Engine Alley

ENGINE ALLEY : COOL FOR CATS

‘How would you characterise a city’s sound ?’, asks Karl Whitney, in his excellent second book, ‘Hit Factories : A Journey Through The Industrial Cities of British Pop’. In which the writer and academic, Tallaght-reared and based now in Sunderland, explores provincial Britain by train, bus and on foot as he attempts to uncover ‘the story of British pop through the cities that shaped it’.

A compound of social history and back-packer’s travelogue, ‘Hit Factories’ is based on an original thesis ;- namely, that British pop groups and the sounds they’ve made have consistently been influenced by the physical aspects of the cities in which they took shape. Incorporating various lessons in geography and architecture en route, a portrait of the author as a collector and fan also emerges by journey’s end. And although the ambition is a lofty one, Whitney has a trainspotter’s nose for detail that enables him to wrap an anorak’s hood around his pet sounds. By and large, he convincingly stands up his original treatise.

So, using the same metrics, is it possible to determine, perhaps, the sounds of various Irish cities too ? Could it be that, for instance, that Cork’s location as a port city dominated, for years, by a melding of heavy industry with a river that divides it, might have influenced the blues-soaked rock music of Rory Gallagher and, at the same time, connected him to the fractured post-punk of Microdisney and Nun Attax?

What of Galway ? Has its setting in the teeth of the Atlantic and its long history of international export – of people and goods – determined how we hear that city when she roars ? And might this be the staple that binds binds the music of The Stunning, The Little Fish, Toasted Heretic and The Sawdoctors ?

And, if so, then how might we best and most accurately define the sound of somewhere like Kilkenny ? Because there was a time when that county was as regarded for its emerging bands as it was for its fledgling hurlers and, as its senior men’s teams were landing back-to-back All-Irelands in 1992 and 1993, Kilkenny’s cultural underbelly was pulling in parallel. And for five glorious years from 1991 onwards, and to varying degrees of intensity, three local acts were commanding attention at home and abroad while, at every turn, faithfully remembering what, who and where begot them.

During a scarcely believable period of productivity and creativity in which the most meaningful new music in Ireland was being crafted far outside of Dublin, Kerbdog, My Little Funhouse and Engine Alley were taking their positions at the starting blocks. For a while, all roads led to Kilkenny.

I’m leaving Kerbdog and My Little Funhouse to one side for the time being. Suffice to say, though, that in a county as lean as Kilkenny, you’d think that all three bands were certainly known to one another, even if they may not always have been touch-tight. Word that young bucks with notions were messing around with cheap amplifiers and multi-cores would surely have certainly trickled down the corridors of Saint Kieran’s College in the same way that news of this year’s young tyro at Dicksboro or Shamrocks might have excited the more settled set.

Although Engine Alley and Kerbdog attended the same school, it was Kerbdog and My Little Funhouse who were more genetically close and, for a while, both were presciently in tune with the contemporary sounds of the hard American rock circus. MLF were actually signed on a huge deal to Geffen in the immediate aftermath of Nirvana’s breakthrough into the mainstream and, bizarre as it sounds now, were once spoken of in the same breath as Guns N’ Roses. Kerbdog were a far more considered but no less noisy concern and we’ll return to both bands here at some point.

Engine Alley remain, to my mind, one of the more interesting outfits in the history of contemporary Irish popular music. Built around the songwriting core of brothers Canice and Brian Kenealy, the band only really took root in earnest in Dublin once they were joined by the formidable presence of another cat in exile, bassist Eamonn Byrne, and later by Emmaline Duffy-Fallon on drums.

Sharply dressed and often caked in mascara and eye-liner, Engine Alley at their peak were all about the big show and, entering a scene that was overwhelmingly male, guitar-fixated and monochrome, took as much care with their image as they did with their sound. They looked good and they played good but one was never at the expense of the other :- they were a cracking pop band with their ducks in a row and their priorities right.

I always found it re-assuring that a band so seemingly out there, toying with sexual ambiguity, camp and the best and worst excesses of glam, was led by someone called Canice, named after the saint that gives Kilkenny its name. Indeed the spine of the band – Canice, Brian and Eamonn – sounded far more like the kind of animal half-back line on which numerous Kilkenny All-Ireland victories have been founded than it did the gut of one of the best new bands in the country. And this during those years when, within the covers of Dublin’s ‘Hot Press’ magazine, the national games and all those who supported them were routinely derided as if they were somehow less sophisticated and relevant.

Of course I long suspected that Engine Alley, at heart, were just ordinary, decent home-spun lads – and Emmaline – who, in the great traditions of popular music, were toying with their sister’s make-up box. And that the clothes and the style, like Kilkenny’s fabled black and amber tops, just gave them an added shield of protection on a circuit that could otherwise be overly obvious.

Although they wore, for a while, an obvious glam look and were clearly schooled in mid-period Bowie – and, by association, perhaps Bolan and Mott The Hoople too ? – their frame of reference was far wider than perhaps they were given credit for. And this much is evident from the band’s 1992 debut album for Mother Records, ‘A Sonic Holiday’, which drips with Go-Betweens, Big Star, Smiths and Beatles influences. While, lyrically, they had as much in common with The Frank And Walters as they did with Frank Zappa.

The band was managed during this period by Pete Holidai, formerly of The Radiators, the seminal Dublin band fronted by the late Philip Chevron who, ten years previously, brought the same sort of artsy fracture to bear on ‘Ghostown’, their excellent second album released in 1979. But my own primary point of contact with Engine Alley was always with the group’s Chief Executive, Dave O’Grady, one of the great unsung warriors on the frontline of alternative music in Ireland and another of those selfless souls with whom I soldiered for years. Steadfastly tee-total in an environment that was routinely pickled and as unrelentingly positive about music now as he was when I first met him, Dave has been one of my entry points into new and emerging music for thirty years. And it was he who convinced me about the raw power of the Engines.

I’d previously been part of a judging panel that adjudicated on them as a more callow enterprise when they competed in the final of the Carling-sponsored, Hot Press Band of The Year, which took place in Sir Henry’s in May, 1990. Emmaline would have been no more than fourteen or fifteen, was still trying to best navigate her way around the kit and this was a reflection of the band in microcosm :- Engine Alley were a work in progress but rich with potential. For the record, the winners on the night were a swarthy pop band from Derry, The Carrelines, fronted by Paul McLoone, now a familiar voice on Irish radio and elsewhere and also featuring, in stark contrast, the considerable experience and physical clout of Billy Doherty of The Undertones behind the traps. Curiously, the winners of the competition the following year were My Little Funhouse and, in retrospect, you’d think Engine Alley did themselves a real favour by not taking the laurels in Cork.

They were pretty unrecognisable on several levels by the time that Amelia Stein snapped them for the portrait that roars out from the front of ‘A Sonic Holiday’. By which time they’d also recruited a classically-trained, Tralee-born violinist, Ken Rice, to their number. Operating as a sweeper in behind the front three and covering the loose, his contribution to the band’s development can’t be under-stated and it’s fair to say that Engine Alley were at their most complete when he was at his most prominent.

The heavy hand of the marketing department is apparent on that sleeve ; Engine Alley have been gaudily over-styled to within inches of their lives for a look that’s as much Edward Scissorhands as it is Richey Edwards. Thankfully, ‘A Sonic Holiday’ sounds far better than it looks and, almost thirty years on, still stands its ground even if, like most debut albums, parts of it ring more hollow than they should. Produced by Steve Lillywhite who, with his late wife, Kirsty MacColl, semi-adopted the group during their time in London, the record features the core of a set that had been well and truly road-tested in all manner of poke-holes, among which ‘Mrs. Winder’, ‘Song For Someone’, ‘Summertime Is Over’ and ‘Diamond Jill and Crazy Jane’ were the stand-outs. The record features terrific virtuoso performances by Brian Kenealy and Rice, the one-man orchestra.

And yet I’m not entirely sure if Engine Alley were ever a convincing singles band and, for a group so well schooled in the breadth of pop music history, this may have contributed to their eventual undoing. ‘The Flowers’, ‘Mrs. Winder’ and ‘Infamy’ were all smart, breezy cuts but could they ever really summon a signature punch – like ‘Celebrate’, ‘Parachute’ or ‘Brewing Up A Storm’ – to see off niggly opponents ?

Eitherway, by the time that ‘A Sonic Holiday’ was finally released in Britain – the delay presumably a result of licencing issues and the usual record company shenanigans – Engine Alley had also acquired a couple of staunch champions within the ranks of the London-based music press, Melody Maker’s Simon Price being maybe the most notable of them. And it was Simon who was dispatched to Cork in August, 1993, to see the band open for U2 at Páirc Ui Chaoimh during the Zoo TV tour, where he cut them a sterling and richly deserved review.

We celebrated the end of the first series of RTÉ’s late-night alternative music strand, ‘No Disco’, with a special fund-raising live show up in Nancy Spain’s on Barrack Street in aid of the Cork AIDS Alliance. The idea for which was planted after an approach from Jean Kearney and Maura O’Keeffe, two formidable local women working the public relations beat around the city at the time.

And on Sunday, May 15th, 1994, Engine Alley headlined a five band bash in Cork that also featured fine sets from two local outfits, LMNO Pelican and Treehouse, as well as a couple of long-time Dublin-based favourites of ours, Blink and Sack.

I asked Engine Alley to get involved for several reasons. They were a fine band and a decent draw, yes, and I knew I could rely on Dave O’Grady to be there on the night, irrespective of how busy the band’s diary might have been. But I also felt that, in many ways, the band was maybe as misunderstood as the television series and might have been the closest to a living embodiment of it we could find. Assembled in the regions, maybe reluctantly pulled into a middle ground where they were perhaps less than comfortable, boasting a full and varied set of influences, some of them conflicting, and destined to probably always just about keep it together. The sound too, perhaps, of the city that made them ?

Engine Alley subsequently recorded one other album, ‘Shot In The Light’, released on Dave O’Grady’s own Independent Records label in 1995. And, after a long hiatus, last year issued what I believe to be their best ever elpee, ‘Showroom’. Both of which, like ‘A Sonic Holiday’, are available on-line and are well worth a critical re-evaluation.

Karl Whitney’s book, ‘Hit Factories : A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British pop’ is published by Weidenfeld And Nicolson and is available in all quality bookshops and on-line.

‘IF YOU COULDN’T PERSUADE HENRY’S, YOU DIDN’T MATTER WHERE IT MATTERED’

Sign

Image courtesy of Theresa Lucey

 

This post first appeared last year on the blog for the Sir Henrys 2014 Exhibition held at Boole Library, University College Cork. It is reproduced here in full.

 

I can’t remember the first time I set foot inside Sir Henrys and I can’t remember the last time either but I remember clearly where the rose was sown.

 

I was a weedy teenager during the summer of 1982 [and for several other summers thereafter] when my father arranged a part-time job for me, my first. For eight weeks I stacked shelves and packed shopping bags, without any great distinction, in Roches Stores on Patrick Street. On my first day I was assigned to the biscuit aisle ;- on my second, to stack sanitary towels in the female toiletries section. I was asked by one of my co-workers – an older man whose hands were pock-marked with Indian ink – if I’d ever been ‘inside’. I was a teenage boy from Blackpool and, even thirty years ago, it was an obvious question.

 

Before the end of the summer I’d struck up with another pair of part-timers who made like they knew their music. One was obsessed with a nascent Dublin group called U2 and appeared to have form. He wore a bouffant centre parting in his hair, managed regularly by twin combs, clearly in honour of the band’s drummer. The other seemed to know quite a bit about Ireland’s darker underbelly. Dave Fanning, Hot Press, hash. Such things.

 

There was loose banter in the store-room one day about Sir Henry’s, with which both of my colleagues were familiar. There was a framed U2 poster to one side of the venue, apparently. Signed by the band. U2 liked Cork and someone’s relation helped them to set up their drums. I’d regularly seen Sir Henry’s from the outside. Hadden’s Bakery on North Main Street was on my family’s regular beat and, in the days long before paid parking, we’d frequently pull the car up outside. The place looked like a right toilet, but I never imagined that it would look even worse on the inside.

 

Myself and my friends were regulars at Sir Henry’s from around 1987 until 1994, when I left Cork for good. It was somewhere we went to hear live music and see bands, good, bad and often un-naturally ugly. Back then, when we knew nothing and cared less, music meant the world. And Sir Henry’s was one of the foundation blocks.

 

The place hosted some truly memorable nights and some remarkable live shows and, even at a distance of twenty five years I can clearly recall the most minor moments of some of the better ones.

 

In terms of Irish bands, it was in Sir Henry’s that Power of Dreams, The Sultans, The Franks, Engine Alley, The Subterraneans and Therapy? flowered in their pomp. It was in Henry’s too that arguably the finest and most perpetually ignored of them all, Into Paradise, played like their necks were on the line to a meagre scattering of, maybe, fifty people at a push. If anything captured their career in a snapshot, it was the continued indifference of Cork audiences. If you couldn’t persuade Henry’s, you didn’t matter where it mattered. Sir Henry’s could be cold and unforgiving and, while many were called, only the few were eventually annointed.

 

The Blue Angels being a particular case in point. Blue In Heaven were contemporaries and peers of Into Paradise from Churchtown, a suburb in South Dublin. A dirty and easily detonated live act, they found particular favour in Cork, and amongst the Sir Henry’s frontline especially.

 

Most of Blue In Heaven eventually evolved into a more considered and mildly diverting sub-species, The Blue Angels. But the Sir Henry’s crowd were having none of it and more or less refused to acknowledge they existed. The Blue Angels were famously sent packing for Dublin to the sound of one man clapping. They were a fickle crowd, the Henry’s lot.

 

But they adored their own too and I can still feel the fuzzy urgency with which my favourite Cork bands went about their thing on the live stage at Sir Henry’s [although plenty of other business was conducted off-stage too]. LMNO Pelican – who I later had the pleasure of producing – were restless, busy and catchy. I remember encountering a nervous and sensibly sober Brendan Butler for the first time, the Pelican’s drummer and heartbeat. ‘Alright player’, he opened, before heading straight to the gut of the matter :- he was chasing a critical view on a new Guadalcanal Diary compilation. We lost Brendan at a desperately young age in February, 2013 and its only right and proper that, in any potted history of Cork music, he is appropriately remembered and acknowledged. Rest easily, champ.

 

I concede now, as I did very openly then, to a soft-spot for local bands like The Bedroom Convention, Lift, Benny’s Head, Treehouse, Real Mayonnaise and The How And Why Insects, who later became Starchild and Crystal. These were the names that stood out then like they still do so now, a rangey peleton of domestiques in support of the prestige riders, lead by Cypress, Mine !, Burning Embers and The Belsonic Sound.

 

Of the blow-ins, my strongest recollections include live shows by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, The Wedding Present, Babes In Toyland, The Sisters Of Mercy and That Petrol Emotion. It still rankles that I never saw either Microdisney or The Fatima Mansions live in Sir Henry’s :- in the great traditions of Cork politics, The Fatima Mansions tended to favour De Lacy House while Microdisney [although I first saw them support Depeche Mode in The City Hall in 1982] and me just didn’t have our clocks in sync and they’d fled Ireland years before I’d ventured out of Blackpool.

 

But while Sir Henry’s could destroy even the most vaunted of visitors, the inverse could be true too. Transvision Vamp played there once and, to my mind, blew the place limb from limb. ‘I wanna be your dog’ roared a leery drunk from the front row at the lead singer. ‘Woof woof’, responded Wendy James, as she sank a prozzie’s heel into his snout.

 

To my mind, Sir Henry’s rightful reputation as the country’s best live music venue bar-none was franked and sealed over three consecutive nights during the Summer of 1991. Facilitated through the offices of Ian Wilson and his team at Radio 2FM, Cork Rock was an annual shindig that assembled fifteen of the country’s best, aspiring and unsigned bands and flashed them in short-set form to sussed audiences speckled with talent spotters flown in – on generous expenses – from Britain and elsewhere.

 

The line-up in 1991 tells its own story and, among those bucks who faced the starter’s gun were The Frank And Walters, The Sultans Of Ping F.C., The Cranberries, Therapy?, The Brilliant Trees and Toasted Heretic.

 

It was, without question, the single most exhilirating weekend I can recall in my short, personal relationship with Sir Henry’s. And I still meet friends and acquaintances, now well into their forties and beyond, who legitimately lay claim to having been there before the finest generation of young Irish bands ever took flight with The Man.

 

Work subsequently took me to many more live venues all over Britain and Europe throughout the 1990s. And with a fresh perspective it was clear to me that, whatever we thought back then, Sir Henry’s was in many ways less artifice and more franchise. Every city that assumes a love of new music and a fostering of new acts has venues that sound, look and smell like Henry’s used to do at its peak. London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Paris, New York.

 

In hindsight, Sir Henry’s was where the more intense kids went after they’d outgrown the secondary school disco and re-calibrated their ambitions. To me, one of the venue’s primary attractions was that it was on our doorstep [and not in Dublin] and, to those of us who, by 1986 and 1987 had grown into angry young men and women, this was of no little import.

 

My fellow traveller at this time was a friend I’d met in school, Philip Kennedy. During the summers from 1982 onwards, we’d started another, far more attractive form of rote learning and, in so doing, developed a love of Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, REM and, memorably, the frenetic political jangle of McCarthy [Morty McCarthy [no relation], was the key dealer here].

 

We spent our evenings swapping albums, battered cassettes, taped radio programmes, bootlegs and even demos. It was through Philip [and his regular dealer, Morty] that I first heard the famous first Frank And Walters demo, a tape that genuinely blew me away and which kick-started a long-standing connection that endures to this day.

 

It was Philip who, while I was away in America in 1988, harrassed Ciaran O’Tuama, then manning Comet Records with Jim O’Mahony, on a regular basis about a likely release date for the second Cypress, Mine ! album. That record, which is magnificent, has still to see the light of day, although I remain hopelessly optimistic, as I always did for that band.

 

Phil and myself hung out into the long summer nights on the railings outside his house on Saint Mary’s Road, by Neptune Stadium, talking the big music. Or just talking big about music. In our heads we cut an artsy dash along Redemption Road as we ferried our albums, always under-arm, for everyone to see. In reality, our parents may have hoped this was all just a fad, a passing thing. Sir Henrys became a natural extension of those nights, but it wasn’t the only one. My own favourite Cork venue was Mojos. Or De Lacy House. Or The Shelter. Or, briefly, The Underground, down a side alley around the back of Roches Stores. It was there that I once saw Sindikat, one of my favourite ever Cork bands, comprised mostly of past pupils of our old school. I may even have seen The Stars of Heaven there, a band who, had their store of stellar notices converted to sales, could have retired to stud after the release of their first album, ‘Speak Slowly’. Philip passed away on April 28th, 2006. He hadn’t yet turned 40 years of age and I never hear a cracking new album or see a storming new live band without thinking of how he’d so forensically de-construct them. And he was sharp and funny with it too.

 

One night we encountered Margaret Dorgan on Parnell Bridge ;- she was off to see a local band, The Pretty Persuasions, in The Phoenix. Margaret shared her concerns for the band’s well-being, worried that there might be were too many ‘posers’ in the audience.

 

‘The only posers there’, Philip told her, ‘will be on the stage’.

 

He was there at my elbow for years, through the good times and the even better times. He saw Sir Henry’s claim its many trophies and also bury a hell of a lot of bands who simply couldn’t cut muster. From wherever he is now, he knows where the bodies lie and, more importantly, why Sir Henry’s took shovels to their crowns.