Oasis

PETER SKELLERN

 

Peter Skellern, the Bury-born musician, songwriter and producer who died yesterday at the age of 69, is probably still best known for his 1972 hit single, ‘You’re A Lady’, which first brought him to prominence. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as a light-touch, middle-of-the-road troubadour ;- throughout his long and varied recording and performance career, Skellern was consistently diverting, always weighing-in at far more than the sum of his parts, of which there were many.

From Lancashire in the North-West of England, he trained as a classical musician and, as a young graduate from the Guildhall, originally served as a church organist in Bolton. And there are subtle traces of those credentials throughout his work ;- religion and faith became far more prominent themes during his later career. But much of his earlier material – his first five albums, especially – is characterised by a deft lyrical touch and a droll sense of the local and the ordinary and he was a consummate storyteller, both on record and off. His live solo shows were punctuated by tall yarns and short, sharp references, loaded colloquialisms and a wizard’s touch at the piano. And, to this end, in 1978 he took the fabled brassband from the works at Grimethorpe Colliery in Yorkshire and into the studio and, ultimately, onto the soundstage at Top Of The Pops to accompany him perform ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’. Three years previously, that same band had featured on Roy Harper’s epic ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’.

Like Gilbert O’Sullivan, it would be wrong to dismiss Peter Skellern as either a curiosity or a novelty and, parsing his considerable and diverse back catalogue, his influence extends as far as Morrissey’s lyrical dash and The Divine Comedy’s broader canvas. Indeed while Neil Hannon has frequently cited his long-standing affection for Jeff Lynne, his material actually owes far more to some of Skellern’s sweet, often self-deprecating parlour songs like ‘My Lonely Room’, ‘Where Do We Go To From Here’ and ‘Still Magic’ than it does to the more formidable, power-house sound of The Electric Light Orchestra.

Peter’s ambition always stretched far and wide :- he had the musical range and raw ability of Jimmy Webb, particularly in terms of composition and arrangement, and the lyrical touches of Alan Bennett. And so a typical live show or compilation album might lurch between Astaire-period, brushed-drum jazz to layered popular ballads to pithy, kitchen-sink smart-alecry like ‘Our Jackie’s Getting Married’, ‘Every Home Should Have One’ and ‘My Ideal Home’. Crisp and wry tunes from the drawing room that, beneath their bonnets, were knitted around sturdy melody lines and wide-ranging, ambitious production.

I saw this for myself at close quarters during two exceptional live shows that Skellern played in Cork city during the mid-1980s, the first of which I recorded on a portable Walkman and played to within an inch of its life for years afterwards. From my hard-backed chair deep within the city’s merchant and toff classes in one of the ballrooms in The Metropole Hotel in 1984, I watched on in awe as he gave a performance masterclass to an audience of four hundred or so during a typical set that went on for an eternity and that covered a vast range of genres and styles, pickled throughout with an easy, well-worn patter. One of his favourite yarns, the punchlines to which invariably rebounded on himself, involved the the English singer, Peter Sarstedt, best known for ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ [who himself passed away last month] and with whom Skellern was consistently confused.

He was back in Cork again the following year, this time in the infinitely less velveteen surroundings of Connolly Hall, but this time to a far larger and clearly more diverse audience. That show, which is easily among the best and most memorable I’ve ever seen, will forever be recalled for the fact that it took place despite a serious power outage in the middle of the city that plunged the venue and the streets around it into complete darkness. The show was delayed for an hour before Skellern eventually took to the stage carrying a lamp and proceeded to rip the night up, playing without amplification for the guts of ninety minutes, during which he projected his voice magnificently all over the vast hall.

As usual, he skirted around some of his own easy listening standards, adding a touch of jazz or a light classical piece when the mood, and the evening, took him. From ‘The Continental’ to ‘Love Is’ through ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, a couple of rag-time instrumentals and, stunningly, a magnificent reading of Debussy’s ‘The Girl With The Flaxen Hair’. And, with every note and flourish, reminded the partisan audience exactly how, for years, he’d enjoyed the unfailing devotion of Terry Wogan’s BBC radio audiences.

As well as his own body of work, Skellern was a frequent collaborator too, most notably with his friend Richard Stilgoe, with whom he wrote and released several records and toured regularly. And of course in 1984 he recorded and released an album as a member of Oasis, a five-piece that also featured the Welsh singer, Mary Hopkin and cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber among it’s number. That eponymously titled record, which can be filed under ‘easy listening’, saw the light of day a full ten years before ‘Definitely Maybe’ and features mostly Skellern compositions, the magnificent ‘If This Be The Last Time’ foremost among them and which, in its own way and to these ears, is just as magical as ‘Live Forever’.

I’ve long adored Skellern’s work in all of it’s guises and, in particular, his regal command of orchestration and the scale and ambition of his arrangements, the beauty of which are often lost behind a lazily-formed portrayal of him as mere fodder for the slacks, slip-over and high-waisted trouser set. As someone reared on the raw wonder of the likes of ‘And So It Passes’, ‘You’re A Lady’, ‘Still Magic’ and ‘My Lonely Room’, I defy anyone to tell me that he isn’t a far greater and unlikely influence than many of us might have imagined ? Himself almost certainly included.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NEW ORDER in IRELAND

peace together

Picture courtesy of Pat O’Mahony

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

thumbnail_peacetogether

Picture courtesy of Daniel Harrison

 NEW ORDER,

PEACE TOGETHER, POINT THEATRE,

DUBLIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgettable seems like too soft an adjective.

The Brilliant Trees: Goldfinglas

I absolutely loved The Brilliant Trees and, listening back to their two excellent albums from a distance, time hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for them. Some had them marked as being as good as early Oasis, others cited a Blur influence and there were times when, with the vocals stripped out, they had the classic reach of The Trash Can Sinatras. Eitherway, the band’s ambition stretched out far beyond their base in the Dublin suburb of Finglas. And further again from the tender, hesitant soul of the David Sylvian album from which they took their name.

The Oasis references would haunt them and, I think, undermine them a bit eventually. Both bands shared many traits and the comparisons are obvious and well-founded ;- from working-class backgrounds on the outskirts of big cities, both groups had an axis of brothers among their number. Both played a sinewy and uncomplicated guitar pop with unsophisticated lyrics, were led by brooding, good-looking frontmen and had an unshakeable belief in their own ability. But I never once heard The Brilliant Trees crow about how good they were. And, in their pomp, they were damned good.

I worked alongside Jeff Brennan in The Rock Garden for eighteen months at the start of the 1990s. My job, ostensibly, was to promote the venue and to generate coverage for the bands we had in-coming but, in reality, I just hung around the place and annoyed the bar staff and the waitresses. Jeff had made the short move across from The Underground Bar on Dame Street, where he had developed the small, downstairs venue into Dublin’s most vibrant live draw. When last I passed by, The Underground had been replaced by a lap-dancing club and, knowing Jeff, the irony won’t be lost on him. Or, no doubt, on the hundreds of noisy oiks who played there over the years, all of whom put their own arses on the line for the smell of a few pound.

The Rock Garden had opened in a blaze of publicity, an Irish take on the Covent Garden original, paying decent coin to international and local acts to keep live music going nightly inside it’s cavernous belly on Crown Alley, in Dublin’s Temple Bar. The Cranberries once played there to eighteen people and died a slow, slow death. Pulp arrived one sunny Saturday afternoon, unimpressed that they’d been booked into Dublin’s cheapest hovel, off Gardiner Street, and having had half of their back line stolen after a London show the previous night. ‘Ah, sorry to hear that’, Jeff told the band’s sour-pussed tour manager. ‘The other half is bound to be stolen tonight’. Less than a hundred turned up to see them, a matter of months before they released ‘Common People’. To the best of our knowledge, their equipment survived the trip.

Radiohead played their first Irish show at The Rock Garden, as did The Auteurs. The Sultans Of Ping FC, The Frames, A House, The Frank And Walters, The Golden Horde, Into Paradise and a litany of workmanlike British indie acts also visited and, for a couple of great years, The Rock Garden really had an edge.

The Brilliant Trees were one of a number of high-profile Dublin bands who played the venue regularly – Blink and Sack were other notables – and they consistently rammed the place. Not only that but they rammed it with a different kind of crowd, bringing a large, partisan following into town from their hub out in the North-West. Like Aslan, they actively ploughed a furrow deep in the suburbs and mobilised a pretty serious audience that was far from the usual alickadoos and liggers.

Tony Barrett, the band’s guitarist and driving force, worked with Dublin Corporation and I’d often see him around town during the day. I loved the cut of his jib, his relentless enthusiasm and his absolute belief in the power of music. The Brilliant Trees may not have been the most original band in the world but they were certainly one of the most spirited Irish acts I encountered during the early 1990s. For a while they were seriously courted, and rightly so.

They were still honing their craft when they played the famous Cork Rock bill in 1991 alongside The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic, Therapy?, The I.R.S. and The Sultans of Ping F.C. and, after No Disco first went to air in the Autumn of 1993, Dónal Dineen, Rory Cobbe and myself got behind them with no little gusto. Tony would phone us regularly with up-dates and we’d make sure that the lo-fi videos for ‘Home’ and ‘Talent’ – with their plaintive images and no-budget feelcourtesy of directors Donal Scannell, Eamonn Crudden and Niamh Guckian – featured regularly. In fact listening to ‘Home’ over twenty years on – a reflection on the destruction of the heart of inner city Dublin against the shadow of cranes on the sky-line – one is reminded that while The Brilliant Trees were a pop band at heart, they had a keen and prescient eye too. Which, I felt, set them apart from the pack.

And so when No Disco required a headliner for the Dublin Aids Alliance benefit concert we ran at Whelans in May, 1994, we went first to The Brilliant Trees. They were as obliging as they were enthralling and, of course, we were guaranteed that they’d stuff the place.

Probably later than they’d either wanted or expected, they released their first album, ‘Friday Night’, in the early summer of 1996. Later that year, I sat down with Tony Barrett, singer Alan Hoey and the band’s articulate drummer, Dave Farrell, in advance of what was to be the band’s biggest headline show ever, at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre. The band was clearly at a cross-roads and, beyond the thoughtful and considered tone of our exchange, there was a real frustration too, and I tried to capture this in the gut of the piece. By now The Brilliant Trees had been on the go for a while and, although ‘Friday Night’ had been released to no little acclaim, the entire project had come at a cost.

My piece ran originally in The Sunday Tribune on November 10th, 1996, under the heading ‘Money grows on Trees’ and is re-produced in full here

 M o n e y   g r o w s   o n   T r e e s

It’s a rusted chestnut to be sure, but great records needn’t cost the world and it’s left leg. Rather, most record company debts are mounted by promotional budgets, mismanagement and by impractical and bloated band hand-outs.

Dublin’s Brilliant Trees would no doubt concur, an endearing and enterprising guitar pop group that have, in seven years, served their time, played their score of odds and that are still very squarely, however happily or unhappily, at an impasse.

The Brilliant Trees have been around long enough and hard enough to see both sides and, despite their noble if blind faith in popular music’s theories, it’s the industry’s defined sense of commerce and practice that has caused their greatest and most recurring problems.

And still The Brilliant Trees are arguably the only unsigned domestic act that can actually justify their press release hyperbole with fact. Their last Dublin show drew a capacity crowd to The Mean Fiddler. Which is probably what you’d expect from a band that was once described by the N.M.E., over-rashly and quite possibly in an over-flush of zeal, as being better than The Smiths. These days, over mid-afternoon, weekend lagers, they can afford to laugh. But only just. And while size and history may count for little when push comes to shove, The Brilliant Trees, a band that would rather do than talk, at least deserve a hearing.

‘We more or less pay for our own records’, Tony Barrett – the band’s guitarist and primary motivator – tells us. ‘We have a management company that, out of necessity, has become a record company and they bring out our records. We repay them the money that they’ve invested in us, but we’re thankfully at the stage where we’re almost quits with them now’. So while The Brilliant Trees may coyly shake all of this off as some sort of mild debt of love and devotion, the reality is that, for them, for now, it’s empty at the bottom.

Their first album, ‘Friday Night’, released shortly before the start of last summer, should have been their defining calling card ;- a pick and mix of wholesome, efficient and sinewy guitar pop songs that wear their hearts very blatantly but that make no apologies or outrageous claims. But the exercise has instead woken the band to the very essence of the music industry, to the point where these days band meetings are more about money and less about songs.

‘All in all, between the recording and the manufacture and artwork, the record cost us about £11,000’, reckons drummer Dave Farrell. ‘All of the money that we take in at gigs goes straight back to paying off the album debt. It’s not particularly easy at the best of times, but we do this because we love it, simple as that’.

Popular music has traditionally been the playground of the middle classes, rarely venturing to beyond the beyonds, and while The Brilliant Trees make light of their backgrounds in the working-class suburb of Finglas, many of their concerns are far more real than popular culture’s glamour guides would have us believe.

‘I’ve got a job doing wages in Dublin Corporation’, says Barrett. ‘I’ve got a young daughter, I’ve got a mortgage and I’ve already taken next year’s holidays so that we could play some American shows earlier this year.There was a time when we used to buy 20 cans and rehearse down at the shed for hours on end but we don’t even seem to have done that in an age. It’s probably a sign of the times’.

‘The reality is that we need regular record company money to make the kind of records we desperately want to make’, says Farrell. ‘With the ‘Heart Strings’ single, we just didn’t have the money and the clout to advertise the thing on radio or to do fly-posters and basic stuff like that which can mean so much. Ultimately it’s all very well and good making great singles but it’s another thing entirely trying to get the songs heard’.

‘To be perfectly honest’, Tony Barrett confides, ‘we’re very disappointed that ‘Heart Strings’ didn’t go into the Top 30. We were desperately looking for a genuine hit on this one because we know the song is good enough. It’s just a shame that it comes down to not having enough money to push the thing over the cliff’.

A well-received American jaunt earlier this year offers them a shard of hope, although again The Brilliant Trees move shyly. ‘We’re old enough and smart enough to know that it’s not going to happen for us in England’, claims Farrell, ‘and the only option open to us now is in America because America seems to be far more open to what we’re doing and what we’re about. The last time around we played nine shows in Boston and New York and we went down so well that we’ll probably move over there, however temporarily, at the start of next year’.

‘We were genuinely taken aback by the response we received in America’, singer Alan Hoey recalls. ‘Once again we know faraway fields are always greener but the thought of playing to a whole new audience and dealing with a new set of people is all very exciting for us, even after all this time’.

In an industry that works largely on a tissue of mutual lies, deceits and distortions, The Brilliant Trees have at least come this far with their dignity intact. These days, however, they’re dealing in far more abstracts and with far more numbers than they probably ever imagined.

‘No matter how well you do in this country, you’re never going to be able to support the band in the long-term’, Dave Farrell concludes. ‘The point is that if there were 800 people at our last show in Dublin, then there may easily be another 800 out there, and if there’s another 800 out there, then there may be another 8,000 out there. Who knows ?’.

NOTE :- The Brilliant Trees did roll on, doing what they’d promised they would. And in 1999, with Florida-based management in place, released a second, excellent album, ‘Wake Up And Dream’. Tony Barrett is currently part of Elevens, alongside Sack’s Martin McCann and Mark Healy from The Josephs.

Trash Can Sinatras – Trash Talking

Trash Can Sinatras have long been one of my favourite bands and I’ve spent years giving them the shift of death in print, on television and on radio. We got behind them royally during my time on No Disco, where tracks like ‘Hayfever’, ‘I’ve Seen Everything’ and especially ‘The Genius I Was’ appeared as regularly as Donal Dineen himself. And to no real effect :- a noble handful at the back remained attentive while everyone else demanded more Mudhoney.

The band has played live in Ireland infrequently, usually to small but adoring audiences, and I’ve seen them in a variety of different Dublin venues, most notably [and least memorably] in a hell-hole in Temple Bar called The Hub, in 2003.

Muse was one of Ireland’s first on-line culture and arts ventures, edited and curated by Jim Carroll and, for a while, I contributed a regular column that, in hindsight, reads very, very angrily. Approaching the end of the millennium, I’d cultivated new interests and had returned to several others and, to all intents, had no stomach for writing solely about music. Jim, to his credit, gave me an absolutely free reign and we’ll re-post some of those other pieces – which are very personal – over time.

But while Trash Can Sinatras prepare for the launch of a sixth studio album, we thought it was maybe timely to return to this piece, which first appeared in Muse in February, 1999. The band had been dropped by Go Discs Records some years previously and had been forced to sell it’s Shabby Road Studio in Kilmarnock as a result. Their live date in Dublin’s Mean Fiddler on March 5th, 1999 – with which this piece coincided – was one of only a handful of shows the band played that year.

With the music industry turned inwards on itself, and technology developing out of all recognition, I saw hope in the distance for Trash Can Sinatras [who, at that point still traded as The Trash Can Sinatras]. And I still do.

Originally published in The Muse February 1999

TRASH TALKING

Ten years later and The Trash Can Sinatras are still crawling at their own pace. Nine years since their first record and, through the gin and the rain and almost in spite of the whole world, they’re shaking through. Three perfect elpees into a career that, on your ledger, reads bleak and blank. But only if you’re talking numbers.

Like a host of angels before them and no doubt long after them too, they inspire within their own fun-sized legion of support an absolute and blanket devotion.  A bit like The Fall I guess, only with better songs and with more audible words.  Which is only as popular music at its most enticing and anointing should be, nonetheless. My own rented townhouse is, by way of an example, adorned with more of their badly hung promo-matter than anything else.  Up there, pride of place between Keane and McGrath and for no other reason than that mine is a house that’s proud to have known them.  Prouder still to have shaken itself silly to their songs.

The Trash Can Sinatras are currently without a record label, without a bob and without a hope.  At least on paper.  In the last while, they’ve also undergone serious re-constructive surgery, something which may or may not be connected to all or some of the above.  For those of you who know them merely from their erratic pop videos, seen sometimes on quality music television, or from all of those very similar early evening radio shows, the band is gasping and ailing and yet somehow still alive. Surviving on scraps and on someone else’s good-will, still around kicking on doors and stealing your booze.  What’s really great to report, though, is that they’re still resolute, still clever, still articulate, still funny and still write tunes that, for the most part, stick like good glue.  Even if, given the appalling state of the domestic music industry’s health, this is an irrelevance.

Popular music is currently bracing itself.  It is an industry increasingly more conscious of its own need to survive, sensing all manner of paranoia the more multi-media infiltrates every new housing estate.  And as more and more music is forced onto an ever more selective and declining market, song quality has become increasingly more obsolete, stuck well down the pecking order behind marketing budgets and legal fees. It’s not so much the quality of the single, basically, as the size of the in-store poster display.  Or the scale of the strike-forcing on your first three singles.

God, how Noel Gallagher must be ticked pink right now.  Four years ago, Oasis were the vehicle onto which the industry tied its best horses, doing what it had always done best and seizing the moment.  Not defining it, merely exploiting an unexpected good fortune.  Opportunity meets culture statement with the blessing of the beautiful people and we’re off.  Sadly bands like  Pulp and Blur [who, at the time, rode the slipstream most prominently and who also, last time around, made their best records in ages even if none of you bought them], can never hope to repeat their previous market penetrations or re-visit their former chart positions. It is, for both of them after a fashion, a downward slide from here.  The industry drove them onwards to the point of overload while it could and, after radio re-coiled and marketing paranoia set in,  it drove them back to when it doesn’t require them. Even if the songs were far better.

What the industry is facing and what it is already in some cases coming to terms with, is an increased sense of  polarity.  The space and the distance between the haves and the have-nots has rarely been as pronounced – not since the middle of the last decade, if the truth were told.  So for all of E.M.I.’s very public investment in, say, The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon’s immediate future is not in the hands of the man who signed him but rather in the hands of his marketing and product managers.  Because even if he does deliver E.M.I. the finest record of his generation [and it’s not that they’d notice, either way], he is dependent ultimately on the size and the force of the marketing budget behind it.  Hate to break it to the Mercury Rev fans and all but that’s pop.

Popular music has always been driven onwards by recurring fads and fashion and, with every passing fifteen years, familiar themes become re-apparant.  The British popular music industry has become so top-heavy over the last five years with a slew of ‘almost-theres’ – like The Supernaturals, Travis, Cast and, even though it kills me, The Trash Can Sinatras – that it cannot now sustain its own weight.  So what has emerged over the last six months, and what will become increasingly more obvious the closer we get to the millennium and beyond, is a move away from the politics of accounting.  A return to fanzine politics. To branding and loyalism. To C86‘s no-fi, no-nonsense sense of purpose.  To when quality songs and word-of-mouth propaganda were more than enough to overcome poor recording standards, second-hand sleeves and botched production.  It is necessity breathing invention by another name.

Now I don’t really wish to sound like another flatulent old anorak, but the more I see and the more records I hear, then the less I’m surprised by popular music.  So The Trash Can Sinatras are currently in Japan where they’re working up another mini-storm to probably, an audience of about twelve. How they possibly keep on keeping on, and why, astonishes me, given that the marketeers and the speculators under-wrote them ages since.  But there’s far more to life than cash books and balances,more than one way too, to skin your grandmother’s cat.  So what price their second coming at the year’s end, wrapped and bound with Belle And Sebastian and Snowpony on a gift-pack cassette labelled with love and with the inscription C-00?

Stranger things have happened.  Ask Robbie Williams.