Louis Walsh


Photo : Greg Canty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The swagger of the remarkable hurling teams up in The North Mon during our secondary school years in the early 1980s would regularly entice entire slabs of Cork’s northside on tour beyond the county bounds and out of reach of regular reason. On assorted mid-week afternoons every winter, a slew of battered old buses and coaches would fetch up at the gates and deliver the school’s travelling army to remote, rural venues all over Munster for big colleges games. And these were all bleak, barren and backwards places ;- with our crudely-formed inner-city smarts, anywhere other than Blackpool was.

Decked out in our duffle coats and hooped blue-and-white scarves, and with our cheese sandwiches packed away in our pockets, we saw the very best of emerging locals like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan, Jim Murray, Liam Coffey and the mighty Connerys of Na Piarsaigh up close in their callow bodies and pimply faces in villages and towns all over South Tipperary and beyond. Those young men were never beaten and consistently left it all out there on the killing fields in the school’s cause and, back in The Mon, we made sure to commemorate their heroics.

We had a song, ‘Amhrán na Main’ – a bit like Amhrán Na bhFiann meets The Green Fields Of France – which we’d rehearse in class before big Dr. Harty Cup games and, on those occasions when we’d reach a provincial or national final, the school would produce it’s own hurling fanzine, a badly photocopied, Pravda-inspired issue called ‘Monsoon’. In which you were told all you needed to know about the teenagers on the panel – club, height, weight, the class they were in and their own favourite hurlers – with a cursory line at the end about their off-field peccadilloes.

Frankie Walsh was one of a small number of pupils who were trusted with loud-hailers and hand-picked to lead the cheering and chanting on the days of the big games. He had a smoker’s wheezy rasp and a fine beardy shadow and some of those in the staffroom clearly thought his sharp tongue and quick wit could be channelled a bit more positively. And, for a change, to the school’s benefit. So on the marquee occasions, he’d be given a bit more latitude than usual and enlisted as an official rabble-rouser.

Frankie was easily bored, though, and would sometimes deviate off-script and into more dangerous territory [‘Tax The Farmers’ was one of his better originals] and, from his seat at the back of the bus, would slyly drop the teachers’ nicknames into some of his post- watershed material. It took a brave boy to stare down The Christian Brothers but Frankie had a hard neck and a soft head and he’d give anything a decent old shot. And on the days immediately after we’d put one over on Thurles C.B.S. or Saint Flannans of Ennis or Saint Colman’s of Fermoy, he’d strut the ramp up to school like someone returned from a fortnight in America with a buffalo’s head in his holdall.

It was hurling that first took us to Emly, New Inn, Cahir, Clogheen and Ballyporeen, and they were vile places: one-bit, two-horse towns that whiffed of diesel and whose pop-up tuck shops and filthy chip vans lured the per diems from the sweaty palms of the day-trippers. How the locals, we imagined, must have feared the bumper days when The Northside, in it’s rattling fleet, rolled into town with it’s history, cocky young hurlers, loud-hailers and quotient of un-reconstructed tulls.

Decades later I married into the South Tipperary crowd and, for the last twenty years, I’ve routinely driven those roads through the same villages and towns deep within The Golden Vale, often over the hills into Kilworth and back home by stealth to Cork from my in-laws house in Ardfinnan. Every single time I drive the four-and-a half miles from Clogheen into Ballyporeen, a part of me is still fifteen years old, thick and back there with the Mon boys on tour, taxing the farmers. And another part of me is older but no less clueless, wondering which of the narrow by-roads around these parts could have inspired such wonder and magic in the songs of Gemma Hayes ?

Born and reared within a large family in Ballyporeen, Hayes remains a peripheral figure and real curiosity within Irish music circles and, even after nearly twenty years spent making records and keeping on, is frightfully difficult to pin down. Sitting neither in the fish bowl of the kooky left-field set populated by Lisa O’Neill and Julie Feeney or in the often ungainly mainstream of Imelda May or Sinéad, she’s long paid the price for her ambition and wanderlust and even more so for her indifference.

I’ll happily stand corrected but I’m still not convinced she’s been given the credit she deserves as one of Ireland’s most consistent, curious and captivating writers and solo performers, as engaging over long distance as Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien and even Sinéad herself. So much so that, when I see Imelda May vamping it one more time for the cameras, the latest in line of national sweethearts, I wonder if Ireland just likes it’s contemporary story-tellers far better if they’re more malleable and just available ?

During the summer of 2015, Gemma did a short radio insert with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio One ;- she was plugging her fifth album, ‘Bones And Longing’ and, from a remote studio in London, performed a couple of numbers on acoustic guitar and gave her host a terrific if all- too-brief interview. During that exchange she revealed that Louis Walsh, the one-time Boyzone and Westlife manager and now a well-known figure on British television, once suggested he take her under his wing and manage her career. ‘He wanted to work with me at the time. He was saying to me, ‘Gemma, you need to play the game more. We need to get you out dating another celebrity, we need to get you on the scene and in the papers’’, Gemma told Miriam.

Walsh, who she described as ‘a brilliant businessman’, also suggested that Hayes stop writing her own material and that he employ a team to do that on her behalf instead. And kicking the corpse once more for good luck, he assured her that she did indeed have ‘The X Factor’ which, no doubt, thrilled her no end.

Walsh is a diverting, often creepy and always boisterous figure with a traditional view of the entertainment industry – ‘the business we call ‘show’’ – who’s long understood the enduring benefits of good teeth and the utter pointlessness of the creative process. Alongside a couple of RTÉ presenters, Walsh is easily the most available ‘well-known face’ in the country and, to this extent, is a world removed from Gemma Hayes who remains at a distance and tends to hold her whisht unless she has a record to perform or promote or something of interest to impart.

Which has it’s advantages too, of course. Because if Gemma was more visible and closer to hand, like all national sweethearts, would her terrific songs still carry the same degree of mystery ? Does unsung and distant give her more room to roam, more of a licence to take risks and distort her sound ? Either way, she had a lucky escape with Louis Walsh.

Hayes first made herself heard during the late 1990s when, around the fringes of the post-raggle taggle Dublin scene dominated by the likes of The Frames, The Mary Janes and Mark Geary, you’d sometimes see her with the Whelans and Mother Redcaps set, often alongside the cellist Julian Lennon. There have been five albums since, all of them flushed with the soft, acoustic touch of the old school folkies, the frenetic, shoe-gaze blitz of Slowdive, the up-beat pop swagger of The Bangles and the giddy eclectics of Kate Bush. And every one of which, kicking against convention, has been progressively better and more ambitious than the last.

Foremost among which is 2008’s ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, a terrific break-up album seeking both ‘order in the chaos’ [and indeed ‘chaos in the order’ too] in the aftermath of a split, whether that be from a person, place or thing. Or indeed all three.

Sharply produced by David Odlum, one of the original members of The Frames and a member of Hayes’s kitchen cabinet for years, it’s easily one of the best Irish albums of the last two decades. And yet ‘The Hollow Of Morning’ rarely features on anyone’s list ;- another recurring theme of Hayes’s career. Unsurprisingly, the records that followed it –the excellent ‘Let It Break’ [2011] and 2014’s ‘Bones And Longing’, both of which, like ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, were independently issued – didn’t trouble the chart compilers either. Indeed despite a handsome cluster of terrific, guitar-fuelled albums, she is arguably best known fora cover version of Chris Issac’s ‘Wicked Game’, which featured on the soundtrack of the American teen drama series, ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and, to a lesser extent, for ‘Making My Way Back’, which sound-tracked the Lidl supermarket chain’s Christmas advertising campaign some years back.

But she remains one of my own favourite artists and I routinely return to Gemma’s songs ;- after a recent post here about Joe Chester, who’s collaborated with and featured alongside her for years, I’ve listened to practically nothing else since. And there’s a lot of material to suck in too, most of it determined by simple melodies and those gorgeous, breathy deliveries and smart, often arrant lyrics that have long been among her signatures.

Over the course of a random shuffle, she’ll divert and shift gear from the giddy, piano and plucked string staccato of ‘All I Need’ [from ‘Let It Break’] to the up-beat, guitar pop workouts of ‘Happy Sad’ [from ‘The Roads Don’t Love You’] and ‘Out Of Our Hands’ [from ‘The Hollow Of Morning’] to the introspective, fuzzy shoe-gazed tuning of ‘Laughter’ [from ‘Bones And Longing’]. And in spite of myself, I’m still suckered every time by the full-frontal pay-off in ‘Keep Running’, her 2011 single that, after a mildly-tempered rattle that name-checks some of the most interesting cities in the world in which the writer ‘might as well be lost’, proceeds to flail blindly, like a drunken uncle at an indie disco.

No one song captures the breath of Hayes’s ambition better than ‘I Let A Good Thing Go’, from her sturdy 2002 debut album, ‘Night On My Side’, which boasts all of her primary strike assets within it’s four minutes :- the carnal vocals, acoustic underlay and full-frontal thrashing that plays with skewed tunings and distorted lower ends. Ingredients she’s long favoured throughout her recording history, in which the most obvious variances have been in her increased use of beats, loops and dips ;- her most recent work is certainly infused with far more ambience and space. As if, almost, the more perceptive and confident she’s grown, the easier it’s become for her to pare her songs right back ;- on ‘Bones And Longing’ as if she’s often just corrupting the beauty.

A couple of summers ago, I produced ‘Saturday Night With Miriam’ for the RTÉ One television schedule and, with no little prompting from the show’s music booker, my old friend Caroline Henry, we invited Paul Noonan from Bell X1 and Gemma to come in and perform a live, acoustic version of ‘The Snowman’. Trading for the occasion as Printer Clips, a solo project of Paul’s, they fetched up in Studio Four without fanfare or fuss and, working the song through during afternoon rehearsals, had a core of us absolutely distracted as they did do.

Gemma had arrived bearing gifts ;- as well as her acoustic guitar, she also brought along her husband, who was also minding their first child, a little boy. And hours later, and in front of an audience of just over one hundred, Paul and herself delivered a mighty live performance, directed with her usual brio – in one shot only – by Niamh White and captured on camera in a single take by Gerry Hickey, a formidable and skilled operator. Once we’d downed tools for the night and repaired back-stage, Gemma told us that she’d successfully crowd-funded a new record, even if motherhood had given her far more pressing priorities and, as you’d expect, plenty else to occupy her mind and her time.

Months later she’d also delivered ‘Bones And Longing’, as absorbing a record as any and easily her most salient. And across much of the promotion she did in support of that record, she spoke about how becoming a mother had genuinely liberated her and about how music no longer absorbs her so intently or exclusively.

Life as a parent clearly suits her.

And her work.



Commons Wikipedia

I wrote a weekly music column in The Sunday Tribune newspaper for a number of years during the mid and late 1990s. Helen Callanan, the editor who hired me and Matt Cooper, who inherited me, had far more pressing matters to deal with on a weekly basis and so I was usually left alone and given a fair amount of licence. Sharing the same space once a week with some of the finest journalists and feature writers in the country, I believed I was doing the paper a real service but, reading back on some of those columns now, I can’t believe how crude some of my writing was. Having strong opinions was all very well and good but expressing those succinctly and clearly in print was far more difficult.

The years I spent contributing to The Sunday Tribune paralleled with Boyzone’s development from the in-joke unveiled on The Late Late Show in 1993 to the stadium-sized cabaret turn that was manfully working the European circuit a matter of years later. Boyzone were Ireland’s first manufactured pop band of real scale and had a couple of interesting side-stories, most of which only emerged after the group split up. I thought they were dire, and certainly nowhere near as convincing as Take That, the popular, clean-cut British boy band on whose blueprint Boyzone was conceived and whose ambitions they shared. But I also thought that Ronan, Keith, Mikey, Stephen and Shane were just too easy a target and so, initially, I tended to steer clear of them in print. When I wasn’t gushing about my latest local fancies, there were far more legitimate targets for the negative stuff and, when it came to Boyzone, I just stood back and applauded their audacity, marvelling at the scale of their necks.

I’d met Louis Walsh, initially Boyzone’s co-manager, the odd time: he’d hawked a couple of moderately decent indie bands around the scene in his time and, for all of his blather, seemed harmless enough. But the emergence of Take That, East 17 and The Backstreet Boys had awoken a different sort of yearning in him and he’d re-defined himself as an out-and-out puppetmaster. The Irish media market had recently expanded too and, as more and more newspapers and radio stations entered the local fray, Walsh wasn’t short of champions. His mobile number was, and remains, one of the most gettable in Ireland and he was often as regular a fixture in print and on the airwaves as any of his charges.

One of the more interesting aspects of Boyzone’s success was how Walsh so manipulated the media in Ireland – and later in Britain – to hype an act that was severely limited, even within the narrow parameters of its genre. Indeed the access to and the ease with which Walsh toyed with the media is far more interesting than anything his numerous groups have ever committed to wax. With the odd exception, this aspect of the Boyzone story goes largely unremarked. Louis Walsh knows particular parts of pop music history intimately but, when you’re dealing in snake oil, its important to know the system to fully realise the concept of supply and demand. In an emerging media market, he provided regular parcels of good, sneery copy: he was ready, available and loud.

The pair of us had a couple of decent rows over the years and, to his credit, he always defended his corner stoutly, often using the darker arts he’d learned during his long apprenticeship around the chicken supper circuit. Like many of the Svengalis who preceded him, he favoured a handful of lackeys in the media to which he’d routinely drip all manner of nonsense, most of which, in the spirit of churnalism, made its way straight to print or onto air, no questions asked. Walsh dealt exclusively and comprehensively in flat earth news and, for years, he had no shortage of takers.

In May, 1997, RTÉ hosted that year’s Eurovision Song Contest live from Dublin’s Point Depot. Boyzone’s leader and primary vocalist, Ronan Keating, presented the annual competition for European broadcasters alongside another emerging television personality, Carrie Crowley who, among her many talents, was a genuine blues singer with a serious range. Keating was also asked to write and perform – with Boyzone – the interval piece that buttressed the show on the night. After Bill Whelan’s ‘Riverdance’ had detonated so spectacularly during half-time at a previous Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin in 1994, Keating was on a real hiding to nothing, and unfairly so. With so much attention lavished on the interval performance,  his songwriting – remarkably unremarkable – was about to be laid bare.

Irked by suggestions from the fringes that Boyzone were really just a hand-cut karaoke-act in smart suits by Louis Copeland, Louis Walsh would always take the bait and spring to robustly defend Ronan Keating, and with no little elan. He went so far as to fancifully bracket him alongside the likes of Elton John and George Michael as a classic song-writer in waiting. Loyally selling his act on the one hand, Walsh was easily bored on the other and, one sensed, was simply amusing himself at the expense of a small cluster of impressionable hacks, disc jockeys and broadcasters. With way more charisma and, ultimately, far more staying power than any of his acts, the more his own star developed, the more he could get away with. To this end he was liable to say anything.

Walsh never struck me as the sharpest knife in the drawer and, in the years since, I’m not especially surprised that he’s found considerable mainstream fame as a comedy side-kick on a formatted family entertainment show. But for all his ability to dole it out, he has, like many others with a sense of entitlement, often had difficulty taking it back. He took the hump royally after a Sunday Tribune piece I wrote about Keating’s Eurovision Song Contest interval composition, ‘Let The Message Run Free, and even wrote to my employers in a fit of pique to complain me for my treason. He subsequently banned all of his acts from appearing on any of the television programmes I was involved with and, on the presumption that anyone was remotely interested, raced to The Sunday World to tell them as much. For the record, I hosted several of Louis Walsh’s acts on prime-time television programmes over the years and, in so doing, played my own part in keeping the wheel turning.

Louis and Ronan Keating later fell out and, by all accounts, went their separate ways. One presumes that the Svengali may have revised his views on his former charge’s writing abilities somewhat since and, who knows, he may even agree with my own critical assertions now ? Meanwhile, in a parallel world, my three young daughters love Louis Walsh: they know him from The X-Factor and think he’s funny, charming and absolutely fantastic. Which is far more than they think of their father.

My Sunday Tribune piece ran on Sunday, May 11th, 1997 and we’ve re-produced it in its entirity here, under it’s original headline, ‘When critics are loyal to a fault’. We’ve made minor grammatical and syntax corrections to the original copy.


One of the most dangerous aspects of rock music criticism [or any other form of criticism, for that matter], sits in the co-relation between head and heart, where sentiment and loyalty are set against reality and fact. A stubborn refusal, if you will, to see the wood for the trees in order to maintain history’s legacy of balance and a peace of mind of sorts.

It happens all of the time, of course, and we’ve all pleaded guilty on occasion, although to varying extents and in varying contexts. But twice in the last fortnight, however, we’ve seen two very blatant and cowardly refusals by the mass music media, both at home and abroad, to call the real shot. And to those of us who actually genuinely care about such things, that’s a trouble.

The Seahorses, a band formed by The Stone Roses’ main man, John Squire, and the increasingly Ronan Keating-led Boyzone may, on record and on paper, at least, share nothing really in particular. What’s come to bind them over the last two weeks is a mass critical fawning and a marked media reluctance to get blunt in the cold light of bad standards.

Keating’s commissioned Eurovision piece, ‘Let The Message Run Free’, premiered to over three hundred million viewers last weekend, was the defining proof as far as I’m concerned [if, indeed, proof was ever really needed] that he and his band are seriously out of their depth on the adult stage and positively gasping, right now, for air.

As the writer of the Eurovision interval piece, Keating was always going to struggle in past company, following in a proven and trusted line of local heavy-hitters. Bill Whelan’s ‘Riverdance’ score has already, quite rightly, been feted by the international industry while both Dónal Lunny’s ‘Timedance’ [1991] and Míceál Ó Súilleabháin’s stunning 1995  showpiece, ‘Lumen’, stand tall as dazzling commissions in any context.

Given history, then, ‘Let The Message Run Free’ was completely formless, far less lightweight kitsch than a casual stir-fry of lyrical and musical clichés flung like mud at a wall, some of it sticking first time around, most of it sadly not.

Over no really discernible melody or chorus [a recurring theme in Keating’s fledgling canon], Boyzone popped a stream of karaoke one-liners that stopped at all of the standard thematic bases – from child’s eyes to light and bright to a world that is, shockingly, confused. To all intents, it’s lyrical message may have been lifted from the back of a Trócaire Lenten appeal box.

All of this comes as no real surprise to those of us who have long since refused even to acknowledge this charade, although there’s something strangely ironic about the sheer scale of the actual embarrassment. What is most peculiar, however, is how Keating’s mentor and manager, Louis Walsh [himself steeped in a Eurovision and cabaret circuit coat] can still defiantly work this country’s gullible and gossip-hungry tabloid media so impressively on the strength of such a nothing.

Eight days onwards and no one has yet dared to call the real bluff – that ‘Let The Message Run Free’ was, given the context and the legacy, flaccid and second-rate – a flatulent, cabaret salute to Europe and Boyzone’s most blatant humiliation yet.

Although with the band’s status already in decline, and with much of it’s original hardcore support now at school-going age, Louis Walsh’s  Eurovision high-jack at least helps him to maintain the image into the foreseeable. And so it’s as you were, and all of that.

I’ve always treated Manchester’s Stone Roses too with a huge suspicion that derives largely, one imagines, from the band’s inability to prove any sort of greatness in the face of adversity. Granted, the band’s lavishly over-rated first album still has it’s moments [‘I Am The Resurrection’, ‘Made Of Stone’, ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, for four] but five great songs in twelve years begs obvious questions.

In hindsight, The Stone Roses’ ‘Second Coming’ was nothing more than a try-on – a blast of incomplete guitar lines and half-hearted psycho-babble hiding a desperate lack of discernible tunes and mirroring, over forty minutes, the band’s slip-slide into pointless parody.

It’s in that frame of mind, then, that I genuinely worried about The Seahorses, Squire’s brand new yellow-pack all-stars who last week seriously dented the singles chart on the back of their debut, ‘Love Is The Law’. Even allowing an appropriate time for the record to settle, and granting Squire’s new charges the grace to get to grips with the reality of where they are, so quickly, ‘Love Is The Law’ is a rabid pup of a record, an aimless and over-blustered guitar work-out that sounds for all the world like Ocean Colour Scene on Valium.

Lyrically it’s a mess of over-arty one-liners, scooped casually together and knitted as some sort of wilful stream of consciousness.

Had the record been the work of, say, either Gene or Morrissey, it would have been tarred at the stocks long-since. It hasn’t. Instead the largely British music press have claimed it’s arrival as some sort of miraculous third coming, generously welcoming Squire’s return as an active musician and side-stepping his inconsistent and dubious writing past.

But then both Melody Maker and New Musical Express – the guiltiest parties of all in the plot [and not for the first time, either] – desperately need John Squire’s allure and mystique right now like they needed the remarkably sellable Oasis five years ago or The Smiths’ pop optimism back in 1982 – anything, in other words, that can kick-start a new music and re-define a new set of mind values to a bored readership.

Because like it or not, bands like Three Colours Red and Symposium won’t, ultimately, sell newspapers, regardless of whose truth you believe. And right now John Squire, just like Ronan Keating, exists far more in memory and in name than he does in consequential reality. He has, like it or not, a seat of sorts in pop history and a lavish pedigree to most of those setting the pop press agendas, however rightly or wrongly. And right now, almost ten years after his last great song, his face, like Ronan Keating’s, sells, irrespective of how good or how bad his product is.

The only really telling thing being, of course, that you can’t put your arms around memories forever. And right now the clocks for both Squire and Boyzone, whatever you don’t read elsewhere, are ticking.

Game on.


During the summer of 1996, when I was leading a team about to launch Popscene, a music television show for teenagers,  I first heard mention of The Spice Girls. All manner of new music would arrive into the office on a weekly basis from well-meaning pluggers and publicists, much of it of dubious quality, even for our target audience. But there was something very immediate and zesty about The Spice Girls, and I was reeled in right away.

By way of context, this period was characterised by a return to moderate prominence of the British pop single even if, in hindsight, this was more the last sting of a dying wasp. On the one hand, Oasis and Blur slugged it out in what was quite possibly the last ever genuine race to the top of the singles chart while, on the other, one makey-uppy boy-band after another
battled for the amateur lightweight belts.

The Spice Girls were an all-girl group in a market dominated by young men. They were a fully-formed antidote to Boyzone’s oily cabaret shtick and, immediately on landing, already had a couple of pretty ace singles in their locker. The way I saw it, three minutes of the girls meant three less minutes of the Boyz, and this was a good thing.

Almost twenty years on, no one remembers a single Boyzone song apart, maybe, from the covers and the one with Rowan Atkinson in the video. But while The Spice Girls may have eventually burned out as quickly as they once burned bright; it’s fair to say that they’ve hardly been forgotten. Everyone can hum one of their tunes, if pushed; – pop songs rarely come better than ‘Wannabe’, ‘Say You’ll Be There’ and ‘Two Become One’.

But even as their debut album was emerging, The Spice Girls were already off-limits. Although most of the big international record companies still operated local offices and centres of distribution in Dublin, the band’s publicity was so controlled that the closest Popscene came to them was when we recorded a Spice Girls tribute act in a nightclub in Leicester Square in London. I subsequently worked with Mel C and Emma Bunton during my time on the bigger RTÉ entertainment shows, long after the band had split. Both were decent, affable and excellent company, even if their solo material was far less memorable.

I wrote at length and with no little gusto about The Spice Girls in The Sunday Tribune throughout 1996 and 1997. Apart from the opportunity to proselytise, I also had the chance to land a few decent reducers on Louis Walsh and his charges, who were badly exposed in ‘Wannabe’’s after-glow. This may often have amounted to simply shooting fish in a barrel but I welcomed any chance to harpoon the country’s self-styled Svengali and his ten-legged squid.

Matt Cooper had recently been appointed editor of the paper when he asked me to knock out a long feature on The Spice Girls for the issue of November 24th, 1996, and we’ve re-produced most of it below. This cover story was splashed across three pages inside under the headline, ‘The Spice Of Life’. With the band out of bounds and the internet still in its infancy to most of us, the piece is comprised largely of opinion, bulked out with various quotes from elsewhere, especially from Amy Raphael’s excellent book, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks – Women Re-Write Rock’.

I also quoted Simon Price, whom I met when we were both working at Melody Maker magazine and who, as well as being the definitive authority on The Manic Street Preachers, was also a serious advocate of Engine Alley. And in the original piece, also quoted Stephen Dalton, whose interview with The Spice Girls had run in a recent issue of Vox magazine.

The piece was augmented by a support-column on the great all-girl bands of our time. Headlined ‘Girls On Top’, much of it was written by my colleague, Paul G. Sheridan, whose knowledge of popular music history and whose store of factual information is encyclopaedic. And who, because of this, did what I shamefully failed do in the body of the main piece :- mention The Supremes, the greatest all-girl group in popular music history.

The Spice of Life

Popular music has always been about ever-decreasing novelties, about the moment meeting the idea and about clever opportunism having it’s five minutes before it implodes. These days, with an apparent re-birth in the role of the pop-single and in the power of the song, pop has never been more easily bored. As movements and poses come and go far more frequently, so too are many more songs far too easily forgotten and lost.

It’s the chance that you take, of course, it’s the price that you pay and it’s the primary rule that seeps right through popular culture. Popular music waits for no one, so tough.

Given the almost incessant swarm of manufactured pop bands over the last six years, most of them exclusively boy-led, it seems strange that it’s taken so long for the all-girl alternative. That said, popular music has traditionally been a man’s world, with few women ever acceding to power at managerial, directorial and production levels. But as Amy Raphael wrote over two years ago in her quite stunning study, Never Mind The Bollocks ; Women Re-Write Rock, ‘rock needs to be constantly challenged by women. With the 1990s hot-pot of sexual confusion, women are able to construct their own images in a way they couldn’t before. The fact is that gender will remain an issue as long as the music industry is dominated by men, and female musicians remain an exception to the rule’.

As the end of the year looms then, and as the last 12 months are seen in some sort of linear context, two band names will dominate any worthwhile form reports. Those names are Oasis and The Spice Girls.

Everyone knows Oasis of course and, come the beginning of The New Year, one domestic household in three will have one or both of the band’s albums. But in terms of achievement and delivery, particularly given popular music’s established and stuffy red tape, the year belongs largely to The Spice Girls, this decade’s defining girl-band and pop’s shiniest and brightest new toy.

They are, to those who’ve been buried away, a five-strong, garrulous pop thing that have casually sauntered to the top of the British singles chart with both of their first releases, ‘Wannabe’ and ‘Say You’ll Be There’, and with their already platinum first album, ‘Spice’. The intensity and scope of their impact has even surprised their record company, Virgin Records, and while The Spice Girls are still officially un-released in America, they have already been play-listed as an import act on several pivotal radio stations. So that even now, in its first week of release, it would seem that ‘Spice’, unlike recent records by Boyzone and East 17, does actually travel well and translates easily onto a world market and the bigger pop picture.

For the sake of reference, however, The Spice Girls are no casual or over-night arrival. Aged between their late teens and their earliest 20s, all five girls – Emma, Victoria, Melanie C, Geri and Melanie B – know too well the fringes of showbusiness. They have all worked the circuit variously as dancers, session singers and actresses and at least one of them has porn-modelled. But contrary to many of their mascara-soaked pen profiles, they do actually sing, they do actually play and they do actually write for themselves. And in a genre that has traditionally played the passive role and that has more often than not chosen the safest and most-tested road, they shine like diamonds in the mire.

New Musical Express has already labelled them ‘the Take That it’s alright to like … if you’re a bloke’ but The Spice Girls’ appeal, based largely around New Laddism and saucy street-sass, has already broken through pop’s most rigid gender definitions. Their sales figures and market breakdown spit blatantly in the eyes of form and type, and they have defiantly impacted on the teenage girl audience as they have done on the teenage boy one, selling themselves as role models to those, particularly girls, who are kicking against the pricks.

Simon Price, reviewing ‘Spice’ for Melody Maker magazine concluded that ‘with their crayon-simple, girl-power self-sufficiency, The Spice Girls are infinitely more useful than anything that’s come from the indie sector to the vast majority of teenage girls who a) aren’t lesbian and b) don’t like lo-fi guitar music. Like Cyndi, they just wanna have fun. Like En Vogue,
they’re saying you ain’t never gonna get it’.

And he’s right to a point, because while The Spice Girls deliver brazen, dance-floor pop music that’s mildly familiar and still very positively doused in spice, they also run far deeper, playing noble wordgames and kicking sand at the industry as they go. ‘We wanted the whole philosophy of The Spice Girls to be just like a cult’, says Geri, the band’s central focus and mouthpiece. ‘We’ve just tapped into how girls are feeling. It’s like feminism, but you don’t have to burn your bra’.

This is arguably the first time that British popular music has come across anything as genuinely unique as The Spice Girls and their approach to the culture’s manners. Granted, the last 15 years has thrown up a cluster of irregular girl band one-offs, from Girlschool to The Belle Stars to Bananarama to Elastica, but none have managed to stick for so long and so quickly.

But then England has never saved any real all-girl pop traditions of note. Throughout the early and mid-1960s, as America’s Shirelles, Shangri-Las and Ronettes seriously ran The Beatles in terms of sales and market share, where three-way girl-pop had all of the best tunes, England pushed the solo option – people like Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw and Lulu, none of whom have either dated as gracefully or impacted so loudly.

But as Amy Raphael concedes, ‘pre-punk, women had a much more defined and confined role in pop music. Behind the girl group sound were male songwriters, managers and Svengalis who shaped and engineered their careers and who dropped them as soon as they passed their sell-by date’.

But while The Spice Girls are managed by one of popular music’s leading male shakers, Simon Fuller, virtually everything else, from their songs to their attitude to their approach, would appear to be genuinely homespun. ‘We generally do all of the writing’, says Victoria. ‘We just work with different producers. But even on the production side of it we have a lot of input. We say what we want, basically, and producers are there to twiddle knobs. We haven’t got the time to twiddle knobs’.

‘We’re trying to break down all of that history, from Phil Spector and The Ronettes onwards’, Geri adds. ‘There was always the producer, he was the guy, and then there were the three different puppets doing what he was saying. So with us, times are certainly changing’.

The Spice Girls would certainly like to think, from their press-pack clippings at least, that they’ve shaken the industry to the point where they have reversed the traditional roles, squarely to the point where they very positively call the shots. Which, history has taught us, doesn’t really happen of course, not now and not ever. Instead The Spice Girls have added a brand new dimension to their art, stuffing their records and their approach with a personality that has traditionally been deemed far too dangerous for the genre. Unlike, say, Take That and Boyzone, The Spice Girls hit far harder and way farther beyond mere opportunism and safe-bet cash-ins.

Playing largely on their own sexuality and on traditional values and perceptions they have, with their words, poses and the sheer vigour of their pop music, very definitely challenged the pop stereotype. So that while Boyzone come over all true to form, accepting all of the house-rules and playing the tired card, never once venturing the risk, The Spice Girls are in a boat drifting outwards and onwards. Virtually all of their songs smell of the spirit of the streetwise teen, brassy takes on safe sex, cheating boyfriends and the new girls’ struggle.

Melanie B claims that ‘we make a proper point of making sure that we have something there in our lyrics that is slightly opinionated, that is giving off a vibe or giving off a message because otherwise, to us, there would be no point in writing a song’. ‘Obviously, primarily we’re doing this for the girls’, Geri pops, ‘because we feel that they needed it’.

Even this country’s opportunistic emphasis is trained right now to ‘girl power’ and already a handful of all-girl, power pop gangs like Syren, Just Girls, Four Available Blondes and D’Sire have posed for their debut photographs and unveiled their debut dance-steps. However all of them, sadly, are on a train marked ‘nowhere fast’, if only because The Spice Girls have set such a mammoth, instant precedent. A band that, to all intents, only ever happens once.

Like The Village People somewhere back in the mists, there really is one Spice Girl for everyone in the audience. As Simon Price points out in Melody Maker ‘every great pop group has you arranging your favourite members in order’ and The Spice Girls [or, if you like, The Sporty One, The Posh One, The Cute One, The Mad One and the sussed Ginger One] are already up there with, say, Duran Duran, The Bay City Rollers and Oasis. They have also tapped viciously into a particular set of primal if neglected mind-values and call life like they see it, however fashionably or not.

‘Men don’t rule our lives’, Melanie B told Smash Hits’ Damon Syson earlier this year. ‘They should be like mates and they should never try to come between you and your friends. Boyfriends don’t last forever but girlfriends do’. It’s as worthy a starting point as any. And while The Spice Girls, behind the hyperbole and the well-placed one-liners might easily be less than the sum of their parts, they’re at least challenging the easy perceptions of pop’s norms, and the role of women therein.

Ultimately of course they’re on a restricted time-scale and have, arguably, three years before the market gets over-familiar, over-bored and simply moves on elsewhere. But then The Spice Girls have already paid in at the door, and know the drawbacks of where they are and what they’re doing. Their aim has long-since been ‘to conquer the world, have fun and spice things up a bit’ and, on those terms, they’re on their way. They may never get to change the world but they’re very definitely the sound of today and tomorrow, next week and next year.

As Melanie B says, ‘we’ve got so many things that we want to show, we’ve got so many things that we want to give to people. We’re here to stay, whether you like it or not’. Time and distance and pop’s fickle market deciding exactly how long and how far, one assumes.

Girls on Top: Fore-runners to The Spice Girls : a guide to the all-girl bands of our time.

The Shirelles :- The New Jersey quartet, formed in 1957, covered the Five Royales’ ballad, ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’, which was to become a huge, world-wide hit for The Mamas And The Papas eight years later. In early 1961 their biggest hit, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, penned by Goffin and King, was the first all-girl single to top the U.S. chart. ‘Soldier Boy’ was their second in 1962 and the group, who never officially disbanded, still tours the oldie circuit.

The Bangles :- This Californian four-piece group featuring Susannah Hoffs, sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson, and Michael Steele, had their first big hit in 1986 with the Prince-penned ‘Manic Monday’, which topped the U.S. charts. Follow-up in the same year ‘If She Knew What She Wants’ did well but next single, ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’, became their biggest hit to date in the Autumn of ’86. All singles up to this point were taken from the album, ‘Different Light’. The hits continued with notable successes ‘Walking Down Your Street’ [1987] and a re-working of Simon And Garfunkel’s ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’ [1988] and the 1989 chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic, ‘Eternal Flame’. That same year, the group split, but lead vocalist Susannah Hoffs has enjoyed moderate chart success since.

Wilson Phillips :- Carnie and Wendy Wilson, daughters of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, and Chynna Phillips, daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas And The Papas, won the Tokyo Song Festival in 1990 with their performance of ‘Hold On’, which went to the top of the American singles chart later that year. Their follow-up, ‘Release Me’, gave them a second U.S. chart-topper later that year, while they completed the hat-trick with ‘You’re In Love’ in 1991. They have remained largely silent since.

The Crystals :- One of the groups from under the wing of legendary producer, Phil Spector, The Crystals came to prominence towards the end of 1962 with ‘He’s A Rebel’, a U.S. Number One, and followed up with the evergreen ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Then He Kissed Me’, the following year.

The Ronettes :- Formed in 1961, sisters Ronnie and Estelle Bennett, and cousin Nadra Talley, came to the attention of Phil Spector and from that liaison came their first two hit singles, ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Baby I Love You’. The next three singles were not quite as mammoth but remain popular, even now – ‘[The Best Part Of] Breaking Up’ , ‘Do I Love You ?’ and ‘Walking In The Rain’ – all released in 1964. 1965 saw the group have two further minor hits and also saw Ronnie Bennett marry Phil Spector. The group disbanded in 1966.

The Shangri-Las :- This New York group featured sisters Mary and Betty Weiss and twins Marge and Mary-Ann Ganser who, in 1964, had their first hit with ‘Remember [Walking In The Sand]’, followed at the beginning of 1965 with the world-famous, death-orientated ‘Leader Of The Pack’ becoming an even bigger success, despite a BBC Radio ban because of it’s lyrics. They continued to issue singles until 1966, but most were only minor hits in the U.S.

Martha And The Vandellas :- Martha Reeves and two ex-high school partners had their first big hit in 1963 with the Holland-Dozier-Holland composed ‘Heatwave’, followed by ‘Quicksand’. The following year, however, they enjoyed their biggest hit to date with the William Stevenson/Marvin Gaye composed ‘Dancing In The Street’, to this day one of the most popular dance records of all time. Other notable successes included ‘Nowhere To Run’ [1965], ‘Jimmy Mack’ [1967] and ‘Forget Me Not’ [1971].

Bananarama :- The most successful girl-band of the 1980s with a total of 27 hits to their credit, Sarah Dallin, Siobhán Fahey and Keren Woodward enjoyed 10 Top Ten hits – but never a chart-topper. These consisted of a mixture of cover versions of classic ‘60s and ‘70s hits as well as Stock/Aitken/Waterman material. In 1982, the year they came to prominence, they enjoyed success with The Fun Boy Three thanks to ‘It Ain’t What You Do [It’s The Way That You Do It’] and ‘Really Saying Something’, and achieved a major Top 5 hit by themselves with ‘Shy Boy’, as well as numerous hits between 1983 and 1984. In 1986 they were recruited into the dreaded Stock, Aitken and Waterman stable, with all their records sounding the same as those from Kylie Minogue, Sinitta and Rick Astley etc. In 1988, Siobhán Fahey left the band, and Jacqui O’Sullivan stepped in, only to depart three years later. There were no more hits after 1993.

The Supremes :- The most successful all-girl group, comprising Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, had no less than 12 chart-topping hits from 1964 to 1969 in their native U.S., notably ‘Where Did  Our Love Go’ and ‘Baby Love’ [1964], ‘Stop [In The Name Of Love]’ [1965], ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ [both1966], ‘Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone’ and ‘The Happening’ [both 1967], ‘Love Child’ [1968] and ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ [1969]. But none reached the top in Ireland and only ‘Baby Love’ reached No. 1 in the U.K. Most of these hits were penned by Holland, Dozier and Holland. Always the focal point of the group, Diana Ross was elevated to featured status in 1967, the group now billed as Diana Ross and The Supremes. That same year, Cindy Birdson replaced Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross left in January, 1970, for a solo career. Jean Terrell replaced Ross, and the trio reverted to simply The Supremes to enjoy hits in their own right. From 1972, the group went through many personnel changes, and the hits dried up by the mid-1970s.