Fat Lady Sings

OPERATION TRANSFORMATION

De Lacy House, with its multiple floors, was an often-unheralded venue in the cardo of Cork city during those glory years from the mid-1980s onwards. But under the management of Don Forde – the original Dapper Don – it eventually became one of the more important and lucrative stop-offs on the national live circuit.

De Lacys operated a catholic booking policy and hosted a vast and varied array of acts – folk, trad, jazz, blues and alternative rock music – over the course of at least fifteen years. But it was at the very top of the house that the real magic shook down and, although it never quite enjoyed Sir Henry’s lustre, De Lacys was a terrific venue in its own right and is just as entitled to its place in local music lore. 

I saw, on that top floor, a series of electric performances over the years by A House, Roddy Frame, Martin Stephenson, The Fatima Mansions, Power Of Dreams, The Wannadies and numerous others, during which the parquet boards would come under savage pressure from those floating across it. Many of those shows were promoted by the late and fondly remembered local promoter, Des Blair. 

The tone at De Lacys was set at the main door and, in particular, by the elaborately coiffured figure of Tony Hennessy. Who, when he wasn’t kicking imaginary footballs down Barrack Street or refereeing juvenile soccer fixtures, manned the front of house for years with the manners and good humour of an experienced sommelier.   

For years Tony also doubled up as my first line of critical thinking and, on my way past him, he’d offer up pithy previews based on the calibre of punter already inside the venue or the noise levels he’d endured at the soundchecks. Its fair to say that, during his many years on patrol, the live music crowd caused him few, if any, problems and I suspect that many of his views were framed by that: – he had a healthy regard for the music and those who supported it even if, the odd time, I’d see him with plugs discreetly lodged in both ears.     

Tony was one of the handful present on a slow Sunday night late in 1988 when The Fat Lady Sings – a Dublin four-piece in exile in London – played live in Cork for the first time. De Lacys, located towards the Grand Parade end of Oliver Plunkett Street and an absolute hoor to get a sound rig in and out of, had over-estimated the group’s pulling power and, by any standards, Tony and his crew enjoyed one of their quieter nights on the drag. Inside, meanwhile, TFLS were tearing the house down. 

In terms of how it supports live music, Cork has always been a law unto itself and I’ve referred to this previously in multiple posts. Sunday nights were always difficult to sell anyway, all the more so when it came to the not insignificant matter of new Dublin bands still learning to fly. Jeff Lynne famously wrote that, at some of the earlier Electric Light Orchestra gigs, the fledgling seven-piece band often out-numbered the paying audience. And although The Fat Lady Sings didn’t quite touch those levels at De Lacys, it was certainly touch-and-go for a while.

Those of us who did take the punt saw a terrific show from an outwardly cheery, emerging four-piece on the up who, two independently-released singles in, were bedding a couple of fresh recruits into their number. The night ended with the band on the dance floor with some of the doormen and the entire audience up on the stage, wigging out.

I picked up the band’s first two singles from the tat stall as I made my way out; – the jangled ‘Fear And Favour’, released on Good Vibrations a couple of years previously, and the delayed follow-up, the more rounded ‘Be Still’. I also added my name to the band’s mailing list and, for my troubles, was briefed routinely on their adventures for several years afterwards via a series of regular newsletters. Decades before GDPR and social media, I left De Lacys that night feeling uniquely invested in a new band and, as can often be the case after these kinds of blind encounters, followed their progress intently until the end.   

Even at this stage in their development, The Fat Lady Sings were a decent pop band with good ears and this much was evident within minutes of them mounting the boards in Cork. Fronted and led by Nick Kelly, whose good humour and broad smile were matched only by the ease with which he knocked out smart couplets, that first pair of singles had attracted decent notices that marked him as a canny writer with a leading edge. ‘Fear And Favour’, begins with the line ‘I’ve got a talent I’d rather be without’ which, as opening statements go, is straight in at elite level and certainly strong enough to prick the ears of even the most stupored free-lancer.  

The line-up on that single included David Sweeney on guitar and Finbarr O’Riordan on bass. Sweeney was a formidable musician who’d served his time on the Dublin mod scene, most notably with The Vipers, and founded The Fat Lady Sings with Kelly. I later worked closely with his brother, Ken, who recorded two fine albums for Setanta Records as Brian, and whose story I’ve attempted to capture here in a previous piece.  

Brian seldom came out from under the covers and Ken only ever played a handful of live shows during the decade he was aligned to Setanta. One of the most memorable of which was a support set before A House played The University of London Union in 1992, when Robert Hamilton – another of the original members of The Fat Lady Sings – fetched up on drums as part of the live Brian line-up.   

Nick’s stock-in-trade, then as forever, was the intelligent, lyrically astute love song and, unsurprisingly, the band attracted critical comparisons to Prefab Sprout who, at the time, were the standard bearers for anything even mildly bookish and self-effacing. In reality, The Fat Lady Sings had far more in common with the more straight-forward likes of The Bible, The Big Dish and even Deacon Blue and it was in this mildly left-of-centre space that the band eventually took root and, for a while, flourished.

It didn’t take them too long to return to Cork either :- within months, a missive from the group alerted me to another upcoming live show, this time in Mojos, then still known then by its maiden name, The Buckingham, over on George’s Quay. Having learned the hard way about the hierarchy of the city’s live music venues, the band was going for broke with its set-up: – an electric piano now dominated the tiny stage at the back of the pub. The Fat Lady Sings had, on the one hand, scaled down and, on the other, scaled up. 

TFLS were on the roads in Britain and Europe incessantly as the 1980s bled into the 90s and during which their tour van, known as Gloria Esther, was racking up the miles as quickly as the band itself was acquiring a decent live following. Off of the back of which it released two further self-financed singles, ‘Arclight’ and ‘Dronning Maud Land’, both issued on the band’s own label, Fourth Base, and which continued to propel them forward at pace.  

‘Arclight’ was a genuine gear-shifter for them and, with the added heft of the piano, saw them cut through on mainstream radio in Ireland and shake a number of record companies to attention. Thirty years on, it resounds with the same urgency as it did when I first heard it, still the band’s signature number and one of that familiar set, alongside ‘Celebrate’, ‘Parachute’, ‘Brewing Up A Storm’, ‘Where’s Me Jumper’ and ‘After All’ that, for many, soundtrack an intense period of opportunity and unprecedented optimism for new Irish popular music.   

‘Arclight’ is the band’s ‘Dignity’, and not just stylistically. Because although The Fat Lady Sings released far more ambitious and, to my mind, many better songs – the immediate follow-up, ‘Dronning Maud Land’, for instance, is a waltz that bravely features a piano accordion – I’m not sure if the wider public ever really saw past it? Or wanted to. So, while you’d hardly describe ‘Arclight’ as an albatross, I’m not sure if any of the band’s ensuing material ever really matched its punch.  

The song featured prominently on the band’s first album, ‘Twist’, released in May 1991, and produced by Paul Hardiman, Mike Roarty and the band. Alongside old reliables like ‘Be Still’, which was re-recorded – unsatisfactorily, in my own view – and the imperious ‘Gravy Train’, the record was intelligent, hummable and getting there. Caught in a hail of fire from all angles – Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ and U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ were among its many competitors for attention and had already closed off much of the space – ‘Twist’ was a fine debut. But, like too many of those Irish debuts issued between 1985 and 1995, just didn’t have enough about it and struggled to be heard above the general racket. 

The band’s second album, ‘Johnson’, released in 1993, was a far sturdier affair and, produced by Steve Osborne, is much steadier on its feet. The piano was less prominent, the accordion decommissioned and the heft, instead, was provided by layers of guitar, various synths and backing vocals. Robert Hamilton was no longer behind the traps either – he’d left the group to work on the Peace Together project – and the drums on the record were laid down by a terrific session player called Nic France. Ostensibly a jazz musician who, at the time, was part of Tanita Tikaram’s live band, those anoraks among us will note his influence all over the record: – the drums on ‘Johnson’ are magnificent.

It’s a far from breezy album, though. The opener, ‘Boil’, is a sulky affair that burbles away darkly until it bursts open over the final furlongs. ‘Strip the paint, drain the oil. Let it boil’, Nick sings, signaling perhaps the band’s change of tone as much as he’s detailing the vagaries of yet another relationship. The first single pulled from ‘Johnson’, ‘Show Of Myself’, opens with twin female vocals at the stand, sharing duties throughout with Nick’s plummy South Dublin drawl, a style of delivery heard years later on the songs of another fine pop band from the same part of the world, The Thrills. ‘Show Of Myself’ was, in hindsight, a peculiar choice to lead the charge and there are certainly a cluster of far more instant cuts in the middle-order, ‘World Exploding Touch’, ‘This Guitar’ and ‘Stealing A Plane’ most prominently.

‘World Exploding Touch’ also contains one of Nick’s finest stanzas when he sings, ‘I used to float inches off the ground, I was too weightless to ever be hurt. And I never knew the truth about untrue until I saw you in his shirt’. Which is redolent, and obviously so, of the ease with which the late Grant McLennan consistently captured the softness of the ordinary in the heart of broader, far more complicated themes.

The album also features what I consider to be the band’s best ever song, ‘Drunkard Logic’, the second cut lifted from ‘Johnson’ and the group’s most commercially successful single. Which, intentionally or otherwise, was still resonating years later on McLennan’s ‘Can You See The Lights’, one of the highlights on his 1997 elpee, ‘In Your Bright Ray’. And on which Nick reaches back to his years as a law student when he regally claims that ‘we don’t leave ourselves in many things, just in letters, leases, writs and rings’. Elsewhere, there are echoes of ‘Be Still’ on the gorgeous ‘Horse, Water, Wind’ and, given the band’s almost blemish-free history, I’m happy to grant them a free pass for the tin whistle and didgeridoo on the closer, ‘Providence’.

And then it was over. 

After years on the treadmill, The Fat Lady Sings had finally found a setting that suited the shape of their legs and the capacity of their lungs. But the course to the gains they’d made had taken a toll on their limbs and the eventual pay-off wasn’t exactly as had been promised in the brochures. Life on the road as a jobbing musician and writer had simply run into one cul-de-sac too many and Nick was off to pursue other ambitions. 

Decades on and he’s still keeping his hand in and, when he isn’t directing films or ads for television and cinema, Nick performs and records – as infrequently as can be expected of a man with multiple interests – as Alien Envoy. He’s released a brace of fine albums under his own name, ‘Between Trapezes’ [1997] and ‘Running Dog’ [2005], both on his own Self Possessed label. And from which the sombre, pared-back ‘Grey And Blue’, from that debut solo record, is worth the admission on its own.

But it’s for his body of work during that scarcely believable period from 1986 until 1994 that he’s still best remembered; – those songs tell their own stories and are still strong enough to do their own bidding. The Fat Lady Sings were a fine, fine band who got out while they were still ahead and just after they’d completed their best work. 

Who among us can say we’ve done that?

SWIM

 

Swim were cut apart from their peers on the Dublin circuit during the late eighties and early nineties on many levels and it was easy to see, and even easier to hear, exactly why. For one, they weren’t a routine guitar band dipped in the spirit of either The Smiths and/or R.E.M. and, maybe more importantly, they made no secret of their ambitions. ‘What we’d probably like to do’, the band’s formidable singer, Joe Reilly, told an RTÉ music series called ‘Check It Out’ back in 1989, ‘is get signed and make lots of money’.

 

Reilly was Swim’s pivot and, around him, a band of excellent musicians added heft to his imposing tenor on songs written, initially, with Donegal-born keyboard player, John McCrea. And later, in a second, short-lived iteration, guitarist Pat Donne. The fact that they were all strong, proficient players made Swim a real curiousity ;- the pulling, dragging and primal squall of indie guitars just didn’t interest them. Instinctively drawn more to the chrome and leather of The Bailey than the spit and sawdust of The White Horse, their pitch aspired to the broad and grand :- Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’, Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’ and Love And Money’s second album, ‘Strange Kind Of Love’. And even if the end result often sounded closer to the full-bodied, if often lumpy, pop sound of Deacon Blue than it did to the knotted, jazz-wash of ‘Deacon Blues’, I still marked them up for ambition.

 

Swim’s bloodline went back to Geoffrey’s First Affair, a curious Dublin outfit with sassy intentions who flirted briefly with infamy when Larry Mullen produced their debut single, ‘And The Days Go By’ for Solid Records in 1986. Comprised initially of singer Ed Darragh, John McCrea and guitarist Hughie Purcell – and later, also featuring drummer Dave Dawson – their friendly pop/soul sound quickly disappeared up a cul-de-sac. But when McCrea and Joe Reilly formed Swim shortly thereafter, they brought with them similar aspirations. With a line-up completed by bassist Paul Holmes, guitarist Niall Conheady and Paul Daly on saxophone, Swim were also unusual in that, for an emerging, well-connected Dublin group cutting a shape around town during the late 1980s, they had an ambivalent relationship with Hot Press, then as now the country’s dominant music magazine. One review in particular, from the late Bill Graham, was especially savage :‘Their only value’, he concluded, ‘is that they epitomise every possible Irish mistake of 1988, a mismatch of thoughtless style and null content’. Now, the late Bill Graham is rightly lauded as one of Ireland’s finest critics and music writers and, to many of a certain age, enjoys a mythical status :- he often brought a wide span of reference to his work, much of which borrowed from academic constructs and tropes. But the line of critical thinking he applied to Swim was also relevant to many of the Irish – particularly Dublin-based – bands hawking their wares during that period and by whom Hot Press, for whatever reasons, seemed to be consistently seduced.

 

Even Swim’s cheerleaders tended to water down their enthusiasm for them in public : the band just didn’t display the kind of unbridled rock and roll chops for which Hot Press was keeping Ireland safe. A point not lost either on those who saw Swim in Sir Henry’s in Cork at the end of the 1980s, most of whom were left positively underwhelmed. I’ve written previously about how that venue could often be unforgiving and cold, a bleak spot whenever the mood took her, that swallowed many an unsuspecting band whole. A core of the venue’s regulars were, for years, blindly loyal to the brass-neck cartoonery of The Golden Horde – for whom Bill Graham had a real soft spot – and the splayed shapes of Blue In Heaven, both of whom attracted unstinting devotion in Cork simply because, to my mind, they just did unfiltered, full-frontal coercion. In front of that sort of a crowd, Swim were onto an absolute battering.

 

And this only stoked up the contrarian in me. While Swim sounded far too rigid and linear to ever be wholly essential, I still thought there was room somewhere for their hand-washed brand of adult-orientated pop music and that, in their fresh denims and roll-necks, they just had a different kind of cutting to them. And Gary Katz, Steely Dan’s long-time producer, maybe thought so too :- after Swim signed a major label deal with MCA, he agreed to produce the band’s first album.

 

Ireland has made several noble stabs at the more developed, smarter end of the pop market over the years :- later-period Microdisney, The Fat Lady Sings, Hinterland, The Four Of Us, The Thrills and, more recently, Little Green Cars, all loosely occupy this space, each of them sculpting their bodies with the help of interesting supplements and nutrients, often layered keys and loops. It was to The Fat Lady Sings’ credit, for instance, that they took on conventional taste laws and added, on occasion, a piano accordion to their normal floor-routine. While The Thrills bravely raised the stakes when they unfurled a banjo into their frontline around the time of their third album, ‘Teenager’, admittedly as their career was drifting in the roaring forties .

 

And Swim are very much a part of this number even if, like Hinterland – another local act far more at home within the controlled air of the studio than on the live stage – they barely register in the histories of recent Irish popular music. Substantial information about them is difficult to find and, with the band’s only album long deleted and almost impossible to locate, it’s as if someone has deliberately purged them. But for a couple of years, as they played the arenas with Cher and Fleetwood Mac, and enjoyed major label patronage, they had much going on.

 

 

‘Sundrive Road’, the group’s first and only album, was released in the summer of 1990, recorded at Ridge Farm in Surrey and over-dubbed and mixed at length at various locations in Ireland, England and New York. Named after the road in Crumlin where Reilly grew up, it was a stylish and well-appointed affair that, in a local context, sat utterly out of time with it’s surroundings. While Swim aspired to the urbane, around them the domestic market had become increasingly pock-marked by what the late George Byrne termed ‘designer bogmen’, many of them based in or deriving from he west of Ireland. From Tuam in County Galway, The Sawdoctors made smart, eloquent noises about rural dislocation, small- town disaffection and the spirit of the unlikely under-dog that were undone, ultimately, but the absolute paucity of the band’s material. Which, despite the lofty claims of it’s authors, was more brucellosis than Bruce. Down the road, meanwhile, The Waterboys had become the latest victims of the Galway city flytrap :- having taken an eternity to complete the permeable ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, and now about to release it’s lesser follow-up, ‘Room To Roam’, their sound had become infected by the rash of unruly raggle-taggle that had long popped the air around Shop Street and Mainguard. While The Stunning, on the lumpier end of the distinctly average, were on a scarcely believable upward curve that saw them head-line the outdoor Féile festival in Semple Stadium, Thurles in 1993. With it’s lacquered finish and subtle production tricks, ‘Sundrive Road’ was belligerently out of line and, in it’s own way, an affront.

 

Gary Katz had produced all of Steely Dan’s records and, by the middle of 1990, had also just completed the first sessions for what would later become Paul Brady’s ‘Trick Or Treat’ album. But in keeping with much of the Swim story, ‘Sundrive Road’ isn’t acknowledged on the producer’s discography on his own website. And yet Katz’s fingerprints are all over the record :- indeed one of the most truly arresting aspects of the record is the sheer calibre of the numerous session players engaged by him to augment the core sound. The credits list on ‘Sundrive Road’ makes for remarkable reading, noting contributions by many incredible players and performers, all of them pulled readily, you’d suspect, from the producer’s rolodex. Among those who feature on the record are Fonzi Thornton, one of the most decorated and in-demand backing vocalists of the last forty years and who features on records by Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Ray Charles and a litany of others. The late Paul Griffin added Hammond organ on a couple of tracks, as he did previously on the likes of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and ‘Aja’ itself. Hugh McCracken – another stellar session player whose name features on those interminable Steely Dan credits – contributes harmonica, having previously done do with everyone from Billy Joel to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel to Dionne Warwick. While saxophonist Lou Marini had previously appeared in both Blues Brothers films, was at one point a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears and boasts a string of other session credits to his name. Whether Swim were aware at the time exactly who they were dealing with isn’t clear.

 

And yet for all that, I still think that Swim could have done more to help their own cause. Long-time watchers – and there were at least ten of us – were mildly surprised to see that one of their most impactful early songs, ‘There Like An Angel’, a staple of their live sets that tailed off in a burst of twinned saxophone lines, hadn’t made the final cut, held in reserve, instead, as a future B-side. Indeed there was relatively little sax on the record at all :- one of the group’s long-standing calling cards had been stripped right back, the gaps filled instead with lines and lines of subtle guitars and added vocal parts. Elsewhere, ‘So Long Manhattan’, another of Swim’s centre-pieces, was slowed and stripped, a one-time show-stealer denuded, it’s strength lost to the barber’s blade. But the titles told the tale of the tape, really. ‘Buffaloes’, ‘Road’, ‘Harbour’ and and ‘Christmas In Colorado’ – as well, of course, as ‘So Long Manhattan’ – were all migration songs of a sort, yearning variously for wide plains, warm boozers and home comforts and, in his gut, Reilly was torn between the cosiness of the familiar and the uncertain promise of the faraway field.

 

 

The opener, ‘I Believe’, with it’s full-bodied piano thump, wouldn’t have been out of place on any of the first three Deacon Blue records :- indeed Ger Kiely’s guitar parts borrowed freely from the late Graeme Kelling who, with no little style, deftly joined the dots on ‘Raintown’ and ‘When The World Knows Your Name’, especially. And with shades too of Love And Money and Danny Wilson’s excellent debut album ‘Meet Danny Wilson’, ‘Sundrive Road’ generally resounded to the ache of the readily recognizable. But it was when the group went off script and opened up the arc a bit that it was at it’s most impactful :- ‘Wonderful Thunder’, the record’s closer and the only one of the dozen written by bass-player Paul Holmes with Reilly, may well have been a random studio doodle and yet, with it’s soft keyboard push, wouldn’t have been out of place on Prefab Sprout’s ‘Jordan : The Comeback’. In trailing off, ‘Sundrive Road’ hints at what might have been.

 

 

But of course the whole enterprise was doomed to fail anyway. After all, Swim were simply following a three-act story-line familiar to many Irish bands that went before them and many more again who came after. Signed to a major label in a hail of activity, sustained cheaply on a wage for twelve months with the odd bone thrown from the top table, then dumped without a whisper after a single, contractually obligatory album. And once the singles, ‘I Believe’ and ‘Rachel’, failed to detonate, they were over and out, Swim’s genetic profile making the parting as practical as it was inevitable.

 

But they did, in a roundabout way, make at least one significant and long-standing contribution to the course of popular Irish music during the 1990s. With Swim’s corpse still warm, the band’s drummer, Dave Dawson, replaced Dermot Wylie behind the traps with A House, just as the Walkinstown band was about to enter the most articulate and successful phase of it’s career, immediately prior to the recording of ‘I Am The Greatest’. Dawson was an absolute machine who worked his way effortlessly around the kit and, alongside Martin Healy on bass, built A House a formidable, energy-efficient foundation on their last three albums. To me, he’s easily up there alongside the likes of Fran Breen and Noel Bridgeman as one of the country’s finest ever drummers. Now married and living in America, he packed the biscuit tins away years ago and no longer plays.

 

And what of his one-time band-mates in Swim ? Well, Joe Reilly and Paul Holmes were still dabbling with the dark arts up to relatively recently even if, beyond the odd on-line post, not a whole lot else has been made known. Ger Kiely is still a familiar presence as a session player and, formidable across a wide range of styles, is likely to turn up anywhere and with anyone :- among many other things, he also composes these days for radio comedy output. While John McCrea, another terrific player with a mighty range and a broad field of vision, has composed and scored more classical-rooted material for bespoke film and art projects. When he isn’t running his music school in south county Dublin.

 

CODA :- Given the lack of basic research material on Swim as outlined above, I owe another debt to my friend, Chris O’Brien, the producer and engineer who, once again, went back into his diaries and who pulled all of the factual threads here into order for us. That man, and his diaries, should be protected by some sort of national heritage order.

 

NEW ORDER IN IRELAND

peace together

Picture courtesy of Pat O’Mahony

 

A few of us, caught in Nick Hornby’s slipstream, would while the time away drawing up lists of our own favourite music, making tapes and throwing shapes. It was harmless enough stuff, portable pub-games to backdrop those empty afternoons, decades ago, in O’Neills on Pearse Street and the balmy, mad nights everywhere else. But it was out of those sessions that we resolutely determined that the best, most consistent British singles bands of our generation were, in no real order ;- Buzzcocks, The Smiths, New Order, The Jam, Madness and The Pet Shop Boys. In the same way that all self-respecting football fans knew that Arsenal enjoyed the longest run in the top flight of English football without being relegated, or that Notts County were the oldest professional football club in the world, the names of the masters of the shorter form were instantly to hand whenever the great singles came up for discussion.

 

When it came to the not insignificant matters of Joy Division and New Order, my late friend, Philip Kennedy was, as usual, quickly out of the traps. Years earlier, he’d taken a punt on the ground-breaking singles, ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Confusion’ and, thereafter, canvassed vigorously on behalf of both bands. A few hundred yards down Redemption Road and right down the hill at Seminary Road, another neighbour of mine, Paul Daly, introduced me to ‘Ceremony’, which he’d brought home from London and which he too shared freely, proselytising. I adored it from the off and, even now, find it easier to take than the Arthur Baker/New York infused material, marvellous and all as it is. In school, a handful of us would marvel at the Peter Saville-designed art-work and, with set-squares and protractors that we had yet to de-commission, would work up imaginary designs for our make-believe bands on the back of Buntús Bitheolaíocht.

 

 

Paul Daly, who was a few years older than me and a couple of classes ahead of me in every respect, was among those who fetched up at New Order’s show at The Savoy in Cork in April, 1983 and, with his Walkman stuffed inside his belt-line, recorded the night’s events, as he’d often do at venues all over the city. On the evidence of his tape which, quickly thereafter, went through the hands of the alickadoos, it was a freakishly bad show for everyone concerned, the band stop-starting it’s way through a shambolic set as the crowd grew more impatient and rowdier. And, in respect of many of New Order’s earliest shows in Ireland, this pattern seems to have repeated itself routinely.

 

New Order were back in Cork again in January, 1986, this time at Connolly Hall, and they were just as disappointing. From my usual sport to the left of the sound desk, I found their inability to trigger the loops and tapes which, even then, scaffolded a serious spread of their sound, just ridiculous. On record, New Order were far removed from the tuneless, joyless d-i-y set and yet, on the live stage, were just as patchy as the worst of them. And from what I can remember, the band also lost themselves in a petty stand-off with some of the local gobdaws, one of whom threw what could have been a bottle or a glass towards the stage. Unlike The Smiths, who walked off in The Savoy a couple of years previously after similar eejitry from the front rows, New Order at least hung around to complete their set, patchy as it was.

 

But on record, they were a far more formidable force, a sparklesome outfit capable of real invention and no little magic and we gorged for ages on ‘Movement’, ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ and ‘Low Life’. And the more that New Order developed their sound – and, I guess, the more technically proficient they became in so doing – the more they cemented their hand-prints in our gallery of favourites. And to this day, one of the most set-upon records in my collection is ‘New Order – Singles’ ;- side one, especially, is a mighty, almost perfect fifteen-track beast, from ‘Ceremony’ to ‘Touched By The Hand Of God’.

 

New Order hadn’t played live for several years when, surprisingly, they were named as one of several top-line acts due to perform at an ambitious, three-pronged live event planned for May, 1993, in support of an All-Ireland charity called Peace Together. Founded a year earlier and co-ordinated, in the spirit of Live Aid, by Stiff Little Fingers’ bassist Ali McMordie and Robert Hamilton, the drummer with The Fat Lady Sings, Peace Together was a curious, if undoubtedly well-intentioned project, a charitable trust ‘dedicated to the promotion of reconciliation between the people of Northern Ireland through music’. During a period in the long-running peace talks process that was ripe with optimism for a genuine breakthrough , the charity planned three, large-scale concerts that would go live simultaneously in Dublin, Belfast and London, billed as ‘1 day 2 help 3 cities 4 Peace’. Among the others originally confirmed to take part were Sinéad O’Connor, Peter Gabriel, Del Amitri, The Orb and a slew of notables ;- BBC Radio One was even planning to take live coverage of the Belfast leg, such was the scale and extent of the line-up.

 

But as with many such events, the theory and the practice soon collided head-on. The Belfast concert was cancelled at short notice after the hotel in which all of acts, including headliner Peter Gabriel, were billeted, was bombed. The scheduled London show had already fallen, apathy and general indifference the reasons cited by the organisers. Indeed the Dublin show too looked, for a while, as if it too wasn’t going to fly. Sinéad O’Connor was a late – and controversial – withdrawal and, for all of Hamilton and McMordie’s good intentions and impressive connections, the show, which took place weeks later than first announced, was a hard sell. So that when the event’s compere, Pat O’Mahony, formally opened proceedings in The Point Theatre on Saturday evening, June 5th, 1993, the revised line-up looked as if it had been scrambled together randomly and not even the presence of New Order half-way up the bill was enough to stem the bleed. The vast hall was half-empty on the night and the air had long been sucked from Peace Together ;- the eventual cast, featuring the likes of The Stunning and Liam Ó’Maónlaoí, could have been lifted directly from the previous year’s People In Need Telethon.

 

A couple of months previously, Suede had released their magnificent first album and, four weeks before the Peace Together show in Dublin, another Manchester band, Oasis, signed to Creation Records. New Order had just issued it’s first album of the 1990’s, ‘Republic’ and, four years since ‘Technique’, the ground had moved and the goal-posts had been moved. And so it was against this back-drop that I walked the quay down to Peace Together to renew acquaintances with them ;- New Order, as always, appeared to be utterly out of synch with the sound of the underground. And although I was greatly unconvinced by Peace Together and absolutely confused about it’s outright ambition, I really wanted the Dublin show to work.

 

I’d long tried to advance the cause of The Fat Lady Sings, the fine Dublin pop group I first saw play to a loose handful in The Buckingham in Cork years earlier ;- I’ve written previously about that show as part of a much longer piece on Cork’s venues, and that’s available here. I’d briefly met Robert Hamilton at a couple of their early shows ;- one of his off-stage tasks was to collect names and contacts after gigs for the band’s mailing list and I found him gracious, decent and generous with his time. A good scout. And it was easy to see exactly how himself and McBrodie attracted such high-profile names to the Peace Together project even if, from early, I suspected they may both have been in over their heads in respect of the live shows. And even though the charity’s legacy also included a small, community-focused recording studio in Belfast and a compilation album of suitably targeted cover versions by the likes of U2, Therapy, My Bloody Valentine, Therapy? and The Fatima Mansions, my concerns for the concerts proved to be well-founded.

 

My review of New Order’s performance, re-printed below, was originally published in the issue of Melody Maker magazine dated June 19th, 1993. Donal Murphy, a terrific photographer from Charleville, in North Cork and a central cog in the DropOut magazine machine, took a terrific snap of Peter Hook’s crotch to accompany the piece and went to almighty lengths to get the stills across to London over-night to make the production dead-line. It really was another world then.

 

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Picture courtesy of Daniel Harrison

NEW ORDER,

PEACE TOGETHER, POINT THEATRE,

DUBLIN

 

They couldn’t really have picked something and somewhere more auspicious. It’s been four years and here are New Order, one of pop’s most wonderful treasures, sandwiched on this peace show thing that has long since become a complete irrelevance. They’re up there on a line-up that’s so weak that most of it, I imagine, is later helped from the stage into a fleet of waiting wheelchairs.

 

There are lots of very apparent spaces in this vast railway hall ; the peace connection and a town filled with apathy have quite obviously thrown everyone. A quick vox-pop in the foyer tell us that the kids, almost one year on, know nothing about Peace Together, it’s origins, it’s intentions and it’s background. Fewer still actually care any.

 

So it’s with some half-relief then that, after what seems like an age, New Order finally ramble on. And they’re completely dreadful, basically. But then again, who can really blame them ?

 

They haven’t played for years, they’re doing this, quite obviously, out of necessity and they’ve stood on the touchlines and watched this peace shambles fall into splinters around their very feet. It’s when Bernard asks, ‘Is there anyone here from Dublin ?’ and he’s hit back with ‘Manchester, tra-la-la’ that it finally dawns on us how failed this whole thing has been. Up front there are, perhaps, 500 hard Manchester lads, lots of United’s rather unseemly blue and black away shirt and loads of that silly bag-fashion we’d all thought had actually died with The Farm. We obviously thought wrong. The locals have stayed well clear of this and that’s for sure.

 

It nearly falls apart for New Order right at the start. Barely into ‘Regret’ and all of the tapes and machines and sequenced techno stuff go loopy for some seconds. Bernard stumbles, the band look all around them and they just about hang on for life. That was the portent. New Order, like the rest of us, never ever got into this at all.

 

For a start, all of that rambling stuff from ‘Brotherhood’ sounds as mundane and awkward now as it did then, and the band are making some curious choices. At least they do the quite alluring ‘World’, with it’s compelling little choruses, but despite Hook’s clenched fists and his desperate impatience to get anywhere near the front, New Order quite clearly don’t want to be here.

 

There’s some manner of clarity and half-baked grace in the middle when they do ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and ‘True Faith’ back-to-back, with Hook flailing like a tulip in a gust. This is very much his show, but then you all knew that anyway. He still for all of the best cock-rock poses and at least has the good sense to treat this as nothing more than the piss-laugh it’s long since become.

 

Gillian hands us a snigger when she straps on a guitar and poses for four minutes without ever touching it. A surreal moment among many, that. And then Bernard stops to apologise for such a short stay telling us the band hasn’t really had the time to rehearse, but we smelt than an hour ago. After they encore ‘Blue Monday’, Bernard walks off in a different direction to everyone else, knowing in his heart that this was one great waste of time and space. He’s not alone. And I keep thinking about The Pet Shop Boys, for some reason.

 

Later, as Peace Together falls even flatter on it’s arse, New Order become some very distant memory. They may indeed be one of our finest singles bands ever, a curious pop-pearl among swine, but tonight they had as much presence as a string of abandoned and burnt-out cars. This should have been an evening to treasure, something to talk about tomorrow, something to swap notes on, to from which to eek out the bootlegs. It wasn’t.

Forgettable seems like too soft an adjective.

FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE :- FROM CANADA, WITH LOVE.

Like the small handful of others around these parts, it was during their U.K. and Ireland tour supporting Martin Stephenson and The Daintees in 1990 that I encountered Five Guys Named Moe for the first and only time. Between one thing and another, they went to ground pretty much immediately thereafter and, even now, not a whole lot is known about them, bar a skeleton outline. Although the group’s only album – also called ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ – is now available – almost – in it’s entirity on YouTube, the band behind it has been long-lost and is rarely, if ever, either cited or referenced. Given Canada’s reputation as an infrequent source of quality new music, the gaps in this particular story are all the more baffling. The record itself is virtually impossible to find and, try as I have done, I’ve been unable to locate the actual RCA issue via the usual sources. Google them and you’ll be invariably directed to the long-running musical of the same name and/or to a series of cabaret acts peddling scaled back versions of the same thing ;- so be careful out there.

moe album cover

Five guys Named Moe via http://saltyka.blogspot.ie

‘Five Guys Named Moe’ was recorded in Ringsend Road Studios in the heart of Dublin during the Autumn of 1989, produced by Donal Lunny of Planxty and Moving Hearts. But it’s not as if the band is readily recalled by locals either. True to form, Lunny also contributed bouzouki and bodhrán and also enlisted the help of some of his regular wingmen :- Ronan Browne plays uileann pipes on one track, James Kelly brought his banjo and Noel Eccles is credited as a hired-in percussionist.

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Five guys named Moe back cover via http://saltyka.blogspot.ie

Not that any of this should either deter or mis-lead you. Five Guys Named Moe peddled a terrific line in smart, sinewy pop music, in the margins with the likes of Divinyls, ‘Til Tuesday, Sixpence None Then Richer, The Pursuit Of Happiness and The Lotus Eaters, and with the lyrical whimsy of The Divine Comedy. Twenty-five years later, this seemingly phantom record still holds it’s own.

In keeping with the band’s general anonymity, they never feature either in the annals of live music in Cork, and why would they ? Only a handful of hardy regulars witnessed them open for The Daintees and the band then promptly disappeared into the mist. In terms of sound, tone, look and feel, they are the absolute counter-point to Nirvana. And, for that very reason, they embody every core difference between Sir Henry’s and De Lacy House.

I’ve long thought that De Lacy House never really received the credit it deserved as an excellent live music venue, especially between 1988 and 1994. Against the long-established might of Sir Henry’s, it was at a reputational disadvantage from the off, but promoters like Jim Walsh, the late Des Blair and the other Denis Desmond worked Don Forde’s top floor hard, and with no little sense of adventure. Far from rivalling Sir Henry’s, De Lacy’s complimented it instead, often presenting a far more diverse range of output, reaching across a broad spectrum, from folk and trad to out-and-out indie. And this may indeed have been a weakness as much as it was a strength ;- one could, quite literally, see anything there.

Personally, I loved the place.

It was there, towards the Grand Parade end of Oliver Plunkett Street, that I saw The Fatima Mansions, Roddy Frame, Power Of Dreams, A House, The Wannadies and numerous others test the support beams beneath the third-storey’s wooden floor. And where I also saw a host of roots acts too, most memorably the excellent Don Baker, a regular there in his pomp. It was where I saw The Fat Lady Sings play to twenty people one Sunday night [most of whom ended up on the stage for the encore] and where I once encountered an uncle of mine at the bar during a set by Thee Amazing Colossal Men :- he thought he’d come to see The Wolfe Tones. It was that kind of venue.

And it was in De Lacy House where I’d routinely get the nod on the main door from Tony Hennessy who, when he wasn’t kicking imaginary footballs down Barrack Street or refereeing youth football games [‘careful now lads, 2-0 is the most dangerous lead in soccer’], was easily Cork’s best groomed and most efficient doorman. The stairs may well have been a nightmare for roadies and humpers but the venue itself hosted many a memorable night for punters, and Tony was a fixture for all of the really great shows.

And none more so than on that midweek night in 1990 when Five Guys Named Moe opened for Martin Stephenson to a coven of well-meaning locals. They’d certainly been billed on some of the advance publicity and a couple of standard stills were certainly in circulation, one of which may even have been carried by The Evening Echo. On the night itself they played for no more than forty minutes, performing ten songs at a push, all of them I imagine from their debut album. Myself and my regular companion, Philip Kennedy, were immediately taken with their smart and sassy pop-songs and cutesy stage-banter and, as quickly as we could thereafter, both sought out the record. And, although I’ve given away more copies of it over the years than even ‘A Happy Pocket’ by The Trash Can Sinatras, I still retain one crudely down-loaded version that I absolutely treasure.

Meg Lunney

Meg Lunney via http://www.last.fm

The band was comprised of co-lead vocalists Meg Lunney and Jonathan Evans [who also wrote most of the songs], backed-up on bass and drums by Tom McKay and Graeme Murray respectively. Founded in Ontario, Canada, the group re-located to London and then onto Glasgow, from where they settled their line-up, attracted local management and signed to a major ;- in many ways, they are redolent of the intelligent Scottish pop sound of this time. And, in the great traditions of popular music, ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ was released in 1990 to the sound of silence and was dead on arrival.

Apart from a video for the first single, ‘She’s On A Mountain’, and obviously some form of tour support on that Daintees tour, the band was never really a priority-push for it’s label thereafter, a story all too familiar to a slew of Irish bands during the same period. All that exists on-line by way of a history is unofficial fan blogs that clips together a series of short personal testimonies from some of the band and that’s located at Saltyka and Gamekult

The record itself is eleven songs long and, while bearing testament to the classy writing ability – and no little ambition – of Evans, is also a tribute to Lunny’s uncanny knack for delivering real diamonds, whatever the context. While his track record as an innovative player and band leader has been extensively documented, he’s also taken a producer’s credit on a wide range of studio output, from Kate Bush and Elvis Costello to Rod Stewart and The Indigo Girls and a myriad of different points on all sides. The fact that his own on-line biography references Five Guys Named Moe in this company is revealing in itself and, in a mildly pathetic way, affords me some sort of cheer.

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Five guys named Moe via http://saltyka.blogspot.ie

Five Guys Named Moe, by their own admission, had been listening to the sweet harmonies of The Beatles and The Beach Boys and, very clearly, to the shared boy-girl vocal approach used so tellingly by Prefab Sprout on ‘Steve McQueen’. While their own record doesn’t [thankfully] attempt to so crudely replicate, those influences are certainly obvious ;- this is no bad thing and one can hardly fault Five Guys Named Moe for the scale of what they were attempting to do.

They may not have been the biggest or brashest band to ever play De Lacy House but, to two friends who stumbled on them by accident – or was it fate ? – they were certainly one of the most impactful. Even now, all of those years on, the record comes highly recommended.