Keith Cullen

EPIC SOUNDTRACKS, KEVIN JUNIOR and NIKKI SUDDEN

 

You may not recognise all of the characters but you’ll almost certainly recognise the story, or at least the darker parts of it. At its core are three men with a love of the same kind of music in common, liberated from time to time, I suppose, by the magic they heard around them, some of which they produced on their own, other times with one another. All three of them are dead now and none of them saw the age of fifty.

All three tended almost always towards the hard shoulder and never really threatened the popular market, like many of the artists and lots of the music we’re drawn to here. But I’ve tried not to be too pious in the telling and I’m not being wilful or deliberately obscure: if the story strikes a chord, then I’ve listed some records below that you might like to check out. The complicated, fractured lives of Epic, Kevin and Nikki – and the music they made – only really make sense that way. And so …

Kevin Junior’s death earlier this year went relatively unmarked over here, and understandably enough. The American singer, guitarist and producer died five days after David Bowie, on January 15th last and, outside of his circle of friends, family and those who had loyally supported his bands, The Rosehips and  The Chamber Strings, and his various other side-projects over the years, his name will be unfamiliar. I spent the guts of fifteen years talking him up to anyone I met and, from a distance and with the benefit of the internet, followed his moves, wished him on, watched him vagabonding in several guises, car-crashing his way sidewards and downwards.

As is the case with Epic Soundtracks, with whom he wrote, toured, recorded and performed, Kevin is rarely cited as widely as his talent, flawed as it was, maybe deserves. But he leaves behind him a decent canon of work that, uneven as it is, captures a restless spirit at work, hinting at what could have been and that, on occasion, is up there with the best of them. When Kevin had his head straight and his body clean, he was capable of real alchemy: like many before him, his songs were maybe all he really ever had but, in the end, not even those were enough to save him.

Folk of a certain age and of a particular leaning will remember Epic and his brother, Nikki Sudden: they buttressed Swell Maps, an urgent punk-art outfit that flourished briefly during the late 1970s. Born in Solihull, near Birmingham, in the English midlands, and raised as Kevin and Adrian Godfrey respectively, they recorded a pair of opaque albums with Swell Maps who, years after they folded, were name-checked fondly by the likes of R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr. Indeed R.E.M. backed Nikki on his 1991 single, ‘I Belong To You’, which was recorded at John Keane’s famous studio in Athens, Georgia and which derived from a three-month period the previous year during which Nikki had moved into Peter Buck’s house.

Epic Soundtracks passed away in 1997 and Nikki Sudden died in New York city nine years later: Kevin’s death last January completes that circle and, on one level, wraps up a little known side-story in the modern history of alternative American and British pop music. Kevin spent many years soldiering long and hard with both Epic and Nikki, lurching from place to place, song to song, crisis to crisis, barely keeping on. When he re-located to Berlin to accompany Nikki during the 1990s, he fell quickly into a period of chronic drug use: it had been the same story earlier in Los Angeles. And in New York. And back home in Akron, Ohio.

Epic Soundtracks and Kevin Junior wrote and played from the heart and the records they’ve left behind are, almost without exception, simply executed and remarkably personal. Kevin believed that Epic actually died of a broken heart: he’d struggled with depression for years and an intense relationship had ended in the months before he passed away. In Kevin’s case it seems as if, after thirty odd years spent clinging to the ledge, his own heart simply gave out too. Nikki Sudden died in New York in 2006 and, while the cause of his death has never been clearly determined, he too was defined for years as much by his drug use as by his music. If it was their hearts that first bound them and bonded them, it was their hearts that failed them all in the end too.

Akron, Ohio features prominently in the colourful and often bizarre history of Stiff Records, and the story and spirit of the label – that boasts among it’s leading players the likes of Dave Robinson, Jake Riviera, Madness, Ian Dury And The Blockheads, Nick Lowe, The Damned, Devo, Rachel Sweet and numerous others – is captured in detail in Richard Balls’s terrific book, ‘Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story’ [Soundcheck Books]. It was in Akron that Kevin was born Kevin Gerber in 1969 to a pair of music loving, free-thinking parents: as a child he was baby-sat by Chrissie Hynde and, as Bob Mehr mentions in a fine profile for The Chicago Reader in 2007, ‘he attended Firestone High School, which produced such future stars as Hynde, Rachel Sweet and members of Devo’.

Kevin moved to Chicago in his mid-teens and cut a skeletal shape from the get-go in his trademark Johnny Thunders do and sharp jackets, almost always stylishly adorned with a silk scarf and a pair of decent winkle-pickers. Like Nikki and Epic, Kevin was an advocate of the old school, long influenced by T-Rex, The New York Dolls, The Beach Boys, quality R and B and The Monkees. From where Kevin looked, in order to sound good it was vital to look good first and he covers this ground in detail on an efficient, low-budget documentary, ‘Chamber Strings – For A Happy Ending’, made for the Glorious Noise website.

It was Keith Cullen at Setanta Records who first turned me onto Epic soundtracks, back when we worked together in London in the early 1990s and during which time I would often kip down in a hammock strung across his kitchen in a squat in Camberwell. I was trying as best I could to make a positive contribution to an emerging independent record label, while free-lancing for a couple of music magazines to turn a coin. With the Setanta roster developing nicely, Keith needed dependable, day-to-day office help: most of the time I just got in the way.

I’d often put myself to sleep with a primitive Walkman clung to my ears and, for a while, Epic’s music was what I’d hear last thing at night. Himself and Freedy Johnston, another favourite during that time at the Setanta office, were affiliated to a vibey New York-based label called Bar None, run by a Limerick man called Tom Prendergast. Tom’s apartment in Hoboken often hosted Setanta’s bureau chief and Bar None and Setanta shared a philosophical and business arrangement, on and off, for years.

Bar None’s substantial and varied catalogue also boasts releases by the likes of They Might Be Giants, Peter Holsapple, Carlow’s David Donoghue/The Floors and a host of others but it was Epic Soundtracks’ 1994 album, ‘Sleeping Star’ for the label that remains, to these ears, one of the most affecting records of the decade. It was because of Tom Prendergast’s relationship with Setanta – and the regular exchange of stories and music between the labels – that I first started to tease back through Epic’s lineage and, for a while, I became obsessed with his story. Tom Prendergast’s own history, it should also be said, is one of the great, largely untold stories from the fringes of Irish alternative music history from the early-1980s onwards.

Kevin Junior recorded two excellent albums with his band, The Chamber Strings – ‘Gospel Morning’ [1997] and ‘Month of Sundays’ [2001] – both of which betray his long infatuation with the likes of The Beach Boys, T Rex and the more tender aspects of The New York Dolls. But despite consistently good notices, the band found it difficult to generate any forward momentum: Kevin’s short life was largely spent on the hoof and he led a temporal existence, moving onwards and sideways until, as was often the case, drugs just moved him out.

He alludes to this on the remarkable liner notes he wrote for ‘Good Things’, the posthumous Epic Soundtracks album released in 2005, eight years after Epic was found dead, alone, in his ground floor flat in West Hampstead, London.

Plaintively written, Kevin vividly paints a number of key scenes from an incredible few months in his long friendship with Epic and transports his reader and listener back into the belly of the small flat in which the pair of them recorded that record between November 21st and 27th, 1996. It was a record, like much else in their lives at the time, that they hadn’t planned. Indeed both men found themselves together in London by accident and only after a tour of Europe, on which Kevin was due to lead Epic’s backing band, had been cancelled at the last minute. Rather than put his plane ticket to waste, Kevin fetched up in West London with his then girlfriend, some primitive pieces of kit and not a whole lot else.

He found Epic living from hand to mouth and struggling badly: it had been years since he’d released new material, his personal life had come asunder, he’d had difficulties gaining entry into the U.S. and his long-standing label had gone cold on him. And yet Epic’s love of music was undiminished: Kevin recalled that he would rather survive on cereal [‘his beloved Sugar Puffs’] if it meant he could afford to purchase records and CDs from London’s second hand stores. [One of the many photographs that adorn the inside of ‘Good Things’ captures Epic in a white towelling robe, vinyl in hand and posing, in his flat, in front of a vast library of elpees and compact discs].

And still, between them, they knocked out a series of rough demos of a host of new Epic material, using the most basic techniques to tape onto Kevin’s Tascam Porta Two four-track recorder that he ‘bought in the 1980’s for $150’. As Kevin writes: ‘Instruments included Epic’s W.H. Barnes upright piano, a Fender Twin amp and the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever played, my $75 Mitchel, a nameless organ, some half broken pieces of percussion, a digital delay pedal and a few guitars on loan from friends.

‘We had to constantly deal with the problem of low batteries that we couldn’t afford to replace and the blasts of train whistles that pierced through the garden window and into the floor. There was no way to punch in or overdub parts that didn’t feel like the musical equivalent to a game of Twister’.

And ‘Good Things’ bears all of those hallmarks. It’s far from Epic’s best record: it’s a series of brittle, lo-fi recordings, some of which are barely clinging to life. And yet, as tends to often be the case, some of it is truly enchanting. But Kevin wasn’t merely Epic’s co-writer and co-producer:  over the course of the recording, and a subsequent two-handed tour of Europe, he’d become his primary carer too. Epic had few friends and no real supports to summon in London. He was, Kevin reckoned, in an awful state.

Once the recordings had been complete, and once Epic and Kevin – and Kevin’s girlfriend, Karen Kiska – had completed a short, acoustic and hastily-arranged series of live shows around Austria and Germany primarily, travelling light, cheaply and often simply booking dates as they went, the party went it’s separate ways.

‘Epic phoned the day after we arrived back in Chicago’, Kevin’s liner notes reveal. ‘He said some nice things about our friendship and then said that what would really make him happy at that moment would be for the three of us to go see a film’. Two weeks later, Epic Soundtracks was found dead in his flat. ‘It’s been said that a man can die if he simply loses the will to live’, Kevin writes. ‘I don’t care what anyone else says, I believe Epic died of a broken heart …’. He was 38 years old.

‘Good Things’ finally saw the light of day in 2005 and, featuring the songs recorded in Sumatra Road in West Hampstead years previously, mixed and finished by Nikki Sudden and Kevin’s evocative notes, is the final farewell from one of the most beguiling and genuinely fascinating British songwriters of the 1990s. It’s a record I go back to time and again because, often, the saddest things are also the most beautiful things.

And so, if you get the opportunity …

For more about Epic, Kevin and Nikki :-

Jane From Occupied Europe’ by Swell Maps [Rough Trade Records, 1980]

Sleeping Star’ by Epic Soundtracks [Rough Trade Records/Bar None, 1994]

Red Brocadeby Nikki Sudden, backed by The Chamber Strings [Chatterbox Records, 1999]

Gospel Morning’ by The Chamber Strings [Bobsleigh Records, 2000]

Good Things’ by Epic Soundtracks [DBK Works, 2006]

A HOUSE: THE GREATEST

 

I am the greatest

Dublin band A House played it’s last ever live show in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on Friday, February 28th, 1997. I wrote about that night – it was far more than just another show, I felt – in my Sunday Tribune column the following weekend, on Sunday, March 2nd and, as was customary for me at the time, loaded the chambers and let rip. The original headline read ‘That’s A House That Was’, but we’ve changed that below. We’ve also made a couple of minor corrections to the copy.

But over eighteen years on, I stand over every single word.


We don’t normally associate either dignity or grace with pop music, and rightly so. Because pop has always been a cold cynic’s play-yard, both on-stage and off, where the bland usually steer the blind through mutual cheating games that end either with frustrated tears or with token, pithy pay-offs.

That said, Dublin band A House never really ran with the pack anyway, always preferring their own counsels and their own instincts, rightly or wrongly, and always staying truest to themselves. That they chose to bow out while they were at least in control of their standards and not, as with most bands, over drinking sessions or through newspaper press-releases, sums them up in one and arguably says more than any number of bland obituaries.

Billing any show as ‘a final farewell’ is always playing too close to the sun, an immovable closing point and a full-stop set into stone. But then A House were always well ahead of the also-rans and, with a brashy ignorance and an enduring gang mentality, always seemed to get it right. And they’ll be missed, that’s for sure.

What’s also certain, however, is that this country will hardly see their approach again in a hurry, such is the extent of pop music’s changed landscape around our way. Because A House were always able to steer their own boat with far more control and clarity than most, managed as astutely and as intuitively as any act this country has seen, and powered always where it mattered ;- by the band’s own prolific level of application and delivery. A head-start, as it were, that owed only to the band and to its immediate coterie, where little else ever mattered.

There was a truly over-blown ten year period in the initial wake of U2’s first great arrival when all Irish album releases were characterised by over-long and over-familiar thank-you credits on their inside sleeves. In hindsight, this is arguably either a sign of the times or a sign of an over-heavy dependence. But ultimately no more than a series of sentimental stains on far too much domestic pop music history.

Dublin’s Something Happens must, for instance, genuinely wonder where most of those name-checked on the inside of the well-good ‘Stuck Together With God’s Glue’ got to when it mattered the most, when both the money and the free-booze ran dry ?

Ironically, and probably typically, A House chose to thank only themselves on their first album. Because as a band that at one point used to have circular posters – this despite that fact that it was something of a nuisance for the band themselves to actually cut them cleanly about the edges – and for a band that headlined in Dublin and in London as often as any and that still only ever did two encores ever, A House always knew how far they could push and how far they could actually subvert what it was they were about. Their only real debts were to themselves because when push got to shove it was always going to be four like-minds only against the whole world. So that while their statements were blatant, they rarely shouted from rooftops and seldom reached for the skies. And no one ever messed with A House.

Which made their farewell show last weekend one of the most cathartic and genuinely disconcerting live events that this column has seen or heard in 15 years. No Caro Meas, no undue fusses and no forced sentiment, A House came over like they’ve always come over [always four and often six-square], cocksure and strutted –up like they knew, just knew, how damned good they were and how damned good it was what they were leaving behind them.

Granted A House never sold as many records as they should have, which is where pop history will ultimately judge them. But the fact is that, with one genuine, real-deal top forty single and with five truly defining albums for three different record labels, they leave behind the body of work they always claimed that they would, one way or the other.

But the most compelling reality is that, in over ten years, they never unduly either copped out or bowed to the vagaries of pop’s sensibility, checking out in a blaze of gold and silver like they always knew that they would. Twenty great pop songs and one quick three-way encore and they were gone.

The most unsettling thing of all, of course, is that like perhaps most of the crowd that filled last weekend’s final throw, we’d never actually seen a band break up and fold it all away so publicly and so defiantly before. And while their last great finale marks the end of their own gorgeous stretch at pop’s crease, their passing also arguably draws the safety curtain on the first and last great pop movement this country has either seen or heard – that genuinely awesome guitar burst that started at Dame Street’s Underground over ten years ago and that trundled through more wonderful moments and great records than it ever probably wants to imagine.

Many of them played out, naturally, by A House who, like no other band this country has seen excepting, arguably, U2, never so divided their own peers so savagely and yet motivated their own support so clinically. A House, you see, knew, that’s all. No undue social appearances, no hanging about and no concessions.

Towards the end of their very last snow, Couse, knowing that for him, at least, an entirely new real world is just around the corner, turned to thank his band’s only manager ever [John Carroll], his band’s bleach-cropped record company punk-boy boss [Setanta’s Keith Cullen] and, perhaps most tellingly, A House’s long-time roadie, technician and all around top-man, Liam Crinion.

Because when A House wake up next month and when there are no rehearsals and no interviews and no television and radio appearances and no production deadlines they’ll know that, ultimately, nothing much has really changed.

Granted their band may not exist, at least in name, anymore, but when their rehearsal space has been stripped back, and when their guitars have been moved outwards and onwards, A House will know that, as always, they’ve still got themselves and no more apologies.

[ROS] COMMON PEOPLE

It was Eamonn Crudden of the Dead Elvis label – among numerous other  things – who first turned me onto the Wednesday Works imprint, a small mail-order project that was run by a young dairy farmer from his front-room in Curraghmore, outside of Elphin, Co. Roscommon.

 

At the time – the summer of 1996 – the label was in it’s infancy and had released a mere handful of records. But, working with the likes of  Paranoid Visions and The Screech Owls, Wednesday Works had a  positive outlook and no shortage of ambition or vision.

 

I first spoke to Anthony Brennan for a Sunday Tribune piece that ran on August 25th of that year. I later took an RTÉ camera crew up there to  record a film insert on the label for a teen-targetted music series I  devised and produced called Popscene, which debuted on RTÉ Two later  that Autumn.

 

I absolutely loved that series – hosted by Suzanne Duffy, Pearse Lehane  and Róisín Saxe – and I also loved the cut of Anthony’s jib. In his long  over-coat, sweeping mullet and serious side-burns, he cut a pretty formidable figure. The Tribune dispatched a local photographer, John Heaney, to capture Anthony at work on the farm, and an absolutely ace photograph accompanied my piece.

 

Myself and Pearse Lehane spent a wonderful day in Anthony’s company in Curraghmore – and a frankly bizarre evening with some local punks in a pub in Tulsk – for the Popscene insert, during which we also captured  a local power-punk trio, Spacehead, going hell for leather in their  rehearsal space in the drummer’s family’s shed, somewhere up the  town.

 

I was anxious with both the print and the television pieces not to  patronise or unintentionally insult Wednesday Works and, I hope, succeeded in staying on the right side of the line while capturing what  was, and still is, just a really great story. Which we have re-produced in  full below, under it’s original Sunday Tribune title – ‘Until The Cows  Come Home’.

 

U n t i l  T h e    C o w s   C o m e   H o m e

 

 

There’s this theory that record company bosses, like disc jockeys and  music writers, are frustrated and failed musicians. This, of course, is  completely true although Anthony Brennan, a twenty-something vinyl  junkie from three miles due south of nowhere, may be the exception.  He’s never been in a band, he travels to Dublin once every month to buy records and to collect demo tapes and holds his ego very much in check.

 

Curraghmore, near Elphin, County Roscommon exists very much in name only. This is where Brennan farms a herd of sixty dairy cattle on a family farm that stretches over one hundred and ten acres. It’s also where, on Wednesday evenings, he runs a fledgling record label of peculiar all-sorts.

 

Wednesday Works is an independent pop voice founded on a whim in a public house in Tulsk, County Roscommon, almost two years ago by  Brennan and three best school-friends and funded, directly and indirectly, by the dairy industry. The label has so far released four cracking pop records and already Anthony Brennan’s head is spinning with all manner of schemes, dreams and songs. ‘I’m essentially addicted to records, particularly to vinyl, and to good songs. I’m a compulsive listener, whether that’s listening to Dave Fanning while I’m doing the milking or whether it’s on my Walkman when I’m out working the bog-seam’.

 

And while geographics and penury have never gotten in the way of great tunes and killer pop songs, Wednesday Works has more primary problems than most. ‘There are no record shops in Roscommon’, they claim. ‘Well, apart from some souvenir shops up near where Percy French was born where they sell country and western cassettes down the back. That’s one of the main reasons why we’ve opted to do mail-order singles’.

 

But then the whole notion of mail-order releases, one imagines, fits easily with indie-pop’s purest traditions. It was a mail-order cartel, after all, that largely bound many of Britain’s most formative independent record labels in the early eighties and Anthony Brennan is well versed in pop history. ‘The best albums always seem to have no more than ten or eleven tracks on them. Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground always got out before their records got boring. And most of the greatest pop songs always run to about three minutes, although ‘Curtain Call’ by The Damned is an honourable exception’, states Brennan.

 

 

Like Setanta’s Keith Cullen, Creation’s Alan McGee and One Little Indian’s Derek Birkett, Anthony Brennan’s past is steeped in punk and industrial pout. ‘I went to boarding school in Ballaghadereen, which is where I picked up on bands like The Damned, The Fall, The Cramps, Television, Magazine and Joy Division. Back then you just loved everything and you never questioned why. There were no scenes, there were no mods and no rockers and music was your life’.

 

All of which sounds dead dreamy and romantic of course but then passion and faith in words and music are at the core of Wednesday Works’ whole ethos. Lifting from Andy Warhol, they favour ‘music from the life factory’ and, to date, they’ve put out a tiny stream of pop-stuffed records as if to prove their point. ‘The most frustrating thing for us’, they admit, ‘is that we have to pay-off on one record before we get to release another. When we started out we had no idea about the actual process of getting records out. We knew nothing about pressing, distribution, artwork and cutting and, to be honest, we’re still learning as we go. But as long as we keep our sanity we’ll do alright. I’d rather have a huge discography than to make lots of money and as it is I have enough to put petrol in the car and to enjoy myself at weekends. That said, it would be great to get someone in to do the milking and things while we got on with getting records out’.

 

Immediate label plans do not include mass production and strike-force chart-sales but revolve instead around bands like Spacehead, whose ‘Swamp Gas Fiasco’ single is a heady throb of industrial techno punk bravado that, luck permitting, will catapult Wednesday Works even half-way skywards.

 

Wednesday Works Discography

Serious Women           38SCR [album]                   WED1 CD album

ATC                              Stick It In [single]               WORK1 CD single

Paranoid Visions           Triangular EP                     DAY1 7” single

The Screech Owls        Pray For Rain [single]         DAY2 7” single

THE DIVINE COMEDY

As I recently re-watched The Divine Comedy’s terrific 2004 show, recorded live at London’s Palladium Theatre, my mind was cast way back to another far more intimate but no less powerful encounter with Neil Hannon.

I had been aware of The Divine Comedy from the get go. My friend, Keith Cullen, had issued their 1990 mini-album, ‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’, on his fledgling Setanta imprint and, as part of that affair, had moved the then three-piece from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh to a flat in North London. That apartment was owned by John O’Neill of The Undertones who had produced the seven-tracker and who was also recording for Setanta under the band name, Rare.

Written by Neil Hannon, who sang and played all of the guitars, the record also featured John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor on bass and drums respectively. The Divine Comedy had first been recommended to Setanta by Louise Trehy, a Dublin musician who later recorded for 4AD as half of the band, Swallow .

‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’ captures a clever young songwriter with no little ambition, borrowing from a standard frame of indie reference, most notably the British shoe-gaze scene led by Ride. The Divine Comedy were thinking big – the title of the record being a case in point – and notwithstanding the band’s circumstances in their hovel in Tottenham – Neil had set the bar high.

Initially at least, the band struggled to generate any real interest in London and went largely un-noticed by the music press who, instead, rowed in behind their Setanta label-mates, Dublin’s Into Paradise. To provide the band with more heft, The Divine Comedy briefly expanded it’s ranks by adding a friend of Neil’s, John Allen, as lead vocalist, allowing the song-writer more scope to drive the band on from behind his guitar. I saw them give a workmanlike performance at The Borderline in London at this time, opening for Toasted Heretic who, by then, were commanding plenty of interest themselves, particularly from the inkies.

But The Divine Comedy set was all very shapeless and dour and, while the excellent ‘Europop’ E.P. [1992] was certainly a meatier and more focussed affair, the band imploded in North London shortly afterwards. Neil opted to go it alone and de-camped back to his parents’ house in County Fermanagh.

It was during the late Autumn of 1992 that Setanta started to receive the first flashes of what was to subsequently become the popular Divine Comedy sound. Neil had been busy back in Northern Ireland and had delivered us a suite of pretty ace but crudely formed songs on tape , all of which he’d written, played and produced himself on a small portable studio. Even at this stage, there was a real magic about some of that material.

Most of those songs would, of course, provide the spine to, ‘Liberation’, the aptly-titled, first full Divine Comedy album, released by Setanta in August, 1993, and the sound of a songwriter finally finding his voice after a false start. Recorded with the engineer Darren Allison, who also contributed drums, the record revealed a serious change in mood and tone. The original rhythm section had been replaced by a number of string players and Neil had swapped his indie-fringe for a tighter cut and a smart collar-and-tie finish. The whole thing had been recorded on a typical Setanta shoestring.

Immediately prior to the release of ‘Liberation’, I too had changed direction and was now busy back in Cork, working on a national television series I’d devised. No Disco’ was pitched as a late-night alternative music show for RTÉ Two, the first thrust of a central RTÉ strategy to produce more content from outside of  Dublin. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d actually based the series on the founding principles of Setanta Records ;- no money, no facilities, no embarrassment and plenty of neck. The origins and early days of the ‘No Disco’ series have never really been properly documented and I’ll return to this in a more substantial future post.

‘No Disco’ was cheap and cheerful television, a simple cut-and-paste of mildly left-field music videos with the odd interview [some of them very odd] and pulled together by the weekly proselytising of it’s presenter, Dónal Dineen. The first episode aired in September, 1993, to the sound of huge indifference and to the astonishment of those who had worked on it. But as soon as we found our feet and established ourselves in the margins of the RTÉ Two schedules, we’d started to get cockier and more ambitious.

To that end, we’d occasionally wander out from our bunkered existence at the studios in Father Mathew Street to tape, randomly enough, live acoustic performances from certain acts. The criteria were simple enough :- the music had to sit easily with Dónal and myself and the bands had to be prepared to deal with some of the vagaries of our existence as a television series by stealth, operating with minimal amounts of everything. It was rough and it was ready and we were based in Cork.

Keith Cullen had mailed me a pre-release of ‘Liberation’ on cassette and I couldn’t believe how good it was. Neither could I believe how far Neil had developed – and how quickly ? – since he’d left London. Yes, his songs had always had grand designs but he’d now re-drawn his foundations and the sound was far more rounded, mature and compelling as a result. Consequently, The Divine Comedy became an obvious early target for ‘No Disco’ and we were anxious to feature them as part of the brainwash.

In the absence of any video material – Setanta Records was run from a squat in Camberwell and barely had enough money to record its bands – we decided to tape a two-song Divine Comedy acoustic performance instead. And Neil’s gorgeous renditions of ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘Lucy’ – both among the many stellar songs on ‘Liberation’ – featured regularly on the ‘No Disco’ playlists throughout.

That session took us about two hours to record and involved around six hours work in all. It was shot on the spartan, curtained stage at The Firkin Crane building on the Northside of Cork city, a beautiful dance studio and theatre in the shadow of Shandon, the iconic landmark. As well as the two songs, we also knocked out a long-ish interview with Neil in which all of us were effusive in our praise for ‘Liberation’.

Tony McCarthy was the cameraman who captured the performance on standard Betacam tape, Paul O’Flynn was the sound recordist and, on this occasion, we’d hired the added help of Tony Healy, a local musician who provided the heavy duty sound equipment we used on all of these sessions.

Because we were working on the cheap, I’d also hired an acoustic guitar locally so that Neil didn’t incur additional flight charges. He played this guitar for the first time as we were setting up in the venue.

We’d put him up in my family’s house in Blackpool the previous night, where he charmed my mother, who loves her music and who remains a staunch supporter of Neil’s to this day. So whenever I hear The Divine Comedy’s ‘Mother Dear’ [from the ‘Victory For The Comic Muse’ album], I think that the song could easily be about my own mother’s absolute regard for her young guest all of those years previously. It isn’t, but hey …

‘No Disco’ never had the budget  to employ a production runner, to order taxis or to deal with the day-to-day practicalities of running sessions like these. And so I’d routinely be on hand to lug sound gear into venues, do a run for lunchtime sandwiches and, when required, bum lifts off of my father, who regularly spun musicians around Cork city and got them back on the train home. It was, of course, no way to run a television programme but then, in our heads at least, ’No Disco’ wasn’t a television programme at all. It was, to borrow popular current vernacular, a weekly Ted Talk :- an address of genuine inspiration to the nation.

On the day of the Firkin Crane session, Neil performed both songs at least three times each. Once we had captured the master sound recording – and once Neil was happy with what he had heard – we did a couple of other takes on the song from alternative angles. When we got into the edit with Antóin O’Callaghan [no relation] we decided, where possible, to keep the performances on one single shot. This was out of character with much of what was going on more widely in music television at the time. Indeed, it’s very rare these days to see any sort of pans, zooms and tilts on location-based television output. But again, in the hands of a skilled operator, the old ways can often be the only ways. And we went for it.

The only real concession we made in the edit was in removing all of the colour from the clip, for no other reason than we wanted those sessions to have a different look and feel to the rest of the programme. Among some of the other acoustic room performances we shot during the first year of the programme were a handful of ace tracks by The Harvest Ministers recorded in The Triskel Arts Centre, a cracking set by The Revenants in The CAT Club and a pretty special two-song show by Edwyn Collins, put to tape upstairs in The Old Oak, during which he performed ‘Low Expectations’ and ‘Gorgeous George’ from the Setanta album of the same name.

The Divine Comedy remained one of the staples of the ‘No Disco’ play-lists for many years thereafter. Over the following twelve months we also cobbled together a pretty woeful time-lapse video for ‘Tonight We Fly’ [from the band’s 1994 album, ‘Promenade’] salvaged from footage of a sun-down that one of Neil’s friends had sent us from London. And, one memorable Sunday afternoon, the directors Eamonn Crudden and Eamonn Doyle hired an old-school bicycle from a shop in Dillon’s Cross and shot a handful of Super 8 reels of my late friend, Philip  Kennedy, as he peddled around Cork. The personal highlight of that shoot occurred when we were asked to leave the grounds of The Cork Cricket Club by some local toff after we’d arrived, un-announced, up the avenue, on foot and on wheels, wielding a funny looking camera.

We used that footage to accompany ‘The Summerhouse’, another track from ‘Promenade’, which myself and Donal really liked and which, again, we just felt needed to be heard.

It was the pair of us, I guess, just taking care of business.