Frank and Walters

THE SAWDOCTORS: ACTING THE SHAM

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 more 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.   

GIDDY-UP

Photo : Greg Canty

Within the distinctive history of popular music in Cork, it’s far too easy – and maybe even stipulated by order of The Knights Of Cool – to over-look the achievements of the most outwardly successful of all those local bands who entered the fray during the 1990s: Rubyhorse. An easy-to-read, un-fussy pop band who blazed a trail far from home and did what all of their more decorated predecessors and peers couldn’t: make a splash in America, the final frontier.

The wide, unyielding American freeways are central to the upward aspects of their story – and there are several of those – but that vast expanse of tarmac is also at the heart of the band’s implosion. Which, as can often be the case with this sort of carry-on, was maybe more interesting to the gawkers back at home who were taken by surprise by their success in the first place.

Numerous volumes have been completed and documented about the insatiable demands of the American entertainment industry, a market in which numerous Irish hopefuls have been physically destroyed and emotionally splintered since the 1970s. The circuit there just doesn’t do love on the cheap.

It’s against this curtain that the remarkable achievements of both U2 and The Cranberries – and, who knows, perhaps eventually Hozier too ? – will ultimately be best determined, irrespective of how one might critically evaluate their recorded output. That U2 can continue to function as they do and appear, on the surface at least, to still possibly enjoy their own company after so many years spent hawking themselves on the inter-state highway system, might well be the band’s most powerful ever statement. History will recall that, beyond everything else, U2 survived America reasonably intact.

Incredulous as it sounds, Rubyhorse too were themselves driving it on apace in the American mainstream and, for several years, took a considerable swing at the most volatile and expansive market of all, battered to bits for their troubles. Despite their successes, not a whole lot is known about them.

That Rubyhorse took their name from a song by The Wonder Stuff is maybe the most obvious concession the group ever made towards the more traditional indie aesthetic. And it’s around the thorny issue of identity that the band’s issues begin: to my mind at least, they were perennially conflicted. Instinctively a well-upholstered, global-facing pop band with natural writing sensibilities, they found themselves, by dint of birth, at odds with much of what was going down on their own door-step. Most notably that distinctive racket, performed in often impenetrable Corkese, by the likes of The Frank And Walters and The Sultans Of Ping and by many of those who boldly went before and came after them.

Without the sort of jagged weird that has long characterized the Cork food-chain from Nun Attax and Microdisney via the class of 1990 and onwards to The Rulers Of The Planet and even Cyclefly, Ruby Horse were just far too clean for many of the local alickadoos. For a band that could play so smartly, Rubyhorse were consistently out of time.

It’s not like they were the first either, and indeed much of the story of new music in Cork post-1980 can be read as a philosophical struggle with clear lines. The Franks and The Sultans were terrific pop bands by any measure and yet, despite the strength of their writing, were still rooted in the faintly absurd and tended to defer there as a default. That colloquial edge gave them both an early leg-up and de-coupled them from the over-earnestness that characterized much of the emerging music across the country. But it was also key to their critical undoing: that sort of stuff just doesn’t travel well and tends to grate after a while.

Popular music in Cork has long tended towards the margins. Having had one of the more remarkable aspects of its social history, The Arcadia Ballroom years, hi-jacked by the success of U2 – the ultimate colonial outsiders who not only own that entire period now but also pillaged it for staff – the city has made a defiant, post-trauma statement ever since. One where wider mainstream ambitions – notions, you might say – can go and whistle for it.

Among the best pop songs out of Cork over the last forty years are Kooky’s ‘The Good Old Days’, ‘The Darkness’ by Flex And The Fastweather, ‘Scorch Avenue’ by The Chapter House, ‘Backwater’ by Benny’s Head and ‘Sparkle’ by Rubyhorse. But it’s not as if any of them spring instinctively to mind or feature in the more considered overviews of music in the county. Instead they’ve been lost in a blizzard of loud guitars, standard indie shapes and what the guitarist Giordhai Ui Laoghaire has described as ‘spadgy rhythms’.

It was against this backdrop that Rubyhorse – good-looking, bright boys from Bishopstown and a world removed from their noisy neighbours, The Frank And Walters – took their first tentative steps, thinking big from the moment they could stand unaided. They looked like the male cast of The Breakfast Club and didn’t sound like The Wedding Present: they were studied, sharp, under-age and had their hands full.

I first came across them after they’d just about started secondary school and when, as B.F.G., they performed a couple of lunchtime shows in an halla mór at Coláiste An Spioraid Naoimh. After which Tony O’Donoghue, then working with one of the bigger national promoters, snared them a couple of decent support slots in city venues they weren’t legally allowed to enter. And even then they were a band apart: callow kids on a serious growth kick, their sturdy sound – more Genesis than Genesis P. Orridge. – built on layers of guitars and keyboards. I couldn’t believe how determined and driven they were.

But yet, like practically everyone else who encountered them during the early 1990s – apart from maybe their parents – I was gob-smacked by the scale of what they went on to achieve. Delighted, for sure, but genuinely taken aback because ultimately, all they ever really presented was a rock-solid body of work, a decent ethic, a couple of key personal connections and a pretty pointed desire to get on.

They checked out, years later, with four albums to their name – including one for Island Records – a slew of high-profile American television appearances and years of non-stop live shows. Indeed decades before the emerging Dublin band, Fontaines DC, performed for Jimmy Fallon, Rubyhorse were regulars on that same circuit. It’s seldom that young Irish upstarts are invited into the mainstream American chat circle but, back in the pre-internet era, they did the Letterman and Conan O’Brien shows with no fanfare or fuss. And when Rubyhorse fetched up on those sets, they were doing so because, for a time, they were simply too big a noise to ignore.

They were also zippy enough to briefly entice George Harrison out of exile and into their match-day squad in what might well one of the most high-profile cameos in the entire history of contemporary Irish music. Harrison contributed slide guitar to ‘Punchdrunk’, one of the stand-out cuts on the band’s second album, ‘Rise’, released in 2002, and although that back-story is well worn by now, it still bears repeating here if only to remind folk of the level at which the band, approaching its pomp, was batting.

In May, 1997, Ireland staged The Eurovision Song Contest at Dublin’s Point Depot for the seventh time: it was the fourth occasion in five years that the country had hosted the event. The show was presented by a television presenter, actress and singer from Waterford called Carrie Crowley and by Ronan Keating, then the lead vocalist and de facto frontman with a local male vocal group called Boyzone. Keating also wrote and, on the night, performed one of the most dismal interval pieces in the long and bizarre history of the competition and I’ve previously dealt with this in more detail in a piece here.

Boyzone’s story is as fascinating as anyone’s but it’s never been definitively told: the group has been the subject of numerous management-endorsed biographies that, sadly, never leave the surface. In essence, they were a knock-off and talent-free Take That who were routinely snapped in the tabloids leading champagne lifestyles on the back of Mi-Wadi-level ability. And all under the direction of Louis Walsh, a local booker in the best and worst traditions of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose and whose nose for an opening and a quick-win was matched only by his devotion to those acts he represented. Which was often commendably fever-pitched, myopic and obsessive.

That same year, 1997, also marked the end of the line for The Sultans Of Ping, who were packing up their latex trousers for the last time just as The Frank And Walters were finally releasing their second – and still, to my mind, best – album, ‘The Grand Parade’. It had been an over-long and over-complicated gestation, at the end of which the air had well and truly been sucked from the balloons that populate the front sleeve of that record.

Universes removed, U2 were also releasing a new album. ‘Pop’ was easily their most ambitious and difficult record to date and the tour that accompanied it, ‘Popmart’, reflected the scale of that aspiration as clearly as it marked a saucy crossing of a Rubicon. U2 had earned the right to do whatever it was they wanted and ‘Pop’, dripping in irony and self-deprecation, was an almighty and unexpected undertaking.

Boyzone, The Frank And Walters, The Sultans Of Ping and U2 are, now as then, the unlikeliest of bedfellows and yet, when Ruby Horse looked into their hearts in 1997, these were the dominant local and national influences they might have seen. Two years after the release of a patchy, self-financed debut album, ‘A Lifetime In One Day’, they moved their operation to Boston and took their chances.

Boyzone’s commercial breakthrough across Europe, particularly in Britain, was a landmark achievement, the first time a home-grown, centrally-cast Irish pop act had achieved such cut-through. To their credit, they gave hope to the hopeless: unlike many of the country’s more critically-vaunted outfits, a generation of guitar-wielding indie bands primary among them, Boyzone had a real go at the markets. In which their blandness was irrelevant because, hitting landfall at the same time as The Celtic Tiger, they were simply a crass entertainment embodiment of that period in the country’s history: a pop group laced with Pyrite.

So against a background where U2 were radically re-defining themselves with subversive pop tropes, with Boyzone giving a fluoride sheen to clean, family-friendly entertainment and fetching up routinely on Top Of The Pops and with the optimism after Cork Rock ’91 well and truly withered on the vine, Rubyhorse found themselves at an interesting turn in the road. Out on a limb in every respect, they put their heads down and just followed their hearts, sight unseen, until they eventually found their moment. They may never have reached the right place at exactly the right time but they defiantly made the most of wherever it was they found themselves. But the fact that they did so in America – in Boston, initially – in an era before social media, means that tracts of their story remain, if not entirely unreported then certainly under-represented.

Rubyhorse had just cracked the Billboard Top Twenty with the lusty single, ‘Sparkle’, before an almost inevitable outbreak of bad luck infected their camp and up-turned their curve. The premature death of their booking agent and the usual record company re-structuring – with the attendant mess this almost invariably leaves in its wake – only amplified the distance back to Cork. Rubyhorse and Boyzone may have had little ever in common but both groups know only too well the sort of fracture that can develop between even the closest of friends after years intensely spent as jobbing entertainers at close quarters.

I’ve written previously about the magic that can often occur whenever like minds get together, however implausibly or infrequently, and take on the not insignificant business of making music. And, in so doing, find emotional connections and important conversation starters that might otherwise be beyond them. So when I bumped into Joe Philpott after many years at a friend’s wedding in West Cork – what else and where else ? – where he was doing his thing as part of a terrific local guitar ensemble, the conversation was only ever going in one direction.

Joe is one of the three remaining original members of Rubyhorse alongside the band’s bass player, Declan Lucey, and its formidable frontman, Dave Farrell. Drummer Gordon Ashe, who previously bashed the biscuit tins with Burning Embers, lives these days in Newport, Massachusetts while Owen Fegan, the band’s original keyboard player, also stayed behind in America, where he’s done stints as a graphic designer for the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin magazines.

And I found it quietly uplifting to hear that the band is still thrashing away, working on new material, dropping the odd new track and even venturing out to play live the odd time. But that, far more importantly given the insanity of much of what Rubyhorse encountered in those ten years to 2007, they’re still touch-tight. Helped, no doubt, by a lack of deadlines and an absence of itineraries.

The roads that surround them might have changed beyond recognition in the years since they first took flight as callow teens but now, holding down jobs, working their own businesses and rearing families, it might be that they’ve been belatedly liberated by the routine of the real world and the spectre of responsibility. In which case that next album could well be their most thoughtful and relevant yet.

LOST IN MUSIK

Our recent post about Roddy Frame took me down into a rabbit hole that led, eventually to Tony Mansfield, the songwriter and producer who played a small and largely forgotten role in the Aztec Camera story. But about whom details are a bit scant.

I first came across Tony because of his band, New Musik, one of the more curious footnotes to the poppier end of the new wave story. And whose signature pop songs – like those of Martha And The Muffins, The Vapors and The Lotus Eaters – detonated without warning from our three-in-ones during those years when we were trying to determine the differences between good, bad and ugly. Decades later and I’m still unable to fully shake ‘Echo Beach, ‘Turning Japanese’ and ‘The First Picture Of You’, the most pressing, gold-plated bangers of the period. Indeed, I can still recite the lyrics to Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ even though I often struggle to remember my daughters’ middle-names.

New Musik was Tony’s band, more or less, and it’s hard to think of them as anything other than a group of session players, at their most comfortable within the studio walls, who fell into the one groove and released a run of excellent, synth-built pop singles as the 1970s cross-faded into the 80s. ‘Straight Lines’, ‘Living By Numbers’, ‘This World Of Water’ and ‘On Islands’ are easily the pick of them and turn up now, the very odd time, on those BBC4 re-runs of vintage ‘Top Of The Tops’. Where New Musik are perennially stuck just outside of the Top Thirty, forever bubbling under.

The spelling of the band name isn’t the only thing that dates them. In the most primal traditions of popular music, they defined the moment – or certainly took a reckless enough swing at it – in their coloured blazers, geeky specs, cute bow ties and with their battery of electronic kit. And like most others from that period – Kate Bush, Blondie and Buzzcocks excepted, naturally – look faintly ridiculous with it. In most of the on-line clips pirated from various television archives – and there isn’t a huge amount – keyboard player, Clive Gates, in his horned rims and hunched over the plate of tits and knobs on his Prophet synth, looks like a skinny Frankenstein hooked up to a mind-altering device.

Out front, centre-mid, Mansfield himself looks like Frankie Gavin from De Danann in an out-sized pair of Clark Kent’s glimmers while the well-assembled, bearded bassist, Tony Hibbert preferred the more minimal, barely breathing look – another pose du jour – that, on one television archive clip, has him miming his basslines with one hand clung inside the pocket of his trousers. With an excellent drummer, Phil Towner, completing their number, the eventual New Musik line-up reads like the spine of a typical Ipswich Town line-up during their pomp years under the late Bobby Robson from 1980 until 1982.

New Musik’s sound – layered synthetic keyboard lines and toothsome vocal harmonies spooned over old school acoustic foundations – has dated better than their look, just about. But although they never enjoyed the same level of success as some of their peers – Buggles, Naked Eyes and A Flock of Seagulls loosely fit the same bill although all of them were far more defined and rounded – that string of singles certainly cut a dash. And created, for their writer, a spring-board from where Mansfield launched a career as a fine pop producer with good ears. ‘Such a digital lifetime’, he sang on ‘Living By Numbers’, the band’s biggest-selling single even if, in reality, New Musik’s best known material has more in common with Owen Paul’s version of Marshall Crenshaw’s ‘My Favourite Waste Of Time’ than with the ground-shifting European electronica of Can and Kraftwerk.

With my own radar starting to locate regular targets, I took to New Musik with the same gusto as I did the likes of Adam and the Ants, Gary Numan, John Foxx and Squeeze. To the point that 1978 is defined, for me, by Charlie McCarthy’s speech after Cork won the All-Ireland hurling final win and Pete Shelley’s last vocal line on Buzzcocks’ ‘What Do I Get’.

New Musik looked as other-worldly as they sounded on my over-worked three-in-one: even within the pages of Smash Hits they seemed to forever occupy the hard shoulder, and this only added to their lustre. [We know now, of course, that New Musik didn’t just spring up over-night. Three of them had been involved with The Nick Straker Band who, marching in tandem, enjoyed a 1980 hit single with ‘A Walk In The Park’. While Phil Towner had played the drum parts on Buggles’ imperious ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’].

New Musik released three albums but all of their best known songs appear on the band’s fine debut, ‘From A To B’. ‘Anywhere’ [1981] is the bridge to their final, and easily most interesting elpee, ‘Warp’, a far more tech-skewed record, featuring a clutch of instrumentals and released in 1983. By which stage Towner and Hibbert were gone and Mansfield was basically directing the operation from behind a Fairlight synthesiser.

The earliest Fairlight* was an extravagant, pricey and unquestionably game-changing piece of digital technology that enabled users to ‘sample’ or record acoustic sounds [instruments, vocals and percussion] – rather than electronically ‘synthesise’ them – and then play these back at different pitches.

Its first iteration came onto the market at the same time that New Musik were getting their act together. Subsequent versions featured sequencing and workstation capabilities, offering revolutionary sound palettes that were quickly embraced by many of those more comfortable working on their own or in more considered surrounds, off the road. Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Buggles [there’s a sub-plot emerging here, isn’t there?] and Thomas Dolby were primary among them, taken by the potential and the self-sufficiency that came with what was an unwieldly piece of kit.

Tony Mansfield was another of those early adapters and his fondness for, and proficiency with the Fairlight can be heard, not just on New Musik’s material but on the many subsequent production projects he took on after the curtain fell on his band following the release of the ‘Warp’ elpee in 1983. And nowhere more so than on Aztec Camera’s ‘Walk Out To Winter’, which he re-recorded and produced later that same year.

The original version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ appears on Aztec Camera’s debut album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’, and was produced by Bernie Clarke and John Brand. Brand followed a pretty standard career trajectory and worked first as a jobbing studio engineer on sessions with the likes of XTC and Magazine before going on to produce The Waterboys’ ‘A Pagan Place’ and The Go-Betweens’ ‘Before Hollywood’ elpees. Himself and Clarke, a keyboard player and arranger who also features on a couple of those earlier Go-Betweens albums, certainly succeeded in nailing the raw confidence in that early collection of Aztec Camera songs even if, as can often be the case with first albums, some of the excellent material sounded callow enough once it was committed to wax.

During the decades of insanity when the music industry was awash with more money and cocaine than cop-on, the recording process could often be grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unregulated. Far too many records, especially those pitched at the higher end of the commercial market, went through scores of executives, marketing heads and assorted flunkeys who would often insist on priority material being re-visited, re-mixed and re-recorded. Often for legitimate, quality-related reasons and often not.

The Smiths’ debut album, also recorded in 1983 for the Rough Trade label, was famously re-recorded from scratch and, even after the band switched producers – John Porter for Troy Tate – the album still managed to sound hollow and far more underwhelming than the band sounded on their first singles or live in concert. Closer to home, The Frank And Walters’ ‘After All’ and the sweeping ‘This Is Not A Song’ were both was re-recorded after the Edwyn Collins-produced originals were deemed, rightly in my view, to lack the sparkle and urgency of the band’s earlier material.

The initial, Pearse Gilmore-produced sessions for the first Cranberries album were scrapped and, after a trial period with Stephen Street, the project was eventually re-started from the floor up. The making of the second An Emotional Fish album, ‘Junk Puppets’, was another protracted affair that went through numerous hands, locations and producers and, invariably, cost an arm and a leg. The final cut was produced by Alan Moulder [the brooding, guitar-heavy parts] and Clive Langer [the more up-beat, instant parts], while David Stewart was later enlisted to add confetti canons and balloon drops to a couple of key cuts on what is, to my mind, a formidable and largely under-rated album.

It’s Tony Mansfield’s version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ with which most of you will be familiar, even if the single failed to do the chart business expected of it and the band remained on the margins until the re-issue of the breezy ‘Oblivious’ towards the end of 1983. And it’s a version that, as you’d expect, has long divided opinion among Aztec Camera watchers, many of whom have stayed steadfast to the tender opening strum of the original.

The primary differences between the two versions are in the first four bars, where Mansfield adds a distinctive intro, and the broader Fairlight-derived scaffolding he uses to bolster the foundations throughout, devices familiar to fans of New Musik, where they were used liberally. These bespoke sounds, touches and finishes can also be heard, in variously evolved form, across most of the subsequent production work Tony over-saw after New Musik folded. Most notably The B52s’ album, ‘Bouncing Off The Satellites’ [1986], Naked Eyes’ cover of the Bacharach and David number, ‘[There’s] Always Something There To Remind Me’ and Captain Sensible’s ‘Glad It’s All Over’, which he co-wrote and which charted in 1984.

But as a producer, Mansfield is probably best known for his contribution to the first A-ha elpee, ‘Hunting High And Low’, which was recorded in Pete Townsend’s Eel Pie Studio in Twickenham in 1984. The Norwegian band had relocated to London the previous year, from where they became one of the great, defining pop groups of that decade, selling over eleven million copies of their debut album. And although he takes a producer’s credit on nine of the cuts on ‘Hunting High And Low’, the relationship between the producer and the band – or perhaps the record company? – wasn’t a wholly positive one and, after six weeks, he was off the job. But only after he’d taken an early stab at the song that would later become A-ha’s breakthrough single, ‘Take On Me’.

The song was subsequently re-recorded by Alan Tarney and, supported by a distinctive, semi-animated promotional video, gave the band its first chart success. Tarney, a noted songwriter and musician – he was a member of The Shadows at one point during the 1970s – had written and produced Cliff Richard’s ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ and, in several key respects, was cut from the same cloth as Tony Mansfield. ‘Wrapped in warm synths, propelled by shiny hard guitar, hits like ‘Take On Me’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ are the essence of the Alan Tarney sound’, wrote Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley as part of a Guardian feature piece in 2015. And he’d have known better than anyone; – Tarney produced ‘You’re In a Bad Way’ for Stanley’s group, Saint Etienne, over twenty years previously.

In an interview with ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine in March, 2011, Tarney, who also co-wrote and produced Cliff’s imperious ‘Wired For Sound’ and later sprinkled the glitter on terrific pop songs by the likes of Dream Academy, Barbara Dickson, Squeeze, Bow Wow Wow and Pulp – told Richard Buskin that ‘the Tony Mansfield version [of ‘Take On Me’] employed a Fairlight and it just didn’t sound like A-ha at all’. ‘All I did was recreate the original demo. Its ingredients were good – nothing was really wrong other than it just didn’t quite sound like a finished record’.

And, he continued: – ‘I actually worked with Tony on another project, so I knew what to expect. At that time he was totally a Fairlight man and I can imagine why Warners [A-ha’s record company] felt his version wasn’t quite right’.

‘Hunting High And Low’ went on to break A-ha worldwide and Alan Tarney was back on duty with them on their next two albums, ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘Stay On These Roads’. They never worked with Tony Mansfield again.

*My thanks, as usual, to one of my own favourite producers, Chris O’Brien, who I besiege with technical and sound queries and who, in this instance, put me right about the Fairlight. And without whom etc …

APPENDIX

We received a number of comments on this piece. One comment came from John Dundon who mentioned having come across a great article in Record Collector. He dug it out, scanned it and sent on. We now share that here. If you enjoyed our piece, you should really enjoy this piece. Thanks John…

Record Collector
Record Collector

Record Collector
Record Collector
Record Collector

A SONG FOR MY MOTHER

Joan

 

On her birth cert and on her death cert, my mother is referred to by her actual name, Margaret, even though she was known all of her life as Joan. This kind of carry-on wasn’t entirely uncommon during the country’s formative years – she was born as the Irish Free State became The Republic of Ireland – but I often think she just felt one name marked her out a bit more than the other. Growing up on the northside of Cork city during the late 1930s and 1940s, many of the more popular women’s names – Statia, Hannah, Josie, Bridie and Molly – just sounded as old as they were widespread. And the thought of ever being among the old just never sat well with my mother.

 

She was clear about the funeral she wanted ;- no gawkers, no eulogies and no mementos. Joan didn’t need anyone to take the pulpit to remind those mourning her about how great she was or to list her many achievements, and neither did we. And she was still earning kudos even as she laid in repose at home ;- an elderly woman who’d come to pay her respects shook my hand and told me that my mother was one of the best looking corpses she’d seen in Cork all year. I’m not convinced its an accolade you’d ever really want, and you’d presumably require a proxy to pick up the gong for you, but I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.

 

Joan was a devout woman who loved many things ;- her family, style, show-business, flowers, music and the arts. During the last few days of her life, when we thought she was rallying her way out of intensive care, she asked us to fetch a couple of her favourite things to the hospital :- a prayer book and the latest issue of ‘Hello’ magazine. She had a broad frame of reference and was as comfortable discussing Lot’s wife – the biblical character from the Old Testament who turned into a pillar of salt after she looked back at the city of Sodom – as she was Pixie Lott, the British pop singer and actress who clearly suffered the same fate thousands of years later.

 

But she absolutely loved Cork. Born and reared over a bakery up on Old Market Place, off of the Shandon Street end of Blarney Street, Joan viewed everything, consciously or otherwise, through the prism of where she came from and the people who made her. But she saw the joins on that canvas too – the warts, the squinting windows, the clear class division and the spare hands – and wasn’t slow to pull if she believed she had a case.

 

‘Desperate’ was one of her favourite words and she used it to describe everything from funerals to restaurants to priest’s sermons to local theatre shows to much of the work I’ve done over the years. And although the Cork in her would come out as she rolled her tongue around the first syllable, deliberately holding it flat for a couple of beats just for emphasis, there was never once a hint of malice in her voice or in the views she expressed. Her body might have failed her in the end but she checked out with her humanity in fine working nick :- and of course she was usually right about everything.

 

I’ve written previously about my mother’s love of music and about the suspicion with which she regarded those unfortunate enough to be born without a note in their heads. And that love of music was at its most lethal when compounded with her devotion to Cork.

 

Colm's dad...

Daniel Dunlea, Colm”s Grandfather [Courtesy of Colm]

 

Her father was a first cousin of the well-known local tenor, William Dunlea – known as Walloo – who emerged from the back lanes to become a prominent fixture on the international singing circuit during the 1940s and 1950s.

 

We’d often see Walloo – long-retired and living off of unlikely tales of old nights of glory – during his later years as he shuffled around the northside. With his carefully pruned moustache, slicked-back hair, crisp white shirts and leather daps, he was a distinguished operator who cut a real dash, even in his dotage. A point not lost on Theo Dorgan, who name-checked him alongside another of my mother’s peers, Puzzle The Judge, in his mighty 1991 poem, ‘A Nocturne For Blackpool’ :-

 

Walloo Dullea, homeward bound on the Commons Road, belts out airs from Travatore,the recipe as before, nobody stirs from sleep and ‘Puzzle The Judge’, contented, pokes at ashes –‘There’s many a lawyer here today could learn from this man’.

 

Jack Lynch etc

Jack Lynch, Máirín Lynch and Walloo Dunlea. [Courtesy of Colm]

 

I heard many stories over the years about William Dunlea’s performances abroad, many of which sounded hugely over-pumped. But what we do know is that he gigged in front of Presidents, public figures and the smart set – to what extent and to what end, who knows ? – and his achievements, the biggest of which was his escape from Blackpool, showed my mother both the power of dreams and the magic of song.

 

And this might explain why she was so taken with the many bands, artists, dancers, singers and hams who took the same road – in one unexpected turn of events, a hardy sham from Gerald Griffin Street defied all expectation and went off with an international ballet company – from the improvised rehearsal spaces around Cork and onwards to places that, in those soft profile pieces in The Evening Echo, sounded far more exotic.

 

For thirty years, Joan saved those articles for me, dated them and mailed them onwards in the post. It was just another of her ways, I suppose, of ensuring I wasn’t losing the run of myself, away from home and out of her sight. Wherever I was and whatever it was I was doing, others were doing it too – often far better – flying the flag, belting out an aria for Cork.

 

Examiner pic

 

She had a particular soft spot for The Frank And Walters, brand leaders for local appeal and a band that’s never lost its common touch. Years ago, she met Ashley, the drummer, in an optometrist’s waiting room and forged a life-long connection with him during the short wait for a routine glaucoma test. And once that association had been soldered, she
followed his band’s progress intently, as if he’d sold her a serious stake in it. In an age of uncertainty, anxiety, distortion and scripted reality, there was always something quietly re-assuring about her phone-calls – and, in later years, the texts she’d ask my father to send from an otherwise dormant mobile – that kept me up to speed with what The Franks were up to and with whom.

 

But there were plenty of others too. Our conversations over the years were dotted with references to The Sultans of Ping, Mick Flannery, Cara O’Sullivan, John Spillane, The Montforts, James N. Healy, Joan Denise Moriarty, Miss Kavanagh, Paul Buckley’s cousin who changed his name and landed a couple of acting gigs in London, Handsome Tony and any one of a number of would-be local thesps who first togged out in local am-dram and who later graduated to walk-ons on ‘Fair City’. And most of whom, given the long-running global conspiracy against all of Cork, particularly its creative wing, have heroically kept the city up where it belongs. On the national and often international stages and firmly in the public eye.

 

Those of us who grew up during the 1970s will remember Cork city as a long-running horror-serial and anyone who’s seen Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic London in his zombie film, ’28 Days Later’, will be reminded of what Patrick Street and McCurtain Street looked like forty years ago.

 

The place smelt too, and it smelt badly. If it wasn’t some noxious odour carried up the river from the harbour on a strong wind and into the heart of the city, it was the enduring linger of cheap, damp coal – called ‘slack’ – that most families used to make domestic fires burn longer. My parents were obsessed with the stuff and no self-respecting home fire was ever constructed in Cork – and believe me, the creation of a small fire was a serious affair that also required the channelling of a decent draft down the open flue using double broad-sheet pages from The Echo – without a decent coating of slack.

 

Against the backdrop of such physical and economic deprivation – and no little cultural austerity too – our career options were limited enough :- emigration, unemployment or an entry-point position into the civil service for those who either came through formal examinations or, as was all too common, could avail of a bit of pull. Needless to say, to be even moderately different or mildly lateral in aspect or ambition wasn’t easy.

 

Microdisney – like Theo Dorgan – emerged from beneath that mire and, as you’d expect, much of their work is rooted in it. Fans and critics often refer to the grotesque under-belly that dominates much of Cathal Coughlan’s work – it’s a mandatory requirement, I think – and the source of which can be traced easily enough back onto Cork’s own doorstep.

 

But most of the band’s earliest, tinnier and more fumbling material, like ‘Michael Murphy’ and ‘Pink Skinned Man’ – both of which featured in their recent live sets – would have been lost on my mother as its long been on wider audiences. Those older numbers are critical cogs in any considered tracking of the group’s long and peculiar history but, beyond that, much of the early material is strictly for loyalists, collectors and anoraks only ;- its just far too obtuse and not grabby enough.

 

And yet during that six month period in 1987, as the band was enjoying a broader, however fleeting popularity around the release of ‘Crooked Mile’, its first album on a major label, and when ‘Town To Town’ featured on day-time national radio and the band even fetched up on children’s television, they became surly majorettes in that marching panoply of Corkness. And in my mother’s eyes – and maybe even in her prayers ? – Microdisney joined the litany of saints, from Christy Ring to Seán Condon to Walloo to Danny La Rue and that would later feature the likes of Pixie McKenna [who she knew as Bernadette], Graham Norton, Cara O’Sullivan, Alan Foley and the many points in between on her own Via Dolorosa.

 

My mother was of a generation of remarkable, largely unheralded Irish women who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s with nothing. But who determined that, through education initially, their own children were going to have some sort of a chance. And who, with little by way of formal supports or state recognition, and working on gut instinct and raw cop-on only, consistently drove us on and succeeded, eventually, in making us moderately functioning citizens. So when she saw anyone from Cork – and especially from the northside of the city – being regarded either on a stage, a public platform or a playing field, her instinctive response was to bring it all back home.

 

Consciously or otherwise, she never lost sight of that broader social and cultural struggle and the scale of those routine sacrifices made by many families like our own – and by mothers, especially – to just keep us all on the bright side of the road and to protect us from the despair and torpor. And particularly those who, against every prejudice imaginable – much of it locally rooted – dared to be different because they just dared to dream.

 

Joan would have preferred, of course, had I stayed in teaching and followed the script, settled locally and been much easier to reach. There were numerous occasions over the years when, before mobile technology and even long after it, she had no idea where I was, never mind know how I was. But she never once questioned why I sloped off  up the path I did because, knowing I could read and write – and with the love of music and sport she both instilled and enabled in me – she knew I had at least a few of the fundamentals in place and that I wasn’t entirely without hope.

 

I turned fifty years old on the week of my mother’s funeral, the week that Microdisney recently played The National Concert Hall in Dublin. Thirty-six years previously they were the first band I ever saw play live when, as callow and nervous as I was myself, they supported Depeche Mode in The City Hall in Cork in 1982. It’s been an eventful and colourful few decades for all of us since, during which the band has very obviously bulked up both its sound and its reputation. And in direct proportion, it should be said, to the waistlines of many of those once poetic young swains – myself as prominently as any – who fetched up to see them on Earlsfort Terrace.

 

I left the house reluctantly enough, between worlds. Our sideboard a spread of mass cards and birthday cards, a testament once again to that which we often take for granted ;- the kindness of friends and the kindness of complete strangers. And like most of those who made the journey – and I recognised many faces from Cork in the 1980s, a feat in itself – I really had no idea what to expect.

 

Microdisney aren’t exactly a comfortable listen or a barrel of laughs at the best of times, either. Death is all around us, of course, but its especially prominent in their formidable body of work, in case I needed reminding. Much of ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’, the album the band was re-visiting and the whole purpose of its two recent, unlikely live appearances, deals with an extreme emotional collapse where ‘the clock’ in the title is clearly a metaphor for death.

 

And yet in the company of another powerful, eminent woman – my wife – I found real comfort in even the band’s most unsettling material, of which there’s plenty. Even if the thought struck me throughout the night that I should probably have been anywhere else, working something or other through my system. And I suspect there was plenty of detail and nuance going on around the fringes that simply passed me by.

 

But as a release – temporary or otherwise – it was as effective a healing as any. The power of song and the redemptive appeal of music, like my mother, never growing old. And never to be forgotten.

 

‘AFTER ALL’ AND THE YOUNG OFFENDERS

 

I’ve written previously and at no little length about The Frank And Walters, to my mind the best pound-for-pound pop band the country has ever produced. It’s a story I know as well as anyone: I have a long and proud association with the group, especially with Paul and Ashley, that dates back to The Enterprise Bar at the end of Barrack Street in Cork during the memorable summer of 1990, when we first met. After which it was clear we had plenty of work ahead of us.

 

I’ve long made a case too for the rare gifts bestowed somewhere, sometime, on Paul Linehan, the band’s singer and primary songwriter and easily among the most intriguing, complicated, compelling and consistently under-regarded of his kind to have emerged from Ireland during the last three decades. The Frank And Walters may never have had the stylish, renewable range of their former label-mates, The Divine Comedy, or the contrary, convex pull of another of the Setanta Records pack, A House. But beneath the surface, their body of work – and at this stage that canon is a considerable one – tells a long story that’s as formidable as any and more distinctive than most, much of it carved from banana-shaped, first-hand local testimony.

 

I’ve been beating the drum long and hard for The Franks for almost thirty years now which, no doubt, has significantly discomforted a band that has instinctively preferred life in the lower keys. Someone, I guess, has to do it. And still they come, in their own time, from deep in the shadows, with a new record or an anniversary tour to keep the old-timers happy and, perhaps, the home fires burning.

 

I saw them in a dive in Manchester last Autumn, on a dreary Sunday night around the back of The Arndale Centre where, to a partisan, mis-shaped crowd, they played every single song like they were doing so for the last time. But that’s The Franks for you: they’ve never known it any differently and, like Elvis, they’ve long had that knack to make everyone feel special.

 

But their story has never been a straight-forward one either and so, on one hand, I’m not overly surprised that, twenty-five years since they performed on Top Of The Pops and achieved their highest ever chart placing in Britain with ‘After All’ – the song that unfairly defines them –  they exist once again outside of their loyal support-base, however fleetingly.

 

Like much of the country, I’ve been gob-smacked by the tender genius of Peter Foott’s Cork-based drama, ‘The Young Offenders’, which has played on the RTÉ 2 schedules for the last number of weeks. And which, as a proud Corkman in exile, who left the city for good in 1994 to work at Ireland’s national broadcaster, makes me utterly compromised on at least two different levels.

 

But to borrow from one of many commentators on social media last week, the chatty coming-of-age drama series that follows the thickly-accented mis-adventures of Conor and Jock, is easily the most perceptive, pointed and outrageously insightful observational documentary series ever made about Cork city, it’s people and their many, many nuances.

 

The first series closed out earlier this week with a crowd scene on a hi-jacked double-decker bus that featured a fully-fledged choral singalong led by a knife-wielding, half-simple local gurrier, Billy Murphy. And when the hostages on board the Number 8 break into a mighty performance of ‘After All’, the series definitively cements its greatness. That scene – in which Sandra Bullock’s ‘Speed’ meets The Frank And Walters’ single, ‘The Happy Busman’ – is already among the country’s best ever television moments. To anyone from Cork, it’ll hardly be bettered.

 

 

Myself and ‘After All’ go way back to a semi-detached house in Morden, in South West London, where The Franks set up shop in 1992 after they’d first signed to Go Discs from Setanta Records, the small label run by Keith Cullen that had initially broken the band. That house became variously a rehearsal studio, a writing room, a merchandising lock-up, record company annex and refuge for the bewildered. Imagine the four-door dwelling in The Beatles’ film, ‘Help’, occupied by Cha and Mia, Billa O’Connell and Paddy Comerford and you’re getting there.

 

And it was in the kitchen there that Paul Linehan first played me the guts of ‘After All’ on an acoustic guitar, after which we went to work on the harmonies and the structure – I’m almost certain we made the original verse the chorus – as we used to do regularly back then. The band was preparing to record it’s first album and was well into the pre-production phase: ‘After All’ was one of the last of the new songs written for that elpee, ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, and was certainly worth waiting for.

 

I wish I could say now that I knew instinctively it was a hit single, but I can’t. I actually thought that ‘This Is Not A Song’ was a far better bet and will still make the case for it. But what I do know is that, on the long train ride back out to West Ealing the following morning, I could still remember every single line of ‘After All’.

 

Its greatness is in it’s simplicity – its actually a very easy song to play and, as I knew straight away, to remember – and then latterly in its darker aspects, which are almost always ignored. Ostensibly a love song that’s as persistent as it is beguiling, ‘After All’ nods to religion, distraction, loneliness and contemplation, all wrapped around a formidable Ian Broudie production. [Its worth noting here that the song was re-recorded several times and, by any standards, there is no comparison between the version on the album, produced by Edwyn Collins, and the eventual single version.]

 

Like the improbable television series on which it now features, ‘After All’ also has a broad, cross-generational appeal: like any great pop song, it’s easily re-purposed and is as likely to feature at a wedding ceremony as it is at a wedding reception as it is to be sung on the football terraces.

 

And, as such, a giddy, full-on, unashamedly partisan performance of ‘After All’ was just a perfect – and maybe, just the only – way to conclude ‘The Young Offenders’, which shares not only many of the song’s characteristics in its dramatic tone and style but stars, basically, the full panoply of a cast routinely chronicled in numerous Frank And Walters songs since 1990. Long-time band watchers will, in that wonderful hi-jacking scene, have noted the likes of Andy James, the happy busman, John and Sue, the nervous lovers, Timmy, the trainspotter, Davy Chase, the local hard feen and Mrs. Xavier, the single-parent who’s been left behind, as prominent support characters. Variously love-sick, awkward, hopeless and, ultimately, tender and harmless, and with not a hint of malice in any of them.

 

And of course none moreso than the knife-wielding gom himself,  Billy Murphy, [played magnificently by Shane Casey], one of the year’s most supple and brilliantly improbably television heroes and who, in action, thought and deed, is redolent of those curious Cork chancers and gobdaws long considered to be outside, rogue, native and curious.

 

And who, since 1990, have been given a voice in the many, many terrific songs of The Frank And Walters.