Ah, revisionism and nostalgia: you’d want to be careful when that pair collide. Last Monday, the Irish Times newspaper carried a fine, first person memoir by Conor Pope to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the release of The Sawdoctors’ second single, ‘I Useta Lover’, one of the more distinctive Irish pop songs of the 1990s and one of the country’s biggest-selling singles ever. As such, it’s an anniversary worth noting: there was a time when there was no escaping The Sawdoctors who, in the great traditions of popular music, captured a moment and legged it until they ran out of puff and were lapped by fresher legs.
‘I Useta Lover’ used a series of lyrical flourishes and tropes that would quickly come to characterise the band and that were more in keeping with the thematic heart of the first wave of Irish showbands than the 1980s indie set. And punters of all hues lapped them up with gusto.
Conor Pope tells us of his own loose connection to The Sawdoctors and self-deprecatingly plays down his stint in a rival Galway-based rock outfit, describing the pain he felt – and many others of us, I can assure him – as The Sawdoctors defied the odds and took flight. Thirty years older, the writer has now changed his tune: ‘Never would I have guessed back then that the song would be as timeless as it has turned out … or that I would still be able to sing it [‘I Useta Lover’] without missing a word or a beat’.
I never gave The Sawdoctors the time of day back then and don’t intend to revise my views on them now. I’m wary of the seductive pull of nostalgia, and all the more so on a blog like this that seldom, if ever, looks forward. But in accurately assessing the group’s legacy, an additional pass may be no harm.
The Sawdoctors gave a voice, as the Irish Times piece rightfully claims, to ‘what it was like to live in the west of Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s’. On a most basic level, several of the band’s most powerful songs are located there, and as many again are scattered with local slang, situations and parochial soap operas. But The Sawdoctors didn’t have exclusive editorial ownership on the vagaries of life for those then living outside of Dublin, especially in small towns. Plenty of other groups were also at it but just chose to reflect those lives in different ways.
Indeed, as The Sawdoctors were first coming to national prominence, so too was a cohort of other ambitious young bands from cities and towns all over Ireland. Conor refers to one of them, another Galway group, Toasted Heretic, in his piece, but there were many more in the same boat too. Therapy?, The Frank and Walters, The Sultans of Ping, The Cranberries, The Would-Bes, Engine Alley, The Divine Comedy and Cuckoo are among the best known: it would be wrong to think they weren’t dipping into their own experiences in Larne, Cork, Limerick, Kingscourt, Kilkenny, Enniskillen and Derry to inform their material.
What set The Sawdoctors apart was how they presented. They were horny young bucks sniggering in the pews at mass while, in Therapy?’s orbit, James Joyce was fucking someone’s sister. Like The Frank and Walters, they enjoyed pranks and practical jokes but, while the Cork band captured the spirit of The Monkees, The Sawdoctors looked to the home-made, cardboard comedy of ‘Tops of The Towns’ instead, nudging-and-winking away while others were having it off goodo and happy to tell the world as much. ‘The sun goes down on Galway Bay’, sang Toasted Heretic’s Julian Gough. ‘The daughter goes down on me’.
The Sawdoctors divided opinion with an intensity I hadn’t seen before on the domestic beat. In hindsight, this was rooted far less in the music – more perspiration than inspiration, in my view – and way more in a broader cultural conversation. In their donkey jackets and everyman duds, and with their call-and-response choruses and colloquial language, The Sawdoctors were at the heart of a debate about identity.
‘Designer bogmen’, was how the late Dublin-born music journalist, George Byrne, once described The Sawdoctors and, his provocative choice of language notwithstanding, he had a point. I always thought that the ordinariness that was fundamental to their appeal was as carefully studied in it’s own right as any of U2’s various guises, before them or after them. In Ollie Jennings, their manager, they had as formidable an operator in the cockpit as Paul McGuinness himself in his pomp. A founder of the Galway Arts Festival, which took place for the first time in 1978, Jennings was an experienced and wily hand who could read the mood in a room better than most. And he was fiercely protective of his charges, too: The Sawdoctors took plenty of flack but were well able to defend their territory. Like those doughty corner backs they immortalised in song, they knew how to pull hard and late.
They boasted no outward pretensions and only struck poses and shapes when they were sending themselves up, which was often. The cover of the band’s debut album, ‘If This is Rock ‘N’ Roll I Want My Old Job Back’, features the fathers of the various band members, legs akimbo, replete in leather jackets and with guitars cocked: it was the closest the band got to cool. Instead, like the comedian Pat Shortt, they reported for duty as they were: decent, everyday shams dealing with everyday situations in simple, uncomplicated language. And so when many of those who found comfort in the band’s live shows – particularly in the Irish enclaves in London, Glasgow, New York and Boston – looked stage wards, they often saw themselves, and their values, reflected back at them.
There they were, perennial underdogs from the sticks, battling the music industry, the media and the pomp and ceremony of the big city. Ultimately, channelling the influential Catholic sociologists, Father Harry Bohan and Father Micheál Mac Gréil, The Sawdoctors were fighting to protect the soul of rural Ireland in words, deeds and big choruses.
To be fair, someone had to. During the late 1980s and early 90s, a lot of the conversation about identity, particularly from the Dublin-based commentariat, was woefully one-dimensional. The Sawdoctors, to their credit, saw a gap in the hedge, provided an alternative frame of reference and set out their stall. In this respect, they followed a road also travelled by the Reid brothers from Leith, in Scotland who, as The Proclaimers, proudly told similar tales in thick accents. On that road, where Hot Press magazine saw ‘stick-fighters’ and ‘bog-ballers’, The Sawdoctors instead saw legends, heroes and feats of valour. So much so that, like The Smiths, with whom they have far more in common than one might imagine, they brought swathes of the voiceless in with them from the margins.
It’s a pity, then, that the music itself was so spectacularly lumpy and devoid of imagination. Dress it up all you like, but there isn’t really a lot of distance between ‘Clare Island’ and, say, Liam Reilly’s emigration dirge, ‘The Flight of Earls’. And although ‘To Win Just Once’ might indeed sound visionary and prescient after a feed of porter on the night of an unexpected Intermediate championship victory, it sounds much more mundane in the cold light of morning.
In the wake of Conor’s piece, I saw a reference on-line to the ‘unique genius’ of The Sawdoctors. Early morning over-enthusiasm aside, the reality is that The Sawdoctors weren’t half as unique as we think. And genius ? Hardly. What is indisputable, though, is that, for many years, they were very, very popular and, perhaps, inside the warm wrap of nostalgia and revisionism, it’s just too easy to get carried away ?
To my mind, the band had a far greater impact off the stage than on it or on record. Like the great Irish showbands, The Royal before them and Westlife after them, their popularity facilitated the mass congregation of young men and women and, in the best traditions of popular entertainment, made them feel, if not always better, then certainly as if they were a part of something special, however fleetingly. Their songs – who among you can name five or more ? – just sound-tracked that communion.
They were at the peak of their powers, I think, during the first three Féile festivals that took place in Semple Stadium, Thurles, between 1990 and 1992, and over the course of which they made their way from the bottom of the bill to the top. Those Féile events are as much the story of The Sawdoctors as anyone else and, in Thurles, they found a perfect platform. A small town in the middle of Ireland, the closure of the sugar factory in Thurles in the late eighties deprived it of a primary source of local employment. On Liberty Square, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded at a meeting in Hayes’ Hotel, in November, 1884, and Semple Stadium itself has long witnessed acts of spectacular skill and heroism performed by the best hurlers and footballers in the history of the national games. Féile was where The Sawdoctors walked into one of their own songs.
Alongside ‘Celebrate’ by An Emotional Fish, ‘Parachute’ by Something Happens, The Stunning’s ‘Brewing Up A Storm’ and The Sultans of Ping FC’s ‘Where’s Me Jumper ?’, ‘I Useta Lover’ was one of a number of alternative national anthems played during The Trip to Tipp. To which hordes of giddy youngsters shot to attention, paid their respects and then afterwards ate the faces off of one another.
And maybe there’s a genius in there somewhere ? Or maybe, like Brendan Bowyer before them and Hozier long after, The Sawdoctors were just a popular turn who, deliberately or otherwise, found a moment when they were in synch with the mood of the nation. In the Pantheon of Irish popular music, however, The Sawdoctors – and ‘I Useta Lover’ – are queuing on the outside, well down the stand-by list.