Donal Dineen

DAVID GRAY AND NO DISCO

 

The story of David Gray’s first decade as a recording artist is a terrific one, irrespective of what you think of him or his music. And it’s also probably the single most enduring legacy of the lo-fi music television series, ‘No Disco’, which was first broadcast twenty-five years ago this week on what was then Ireland’s second national channel, Network 2. It just doesn’t seem possible – or proper – to assess the impact of one without acknowledging the influence of the other.

 

As one of those responsible for ‘No Disco’, a series that eventually ran for the guts of ten years, on a shoestring budget, from a small space in RTÉ’s regional offices in Cork, I know the story of its origins better than anyone and have previously written about it at length. And unlike many of the terrific groups and writers we routinely featured on that series, I won’t be re-cycling old stories or familiar riffs here.

 

‘No Disco’ still has a resonance, fading as it might be, for a cohort of men and women of a particular age who, before the popular emergence of the internet and during the earliest days of the mobile telephone, used the series as a visual companion to much of what Dave Fanning and John Peel were doing on their late night music radio shows on RTÉ Radio 2FM and BBC Radio One respectively. And that’s how we saw our role, pretty much, and how we regarded the whole enterprise, slipshod and haphazard as our operation down in sticks actually was.

 

Donal Dineen, from Rathmore in County Kerry, was ‘No Disco’’s first presenter. In the sense that the series – in its earliest iteration at least – was in any way presenter-led or dependent. I’d soldiered with him for a while on the fringes of what then passed for a local music industry, fetching up in all sorts of quare places and attempting one scheme after the next. Which is how I was there with him, during Easter week, 1993, in a house in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, when he was asked to review David Gray’s debut album, ‘A Century Ends’, for a free music paper, ‘Dropout’, with which we were both involved.

 

And it was as basic and unsuspecting as that. ‘Dropout’ tended to push the more sensitive and introspective new releases – anything by The Go-Betweens, American Music Club and the Sarah Records roster, basically – towards the more sensitive end of its small team of volunteer contributors, ar son na cúise. That was Donal, pretty much.

 
It was there, in that semi-d in Knocklyon, that we both forged our first connection with the Manchester-born, Wales-reared singer-songwriter who’s since enjoyed considerable international success. David Gray has subsequently sold over twelve million albums worldwide and counting ; twenty years ago, he released – for the first time – the biggest ever selling elpee in the history of popular music in Ireland, his self-funded fourth album, ‘White Ladder’.

 

 

That record, first issued on David’s own label in November, 1998, had been recorded the previous year in his apartment in London and, in keeping with his career graph to that point, died quickly on landing. It was re-released on Dave Mathews’ imprint, ATO, sixteen months later and eventually spent three years in the U.K. album chart.

 

The fact that David Gray was still clinging onto a career at all at that point was a pretty decent achievement. In the five preceding years he’d issued three long-players, ‘A Century Ends’ and ‘Flesh’ for Hut Records and ‘Sell, Sell, Sell’ for EMI and had been dropped by both major labels. Outside of Ireland – where he’d developed a considerable following and was headlining the biggest venues in the country – he was still a minor character, a curious footnote in the Hut Records story. And so at the time, the d-i-y ‘White Ladder’ had all the appearances of a desperate last punt into the small square in the hope of a break, the marking of an unpretty position as a century was ending.

 

It took Donal a couple of weeks in the company of ‘A Century Ends’ to see the magic that under-cuts it’s every layer. Even now he’s still not fazed by time and he moves at his own pace. But it’s not as if David’s album was especially instant, either :- it’s a slow-boiler, utterly out of synch with the many moods of the time, launched without fanfare or broader record company support.

 

Understandable enough too, given that even within the confines of Hut Records, where his label-mates included the noisy, guitar-driven indie of The Verve, Drop Nineteens, Revolver and The Auteurs – he honked, at best, as a vanity signing. And his Irish publicists at Virgin Records’ impressive Dublin offices, then located in a serious pile on Aylesbury Road, perhaps suspected as much too. They knew neither what to make of him or how to even begin to start selling him.

 

Little wonder, so, that Donal and myself took to him so instinctively ;- we were kindred spirits who understood his pain better than most. ‘No Disco’ had also fallen out of the sky unsupported, RTÉ’s own vanity project, lost in the broader television schedules, ticking a box, under-resourced and under-regarded and abjectly out of step with the broadcast conventions du jour. Which, on the one hand, is a series of back-handed compliments and, on the other, the definition of talking to the wall.

 

And I guess we hardly helped our own case by selling ‘No Disco’ as a radio series with a few pictures on top, a planet of sound to cheaply fill an hour of late-night television once every week. Into which David Gray quickly became our Rosebud ;- a toned singer-songwriter cut in the classic, lone star traditions of Bob Dylan and Neil Young but with a keen edge that made him all the more attractive to us, poetic young bucks that we were.

 

Up in Thurles, a couple of months previously, the line-up at Féile 1993 was headlined variously by Iggy Pop, INXS and Chris De Burgh, with the likes of A House, Spiritualized, The Frank And Walters, Teenage Fanclub, Whipping Boy, An Emotional Fish and The Shamen also featuring on a far-reaching undercard. Paul Brady, raised in Strabane, County Tyrone and easily one of the finest songwriters in the history of Irish folk and popular music, also took the stage in Semple Stadium that year and, if anything, it was with his extensive, acoustic-skewing songbook that David Gray was most in step. Indeed there are a couple of stand-out tracks on David’s second album, ‘Flesh’ [1994] that very clearly nod at Brady’s 1981 cross-over elpee, ‘Hard Station’, in terms of body shape and lyrical ambition.

 

And this set him absolutely apart on the regular ‘No Disco’ playlists, lost in the quarry of noisy, unhealthily-pale alternative guitar-pop – Smashing Pumpkins, Buffalo Tom, Breeders, The Auteurs, Rollerskate Skinny – and trippy dance vibes – Transglobal Underground, Portishead and De La Soul – that populated the Network 2 dead zone on Thursday nights. But then Donal has long been as comfortable in the company of Van Morrison, Neil Young and Lou Reed as he’s been with The Beastie Boys and Scary Eire and so we played the brooding video clip for ‘Shine’, and later the more upbeat trailer for ‘Wisdom’ – a song which, I am convinced, dictated the entire Turin Brakes design manual – off the air during the first six months of ‘No Disco’.

 

 

In the absence of any meaningful critical appraisal from our betters in Dublin – to RTÉ senior management, getting a regionally-located show to air without a full-on industrial dispute and then keeping it there for a while were the only barometers of success for ‘No Disco’ – we lived out our first couple of months in a state of absolute ignorance. Where, if we thought we were good – and I certainly needed no convincing about my own ability and probably compensated for Donal in this regard – then we definitely were. And then one day, messing with our heads and disturbing the sense of security we’d been lulled into, we received our first communication from the world outside ;- a letter from a viewer.

 

It’s not as if we didn’t court it. We consciously concluded every episode with a slide bearing our office address on the presumption that someone, anyone, might want to get in touch. Postal contact was, after all, how we’d both developed various relationships with our favourite groups and labels and, for years, the mailbag or the post office box number was a primary point of contact for all and any self-respecting independent-minded music endeavour. So why not ‘No Disco’ ?

 

And it’s not as if we were talking about mountains of post, either ;- ‘No Disco’’s numbers never seriously troubled the compilers of what were then known as TAM ratings. We had a loyal, bespoke viewership and, like Spinal Tap during their ‘Jazz Odyssey’ phase, our audience was a selective one, pulling in, at its peak, between 40 and 70 thousand viewers every week. And our in-tray reflected that.

 

But there was a real, fanzine-style intent to much of the correspondence we received. We deliberately shied away from competitions for obvious reasons – we didn’t want, in our naiveté, the art to be polluted – and so instead of post-cards bearing answers, we’d regularly receive cassettes, requests and long, hand-written love-notes to some of the acts we’d feature. It was genuine, morale-boosting stuff, constant enough to make us sit up a bit and, the odd time, answer a letter or two and even pick up the phone and actually talk directly to the audience.

 

David Gray dominated practically all of those conversations and our viewers had taken to him, if not instantly – and personally I’ve found him a slow burn – then certainly after the first couple of months of on-air shelling. And of course he had a small, undeclared bit of previous too :- he’d been to Ireland six months earlier, travelling light to play a couple of live shows as a self-sufficient, acoustic guitar-slinger.

 

One of which had taken place five minutes away from our production offices on Father Mathew Street. Ally Ó Riada, who promoted that date in Nancy Spains, in Cork, told Ed Power for an Irish Examiner feature piece earlier this year that there were probably no more than twenty people there to see it.

 

It was a drastically different picture a year later, and just five months after ‘No Disco’ had come on air. Another of our number, Donal Scannell from Ballinasloe in County Galway, has long been a formidable weather vane, one eye perennially cocked on public mood, another on the starting point for his next scheme. And it was he who talked Virgin Records’ Dublin office – then manned by a core staff of two, one of whom subsequently played Rory in the television sit-com, ‘Mrs. Brown’s Boys’ – into bringing David back to Ireland to promote his second album, ‘Flesh’. That deal was sealed by the guarantee of a couple of television appearances and the potential to construct a decent publicity campaign around any state visit.

 

It was all scarcely believable stuff, really, and very much in line with a much of the general carry-on of the time. A couple of young pups and a niche, late-night music show making a case to the regional office of a major record label and presenting a marketing strategy on a plate to them for an act they didn’t really know where or how to place. And with no side or agenda either, beyond the fact that we just all liked a couple of records.

 

But it was still surprising to see the length of the queue forming from early outside of Whelan’s on Dublin’s Camden Street on Friday, February 4th, 1994. And no-one was more surprised than David Gray himself, who’d become accustomed to scanty turn-outs at his live shows up and down Britain. The blind support from ‘No Disco’ and, to be fair, a handful of others on the same page like Alan Corr at The RTÉ Guide and Brian Boyd at The Irish Times, had helped him to sell-out his first ever date.

 

And he didn’t have to wait long to repeat the dose :- the following night in Cork, at what was then The Triskel Arts Centre, was also rammed. Myself and Donal ended up walking David back to The Imperial Hotel in Cork after that show and sat up long into the night with him in the resident’s bar on the ground floor. David and Donal are very similar – softly-spoken, soulful men who value simple things – and I spent the guts of that conversation, unusually for me, sitting back and sucking it all in, marvelling at the pair of them as they deconstructed on a grand scale.

 

But apart entirely from having seen David Gray play a couple of cracking sets, those dates brought ‘No Disco’ physically face-to-face with a small but fervent audience we presumed might have been out there but about which, beyond that, we knew nothing. Donal became an unlikely focal point and was pretty much bombarded by viewers and admirers that weekend, a disconcerting experience for someone so mild-mannered and shy. But on a far deeper level, that entire weekend suggested to us that, perhaps, we were being heard beyond the breeze-blocked walls of our improvised studio ?

 

It’s easy to see those early David Gray shows in Ireland – like the early days of ‘No Disco’ itself – through the cracked looking-glass of recent Irish music history. But during the Spring of 1994, there was certainly something on the boil, even if both David and the series were fundamentally still works in progress. And in hindsight I’d suggest that ‘No Disco’ reached its peak and fulfilled its ambition far before David Gray did but that David’s influence on contemporary Irish music – and the possibilities inherent in it – has been considerably more far-reaching.

 

But should any of us have really been that surprised ? David, after all, was continuing a long-held national crush on the highly-charged, deep-thinking, male writer and performer – the one man/one voice/one storm model – from Luke Kelly to Christy Moore and Paul Brady. The year after ‘A Century Ends’, for instance, Moore played a mammoth series of live solo dates in what was then The Point Depot in Dublin, from which the most impactful moments were released as ‘Christy Moore Live At The Point’. That album, alongside ‘The Pope In Ireland’, [1979] and U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’ [1987], is another of the biggest selling records in the history of the state.

 

One of the more interested and interesting on-lookers that night in Whelans in February, 1994, would have been Glen Hansard, then the lead singer and primary songwriter with Dublin guitar-band, The Frames. They’d released their Gil Norton-produced, Pixies-infused debut album, ‘Another Love Song’ in 1992 and, with their twin guitars, were one of the country’s most compelling and interesting live bands.

 

Having recently swapped labels, from Island to the Trevor Horn/Jill Sinclair/Paul Morley-dervived ZTT, and with his band having undergone a couple of key line-up changes, Hansard too was at a career impasse. His own story thereafter is as remarkable as any aspect of David Gray’s and, in part, maybe even moreso. But how much of it derives from what he saw and heard that night after David Gray announced himself in Dublin, and particularly the spirit in which he’d been enabled ?

 

DOLORES O’RIORDAN: 1971 – 2018.

During the first series of the RTÉ music show, ‘No Disco’, the presenter, Donal Dineen and myself travelled west to Limerick on a couple of occasions to pick up long interviews that we’d use to populate what was, in essence, a niche video clip show. And because the show didn’t have a bob in its budget, our filming model – if we had one – was based on piggy-backing regional news gathering units and working in tandem with the often irregular schedules of some of the RTÉ correspondents who were based outside of Dublin.

And this worked for the most part, at least during those early days, even if we routinely left high-profile musicians and songwriters hanging-on indefinitely in hotel lobbies and cafés while we awaited the return of a veteran film crew from the scene of a crash or a local political press jaunt.

On December 17th, 1993, The Cranberries were back in Limerick, their home-town, where, having recently become the first Irish band to sell one million copies of a debut album in America, they were being feted by the city council, local dignitaries, hail fellas and the great and the good of the local social circuit. At that time Limerick’s physical heart, like many other large Irish cities, was ailing and in need of urgent renovation and an infusion of imagination and renewal. And its reputation wasn’t helped either by cheap national stereotyping.

But not too far beneath the surface, Limerick was far more a fab city than Stab City, and this was nowhere more apparent than in its emerging alternative music scene which, for at least ten years from the early 1980s onwards, was as energetic and diverse as anywhere in the country, and often far moreso. If Tuesday Blue and Toucandance maybe set the early pace, and while The Cranberries would eventually become the focus, the real heavy lifting was done for years by distinctive, urgent pop groups like The Hitchers, They Do It With Mirrors, Those Stilted Boys and A Touch Of Oliver. To this day, the music they produced between them during that period provides a formidable soundtrack to a formidable city of formidable people.

I’ve written previously about that scene and I consistently return to it to remind myself of the prominent gulf that existed at this time between some of the loftier aspects of Dublin’s music establishment and those movers and groovers who emerged and took shape far from it. And often in spite of it. From 1988 until 1994, give or take, easily the most breathtaking and enthralling new Irish music was being stewed far from the capital, and it was easy to understand how and why.

Without the distraction of the maddening crowd, removed from the lazy sloganeering and what could often be an insidious and self-celebratory circuit, a handful of bands emerged from around Ireland that displayed as instinctive a grasp of the potential of sheer pop dynamics as they did brass neck. They were bonded, not by geography or [dis]location, but by a shared sense that they neither knew better or cared less.

They crawled from Larne, Downpatrick, Enniskillen, Limerick, Galway and Cork and, the sterling, energetic fumes of a selection of local promoters, hacks, hangers-on and the odd national radio producer apart, were left largely to their own devices. At least until such time as the pennies dropped – literally – and, on the back of positive press abroad and genuine label deals for Therapy?, Ash, The Divine Comedy, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic, The Sultans of Ping F.C. and The Frank And Walters, this crack squad ceased to be mere disconnected curiosities [‘there’s something in the water, boys’] and, instead became attractive propositions in many different aspects. Unlike many of their better-known, over-hyped Dublin-sponsored contemporaries who, to me at least, seemed to often exist in name only.

Donal Dineen fetched up in Limerick that afternoon, December 1993, for a pre-arranged exchange with Dolores O’Riordan and Fergal Lawlor, The Cranberries’ enigmatic singer and lyricist and practical pulse, respectively. The interview, which was aired on ‘No Disco’ in early 1994, had been arranged to coincide with the broader hometown celebration of the returning minstrels. To which they responded with typical courtesy and no little bafflement: for the band, it was an opportunity to thank their parents and their road-crew in the presence of their peers.

Fresh off of what could often be a torturous train ride from Cork, Donal dutifully bode his time until RTÉ’s mid-West correspondent, Cathy Halloran, had completed her own filming, satisfied that she had enough raw material for the two-minute report on the triumphant return of The Cranberries she was filing for that evening’s Six One News. At which point the master went to work.

Dolores was instantly taken by Donal’s choice of trouser: he was kitted out in one of his preferred ensembles of the time, a serious designer hoodie and salmon-pink corduroys. And as opening gambits go, ‘I love your pants’, delivered in the singer’s trademark Ballybricken accent, became one of the more memorable ice-breakers from the entire ‘No Disco’ canon. One million albums sold, still not caring less.

But Donal had been formidably briefed and knew well what he was dealing with. I’d enjoyed a long-running game of fox and hounds with The Cranberries and, without ever enjoying their patronage or breaching their inner circle, just wrote glowingly and consistently about them wherever and whenever I could. I was also, in a roundabout way, attempting to coax them onto the growing roster at Keith Cullen’s fledgling label, Setanta Records and, as I did so, I kept encountering some of the major, London-based scouts – Premier League opposition – in the most unlikely venues in the country. All of us chasing the same thing.

By now I’d profiled The Cranberries for the first time in Hot Press magazine, reviewed their stunning set at Cork Rock 1991 for the same publication and also for what was then The Cork Examiner [where, alarmingly, I managed to make a prediction that was to hold water] and saw them live in The College Bar in University College Cork and The Stables in what is now the University of Limerick campus, both times to what was general audience indifference.

I saw them live in The Shelter, a small patched-together venue on Cork’s Tuckey Street, on a magical bill assembled by Shane Fitzsimons and although they often appeared fragile and nervous, I just felt from early that Noel, Mike and Fergal were still just learning their instruments. And while Dolores may indeed have been socially awkward – she was a teenager – I never fell for the line that she was overly shy. The Cranberries knew well how to gild the lily.

And of course Dolores had already mastered her instrument: her voice, from the off, was heaven sent and, behind her, the boys were playing perennial catch-up. That learning process went on for several years, during which time the band was forced to grow up quickly and adjust or be lost. And any claims that The Cranberries landed fully-formed is just wrong: the facts see that off.

The first sessions for their debut album, ‘Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We ?’ were junked and the producer, Pearse Gilmore, who also managed The Cranberries [a reveal in itself] was dropped from both portfolios. The singles lifted from that record, ‘Linger’ and ‘Dreams’ were all but ignored, as was the album itself when it was first released in March, 1993. An early, holding E.P. for Island Records, ‘Uncertain’, was critically panned and while the band was always assured of a warm welcome back in Limerick, they were still a difficult and niche sell outside of it. One live show at Dublin’s Rock Garden during this time was attended by a score of paying punters.

By any critical standards, The Cranberries were far from the best band to emerge from Ireland during the early 1990s. Indeed, to my mind, they were far from the best band to emerge from Limerick. But they went on to become the biggest and the brightest of them all because, at their core, they had Dolores, whose voice and whose personality masked a multitude.

On the weekend of my twenty-third birthday in June, 1991, I saw fifteen of Ireland’s best emerging young bands perform over three nights as part of the Cork Rock shindig at the fabled Sir Henry’s venue in Cork city. The Cranberries performed half-way up the bill on the second night, surrounded on either side by the bulkier, more sophisticated and ultimately faceless pop sound of The Chelsea Drugstore [featuring Colin and Peter Devlin] and The Brilliant Trees, the terrific Finglas guitar band.

The Cranberries stood out because they didn’t physically stand out at all. And of the fifteen participating acts, they were one of only two – the other being the jazzy, swing-pop act, Bird – to feature a woman.

She was from another world altogether. Then, now and forever.

VINCENT HANLEY’S ABSOLUTE FABULOUSNESS

Broadcasters Donal Dineen and the late Vincent Hanley never met and, on the surface, have little in common bar the radio. One revelled in the glare, came alive in front of an audience and was widely known by his nickname, Fab Vinny. The other has long been uneasy in the spotlight and only really comes alive after dark: when he hosted a nightly national radio programme he’d reluctantly whisper his name to a small but loyal cadre of music fans, anoraks and enthusiasts. One was The Disco King, the other was strictly No Disco.

But I thought of Donal within minutes of the retro-skewing opening titles of Eimear O’Mahony and Sinéad Ní Churnáin’s forthcoming short documentary on Hanley, Fab Vinny, which airs on RTÉ One on October 31st next and which looks at the short life of one of the most arresting characters to have ever lit up the radio and television schedules in Ireland. And I thought especially of the many conversations we had, twenty five years ago, when we were wandering blindly together through the first, nervy months of the ‘No Disco’ television series and when, left to our own devices on what was in essence an illicit back-room operation, we worked away on the fly. All that kept us afloat was the buoyancy that often comes from gut instinct.

During that time we’d regularly reference MT USA [Music Television USA], the pioneering series that Conor McAnally and Bill Hughes produced and that Vincent Hanley presented on Irish national television on Sunday afternoons for three seasons, starting in February, 1984. Because if it wasn’t for MT USA, ‘No Disco’ would never have seen the light of day on the same channel, RTÉ 2, ten years later even if, on most levels, the two shows were literally worlds apart.

Thirty years after his premature death in April, 1987, Vincent Hanley is remembered best for the series that brought wall-to-wall popular music television to the masses, many of whom were located across provincial Ireland where, on a clear day, you had two part-time channels to pick from. MTV had launched in the United States two years previously and, although music video was still an infant form, MT USA was prescient and on the money: Hanley saw the potential and ran with it.

Like our own series that launched in 1993, it was cut in the likeness of it’s host – bold, ambitious and fabulous – even if its production model meant it was frequently paddling furiously beneath the surface. Hanley’s links were shot on location around popular New York city landmarks, to where Bill Hughes would take flight from Dublin every week to capture the host at play on his adopted estate, centre-stage on the city’s streets, lord of all he surveyed.

Fab Vinny was one of the programme’s two lead characters – the other was the city of New York itself – and his scripts and interviews with everyone from randomers on the city’s sidewalks to the biggest names in popular music, often told you far more about him than about much of the music he featured, from which he often appeared utterly detached. But the message was simple: Fab Vinny was out there, somewhere over the rainbow on Planet Fabulous, having the time of his life. And on Sunday afternoons, he’d blag every one of his viewers with him into the most exclusive showbiz party of the week.

Those signals weren’t lost on an entire generation of famished music fans for whom the three-hour long programme quickly became an appointment to view. Irrespective of whether or not you were from a small village on the Cork/Kerry border like Donal Dineen or, like myself, from a village on the northside of Cork city, MT USA was an absolute event and, for the three years it remained on air, dominated our weekends. As the country went to sleep after Summer, once the All-Irelands had been won and the trophies gone home for the year, it helped us to flesh out the winter with giddy talk.

But MT USA does only scant justice to Hanley’s career in broadcasting – and his complicated gestalt – the bulk of which was spent at RTÉ: he soared high quickly but was regularly on the move. In the best and worst traditions of daytime radio, he revelled in his nickname which, according to Bill Hughes, his life-long friend and colleague on the MT USA production team, he absolutely loved. ‘Everything [with Vincent] was fab’, he remembers. ‘And of course he had to be fab too’. So whenever the transmission light went on in studio or whenever he heard a director’s countdown, Vincent Hanley became Fab Vinny, a smelting of a private and public face that for years gave Hanley an enigmatic edge. At least until the last months of his young life when the lines became blurred and the joins began to sunder.

His brother, Fergus, recalls how, growing up as part of a small family in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Vincent and himself ‘lived on different planets’. Bill Hughes describes him as ‘very much a smalltown boy in some ways, but very much angry at the idea that anyone would think he was a smalltown boy’. And throughout his career Hanley consistently sought out a town that was big enough to accommodate him, moving first from Clonmel to Cork, then onwards to Dublin, from there to a short spell with Capitol Radio in London, and ultimately on to New York City.

He began his broadcasting career, like many others, in the small, off-Broadway outpost in RTÉ in Cork, where his attractive tenor was quickly recognised and from where he hosted several music-based radio programmes for the local opt-out service while working relief shifts in the local nightclubs. He moved quickly to the campus in Montrose, working initially as a continuity announcer on radio and television before he was unveiled as one of the bulwarks on the new national popular music radio station, Radio 2, when it was launched in May, 1979. Hanley’s anchor slot on the weekday mornings between 9.30 am and 12 noon saw him scaffold the daily schedules alongside the likes of Ronan Collins, Marty Whelan, Jimmy Greely and Larry Gogan in the heart of peak-time, supported by the likes of Dave Fanning, Gerry Ryan and Pat Kenny on the flanks and in the margins.

But as well as dominating the national pop radio schedules, the first of the Radio 2 recruits also made regular hay on the burgeoning club circuit around the country where, for many years, they drew considerable live crowds into regional dancehalls, rendering much of the last vestiges of Ireland’s showband scene redundant as they did so. And while they were also handsomely palmed for their troubles, the broader picture wasn’t lost on Hanley: in entertainment, as in life, time waits for no one.

Given the easy availability of technology and the daily blizzard of user-generated video material today, its difficult to appreciate just how vital the MT USA series was. Conor McAnally rightly claims that the show was instrumental in breaking several prominent American acts on this side of the Atlantic – ZZ Top, especially – simply by heavily rotating their distinctive short-form music videos to large audiences. The series also gave a considerable leg-up to U2 and initially featured some of the band’s highly-charged live performances at the magnificent Red Rocks arena in Colorado in 1983 and which were also captured on the band’s ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’ album. While word of U2’s breakthrough in America was rife back in Ireland – often imparted first-hand by returned immigrants who’d witnessed the band’s live shows or television appearances there – MT USA captured the evidence on video and reinforced the message back home.

That same oxygen supply also helped to launch Suzanne Vega more widely following her breakthrough in the U.S. in 1984, while also pushing the likes of established American acts like Pat Benatar [her ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ must have been the single most played video in the entire history of the show], Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac. To its credit, MT USA also supported a slew of emerging mainstream acts, most notably Madonna, who’d released her debut album in 1983 and whose arrival as one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music coincided with the peak of the show’s popularity. A popularity that was reflected in the widespread recording of weekly episodes of the series onto VHS cassettes in households all over Ireland.

Inevitably, and as was par for the course in Ireland during the 1980s, the idea of popular contemporary music playing to large, family-centred audiences on Sunday afternoons drew fire and ire from the usual quarters. Largely because of the lascivious, on-tape carry-on of the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Prince and Madonna herself, Bill Hughes became a regular visitor to the RTÉ Radio Centre where he’d fend off familiar criticisms from the nation’s moral custodians and robustly defend his series. ‘We were read from the altar’, recalls MacAnally over thirty years later, knowing that content of even a moderately sexual nature, and the indignation that often followed, was ultimately good for business.

A point not lost on a vocal parish priest in the small West Cork village of  Union Hall, who made this point repeatedly during a plainly bizarre series of moral sermons he delivered from the pulpit that I witnessed as a gob-smacked teenager on holidays with my family at this time.

But notwithstanding the odd set-to, MT USA was ostensibly a safe, very middle-of-the-road affair that served up a diet of radio-friendly rock and pop music. You’d often wait for hours to see something moderately lateral and out of the ordinary and, more often than not, you’d leave disappointed, returning the following week in the hope of a fleeting glimpse of Morrissey, Paddy McAloon or Michael Stipe. Like ‘No Disco’, the show is routinely viewed now through a tinted lens: it was often far more stylish than it was substantial, much less than the sum of its parts and very definitely of its time. Grabby graphics and noisy stings could never convincingly mask its easy, mainstream feel, even if Hanley was a pioneering jock with a far looser approach than most of his colleagues, more Kenny Everett than Pat Kenny.

Vincent Hanley was a gay man who died of an AIDS-related illness, the first public Irish figure to succumb to a disease about which, in 1987, little was known. For many years the exact cause of his death remained unclear to all but those inside his coterie of friends and family. More broadly, homosexuality was still outlawed in Ireland and Dublin boasted only one gay club, which operated on the condition that no alcohol could be served there.

One of the more striking aspects of the ‘Fab Vinny’ documentary is how, in it’s deft use of archive footage, some of it long-lost and some of it previously unseen, the film adroitly captures Hanley’s physical disintegration during the final pages of the MT USA history and the last months of his life. In as much as he’d grown up and come of age in the public eye, he ailed visibly on camera too.

In the run-up to Christmas, 1986, Hanley was back home in Ireland and, to those catching up with him for the first time in months, his appearance – of which he was forever proud – aroused no little concern or comment. In order to allay concerns for his well-being, he did a memorable radio interview on The Gay Byrne Hour on RTÉ Radio One where he dismissed suggestions that he was ill. Dublin’s Evening Herald newspaper had led, days previously, with a story headlined ‘Health Fears For Pop DJ Hanley’ in which, citing un-named sources and reacting to the media’s gossip mill, they’d landed a serious end-of-year flyer. But one which Vincent was anxious to bury: e suggested to Byrne that The Evening Herald had implied he was suffering from AIDS.

Conor McAnally had first noticed his physical decline from a seat in front of a bank of monitors in the video editing suite in which he had a weekly inject of MT USA video footage. A full decade before the concept of reality television, Vincent Hanley’s weekly links chronicled the effects of a debilitating condition in real time. Bill Hughes reveals that, during the recording of Hanley’s pieces to camera during the last months of the MT USA run in the winter of 1986, the presenter was often too weak to stand and had to be regularly supported, often using his director’s arched back to sit on in between takes.

Vincent Hanley died in Saint James’s Hospital in Dublin on April 18th, 1987, in the presence of his closest friends. On the day of his funeral in Clonmel days later, Marian Richardson was presenting hourly news updates on Radio 2, one of the presenter’s former stomping grounds. And as she referenced the funeral on her broadcast just after lunch, she struggled to retain her composure as she referred to her late colleague, and broke down.

Simply Red’s version of the old Cole Porter song, ‘Everytime We Say Goodbye’, segued directly out of the end of the bulletin.

FÓGRA :-

‘Fab Vinny’ airs on RTÉ One on Tuesday, October 31st next at 7PM.

ADDENDUM – via KillianM2

MT1MT2MT3MT4MT5MT6MT7MT8MT9MT10

IN THE ROCK GARDEN

 

I worked for a couple of years with my friend, Jeff Brennan, in The Rock Garden, the live music venue and sometime restaurant that opened in Crown Alley, in Temple Bar, Dublin, almost 25 years ago. It was the late Aiden Lambert, Blink’s manager, who brokered that job for me and I’ve written about our relationship here. Officially, I was charged with publicising the wide disparity of acts booked into the old cellar but, in reality, I was hired to play a straight bat to Jeff’s jokes and routines. And there were many.

 

He’d moved the short distance to The Rock Garden from The Underground Bar on Dame Street where, working with his father, Noel and Johnny, the weary drayman, he held court and booked bands for most of the 1980s, during a period of terrific optimism and no little quality for alternative Irish music. Bands like A House, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, The Slowest Clock, Rex And Dino, Power Of Dreams and [Backwards] Into Paradise took root in The Underground and, for years, were regulars on the tiny stage that often defied the laws of, if not physics, then certainly health and safety. Paul Page, Whipping Boy’s guitarist, was also one of that number – onstage and off – during The Underground’s heyday and has written about the peculiar sense of purpose that characterised the place in an excellent post on his own blog. That piece is available here

 

live at the underground

IrishRock.org

 

The Underground Bar features prominently in any credible history of the live music circus that pitched up around Dublin in the wake of U2’s initial breakthroughs in Europe and America. The venue hosted many fine emerging bands between 1984 and 1989, helping several of them to add muscle, over time, to what were often callow bodies at source. And to this end, Jeff’s role in the real affairs of state shouldn’t be under-estimated. Although he took his music very seriously, and while he was a generous support to any number of dreamers who landed in on top of him from all sides, he treated the more helium-filled aspects of ‘the industry’ with a healthy suspicion.

 

From behind the small bar, he traduced many reputations over the years while running a decent and honest shop founded on the principles of fair play and good spirits. What was once The Underground – ‘don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore’ – is now a lap dancing club and, tellingly, the old venue isn’t commemorated by either a plaque on the wall or by Jeff’s hand-prints on the pavement outside.

 

During his first couple of years at The Rock Garden, Jeff certainly had the place fizzing. The step up in scale, size and budget – if not necessarily class – gave him a bit more leeway and he snagged memorable live shows from the likes of The Frames, Radiohead, The Afghan Whigs, Pavement, Swervedriver, The Young Gods, The Sultans, The Frank And Walters, The Senseless Things, Adorable and countless others, all of whom lugged their back-lines in around the back of Crown Alley and down the concrete and iron stairs to set up.

 

New Year’s Eve was always a real highlight at The Rock Garden and I’d make sure I was back up from Cork in good time to see out the old and to ring in the new there. Maintaining a long-standing tradition started back in The Underground, Jeff would opt for heft, clout and loud guitars to headline the last night of the year. Sack, Blink and The Brilliant Trees in their pomp regularly stuffed the place and, playing to fans, friends and families, they’d always blister through mighty sets. And then, as the night wore on, Tony St. James and The Las Vegas Sound would take the late-shift and carry us over the threshold and out into the open promise of the twelve months ahead.

 

Along one whole side of the venue, meanwhile, the bar staff would be royally lashed and the punters at the taps would often stand six, seven or eight deep, all of them roaring for porter. Jeff and myself would mingle readily around the place, annoying the door-staff, insulting the easily insulted and roll out what was a well-honed double act. And, once the doors were eventually locked behind us, well into the tiny hours, we’d kick back with a handful of regulars, stretch the New Year out in front of us and begin to unpick the world and many of those – saps, twits and dibbicks among them – who sailed in her.

 

I formed some wonderful friendships down in The Rock Garden and I fell out with as many people there again. But never once did I feel like I was actually working. In the early evenings I’d often drop whatever I was doing and slip down into the belly of the beast to eavesdrop during a sound-check. From deep in the shadows I heard Sack repeatedly do ‘What Did The Christians Ever Do For Us’, ‘How The Stars Became Stars’ and ‘Omnilust’ one afternoon as they were fine-tuning their shapes. And those, indeed, were the days.

 

We answered to a bearded, heavy-set American boss called Mark Furst, who fronted the venue. Jeff was tasked with booking decent live music into the place on a nightly basis and, given the vagaries of live music, we had some right old disasters over time, some of which defied all odds. Pulp and The Cranberries both died spectacularly in The Rock Garden ;- The Cranberries attracted eighteen paying punters and, at one point, the band and it’s handlers out-numbered the crowd.

 

Pulp pulled into Crown Alley one lazy Saturday afternoon and, although the band was on the cusp of a real commercial cross-over in Britain, they attracted less than one hundred die-hards on the night. Half of the band’s backline had been stolen after a show in London the previous evening and, compounding their humour, Pulp’s dowdy tour manager wasn’t overly pleased to find that Jeff had billeted them in what was then proudly slugged as ‘Dublin’s cheapest hotel’ – a ten-buck-a-night bed-and-breakfast up on Gardiner Street. ‘Sorry to hear about the gear’, Jeff told the group. ‘But I’m sure the rest of it will be robbed on ye tonight’.

 

I had a real soft spot for The Dadas, a Northside combo led by Andy Fitzpatrick, who later went on to buttress William Merriman’s excellent Harvest Ministers ;- I honestly thought that The Dadas’ honey-coated canon had a real sparkle to it. After they attracted less than a score of paying punters into what could often be an unforgiving old cavern, Fursty took off on one in the offices upstairs. Like Brian Blessed in leather biker’s keks, he upped the ante and the volume ;- ‘The Dodos [sic]’, he drawled, ‘will never be booked here again’. An arrangement that, I suspect, suited the band as much as it suited the venue.

 

But we had our nights of glory too. The Rock Garden was accessible, available and well-equipped and, during the time I spent there, we hosted a wide range of artistes, musos, pissheads, chancers, thieves and poets – the full travelling circus. Indeed one of the most memorable performances there was actually by  a circus ;- The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow fetched up with bearded ladies and a bloke who hung breeze blocks off of his nipples and his penis. The queue outside wasn’t the only thing that stretched far and long around The Rock Garden that night.

 

We’ve lost a fair few of our own stellar performers in the years since and, when Jeff and myself meet each other these days, it’s more likely to be at a removal or a funeral than it is at a venue. We met twice last year ;- at our friend Aiden Lambert’s funeral last month and back last April when we waved off George Byrne, the writer and collector. I always doubted whether George actually liked The Rock Garden, and he certainly didn’t like it as much as he did The Underground where, over the years, he saw frenetic live sets from a host of his local fancies.

 

One Easter Saturday night, during a Something Happens/Cypress, Mine ! double-bill – and after a hard few days of it with both bands in Cork – he fell down the end of the stairs and onto the stage. This trick was far more difficult to complete in The Rock Garden although, to be fair, George manfully attempted it on several occasions. I wrote a longer piece about George after his funeral in April, 2015, and that piece is available here.

 

It was in The Rock Garden that I first met Uaneen Fitzsimons. She’d been a college-mate of the two Dónals – Dineen and Scannell – and, like the rest of us, was standing-by, waiting for a break. And it was in The Rock Garden, with the Dónals, Des Fahy, Jeanne McDonagh, Jim Carroll, Ritchie Flynn and Eamonn Crudden and many others that the basic idea for the No Disco music television series started to form. When Uaneen took No Disco’s reins from Dónal Dineen, it just felt like we’d completed another circle and made good on a conversation that may, or may not have been had years previously in Wild, one of the many clubs run upstairs at The Rock Garden.

 

Martin Egan was another gentle soul who’d turn up unannounced in Crown Alley every now and again and he’d leave with a handy support ;- Jeff would always make sure that he was looked after and sorted. Martin is one of that number of decent scouts we lost in the trenches during the last twelve months.

 

It’ll be ten years next April since I stood under my friend Philip’s box up in The North Cathedral in Cork and, with his brother and a handful of others, lifted him out and on his way. I think about Phil a lot ;- we lived in each other’s pockets as we dreamt our way through our teens and into our twenties and yet I often wonder if I ever really knew him at all ? But when The Trash Can Sinatras unveil their upcoming album later this year, I’ll instinctively ponder how he would have rated it ? He once ended up backstage with them after a sparsely-attended show in Nancy Spains in Cork and spooked the band by knowing their back catalogue more intimately than they did themselves.

 

I moved out of Cork twenty-five years ago and, for the most part, tend to keep a respectful distance now. I love the streets and the lanes around the Northside but I’m not one of those exiles who consistently yearn to get back there ;- I left for a reason. But for an important few days every Christmas, I’d make my way back home from Dublin and, before I’d even get to my family, I’d have already dropped in on Phil at the shop on Patrick Street where he worked.

 

And, from the door of the premises, we’d determine the year’s best releases and consider the previous twelve months, just rabbiting on. He’d make sure I knew just how great everything was and it would never dawn on me to probe a bit deeper ;- it just wasn’t how we rolled. Music and records brought us together in the first place and it was music and records that we last spoke meaningfully of. Indeed in truth, music and records were all we really ever spoke of meaningfully, more’s the pity.

 

That journey home becomes harder and more important by the year. Three weeks ago I hit the road South straight after Aiden Lambert’s funeral and I couldn’t wait to leave Dublin behind me. I made several other car trips over Christmas and ran up a fair few miles and, every now and again, from behind the wheel, my mind would drift off a bit. And I’d think about Aiden. And George Byrne, Tony Fenton, Mick Lynch and Martin Egan. In the low light I’d picture Uaneen and Pat Neville and Eugene Moloney and Brendan Butler ;- some of whom I knew well, some of whom I barely knew and yet all of whom, back the road somewhere, were there with us during the bright nights and the dark nights down in The Rock Garden and The Underground and Sir Henry’s and wherever else.

 

But I’d keep driving on. Because we’re always just driving on.

RockGarden

Courtesy of Nessa Carter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NANCI GRIFFITH and THE FLOORS, LIVE.


David Heffernan, through that terrific music television series, ‘The Session’, introduced me to the music of Nanci Griffith. David Donohue remains one of my favourite acts from the Setanta back catalogue and the records he made as the heart and soul of The Floors shouldn’t be under-estimated. I saw both The Floors and Nanci play live in Dublin within a couple of days of one another during the early part of 1999 and saw fit to knock out an opinion piece for Muse, an on-line music and arts magazine edited by Jim Carroll.

Those performances have dated better than my cranky piece, I think. This one goes out to the two Davids.


This piece appeared originally in the on-line music and arts magazine, Muse, in February, 1999. We’ve made some minor edits to the original copy.

Last week a strange surge gripped me and, for the first time in ages, I got out and about to see two live shows within the space of four days. Nothing strange or novel there, you might think, but in the last two years I’ve developed an almost mildly paranoid fear of bad venues, cynical audiences and irrelevant bands playing with poor sound to sad bastards – and this from someone who was once a regular three times a night man, as it were. Last week, then, was monumental by recent standards.

Now before I begin in earnest, allow me to put another petty hang-up to bed. Namely that I have always hated the term ‘gig’ and, more often than not, refuse to use it when referring to live music, particularly live music played by those I admire and respect. It is a term that in it’s spelling, tone and construction is tailor-built for disc jockeys, general sycophants and the likes of Lorraine Keane and, as such, has become remarkably appropriate, given most of the shows I have endured over the last eighteen months. Hate to be so pedantic and all that, but its good that you know.

Anyway, the remarkable Donal Dineen, who has graced these pages on occasion, has a couple of great theories on the anointing powers of popular music. Indeed there have been times when I’ve sat back myself and swooned silly during those [very rare] kind of uplifting and invigorating shows one comes across usually in rock biographies. But sad to say that moments like this have become all too infrequent the older, wiser and more difficult I have grown.

It would be fair to say that, in the last two years or thereabouts, I have sat or stood through far more ‘gigs’ than I have done live shows. This I very seriously regret and hence my cynicism. But twice last week I ran the gauntlet and returned wittingly to the fray and to active live duty. And its not been so much the start of a rehabilitation for me as a minor relief.

I’ve been a fan of Nanci Griffith for years now, ever since I first came across her on the best music show RTÉ has ever involved itself with, Frontier Films’ excellent The Session. And while I know that her voice isn’t always to everyone’s liking and that her first instincts can invariably fall well short, there is a balm and a mystique to her that I find way too difficult to ignore.

In truth, I’m blindly devoted to her and when Nanci arches back, steels her hands, opens her soul and sings – be it Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’ or Tom Russell’s ‘Outbound Plane’ or Richard Thompson’s ‘Wall Of Death’ or any one of a myriad of songs in between – then she’s absolutely up there with Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Paul Simon. Up where there ain’t no higher mountain.

So much so that I can forgive her her various kinships and collaborations with some of the most outrageous chancers ever to grace this country’s stages – stand up Sharon Shannon, Mary Custy and, particularly, Philip Donnelly – and her juvenile on-stage guff. Because live music, when it’s on the boil, is first and foremost about the power of song and Nanci is always worth the venture.

Similarly so Carlow collective The Floors, who have been knocking around in several guises for far longer than David Donoghue, their choice-cut singer and leader, would care to admit. Thankfully their progress hasn’t been stunted unduly. In fact their third elpee ‘Morphine Watch’ [Tongued ‘n’ Grooved Records] is a tribute to their own surreal sense of destiny and to Donoghue’s spectacular belief in himself and in his songs.

Their launch show last week at Dublin’s Funnel was only ever going to get better as it dragged on – shows like this are, by their nature, all about disconcertion and distraction and nerves, all of which clearly affected both the band and their following on the night. But good bands playing extravagently good songs and competing full-on with the standard elements – cramped venue, too many drunks and not enough desk boost – are a sight to behold, particularly when they move seamlessly into full throttle.

So when Donoghue moves The Floors up one last notch and rips into a sinewy ‘Slowly When She Moves’ close to the end, they’re impossible to stop. Once again, and for the second time in days, its all about the power of song. Against all of my first instincts and largely in spite of myself, I’m swaying awkwardly. A sure sign in itself.

There was a time when all I wanted from live music was a sense of validation and a suggestion that, however temporarily, I had escaped. But there really is only so much running anyone can do [especially when you’re running from nothing really in particular] and there are only so many bad bands any man can tolerate at a sitting.

It’s a cliche I know but the really great live shows are always about the connection between stage and stall. When, for those indefinible and indespensible moments, song touches heart and soul and spirit and head and feet. When everything Donal Dineen has ever preached about the sanctity of the art meets deep within a chorus or a leading bridge.

Even allowing for my own hang-ups and for the emotional baggage I still insist on carrying around with me, last week was far less awkward than it could have been. But then strangely, at both Nanci Griffith and The Floors, there were no disc jockeys I recognised. No empty platitudes, no recognisible liggers and no sell-out. It could have been my birthday.