Olympia Theatre

A HOUSE: THE GREATEST

 

I am the greatest

Dublin band A House played it’s last ever live show in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on Friday, February 28th, 1997. I wrote about that night – it was far more than just another show, I felt – in my Sunday Tribune column the following weekend, on Sunday, March 2nd and, as was customary for me at the time, loaded the chambers and let rip. The original headline read ‘That’s A House That Was’, but we’ve changed that below. We’ve also made a couple of minor corrections to the copy.

But over eighteen years on, I stand over every single word.


We don’t normally associate either dignity or grace with pop music, and rightly so. Because pop has always been a cold cynic’s play-yard, both on-stage and off, where the bland usually steer the blind through mutual cheating games that end either with frustrated tears or with token, pithy pay-offs.

That said, Dublin band A House never really ran with the pack anyway, always preferring their own counsels and their own instincts, rightly or wrongly, and always staying truest to themselves. That they chose to bow out while they were at least in control of their standards and not, as with most bands, over drinking sessions or through newspaper press-releases, sums them up in one and arguably says more than any number of bland obituaries.

Billing any show as ‘a final farewell’ is always playing too close to the sun, an immovable closing point and a full-stop set into stone. But then A House were always well ahead of the also-rans and, with a brashy ignorance and an enduring gang mentality, always seemed to get it right. And they’ll be missed, that’s for sure.

What’s also certain, however, is that this country will hardly see their approach again in a hurry, such is the extent of pop music’s changed landscape around our way. Because A House were always able to steer their own boat with far more control and clarity than most, managed as astutely and as intuitively as any act this country has seen, and powered always where it mattered ;- by the band’s own prolific level of application and delivery. A head-start, as it were, that owed only to the band and to its immediate coterie, where little else ever mattered.

There was a truly over-blown ten year period in the initial wake of U2’s first great arrival when all Irish album releases were characterised by over-long and over-familiar thank-you credits on their inside sleeves. In hindsight, this is arguably either a sign of the times or a sign of an over-heavy dependence. But ultimately no more than a series of sentimental stains on far too much domestic pop music history.

Dublin’s Something Happens must, for instance, genuinely wonder where most of those name-checked on the inside of the well-good ‘Stuck Together With God’s Glue’ got to when it mattered the most, when both the money and the free-booze ran dry ?

Ironically, and probably typically, A House chose to thank only themselves on their first album. Because as a band that at one point used to have circular posters – this despite that fact that it was something of a nuisance for the band themselves to actually cut them cleanly about the edges – and for a band that headlined in Dublin and in London as often as any and that still only ever did two encores ever, A House always knew how far they could push and how far they could actually subvert what it was they were about. Their only real debts were to themselves because when push got to shove it was always going to be four like-minds only against the whole world. So that while their statements were blatant, they rarely shouted from rooftops and seldom reached for the skies. And no one ever messed with A House.

Which made their farewell show last weekend one of the most cathartic and genuinely disconcerting live events that this column has seen or heard in 15 years. No Caro Meas, no undue fusses and no forced sentiment, A House came over like they’ve always come over [always four and often six-square], cocksure and strutted –up like they knew, just knew, how damned good they were and how damned good it was what they were leaving behind them.

Granted A House never sold as many records as they should have, which is where pop history will ultimately judge them. But the fact is that, with one genuine, real-deal top forty single and with five truly defining albums for three different record labels, they leave behind the body of work they always claimed that they would, one way or the other.

But the most compelling reality is that, in over ten years, they never unduly either copped out or bowed to the vagaries of pop’s sensibility, checking out in a blaze of gold and silver like they always knew that they would. Twenty great pop songs and one quick three-way encore and they were gone.

The most unsettling thing of all, of course, is that like perhaps most of the crowd that filled last weekend’s final throw, we’d never actually seen a band break up and fold it all away so publicly and so defiantly before. And while their last great finale marks the end of their own gorgeous stretch at pop’s crease, their passing also arguably draws the safety curtain on the first and last great pop movement this country has either seen or heard – that genuinely awesome guitar burst that started at Dame Street’s Underground over ten years ago and that trundled through more wonderful moments and great records than it ever probably wants to imagine.

Many of them played out, naturally, by A House who, like no other band this country has seen excepting, arguably, U2, never so divided their own peers so savagely and yet motivated their own support so clinically. A House, you see, knew, that’s all. No undue social appearances, no hanging about and no concessions.

Towards the end of their very last snow, Couse, knowing that for him, at least, an entirely new real world is just around the corner, turned to thank his band’s only manager ever [John Carroll], his band’s bleach-cropped record company punk-boy boss [Setanta’s Keith Cullen] and, perhaps most tellingly, A House’s long-time roadie, technician and all around top-man, Liam Crinion.

Because when A House wake up next month and when there are no rehearsals and no interviews and no television and radio appearances and no production deadlines they’ll know that, ultimately, nothing much has really changed.

Granted their band may not exist, at least in name, anymore, but when their rehearsal space has been stripped back, and when their guitars have been moved outwards and onwards, A House will know that, as always, they’ve still got themselves and no more apologies.

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 pounds.

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 feel courtesy 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.