Jim O Mahony

COMET RECORDS, CORK

This is our first guest post – courtesy of Jim O Mahony – a wonderful reminder of a real Cork city institution… I hope you all enjoy reading it and remembering as as much as we did… Thanks Jim…

Comet front

Comet Records

Hard to know where to begin really. In an era where people now cherish the memory of record stores and even have a designated day every year dedicated to them it’s worth remembering that such stores were the norm 15/20 years ago. Every city had a few decent and not so decent ones.

Comet Records was one of the decent ones. An offshoot of Comet in Dublin it was the first proper independent record store in Cork providing the music lovers in the real capital with a variety of exotic musical styles in many guises. Since its doors closed for the final time about 15 years ago it has attained almost mythical status in the history of the Cork music scene. Some of this is deserved while some is taken silently and cynically with a pinch of salt.

Comet Records Bag

Comet Records Bag

Cork has always had record shops – some good and some not so good. For years the best shop in town was The Swap Shop in MacCurtain Street which sold second-hand records and musical instruments. We never really had a proper alternative record shop like they did in Dublin or Belfast. Comet Records changed all that when it opened its doors in Cork in 1989.

Originally situated halfway down Oliver Plunkett Street above Mr. Video selling new and second and cassettes and records in a variety of genres – rock, pop, indie ( a term I hate ), metal, rap, country, folk, jazz and a panpipe section that actually sold quite well – the people of Cork took to it like ducks to water. Depeche Mode 12”s would have been big sellers and I can still remember the Friday the first Stone Roses album came in. We got five copies which sold in about 5 minutes. We lasted about a year in Oliver Plunkett Street until one day one of the landlords (two identical twin brothers you couldn’t tell apart) arrived in and announced that the building had been sold and we basically had three days to vacate. We had to send some of the stock back to the shop in Dublin and the rest was stored in the front room of my parents’ house in Blackpool… ruining the carpet in the process… where it remained until we finally found our new home at No. 4 Washington Street where Comet would establish itself as a Cork music institution.

September 1990 we opened on Washington Street. The first record we sold was Bossanova by The Pixies. Any fears we had that the customer base we had established on Oliver Plunkett Street would disappear were quickly parked. We thrived there but it was hard work. As well as the music – LPs cassettes new and second-hand – we also had our concert tickets, t-shirts, badges, fanzines etc. as many small record shops did. Grunge, Metal and Hardcore formed a large part of our sales in the first year or so. Two albums that immediately spring to mind are Babyteeth by Therapy and Nevermind by Nirvana. The cultural significance of the latter album in relation to Cork has been more than well documented so I won’t get into it here. Around this time it was also becoming evident that in order for an alternative music store to survive something else was needed. A lot of the bigger selling underground groups had signed to major labels so their records were starting to appear in mainstream stores at a cheaper price than we could sell them at as they would have had much more buying power than we did. The fact that the majors didn’t really give a shit about the little shops didn’t help either. It was also getting exceedingly difficult to get excited by new releases from these awful bands like Carter USM, Ride, Curve, Northside etc. Something new, fresh and exciting was needed and it had to come from the underground.

That something new arrived in the late 80s/early 90s and it was a game changer. When the acid house scene emerged it provided a much needed shot in the arm not just for independent record shops but it created a whole new counter-culture within music, media, fashion and attitude. We embraced it wholeheartedly in Comet. We had no choice really. To ignore this one in a lifetime opportunity as some shops foolishly did would have been commercial suicide. This was pure underground music produced in little studios by little known artists from Berlin to Chicago. It didn’t get any airplay and didn’t really feature in the charts but was huge in the better underground clubs and Sweat in Sir Henrys here in Cork was one of the best ones. It was a no brainer really.

I think the first time I really noticed it from a commercial point of view was when we got this 12” by Altern 8. I had been to Sweat many times before but never put two and two together. So we got five copies of this which ended up in the industrial section as we didn’t have a dance section at the time and they pretty much sold out straight away and then lots of people started coming into the shop looking for that tune and similar stuff. I couldn’t help noticing that most of these people were new customers who’d never been in the shop before. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment.

The Comet Clock

The Comet Clock – still working after all these years

Within about three months the whole shop had changed. Out went the Country, Blues and even the panpipe section along with a fair chunk of the second-hand section (big mistake) and to be replaced by more exotic terms such as progressive house, techno, trance etc. As time went on these would be joined by Breakbeat, Drum & Bass, an expanded soul and jazz section, exotica and ahem… speed garage. We were also very conscious of our original customer base so the likes of Fugazi, Napalm Death and The Breeders could still be found on our shelves. Contrary to popular belief we were never a specialist dance shop. We were in fact a specialist music store that stocked dance music. Cork completely embraced this whole new scene. The better clubs and pubs were rocking, every second person seemed to be a DJ and then we had a radio station… Radio Friendly… that was playing all this music all day and all night. Good times in Cork overall.

As well as the treasure trove of records there were many other things that made Comet the stuff of legends. The famous half price sale… which originated in the Dublin store… took place every year on January 2nd… 10 am till 10 pm…  basically every record in the store was half price. People loved it. They queued and got bargains and in return we had a massive clear out and got rid of some turkeys while at the same time giving something back to our loyal customers. Not all of the turkeys always sold. An LP by Omar and a box set by The Farm both survived about 5 half price sales.

Jim and Nick - the farm box set behind

Nick Cave & Jim – unsellable Farm Box set in background

in the shop with Nick Cave

Organizing instore appearances was another important part of running a record shop. They weren’t always easy to get as we were small but we got some good ones. Nick Cave was probably the biggest one. Don’t ask me how we got him but we did. He was in Cork doing a charity gig in the City Hall with Shane MacGowan… phone calls were made and hey presto we had Nick Cave in the shop on a Saturday afternoon signing records. My abiding memories of the afternoon include a very drunk girl without a camera wanting to get a photo with him, he was a very nice guy and also he looked exactly like Nick Cave looked on his album sleeves.

outside Shop with Grant Hart

Jim with Grant Hart outside the store

Sometime later on another Saturday afternoon Grant Hart from Husker Du sat with an acoustic guitar on the counter and entertained the crowd for about an hour. We also had Therapy, Frank & Walters, Fatima Mansions and literally stopped the traffic one afternoon when Scooter did an instore. Not all were successful. When Cornershop did a signing absolutely nobody came into the shop while they were there.

My personal favourite was when Bass Odyssey launched their debut single with a live appearance in the shop one Sunday afternoon. Everybody later retired to the Back Bar in Henrys where it all went off.

Bass Odyssey lauch their single

Bass Odyssey launching their first single

We always tried to have a good selection of concert tickets. They were never a huge money spinner but they brought people into the shop. This was in the days before Ticketmaster swallowed all that business up. We also used to get a certain allocation of tickets for concerts in Dublin and even Slane so when it was feasible we used to run buses to these gigs. McCarthy Coaches in Mallow supplied the buses at a reasonable price and the fare was never more than a tenner. Admittedly some of the coaches had seen better days but we always made it there and back even though it might have taken us a bit longer than everybody else. George generally travelled with the buses and he counts among his adventures trips to Death, Pestilence, Chilli Peppers and Metallica. Steve once took a busload up to see The Fugees and on two occasions I took buses to Slane to see REM and Neil Young. Think I might have taken a busload to see Nirvana in The Point as well. Generally I tended to leave the travelling to the two lads as the whole day could be quite stressful and a general head wreck. Somebody for whatever reason always got left behind and it was usually left to me to deal with the irate parent.

With Grant Hart - looking

Grant & Jim again

All record collectors want those collectors’ items and hard to find records and in the days before the internet the local independent record store was usually the first port of call. Comet was no exception. Over the years we had our fair share of rarities pass through our hands. Most of the non-dance ones would come as part of second-hand collections. Many times you would come across a gem and would really struggle to keep that poker face while you made your meagre offer which more often than not was accepted. Dance records were a different kettle of fish altogether. They tended to be “white Labels “or original pressing sourced through a bit of ducking and diving and they could be very expensive. People in Cork paid crazy prices for certain dance 12”s and certain shops charged crazy prices for them. We were no exception. On the one hand it was ridiculous but on the other hand we were running a business and we only charged what I perceived to be the market value at the time. On the other side of things we always tried to price the ordinary everyday records as cheaply as we could. It’s all different today of course. Go into any record shop now and the prices of all new and second-hand records are outrageous. This is due to a number of reasons… not all of them the shops fault. But lots of second-hand record shops and charity shops are getting their prices from the internet. Fine if your store is in Tokyo or New York… not so fine if it’s in Cork. The true value of a record at the end of the day is what somebody is willing to pay for it. Common sense needs to be applied.

The Comet Mobile

The Comet Mobile – nearest thing to a Comet Delivery Van

While always challenging and enjoyable it wasn’t always fun and games. Running a small shop is hard and you couldn’t swing a cat in this shop. We had no internet or computer so the ordering was done by hand and faxed usually on a Monday. New records come out every week and you need to keep up. Musical trends change like the wind. Often it’s the small things send you over the edge. A certain little litter warden was once told to take his summons and to paraphrase James Coburn in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid “shove it up your ass and set fire to it”. He never returned so maybe he took the advice given. You also had to be aware of the competition. We weren’t the only small record store in Cork though to be honest the only other one I took seriously as competition was The Vinyl Room just down the road from us. The megastores were a different matter. HMV arrived in Cork first and to be honest I thought they’d create more problems for us than they did. Virgin hit us a lot harder. A bigger blow again and ultimately for the megastores themselves was when Tesco entered the market selling top 20 cds at below cost price. That in my opinion was almost as big a contributor to the demise of the record shop as downloading. There was also competition from afar. Every week people would tell you endless stories about these magical record shops in Dublin, Galway and Manchester full of these wonderful records that nobody else had and if I had a euro for every time I had to stand and listen to somebody prattle on about the “classics” they just bought from bloody Hard to Find Records……

Everything eventually changes and all good thing come to an end. Towards the end of the decade it started to go downhill. Times were changing and it had probably run its course. We won Best Contribution to Dance at the first Smirnoff Dance Awards in 1999 but it was a hollow victory…the last sting of a dying wasp.

Best Contribution to Dance Award

Best Contribution to Dance Music Award

Looking back now would I have done anything differently? Yes.

Did I make mistakes? Absolutely.

Would I do it again? Hmm…..

Do I miss it? Yes but I probably miss a time that no longer exists. Today’s record shops… if you’re lucky enough to find one…are much more organized and efficiently run but they’re not as much fun. Back in the day you could smoke in the shop …even though we banned it around ’97 becoming the first shop in Cork to do so… and you could physically assault shoplifters and boot them up the arse out on to Washington Street. Probably wouldn’t get away with that one now. But they were great times and it was great to be part of it and I have some great memories and friends from those days. Though the nostalgia can get a bit annoying at times to have been part of something that will always be remembered so fondly by so many people for so many fantastic and memorable reasons is indeed truly special.

Jim and George

George and Jim – never liked being photographed

All pictures, and captions, courtesy of Jim

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

Sign

Image courtesy of Theresa Lucey

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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