy as ‘like living in a foreign country’ is irrelevant: I certainly know what he meant. I just couldn’t believe the freedom I had and the range of stuff that was happening in front of my nose. But I was kept nicely connected with what I knew, too, and, in those years before the Internet, a couple of friends of mine were in regular touch from back home.  

Every fortnight, I’d take delivery of a couple of packages in which there’d be long letters, clippings, copies of ‘Hot Press’ and ‘Cork Scene’ magazines and compilation tapes magpied from a variety of sources. Whenever I hear talk now about welfare services for the Irish diaspora, I default to the summer of 1989 and the pirated supply line of new music that helped to keep my days bright: The Woodentops, Into Paradise, The Stone Roses and Danny Wilson’s ‘Bebop Moptop’.

It was on Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on RTÉ 2FM – where else ? – that I’d first encountered Danny Wilson. Not, for the sake of clarity, the gnarly, journeyman footballer, then doing duty at Luton Town and who’d recently been capped by Northern Ireland, but an elegant, sharply-turned out pop band with ambitions from Dundee. Named after a 1950s film starring Frank Sinatra – and originally called Spencer Tracy – they’d defied standard British music industry logic by having a hit single, ‘Mary’s Prayer’, in America before they managed to do so at home. That said, I’m not convinced they were ever destined to be a soaraway commercial success; much of their material was just too unwieldly for the charts.

There’s much more to Danny Wilson than ‘Mary’s Prayer’ and, decades later, I’m unsure if that cut sits completely comfortably on the group’s terrific debut album, ‘Meet Danny Wilson’. It was certainly far too obvious for Fanning, who was more inclined towards the more considered stuff, like ‘Steamtrains To the Milky Way’, ‘Nothing Ever Goes to Plan’ and ‘You Remain an Angel’ instead. But ‘Mary’s Prayer’ is what it is, the band’s best-known number and calling card.

Danny Wilson sit in a genre of smart 1980s pop music that was brave enough to kick against all reasonable advice and pull from one of the most critically unfashionable sources available to them: the poppier end of the Steely Dan canon. Like a slew of other groups from the period – most notably Prefab Sprout but also The Big Dish, Love and Money, Hue and Cry and even The Lilac Time – they weren’t afraid to foreground their Humanities degrees and rail against some of the darker, heavier and trendier sounds du jour. 

‘Meet Danny Wilson’’s lavish gate-fold sleeve suggested a group that was more comfortable within the confines of the studio, where they could layer their songs with harmonies, backing vocals, brass and strings – like Becker and Fagen – to their hearts’ content, and work out their soul and jazz fantasies. Two of the band wore trilby hats in the colour-treated group photograph on the front cover – an early-warning sign for many critics, the late George Byrne prominent among them – in a nod to some of the 1950s cultural references that so defined them. For a group so proficient with their tools, they were woefully out of time, and that made me love them even more. 

I devoured ‘Meet Danny Wilson’ because, like many of my favourite albums at the time – like ‘Steve McQueen’, ‘Sign ‘o the Times’ and ‘Cupid and Psyche’ – I saw in it the potential of contemporary popular music beyond the obvious. Back then, a smart world-play, twisted chorus or a flourish of brass had real currency and, during a period dominated by noisy guitars, meant the world. But for all that, I still prefer the band’s follow-up, ‘Bebop Moptop’, released in the summer of 1989, and which was air-mailed from Cork to Holyoke shortly after it was issued, recorded from original vinyl onto a fresh c60 and marked ‘for the urgent attention of … ’.

I feel the same way about that record now as I did then: like ABC’s terrific second album, ‘Beauty Stab’, it’s often over-looked in the context of the record that preceded it. But in my own case, ‘Bebop’ landed at the right place and during the right time, a seasonal counter-point to much of the noise – Pixies, The Naked Rayguns, The Damned and The Smithereens – I was lost in for much of that period.

‘Bebop’ picks up where ‘Meet’ left off, except the band sounds far more confident and the production more elaborate: the numerous layers, breaks and plumes are testament to that. The lead single, ‘The Second Summer of Love’, was a rattling, acoustic-led romp that resonated very obviously with me on a couple of levels and had the cut of a throwaway ditty written late in the day – like Hinterland’s  ‘Desert Boots’ – and added into the mix at the death. Like ‘Mary’s Prayer’, it gave Danny Wilson another chart hit but sounds as dis-connected from the rest of the elpee as ‘Mary’s Prayer’ does on ‘Meet’. 

It’s maybe worth noting here how easily Gary Clark has long minted smart pop songs with deceptive degrees of side and edge: I’m not sure if any other chart hit has ever dropped as many acid references inside three minutes. A point perhaps not lost on the Dublin film director, and one-time Frames bass-player, John Carney, who asked Clark to contribute the original sound-track to his 2016 coming-of-age movie, ‘Sing Street’. Which he of course delivered with customary elan. 

‘Bebop Moptop’ opens and closes on the streets in the rain: ‘An Imaginary Girl’ and ‘The Ballad of Me and Shirley MacLaine’ twin the record’s beginning and end, before it climaxes with a few triumphant bars of a movie studios signature riff. In between, the body of the record boasts a set of lyrically sharp, well-upholstered pop songs that, as a sum of parts, reflect the best of every mighty Scottish pop record ever, from the first Del Amitri elpee to the next Trash Can Sinatras one and all points in between.

‘I Can’t Wait’, an imperious, busy, pop song co-written with the rest of the group – Gary Clark’s brother, Kit, and Ged Grimes – is one of many stand-outs. ‘If Everything You Said was True’ and ‘I Was Wrong’, with its Sesame Street buff and shine, are stellar pop songs, while ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Charlie Boy’ bring the introspection and the dark. I wore that cassette to a thread over the course of that summer and ‘Bebop Moptop’ is easily among my favourite records of 1989 and beyond. And I don’t think I was alone, either. Danny Wilson were a primary influence on one of the more interesting and ambitious Dublin groups of the late 1980s, Swim, who we’ve written about previously here. But their prints can also be found all over the considerable body of work of another, far better-known Irish performer and writer too.

While I was free-styling it in Hampton County, a teenage Neil Hannon was assembling the first iteration of his band, The Divine Comedy, in a shed in Enniskillen. With two friends, John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor, he had his bowl-cut bowed: the group was still trying to master its instruments and, initially, had My Bloody Valentine, Ride and the shoe-gaze set, in its sights. 

I strongly suspect that, in his own time, away from the noise, Neil was mainlining ‘Bebop Moptop’ with the same intensity I was. It’s just a hunch, but …