Prefab Sprout


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




It’s over twenty-five years ago now since, one Saturday evening, Ken Sweeney set his mother’s runaround for Dundalk and sped the pair of us up the road, out of Glasnevin and onwards to Mister Ridley’s. The two of us were softly obsessive about one of our many favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, a Dublin outfit who’d been making decent headway for a while, earnestly kicking against every single convention of the time, often maybe over-earnestly so. With their boy-girl twin lead vocals and deft lyrical flourishes, they’d been ludicrously compared to Prefab Sprout on a shoestring. But burrow in behind their fragile frontage and William Merriman’s dark introspection owed far more to Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ than Paddy McAloon’s ‘If You Don’t Love Me’.


Five years after they formed in the initial afterglow of post-‘Joshua Tree’ optimism, and representing the absolute antithesis of all that that record stood for, they were making a rare foray out of Dublin and Ken and myself were anxious to see how they got on. Or, indeed, if they’d complete the course at all. On paper, the prospect of The Harvest Ministers taking on a nightclub crowd in Dundalk looked like a real mis- match and Ken had the runaround primed, immediately outside the venue, for a quick getaway. Just in case.


I knew little of the scene in that part of the world. Anything I did was informed by the ribald, souped-up yarns imparted by the late George Byrne and, in print, by the delicate hands of Tony Clayton-Lea in Hot Press, who handled much of the constituency work in the North-East and who got through a fair amount of mileage on his beat. There was also the storied battle-front experience of Cypress, Mine !, the paisleyed Cork undergrounders who, one Saturday afternoon, may or may not have been hastened out of County Louth during an eventful double-bill in Drogheda Boxing Club, possibly by local youths bionic on apples.


Ken and myself were briefly back in Ireland from London, where we were both based at the time. He was one of the small number of fledgling artists on our books at Setanta Records and had, months previously, rescued me from a squat in Peckham and taken me in under his own roof, far across town in West London. I was stick-thin at the time and, lost in the music and in the giddy rush of an emerging story – I was working closely with The Frank And Walters – hadn’t been minding myself. In spite of all the shimmer, I just wasn’t having a good time ;- I didn’t like London because I wasn’t clued in enough or sussed enough for it and so I fairly welcomed the prospect of a few days of respite.


We set up base in Ken’s family home for the duration :- Mrs. Sweeney was a terrific and gracious host who afforded me a mighty welcome and, unusually for that time, regular, healthy meals. And although I’m not sure if she completely appreciated the ambition in her son’s work, it wasn’t as if she let on. I was helping him to promote his first album, the excellent eight-song ‘Understand’, which he’d released on the Setanta label under the band name, Brian, and had set up a range of interviews and live appearances for him around the country. ‘Understand’ was clearly a compelling piece of work but, as with much of the Setanta output at the time, I wasn’t convinced we had enough access to the pipes and wires down which we could distribute the message as widely as it deserved.


And so, hastily around the country, kitted out in our long-sleeved Setanta sweatshirts, we proselytised for the week, the highlight of which, I think, was Ken’s live acoustic performance on the RTÉ television series, ‘Nighthawks’. But the purpose of our trip wasn’t just to promote the Brian album ;- we were blazing a trail for Keith Cullen’s asset-rich but still emerging imprint which, at the time, also boasted the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Divine Comedy and A House on it’s roster.


And it was to this end that, hours before The Ministers took the stage in Mister Ridley’s, we’d fetched up at the local radio studios of LMFM, where Ken did a short piece with the aforementioned Tony Clayton-Lea, who at the time also presented a weekly show there. We did likewise in RTÉ Cork Local Radio and at other selected stop-offs around Ireland ;- I had a cluster of Setanta samplers in my ruck-sack which we’d leave behind us as we left ;- the definitive calling cards, we thought.


Mister Ridley’s was – and remains, by all accounts – a popular nightclub in Dundalk, a serious provincial discotheque with notions, even if the shape and scale of the place has changed enormously in the years since. God knows how The Harvest Ministers, with their brittle, barely-pulsing songs ever ended up playing there, but then the band’s long history is pock-marked routinely with this sort of thing. An eternal search for God Knows How.


They’ve been on the go now for over thirty years and yet you’ll struggle to locate them in any of the annals that document contemporary music in Dublin from 1985 onwards. I first saw them at one of the heats at the Carling/Hot Press Band of The Year competition in Sir Henry’s in Cork during the late 1980s where, then as now, they stood out because they didn’t stand out at all ;- they were reluctant, callow, soft and hardly there. In a broader salad of paisley, black denim and long, swept-back hair, they were hunched and cut apart in their charity-shop jackets and dead men’s shoes. They were far from perfect and, in one way, still are – which is why, I think, I took to them so quickly and so intently.


Will Merriman first patched his group together during a period when U2 had just gone global and when a single, anthemic chorus got you to first base and a positive Hot Press notice without ever breaking sweat. He’s seen many summers – and indeed many drummers too – in the decades since and The Harvest Ministers’ family tree certainly extends far, deep and wide. But on that night in Mister Ridley’s, Will – the band’s leader, songwriter and constant, led what is easily the band’s best-known and most cohesive line-up, supported by the long-serving Padraig McCaul on guitar, piano and sax, the tearaway Pat Dillon on drums, Gerardette Bailey on sweet, sweet backing vocals, Brian Foley, then previously of The Blades on bass and Aingeala De Burca on violin. And it was this line- up that featured on the band’s first album, ‘Little Dark Mansion’, which was released later that year on the Bristol-based Sarah Records label.


You’d never, were you so pushed, expect The Harvest Ministers to get a disco crowd going, post-midnight, but that’s what was expected of them in Mister Ridley’s. And, at the time, there was nothing unusual about that :- given that many venues, especially those outside of Dublin, were located in nightclubs, many excellent live bands were routinely booked to bridge an hour or so over the course of what were long nights and, by so doing, up the intensity – and the take – at the bars. Indeed the one-time Ultravox singer, Midge Ure, once just refused to take the stage at The Bridge Hotel in Waterford when he was told he was going on-stage in the venue’s faux-Roman classical finished dance-hall as a support act to a disco.


And so, when The Harvest Ministers ambled onto a small space in the corner of the main floor at Mister Ridley’s, caught in the flickered glitter shapes cast by the numerous disco balls mounted overhead, they looked, as they’ve often tended to, like Nemo and his friends set free from the tank. Opening with a spartan, skewed new number called ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’ can’t have endeared them to the revellers, many of them already well flutered. And, for a while, patronising as you like, Ken and myself worried if The Ministers would make it through.

But they were quickly into their groove and went on to play a protracted and often wild set that featured several of what have long been staples :- ‘Forfeit Trials’, ‘Theresa’, ‘Silent House’ and ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’ among them. And, maybe with a calculated nod to their surroundings – or maybe not ? – the jerky ‘Oliver Cromwell’, with its convulsive sax and frantic snare over which Will repeatedly sings the big money-line – ‘Oliver Cromwell … is a pansy’. And as I recalled in a review in Melody Maker magazine subsequently, ‘by the end of the night there are couples waltzing around at the front and not an evil word is spoken’.


I’m consistently drawn back to that night in Dundalk for many reasons, not least of all because, not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I saw exactly how music, in this instance neither obvious, direct or immediate, can often forge a direct emotional contact even in the most unlikely of settings. Where, kicking against all reasonable theory or argument, The Harvest Ministers absolutely aced it. Of all of the live shows I’ve seen – and I’ve seen far too many at this stage – it is easily one of the more memorable and certainly on any list of favourites.


And that’s maybe why, I think, The Harvest Ministers continue to be such an unremarkable and yet at the same time wholly remarkable force. Because notwithstanding their exceptional back catalogue, and the scope inherent in what Will is still trying to do, it’s just impossible to dislike them.


In a curious twist of fate, they went on to release two terrific albums for the Setanta label, ‘A Feeling Mission’, produced by Phil Thornalley in 1995 and 1997’s magnificent ‘Orbit’, which was over-seen by John Parish, a long-time side-kick of P.J. Harvey. And betimes during this period, it looked as if the band might, almost in spite of itself, achieve some manner of cross-over, especially when the sound was bolstered up on the likes of ‘If It Kills Me [And It Will]’. But that they’ve remained resolutely stuck in the hedges and caught on the margins ever since shouldn’t in any way devalue Will’s song-writing stock :- all that’s really changed in that respect is the manner in which he now records his material, and with whom.


Most recently he’s been buttressed by Andy Fitzpatrick, the New York- based, former Dadas frontman who’s been an ancillary member of The Ministers for years and it’s the pair of them who, ostensibly, laid down the down the core of The Harvest Ministers’ current album, ‘Back To Harbour’, which was recorded in Fitzpatrick’s apartment and released last week.


And, as we’ve come to expect [and long since come to take for granted], it’s another pretty special instalment that, over the course of it’s eleven tracks, plots a familiar course dominated by casual strumming, brushed drums, delicate melodies, layered strings, a soft organ wash here or there, over-laid with Will’s vocals which, to this day, are sometimes barely there at all. Especially strong over the home straight, you’d have to wonder if he’s ever written a cluster as impactful as ‘The Debutante With The Nose Ring’, ‘Through The Trap Doors Of Insanity’, ‘No Feelings For You’ and the absurdly beautiful ‘The Heron’ ? All of which, yet again, come highly recommended.


Several years later I returned to Mister Ridleys. Plenty of water had roared out past Dundalk Bay in the seven years since I’d last darkened it’s doors and I was now working as, of all things, a television producer. Myself and my friend, Dave Hannigan, were making a documentary for RTÉ about the retired Irish footballer, Paul McGrath, and were picking up an important aspect of the story.


McGrath was, and remains, a fascinating subject and, in our efforts to unravel what was a complicated and often difficult past, we’d come looking to speak with another Irish footballer, Barry Kehoe, who had also, like Paul, played in the League of Ireland before briefly trying his luck at Manchester United. Barry’s story was no less complicated :- he was a magnificent midfield player at his hometown club, Dundalk, but his career was curtailed by injury and, later, by a long battle with cancer. As a contemporary of McGrath’s at Manchester United, however briefly, he was an obvious contributor to our film. And I located him quickly and easily enough ;- he was living and working in Dundalk, managing a nightclub in the town. Mister Ridleys.


Myself and Dave remember the time we spent on that Paul McGrath documentary very fondly and, across the Atlantic, we’ll still trade short messages about those wonderful months, back in 1998, as we pieced together ‘They Called Him God’. And as the cast list passes away one by one – Tommy Heffernan, Charlie Walker, Graham Taylor and Barry Kehoe himself, who eventually lost that cancer battle in 2002, those memories take on added significance for us.


On Barry’s suggestion, we conducted the interview with him at his place of work and, while our crew began to set their equipment into place, he proudly took us on a tour around Mister Ridleys and, as he did, The Harvest Ministers, from out of nowhere, flashed through my mind. The mirror balls, the waltzing couples, ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’, Ken and the runaround.


‘And over there’, said Barry in a warm but typically flat Dundalk accent as he pointed to a small alcove area touching onto the dance floor, ‘that’s what we call The Erection Section’. And, for whatever reason, The Harvest Ministers disappeared back to the dim recesses of my mind, as did any thoughts I had about lunch for the cast and crew.


Via Ken Sweeney




I’m not especially good at staying in touch with my friends and Dave Heffernan, among several others, will attest to that. It’s a good year when we catch up a couple of times socially and yet, for all that, I’ll still think nothing of seeking him out for advice and tapping him up, usually out of the blue. He’s probably one of the few people I actually listen to but it’s a wonder how he puts up with me.


It was music that first brought us together and it’s music that still dominates many of our conversations. Dave has made plenty of excellent music television and radio during a distinguished career in broadcasting, both in front of house and behind the sticks. And, like one of his peers, Mark Cagney, he also boasts one of the finest record collections in the country, the extent and scale of which is beyond impressive. He puts this lesser man to shame.


There was a time, way back, when Dave and myself enjoyed a much different relationship. As one of the four presenters on the 1980s RTÉ Saturday morning kids show, ‘Anything Goes’, alongside Mary Fitzgerald, Kathy Parke and Aongus McAnally, Dave’s weekly music bulletins were a vital and necessary watch. For twenty odd minutes every week [often twenty very odd minutes], just before lunch, RTÉ would go off-message and open up it’s doors to a broad church of musicians and performers, many of them unknown or from the left-field. And I was there, religiously, for most of those broadcasts.


Like all of the best television, those inserts often seemed at complete odds with their surroundings. Routinely, the tall, imposing shadow of Aonghus McAnally – in his mis-matched red and yellow shoes or his magician’s gloves and hat – would cast itself across a sublime ballad performed live in Dave’s corner of the studio by a renowned American songwriter who was just travelling through town or by an emerging young buck with a head full of steam. And that just added to the experience :- over thirty years later, the devil is in the detail and the tunes.


It was live on ‘Anything Goes’ that I first clapped eyes on Billy Bragg. He played a couple of spunky live numbers and spoke at length about his customised green guitar and about serving in the army while, dotted around him on the studio floor, was the guts of a local youth club or scout troop who’d come for the earlier part of the show and who couldn’t wait to leave the premises. It was in conversation with Dave on ‘Anything Goes’ that I first heard ABC’s Martin Fry talk eloquently and at some length about one of the greatest albums in the history of British popular music, ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, an interview during which Fry offered his English Literature degree to his host. The Blades and Thin Lizzy were perennial favourites too and turned up regularly over the course of the show’s lifetime and I can remember appearances by other local notables like Tokyo Olympics, The Vipers and Tony Koklin.


And it was on ‘Anything Goes’ that I first encountered Prefab Sprout, a band about whom I’ve bored many folk to distraction in the years since. As the video for ‘Don’t Sing’ was rolled, and as the nascent Newcastle band got busy on a local beach, the impact was immediate and the connection was instant. Many, many music videos at this time were filmed on beaches where, more often than not, something was set on fire at the end. Prefab Sprout were fresh-faced and wind-swept on ‘Don’t Sing’ and the song itself – erratic, a bit wordy, brilliant – required little by way of added drama. The only fire here was a metaphorical one and I’ve adored Prefab Sprout ever since.


I was in Manchester with a friend of mine and his older brothers some weeks later to see United play West Ham in a non-descript league game in the old First Division. Back in April 1984, in the days before routine Ryanair flights and the corporate annexing of Old Trafford, Manchester was a dank, deprived city with two well-supported and perennially average football sides and a pretty serious music scene. We’d arrived in Manchester during the early morning after an over-night ferry from The North Wall in Dublin and, killing the many hours before the 3pm kick-off, I bought the ‘Don’t Sing’ single and the ‘Lions In My Own Garden [Exit Someone]’ E.P. from the HMV shop on Market Street. I protected my purchases fiercely on The Streford End later that afternoon as a United team, featuring Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath among their number, ground out a loveless 0-0 home draw. We were back in Cork by tea-time the following evening ;- the long return journey made bearable by the prospect of getting ‘Lions In My Own Garden’ onto the turn-table at home.


After the curtain came down on ‘Anything Goes’, Dave and his twin brother, Gerald, founded their own company, Frontier Films and, as one of the early movers in the Irish independent television production sector, Dave went on to make some pretty serious documentaries for the international market on the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder and The Velvet Underground. And he’s still at it. A forthcoming project of his for RTÉ One, ‘Music On D’Telly’, pulls a diverse range of archive clips from RTÉ Television’s considerable music catalogue, from right across the ages and the genres. Fronted and scripted by Pat Shortt, the series features one particular insert that’s as remarkable a watch and listen now as it was when I was first alerted to it almost 25 years ago. So how and why did Paddy McAloon duet with Jimmy Webb, backed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra playing an arrangement scored by George Martin, in a studio in Dublin in September, 1991 ?


‘Eye on The Music’ was an early 90s live music show, produced and directed in the main by the RTÉ grandee Ian McGarry, with help in the trenches from Niall Mathews and Adrian Cronin. The ambitious eight-part series, fronted by Bill Whelan and made by RTÉ’s Entertainment Department, ran on RTÉ One on Sunday nights from October, 1991, and brought together a wide range of local and international acts to perform with the country’s most powerful orchestra and to discuss their work and influences with the programme’s host. Ostensibly Bill Whelan’s concept, he also scored and conducted almost all of the orchestral accompaniments and, among those who graced the sound-stage in Studio One in Montrose during the run were acts as diverse as Tanita Tikaram, Elmer Bernstein, The Trio Bulgarka, The Pale, Engine Alley, Míceál Ó Súilleabháin, Altan, The Corrs, Louis Stewart, Mark Nevin, Lloyd Cole and Beverley Craven.



Four years before Riverdance, which he composed, and a decade since he’d written, with Donal Lunny, the far-ranging ‘Timedance’, the original sister-piece that featured during the interval at the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin’s R.D.S., Whelan was a formidable and multi-tentacled presence around the Irish music scene. Born in Limerick, he’d trained and qualified as a barrister but it was in music that he’d started to make an imprint. In the years immediately before the ‘Eye on The Music’ series, he’d served as resident musical director on RTÉ’s ‘Saturday Live’ series, a pre-cursor to what later became ‘Kenny Live’. He’d studio produced a variety of acts too – U2, Stockton’s Wing and Planxty among them – and, on ‘Eye on The Music’, brought a considerable influence and a wide frame of reference to bear on the bookings, which he over-saw with John Hughes who, among other things, was then working as manager of an emerging pop act called The Corrs.


Whelan had been a long time admirer of Jimmy Webb’s work and the two shared a past of sorts ;- back in 1969 and 1970, and while still in school, Bill  contributed to the soundtrack of a Richard Harris film called ‘Bloomfield’, and it was during this project that the pair first met briefly. But it was on September 24th, 1991, that their relationship was kick-started in earnest when Whelan welcomed Webb into the RTÉ studio complex for an appearance on the second of eight episodes of ‘Eye on The Music’. Mingling with them in the green room that evening were the show’s other guests ;- Altan, Don Baker and the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra.


Born in 1946 in Oklahoma, Jimmy Webb has long been considered one of the great American songwriters, routinely garlanded by the industry – if not always by critics – for a canon that includes ‘Galveston’, ‘Up, Up And Away’, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ and ‘Wichita Lineman’, among hundreds of others. But it was another of his own compositions, ‘The Highwayman’ – a song that had first featured on his 1977 album, ‘El Mirage’ – that he performed for ‘Eye on The Music’. It wasn’t until Glen Campbell covered ‘The Highwayman’ in 1979 – on an album of the same name – that the song generated popular cross-over traction.


Born in 1957 in County Durham in the North East of England, Paddy McAloon was – by September 1991 – established as one of the most distinguished and arresting British songwriters of his generation. As the creative backbone of Prefab Sprout, he’d recently dropped the band’s most ambitious album to date, ‘Jordan – The Comeback’, which was toured with an augmented backing band and a full range of bells and whistles. McAloon had also been a target for the bookers on ‘Eye on The Music’ and, through the offices of a London-based agent, agreed to travel to Dublin once Jimmy Webb – a long-time influence – had also been confirmed for the series. Indeed Webb’s presence on the list of confirmed acts on the series also helped to snare Lloyd Cole’s participation.


Watching the clip again, twenty four years after it was originally broadcast, it’s difficult not to be humbled by the quality of the performance. It’s a duet in every sense, both men bringing divergent styles to the party and, in so doing, creating a magic that’s far more than the sum of it’s parts. The playing is soft and warm and, with Paddy’s soft tenor leading Jimmy’s rich baritone, there’s a real sense that the young wizard has the older sorcerer under some kind of a spell. It’s hard to believe that Webb, sporting a full-bodied mane and McAloon, wearing a Lee Van Cleef moustache, had never performed together previously or, indeed, that they’d only just met for the first time. Time and a lack of budget meant that there was no prior rehearsal ;- the magic happened on the studio floor on the day of the recording.


As well as being a masterful writer, Webb is also an exceptional player but here, against a lavish orchestral accompaniment scored by the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, that Webb brought with him, his playing is far more restrained. And, to this end, he is absolutely in concert with McAloon, who tenderly finger-picks the primary guitar parts while, behind them both, the Concert Orchestra – conducted on the night by Bill Whelan – takes on the heavy lifting. But to these ears at least, the most alluring aspect of the performance is McAloon’s vocal. His is a voice that’s often taken for granted within the full Prefab Sprout artillery ;- in the thirty odd years since I first heard him sing, I don’t think it’s aged a jot.


Prefab Sprout’s body of work, spread erratically over the decades, features many lyrical references and structural genuflections both to Jimmy Webb and to what we can, for the sake of reference here, broadly claim as ‘country music’. This is most obviously manifest on the band’s 2001 album, ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’ – particularly on songs like ‘Streets of Laredo’, the Jimmy Webb-laced ‘The Gunman’ [which was first performed by Cher on her 1995 album, ‘It’s A Man’s World’ – alongside Paul Brady’s ‘Paradise Is Here’] and, it goes without saying, ‘Cowboy Dreams’, which Paddy wrote for Jimmy Nail’s BBC television series, ‘Crocodile Shoes’. Further back, a cover of Jim Reeves’ ‘He’ll Have To Go’ was an early live staple that featured as part of the ‘Don’t Sing’ package while the band’s second album, ‘Steve McQueen’, opens with the banjo-and-harmonica-romp, ‘Faron Young’, a song named after the American country singer best known for ‘It’s Four in The Morning’. And among the numerous highlights on ‘Jordan – The Comeback’, the two-song Jesse James suite is a particular stand-out.



‘The first record that really made me love music was ‘Wichita Lineman’, Paddy McAloon told Rolling Stone’s David Wild during a long interview in 1991. ‘I still think it might be the greatest record I ever heard. It’s not that I yearn for the past, but when I listen to records like ‘West Side Story’, ‘Pet Sounds’ or any number of Jimmy Webb or Beatles records, I’m not sure what any of us have to show that’s an improvement on that basic model’.


And he’d have copped a wonderful earful of Webb in full flight, up-close, while in RTÉ. As well as ‘The Highwayman’, the American also performed another of his own songs, ‘Adios’ – one of four originals he’d composed for Linda Ronstadt’s 1989 album, ‘Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind’ – for the show. During a technical delay in the studio, and with the audience already in situ, Webb’s U.K. agent, Terry Oates, who had accompanied his act to Dublin, asked Bill Whelan if he’d like Webb to play anything to help fill the space and appease the crowd. And so Webb performed, for Whelan, McAloon and the 100- strong assembly, an on-the-fly version another of his songs from the ‘El Mirage’ album, ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’. That performance, sadly, was never captured on film.


Having covered ‘Wichita Lineman’ himself over the years and having repeatedly declared his heart to Webb’s music in numerous interviews, McAloon finally committed his affections to wax on the last Prefab Sprout album, 2013’s ‘Crimson Red’. ‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’ is a love-note to Webb’s work that opens with specific reference to their 1991 appearance in RTÉ. ‘I met him in a Dublin bar, a sorcerer from Wichita. A wizard and his baby grand, a range of powers at his command’, the song starts, before baldly stating the long- standing impact of the writer on our hero. ‘Like a stone into a well, I fell under their spell. The songs of Danny Galway’.


That recollection – and the depth of feeling that scaffolds it – contrasts sharply, one imagines, with Paddy McAloon’s memories of a previous appearance in RTÉ back in 1988 when, plugging the ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ elpee, the band mimed listlessly to ‘Cars And Girls’ on The Late Late Show. With Paddy and Wendy Smith lip-synching badly, Martin McAloon, the bassist, looks like a stage hand who’s found himself on a live television show by accident and who’s hoping that, by ‘acting cool’, no-one will notice. And it’s difficult to blame the band for their indifference, given that they’d been introduced by the host, Gay Byrne, with typical disdain. ‘They have a very, very odd name, so they have. Very odd. In this very, very odd world of rock and roll’, he claimed, with the kind of insight he routinely reserved for musicians and young bands.


In a parallel world, Bill Whelan would have turned his back and gagged.



NOTE :- ‘Music On D’Telly’, presented by Pat Shortt, is scheduled to start on RTÉ

One on Friday, October 30th next at 8.30PM.