Microdisney

SEAN O’HAGAN LIVE AT THE CORK COUNTY CRICKET CLUB, JULY 2nd, 2017

Sean O Hagan 1

Picture Courtesy of Dominic Moore

 

The last time I got beyond the gates of The Cork County Cricket Club, on that magnificent, tree-lined stretch out in the west of the city, a small group of us were making an unofficial, no-budget video for ‘The Summerhouse’ by The Divine Comedy. And the last shot in that clip, which was for the fledgling No Disco series, features my late friend, Philip Kennedy, on a hired old bicycle, shakily making his way up the narrow pathway, being hunted off of the premises by an official – was he a night watchman ? – who threatened to call the guards on us.

 

In keeping with the general spirit of that series, and the cavalier mood of the time, we had no permissions in place, no facilities and were pretty much making it all up as we went along. And so we’d spent the early part of that quiet Sunday lunchtime rambling around by The Shaky Bridge, absolutely on the fly and with the minimum of film stock. But once we spotted the small pavilion inside the hedged surround of The Richard Beamish Grounds, it felt like we’d made it home. And off we went ;- the closest any of us had ever been to a summerhouse.

 

Many years later and Sean O’Hagan, once of Microdisney and Stereolab, now of The High Llamas, once of Luton, briefly of Cork and now resident in Peckham in South London, wanders into that same, small premises and casts a fond eye across what, on every level, are lush surroundings for any engagement. It’s a long way from the room in Bennigan’s Bar in Derry where, a couple of nights previously, he began his short, four-date acoustic tour and, back in Cork, an appropriate place in which to conclude it.

 

The walls inside the pavilion remind us of some of the great merchant princes of Cork sport, former captains and international players who, with their first names captured in double and triple initials on mounted wood panels, graced the crease and the outfield beyond the wide bay-windows. And there, among them, a familiar name I recognise from our old school, the former Cork county captain and Ireland all-rounder opening bat, generally, and military medium bowler as required – Ted Williamson. From a staunch, well-known Northside family steeped in hurling and football, I wonder, in the worst Cork traditions of social stereotyping, when Ted became T.E.J. Williamson and how he ever ended up here ?

 

Which is a question that Sean O’Hagan too, from behind his acoustic guitar and hired-for-the-night keyboard, might well have asked himself at various points throughout his sparkling, soft and magnificent set in front of a packed house in the small, fancy function room inside the clubhouse. Organised, he tells us, through friends and like-minds using social media and, for a change, plugging nothing, tonight’s show has all the hallmarks of an over-due visit back to see family and to catch up with old friends and a smattering of anoraks. And, to this end, feels like a civil ceremony that’s been gate-crashed by a handful of well-wishers, many of them lavishly bearded.

 

Sean O hagan 2

Picture courtesy of Dominic Moore

 

Half-way through the supple, sixteen song set, and with the doors and the windows open out onto the verdure and with the low, late-evening light clinging on for life, he reminds us who he is and mentions his band, the excellent High Llamas, with whom he’s now compiled a formidable back catalogue. Lest anyone in the room – and it’s nicely full – think that he might pull an old Microdisney oddity from the pack and bring it up for air. And he doesn’t, thankfully. The closest we get is the dead air when someone in the front row mentions ‘Horse Overboard’ after Sean tells a soft yarn about a rural scene he saw out of the window of a speeding train on the journey down from Dublin earlier.

 

It’s been thirty years, more or less, since the fabled Cork band he back-boned with Cathal Coughlan pulled the shutters down on their premises one last time and, in the decades since, he’s made number of fine, fine records ;- more than enough to draw a wide-ranging set from. And he does, scattering the evening with dreamy personal testimonies and under-stated vignettes as he explains away the background to some of his material. Culled from a solo career that began in earnest with 1992’s ‘Santa Barbara’ but that’s dominated tonight by cuts from the three High Llamas albums issued immediately thereafter, the wonderful ‘Gideon Gaye’, ‘Cold And Bouncy’ and the formidable and defining 1998 monster, ‘Hawaii’.

 

Stripped back to skeletal form, and without the multiple layers of brass, strings and chintzy keyboards, Sean is kept nicely busy all evening working the frets as he reaches his head back, stretching his soft voice to tip the high end of his register, and often beyond, just about making His playing style is as gorgeous and gracious as it’s ever been and, without the blankets – The High Llamas boast more a temporary partition than a wall of sound – the source of the magic at the heart of much of that solo work is clear. Often as redolent of the fresh, balmy bossa nova that dominated Everything But The Girl’s fine debut, ‘Eden’, other times sprinkled with soft jazz shapes, I’m reminded, fleetingly, of the delicate core of Microdisney’s early releases and opt, correctly as it happens, to keep it to myself.

 

A dedication to the late Mary Hansen, the Australian guitarist who played with Sean in Stereolab, prefaces ‘The Dutchman’, again from ‘Gideon Gaye’ before Jerome Kern’s ‘Ol Man River’ closes the innings for the night, tenderly political and prescient, soft and telling. And then he’s done, gone, and back into the arms of friends and well-wishers beyond in the bar.

 

On the walk up to the show hours earlier, I passed the small building that, years ago, housed the old Elmtree studios and that faces almost directly onto the flower-lined pedestrian gate at the County. The small plaque that identified it for years among the back garages has been painted over in beige. But it was here that, in the company of the likes of Peter West, Dennis Herlihy and Ger O’Leary, many an aspiring local outfit laid their first, tentative shapes onto tape. Any roll of honour on the walls here would capture honourable statesmen like Cypress, Mine !, Belsonic Sound, Burning Embers and The Frank And Walters, among a host of others :- Elmtree was, indeed, where another strata of Cork society sported and played.

 

And at the end of a warm, classy night in the company of one of the great, unheralded names in the history of music in Cork city, you’d be thinking that, if you can’t put your arms around your memories, you need to capture these kinds of moments while you can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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U2 AND THE ARC

U2 - UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 copyright Pat Galvin

U2 – UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 © Pat Galvin

 

In December, 1992, the Cork-born showband singer, Tony Stevens, sustained multiple injuries when the van in which he was travelling back home after a show in the West of Ireland was involved in a serious road collision. He spent the best part of a year recovering in hospital, endured many subsequent years when he was physically unable to perform and saw his career locked in the sidings and his considerable national profile all but lost. Five years later, the full details of the accident and the extent of it’s impact emerged during a High Court case in Cork, in which he settled an action for damages.

 

Stevens, whose real name is Tony Murphy, was a welder from Cork who, during the mid-1970s, went full-time onto Ireland’s lucrative cabaret circuit and quickly developed a decent domestic standing. Clean-cut and affable, he pitched himself as a young, middle-of-the-road crooner among an established cohort of old-school performers. Backed by his band, Western Union, he gigged early and often, playing inoffensive covers and making regular appearances on RTÉ’s light entertainment shows, plugging his numerous releases, of which a cover of ‘To All The Girls I Loved Before’ is easily his best known. And as such, he’s an unlikely starting point for a story about U2 and that group’s long association with Cork city and it’s people.

 

During the summer of 1977, the main canteen on the U.C.D. campus at Belfield hosted what was billed as ‘Ireland’s first punk rock festival’. The line-up featured some of the country’s most exciting and freshest punk-pop and new-wave outfits, headed-up by The Radiators From Space, who’d released their debut single, ‘Television Screen’, months Earlier. Among those on the undercard were the emerging Derry outfit, The Undertones and The Vipers, a local mod-fused power-pop band who, among their number, was Brian Foley, who later fetched up alongside Paul Cleary as a member of The Blades.

 

The UCD event was marred by – and is, sadly, best remembered for – the death of an eighteen year old man, Patrick Coultry, from Cabra, who was stabbed after a row broke out in the crowd during the concert. Over thirty years later, John Fisher, who promoted the show and who went on to manage the career of the comedian, Dermot Morgan, recalled in a piece for the excellent Hidden History of UCD blog how, at the time, ‘gigs in Ireland were pretty simple affairs. They were run by enthusiastic amateurs, with very little security. After Belfield it became more regulated, more professional and safe’.

 

Elvera Butler, from Thurles, County Tipperary was, by her own admission, one of those enthusiastic amateurs who, from humble beginnings, and possibly more by default than design, went on to become, like John Fisher and a slew of others from that period, key players in the domestic entertainment industry.

 

She had become the recently-installed Entertainment Officer on the Student’s Union at University College, Cork during that period when, in Britain, The Sex Pistols released ‘God Save The Queen’ and The Clash unleashed their vital, self-titled debut album. And, by so doing, fundamentally democratised many of the long-established tenets that tended to under-pin the entertainment industry. Punk rock was, in many respects, just doing it for itself and urging everyone else to do likewise.

 

As part of her brief, Butler staged regular live music shows – mostly low-key, often solo acoustic affairs – on the U.C.C. campus, primarily in The College Bar. But from time to time, she’d book bigger and more established acts like Sleepy Hollow and Stagalee to perform in The Kampus Kitchen, a large, low-ceilinged restaurant buried deep in what was then the college’s Science block. When, towards the end of 1977, an opportunity to move those shows into a bigger venue off-site presented itself, the College travelled the three mile distance downtown, to what was then known as The New Arcadia Ballroom on The Lower Road, opposite Kent Station.

 

The first ever live show advertised in the local press as a Downtown Kampus event, took place in it’s new home on Thursday, November 24th, 1977, when The Memories played live at that year’s ‘Cowpuncher’s Ball’ ;- admission was one pound. The following night, down in the belly of the building, Tweed, a Kilkenny-based, pub-rock seven-piece headlined the night that formally christened The Downtown Kampus. ‘UCC Kampus Kitchen moves downtown to New Arcadia MacCurtain St’ [sic], ran the text that accompanied the small box advert in The Evening Echo.

 

And on Saturday, November 26th, the Cobh-born Freddie White [and his band, Fake], and Dublin hard rocker, Jimi Slevin, played a two-handed headliner that book-ended the venue’s opening weekend ;- The Arc was up and running.

 

The Downtown Kampus rightly enjoys a mythical standing in the history of contemporary music in Cork, as much for the quality and spirit of the music it hosted as for what it represented in wider socio-cultural terms. Over the course of it’s three-and-a-half year life-span, it hosted a series of often chaotic, widely diverse and fondly recalled live shows at a time when, in the after-glow of punk rock, Cork was a city light on glamour. And during the late 1970s, Ireland’s second city, over-dependent on a cluster of long-standing, traditional industries, could indeed be a grim and dank place. Albeit one with serious notions and a long-standing creative under-belly.

 

During the summer of 1977, Fianna Fáil had been returned to power following a landslide victory in that year’s general election and the party’s leader, Jack Lynch, in whose constituency in Cork North Central The Arcadia Ballroom was located, was elected Taoiseach with a huge majority. In early September, Martin O’Doherty of Glen Rovers, the fabled northside club of Christy Ring, Josie Hartnett, John Lyons and Jack Lynch himself, captained the Cork senior hurling team to their second All-Ireland hurling title in a row :- they’d memorably complete a famous three-in-a-row the following year.

 

But it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that those live shows at The Arcadia gave a young and clued-in sub-section of Cork society a real glimpse of something more arresting and moderately glamorous ;- a cracked window beyond which was another time and another place, far from the the more traditional influences of establishment politics and Gaelic Games.

 

And this is reflected in the full list of acts that performed there – local, national and international – that’s as varied as it is long and that runs the line fully from the likes of John Otway to The Beat, The Specials to Nun Attax, XTC to Sleepy Hollow and that also includes The Only Ones, The Blades, UB40, The Undertones, The Cure, The Damned, Doctor Feelgood, The Virgin Prunes and hundreds of others. Practically all of them enticed to perform at The Arcadia by Elvera Butler who promoted most of those shows and, betimes, by Denis Desmond, then a fledgling agent working in the U.K., now one of the biggest and most powerful players on the international music circuit.

 

Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980

Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980 © David Corio

 

The U.C.C. Downtown Kampus at The Arcadia Ballroom is still best known, however, because of the many live shows played there between 1978 and 1980 by U2, the young Dublin band who, during this period, were in search of a beginning. Like every teenage band with ambition, they were still trying to locate a distinguishing voice in a crowded field while also building up flying-hours, putting money in the bank. In Paul McGuinness, they had a connected manager who was sussed in the dark arts of public relations and marketing and, unusually enough, they appeared to have a strategy. Part of which was to play as many shows as they could as often as they could and wherever they could while, in parallel, developing their song-writing.

 

Contrary to popular belief, U2’s first Cork show wasn’t in The Arcadia at all but, rather, in The Stardust, now The Grand Parade Hotel, on July 7th, 1978. On that night, they were supported by a young local outfit, Asylum, featuring Sam O’Sullivan on drums :- he has long been part of U2’s core road crew working, to this day, as the band’s drum technician.

 

The band’s first appearance in The Arc took place later that same year when, on September 30th, they supported the Swindon new wave band, XTC, and were paid £80 for their troubles. Its not entirely clear how many shows U2 played at The Arcadia – its either nine or ten – but what is certain is that, by the time they took the stage there for the last time – in December, 1980, when they were supported by a young local band, Microdisney – they’d built up a decent and loyal following around Cork and, as has long been documented, had also assembled the bulk of a road crew plucked from the scene there, many of whom would serve them for decades thereafter. Primary among them Joe O’Herlihy, who did their front-of-house sound in The Arc and who remains an integral component of U2’s operation, listed these days as the band’s ‘audio director’.

 

 

On Saturday, March 1st, 1980, U2’s set at The Arcadia was witnessed by the young British music writer, Paul Morley, who was assigned to write the band’s first major feature piece for the influential London-based music weekly, New Musical Express. And on the morning after that show, he sat down with Bono in ‘the cheaply luxurious lounge of The Country Club hotel’ to gauge the extent of the band’s ambition a matter of weeks before U2 signed a major recording deal with Island Records. According to the piece, which appeared in print on March 22nd, 1980, the band was then ‘at the rare-in-Eire point where they’re recognised in the streets, hounded for autographs at Gaelic Football matches’.

 

U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980

U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980 © David Corio

Thirty-seven years on, that two-pager – off-set by a series of terrific snaps by David Corio, then a young free-lancer who has since gone on to photograph some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry – makes for terrific, if sometimes bizarre reading. In part a considered policy paper from Bono – who, in outlining U2’s plans to take their shtick beyond Ireland, takes aim at a number of his peers – and in part an over-excited, fanzine-style sermon by Morley about the vagaries of the music business and the state of the Irish nation, it concludes over its closing furlongs with the following quote from
the singer :

 

We’ve been given Lego, and we’re learning to put things together in new ways. This is a stage that we’ve got to that I’m not ashamed of, but I believe we will get much stronger’.

 

Later that afternoon, a fleet of cars carrying the band, it’s small crew and Paul Morley, left Cork to play yet another live show, this time at The Garden Of Eden, a dance-hall in Tullamore, County Offaly, then a four-hour drive away, where U2 were scheduled to play a ninety-minute set. Supporting the night’s head-liner, Tony Stevens and his band.

 

Tullamore is referred to throughout Paul Morley’s NME piece as Tullermeny [Bono’s real-name is also mistakenly noted as ‘Paul Houston’], possibly because the writer is especially scathing of the town and it’s youth ;– ‘they rarely smile and there is a far away look in their eyes’, he writes. But he reserves his most savage lines for the showband culture and for Tony Stevens in particular, whom he frames, not unreasonably, as a cultural counter-point to post-punk and the very antithesis of what U2, at the time, were attempting to do. ‘Showbands are slick, soulless, plastic’, he writes. ‘The showbands are failed rock musicians, their faces shine with aftershave … their technique is improbably over-competent’. Even if, whenever the definitive, unfiltered history of Ireland’s showbands is eventually captured, the darker realities of that scene will be far removed from such casual stereotyping.

 

By Bono’s own reckoning, U2 died miserably on-stage at The Garden Of Eden. Taking the carpeted floor shortly after 11PM, they were greeted, at best, by a minimal audience response. ‘Sat along the front of the stage’, Morley wrote in his NME piece, ‘bored looking girls can’t even be bothered to turn around and see what all the commotion is about’. The venue manager was just as bemused :- ‘Very good’, he quipped. ‘Much different from Horslips’.

 

I felt ashamed because we didn’t work’, Bono told Morley. ‘I actually saw it as a great challenge. It became like slow motion. We blew the challenge, and that’s bad’. But Tony Stevens and his band fared far better in Tullamore and, shortly after they opened their two-hour set, comprised in the main of contemporary chart hits, the dance floor began to fill.

 

The story of Tony Stevens’s fleeting dalliance with U2 one Sunday night in 1980, deep inside Ireland’s midlands, was one of a number that didn’t make the final cut of ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, Tony McCarthy’s film about that period that airs on RTÉ One television on July 20th next. Because in many respects, the commercial half-hour just isn’t enough to do justice to a story that, although rooted in music and the culture of youth, also extends way beyond that.

 

The last ever Downtown Kampus show at The Arcadia took place on May  30th, 1981 when four Cork bands ;- a nascent Belson, a noisy, multi-part Microdisney, Sabre – who included a young John Spillane among their number – and Prague Over Here, featuring the future RTÉ radio reporter Fergal Keane on bass – brought the curtain down on what, in hindsight, is a wholly distinctive local history.

 

Months earlier, forty-eight people lost their lives when a fire broke out during the early hours of Valentine’s Day at a disco at The Stardust nightclub in Artane, on Dublin’s northside. That disaster, and the scale of the loss of life and the age profile of those who died, had a profound impact – politically, socially and legally – on many of the day-to-day dealings of the state. Particularly so on those, like Elvera Butler, who were promoting big, live social events to the same age cohort in similarly-sized venues across the country. In an interview with the Irish Mail on Sunday in March, 2012, Butler told Danny McElhinney that ‘after the Stardust disaster, insurance premiums for gigs rocketed and we knew we couldn’t go on for long. Then the hunger strikes happened not long after that and a lot of bands were avoiding Ireland altogether’.

 

Not long afterwards, she decamped to London with her partner, Andy Foster, from where she initially ran a small independent imprint, Reekus Records, that issued quality wax by a series of superb Irish bands, The Blades and the epic Big Self among them. The label continues to release new material, albeit on a more ad hoc basis and, now living back in Ireland, Elvera retains a direct involvement in the development of young, emerging Irish talent.

 

After many years off of the track, Tony Stevens made his way back very slowly onto the cabaret circuit and eventually resumed a career of sorts, albeit to nowhere like the same extent he once enjoyed. He still performs live, at home and abroad, with his current band, The Rusty Roosters.

 

And U2 ? Within ten years of their last show in The Acradia, U2 were among the biggest and most influential rock bands on the planet and, for many years thereafter, the most compelling and distinctive live draw anywhere. And yet there are those around Cork who remember those magical nights on The Lower Road when many a noisy local rival or an international peer blitzed them off-stage, handed them their arses and sent them packing back out on the road to Dublin.

 

And they may well be right and they may well be wrong.

 

Ghostown: The Dublin Music Scene 1976 – 1980

 

FÓGRA :- ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, directed by Tony McCarthy, airs on RTÉ One television on Thursday, July 20th, at 7PM.

 

FÓGRA EILE :- Cork librarian, Gerry Desmond, has compiled a definitive list of all of the Downtown Kampus shows and this typically thorough undertaking was of huge benefit to us in compiling this piece. And is, of course, a fine public service. Go raibh maith agat.

SWIM

 

Swim were cut apart from their peers on the Dublin circuit during the late eighties and early nineties on many levels and it was easy to see, and even easier to hear, exactly why. For one, they weren’t a routine guitar band dipped in the spirit of either The Smiths and/or R.E.M. and, maybe more importantly, they made no secret of their ambitions. ‘What we’d probably like to do’, the band’s formidable singer, Joe Reilly, told an RTÉ music series called ‘Check It Out’ back in 1989, ‘is get signed and make lots of money’.

 

Reilly was Swim’s pivot and, around him, a band of excellent musicians added heft to his imposing tenor on songs written, initially, with Donegal-born keyboard player, John McCrea. And later, in a second, short-lived iteration, guitarist Pat Donne. The fact that they were all strong, proficient players made Swim a real curiousity ;- the pulling, dragging and primal squall of indie guitars just didn’t interest them. Instinctively drawn more to the chrome and leather of The Bailey than the spit and sawdust of The White Horse, their pitch aspired to the broad and grand :- Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’, Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’ and Love And Money’s second album, ‘Strange Kind Of Love’. And even if the end result often sounded closer to the full-bodied, if often lumpy, pop sound of Deacon Blue than it did to the knotted, jazz-wash of ‘Deacon Blues’, I still marked them up for ambition.

 

Swim’s bloodline went back to Geoffrey’s First Affair, a curious Dublin outfit with sassy intentions who flirted briefly with infamy when Larry Mullen produced their debut single, ‘And The Days Go By’ for Solid Records in 1986. Comprised initially of singer Ed Darragh, John McCrea and guitarist Hughie Purcell – and later, also featuring drummer Dave Dawson – their friendly pop/soul sound quickly disappeared up a cul-de-sac. But when McCrea and Joe Reilly formed Swim shortly thereafter, they brought with them similar aspirations. With a line-up completed by bassist Paul Holmes, guitarist Niall Conheady and Paul Daly on saxophone, Swim were also unusual in that, for an emerging, well-connected Dublin group cutting a shape around town during the late 1980s, they had an ambivalent relationship with Hot Press, then as now the country’s dominant music magazine. One review in particular, from the late Bill Graham, was especially savage :‘Their only value’, he concluded, ‘is that they epitomise every possible Irish mistake of 1988, a mismatch of thoughtless style and null content’. Now, the late Bill Graham is rightly lauded as one of Ireland’s finest critics and music writers and, to many of a certain age, enjoys a mythical status :- he often brought a wide span of reference to his work, much of which borrowed from academic constructs and tropes. But the line of critical thinking he applied to Swim was also relevant to many of the Irish – particularly Dublin-based – bands hawking their wares during that period and by whom Hot Press, for whatever reasons, seemed to be consistently seduced.

 

Even Swim’s cheerleaders tended to water down their enthusiasm for them in public : the band just didn’t display the kind of unbridled rock and roll chops for which Hot Press was keeping Ireland safe. A point not lost either on those who saw Swim in Sir Henry’s in Cork at the end of the 1980s, most of whom were left positively underwhelmed. I’ve written previously about how that venue could often be unforgiving and cold, a bleak spot whenever the mood took her, that swallowed many an unsuspecting band whole. A core of the venue’s regulars were, for years, blindly loyal to the brass-neck cartoonery of The Golden Horde – for whom Bill Graham had a real soft spot – and the splayed shapes of Blue In Heaven, both of whom attracted unstinting devotion in Cork simply because, to my mind, they just did unfiltered, full-frontal coercion. In front of that sort of a crowd, Swim were onto an absolute battering.

 

And this only stoked up the contrarian in me. While Swim sounded far too rigid and linear to ever be wholly essential, I still thought there was room somewhere for their hand-washed brand of adult-orientated pop music and that, in their fresh denims and roll-necks, they just had a different kind of cutting to them. And Gary Katz, Steely Dan’s long-time producer, maybe thought so too :- after Swim signed a major label deal with MCA, he agreed to produce the band’s first album.

 

Ireland has made several noble stabs at the more developed, smarter end of the pop market over the years :- later-period Microdisney, The Fat Lady Sings, Hinterland, The Four Of Us, The Thrills and, more recently, Little Green Cars, all loosely occupy this space, each of them sculpting their bodies with the help of interesting supplements and nutrients, often layered keys and loops. It was to The Fat Lady Sings’ credit, for instance, that they took on conventional taste laws and added, on occasion, a piano accordion to their normal floor-routine. While The Thrills bravely raised the stakes when they unfurled a banjo into their frontline around the time of their third album, ‘Teenager’, admittedly as their career was drifting in the roaring forties .

 

And Swim are very much a part of this number even if, like Hinterland – another local act far more at home within the controlled air of the studio than on the live stage – they barely register in the histories of recent Irish popular music. Substantial information about them is difficult to find and, with the band’s only album long deleted and almost impossible to locate, it’s as if someone has deliberately purged them. But for a couple of years, as they played the arenas with Cher and Fleetwood Mac, and enjoyed major label patronage, they had much going on.

 

 

‘Sundrive Road’, the group’s first and only album, was released in the summer of 1990, recorded at Ridge Farm in Surrey and over-dubbed and mixed at length at various locations in Ireland, England and New York. Named after the road in Crumlin where Reilly grew up, it was a stylish and well-appointed affair that, in a local context, sat utterly out of time with it’s surroundings. While Swim aspired to the urbane, around them the domestic market had become increasingly pock-marked by what the late George Byrne termed ‘designer bogmen’, many of them based in or deriving from he west of Ireland. From Tuam in County Galway, The Sawdoctors made smart, eloquent noises about rural dislocation, small- town disaffection and the spirit of the unlikely under-dog that were undone, ultimately, but the absolute paucity of the band’s material. Which, despite the lofty claims of it’s authors, was more brucellosis than Bruce. Down the road, meanwhile, The Waterboys had become the latest victims of the Galway city flytrap :- having taken an eternity to complete the permeable ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, and now about to release it’s lesser follow-up, ‘Room To Roam’, their sound had become infected by the rash of unruly raggle-taggle that had long popped the air around Shop Street and Mainguard. While The Stunning, on the lumpier end of the distinctly average, were on a scarcely believable upward curve that saw them head-line the outdoor Féile festival in Semple Stadium, Thurles in 1993. With it’s lacquered finish and subtle production tricks, ‘Sundrive Road’ was belligerently out of line and, in it’s own way, an affront.

 

Gary Katz had produced all of Steely Dan’s records and, by the middle of 1990, had also just completed the first sessions for what would later become Paul Brady’s ‘Trick Or Treat’ album. But in keeping with much of the Swim story, ‘Sundrive Road’ isn’t acknowledged on the producer’s discography on his own website. And yet Katz’s fingerprints are all over the record :- indeed one of the most truly arresting aspects of the record is the sheer calibre of the numerous session players engaged by him to augment the core sound. The credits list on ‘Sundrive Road’ makes for remarkable reading, noting contributions by many incredible players and performers, all of them pulled readily, you’d suspect, from the producer’s rolodex. Among those who feature on the record are Fonzi Thornton, one of the most decorated and in-demand backing vocalists of the last forty years and who features on records by Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Ray Charles and a litany of others. The late Paul Griffin added Hammond organ on a couple of tracks, as he did previously on the likes of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and ‘Aja’ itself. Hugh McCracken – another stellar session player whose name features on those interminable Steely Dan credits – contributes harmonica, having previously done do with everyone from Billy Joel to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel to Dionne Warwick. While saxophonist Lou Marini had previously appeared in both Blues Brothers films, was at one point a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears and boasts a string of other session credits to his name. Whether Swim were aware at the time exactly who they were dealing with isn’t clear.

 

And yet for all that, I still think that Swim could have done more to help their own cause. Long-time watchers – and there were at least ten of us – were mildly surprised to see that one of their most impactful early songs, ‘There Like An Angel’, a staple of their live sets that tailed off in a burst of twinned saxophone lines, hadn’t made the final cut, held in reserve, instead, as a future B-side. Indeed there was relatively little sax on the record at all :- one of the group’s long-standing calling cards had been stripped right back, the gaps filled instead with lines and lines of subtle guitars and added vocal parts. Elsewhere, ‘So Long Manhattan’, another of Swim’s centre-pieces, was slowed and stripped, a one-time show-stealer denuded, it’s strength lost to the barber’s blade. But the titles told the tale of the tape, really. ‘Buffaloes’, ‘Road’, ‘Harbour’ and and ‘Christmas In Colorado’ – as well, of course, as ‘So Long Manhattan’ – were all migration songs of a sort, yearning variously for wide plains, warm boozers and home comforts and, in his gut, Reilly was torn between the cosiness of the familiar and the uncertain promise of the faraway field.

 

 

The opener, ‘I Believe’, with it’s full-bodied piano thump, wouldn’t have been out of place on any of the first three Deacon Blue records :- indeed Ger Kiely’s guitar parts borrowed freely from the late Graeme Kelling who, with no little style, deftly joined the dots on ‘Raintown’ and ‘When The World Knows Your Name’, especially. And with shades too of Love And Money and Danny Wilson’s excellent debut album ‘Meet Danny Wilson’, ‘Sundrive Road’ generally resounded to the ache of the readily recognizable. But it was when the group went off script and opened up the arc a bit that it was at it’s most impactful :- ‘Wonderful Thunder’, the record’s closer and the only one of the dozen written by bass-player Paul Holmes with Reilly, may well have been a random studio doodle and yet, with it’s soft keyboard push, wouldn’t have been out of place on Prefab Sprout’s ‘Jordan : The Comeback’. In trailing off, ‘Sundrive Road’ hints at what might have been.

 

 

But of course the whole enterprise was doomed to fail anyway. After all, Swim were simply following a three-act story-line familiar to many Irish bands that went before them and many more again who came after. Signed to a major label in a hail of activity, sustained cheaply on a wage for twelve months with the odd bone thrown from the top table, then dumped without a whisper after a single, contractually obligatory album. And once the singles, ‘I Believe’ and ‘Rachel’, failed to detonate, they were over and out, Swim’s genetic profile making the parting as practical as it was inevitable.

 

But they did, in a roundabout way, make at least one significant and long-standing contribution to the course of popular Irish music during the 1990s. With Swim’s corpse still warm, the band’s drummer, Dave Dawson, replaced Dermot Wylie behind the traps with A House, just as the Walkinstown band was about to enter the most articulate and successful phase of it’s career, immediately prior to the recording of ‘I Am The Greatest’. Dawson was an absolute machine who worked his way effortlessly around the kit and, alongside Martin Healy on bass, built A House a formidable, energy-efficient foundation on their last three albums. To me, he’s easily up there alongside the likes of Fran Breen and Noel Bridgeman as one of the country’s finest ever drummers. Now married and living in America, he packed the biscuit tins away years ago and no longer plays.

 

And what of his one-time band-mates in Swim ? Well, Joe Reilly and Paul Holmes were still dabbling with the dark arts up to relatively recently even if, beyond the odd on-line post, not a whole lot else has been made known. Ger Kiely is still a familiar presence as a session player and, formidable across a wide range of styles, is likely to turn up anywhere and with anyone :- among many other things, he also composes these days for radio comedy output. While John McCrea, another terrific player with a mighty range and a broad field of vision, has composed and scored more classical-rooted material for bespoke film and art projects. When he isn’t running his music school in south county Dublin.

 

CODA :- Given the lack of basic research material on Swim as outlined above, I owe another debt to my friend, Chris O’Brien, the producer and engineer who, once again, went back into his diaries and who pulled all of the factual threads here into order for us. That man, and his diaries, should be protected by some sort of national heritage order.

 

I WAS GEORGE MARTIN’S PRODUCER

george martin

 

I worked as Pat Kenny’s television producer during the late 1990s and, alongside my colleague Noel Curran, over-saw the presenter’s first ever Late Late Show as host, which was broadcast live on RTÉ One on September 10th, 1999.

 

I’d produced Pat on his Saturday night chat-show, ‘Kenny Live’, the previous season and found myself on the fringes of the small group charged with the transition out of the Gay Byrne-era and onwards to different pastures. The whole experience was as challenging, stressful, exciting, frustrating and, ultimately, as terrific as you’d expect and, in the years since, I’ve become even more certain that we worked as hard as we could in taking on what was always going to be an invidious task. As was remarked by the late George Byrne in a prescient preview piece in The Irish Independent at the time, Pat  Kenny was damned if he took on The Late Late Show and he was damned if he didn’t.

 

Having seen Pat in action close-up from the inside and the outside, I think that history will be far kinder to him once he steps off of the field for good than it was during that point in both of our careers.

 

Although best-regarded as a skilled political and current affairs interviewer, there was always a bit more side to Pat. Fifteen years previously, I’d been one of his loyal listeners when he presented a Saturday evening album review show on what was then Radio 2. Produced by Julian Vignoles, ‘The Outside Track’ was where I first heard Microdisney played in the national schedules before the dead of night ;- reviewing the band’s first album, ‘Everybody Is Fantastic’, Pat played a couple of tracks – one of which was certainly ‘Escalator In The Rain’ – before steering his small panel of reviewers through an informed assessment of the record. You’d hear all sorts on that programme, a reflection of the influence and breath of musical reference brought to the table by both presenter and producer, who pulled from far and wide. From blues, pure folk and traditional Irish music to pop, rock and even contemporary alternative, nothing was off limits.

 

Given my own background and the many years I spent hanging around bands, loitering   and sticking my oar in, I’ve always tried, whenever possible, to showcase as wide a range of music as possible – new music, more often than not – on all of my television assignments, be that in children’s programmes, documentary, sport or entertainment.  And I have many other colleagues, both inside RTÉ and outside, who do and think  likewise.

 

 

 

One of the real freedoms we enjoyed on ‘Kenny Live’ was the scope to push the envelope a bit when it came to music. While the big visiting acts to Ireland were offered, more often than not, to The Late Late Show – it had a bigger audience, longer history and an international reputation – excellent music bookers like Caroline Henry and Alan Byrne worked long and hard to mine different seams and we never shied from giving anyone a leg up once a tune or a performance stood strong. During the last season of ‘Kenny Live’ in 1998/1999, for instance, we continued a habit long-forged on the show and featured several blistering studio performances by the likes of The Frames, The Prayer Boat and Sack, who provided magical interludes on running orders that, otherwise, would have lacked distinction.

 

Unlike Gay Byrne, Pat had a real affinity for rock and popular music and wasn’t sceptical of or patronising to young performers. As a one-time ballad singer on the Dublin circuit during the late 1960s, he tended to cut all musicians an even break and, over his many years on radio and television, has consistently supported emerging music and engaged with it. It was on ‘Today With Pat Kenny’ on RTÉ Radio One, for instance, that I first heard a young James Vincent McMorrow who, between two startling live acoustic performances, gave his host a nervous but warm interview and, consequently, left an impressive calling card. In the best traditions of the music anorak, I pulled my car over that morning to savour the item, careful to note Pat’s back-reference and the young performer’s name and details. And to maybe, however fleetingly, help me to purge the memory of Pat’s partisan support for Garth Brooks and Charlie Landsborough, the amiable Liverpudlian who, during one dire live performance of ‘Molly Malone’ on ‘Kenny Live’, sang the words not from his heart but from the autocue.

 

I still remember Pat’s instinctive reaction when, late one Saturday afternoon, he dropped  by Studio 4 just as Sack, one of my pet Dublin bands from that period, were sound-checking the wondrous ‘Laughter Lines’ ;- he was genuinely bowled over by the breath of Martin McCann’s live vocal performance as this incredible song was careering into it’s  apex. Following the band’s performance live on the show later that same evening, he went off script to compliment the band in his back-reference. As someone who had long heard one horror story after another about the experiences of young bands and musicians on the floors of the RTÉ studios, I saw Pat’s enthusiasm as one of the few areas where we had a real edge over our rivals. An edge that was never really going to translate into viewing figures, shares and numbers but which, far more importantly, was part of a wider public remit.

 

Pat was a bag of nerves on the day of his first Late Late Show in September, 1999, as indeed we were in the production gallery. One of the programme’s researchers, Neasa  McLoughlin, moved heaven and earth to land the footballer, Roy Keane, as the opening night’s star turn and, on a show that also featured Sonia O’Sullivan – and her baby daughter, Ciara – as well as the journalist Ed Moloney among others, I felt like, whatever about the rest of the country, I’d certainly done my bit for Cork.

 

George Martin also featured on the line-up that night. Accompanied by a sixteen-piece orchestra, he cut an impressive figure at the grand piano as he performed an instrumental version of The Beatles’ ‘Here, There And Everywhere’, which he’d produced on the band’s ‘Revolver’ album in 1966. With another nod to the Cork quota, the string players featured, among their number, an old friend of mine from Watercourse Road, Eileen Murphy, as one of it’s principal violinists.

 

The Dublin-based promoter, Pat Egan, had booked George Martin for a live show in The National Concert Hall and, as part of the marketing campaign around that event, had offered the legendary producer and composer to The Late Late Show late in the day. But it mattered little ;- we were always going to accommodate George Martin and, as well as confirming him for a live performance, also proposed a light, five-minute interview with Pat towards the end of the first part of the show. The other live music acts on the night were The Bumblebees, a terrific, all-female group of edgy traditional and folk players who included the Buncrana-born fiddler, Liz Doherty, among their number and also Mary Black, the well-known singer and a staple of Late Late Shows past. All of the acts were booked by Alan Byrne, still of Something Happens and a classically trained double-bassist who now directs the show.

 

Gearóid McIntyre, who was working with Pat Egan at the time, accompanied George and his wife, Judy, to the studio complex earlier that afternoon and, on pulling into the front of the studio block, they were greeted by a small group of press photographers, there to cover the day’s events as they unfolded. George was well into his seventies at that stage but I remember him clearly as a tall, handsome man, in a snappy charcoal-coloured suit, crisp shirt and red tie. From the moment he entered the building until he left it hours later, he was as warm and generous as the tributes to him have been since his death was announced yesterday.

 

The sound-check itself was an absolute non-event ;- with the piano freshly tuned, and with the small orchestra already in situ and sight-reading their parts from scripts, George was quickly and unfussily in concert with them. He introduced himself, briefly instructed them on the pace of the piece and, together, they just instinctively went at it. Once we’d rehearsed for camera angles and once our sound team was happy with levels and balances, I was introduced to George, shook his hand and thanked him for doing us the honour. The pleasure, he told me, was all his and I got the sense that, despite where his career in music had taken him, and despite his long-running issues with hearing loss, that he still got a kick, certainly from playing and performance, if not necessarily from listening to music.

 

Six months previously, in the same studio. we’d hosted a fully-mimed performance and painful interview from the American singer, Mariah Carey, who’d arrived on site with a string of PR flunkeys in a slew of high-end hire cars and who’d insisted on a full studio lock-down for the duration of her time on the premises. Her team had been an almighty pain in the hole to deal with and, on the morning of the recording, our office took a call from one of Carey’s handlers asking, without a trace of irony, if the RTÉ concourse was big enough to take the number of stretch limousines that were due to arrive onto it later that day. I’m not sure I helped anyone’s humour when, on greeting the singer in the foyer, I mis-pronounced her name and referred to her as Maria. And yes, she’s an easy target but the gulf in class between her and George Martin, on every conceivable level, couldn’t possibly have been wider.

 

On the morning after our first Late Late Show, I rung my mother and asked her for her thoughts on the previous evening’s events. She hated what we’d done to one of her favourite shows and she wasn’t holding back. Resorting to one of her favourite local slang words it was, she concluded, ‘a bake’. Pat was no Gay Byrne, the guests were shocking, we hadn’t given enough prizes to the studio audience and there was little or nothing in the mix for her or for her friends. ‘But George Martin’, she was careful to add, ‘Well … he was absolutely beautiful’.

 

And, as ever, she said it better and said it best.

 

 

 

MICK LYNCH

Mick Lynch, the Cork-born musician, singer, actor and performer who passed away yesterday after a long illness, will be familiar to those of us who served our time around the margins of left-field Irish music during the 1980s, and especially those who preferred their indie with an absurdist bent.

I first encountered his name on the ‘Kaught At The Kampus’ mini-album, which was recorded at the U.C.C. Downtown Kampus in The Arcadia Ballroom on The Lower Road in Cork in August, 1980, and released on the fledgling Reekus label. As the lead singer with Mean Features, a rowdy, unsophisticated four-piece that, among it’s number, also included Liam Heffernan on guitar, Lynch’s band featured proudly on that record alongside Nun Attax, who contributed three songs, Urban Blitz and Microdisney. ‘Kaught At The Kampus’ was conceived in the full-on, can-do spirit of punk rock and sounds far better in theory than in practice ;- it’s a shambling, raw and poorly recorded affair. And, as such, is the very antithesis of another record beloved of an older, more settled crew, Rory Gallagher’s live double-album, ‘Irish Tour, 1974’. And deliberately so.

The six-tracker served as a four-band calling card and a reminder to Dublin – and beyond – that Cork too had plenty of fire in it’s belly and ammo in it’s locker. And of course that mini-album also records three of the most compelling frontmen in the entire history of Cork rock music on the one disc :- Lynch, Finbarr Donnelly and Cathal Coughlan.

Lynch and Coughlan shared previous history and both had featured briefly in Constant Reminders, an erratic five-piece that also included Seán O’Hagan and Dave Galvin, both of whom back-boned the early Microdisney line-ups. But it was with Mean Features that Mick Lynch, even then an accomplished actor, found his voice, literally and, according to those who saw them up close, his sea-legs as a performer.

I’ve written previously about U2’s popularity with Cork audiences from 1979 onwards and we touch on that in a piece that’s available here. U2 had started to develop a reputation as a forceful live presence – and especially so with regulars at The Downtown Kampus – and the band’s associations with the city and The Arcadia Ballroom have been well told. As ‘Kaught At The Kampus’ was being committed to vinyl, U2 were set to release their second, fully-fledged single, ‘I Will Follow’ while, else-where, another Dublin band claiming punk rock lineage, The Boomtown Rats, were already well into their pomp. They were about to unveil ‘Banana Republic’, Bob Geldof’s take on what he saw as an overly traditional and backward-skewed Ireland in the wake of the Papal visit here in 1979. In terms of ambition, tone and scale, Mick Lynch – like Donnelly and Coughlan – was as far as it was possible to get from U2 and The Boomtown Rats, and it would always be thus. While Bono thieved liberally from scripture, Lynch looked to Flann O’Brien and the more abstract sean nós traditions for his lyrical cues.

Even within Cork circles, though, Lynch, Donnelly and Coughlan were perennial outsiders ;- threatening, physically imposing and unlikely. Their more considered, competent peers – like Poles Apart, especially – were aspiring to the pace set by mainstream acts like The Police. But Mick Lynch was far more taken with the half-cocked philosophy of ‘The Third Policeman’ instead.

By the time I’d started to fetch up at Cork’s darkest and dankest live music venues, he’d already departed the stage and was living in London. Back in 1984, Cork could often be an unwelcoming place for young men, and certainly no place for well-read young men with such skewed artistic visions and notions. Like many before him, and plenty more thereafter, London just presented more opportunities and was awash with potential.

Mick Lynch is best remembered – and clearly very fondly recalled – for his work with Stump, a four-piece band he joined during his time in England and that also featured Rob McKahey, from Blackpool, on drums. Stump’s first and only full-length studio album, ‘A Fierce Pancake’, [Ensign Records, 1988] remains one of the most curious and uneven records in the history of alternative Irish music, but is no less charming for that, even if tracts of it are inpenetrable. With it’s blatant Beefheart and Zappa strains, it’s an often discommoding record, as disconnected within itself as it was from all of the many major label Irish releases of the period. Indeed there are times when Lynch’s wordy fancy just takes flight, kicking against the often boisterous, angular work of guitarist Chris Salmon and especially Kevin Hopper, the bass-player. And yet on their best known songs, ‘Buffalo’ and ‘Charlton Heston’ Stump found a real groove and cut a lovely, left-field shape ;- the closest the band came to convention.

In any self-respecting over-view of contemporary Irish popular music, Lynch exists as far more than a mere quirky foot-note. When The Frank And Walters and The Sultans Of Ping F.C. came roaring in from nowhere ten years after ‘Kaught At The Kampus’, it was obvious – and maybe convenient ? – to trace their influences back to the whatever they’d picked up locally. In Dublin and in London I’d often hear the term ‘there’s something in the water down in Cork’ and I’d counter that by pointing out the differences between the words ‘eccentric’, ‘eclectic’ and ‘electric’. And I’m still at it.

But in terms of approach and conviction, and that sense of just refusing to bow to compromise or expectation, Mick Lynch, with Finbarr Donnelly and Cathal Coughlan, showed the way and the light. And, decades later, the best and the most interesting ones still follow behind them.

An accomplished, beguiling and compelling performer, Mick Lynch can rest easily tonight. And forever.