Madness

NEW ORDER IN IRELAND

peace together

Picture courtesy of Pat O’Mahony

 

A few of us, caught in Nick Hornby’s slipstream, would while the time away drawing up lists of our own favourite music, making tapes and throwing shapes. It was harmless enough stuff, portable pub-games to backdrop those empty afternoons, decades ago, in O’Neills on Pearse Street and the balmy, mad nights everywhere else. But it was out of those sessions that we resolutely determined that the best, most consistent British singles bands of our generation were, in no real order ;- Buzzcocks, The Smiths, New Order, The Jam, Madness and The Pet Shop Boys. In the same way that all self-respecting football fans knew that Arsenal enjoyed the longest run in the top flight of English football without being relegated, or that Notts County were the oldest professional football club in the world, the names of the masters of the shorter form were instantly to hand whenever the great singles came up for discussion.

 

When it came to the not insignificant matters of Joy Division and New Order, my late friend, Philip Kennedy was, as usual, quickly out of the traps. Years earlier, he’d taken a punt on the ground-breaking singles, ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Confusion’ and, thereafter, canvassed vigorously on behalf of both bands. A few hundred yards down Redemption Road and right down the hill at Seminary Road, another neighbour of mine, Paul Daly, introduced me to ‘Ceremony’, which he’d brought home from London and which he too shared freely, proselytising. I adored it from the off and, even now, find it easier to take than the Arthur Baker/New York infused material, marvellous and all as it is. In school, a handful of us would marvel at the Peter Saville-designed art-work and, with set-squares and protractors that we had yet to de-commission, would work up imaginary designs for our make-believe bands on the back of Buntús Bitheolaíocht.

 

 

Paul Daly, who was a few years older than me and a couple of classes ahead of me in every respect, was among those who fetched up at New Order’s show at The Savoy in Cork in April, 1983 and, with his Walkman stuffed inside his belt-line, recorded the night’s events, as he’d often do at venues all over the city. On the evidence of his tape which, quickly thereafter, went through the hands of the alickadoos, it was a freakishly bad show for everyone concerned, the band stop-starting it’s way through a shambolic set as the crowd grew more impatient and rowdier. And, in respect of many of New Order’s earliest shows in Ireland, this pattern seems to have repeated itself routinely.

 

New Order were back in Cork again in January, 1986, this time at Connolly Hall, and they were just as disappointing. From my usual sport to the left of the sound desk, I found their inability to trigger the loops and tapes which, even then, scaffolded a serious spread of their sound, just ridiculous. On record, New Order were far removed from the tuneless, joyless d-i-y set and yet, on the live stage, were just as patchy as the worst of them. And from what I can remember, the band also lost themselves in a petty stand-off with some of the local gobdaws, one of whom threw what could have been a bottle or a glass towards the stage. Unlike The Smiths, who walked off in The Savoy a couple of years previously after similar eejitry from the front rows, New Order at least hung around to complete their set, patchy as it was.

 

But on record, they were a far more formidable force, a sparklesome outfit capable of real invention and no little magic and we gorged for ages on ‘Movement’, ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ and ‘Low Life’. And the more that New Order developed their sound – and, I guess, the more technically proficient they became in so doing – the more they cemented their hand-prints in our gallery of favourites. And to this day, one of the most set-upon records in my collection is ‘New Order – Singles’ ;- side one, especially, is a mighty, almost perfect fifteen-track beast, from ‘Ceremony’ to ‘Touched By The Hand Of God’.

 

New Order hadn’t played live for several years when, surprisingly, they were named as one of several top-line acts due to perform at an ambitious, three-pronged live event planned for May, 1993, in support of an All-Ireland charity called Peace Together. Founded a year earlier and co-ordinated, in the spirit of Live Aid, by Stiff Little Fingers’ bassist Ali McMordie and Robert Hamilton, the drummer with The Fat Lady Sings, Peace Together was a curious, if undoubtedly well-intentioned project, a charitable trust ‘dedicated to the promotion of reconciliation between the people of Northern Ireland through music’. During a period in the long-running peace talks process that was ripe with optimism for a genuine breakthrough , the charity planned three, large-scale concerts that would go live simultaneously in Dublin, Belfast and London, billed as ‘1 day 2 help 3 cities 4 Peace’. Among the others originally confirmed to take part were Sinéad O’Connor, Peter Gabriel, Del Amitri, The Orb and a slew of notables ;- BBC Radio One was even planning to take live coverage of the Belfast leg, such was the scale and extent of the line-up.

 

But as with many such events, the theory and the practice soon collided head-on. The Belfast concert was cancelled at short notice after the hotel in which all of acts, including headliner Peter Gabriel, were billeted, was bombed. The scheduled London show had already fallen, apathy and general indifference the reasons cited by the organisers. Indeed the Dublin show too looked, for a while, as if it too wasn’t going to fly. Sinéad O’Connor was a late – and controversial – withdrawal and, for all of Hamilton and McMordie’s good intentions and impressive connections, the show, which took place weeks later than first announced, was a hard sell. So that when the event’s compere, Pat O’Mahony, formally opened proceedings in The Point Theatre on Saturday evening, June 5th, 1993, the revised line-up looked as if it had been scrambled together randomly and not even the presence of New Order half-way up the bill was enough to stem the bleed. The vast hall was half-empty on the night and the air had long been sucked from Peace Together ;- the eventual cast, featuring the likes of The Stunning and Liam Ó’Maónlaoí, could have been lifted directly from the previous year’s People In Need Telethon.

 

A couple of months previously, Suede had released their magnificent first album and, four weeks before the Peace Together show in Dublin, another Manchester band, Oasis, signed to Creation Records. New Order had just issued it’s first album of the 1990’s, ‘Republic’ and, four years since ‘Technique’, the ground had moved and the goal-posts had been moved. And so it was against this back-drop that I walked the quay down to Peace Together to renew acquaintances with them ;- New Order, as always, appeared to be utterly out of synch with the sound of the underground. And although I was greatly unconvinced by Peace Together and absolutely confused about it’s outright ambition, I really wanted the Dublin show to work.

 

I’d long tried to advance the cause of The Fat Lady Sings, the fine Dublin pop group I first saw play to a loose handful in The Buckingham in Cork years earlier ;- I’ve written previously about that show as part of a much longer piece on Cork’s venues, and that’s available here. I’d briefly met Robert Hamilton at a couple of their early shows ;- one of his off-stage tasks was to collect names and contacts after gigs for the band’s mailing list and I found him gracious, decent and generous with his time. A good scout. And it was easy to see exactly how himself and McBrodie attracted such high-profile names to the Peace Together project even if, from early, I suspected they may both have been in over their heads in respect of the live shows. And even though the charity’s legacy also included a small, community-focused recording studio in Belfast and a compilation album of suitably targeted cover versions by the likes of U2, Therapy, My Bloody Valentine, Therapy? and The Fatima Mansions, my concerns for the concerts proved to be well-founded.

 

My review of New Order’s performance, re-printed below, was originally published in the issue of Melody Maker magazine dated June 19th, 1993. Donal Murphy, a terrific photographer from Charleville, in North Cork and a central cog in the DropOut magazine machine, took a terrific snap of Peter Hook’s crotch to accompany the piece and went to almighty lengths to get the stills across to London over-night to make the production dead-line. It really was another world then.

 

thumbnail_peacetogether

Picture courtesy of Daniel Harrison

NEW ORDER,

PEACE TOGETHER, POINT THEATRE,

DUBLIN

 

They couldn’t really have picked something and somewhere more auspicious. It’s been four years and here are New Order, one of pop’s most wonderful treasures, sandwiched on this peace show thing that has long since become a complete irrelevance. They’re up there on a line-up that’s so weak that most of it, I imagine, is later helped from the stage into a fleet of waiting wheelchairs.

 

There are lots of very apparent spaces in this vast railway hall ; the peace connection and a town filled with apathy have quite obviously thrown everyone. A quick vox-pop in the foyer tell us that the kids, almost one year on, know nothing about Peace Together, it’s origins, it’s intentions and it’s background. Fewer still actually care any.

 

So it’s with some half-relief then that, after what seems like an age, New Order finally ramble on. And they’re completely dreadful, basically. But then again, who can really blame them ?

 

They haven’t played for years, they’re doing this, quite obviously, out of necessity and they’ve stood on the touchlines and watched this peace shambles fall into splinters around their very feet. It’s when Bernard asks, ‘Is there anyone here from Dublin ?’ and he’s hit back with ‘Manchester, tra-la-la’ that it finally dawns on us how failed this whole thing has been. Up front there are, perhaps, 500 hard Manchester lads, lots of United’s rather unseemly blue and black away shirt and loads of that silly bag-fashion we’d all thought had actually died with The Farm. We obviously thought wrong. The locals have stayed well clear of this and that’s for sure.

 

It nearly falls apart for New Order right at the start. Barely into ‘Regret’ and all of the tapes and machines and sequenced techno stuff go loopy for some seconds. Bernard stumbles, the band look all around them and they just about hang on for life. That was the portent. New Order, like the rest of us, never ever got into this at all.

 

For a start, all of that rambling stuff from ‘Brotherhood’ sounds as mundane and awkward now as it did then, and the band are making some curious choices. At least they do the quite alluring ‘World’, with it’s compelling little choruses, but despite Hook’s clenched fists and his desperate impatience to get anywhere near the front, New Order quite clearly don’t want to be here.

 

There’s some manner of clarity and half-baked grace in the middle when they do ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and ‘True Faith’ back-to-back, with Hook flailing like a tulip in a gust. This is very much his show, but then you all knew that anyway. He still for all of the best cock-rock poses and at least has the good sense to treat this as nothing more than the piss-laugh it’s long since become.

 

Gillian hands us a snigger when she straps on a guitar and poses for four minutes without ever touching it. A surreal moment among many, that. And then Bernard stops to apologise for such a short stay telling us the band hasn’t really had the time to rehearse, but we smelt than an hour ago. After they encore ‘Blue Monday’, Bernard walks off in a different direction to everyone else, knowing in his heart that this was one great waste of time and space. He’s not alone. And I keep thinking about The Pet Shop Boys, for some reason.

 

Later, as Peace Together falls even flatter on it’s arse, New Order become some very distant memory. They may indeed be one of our finest singles bands ever, a curious pop-pearl among swine, but tonight they had as much presence as a string of abandoned and burnt-out cars. This should have been an evening to treasure, something to talk about tomorrow, something to swap notes on, to from which to eek out the bootlegs. It wasn’t.

Forgettable seems like too soft an adjective.

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]

DAVID BOWIE: THE CORK YEARS

 

‘Him ? Sure, he doesn’t know if he wants to be a man or a woman’. It was the end of the summer, 1980, and David Bowie at his most theatric, glamorous, playful and compelling, wasn’t convincing my mother. And seeing him in lavish make-up, polarised and in complicated Pierrot garb doing ‘Ashes To Ashes’ on Top Of The Pops, was just that bit beyond her. My mother fostered a real love of music in all of her children and our house regularly resounded to the sound of her radio and, on the special occasions, her record player, which she’d roll out to give Marianne Faithful or The Beatles a spin for us.

As her first child to start school, she made sure I left for Junior Infants back in 1972 with a basic ability to read and write and, after four years spent almost exclusively at her elbow at home, an even better ability to hear a tune. She was wary of those who didn’t like music or who, as she’d say, ‘didn’t have music in them’, but Bowie’s latest incarnation was troubling her. He’d changed quite a bit since ‘Space Oddity’, her introduction to him years earlier, and something strange was going down.

I turned twelve years old that same summer and was about to start secondary school just as ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was topping the singles chart in Britain and as David Bowie was entering the most commercially successful period of his long career. I remember my hometown at that time as a bleak, smoggy and hard place and, when I’d accompany my father on his calls around Leitrim Street and Watercourse Road, it seemed to me that every second premises was a coal yard or a garage. I enjoyed a brilliant, bright childhood in Cork but, for as long as I could recall, Blackpool was seriously dilapidated, in bits. One of it’s most popular pubs, The Unicorn on Great William O’Brien Street, looked like it had been bombed during the war and been left untouched in the years since. Which didn’t seem to deter the regulars, mind, of which there were many.

So it was far from mime, avant-garde and Berlin we were reared but, every weekend, The Evening Echo newspaper carried a series of clues that hinted at a far more interesting part of town and, in underneath the cinema listings, were regular adverts for ‘nite-clubs’ ;- Krojacks, The Bodega, The Arcadia and numerous others. Not un-connected, pirate radio in Cork was having it’s first flushes and several proscribed outfits were broadcasting furtively from caravans, back-rooms and attics around the city. Much of the pirate output was as dire and ramshackle as you’d expect, but the likes of CCLR and CBC at least gave us a local entry point to the pop charts and a connection outside of the mundane. And the pirates themselves were accessible too ;- you’d ring in and, almost always, would get straight through to the duty jock with a request or a dedication. Many of which were scurrilous.

From the release of ‘Scary Monsters’ onwards, and certainly for the remainder of the life-span of the pirates, David Bowie was a staple on their play-lists, a strange fish on stations that, initially at least, tended towards soft disco and popular soul music. Most of the jocks, with their footballer aliases, were doubling up at night in the night-clubs around town where, one suspects, they mis-pronounced Bowie’s surname as liberally as they did on the airwaves.

I attended The North Monastery, a huge, Christian Brothers-run school at the bottom of Fair Hill, in one of the most deprived parts of Cork city. I’ve written previously about the history of music in the school during my time there, and that piece is available here. I enjoyed ten terrific years in the school, most of it good-humoured and positive – and all of it free – but others among us weren’t so lucky and several were lost in the system to the usual ills, unemployment and poverty mostly. But enabled by our parents and by several excellent teachers, we were always encouraged to read widely and, for those who did, our smart-alecry was tolerated a bit more as a result. The school, as you’d expect, broadly reflected the tone and outlook of the community it served which, in 1980, was over-whelmingly white, Catholic and straight. Fianna Fáil had swept to power in 1977, led by arguably The North Mon’s most famous past-pupil, Jack Lynch, and the Dáil seats in the area tended to mostly go to the two traditional political heavyweights. Even in such a working class area, with unemployment and taxation levels touching record highs, the constituency tended to still vote cautiously and, following a by-election in 1979, the Labour Party held no seat at all in Cork city.

north mon

via Cork Past and Present

 

1980 was also the year when The North Monastery’s senior hurlers claimed Dr. Harty Cup and All-Ireland Colleges titles, back-boned by some of the finest players to ever don the blue and white. Local boys like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan and Paul O’Connor were among the many stand-out players on that team and, on returning to the school after their successes, were greeted by bonfires in old Blackpool and in the quarry off of Gerald Griffin Street where Neptune Stadium now stands. The school retained the Dr. Harty Cup the following year – with a team that featured Teddy McCarthy – when they beat Coláiste Chriost Rí in the final at Páirc Ui Chaoimh in front of a crowd of over 6,000. That side was captained by John Drinan, from Carrigaline outside of Cork City, who provided one of the most interesting links between sport and music in the school ;- when he wasn’t a marauding forward, he was also a member of the Carrigaline Pipe Band.

To be lateral or notional in appearance or outlook up in the school was often to run a gauntlet there. Every morning during the heart of the playing season, the school’s outstanding hurlers would be fed sandwiches and soup over in the big hall, set apart. But for many others, the yards, playing fields and the walk home were less hospitable and fraught and, on occasion, the climate inside the school  wasn’t much better. I remember a talk about careers at which one of our class-mates fetched up wearing an earring and a mohair jumper. Notwithstanding the school’s rules on such matters, or the cockiness inherent in such grand gestures, the reaction of one of the Career Guidance teachers from the stage at the top of the room pretty much summed up the school’s undertones. ‘Is that an earring you’re wearing ?’, the teacher asked. ‘Because if it is, you can take it off and put it into your handbag’.

The line reduced the hall to fits and, no doubt, reduced our class-mate a bit too ;- it was a sharp, instinctive and instructive exchange and the intention was clear. Earrings had no place in a school like ours, which was exclusively male. Maybe it wasn’t only my mother who was put out by those who may have just wanted to buck the trend and test the bend a bit ?

Myself and one of my friends still recall a conversation in the schoolyard one time about David Bowie ;- a member of our class was certain that the singer had under-gone a sex change. Sure, why else would he look like he did ? And, by looking like he did, looked nothing like either ACDC, Status Quo or Madness, the most popular music acts among our peers. And that’s how absolutely dopey we were ;- sexual ambiguity never featured on our radars, nor did it feature in any of our biology, religion or civics classes. The closest our parents and teachers got to the subject was when April Ashley, a British model who had actually undergone a full sex change in the 1960s, appeared one night on The Late Late Show and left a week of consternation in her slipstream around Ireland.

Cork folk in general – and Blackpool people especially – like to remember their own successes proudly and loudly and you’d hear regular mention of the great entertainers, actors and performers from around our way ;- Niall Tóibín, Joe Lynch, Walloo Dunlea, Paddy Comerford and others. But you’d hear far less talk about Danny La Rue. La Rue was born Danny Carroll in Madden’s Buildings, a loft of a bowl, literally, from where our house was, although his family moved to London in the early 1930s while he was still a young boy. He’d enjoyed a stellar career as a singer and stage performer in Britain and even by 1980, was still one of the most popular draws on the British theatre circuit and a regular on the stages in The West End. Danny La Rue was a gay man, best known as a female impersonator and drag artist. He’d routinely return to Cork, where he’d fill The Opera House and, in his flamboyant frocks and rubber bosom, bring the house down with his arch routines and songs.

Danny La Rue’s performances in Cork never attracted protests outside of the local theatres. Nor did I once hear my parents ever suggest that he didn’t know if he wanted to be a man or a woman. But then, as a regular fixture on prime-time television in Britain, La Rue was a safe bet and just faintly ridiculous;- beyond the crinolines and the smutty one-liners, he was harmless.

David Bowie, though, was a far more legitimate threat ;- he was younger, more provocative, smarter, more beautiful and open. And yet he – and Freddie Mercury – always found favour among the local gutty boys, many of whom would rather open your skull than ever open a book. And who, when they weren’t trying to score girls to the strains of ‘Let’s Dance’ or ‘Radio Gaga’ in Chandras or St. Francis Hall, had little time for ‘faggots’ and ‘steamers’ and weren’t slow in saying as much. Those local toughs whose concession to diversity extended as far as crossing, the odd time, over into the Southside and yet who, in the same breath, loved ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

Some of our teachers weren’t spared either and the abuse doled out to one or two of them in particular was savage. To speak or behave in a particular tone or manner, to be effete in any way, was simply a weakness in any male teacher and was exploited at every turn. And yet, when it came to David Bowie, who was sexually ambiguous and very outwardly so, there was never an issue.

Maybe he was just too subtle, too popular and too complicated for the hardy bucks, many of whom, in their Bowie suits and slip-on shoes were already paying their respects openly with their choice of trousers ?

The Bowie suit was an iteration of the wide-boy uniform for a couple of years from around 1983 onwards, based [very loosely] on Bowie’s look during the ‘Let’s Dance’ period. Comprised of a jacket cropped in above the waist and a pleated trouser for narrow men of narrow mind cut in a baggy style, the look was often complimented by a knitted jumper tucked into the elaborate waist-band. It was, for a while, the home kit of every gowl in Cork and, alongside imported leather jackets and American-style cardigans, made a household name of at least one Cork-based retailer.

But it wasn’t just with cheap imitation clobber that Bowie was publicly lauded in Cork. I remember plenty of graffiti acclaiming his genius daubed on walls around the Northside, most memorably along the side of Farranferris college, around where we lived and which, for decades, served as Cork’s diocesan seminary. And this at a time when street art around the city was largely confined to scrawled support for the I.R.A., for outing those who had allegedly snitched on dole cheats and standard punk rock slogans. Deb Murphy, who grew up as a David Bowie fan on Blarney Street, has written a lovely piece on this subject on her blog and that piece is available here

The point has been made repeatedly in the many obituaries and tribute pieces since his passing that, apart entirely from his body of work – which is utterly magnificent – one of David Bowie’s most telling impacts was in how he enabled society to tolerate difference, an example of sorts to those who, for one reason or another, felt like they were being unfairly restrained. And this much is undoubtedly true.

Away from the school, especially during holidays and weekends, you’d see a handful of Mon boys from all over the school with their earrings in, their hair un-furled a bit and maybe even wearing an odd bit of slap or eyeliner. I half-knew a couple of lads from around Dublin Hill who, in their tight tank tops and Henna-dos, cut brave, impressive shapes and it wasn’t too difficult to know what, and who, they were listening at home in the evenings.

The North Monastery has long been a renowned centre of education and achievement and boasts a rich, proud and far-reaching history that endures to this day. But to many of us, for a number of years from 1980 onwards, one of our finest teachers and most impressive and impactful educators was someone who never once stepped foot into our classrooms. But whose prints are all over the ambitions we’ve long determined for ourselves.