Ken Sweeney

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

 

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THE BLADES

While The Blades pre-date the wild record company feeding frenzies on  Dublin’s trading floors from the mid-1980s onwards, they too came pre-packed with the familiar, set-piece blessings from the usual sources, in this instance RTÉ television and radio and Hot Press magazine, both of which had pushed them on from early. And while its easy to view the early part of their stop-start career against the backdrop of U2’s unimaginable international success, The Blades were certainly a formidable antidote, for many years and on several levels, to their more celebrated peers who emerged with them from Dublin’s post-punk scene in the late 1970s. And all comparisons and contrasts are as relevant  now, on the release of The Blades’ second studio album, ‘Modernised’, as they were three decades ago.

As U2 prepare to return to the international arenas and Enormodomes to perform ‘The Joshua Tree’ in it’s entirety on the occasion of that record’s thirtieth anniversary, The Blades will spend the first months of 2017 promoting their first studio record since 1985 on a more meagre scale. But if the years since have seen Bono on one hell of a ride, The Blades too have taken just as unlikely a trip and, decades after both bands first weighed-in at The Magnet and The Dandelion Market, the whiff of raw nostalgia now pulls the pair of them back to same centre, albeit for different reasons and to different ends.

Avowedly working-class, The Blades formed in Ringsend, on the southside of inner-city Dublin, in the immediate aftermath of punk rock and their appeal, then as now, is summed up in their name :- they were sharp, dangerous and, on occasion, positively lethal. Originally comprised of brothers Lar and Paul Cleary [on guitar and bass, respectively] and busy drummer Pat Larkin, their sinewy, three-piece shtick was simple and uncomplicated, owing variously to the likes of The Jam, Secret Affair and classic American soul and, in their poppier moments, to Squeeze and even XTC. In Paul Cleary they boasted a songwriter and leader packing serious hardware and, within the narrow confines of what was still a fledgling domestic market, he carried political smarts and class-consciousness in his gun-belt. A barbed story-teller, he almost always preferred the direct lyrical route and it was this blunt, sometimes naïve, socio-political messaging that
definitively locked and loaded them.

For years they were one of the country’s most compelling live draws and many of their shows were marked by a genuine dash of cordite, both on-stage and off. By way of more detailed background, an excellent long-read on Come Here to Me documents the history of violence around live music in Dublin during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with specific mention of a Blades show at The TV Club in 1985, alongside visiting American ska band, The Untouchables, that was marred by fighting amongst the audience.

During the early part of 1992, Ken Sweeney – now a journalist and radio documentary maker, then an aspiring musician – rescued me from a squat in one of Peckham’s deserted high-rises and provided a welcome succour and a spare room in his rented terraced house across on the other side of London. Our address on Avalon Road in West Ealing was an apposite one :- although it often took me hours to get to where I worked in Camberwell, I found a genuine friendship and real warmth there, all of it rooted in a shared love of the same kind of music. Ken recorded two excellent albums for Setanta Records using the band name Brian, named after Brian Foley, the bass-player in what eventually became the best-known Blades line-up, and was a selfless and generous host. And we spent many long nights in Avalon Road poring intently over the likes of Miracle Legion, Into Paradise, Hinterland, The Blue Nile and The Go Betweens, fuelled as we went by thick cuts of toast.

On Sundays we’d make the journey over to an Australian greasy spoon in Earl’s Court where we’d tank up for the week on a massive cooked breakfast called ‘The Builder’, before hitting the record and tape exchange shops up around Notting Hill in which, with whatever spare change we could muster, we’d try and rescue a couple of bargains from the racks. Ken had a real fondness for The Blades and consistently made a strong case for them even if, for the most part, he was preaching to the converted. And he had real insider knowledge too :- his brother, David Sweeney, had played in a couple of fine Dublin bands, the angular, fondly-remembered Vipers [who also featured Brian Foley on bass] especially, and it was here that Ken’s connection to Dublin’s vibrant mod community was forged. On those long train rides across London, Ken would routinely sermonise about the importance of The Blades and, back on Avalon Road at night, we’d assess their place in what was then an emerging Irish music history.

And we’d agree, eventually, that yes, Paul Cleary’s gift had indeed been lost in the fog that had enveloped Irish music in the wake of U2. And in this respect, Ken had one up on me. As a Dubliner, he had a far more instinctive feel for The Blades [and indeed for U2] and for many of their fundamental points of reference. And certainly more so than those of us
from outside the capital, Cork especially, who were often, I think, inherently wary of any band we felt was being over-sold to us from above. Because despite my own long-standing affection for The Blades, there was certainly a point when I believed, rightly or wrongly, that they were being overly force-fed to us. And indeed while The Blades were regular visitors to Cork, and enjoyed a dedicated and passionate following there – the chorus led, as you’d suspect, by Irish Jack Lyons – I’m not entirely sure if they’ve ever been held in the regard there that they should have been. And for that I blame the fact that they presented, or were presented to us, as a little bit too overtly ‘of Dublin’.

By the time I fetched up on Avalon Road, The Blades had long been in cold storage. Although they’d signed an international deal after much brouhaha, their debut album, ‘The Last Man In Europe’, recorded for Elektra, eventually saw the light of day on Elvera Butler’s small Irish imprint, Reekus Records instead. And despite years of almost exclusively positive notices and the consistent support of the media here, the band just wasn’t sustainable on kindness alone and the arse eventually fell out from under The Blades.

So with this in mind, one of the more interesting songs on ‘Modernised’ is ‘The Magnets’ where Cleary, from a distance, sketches a snappy history of his own band that concludes with a reminder of their primary achievements. Asserting that the group had always been ‘working-class and proud’ and that they remain ‘on the left and there for you’, the song
eventually taps another familiar vein :- although wider commercial success eluded The Blades they at least, to Cleary’s mind, ‘stayed true to ourselves’. And this is a refrain you’ll hear from many Irish bands, especially those who pulled up just short of achieving more substantial breakthroughs outside of the country. Even if, in most cases, the trait is simply impossible to measure.

I’ve long suspected that, privately, Cleary must have often pondered the great what-if ;- it’s just un-natural for someone so sussed and media-savvy not to have. But the passing of time and the shift in the context allows him to do this more blatantly now, and without the risk of  sounding churlish. And in the same breath it’s also worth noting the relationship between The Blades and The Radiators [From Space], another band from across town who emerged during the post-punk period and who I’d long imagined stood for everything The Blades didn’t. But the premature passing of Philip Chevron, the one-time Radiators frontman and subsequent Pogues bulwark in October, 2013, has clearly had far more of an impact on Cleary than some could have imagined.

Because it was a testimonial show for Chevron at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre weeks before he died that seems to have triggered The Blades’ full-scale return to the bear-pit. At the late songwriter’s invitation, Cleary performed two songs at that Olympia show to a knowledgeable and sussed home crowd, comprised largely of peers, friends and fans.

By Christmas, The Blades – bolstered with brass and keyboards – were  back in the same venue, headlining a pair of excellent, high-octane, sold-out shows of their own to practically the same audience.

Chevron’s ghost underpins one of the stronger of Cleary’s new songs, ‘A  Love We Won’t Deny’ which, nodding to last year’s marriage equality referendum result and to social equality generally, name-checks The Radiators’ magnificent ‘Under Clery’s Clock’ as it does. To these ears one of the most sadly affecting songs ever committed to tape in  modern Ireland, Chevron’s ballad is located in the middle of Dublin city centre – ‘an lár’ – during a time in the country’s history when same-sex relations were still illegal and where the song’s central character, a gay man, pines for the embrace of his partner ‘by the street light, like other lovers do without disgrace’. As with much of Chevron’s most powerful and
evocative material – ‘Song Of The Faithful Departed’, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ and even his version of Brendan Behan’s ‘The Captains And The Kings’ – ‘Under Clery’s Clock’ is a song of struggle, a cry for empathy and a call to man to do the right thing in the face of provocation and challenge ;- to stay true to himself. A theme that now predicates much of the jagged nostalgia at the heart of ‘Modernised’.

By the mid-1990s, Cleary was in a self-imposed semi-exile, contributing  regular journalism to Hot Press and In Dublin magazines while also leading The Cajun Kings, a pub rock and covers outfit that was a regular fixture on the Dublin live circuit for several years. As a young producer in RTÉ, I’d often see Paul pushing his young children around
Donnybrook village in their buggies while out and about at lunchtime :- it was an image that always struck me as being so utterly in keeping with many of the scenarios he’d previously sketched in his songs. But I’d sometimes see Cleary inside the gates of RTÉ as well ;- one of his summer side-lines during this time was as a question setter, alongside the late George Byrne, on the youth television quiz series ‘Blackboard Jungle’, which was block-recorded by David and Gerald Heffernan’s production company, Frontier Films, on the campus at Montrose during breaks in the school calendar.

That connection between Paul Cleary, Frontier Films and RTÉ is another  long-standing one. Like many others, my first encounters with The Blades were on RTÉ Television and radio, especially the live, three-hour, Saturday morning series for young people, ‘Anything Goes’. One of the presenters on that series, David Heffernan, was a long-time champion of The Blades and his name surfaces regularly around the Paul Cleary archive, starting with a performance of ‘The Reunion’ on ‘Anything Goes’ as far back as 1980. And he turns up again in relation to one of the most compelling pieces of popular music archive in the RTÉ libraries, a 1982 video for The Blades’ ‘The Bride Wore White’, which was commissioned specially for the post-noon rock insert he hosted within the programme.

Directed with a real cinematic ambition by the late Bob Collins, who later went on to produce and direct ‘Top Of The Pops’, the three minute insert was shot on 16mm black and white film over two days around Dublin’s south inner-city. In among the numerous shots of urban deriliction, pushed prams, general street scenes and young kids on the loose, Cleary and the band, in their smart Crombies, line-up in a variety of set-pieces. It was an earnest, high-end piece of work that took an amount of resources to complete and, in keeping with much about The Blades during this period, was a class apart.

And there are many other memorable clips of Paul Cleary at work still available in the RTÉ libraries, a testament to just how strongly and consistently his case was espoused – and continues to be so – by numerous producers, in television and radio, throughout his career. A suited and booted solo performance of the magnificent ‘Some People Smile’ on The Late Late Show in 1983 is another highlight, as is the pared-back delivery of ‘Too Late’ with the country singer, Ray Lynam, from the late night youth series, TV GaGa, in 1987. Cleary and Lynam had already worked together a couple of years previously when, in the
aftermath of Band Aid, he wrote and fronted an Irish single for the Concern charity. ‘Show Some Concern’ featured what looks now, in hindsight, like a most bizarre line-up of personalities and performers, with Maura O’Connell, Maxi, Freddie White, Christy Moore and Gay Woods prominent on the gang-chorus alongside Red Hurley, Twink, Larry Gogan, Pat Kenny and Lynam himself.

Show Some Concern’ did indeed top the singles chart in Ireland and, by so doing, delivered on it’s primary purpose, but it’s Cleary’s more elemental work, ‘Some People Smile’, ‘Animation’ and ‘Too Late’, that has endured far more comfortably easily over time. Indeed ‘Too Late’ is easily one of the great Irish songs of the period, Cleary at his most sophisticated on a song that, completing a familiar circle, shares common stylistic ground with Philip Chevron’s ‘Under Clery’s Clock’. By the mid-1980s, Ray Lynam was in his commercial pomp as leader of his own formidable country outfit, The Hillbillies. But beyond the crudely formed stereotype there was, and remains, a unique and remarkable voice, a fact not lost on his collaborator. And in retrospect, ‘Too Late’ represents a clear line in the sand for Cleary ;- increasingly restless, restrained and frustrated, it was no surprise when he pulled the shutters down on The Blades after another raucous live show in The Olympic Ballroom the following year.

‘Too Late’ closes the thirteen-song compilation, ‘Raytown Revisited’, the second, and superior, of the band’s two albums released in 1985, months after their debut ;- it is, to all intents, The Blades’ own ‘Hatful Of Hollow’. ‘The Last Man In Europe’ which, like The Smiths’ debut album, was produced by John Porter, had been released earlier that year but, having been on hold for so long, sounded slightly flat by comparison. And although that album features the outstanding title-track, the imperious ‘Downmarket’ and the resilient ‘Boy One’, all given a smooth, lacquered pop finish, The Blades were far, far better than ‘The Last Man’ may have suggested to those coming at them for the first time.

A fact to which Cleary himself may have been alluding when he gave Dave Fanning a long and insightful interview on Sandymount strand for Billy Magra’s excellent 1987 profile of him as part of the RTÉ One arts series, ‘Visual Eyes’. Having finally settled on a more settled line-up for his first post-Blades project, The Partisans, Cleary was in prickly form ;- in making a case for his new band he claimed, more than once, that The Blades weren’t nearly as good as many had made them out to be.

But that was then and this is now and, notwithstanding the fact that he was attempting to affect some sense of separation from one project as he was pushing another, we can mark this now as just frisky loose-talk, played primarily for effect. Because by any stretch of the imagination, The Blades forever gave as good as they got, pound for pound and, in Cleary, enjoyed one of the most potent and robust song-writers in the history of popular Irish music. With the band now back in tidy working order, playing the odd live show and even releasing new material, Cleary evidently feels that there’s unfinished business to be done. And in the year that’s in it, with the trace of raw, uncompromised nostalgia already set thick in the air, who knows where events may yet take them ?