George Byrne

THE HARVEST MINISTERS TAKE DUNDALK

It’s over twenty-five years ago now since, one Saturday evening, Ken Sweeney set his mother’s runaround for Dundalk and sped the pair of us up the road, out of Glasnevin and onwards to Mister Ridley’s. The two of us were softly obsessive about one of our many favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, a Dublin outfit who’d been making decent headway for a while, earnestly kicking against every single convention of the time, often maybe over-earnestly so. With their boy-girl twin lead vocals and deft lyrical flourishes, they’d been ludicrously compared to Prefab Sprout on a shoestring. But burrow in behind their fragile frontage and William Merriman’s dark introspection owed far more to Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ than Paddy McAloon’s ‘If You Don’t Love Me’.

 

Five years after they formed in the initial afterglow of post-‘Joshua Tree’ optimism, and representing the absolute antithesis of all that that record stood for, they were making a rare foray out of Dublin and Ken and myself were anxious to see how they got on. Or, indeed, if they’d complete the course at all. On paper, the prospect of The Harvest Ministers taking on a nightclub crowd in Dundalk looked like a real mis- match and Ken had the runaround primed, immediately outside the venue, for a quick getaway. Just in case.

 

I knew little of the scene in that part of the world. Anything I did was informed by the ribald, souped-up yarns imparted by the late George Byrne and, in print, by the delicate hands of Tony Clayton-Lea in Hot Press, who handled much of the constituency work in the North-East and who got through a fair amount of mileage on his beat. There was also the storied battle-front experience of Cypress, Mine !, the paisleyed Cork undergrounders who, one Saturday afternoon, may or may not have been hastened out of County Louth during an eventful double-bill in Drogheda Boxing Club, possibly by local youths bionic on apples.

 

Ken and myself were briefly back in Ireland from London, where we were both based at the time. He was one of the small number of fledgling artists on our books at Setanta Records and had, months previously, rescued me from a squat in Peckham and taken me in under his own roof, far across town in West London. I was stick-thin at the time and, lost in the music and in the giddy rush of an emerging story – I was working closely with The Frank And Walters – hadn’t been minding myself. In spite of all the shimmer, I just wasn’t having a good time ;- I didn’t like London because I wasn’t clued in enough or sussed enough for it and so I fairly welcomed the prospect of a few days of respite.

 

We set up base in Ken’s family home for the duration :- Mrs. Sweeney was a terrific and gracious host who afforded me a mighty welcome and, unusually for that time, regular, healthy meals. And although I’m not sure if she completely appreciated the ambition in her son’s work, it wasn’t as if she let on. I was helping him to promote his first album, the excellent eight-song ‘Understand’, which he’d released on the Setanta label under the band name, Brian, and had set up a range of interviews and live appearances for him around the country. ‘Understand’ was clearly a compelling piece of work but, as with much of the Setanta output at the time, I wasn’t convinced we had enough access to the pipes and wires down which we could distribute the message as widely as it deserved.

 

And so, hastily around the country, kitted out in our long-sleeved Setanta sweatshirts, we proselytised for the week, the highlight of which, I think, was Ken’s live acoustic performance on the RTÉ television series, ‘Nighthawks’. But the purpose of our trip wasn’t just to promote the Brian album ;- we were blazing a trail for Keith Cullen’s asset-rich but still emerging imprint which, at the time, also boasted the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Divine Comedy and A House on it’s roster.

 

And it was to this end that, hours before The Ministers took the stage in Mister Ridley’s, we’d fetched up at the local radio studios of LMFM, where Ken did a short piece with the aforementioned Tony Clayton-Lea, who at the time also presented a weekly show there. We did likewise in RTÉ Cork Local Radio and at other selected stop-offs around Ireland ;- I had a cluster of Setanta samplers in my ruck-sack which we’d leave behind us as we left ;- the definitive calling cards, we thought.

 

Mister Ridley’s was – and remains, by all accounts – a popular nightclub in Dundalk, a serious provincial discotheque with notions, even if the shape and scale of the place has changed enormously in the years since. God knows how The Harvest Ministers, with their brittle, barely-pulsing songs ever ended up playing there, but then the band’s long history is pock-marked routinely with this sort of thing. An eternal search for God Knows How.

 

They’ve been on the go now for over thirty years and yet you’ll struggle to locate them in any of the annals that document contemporary music in Dublin from 1985 onwards. I first saw them at one of the heats at the Carling/Hot Press Band of The Year competition in Sir Henry’s in Cork during the late 1980s where, then as now, they stood out because they didn’t stand out at all ;- they were reluctant, callow, soft and hardly there. In a broader salad of paisley, black denim and long, swept-back hair, they were hunched and cut apart in their charity-shop jackets and dead men’s shoes. They were far from perfect and, in one way, still are – which is why, I think, I took to them so quickly and so intently.

 

Will Merriman first patched his group together during a period when U2 had just gone global and when a single, anthemic chorus got you to first base and a positive Hot Press notice without ever breaking sweat. He’s seen many summers – and indeed many drummers too – in the decades since and The Harvest Ministers’ family tree certainly extends far, deep and wide. But on that night in Mister Ridley’s, Will – the band’s leader, songwriter and constant, led what is easily the band’s best-known and most cohesive line-up, supported by the long-serving Padraig McCaul on guitar, piano and sax, the tearaway Pat Dillon on drums, Gerardette Bailey on sweet, sweet backing vocals, Brian Foley, then previously of The Blades on bass and Aingeala De Burca on violin. And it was this line- up that featured on the band’s first album, ‘Little Dark Mansion’, which was released later that year on the Bristol-based Sarah Records label.

 

You’d never, were you so pushed, expect The Harvest Ministers to get a disco crowd going, post-midnight, but that’s what was expected of them in Mister Ridley’s. And, at the time, there was nothing unusual about that :- given that many venues, especially those outside of Dublin, were located in nightclubs, many excellent live bands were routinely booked to bridge an hour or so over the course of what were long nights and, by so doing, up the intensity – and the take – at the bars. Indeed the one-time Ultravox singer, Midge Ure, once just refused to take the stage at The Bridge Hotel in Waterford when he was told he was going on-stage in the venue’s faux-Roman classical finished dance-hall as a support act to a disco.

 

And so, when The Harvest Ministers ambled onto a small space in the corner of the main floor at Mister Ridley’s, caught in the flickered glitter shapes cast by the numerous disco balls mounted overhead, they looked, as they’ve often tended to, like Nemo and his friends set free from the tank. Opening with a spartan, skewed new number called ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’ can’t have endeared them to the revellers, many of them already well flutered. And, for a while, patronising as you like, Ken and myself worried if The Ministers would make it through.

But they were quickly into their groove and went on to play a protracted and often wild set that featured several of what have long been staples :- ‘Forfeit Trials’, ‘Theresa’, ‘Silent House’ and ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’ among them. And, maybe with a calculated nod to their surroundings – or maybe not ? – the jerky ‘Oliver Cromwell’, with its convulsive sax and frantic snare over which Will repeatedly sings the big money-line – ‘Oliver Cromwell … is a pansy’. And as I recalled in a review in Melody Maker magazine subsequently, ‘by the end of the night there are couples waltzing around at the front and not an evil word is spoken’.

 

I’m consistently drawn back to that night in Dundalk for many reasons, not least of all because, not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I saw exactly how music, in this instance neither obvious, direct or immediate, can often forge a direct emotional contact even in the most unlikely of settings. Where, kicking against all reasonable theory or argument, The Harvest Ministers absolutely aced it. Of all of the live shows I’ve seen – and I’ve seen far too many at this stage – it is easily one of the more memorable and certainly on any list of favourites.

 

And that’s maybe why, I think, The Harvest Ministers continue to be such an unremarkable and yet at the same time wholly remarkable force. Because notwithstanding their exceptional back catalogue, and the scope inherent in what Will is still trying to do, it’s just impossible to dislike them.

 

In a curious twist of fate, they went on to release two terrific albums for the Setanta label, ‘A Feeling Mission’, produced by Phil Thornalley in 1995 and 1997’s magnificent ‘Orbit’, which was over-seen by John Parish, a long-time side-kick of P.J. Harvey. And betimes during this period, it looked as if the band might, almost in spite of itself, achieve some manner of cross-over, especially when the sound was bolstered up on the likes of ‘If It Kills Me [And It Will]’. But that they’ve remained resolutely stuck in the hedges and caught on the margins ever since shouldn’t in any way devalue Will’s song-writing stock :- all that’s really changed in that respect is the manner in which he now records his material, and with whom.

 

Most recently he’s been buttressed by Andy Fitzpatrick, the New York- based, former Dadas frontman who’s been an ancillary member of The Ministers for years and it’s the pair of them who, ostensibly, laid down the down the core of The Harvest Ministers’ current album, ‘Back To Harbour’, which was recorded in Fitzpatrick’s apartment and released last week.

 

And, as we’ve come to expect [and long since come to take for granted], it’s another pretty special instalment that, over the course of it’s eleven tracks, plots a familiar course dominated by casual strumming, brushed drums, delicate melodies, layered strings, a soft organ wash here or there, over-laid with Will’s vocals which, to this day, are sometimes barely there at all. Especially strong over the home straight, you’d have to wonder if he’s ever written a cluster as impactful as ‘The Debutante With The Nose Ring’, ‘Through The Trap Doors Of Insanity’, ‘No Feelings For You’ and the absurdly beautiful ‘The Heron’ ? All of which, yet again, come highly recommended.

 

Several years later I returned to Mister Ridleys. Plenty of water had roared out past Dundalk Bay in the seven years since I’d last darkened it’s doors and I was now working as, of all things, a television producer. Myself and my friend, Dave Hannigan, were making a documentary for RTÉ about the retired Irish footballer, Paul McGrath, and were picking up an important aspect of the story.

 

McGrath was, and remains, a fascinating subject and, in our efforts to unravel what was a complicated and often difficult past, we’d come looking to speak with another Irish footballer, Barry Kehoe, who had also, like Paul, played in the League of Ireland before briefly trying his luck at Manchester United. Barry’s story was no less complicated :- he was a magnificent midfield player at his hometown club, Dundalk, but his career was curtailed by injury and, later, by a long battle with cancer. As a contemporary of McGrath’s at Manchester United, however briefly, he was an obvious contributor to our film. And I located him quickly and easily enough ;- he was living and working in Dundalk, managing a nightclub in the town. Mister Ridleys.

 

Myself and Dave remember the time we spent on that Paul McGrath documentary very fondly and, across the Atlantic, we’ll still trade short messages about those wonderful months, back in 1998, as we pieced together ‘They Called Him God’. And as the cast list passes away one by one – Tommy Heffernan, Charlie Walker, Graham Taylor and Barry Kehoe himself, who eventually lost that cancer battle in 2002, those memories take on added significance for us.

 

On Barry’s suggestion, we conducted the interview with him at his place of work and, while our crew began to set their equipment into place, he proudly took us on a tour around Mister Ridleys and, as he did, The Harvest Ministers, from out of nowhere, flashed through my mind. The mirror balls, the waltzing couples, ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’, Ken and the runaround.

 

‘And over there’, said Barry in a warm but typically flat Dundalk accent as he pointed to a small alcove area touching onto the dance floor, ‘that’s what we call The Erection Section’. And, for whatever reason, The Harvest Ministers disappeared back to the dim recesses of my mind, as did any thoughts I had about lunch for the cast and crew.

Brian

Via Ken Sweeney

 

I WAS GEORGE MARTIN’S PRODUCER

george martin

 

I worked as Pat Kenny’s television producer during the late 1990s and, alongside my colleague Noel Curran, over-saw the presenter’s first ever Late Late Show as host, which was broadcast live on RTÉ One on September 10th, 1999.

 

I’d produced Pat on his Saturday night chat-show, ‘Kenny Live’, the previous season and found myself on the fringes of the small group charged with the transition out of the Gay Byrne-era and onwards to different pastures. The whole experience was as challenging, stressful, exciting, frustrating and, ultimately, as terrific as you’d expect and, in the years since, I’ve become even more certain that we worked as hard as we could in taking on what was always going to be an invidious task. As was remarked by the late George Byrne in a prescient preview piece in The Irish Independent at the time, Pat  Kenny was damned if he took on The Late Late Show and he was damned if he didn’t.

 

Having seen Pat in action close-up from the inside and the outside, I think that history will be far kinder to him once he steps off of the field for good than it was during that point in both of our careers.

 

Although best-regarded as a skilled political and current affairs interviewer, there was always a bit more side to Pat. Fifteen years previously, I’d been one of his loyal listeners when he presented a Saturday evening album review show on what was then Radio 2. Produced by Julian Vignoles, ‘The Outside Track’ was where I first heard Microdisney played in the national schedules before the dead of night ;- reviewing the band’s first album, ‘Everybody Is Fantastic’, Pat played a couple of tracks – one of which was certainly ‘Escalator In The Rain’ – before steering his small panel of reviewers through an informed assessment of the record. You’d hear all sorts on that programme, a reflection of the influence and breath of musical reference brought to the table by both presenter and producer, who pulled from far and wide. From blues, pure folk and traditional Irish music to pop, rock and even contemporary alternative, nothing was off limits.

 

Given my own background and the many years I spent hanging around bands, loitering   and sticking my oar in, I’ve always tried, whenever possible, to showcase as wide a range of music as possible – new music, more often than not – on all of my television assignments, be that in children’s programmes, documentary, sport or entertainment.  And I have many other colleagues, both inside RTÉ and outside, who do and think  likewise.

 

 

 

One of the real freedoms we enjoyed on ‘Kenny Live’ was the scope to push the envelope a bit when it came to music. While the big visiting acts to Ireland were offered, more often than not, to The Late Late Show – it had a bigger audience, longer history and an international reputation – excellent music bookers like Caroline Henry and Alan Byrne worked long and hard to mine different seams and we never shied from giving anyone a leg up once a tune or a performance stood strong. During the last season of ‘Kenny Live’ in 1998/1999, for instance, we continued a habit long-forged on the show and featured several blistering studio performances by the likes of The Frames, The Prayer Boat and Sack, who provided magical interludes on running orders that, otherwise, would have lacked distinction.

 

Unlike Gay Byrne, Pat had a real affinity for rock and popular music and wasn’t sceptical of or patronising to young performers. As a one-time ballad singer on the Dublin circuit during the late 1960s, he tended to cut all musicians an even break and, over his many years on radio and television, has consistently supported emerging music and engaged with it. It was on ‘Today With Pat Kenny’ on RTÉ Radio One, for instance, that I first heard a young James Vincent McMorrow who, between two startling live acoustic performances, gave his host a nervous but warm interview and, consequently, left an impressive calling card. In the best traditions of the music anorak, I pulled my car over that morning to savour the item, careful to note Pat’s back-reference and the young performer’s name and details. And to maybe, however fleetingly, help me to purge the memory of Pat’s partisan support for Garth Brooks and Charlie Landsborough, the amiable Liverpudlian who, during one dire live performance of ‘Molly Malone’ on ‘Kenny Live’, sang the words not from his heart but from the autocue.

 

I still remember Pat’s instinctive reaction when, late one Saturday afternoon, he dropped  by Studio 4 just as Sack, one of my pet Dublin bands from that period, were sound-checking the wondrous ‘Laughter Lines’ ;- he was genuinely bowled over by the breath of Martin McCann’s live vocal performance as this incredible song was careering into it’s  apex. Following the band’s performance live on the show later that same evening, he went off script to compliment the band in his back-reference. As someone who had long heard one horror story after another about the experiences of young bands and musicians on the floors of the RTÉ studios, I saw Pat’s enthusiasm as one of the few areas where we had a real edge over our rivals. An edge that was never really going to translate into viewing figures, shares and numbers but which, far more importantly, was part of a wider public remit.

 

Pat was a bag of nerves on the day of his first Late Late Show in September, 1999, as indeed we were in the production gallery. One of the programme’s researchers, Neasa  McLoughlin, moved heaven and earth to land the footballer, Roy Keane, as the opening night’s star turn and, on a show that also featured Sonia O’Sullivan – and her baby daughter, Ciara – as well as the journalist Ed Moloney among others, I felt like, whatever about the rest of the country, I’d certainly done my bit for Cork.

 

George Martin also featured on the line-up that night. Accompanied by a sixteen-piece orchestra, he cut an impressive figure at the grand piano as he performed an instrumental version of The Beatles’ ‘Here, There And Everywhere’, which he’d produced on the band’s ‘Revolver’ album in 1966. With another nod to the Cork quota, the string players featured, among their number, an old friend of mine from Watercourse Road, Eileen Murphy, as one of it’s principal violinists.

 

The Dublin-based promoter, Pat Egan, had booked George Martin for a live show in The National Concert Hall and, as part of the marketing campaign around that event, had offered the legendary producer and composer to The Late Late Show late in the day. But it mattered little ;- we were always going to accommodate George Martin and, as well as confirming him for a live performance, also proposed a light, five-minute interview with Pat towards the end of the first part of the show. The other live music acts on the night were The Bumblebees, a terrific, all-female group of edgy traditional and folk players who included the Buncrana-born fiddler, Liz Doherty, among their number and also Mary Black, the well-known singer and a staple of Late Late Shows past. All of the acts were booked by Alan Byrne, still of Something Happens and a classically trained double-bassist who now directs the show.

 

Gearóid McIntyre, who was working with Pat Egan at the time, accompanied George and his wife, Judy, to the studio complex earlier that afternoon and, on pulling into the front of the studio block, they were greeted by a small group of press photographers, there to cover the day’s events as they unfolded. George was well into his seventies at that stage but I remember him clearly as a tall, handsome man, in a snappy charcoal-coloured suit, crisp shirt and red tie. From the moment he entered the building until he left it hours later, he was as warm and generous as the tributes to him have been since his death was announced yesterday.

 

The sound-check itself was an absolute non-event ;- with the piano freshly tuned, and with the small orchestra already in situ and sight-reading their parts from scripts, George was quickly and unfussily in concert with them. He introduced himself, briefly instructed them on the pace of the piece and, together, they just instinctively went at it. Once we’d rehearsed for camera angles and once our sound team was happy with levels and balances, I was introduced to George, shook his hand and thanked him for doing us the honour. The pleasure, he told me, was all his and I got the sense that, despite where his career in music had taken him, and despite his long-running issues with hearing loss, that he still got a kick, certainly from playing and performance, if not necessarily from listening to music.

 

Six months previously, in the same studio. we’d hosted a fully-mimed performance and painful interview from the American singer, Mariah Carey, who’d arrived on site with a string of PR flunkeys in a slew of high-end hire cars and who’d insisted on a full studio lock-down for the duration of her time on the premises. Her team had been an almighty pain in the hole to deal with and, on the morning of the recording, our office took a call from one of Carey’s handlers asking, without a trace of irony, if the RTÉ concourse was big enough to take the number of stretch limousines that were due to arrive onto it later that day. I’m not sure I helped anyone’s humour when, on greeting the singer in the foyer, I mis-pronounced her name and referred to her as Maria. And yes, she’s an easy target but the gulf in class between her and George Martin, on every conceivable level, couldn’t possibly have been wider.

 

On the morning after our first Late Late Show, I rung my mother and asked her for her thoughts on the previous evening’s events. She hated what we’d done to one of her favourite shows and she wasn’t holding back. Resorting to one of her favourite local slang words it was, she concluded, ‘a bake’. Pat was no Gay Byrne, the guests were shocking, we hadn’t given enough prizes to the studio audience and there was little or nothing in the mix for her or for her friends. ‘But George Martin’, she was careful to add, ‘Well … he was absolutely beautiful’.

 

And, as ever, she said it better and said it best.