Mark Cagney

R.E.M :- THE LOST LETTER

 

You’d miss R.E.M. all the same, wouldn’t you ? Easily one of the best, certainly one of the most prolific and without doubt one of the most subversive of them all stepped off of the travellator for the last time in  2011, thirty-one years after they’d assembled in Athens, Georgia, from where they launched some of the most breath-taking and influential records in the entire history of popular music. And although the quality of some of the band’s later material definitely tailed off – I’d point to a dilution of structural tension before anything else, if pushed – at least ten of R.E.M.’s fifteen studio albums should, by any standards, reside in any self-respecting music collection.

Once they’d found traction and, literally, their voice, on ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’, their third album, released in 1985, they remained a real threat until the very end and, as recently as the band’s last elpee, ‘Collapse Into Now’, were freely minting the magic :- ‘Walk It Back’ is easily one of their best ever songs on a record that’s much, much more than a mere swansong. R.E.M. might well have been struggling to maintain the all-killer consistency that had long hall-marked them but it wasn’t overly difficult, after twenty-five years at the crease, to pardon them ;- very few will ever again come close to their batting average.

 

 

It’s easy to point to the departure of the group’s founder, drummer Bill Berry, back in 1997, as a nail in their tube and the start of a slow puncture. But while the loss of their founder and, to my mind at least, the band’s spiritual leader, certainly impacted on R.E.M.’s complicated blood circulation system, I’d be mindful of an over-simplistic diagnosis. Berry was certainly an under-rated writing influence and many of the band’s more impactful offensives were launched from behind his traps. But it’s worth considering the following question :- name one band or artist of such distinction and influence – and I include Bowie, Dylan and Neil Young here – whose body of work retained its earlier consistency beyond ten albums ?

 

There was much about R.E.M. that set them apart during their three decades together, but leaving the stage with the same easy command of their craft on ‘Collapse Into Now’ as they did on arrival, albeit through a far narrower lens, on the ‘Chronic Town’ mini-album and then the ‘Murmur’ album [1983], is one of their greatest definers. During which time they crawled from the south to become the unlikeliest biggest band in the world ever. And in my more introspective moments – and there have been more and more of those this last twelve months as my children grow older and the world struggles for order – I often think about the damage that R.E.M. might cause were they still actively recording in this, the year of the rancid, venal, racist, neo-liberal sociopath ?

 

Thirty years ago, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ [1986] and ‘Document’ [1987], the band’s fourth and fifth albums, were powered on many levels by the darker shadows of Ronald Reagan’s American presidency and the many unsettling, often inflammatory, policy positions adopted by his administration at home and abroad during his term of office. That R.E.M. crossed over into the mainstream during the Reagan years and released its angriest, most insurgent and best records during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, who held office between 1989 and 1993, may not be co-incidental either.

 

I was a recent college graduate, mooching the streets in search of a start and, like many others like me, was as comforted and confounded by those records as I was informed and scared by them. R.E.M. were taking sharply-informed, highly-charged political and social rhetoric into the arenas and stadia without once sounding like an over-earnest, empty-at-the-bottom rock band in search of a slogan. Of which, during the 1980s, there were far too many, few of whom showed any grasp at all of nuance and subtlety. Unlike R.E.M., who were masters of this sort of carry-on, routinely wrapping their nail bombs in the softest of suggestion and allusion.

 

I’ve obsessively gone back to both ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and ‘Document’ over the last six months ;- like David Szalay’s novels or any of the Father Ted episodes, new dimensions still emerge within their work on every engagement. Because while R.E.M. of course brought astute, often implied political messaging, their range carried far higher and much wider. They routinely dealt with the far more complex politics of human engagement too and are responsible for some of the most bewitching love songs in the history of the genre.

 

Many of which, like the bulk of the band’s canon, have dated extremely well. Even on their first, tentative albums, ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’ [1984] their shyness – parts of their debut, Michael Stipe’s vocals especially, are buried to the point of being barely audible – there was always a real intent deep within the sound of their silence. Manifest from early on the likes of ‘Talk About The Passion’, ‘Perfect Circle’,and ‘Camera’ and on numerous junctions thereafter.

 

 

 

The more curious among us were well and truly under the band’s spell from the first bars of ‘Radio Free Europe’ onwards. As well as the songs –  most of which were stellar – the band itself was remote and mysterious enough for those who were instinctively dragged to the margins and who preferred their music served at an angle. Myself and my friend, Philip, spent hours poring over R.E.M., particularly their first four albums, which we adored and which were released during that period in our friendship when we lived, pretty much, in each other’s pockets. And during which time we made numerous attempts to decipher some of R.E.M.’s enigma. Or which there was an awful lot.

 

Basic as it sounds, but we spent far too much time trying to work out, from their mug-shots on the back of ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’, exactly which of them was which. Their names, ‘Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe’ – always in alphabetical order and briefly, on ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’, with added initials – quickly became embedded in our vernacular, tripping off of the tongue as easily as any of the band’s songs. [A special nod here, for the anoraks, to the mysterious N. Bogan, who received a once-off writing credit on ‘West Of The Fields’]. R.E.M. rarely, if ever, succumbed to the obvious and, on those early sleeves, are deliberately playing with their identity and with how the band fronted-up ;- they look completely different, Berry’s distinctive eyebrows apart, on the first two albums.

 

Indeed it wasn’t until the band appeared on the BBC music television series, ‘The Od Grey Whistle Test’, in November 1984, during which they performed fully live versions of ‘Pretty Persuasion’, from ‘Reckoning’, and debuted a new song, ‘Old Man Kensey’ [from ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’], that we first caught sight of them behind their instruments and were able to definitively join the dots.

 

 

 

Identity – for R.E.M., for myself and Philip – was often a common puzzle during the years when The Paisley Underground, the flag of convenience under which several terrific American guitar bands traded briefly during the early to mid-1980s, was in its pomp. Many of the key figures in that cluster were involved with, or circling around, several other bands at the same time and some of the associations extended far and wide. And although R.E.M., given their Byrds/Love tenor, were only ever loosely aligned to this party, they quickly grew to dominate it and so, on their prompting, we were soon seeking out new music from the likes of Let’s Active, featuring R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, The Long Ryders, Green On Red, Love Tractor, the imperious Jason And The Scorchers, Oh OK [featuring one of Michael Stipe’s sisters, Lynda] and Guadalcanal Diary, a powerful guitar band that also took root in Georgia. Some of which was very difficult to locate and for which we depended, for several years, on friends and acquaintances on J1 Visas in the United States, to import for us.

 

R.E.M. championed their lesser-known – and ultimately just lesser – peers at every opportunity and if Peter Buck didn’t physically contribute guitar to much of this output, then he certainly exerted a serious philosophical influence on it. And by so doing, made a household name of John Keane’s studio, initially a small recording facility local to R.E.M. that was also name-checked so routinely that it sounded like a magnet around which many largely unreported planets revolved.

 

We’d recently returned to school during the autumn of 1984 when I wrote to the P.O. box number listed on the inside sleeve of R.E.M’s second album, ‘Reckoning’. I sent a mournful note to the group – the first and only time I’ve done so with any band – explaining just how difficult it was to follow the fortunes of such an important, emerging band when, like themselves, I too was based far from the action in a regional outpost. I just knew that they’d understand.

 

And for my troubles I received, by return post some weeks later, a hand written reply ;- a free-form note on photocopied paper that also doubled as an artily-designed, type-written merchandising list enclosed within Airmail paper, no less, inviting me to their show in Dublin’s SFX later that year. The band would, the note said, set aside a pair of tickets for me on the night and were hopeful I’d be able to join them afterwards. Irrespective of whether or not this was the work of one of the band, an office junior or someone’s fluffer, it didn’t matter. R.E.M. had heard me like, in my head, I always imagined they would do. And with that scrawled note, a lifelong friendship was forever hewn :- I stayed loyal, steadfast and besotted until the end. And long after the end.

 

That R.E.M. show in Dublin, on December 4th, 1984, has long dominated the colourful war stories of live music veterans in this country. I hear it still referenced to this day, and in the most unlikeliest of settings ;- it’s long been the centre of conversation among a cohort of hardy anoraks  in the small village of Ardfinnan, in South Tipperary, where I gift an annual quota of Corkness to my in-laws.

 

But in one of the most egregious acts of poor judgement in my entire life – and there have been many – I passed up the band’s kind offer to join them for what would be the first of many subsequent live appearances in Ireland. Given that the show was scheduled for a Tuesday night, far from home and during our final year in school, my formal education was deemed to have been more important and, like the Dublin senior footballers, fatigue and work commitments meant that I didn’t make the trip.

 

It’s a wound that’s never entirely healed properly and one that’s been regularly salted over the years. To add insult to it, my letter from R.E.M. – in its own right as important a love note as anything Michael Collins ever wrote to Kitty Kiernan – has been long mislaid. Stuck, more than likely, inside an album that was loaned out to some fleeting love interest years ago in an effort to radicalise her, never to be returned.

 

But I didn’t have to wait too long to see R.E.M. in the flesh. They were back in Dublin the following summer when they appeared at Croke Park as part of the undercard at U2’s ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ show when, in the late afternoon sunshine on July 29th, 1985, they were greeted with a shower of bottles. Their cause may not have been entirely helped by Michael’s decision to start the band’s short slot with his back to the crowd and, in an overcoat and pork-pie hat, to open proceedings with the very antithesis of stadium anthemry, the jagged ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’.

 

 

And from our seats high up in The Cusack Stand, and having recently completed secondary school, we marvelled at the size of their neck. The fact that the partisan home support couldn’t find it in itself to extend the hand to them only drove the point home further :- R.E.M. had decent cutting, our instincts were soundly founded and they were far too subtle for the mainstream. I was, of course, far more careful about where and when I saw my favourite groups thereafter ;- once bitten, twice shy, I  always preferred R.E.M. indoors and always resisted the urge to ever see them in the open air again.

 

I’ve written previously about the profile of the radio presenter, Dave Fanning on RTÉ television’s youth magazine series, ‘Youngline’, that aired in February, 1984 and in which the then late-night disc jockey was shown spinning into his place of work in a battered old beater. He slips a random cassette into the car’s sound system and the life-affirming ‘Radio Free Europe’, the opening cut on R.E.M.’s debut album, ‘Murmur’, comes on. And it was on – and indeed for – those infrequent crumbs that myself and Philip sustained ourselves for ages.

 

That crack Radio 2 squad of Fanning, Mark Cagney and B.P. Fallon were all early R.E.M. acolytes and more or less spun the band off the air as, from the get-go, did the BBC’s John Peel. Fanning and his producer, Ian Wilson, also nailed them for an excellent ‘Rock Show’ interview during that brief 1984 stop-over in Dublin which, far from affording me cold comfort, only succeeded in making my sense of solitary confinement back home seem far, far worse.

 

But we replayed it back incessantly anyway, our ears and eyes opened by the band’s drawly accents and the manner in which they dropped, as usual, the names of several other emerging groups from within their orbit. Philip took his devotion to them much further and, at some point in the early 1990s, made what was then an unprecedented leap when he attempted to grow what remains one of the worst ever beards known to man. This was just one of his many personal tributes over the years to Michael Stipe, who’d recently started to experiment with face furniture and body paint. And it remains one of a number of vivid, sometimes bizarre memories I have of my late friend, with whom I soldiered long and hard in the trenches, usually playing the gormless wingman to his ascetic, corduroy-jacketed people’s poet.

 

R.E.M. were one of a number of compelling, urgent and special groups that we discovered together and through whose many songs we played out the guts of a friendship that was forever as intense as it was complicated. And often at the expense of what we might, and maybe should, have been dealing with instead. But they were easily the most dominant band of that number because, apart from the music, they developed as a force as quickly and as fiercely as myself and Philip were growing up – and moving on – back in Ireland. Twenty-five years after the release of R.E.M.’s most remarkable and most vital album, ‘Automatic For The People’, and I don’t think I’ve ever missed them more. And I don’t think that I’ve ever missed him more either.

 

 

 

 

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STEELY DAN :- LIVE AT THE 3 ARENA, DUBLIN. OCTOBER 28th, 2017. 

It was because of Mark Cagney’s perenially classy late night radio show on Radio 2, ‘The Night Train’, that I was first alerted to the wonder of Donald Fagen and, as a consequence, Steely Dan, the band – in the loosest of terms possible – that Fagen first roughly sketched out with Walter Becker in New York in 1967. Fagen’s regal 1982  solo album, ‘The Nightfly’ became, in several respects, the signature record for Cagney’s show in that, across it’s eight cuts, it also captured the essence of the host who, like the artist, seemed forever torn between the macho ache of cool and the lure of the middle-ground, where the audiences were bigger, the prizes greater and the landings softer.

Thom Hickey, on his excellent blog, The Immortal Jukebox, describes ‘The Nightfly’ as ‘a record that shows us an artist brilliantly finding the means to come to terms with the challenges of perspective’. In so doing, the record reeks of the after-dark and the small hours, wherein man casts one eye on his past and another into an uncertain future. All of which, at the time the record was released, was lost on my empty teenage head :- I was just struck by Fagen’s vocal and the smart, off-beat lustre of ‘New Frontier’, which was unlike anything I’d heard previously. I just loved it.

A memorable television interview that Mark Cagney did several years later with Pat Kenny on ‘Kenny Live’ put real side on what had previously been an affable public personae. In the course of twenty compelling minutes under the studio lights, Cagney spoke affectingly of his wife, who was seriously ill, about his own issues with drug abuse and about why, how and to what effect he had laboured on the graveyard shift for so long. It filled the dots for me on what was often a uniquely sharp radio show ;- Cagney had not only a back story but a scream too. He remains, to my mind, one of the more interesting characters in Irish broadcasting and it would be wrong to dismiss him as just another chat-show lightweight, cut adrift on breakfast television.

When it comes to rock and roll, Cagney has an incredible range and a formidable curiousity. But as REM’s ‘[Don’t Go Back To] Rockville’, Lloyd Cole’s ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’ and Prefab Sprout’s ‘Desire As’ defined ‘The Night Train’ for an entire generation of newcomers searching the more interesting edges of new music, Cagney was an instinctive tutor too ;- he’d thread Neil Young, Lou Reed, Springsteen and vintage American soul music seamlessly into his set-lists. It was education and learning at its most subtle and Cagney was effortleesly schooling his listeners on the value of context. And into those lessons, as primary texts, sat Steely Dan.

In this respect, their ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ album [1973] and ‘Gaucho’ [1980] helped me, eventually, to make some sort of sense of the likely origins of much of the Prefab Sprout catalogue from ‘Steve McQueen’ [1985] onward, particularly the band’s enormously ambitious 1990 double, ‘Jordan : The Comeback’. Those records may not sound overly similar – and, on the surface at least, have little in common – but Fagen and Becker had already shown how possible it was to fuse smart wordplays with complicated time signatures, difficult chord sequences and a variety of styles – routinely incorporating ragtime and jazz – while also knocking out more regular, multi-layered, popular music. It was the scale of the ambition and the grasp of the possibilities of sound that bonded them.

Every house in Ireland is familiar with Steely Dan, either consciously or otherwise. One of the band’s best known songs and biggest commercial hits, ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, lends its title – and its chorus – to the long running and consistently repeated RTÉ archive-based television series. And scanning the sold-out audience down in the soul-less old cow-shed in Dublin’s docklands for Steely Dan’s first Dublin show in twenty-one years, its obvious that many of those same households are represented in the sprawl. Steely Dan might well be an acquired taste and, to many, a difficult listen – aren’t those always the best ones ? – but it’s still comforting to know that, forty-five years since the release of the band’s first album, their impact is still being felt so far from home and to such an extent.

A point not lost, clearly, on Donald Fagen, who appears to be in decent humour as he saunters onto the vast stage – wielding a melodica like a spoil of battle – at Dublin’s 3 Arena and whose positive demeanour develops as the show catches fire. He appears to be genuinely taken by the response to tonight’s best-of set which, as you’d expect, often veers off of its expected course and in which much of Steely Dan’s canon remains unwrapped. ‘Pretzel Logic’ is untouched, they barely dip into the ‘Katy Lied’ elpee, there’s no ‘Rikki’ and, instead, they do a pair of cuts from ‘The Nightfly’ – ‘Green Flower Street’ and ‘New Frontier’ – a formidable ‘Godwhacker’ and a Joe Tex cover.

The two big video screens flanking the stage capture Fagen throughout in close-up, towelling the sweat from his head and wiping his prescription shades clear of fog. He never references the late Walter Becker by name, referring twice instead to ‘my partner’ but, as has been the case throughout the current tour, the band performs ‘Book Of Liars’ from Becker’s 1994 solo album, ‘11 Tracks Of Whack’ by way of a tribute to Fagen’s long-time side-kick, who died in September.

But there’s a name-check later for David Palmer, the band’s one-time vocalist who took the lead on ‘Dirty Work’, back on Steely Dan’s 1972 debut, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’. That mighty cut is performed tonight, as it’s been for many years, by the group’s imperious backing vocalists, The Danettes, and is a real stand-out among many.

Those considered, layered female harmonies have long distinguished much of Steely Dan’s best work, regularly sitting at the heart of their material and not, as can often be the case, as mere decoration or after- thought. And tonight they serve a more practical purpose too :- Fagen has forever been a distinctive vocalist but he’s never been a comfortable one and, closing in on seventy now, deftly deflects the top registers side-stage, from where The Danettes regularly escort him home.

Elsewhere, the four-way brass section – alto and tenor saxes, trumpet and trombone – add girth to the ragtime and jazz aspects of the set and also sit tidily into the bigger picture, even if all twelve musicians on stage often make like they’re all working in isolation. Which is another long-time Steely Dan trait :- the busy arrangements have always been carefully plotted – the more clinical aspects of their sound have always been a critical bugbear – and Becker and Fagen are among the most formidable structural architects in the history of contemporary music. For better and, often, for worse.

But backed by an exceptional band, among which guitarist Jon Herington – the definitive New York City blade – drummer Keith Carlock, bassist Freddie Washington and backing vocalist Carolyn Leonhart have been long-time side-kicks, Steely Dan counter the coldness of the venue quickly, which is no mean feat, and also just about defy the vagaries of the in-house sound system, which can often take on a life of its own.

They sign off with ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ – by a distance the closest to concession they get all night – and which, fully-revved and loaded, brings a deserved ovation from a full-house that, one suspects, was won over long before the band had even taken the stage.

In the twenty-odd since Steely Dan last played in Dublin, the area that surrounds the venue, deep in the city’s docklands, has changed beyond all recognition :- the container depots and the cargo huts are dwarfed now by the dominant cut of contemporary architecture, every new structure a statement piece. Given the prominence of chrome, metal supports, clean design lines and glass fronts on the long walk down from the city centre, there’s a Steely Dan metaphor on every block.

Because I’m certain I’ve never seen such a breadth of ambition on any live stage previously :- the closest I can recall by way of comparison is Prefab Sprout’s show in the same venue in December, 1990, when that band’s core line-up was suitably enhanced as they toured the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ album. But not even that performance,  memorable as it was, comes anywhere close in terms of the sheer scale of delivery and the scope of aspiration that hallmarks tonight’s. Which was stellar, spellbinding stuff from the off and if, as you’d imagine, many of us are unlikely to see Steely Dan live again, a remarkable farewell.

 

THE SMITHS IN CORK, 1984

 

It was shortly after midnight, early on Wednesday morning, July 29th, 1987, and it was Mark Cagney, host of ‘The Night Train’ on RTÉ Radio 2FM who, as serenely as ever, broke the news.

Home alone, and with the rest of my family off on holidays, I’d been in the habit of keeping the radio on longer and louder than usual ;- long enough, as it happened, to hear Cagney tell the nation’s more urbane taxi drivers, shift workers and anoraks that Johnny Marr had left The Smiths. And he more or less left it at that, light on detail, didn’t cite his sources and segued as seamlessly as he always did into his next track, which was more than likely a moderately left field, highly styled album cut, to which he was forever drawn. And, if I slept at all that night, I slept with my mouth open and my jaw hanging.

Cagney had one up on us. He’d either heard soundings of or had sight of that week’s issue of the London-based music magazine, New Musical Express, in which one of its senior writers, Danny Kelly, citing reliable sources in Manchester, revealed that Morrissey, The Smiths’ singer and Marr, the group’s guitarist and co-writer, had fallen out and hadn’t spoken in months. But while it was a terrific flyer, the story was vague enough on the future of the band and Kelly later admitted he may have ‘augmented’ his story with lines pulled from the back of his own head. The gut of the scoop was clear, though :- on the cusp of the release of their fifth album, all was not well with The Smiths. And this time it was serious.

Although the influential British music weeklies – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – all regularly hit the streets around central London by lunchtime on Tuesdays, it was usually Thursday morning or later before those titles were available on the shelves in Easons, on Patrick Street in Cork, where I routinely picked up mine. And so I had an anxious wait before I finally got my hands on NME’s speculative exclusive, headlined ‘Smiths to split’.

History – and Johnny Rogan, the band’s forensic biographer – now tells us that, although The Smiths weren’t formally taken off of life-support by Morrissey until mid-September, 1987, Marr confirmed directly to Kelly within days of his initial splash that yes, he’d left the group he founded in Manchester barely five years previously. And so, in its issue dated August 8th, 1987, Kelly had his second back-to-back Smiths scoop, this time flush with quotes from inside the band.

For six weeks that summer, my first as a university student, would-be music writer, part-time laundry worker and full-time dreamer, there was really only one story. One which, under sustained scrutiny, was scarcely believable in the first instance and which was always likely to end badly ;- few groups have, I think, fallen asunder as carelessly and as needlessly as The Smiths, undone in the end by the lack of clear decision-making and delegation that had, since the group’s inception, characterised much of its off-stage activity.

I’ve written at length about The Smiths over the years, with varying degrees of success but with no little confidence, simply because they were the first band I so obsessively lived through and the first band I ever felt like I had shares in. I certainly spent enough on them and, because I’d invested so heavily in them in other respects as well, I  tended to defer to Max Boyce’s stock punchline when it came to analysing them :- I know because I was there.

And I certainly was there, if not at the very start, then certainly close enough to it, having had my head turned as soon as I heard The Smiths on both Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on RTÉ Radio 2, John Peel’s BBC equivalent and, bizarrely, having caught sight of them on late night television performing ‘This Charming Man’ on a one-off European music initiative featuring emerging music from across the continent. Captured alongside a feeble, long-lost British outfit, The Immaculate Fools, and a number of freakish cross-continental acts trying, as can often be the case, just a tad too hard, The Smiths stood out as a distinctive star turn simply because, in the abject normality that defined every single aspect of them, they were clearly anything but normal.

I was there too in the old Savoy on Patrick Street when The Smiths played in Cork twice, on May 20th and November 18th, 1984 and when, within actual touching distance of them, they sealed the deal, almost face-to-face, as the most important and influential band of my generation.

Both of those shows took place as I was gearing up to leave secondary school and, with half an eye and two working ears on what was around the corner, fancied myself as a veteran of the local music circuit, having already been to all of one indoor live show and a couple of random outdoor events. But although I’d been squirreling and collecting for a number of years, back-filling the gaps in my developing ELO library, acquiring and swapping new material as regularly as I could and rowing in squarely behind Sindikat, a band from our school who’d done the unthinkable and formed under our noses, The Smiths were the first group whose releases, always flagged well in advance in the music press, I regarded as genuine events and to which I counted down.

And in this respect, the radio was another vital spoke :- Peel, and his long-time producer, John Walters, memorably hosted four separate Smiths radio sessions between 1983 and 1986 and, like Fanning, would play all of the group’s releases well in advance of their availability in the shops. For which you’d have a second or third-hand cassette on eternal stand-by in the old three-in-one in case either of them dropped an unexpected pre-issue, without warning.

 

 

It was Fanning, of course, who alerted us to those first Smiths shows in Ireland – I still consider this sort of carry-on to define the term ‘public service broadcasting’ – when he announced that they were on their way to play dates in Belfast, Dublin and Cork in support of their debut album. And yet for all of the urgency that under-pinned the band’s recorded material, myself and my friend, Philip, didn’t really know what to expect when we fetched up outside The Savoy on a Sunday evening in May, 1984, in our long rain-coats, tickets in hand and mad for road.

But from early – and we were there very, very early – it was clear that The Smiths were much more than a little-known secret shared by a handful of us up on the northside. One of the more interesting aspects of the band’s history was how, throughout its career, it attracted fans from right across the social strata, much of it male-skewing and with a prominent contingent of hard shams in among the more introspective, centrally-cast indie-kids. Among whom was another friend of mine, Marc Buckley, another acolyte who arrived at The Savoy, as did numerous others, clutching a bunch of freshly cut flowers and wearing a considerable quiff.

Philip and myself soon found ourselves chatting to a pair of friendly girls we’d met on the tiled stairs and, for whatever reason, we told them we were supporting The Smiths a little later. And there were, of course, numerous similarities between ourselves and The Frank Chickens, the gobby Japanese lesbians who were actually due to open proceedings.

The Chickens, as with many of Peel’s more random curios over the decades, sounded far better in theory that they did in practice and, with their unsteady backing tracks, loops and high-octane, skittish twin vocals, failed to convince the locals, who’d started to assemble in numbers by the time they’d finished a quite bizarre set. They left the stage to the usual heckles and, responding to a not unreasonable suggestion from half-way back that they were, perhaps, not up to championship standard, replied – ‘We think you’re shit too’ – before beating a hasty retreat under a hail of gob, never to be seen in Cork again. A scene we’d witness again, in the same venue and in much the same circumstances, before the year was out.

But once The Smiths took the stage to the jagged, slash-cut opening bars of ‘Still Ill’, and Morrissey emerged from the shadows, his outsized shirt already opened to the navel, The Frank Chickens had been consigned to the footnotes of what was to become a spectacular history. Over the course of a sharp, frenetic and powerful sixteen song set, The Smiths just burned the house down :- in the long and diverse history of live shows in Cork, it is easily among one of the most lethal.

Because while that show has remained vivid in the memories of most of those who attended it, many of them left there that night intent on starting their own bands immediately afterwards, boldly going for it and  just taking their chances. And those among the audience that were already involved in fledging groups around the city, and there were many, left with plenty of food for thought :- if this was where the bar was now set, then what, really, was the point ?

The set-list for that first Cork show is widely available on all of the usual on-line resources and, of course, Johnny Rogan’s exhaustive ‘The Severed Alliance’ is incomparable in terms of context and background. But although Morrissey so physically dominated that Cork show – and I couldn’t believe how imposing he was, and how he so used his body for emphasis – neither could I get my head around how small and slight Johnny Marr was. And, of course, how his nimble hands made one guitar sound like three.

The songs were already well-known to anyone who’d bought the band’s unconvincing debut album, ‘The Smiths’, and who was familiar with the terrific additional content on their singles. But they also introduced one new number, a protracted, funked-up, bass-prominent beauty called ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’, during which Morrissey baited the audience with flowers throughout the long instrumental passages and Andy Rourke stepped into the spotlight to reveal just how important his industry and frame of reference was to the band’s sound. And we were just learning all of the time.

 

 

The Smiths returned to The Savoy six months later, during which time they’d been sucked slowly in from the margins. But although the group would go on to regularly feature at the business end of the album charts, they never really enjoyed the consistent successes they craved with the shorter form, which was one of Morrissey and Marr’s primary ambitions for their group from the get-go.

Even so, the singer had already been rumbled by the tabloids who, picking up on the platinum-plated copy he routinely provided in interviews, had become as regular a freak feature in The Sun as he was on the hit parade, portrayed variously as a dangerous, anti-royal traitor, a sexual deviant and a macabre, terrorist-loving, tree-hugging weirdo. Or, if you like, the Jeremy Corbyn of his time.

The Denis Desmond/MCD-promoted, nine-date, eight-town tour of Ireland during November, 1984, took place less than one month after the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the British Conservative Party was holding its annual conference, and during a particularly dark period in modern Irish history when loyalist and republican terrorism across the island routinely dominated the news agenda. And at a time too when many formidable contemporary bands just simply wouldn’t – or were advised not to – play in the north of Ireland.

With The Smiths on the road in support of their stop-gap, compilation album, ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, Morrissey gave the London press a series of typically headline-grabbing quotes during the media campaign to promote it, one of the most notable of which referred to Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s Prime Minister, and who had survived the Brighton bombing, which killed three people and injured thirty more.

‘The sorrow of the Brighton bombing’, Morrissey claimed, ‘is that Thatcher escaped unscathed. I think that, for once, the IRA were accurate in selecting their targets’.

And it was against this backdrop, six weeks after U2 released ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ and five months after Bob Dylan’s show at Slane Castle was marred by riots around the County Meath town, that The Smiths returned to Ireland. During which they played shows in Letterkenny, Belfast and Coleraine, as well as the usual stop-offs, fetching up in Cork for the second and last time on Sunday, November 18th, 1984, one week before Midge Ure and Bob Geldof recorded the Band Aid single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and a week after Madonna released her remarkable breakthrough album, ‘Like A Virgin’.

The mood inside The Savoy, second time around, was just as frenzied and excitable as it had been earlier that year, and maybe overly-so. The crowd itself was far bigger, as you’d expect, and the promoters had put an extra 50p on the price of the tickets [from memory, and I stand corrected on this, up from £6 to £6.50]. And, once again, myself and Philip were there, close enough to see the magicians work the stage, far enough away to avoid the on-going bash-ball inside the moshing zone. The support this time was provided by James, yet another fledgling and already highly regarded Manchester band [is there ever any other kind ?], who’d released a fine first record, the ‘Jimone’ EP, on the Factory label and who, during their formative years, enjoyed Morrissey’s very public patronage. For better and, possibly, for worse.

The Smiths’ set had changed quite drastically in the interim. And although they were ostensibly promoting ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, the band was also road-testing several of the tracks that would buttress its second studio album, ‘Meat Is Murder’. Taking their opening positions to the foreboding sounds of Prokofiev’s dramatic overture, ‘Romeo And Juliet’, they opened bravely with one of their more introspective cuts, ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’, which had featured as a quality b-side on their ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single earlier that summer, and into which they quickly segued.

Foremost among the clatter of new material was a frantic take on ‘What She Said’ and, close to the end, a bionic, souped-up ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’, by which time the atmosphere inside the hall had turned sharply. Marr had become the unwitting target of a hail of spit half-way through, an unfortunate knuckle-walker’s pastime that many of us suspected, wrongly, had died after The Sex Pistols signed to a major label.

 

 

And after two audible warnings – at one point he arched his callow body back and looked like he was going to lash out – he eventually walked off just shy of the hour mark, taking the rest of the band with him. The Smiths returned, reluctantly enough it seemed to me, to do a two song encore, finishing on a high with ‘What Difference Does It Make’, but Marr had the last word :- he leaned into a vocal mic on the way off and told the crowd, not incongruously, how he’d ‘come to play and not to be spat at’, before leaving again, this time for good.

As the house lights came up around The Savoy, a section of the crowd, some checking their watches, began to vent, boo-ing initially – more, I suspect, in the direction of those who’d caused the walk-off than at the band itself – and then, once it was obvious that the show was over and that The Smiths weren’t returning, broke into a ridiculous chorus of ‘We want James’.

So while the Cork crowd was given an early flavour of some of the more sinewy cuts from ‘Meat Is Murder’, it also experienced the shortest Smiths set, by at least three songs, of that leg of the tour. But not before Morrissey, as the band set up for its encore, returned to the stage with a small sapling, which he wielded like a bicycle chain during ‘Hand In Glove’, and then deposited with gusto into the audience.

The Smiths certainly knew how to make an exit like they knew how to make an entrance. And they never returned to Cork again.