Microdisney

GIDDY-UP

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.

HAS THE LOSS OF SIR HENRY’S BROKEN THE LINK WITH THE PAST?

Our latest guest post is from Kilian McCann. Kilian is a sociology and history undergrad from Cork city. This year, he finished a research project analysing the Cork music scene. One of the major aspects of the study was the disconnect that young people have with past artists in the scene.


The post below is adapted from his chapter on Sir Henrys contained within this research.

I recently did a study on Cork’s music identity. I wanted to find how linked the current Cork music scene was to the huge history of music in the city, and how much of an influence that the bands from the past are on the scene. The results varied a lot, but what was obvious was that the younger generation don’t care near as much about Sir Henry’s as the older generation. In the sixteen years since Henry’s closed and was demolished, young people seem to have forgotten about it and its legendary status.

Dr. Eileen Hogan, a researcher at UCC who has studied the Cork music scene, found that there is a sort of disdain amongst the younger generations regarding the harking towards Cork’s music past. Younger generations want those who look back in nostalgia to appreciate what is happening currently in Cork city. Stevie G wondered if when Sir Henry’s closed, it was actually getting less fun, or if it was just that his generation was getting older. As Aidan Lynch of The Slut Club stated, “what’s so great about Sir Henry’s is that there’s no Sir Henry’s, ironically”.

Hogan noted that younger musicians feel detached from the history. There’s a lack of cross-generational musical awareness in Cork. That said, local music journalist Mike McGrath-Bryan agreed that this break occurred, but that there is still some kind of continuity in sensibility, “I think the past is a ghost that constantly haunts Cork music…obviously, there was a break in the 1990s…there was a discontinuity alright, but also, more so than that, there’s a thematic continuity in Cork music in that since 1981-1982 with the Kaught at the Kampus Record.”

Caoilian Sherlock of Quarter Block Party describes growing up in a period between two cycles: “I think I witnessed the death of a cycle and the birth of a new one over the last 6 years. I mean, there’s a moment where both the waves crash in on each other, and that’s what the last couple of years have been, where artists see the route to their success being record labels, management based in London or Dublin, that whole thing kind of ended over the last couple of years.”

After the closure of Sir Henry’s, many people involved in it, most notably Stevie G, went on to guide emerging members of the Cork scene through opening the Pavilion. Eileen Hogan and Martin O’Connor, a librarian at UCC, state this to be the case: “There is, I would say, a big cohort of leaders in the Cork music scene who came through the Pav, like Caoilian Sherlock for example, who set up the Quarter Block Party. People like that were shaped by or influenced by people who themselves came through the Sir Henry’s scene…A lot of them are very active now in the music scene, the media scene, it’s not even if it’s not necessarily a case where they have the guitars and the drums except they might be working in the media and they promote the younger now”

Sound engineer Cormac Daly thinks this as well: “One thing I will say about Cork, and it’s probably not unique, but there is a strong sense of heritage and history there, even aside from the music itself, but just culturally, the way people talk about Sir Henry’s, massive nostalgia for the place. So there’s definitely a sense of connection with the past, from the people who have been in the scene longer than myself, they’re very open, they’re very approachable, they have like, speaking of Sir Henry’s, Stevie G, is very much about shedding light on the new talent, that’s what he does, so it goes both ways.” Though Sir Henry’s was lost, the legacy lived on and shed light on the new generation.

Abbey Blake, lead guitarist in Pretty Happy, does feel inspiration from Cork’s music past, especially the high standards: “Cos I remember listening to, my Dad has an LP that his band were on, and it was all Cork, Irish bands, and it’s cool to listen to and these bands disappeared now. There’s some fuckin class songs. Especially since there’s no social media presence for any of them, they’re just fuckin gone like. It’s so cool. I think that definitely influenced me like…I think, the only way I feel a connection is through hearing the stories, like, class, I want to gig like that, you know what I mean? I want to hold myself to that accord that they did. Like, they were constantly polished, constantly practising, hated having a shit gig, and I like that kind of standard.”

The Slut Club also had a similar experience, with bassist Aidan Lynch telling of how he heard stories of Sir Henry’s “My mother dated Niall from the Sultans of Ping, so I would have heard plenty of the stories from Henry’s. …There’s a precedent set like, there’s a lot of great music that’s come from Cork, and there’s an attitude, and you’ve got to uphold that kind of thing”

Alex O’Regan of Gilbert, or the Unfathomable Loneliness of the Deep Space Prospector also stated an awareness of Cork music, especially of Stump, and of Rory Gallagher: “My Dad was mad into them [Stump] as well, got a bunch of his stuff, laid around the house. I could probably recognise a bunch of their songs without even knowing the names of them to be fair. It’s that kind thing, it’s in the background. And then, at the same time, we’re all a little bit obsessed with Rory Gallagher”.

Drew Linehan of Hausu believes that there is a lack of awareness of Cork’s music history in the city overall: “I was kind of interested to know and find out, and that’s how I found out about Microdisney, and Nun Attax, and all those kind of weird ones…I think it could be more important, but I don’t know, you don’t hear about those bands a lot. People don’t talk about them, you know”. Donagh Sugrue of Teletext Records thinks that music should be celebrated more in Cork, much in the same way as it is done in Glasgow. This would respect the position music should have in Cork city.

The tangible link between the present and the past in Cork city is largely severed, broken, but many bands and collectives are still aware of the history. That is mainly because of their parents being involved before, transmitting their stories onwards. But for those not from Cork, it’s harder to come across the stories. They’re only told in certain circles who don’t communicate with the younger generation.

The reason for the break in the link is interesting to explore, since every interviewee has a different opinion on why it happened. Mike McGrath-Bryan believes the economic boom caused the break, but John Dwyer of Bunker Vinyl on Camden Quay believes that emigration was a major factor: “I think years ago it was really cheap to have rehearsal spaces, and everyone was on dole in the 80s and 90s, there was no work in Ireland, everyone emigrated and stuff. So…in the 80s, everyone seemed to move to London and stuff, with people moving and emigration, probably a lot of talent left the city as well, and the kind of city, people just needed work and to get out of Ireland. So, we lost a lot of good musicians and we lost a lot of people who were involved in the scene in those days.”

Jack Corrigan of Hausu cites the lack of Sir Henry’s being a reason for the break: If you were to go to Sir Henry’s you could look at the wall and see a poster of this band played here and x and y, you see all the names and stuff. Like, when I was in Galway, I was in Róisín Dubh, and I was looking at the posters and it was like Brian Wilson played here, fuckin like, you can see the history. It’s there in front of you.”

Many of the interviewees believed that the internet and accessibility to music played a role. Caoilian Sherlock of Quarter Block Party illustrated living how the change occurred during his coming-of-age, between the old and new periods, in which Hot Press died, and Napster and LimeWire were emerging. The Internet hadn’t begun to be important yet, and there was still the influence of the older generation. But as the internet got more important, the voices of the older generation began to get lost on Cork’s youth.

What is clear, though, is that the cultural touchpoint Henry’s was and the commonness it gave to the generations beforehand was lost with its closure. Every musical generation before the 2000s had it as a frame of reference in their minds and knew the legendary status it held within the country. Even the physical presence of the building can create that sense of heritage, rather than the empty plot of land that holds the ghost of where Henry’s once stood. Though the EPs lived on and were transmitted to the some of younger generation through their parents, they’re an endangered species. But time moves on. This generation’s Henry’s needs to be somewhere else.

MICRODISNEY : THE END

Photograph © Fanning Sessions

If anything, they’re probably the best accidental band of our time, a haphazard and unlikely collision – or collusion ? – of reference, diffidence and influence that in theory, and maybe every other way too, never stood a chance. Like the central character in their opening number on this week’s farewell dates, ‘Mrs. Simpson’, they made ‘like a head on legs and the rest of person’. And it’ll not be lost on Cathal, in particular, that at the very end, Microdisney finally sold out in Cork.

I’m sure that, on some sort of emotional level, it was appropriate they called it to a halt in the city where they started it off almost forty years previously. In as much as Microdisney – forever Cathal and Sean and in that order – ever followed formal process, last night’s show in Cork was as close as they got to the convention of completing a circle. But where it leaves them in the history of popular music – in Cork, Ireland or beyond – is irrelevant for now :- Microdisney were far too free-spirited, cranky and loose with their ambitions to ever sit comfortably in general company.

Buried somewhere in that line of thinking is, I think, the essence of their allure. They were so wrong and so utterly disconnected on every level and yet, whenever the sun broke through onto their palsied, malformed view of life in the drain, they could glisten with the best of them. They were defined to the very end by the endless pull-and-drag of the sweet against the sour, maybe best captured on ‘464’, one of their most potent songs, that opens in anger over a hail of shouting, spit and guitar noise but that quickly finds its feet in the mellow. And, this last nine months, by the peerless vocal interplay between Cathal’s full-bodied tenor – he has never, to these ears, been in better voice – and Eileen Gogan’s soft touch around the edges.

Photograph © Jim O’Mahony

Microdisney were never completely at ease in their hometown and I’ve written at length about that aspect of the band’s story here. And still they consistently represented, far better than many of Cork’s better known ambassadors, the city’s best, worst and most bizarre attributes, often for comic effect within their songs and often not. For many years, weird as it sounds now, they actually blazed a trail and led the way :- by taking the Innisfallen and upping sticks in the early 1980s, they gave Cork the middle finger and, for years afterwards, a fleeting glimpse of something more exotic and glamorous abroad. The ‘big fat matron with turquoise hair’ left behind so the band could dream more freely.

We now know, of course, that the reality of Microdisney’s life in London was far more chaotic, undercut like much of the largely untold Irish emigrant experience at that time by pills, hooch, squatting, general blackguarding and penury. But their story was, for many, the story of Cork city itself too, the boat at its core as an escape from the despair and torpor. Even if, once you reached Fishguard, you were almost certainly on your own.

Outwardly at least, that truth was just an inconvenient one, especially irrelevant on the old broadsheet pages of The Evening Echo where, in the odd dispatch from London, the local boys were clearly having a right old cruel-up, leading a charge, making hay.

Photograph © Siobhan Bardsley

What we can say with certainty is that there is no clear lineage between what came before Microdisney and what came afterwards ;- they literally fell from the sky, consistently out of reach and constantly out of time. It took them many years to finally grow into their bodies and, even then, I was never wholly convinced that they were built to accommodate the scale of their ambition, such as it was. And so, even when under the gun of a major label to crack the mainstream market, they just couldn’t help themselves. On the band’s best known song, the lavish ‘Town To Town’, with its shine, polish and spit, the lover is in the past, the winter is sick, the harvest has failed and, maybe as tellingly as anything, the singer’s name is still being mis-pronounced.

When Cathal, as he did on-stage in Vicar Street on Monday night, refers to the band’s later material – the Virgin years – as ‘joined up writing’, he’s talking about the well-upholstered gut of the likes of ‘Gale Force Wind’, ‘High And Dry’ and ‘Singer’s Hampstead Home’, ‘not cursive or grown-up but joined-up’ and over which he continued to sprinkle the petrol with a heavy hand. Only the really brave or the perennially diffident aspire to love songs where the moon is shapeless and dim but then that was Microdisney’s stock-in-trade until the very end, the closest they may have ever come to consistency.

From ‘Everybody Is Dead’, a stand-out from the band’s debut album, to ‘Loftholdingswood’, their best song and in which Dan McGrath’s liver just eventually gives out, the sweetness of the sound is counter-pointed and warped by the vicious malady of the grotesque. ‘Sulphates and slap bass’, one of Cathal’s off-the-cuff quips on Monday could, for years, have well been their mission statement.

Photograph © Siobhan Bardsley

And because of that, it’s easy to forget just how intelligent they were with their sound. With seven players on stage for much of this week’s farewell – Cathal and Sean joined, for the occasion, by Rhodri Marsden on keyboards, the imperious John Bennett on lead guitars, most potently on twelve string acoustic and Eileen backing-up on vocals – they’re at their most fetching when they bring five harmonies to the mic. And become, maybe even in spite of themselves, an unflinching, all-out pop band.

Which won’t surprise those long familiar with the breadth of their primary references and source material, Sean’s, in particular. Microdisney borrowed liberally, and as freely from Steely Dan and The Beach Boys as they did from Lee Perry and Lee Hazelwood. And much of Sean’s body of work in the decades post-Microdisney, especially that formidable High Llamas canon, is testament to that.

It’s just as easy to be side-blinded too by the attention long-afforded the band’s second album, ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’, ostensibly the trigger behind those four live shows over the last nine months. And for which they were garlanded, formally, on stage at Dublin’s National Concert Hall last summer.

Because far from being one of the greatest Irish albums of all time – and that’s a dark valley of a discussion in itself – ‘The Clock’ may not even be Microdisney’s best album, even if, given the circumstances that begot it, it’s the record about which the band feels most proud. As strong a case can be made for ‘Crooked Mile’ [1987], the band’s major label debut that saw the dinner-jacketed five-piece seamlessly master the dark art of the velveteen pop song wrapped in a knuckle-duster. While Andrew Mueller, one of the best and more perceptive music writers of his generation – and recently a member of The North Sea Scrolls alongside Cathal and Luke Haines – has long batted for Microdisney’s last album, ’39 Minutes’ [1988]. Which, if it is indeed the sound of a band on the precipice, certainly captures, in vivid colour, the full spread of a magnificent view across the valley of death.

So, why did they go back for afters and why now ? Time, of course, is as much of a cleanser as it is of a healer and those most recent Dublin shows saw an older, possibly wiser, certainly far fitter, sober and way less anxious band roll back the years without either the fuss or the general codology that pock-marks much of Microdisney’s story. And without saying as much, the band clearly believed it had unfinished business or an unpaid personal debt somewhere :- was there a sense that they never really did those terrific songs justice at the time ? Or, perhaps, that others – the market, the public, the industry – didn’t cut them an even break ? Or did they simply fancy taking the music out of its casing one last time just because they could ?

I’ve never had Microdisney pegged as old nostalgics, Cathal in particular. And so it was interesting to hear him, in Dublin on Monday, dip into the earliest chapters in the band’s history to reference Dave Clifford, their first manager and Elvera Butler, who committed their first track to vinyl and who ran many of their most formative shows in The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork. Indeed in prefacing their closer, Frankie Valli’s ‘The Night’, Cathal referred to a Lene Lovich live show in that same venue in January, 1980, where himself and his long-time writing partner and friend heard that song performed for the first time.

In introducing the band, there’s an unusually fuzzy outbreak of bonhomie as Cathal and Sean reference each other and their long, colourful and no doubt often bizarre and fractured friendship. Cathal – maybe half-jokingly and maybe not ? – cautions against too much good-will as if it might just sooth the edge a bit too much. And then they’re gone and it’s over.

On the walk back into town after the Vicar Street show on Monday night, I remembered an old yarn that Cathal once told Dave Fanning during one of their many memorable radio interviews. During the band’s early years, the singer would regularly take the mainline train – a battered, bone-shaking and deeply unpleasant experience at the best of times – from Cork to Dublin, during which he’d dress in priest’s garb and pickle himself with booze, effing and blinding at all-comers during what could often be a torturous four-hour journey.

Photograph © Jim O’Mahony

One of the more frustrating aspects of that long, long haul – and, believe me, there were many – invariably came at Limerick Junction, a desolate outpost that’s actually in Tipperary and where, as a regular passenger, I spent far too long stuck in the sidings, waiting in the worst possible kind of limbo for something, anything, to happen before we’d eventually stutter back into life and re-commence our journey onwards.

You’d see and hear all sort of mad stuff as you were trapped in Limerick Junction, caught quite literally between worlds, gazing listlessly out of the window at the spread of verdure and the thickets beyond. I spent far too many languid hours paralyzed there, listening to Cathal and Sean’s alchemy on a variety of different devices.

As metaphors go in respect of Microdisney, Limerick Junction is as valid as any. Forever crippled and consistently failed by the machine, witnesses to the bizarre and the grotesque, waiting endlessly for another stuttering start and the next inevitable breakdown.

And yet for all of that they were consistently magnificent and leave behind a terrific body of work beyond the catalogue of carnage.

Photograph © Fanning Sessions

THE GO-BETWEENS – A LOVE LETTER

We are delighted to post this wonderful love letter to the Go-Betweens from Breda Corish. Breda lives in north London and works in the scientific & healthcare information sector. While London has been her much loved home for over 30 years since emigrating in 1987, she stays connected to Ireland as “home home” through volunteering with the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign and the Irish in Britain charity – and music of course.

It’s June 2008 and we’ve joined the crowds streaming into The Roundhouse in Camden, eager to see My Bloody Valentine, back on stage for the first time in 16 years.

On the way in, your tickets are checked: so far, so normal. But in return, you’re handed a small cellophane bag containing a pair of red earplugs that look like mini traffic bollards. Who’s up for the challenge of sitting through the aural soundblast without protection? The husband is – he’s intent on hearing the MBV sound unimpeded. He’s adamant the damage is already done to his hearing from years of gig-going.

2008 The husband’s set of MBV earplugs – still pristine

I’m not up for it myself. The earplugs go in but unusually for me, both of them. Because at at every other gig I’ve gone to in the last two decades, I’ve worn just one earplug, in my left ear.


And who’s to blame for that? Unlikely noise merchants, The Go-Betweens a.k.a. Australia’s criminally underrated indie tunesmiths.


Flashback to July 1987. A few days after graduating from UCD, I’ve escaped to London. I’m running away from Ireland and the never-ending rounds of political-ecumenical contortions about condoms, people being trapped in loveless marriages, women getting the boat to England, and a man being killed in Fairview Park because he’s gay.

1987 Working as a Waitress

Within a few weeks, I’m working as a waitress in a pizza restaurant in Covent Garden and living in a flat share in Crouch End. I’ve never even heard of the place before moving in. I later feel like I share a secret connection with Cathal Coughlan when The Fatima Mansions release Viva Dead Ponies in 1990:

Do you know how old Jesus feels?
For he walks the Earth again
but not in Mecca or in Jerusalem
No, he sells papers and beer in a shop in Crouch End”

  • Viva Dead Ponies

Within a few months, I’ve also acquired a boyfriend, one of my co-workers in the pizza restaurant. He’s English, a few years older than me, with an impressive flat top and an equally impressive record collection. I’m painfully aware of the cliché of boys dispensing a musical education to their girlfriends. But when we exchange live music anecdotes, Auto Da Fe at The Baggot Inn can’t really compete with his 15 years of gig-going in Southampton, Brighton and London.

So I embraced both the record collection and the boyfriend, and yes, reader, eventually I married him.

I very quickly realised the benefits of the boyfriend’s impeccable music taste, even though it included a faint sense of mortification that he knew of more and better Irish bands than I did. Within days of getting together in September 1987, he had bought an extra ticket so I could join him seeing That Petrol Emotion at The National Club in Kilburn. And did the same thing again a few weeks later, to see Microdisney at The Fridge in Brixton.


The Go-Betweens had unwittingly played a part in building these connections.

A couple of years earlier, the boyfriend had got a job at the pizza restaurant in Covent Garden through a friend. One night, he went to see a gig at The Boston Arms by an Irish band that the same friend had joined as lead singer. The friend was Steve Mack and the band was That Petrol Emotion.

After the gig, the boyfriend was waiting for a night bus when a distinctive Australian couple walked up to the stop and asked for advice about which bus they should take to get home. They all got on the number 4 going north. By the end of the bus journey, Robert Forster had convinced him that he really needed to listen to the other Irish band that had played with the Petrols that evening. That band was Microdisney.


The Go-Betweens had released their fifth album Tallulah in June 1987, but it was the first of their records for me. The jangly guitar and string-laden sounds of Right Here became the soundtrack to our new head-over-heels-in-love relationship.


“I’m keepin’ you right here
Right here, right here
Right here, right here
Whatever I have is yours
And it’s right here”

  • Right Here

Life in London was everything I hoped for. Compared with Ireland, the sense of anonymity and freedom to be who you want, to dress as you want, to live as you want was liberating. But there were also times I was very self-conscious about being the freckle-faced Irish girl from the sticks, when I desperately want to be self-confident on the dancefloor of the Electric Ballroom in Camden. I heard a coded message in another track on Tallulah.

Shake off your despondency, and your country girl act.
You’re reading me poetry, that’s Irish, and so black.
I know you’re warm, the warmest person alive,
But are you warm, deep down inside?
I want us to be lovers
I want us to be friends

”The House Jack Kerouac Built”

The penny started to drop that being Irish actually had a certain cachet for the lefty, post-punk/alternative/indie music enthusiasts of north London. While anti-Irish sentiment was still in the air, it very rarely touched me. It would be another couple of years before the IRA bombing campaign seriously shifted its focus to London.

I made the pilgrimage to Holts in Camden and bought my first pair of Doc Martens. They were 12-hole Blackburns, high-shine with no yellow stitching, and I strode down the street feeling ten feet tall. I hijacked the boyfriend’s old black leather jacket for a while and when the waitressing wages started to build up, bought a biker jacket of my own.

The Boyfriend’s old black jacket

1987 rolled over into 1988. One of the best things about being a late arrival fan is that you get to binge on a feast of records in one go. The Go-Betweens’ debut Send Me a Lullaby made no real impact on me but I was bowled over by a series of standout tracks on the other albums, most of them the obvious singles candidates.

“Cattle and Cane”, Grant McLennan’s autobiographical vignette of going back to rural Australia on Before Hollywood. Followed by Spring Hill Fair with the gorgeous melody and aching lyrics of “Bachelor Kisses”. Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express was bookended by the urge to dance around the room to “Spring Rain” and to indulge in the melancholy of “Apology Accepted”.

I had my first opportunity to see the band live when they played the London Astoria on 28 July 1988. This is the point where I should be able to give a blow by blow account of The Go-Betweens’ performance that night. But the truth is my memory 30 years on is just one big mashup of recollections from different gigs at the Astoria that summer….

Queuing for a pint while waiting for The Three Johns to come on stage, and breaking into spontaneous dancing when Teenage Kicks blasted out from the PA. Pogoing at Voice of the Beehive, wearing a ballet tutu with those Doc Marten boots and four-inch dangly earrings. And the always sticky floor helping to keep your feet connected to the ground in the middle of the moshpit. (When the Astoria was demolished for the London Crossrail project in 2011, 13,000 Victorian jam jars were found in an old vault from the Crosse & Blackwell warehouse that originally occupied the site).

This was the Voice of the Beehive DMs + tutu + leather jkt look

What I do clearly remember from that first Go-Betweens gig are my impressions of the individual band members on stage. Grant McLellan was the regular guy. Amanda Brown was gorgeous. You’d enjoy a drink with them down the pub. Robert Forster was tall, angular and aloof, and wildly attractive. Lindy Morrison was impressive and intimidating. Having a drink down the pub with them would be a bit nerve-wracking.

Danny Kelly’s review in the NME highlighted simmering tensions within the band members, but I was oblivious to all of that. Instead when Robert Forster intoned “The Clarke Sisters”, it felt revolutionary and transgressive to hear someone on stage singing about women who are feminists and having periods. This was only 1988 after all and advertising for tampons and sanitary towels was still banned on British TV.

They had problems with their father’s law.
They sleep in the back of a feminist bookstore.
The Clarke Sisters
The eldest sister keeps a midnight vigil.
The youngest sister she’s not spiritual.
The Clarke Sisters.
Their steel grey hair, their lovely steel grey hair.
The Clarke Sisters.
Why don’t I introduce you
I’m sure they won’t mind.
But don’t you dare, laugh at their collections
Handed down, handed down for love.
The middle sister gets her period blood.
The flood of love. The flood of love.
The Clarke Sisters.
Their steel grey hair, their lovely steel grey hair.

  • The Clarke Sisters

The following month, August 1988, The Go-Betweens released 16 Lovers Lane. It was a collection of glorious songs, underpinned by spiky, questioning lyrics. Even the most chart-friendly single “Streets of Your Town” had a nod to the dark underbelly of small town life.


Round and round up and down
Through the streets of your town
Everyday I make my way
Through the streets of your town
Don’t the sun look good today?
But the rain on its way
Watch the butcher shine his knives
And this town is full of battered wives.

  • Streets of Your Town

And if the lyrics are read as autobiographical, then the simmering tensions referenced in Danny Kelly’s gig review were in the spotlight now. Something had clearly gone awry between “Love Goes On” and “Was There Anything I Could Do?”


There’s a cat in the alleyway
Dreaming of birds that are blue
Sometimes girl when I’m lonely
This is how I think about you
There are times that I want you
I want you so much I could bust
I know a thing about lovers
Lovers lie down in trust
Love goes on anyway
Love goes on anyway

  • Love Goes On!

 

She comes home and she’s happy
She comes home and she’s blue
She comes home and she tells him
Listen baby we’re through
I don’t know what happened next
All I know is she moved
Packed up her bags and her curtains
Left him in his room
Was there anything I could do?

  • Was There Anything I Could Do?

1988 rolled over into 1989. I had hung up my waitressing uniform by then and got my first “real job” working as a scientific editor in an office building on High Holborn. Running up the stairs after lunch one day, I ran into The Fields of the Nephilim walking down in their dusty coats and belatedly realised that The Melody Maker was our unlikely work neighbour.

The boyfriend and I had said our goodbyes to Crouch End and were now living at the top of Camden Road. Looking back, it feels like we went to a non-stop round of gigs. The Town & Country Club, The Boston Arms, The Dome and The Hawley Arms were all within walking distance. Forays further afield took us all the way out to the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden.

The Go-Betweens were on tour again in the UK and played The Town & Country Club on 6 June 1989. We didn’t know then that the band would decide to break up by the end of the year. My overwhelming memory of that night is being a woman on a mission to get as close as possible to the stage.

The venue was heaving with fans. I ploughed through the moshpit, leaving the boyfriend somewhere in my wake and ended up right at the front of the crowd. I was vaguely aware of a speaker stack immediately to my left, but spent the gig immersed in the music while worshipping literally at the feet of the aloof and arrogant god that was Robert Forster.

We walked home afterwards, sweaty and exhilarated and woke up with a remnant of the traditional post-gig ringing in the ears which dissipated over the next day.

I can’t remember who was playing at our next gig that summer, but the first thudding bass lines were accompanied by the unpleasant sensation that something was jabbing my left eardrum with a pointy stick. The left eardrum jabbing recurred at the next gig, and the next one and the next…..

That was the beginning of a new pre-gig ritual which continues 30 years on. Patting down my pockets to check for money, keys, lipstick, travelcard while the husband asks “Do you have your earplug?”. To this day, if you see a middle-aged woman at a gig in London improvising with a wodge of toilet paper stuffed in her left ear, that will be me.

And was it worth it? Yes it was.
I don’t want to change a thing when there’s magic
I don’t want to change a thing when there’s magic
In here, now the coast is clear
I got no time for fear

  • Magic in Here, The Friends of Rachel Worth

11 Feb 2019
Breda Corish, London N16
Twitter: @N16Breda

A SONG FOR MY MOTHER

Joan

 

On her birth cert and on her death cert, my mother is referred to by her actual name, Margaret, even though she was known all of her life as Joan. This kind of carry-on wasn’t entirely uncommon during the country’s formative years – she was born as the Irish Free State became The Republic of Ireland – but I often think she just felt one name marked her out a bit more than the other. Growing up on the northside of Cork city during the late 1930s and 1940s, many of the more popular women’s names – Statia, Hannah, Josie, Bridie and Molly – just sounded as old as they were widespread. And the thought of ever being among the old just never sat well with my mother.

 

She was clear about the funeral she wanted ;- no gawkers, no eulogies and no mementos. Joan didn’t need anyone to take the pulpit to remind those mourning her about how great she was or to list her many achievements, and neither did we. And she was still earning kudos even as she laid in repose at home ;- an elderly woman who’d come to pay her respects shook my hand and told me that my mother was one of the best looking corpses she’d seen in Cork all year. I’m not convinced its an accolade you’d ever really want, and you’d presumably require a proxy to pick up the gong for you, but I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.

 

Joan was a devout woman who loved many things ;- her family, style, show-business, flowers, music and the arts. During the last few days of her life, when we thought she was rallying her way out of intensive care, she asked us to fetch a couple of her favourite things to the hospital :- a prayer book and the latest issue of ‘Hello’ magazine. She had a broad frame of reference and was as comfortable discussing Lot’s wife – the biblical character from the Old Testament who turned into a pillar of salt after she looked back at the city of Sodom – as she was Pixie Lott, the British pop singer and actress who clearly suffered the same fate thousands of years later.

 

But she absolutely loved Cork. Born and reared over a bakery up on Old Market Place, off of the Shandon Street end of Blarney Street, Joan viewed everything, consciously or otherwise, through the prism of where she came from and the people who made her. But she saw the joins on that canvas too – the warts, the squinting windows, the clear class division and the spare hands – and wasn’t slow to pull if she believed she had a case.

 

‘Desperate’ was one of her favourite words and she used it to describe everything from funerals to restaurants to priest’s sermons to local theatre shows to much of the work I’ve done over the years. And although the Cork in her would come out as she rolled her tongue around the first syllable, deliberately holding it flat for a couple of beats just for emphasis, there was never once a hint of malice in her voice or in the views she expressed. Her body might have failed her in the end but she checked out with her humanity in fine working nick :- and of course she was usually right about everything.

 

I’ve written previously about my mother’s love of music and about the suspicion with which she regarded those unfortunate enough to be born without a note in their heads. And that love of music was at its most lethal when compounded with her devotion to Cork.

 

Colm's dad...

Daniel Dunlea, Colm”s Grandfather [Courtesy of Colm]

 

Her father was a first cousin of the well-known local tenor, William Dunlea – known as Walloo – who emerged from the back lanes to become a prominent fixture on the international singing circuit during the 1940s and 1950s.

 

We’d often see Walloo – long-retired and living off of unlikely tales of old nights of glory – during his later years as he shuffled around the northside. With his carefully pruned moustache, slicked-back hair, crisp white shirts and leather daps, he was a distinguished operator who cut a real dash, even in his dotage. A point not lost on Theo Dorgan, who name-checked him alongside another of my mother’s peers, Puzzle The Judge, in his mighty 1991 poem, ‘A Nocturne For Blackpool’ :-

 

Walloo Dullea, homeward bound on the Commons Road, belts out airs from Travatore,the recipe as before, nobody stirs from sleep and ‘Puzzle The Judge’, contented, pokes at ashes –‘There’s many a lawyer here today could learn from this man’.

 

Jack Lynch etc

Jack Lynch, Máirín Lynch and Walloo Dunlea. [Courtesy of Colm]

 

I heard many stories over the years about William Dunlea’s performances abroad, many of which sounded hugely over-pumped. But what we do know is that he gigged in front of Presidents, public figures and the smart set – to what extent and to what end, who knows ? – and his achievements, the biggest of which was his escape from Blackpool, showed my mother both the power of dreams and the magic of song.

 

And this might explain why she was so taken with the many bands, artists, dancers, singers and hams who took the same road – in one unexpected turn of events, a hardy sham from Gerald Griffin Street defied all expectation and went off with an international ballet company – from the improvised rehearsal spaces around Cork and onwards to places that, in those soft profile pieces in The Evening Echo, sounded far more exotic.

 

For thirty years, Joan saved those articles for me, dated them and mailed them onwards in the post. It was just another of her ways, I suppose, of ensuring I wasn’t losing the run of myself, away from home and out of her sight. Wherever I was and whatever it was I was doing, others were doing it too – often far better – flying the flag, belting out an aria for Cork.

 

Examiner pic

 

She had a particular soft spot for The Frank And Walters, brand leaders for local appeal and a band that’s never lost its common touch. Years ago, she met Ashley, the drummer, in an optometrist’s waiting room and forged a life-long connection with him during the short wait for a routine glaucoma test. And once that association had been soldered, she
followed his band’s progress intently, as if he’d sold her a serious stake in it. In an age of uncertainty, anxiety, distortion and scripted reality, there was always something quietly re-assuring about her phone-calls – and, in later years, the texts she’d ask my father to send from an otherwise dormant mobile – that kept me up to speed with what The Franks were up to and with whom.

 

But there were plenty of others too. Our conversations over the years were dotted with references to The Sultans of Ping, Mick Flannery, Cara O’Sullivan, John Spillane, The Montforts, James N. Healy, Joan Denise Moriarty, Miss Kavanagh, Paul Buckley’s cousin who changed his name and landed a couple of acting gigs in London, Handsome Tony and any one of a number of would-be local thesps who first togged out in local am-dram and who later graduated to walk-ons on ‘Fair City’. And most of whom, given the long-running global conspiracy against all of Cork, particularly its creative wing, have heroically kept the city up where it belongs. On the national and often international stages and firmly in the public eye.

 

Those of us who grew up during the 1970s will remember Cork city as a long-running horror-serial and anyone who’s seen Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic London in his zombie film, ’28 Days Later’, will be reminded of what Patrick Street and McCurtain Street looked like forty years ago.

 

The place smelt too, and it smelt badly. If it wasn’t some noxious odour carried up the river from the harbour on a strong wind and into the heart of the city, it was the enduring linger of cheap, damp coal – called ‘slack’ – that most families used to make domestic fires burn longer. My parents were obsessed with the stuff and no self-respecting home fire was ever constructed in Cork – and believe me, the creation of a small fire was a serious affair that also required the channelling of a decent draft down the open flue using double broad-sheet pages from The Echo – without a decent coating of slack.

 

Against the backdrop of such physical and economic deprivation – and no little cultural austerity too – our career options were limited enough :- emigration, unemployment or an entry-point position into the civil service for those who either came through formal examinations or, as was all too common, could avail of a bit of pull. Needless to say, to be even moderately different or mildly lateral in aspect or ambition wasn’t easy.

 

Microdisney – like Theo Dorgan – emerged from beneath that mire and, as you’d expect, much of their work is rooted in it. Fans and critics often refer to the grotesque under-belly that dominates much of Cathal Coughlan’s work – it’s a mandatory requirement, I think – and the source of which can be traced easily enough back onto Cork’s own doorstep.

 

But most of the band’s earliest, tinnier and more fumbling material, like ‘Michael Murphy’ and ‘Pink Skinned Man’ – both of which featured in their recent live sets – would have been lost on my mother as its long been on wider audiences. Those older numbers are critical cogs in any considered tracking of the group’s long and peculiar history but, beyond that, much of the early material is strictly for loyalists, collectors and anoraks only ;- its just far too obtuse and not grabby enough.

 

And yet during that six month period in 1987, as the band was enjoying a broader, however fleeting popularity around the release of ‘Crooked Mile’, its first album on a major label, and when ‘Town To Town’ featured on day-time national radio and the band even fetched up on children’s television, they became surly majorettes in that marching panoply of Corkness. And in my mother’s eyes – and maybe even in her prayers ? – Microdisney joined the litany of saints, from Christy Ring to Seán Condon to Walloo to Danny La Rue and that would later feature the likes of Pixie McKenna [who she knew as Bernadette], Graham Norton, Cara O’Sullivan, Alan Foley and the many points in between on her own Via Dolorosa.

 

My mother was of a generation of remarkable, largely unheralded Irish women who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s with nothing. But who determined that, through education initially, their own children were going to have some sort of a chance. And who, with little by way of formal supports or state recognition, and working on gut instinct and raw cop-on only, consistently drove us on and succeeded, eventually, in making us moderately functioning citizens. So when she saw anyone from Cork – and especially from the northside of the city – being regarded either on a stage, a public platform or a playing field, her instinctive response was to bring it all back home.

 

Consciously or otherwise, she never lost sight of that broader social and cultural struggle and the scale of those routine sacrifices made by many families like our own – and by mothers, especially – to just keep us all on the bright side of the road and to protect us from the despair and torpor. And particularly those who, against every prejudice imaginable – much of it locally rooted – dared to be different because they just dared to dream.

 

Joan would have preferred, of course, had I stayed in teaching and followed the script, settled locally and been much easier to reach. There were numerous occasions over the years when, before mobile technology and even long after it, she had no idea where I was, never mind know how I was. But she never once questioned why I sloped off  up the path I did because, knowing I could read and write – and with the love of music and sport she both instilled and enabled in me – she knew I had at least a few of the fundamentals in place and that I wasn’t entirely without hope.

 

I turned fifty years old on the week of my mother’s funeral, the week that Microdisney recently played The National Concert Hall in Dublin. Thirty-six years previously they were the first band I ever saw play live when, as callow and nervous as I was myself, they supported Depeche Mode in The City Hall in Cork in 1982. It’s been an eventful and colourful few decades for all of us since, during which the band has very obviously bulked up both its sound and its reputation. And in direct proportion, it should be said, to the waistlines of many of those once poetic young swains – myself as prominently as any – who fetched up to see them on Earlsfort Terrace.

 

I left the house reluctantly enough, between worlds. Our sideboard a spread of mass cards and birthday cards, a testament once again to that which we often take for granted ;- the kindness of friends and the kindness of complete strangers. And like most of those who made the journey – and I recognised many faces from Cork in the 1980s, a feat in itself – I really had no idea what to expect.

 

Microdisney aren’t exactly a comfortable listen or a barrel of laughs at the best of times, either. Death is all around us, of course, but its especially prominent in their formidable body of work, in case I needed reminding. Much of ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’, the album the band was re-visiting and the whole purpose of its two recent, unlikely live appearances, deals with an extreme emotional collapse where ‘the clock’ in the title is clearly a metaphor for death.

 

And yet in the company of another powerful, eminent woman – my wife – I found real comfort in even the band’s most unsettling material, of which there’s plenty. Even if the thought struck me throughout the night that I should probably have been anywhere else, working something or other through my system. And I suspect there was plenty of detail and nuance going on around the fringes that simply passed me by.

 

But as a release – temporary or otherwise – it was as effective a healing as any. The power of song and the redemptive appeal of music, like my mother, never growing old. And never to be forgotten.