Rex and Dino

FINN’S CORNER

The summer of 1994 is still primarily recalled by many of us for that year’s World Cup football finals in America, and especially for The Republic of Ireland’s unlikely victory over Italy in The Giant’s Stadium in New York. A game in which Paul McGrath put in an imperious defensive shift that, apart from helping to repel his opponents, also distilled much of the nation’s complicated history into ninety scarcely believable minutes of physical endeavour. For the first couple of weeks of that tournament, much of the country was suspended in time and space and we absolutely lost the run of ourselves. It was brilliant.

I watched that match, which was played on Saturday night, June 18th, with some of my friends from a Cork band called Serengeti Long Walk, on a large screen in an unlikely setting. A small, back-street venue called The Cork Arts And Theatre Club had been festooned and customized for the night :- even the luvvies had hopped the wagon. Two worlds briefly collided and, for a couple of hours, the world was upside down and back to front.

The theatre was packed well before the 9PM kick-off but a couple of us had already been on the go since much earlier. Myself and a local sports hack, Pat McAuliffe, had fetched up with a television news crew outside The City Hall for a pre-breakfast interview with a well-known Premiership footballer, Vinnie Jones, who we’d located in a hotel on Morrison’s Island the previous evening. He was in Cork with a party of acquaintances and friends on his stag weekend but, true to his word, arrived fresh and on time, helpfully kitted out in a white Ireland away top and trendy golf-shorts.

During the course of an exchange that went to air just before kick-off to an enormous television audience, he outlined to Pat his Irish connections, which sounded tenuous enough to me, and his hopes for an international call-up from Jack Charlton, the Irish manager, which turned out to be even more so.

A week previously, at the Vince Power-promoted Fleadh event in Finsbury Park in North London, the head-lining New Zealand/Australian band, Crowded House, emerged for an encore also wearing Republic of Ireland tops. They’d just played a cracking set to a partisan audience featuring many Irish emigrants and second and third-generationists and the reaction, as they returned to ice the cake, was exactly as you’d expect.

Those tops had been gifted to them by Thomas Black, then EMI Records’ local spotter in Ireland and Aiden Lambert, the manager of Dublin four-piece, Blink, who were led by one of his brothers, Dermot. Aiden’s street-trader instinct for an opportunity and a quick win were matched only by his generousity, and I’ve gone into this in more detail in a previous piece.

Whether they realized it or not, Crowded House were making a couple of weighty statements by pulling on those shirts. Outwardly the band was of course being carried on the usual wave of end-of-tour giddiness and knew well the audience they were playing to. But during yet another phase of uncertainty around Anglo-Irish relations, they were also touching on the contentious issue of identity. A theme that also ran through the album they’d released the previous year, ‘Together Alone’, and which they’d been promoting on a far-reaching world tour that had finally come to a halt in in London N4.

Blink had supported Crowded House on the U.K. leg of that haul and while, musically at least, the bands had little in common, it was a decent match and an easy meeting of like minds. Affable, funny and with a common sense of purpose, the groups also shared the same record label at a time when Crowded House were a popular live draw in Ireland. In this respect they can be filed in the same drawer as Chris Rea, Aimee Mann and David Gray, all of whom found regular respite and decent audiences here while they were still looking for commercial footholds in other territories.

We’d recently completed work on the first season of the music television series, No Disco and, unsure whether or not it was returning to the RTE 2 schedules, and with no ties to speak of, I was intent on making the most of the summer. So with the World Cup looming, I threw in my with Blink and joined them for some of the dates on that Crowded House tour in May, 1994. Old habits die hard and what better way to re-charge, I thought, than in the company of two excellent bands ?

I’d blagged my way around Britain and Europe for years in a series of tour vans and in a variety of different guises, sometimes legitimately working and often just hanging on. For many years there was nothing more intoxicating – and of course ultimately demoralising – than the promise of the road ahead and the prospect of where the endless motorways might take you. Those were the days before the engine finally gave up the ghost somewhere beyond the dark valley and when, after too many tours on the same loop, it became obvious to me that the road loves the few and eats the many. In my more introspective moments, I wonder how we ever made it to some of the most remote locations in Europe – and why ? – or indeed how we all made it back home at all ?

Blink were one of those outfits with whom I regularly took off. For a couple of years during the mid-1990s they were one of Ireland’s most interesting and exciting new bands, having formed from the remains of another Dublin combo, Rex And Dino, who themselves had released one terrific single for Solid Records, ‘Someone There To Love’, in 1988. With Aiden’s fingers on the pulse and his eyes constantly peeled, they made the right kind of noise to land a local deal with EMI, and they had plenty to recommend them too. With a strong grasp of the raw mechanics of the pop song – and boasting a top, top rhythm section – they were never either overly precious or indulgent.

Knowing the importance and power of the moment, Blink saw more merit in the hi-energy pop of Mel And Kim as they did in the left-field ache of Kim Gordon. And that Steve Hillage, the one-time Gong guitarist, produced much of their first album, ‘A Map Of The Universe’, tells its own story. By any standards the singles lifted from that elpee – particularly ‘Going To Nepal’, ‘Happy Day’ and ‘Its Not My Fault’ – are memorable cuts that still stand up to scrutiny.

And then there was Crowded House. I was first turned onto them by Mark Cagney – who else ? – on what was then Radio 2FM and who, with added heft from Dave Fanning, relentlessly pushed the band’s first two albums, ‘Crowded House’ [1986] and ‘Temple Of Low Men’ [1988]. Indeed if ever a band was designed for Cagney it was Crowded House ;- Neil Finn’s songs could be simple, efficient and orthodox but he was just as comfortable as a southpaw, effortlessly switching styles mid-combo. Tracts of the band’s first four albums are testament to his command of structure and what, in technical terms, we might call ‘the middle eight’ and the surprise fill. The imperious ‘Better Be Home Soon’, with its closing organ run and the switch during ‘Fall At Your Feet’ being two absolute cases – of many – in point.

Neil’s blueprint was as clear and simple as the messages he conveyed in his songs and as constant as the mop-top he’s modelled for the guts of forty years. And it all came together for them, I think, on ‘Together Alone’, to my mind Crowded House’s best ever album, released in 1993, and which they toured long and hard.

I was fortunate enough to see them unpack the guts of that album, in high definition and in unusual circumstances, during a handful of dates on that tour where, as part of Blink’s travelling retinue and with a considerable lanyard to legitimize me, I had access to them at their most exposed. For all Neil’s writing prowess, the band’s popular appeal had much to do with its congeniality, much of which was generated by Crowded House’s rhythm section, and particularly by the band’s original drummer and one of the group’s founders, Paul Hester. Paul was a fine musician who, from behind the kit, would regularly interrupt live proceedings with bad puns, one-liners and self-deprecating patter. But far from distracting from the band’s core business, this carry-on only contributed to it’s allure. On the face if it at least, Crowded House, although they took their work very seriously, had few real notions and weren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves.

During the long American leg of the ‘Together Alone’ tour, Hester took off abruptly and returned to Melbourne, where his girlfriend was expecting a baby. Into the live line-up and onto the drum stool came an old friend of the band, Pete Jones, a Liverpool-born session player based in Sydney, who was scrambled half-way across the world to join Crowded House as they were touching down in Britain. And although the band and its management could clearly have done without the inconvenience and the organizational headaches, its not as if you’d have noticed.

Business went on as usual and so, over the course of consecutive sound-checks, I had the scarcely-believable pleasure of watching the band work through their set with a brand new member of their live ensemble. And it was remarkable stuff, really ;- the band walking Pete through the finer points of its songbook – replete with those changes and lost chords – as they rehearsed with him during afternoon soundchecks.

I was standing sentry as usual, half-way down the vast, concrete arenas the band had long sold out, taking it all in. And I’m not sure if, even to this day, I’ve seen anything as mind-blowing in a live setting as Crowded House stepping into the mics on hitting the break on ‘In My Command’, one of the stand-out cuts from ‘Together Alone’. During which the band was actually pulling a stand-in drummer along in its slipstream and, using a series of nods, tics and foot gestures, carrying him through the material.

The band’s line-up on that tour was complimented – and greatly enhanced, I think – by the addition of a wonderful American musician, Mark Hart, on keyboards and guitar. He’d been centrally involved in the recording of ‘Together Alone’ and has been part of the group’s core line-up ever since. From where I stood, though, he was making up more than the numbers ;- he looked like he was the group’s informal musical director.

The band has long lined up with him in the centre-stage, flanked by Neil to his right and Nick to his left while, behind them on that leg of the tour, Pete was busy learning his lines and flaking everything that moved. Neil may well have been the primary creative but, from where I was watching, Mark was playing as an enforcer and, during the uncertainty around that tour, much of the on-stage activity seemed to channel through him.

‘Together Alone’ is arguably best remembered for the first singles lifted from it, ‘Distant Sun’ and ‘Nails In Your Feet’, although over half of the elpee was eventually released in the shorter form. The gut of the album was recorded in a small studio on Kare Kare beach in New Zealand with the London-born producer, Youth, whose colourful past included stints in both Killing Joke and The Orb before he became one of the more unlikely but innovative producers of his generation. Far more layered and subtle than it’s predecessor, ‘Woodface’, the album closes with its magnificent title-track, whose coda features a specially written piece performed by the Te Waka Huia Cultural Group, a Maori choir. Many of whom, in elaborate dress, also joined Crowded House on tour :- the live show would close every night with the singers and log drummers on-stage with the band and making an almighty racket.

And deep in the back-stage, long after the house lights had come up, a full-on hooley would break out, led by the choir and the drummers, and into which the band and their families would fall head first. Traditional songs and stories were swapped well into the night and, whenever Blink were called on for an old song or two from Ireland, they’d contribute with gusto.

My memory of those nights is very sharp, and maybe sharper than it might otherwise be. And over the last twenty-five years, I’ve regularly re-told many of these stories, during good times and bad. Prompted, way too often, by circumstances beyond our control.

And so this one goes out to Paul Hester [1958 – 2005], Pete Jones [1963 –2012], Aiden Lambert [1959 – 2015] and Pat McAuliffe [1958 – 2019].

A HOUSE :- LOCAL HOUSING AUTHORITY

There were a few of them, back in the dark ages, that you’d think twice about looking crooked at. Declan Jones from Blue In Heaven, all seven foot odd of him in his leather keks and his Chelsea boots, was one. Half of Whipping Boy, a couple of The Gorehounds, Dave Lavelle from The Honey Thieves. And maybe the gruffest of all of them, Dave Couse of A House, who’d skewer you with a look or a one-liner if you tried to blackguard him. Or even if you didn’t.

The first time I met Couse in person was on the concourse at Kent Station in Cork as he’d stepped off of an incoming train from Dublin. ‘So’, he asks. ‘What have you done for A House today ?’. He was never one who hung around to get his eye in.

And in truth, I’d done little for A House that day and I’d done little most other days too for the band that Couse formed with Fergal Bunbury, Martin Healy and Dermot Wylie in West Dublin in the early 1980s. But  then they never struck me as either needing support or actively seeking assistance ;- from a remove, they looked like one of the most self-sufficient, durable and intense bands in the country and, to that end, were probably best left alone. And anyway, there were others, mostly on my own door-step in Cork, who were far more deserving of my first aid or, as history might record it, the hemlock kiss.

Maybe, alighted from a train ride from Dublin to Cork, Couse was just hungry and cranky ;- as one of those who regularly experienced the inter-city dining options during the 1980s and 1990s, its easy to appreciate how that may have been the case. Eitherway, once I’d fed and watered him, and after we’d completed a spiky exchange for an RTÉ youth television strand called ‘Scratch Saturday’, he certainly softened up a bit and I saw a hint of light beyond the blanket.

Over several subsequent years, I had a decent sideline view of A House while I worked with Keith Cullen at Setanta Records and, for a time, was close enough to see the meat on the bone. I never knew them particularly well  – nor they I – to go anywhere deeper than a clean cut on the finger but I was still privy enough to see just how driven and determined they were on so many levels. They rarely let up or let go and Couse was at the heart of it all, setting the tempo, consistency in a world slowly gazing at its shoes.

In his pomp he was a restless and forceful writer who saw merit in the malevolent vignette. Fronting a group whose considerable achievement  was often taken for granted and who were never entirely a common currency, one aspect often fuelled the other. A House, like many others before them and after them, were at their best when Couse was at his most tart. They consistently demanded the final word and, with Couse on the mic, it was often a bitter one ;- when the good times came, they were forever fleeting.

A House issued five studio albums for three different labels, most of which are among the finest Irish releases of their generation and, all things considered, the band endured for far longer than many of its peers. But their recorded output apart, it was the line they walked – and often deliberately played with – between charm, arrogance, resilience and bloody-mindedness that tended to define them.

In as much as the parameters of their original, four-square guitar-fused  line-up would allow, A House were as unique as any and better than most. And later, after they re-shuffled their pack in the aftermath of their second album – after which they were promptly dropped by their label – bolstering their line-up and adding finesse and steel in equal part, they refined their game and went for it again, baldly. But in both their iterations they were as difficult to pin down as their cover was difficult to penetrate ;- in an Irish context, the biggest issue many seemed to have with A House was that they weren’t Something Happens, with whom they were long associated and with whom they were consistently locked in a competitive, often truculent side-show.

Tony O’Donoghue, now RTÉ’s football correspondent, once pounded the  footpaths around Cork city to the point of fracture. In the days before mobile phones, you could always locate him if you wandered Patrick Street long enough and, in his leather jacket and pointy suedes, he certainly looked the part of a hip, young gunslinger. In the best and worst traditions of the freelancing hack, he held down a slew of wide-ranging jobs, one of the most interesting of which was a short, weekly slot on Cork Local Radio, where he’d play snippets of a couple of new releases, draw our attention to upcoming concerts and live events around town and jolt the RTÉ sound recordists from their torpor, however briefly.

As a clueless fresher still navigating his way around most things, I’d often still be at home during lunchtimes and would regularly catch Tony’s finely-tuned political broadcasts on behalf of quality independent Irish music. During a period in which emerging, indigenous rock music was in rude good health, and when the standard of its recorded output was mirrored by the development of a regular, sustainable national live circuit, Tony was rarely short of decent material. Broadcasting in short form long before the term was hi-jacked by digital marketing consultants and social media influencers, and while the regions were often starved of relevant music media, his weekly sermons cherried the cake for many of us, putting a partisan frosting on the national proselytising of the likes of Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on Radio 2FM.

And it was during one of Tony’s local homilies in 1987 that I heard the first shimmer of ‘Snowball Down’, A House’s second single and, for me, one of the most pressing, urgent cuts in the history of Irish alternative music. Produced by Chris O’Brien and released on the band’s own, self-funded imprint, RIP Records, it clocked in at just over 150 seconds, with its shades of The Bunnymen, The Blue Aeroplanes and some of the more subtle aspects – prominent, nimble bass, prominent acoustic strum – of the paisley underground. As opening statements go, both ‘Snowball Down’ and the band’s debut issue that preceded it months earlier, ‘Kick Me Again, Jesus’, punched far beyond the national qualifying standard.

To a handful of local anoraks, hangers-on and indie spotters, though, this was just another rung on a curve steeping progressively upwards.

The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street was a much-loved dive and, for a number of years, a small and important cog in the local machine, very strictly off-Broadway. [The site on which it stood is now occupied by a racy shop called ‘Condom Power’, an irony not lost on former regulars who fondly remember the old bar’s sardonic drayman, Big Johnny]. Run by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, the downstairs parlour was where, to my mind, the first and last great domestic music movement really took root hosting, as it did, frenetic and often chaotic early shows by the likes of Rex And Dino, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, Power Of Dreams, The Slowest Clock, [Backwards] Into Paradise, Whipping Boy, The Dixons and A House themselves.

The careless spirit of that period and the claustrophobic aspect of the tiny venue is captured naked on a short, six-song album, ‘Live At The  Underground’, that was recorded there over two nights in 1985 and issued by Jeff on his own, one-off label, ‘Fear And Loathing Records’. Four years earlier, Elvera Butler’s ‘Kaught At The Kampus’ also cuffed six live tracks onto tape during shows recorded at the famed, UCC-hosted shows at The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork and, even if neither album was ever intended to trouble the chart compilers, both records served real purpose nonetheless. Over thirty years later, what were clearly just calling cards for two highly-regarded live venues have become, absolutely by default, curios that capture some of the more unique sights, sounds and perhaps even smells of the time, for posterity.

a house setlist

Setlist Limelight Belfast, 1993 / 1994.  © Gary White

And A House are there on ‘Live At The Underground’, callow but recognisable, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, Something Happens and Hughie Purcell – contributing the shambling ‘On Your Bike, Wench, And Let’s Have The Back Of You’ to the party, before quickly moving on.

Indeed the band’s re-birth on the Setanta label between 1990 and 1992, during which they recorded and released the bridging [and aptly-titled, in my view] ‘Doodle’ EP and then the magnificent ‘I Am The Greatest’, is worth a long read in its own right. For a band down on it’s luck and back on the labour, the title of that record reflects A House’s constant, inerrant belief in it’s own ability. But then all five of their album titles can be read as sarcastic, sly references to the way the band saw itself, and especially it’s evolving relationship – good, mixed and mostly bad – with the music industry. From the shadowy optimism of the debut on a major label, ‘On Our Big Fat Merry Go-Round’ to the damning reality of a slow degeneration on it’s stubborn follow-up, ‘I Want Too Much’ through the life-affirming ‘I Am The Greatest’, the return to a major ‘Wide Eyed And Ignorant’ and the closing, sardonic chapter, ‘No More Apologies’, these were clear, political punch-lines that mashed a snotty face on the bay window of the industry that begot them. ‘The music business ?’, A House might have mused, summoning another doleful street philosopher, Norm Peterson . ‘Can’t live with it. Pass the beer-nuts’.

The band played it’s last ever show on February 28th, 1997, in Dublin’s  Olympia Theatre, a stone’s throw from The Underground Bar, aloof and diffident to the end. But although A House boasted a noisy and loyal support base all around the country, I long suspected they were far more comfortable outside of Ireland where, arguably, they were more critically valued and where they consistently had one up on Something Happens. But they were also clued in enough to know when to call time and, when the curtain fell, it was on the band’s own terms :- they scripted their own funeral in detail and organised the buffet afterwards.

In 2002, five years after A House packed up their tent, ‘Here Come The Good Times’, by a distance the band’s most contagious pop song, was selected as Ireland’s official World Cup anthem as the country’s international football team headed off to compete in that summer’s competition in Japan and Korea. Its beefed-up glam rock production and shiny pop veneer notwithstanding, the song is actually about a lifetime of personal disappointment [where good times occur ‘for a change’]  and, in hindsight, seemed like a perfectly prescient selection, given how Ireland’s World Cup campaign unfolded.

Remembered less for the team’s unfortunate and maybe unlucky exit from the tournament and far more for Roy Keane’s strop, after which he tore out of the team’s training camp on the island of Saipan and returned home, it was appropriate that the ghosts of A House were on hand to faithfully soundtrack the misfortunes of a nation.

Eight years and two World Cups previously, Parlophone Records, their second major label, had failed to crack ‘Here Come The Good Times’ into the mainstream. This achievement was at once so scarcely unbelievable and yet perfectly in keeping with the band’s long experiences in the middle ground ;- the writing was on the wall for that relationship and, one suspects, A House itself, thereafter.

A salvo from that stomping pop song had also featured briefly as part of a spectacular opening montage shot around Ireland for the opening of the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Mary Kennedy and broadcast live from The Point Depot in Dublin. And however fleetingly, it seemed as if A House had finally recovered some of the face they’d lost when Gay Byrne patronised them to within inches of their lives as he introduced them on The Late Late Show before they performed their excellent ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’ single back on the floor of Studio One on October 14th, 1988.

The last time I saw Dave Couse was from a distance after a Frank And Walters show in Dublin city many years ago. I hear him, from time to time, on his infrequent radio show where, from his song selections alone, I suspect he still holds many of those same beliefs he did when, a quarter of a century ago, we first locked horns in Cork. His band remain one of the real enigmas – and genuine successes – of contemporary Irish rock music and while, in the twenty years since that last curtain call, you’d expect all parties to have moved on, you’d suspect that no one felt the band’s lack of a broader breakthrough more keenly than Couse himself.

And whenever I hear him on the radio now – and he’s still as captivatingas he’s ever been – it just hardens my view that all disc jockeys, like television producers and music writers – are, at heart, just frustrated musicians who, because of events and an absence of good fortune, are doing the next best and closest things instead.

And then there’s the standing Couse enjoys in the recent history of Cork popular music. In the long traditions of keeping the best secrets on the inside, he produced the first Frank And Walters E.P. for the Setanta label and, in hindsight, should have gone on and finished the job by doing the band’s debut album as well. By the time he was back behind the bench with them, far too late, on their second – and still easily their best album, ‘Grand Parade’, the moment, you’d think, was lost, the spirit having flown. But Couse’s whipsmart production only highlights how under-cooked ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, The Franks’ nervous-sounding debut, was ;- in no way does the sound of that record do justice to many of it’s terrific cuts. ‘Trains’ has aged poorly and, twenty-five years on, sounds emaciated and tinny :- given the steroids Couse also infused into The Franks’ ‘Beauty Becomes More Than Life’ elpee in 2006, it’s difficult not to think now of what he could have done, years previously, with the debut.  And where that might have taken both parties.

Years later, several worlds collided and I was among the team tasked with producing RTÉ’s Late Late Show, immediately after Gay Byrne had stepped down as host and Pat Kenny moved up onto the crease. I felt it was only right, for several reasons, to move away from the show’s long-standing signature tune, an instrumental passage taken from Chris Andrews’ 1965 hit, ‘To Whom It Concerns’ and so I invited Dave, and a handful of others, to pitch any alternative suggestions they may have had. In my own mind, rightly or wrongly, I felt it was an opportunity to commission a contemporary Irish writer and to maybe sub-contract the work out to someone who may have had a fresh perspective on such matters. Which is what we did :- and it was Ray Harman of Something Happens who eventually composed a new theme for the programme. In the years since he’s carved out a terrific career for himself providing similar services to the feature film and documentary markets.

Dave Couse has stayed nicely busy too and, his radio work apart, has released a handful of records on several labels and under a variety of different band-names, in the years since. Among which the  ‘Batman And Robin’ single, released in September, 2005 under the band name Couse And The Impossible, is still easily the best of his solo material, some of which, his debut solo album ‘Genes’, in particular, is far more introspective and difficult than one might have expected.

For the last ten years or so I’ve spent far too much time in the shopping centre in Nutgrove, close to where I now life on the southside of Dublin. Where once I used it to do a regular family grocery shop and maybe pick  up an over-priced, over-caloried coffee on the hoof, its now one of my primary social outlets, somewhere to kill an hour during the insanity or whenever I want to lose my children. There’s a Credit Union office on the complex, an excellent off-licence and a couple of decent take-aways ;- a trip to Nutgrove is everything that a casual wander into the heart of Soho used to be.

The music piped into the centre and out over the tannoys must be among the most interesting and diverse anywhere in the country. Buried in among the sterile old standards you’ll hear, on a routine basis, selections from The Icicle Works, early New Order, The Lotus Eaters and The Fountains Of Wayne. And on a couple of occasions recently, I’ve heard ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’, still one of A House’s most distinctive cuts, as I’ve dallied in the aisles among the detergents and the toilet rolls.

But while I know that Dave Couse lives on that side of the city, I don’t remember him being invited down to cut the ribbon when they opened the re-furbished Argos branch there a few years back.

IN THE ROCK GARDEN

 

I worked for a couple of years with my friend, Jeff Brennan, in The Rock Garden, the live music venue and sometime restaurant that opened in Crown Alley, in Temple Bar, Dublin, almost 25 years ago. It was the late Aiden Lambert, Blink’s manager, who brokered that job for me and I’ve written about our relationship here. Officially, I was charged with publicising the wide disparity of acts booked into the old cellar but, in reality, I was hired to play a straight bat to Jeff’s jokes and routines. And there were many.

 

He’d moved the short distance to The Rock Garden from The Underground Bar on Dame Street where, working with his father, Noel and Johnny, the weary drayman, he held court and booked bands for most of the 1980s, during a period of terrific optimism and no little quality for alternative Irish music. Bands like A House, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, The Slowest Clock, Rex And Dino, Power Of Dreams and [Backwards] Into Paradise took root in The Underground and, for years, were regulars on the tiny stage that often defied the laws of, if not physics, then certainly health and safety. Paul Page, Whipping Boy’s guitarist, was also one of that number – onstage and off – during The Underground’s heyday and has written about the peculiar sense of purpose that characterised the place in an excellent post on his own blog. That piece is available here

 

live at the underground

IrishRock.org

 

The Underground Bar features prominently in any credible history of the live music circus that pitched up around Dublin in the wake of U2’s initial breakthroughs in Europe and America. The venue hosted many fine emerging bands between 1984 and 1989, helping several of them to add muscle, over time, to what were often callow bodies at source. And to this end, Jeff’s role in the real affairs of state shouldn’t be under-estimated. Although he took his music very seriously, and while he was a generous support to any number of dreamers who landed in on top of him from all sides, he treated the more helium-filled aspects of ‘the industry’ with a healthy suspicion.

 

From behind the small bar, he traduced many reputations over the years while running a decent and honest shop founded on the principles of fair play and good spirits. What was once The Underground – ‘don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore’ – is now a lap dancing club and, tellingly, the old venue isn’t commemorated by either a plaque on the wall or by Jeff’s hand-prints on the pavement outside.

 

During his first couple of years at The Rock Garden, Jeff certainly had the place fizzing. The step up in scale, size and budget – if not necessarily class – gave him a bit more leeway and he snagged memorable live shows from the likes of The Frames, Radiohead, The Afghan Whigs, Pavement, Swervedriver, The Young Gods, The Sultans, The Frank And Walters, The Senseless Things, Adorable and countless others, all of whom lugged their back-lines in around the back of Crown Alley and down the concrete and iron stairs to set up.

 

New Year’s Eve was always a real highlight at The Rock Garden and I’d make sure I was back up from Cork in good time to see out the old and to ring in the new there. Maintaining a long-standing tradition started back in The Underground, Jeff would opt for heft, clout and loud guitars to headline the last night of the year. Sack, Blink and The Brilliant Trees in their pomp regularly stuffed the place and, playing to fans, friends and families, they’d always blister through mighty sets. And then, as the night wore on, Tony St. James and The Las Vegas Sound would take the late-shift and carry us over the threshold and out into the open promise of the twelve months ahead.

 

Along one whole side of the venue, meanwhile, the bar staff would be royally lashed and the punters at the taps would often stand six, seven or eight deep, all of them roaring for porter. Jeff and myself would mingle readily around the place, annoying the door-staff, insulting the easily insulted and roll out what was a well-honed double act. And, once the doors were eventually locked behind us, well into the tiny hours, we’d kick back with a handful of regulars, stretch the New Year out in front of us and begin to unpick the world and many of those – saps, twits and dibbicks among them – who sailed in her.

 

I formed some wonderful friendships down in The Rock Garden and I fell out with as many people there again. But never once did I feel like I was actually working. In the early evenings I’d often drop whatever I was doing and slip down into the belly of the beast to eavesdrop during a sound-check. From deep in the shadows I heard Sack repeatedly do ‘What Did The Christians Ever Do For Us’, ‘How The Stars Became Stars’ and ‘Omnilust’ one afternoon as they were fine-tuning their shapes. And those, indeed, were the days.

 

We answered to a bearded, heavy-set American boss called Mark Furst, who fronted the venue. Jeff was tasked with booking decent live music into the place on a nightly basis and, given the vagaries of live music, we had some right old disasters over time, some of which defied all odds. Pulp and The Cranberries both died spectacularly in The Rock Garden ;- The Cranberries attracted eighteen paying punters and, at one point, the band and it’s handlers out-numbered the crowd.

 

Pulp pulled into Crown Alley one lazy Saturday afternoon and, although the band was on the cusp of a real commercial cross-over in Britain, they attracted less than one hundred die-hards on the night. Half of the band’s backline had been stolen after a show in London the previous evening and, compounding their humour, Pulp’s dowdy tour manager wasn’t overly pleased to find that Jeff had billeted them in what was then proudly slugged as ‘Dublin’s cheapest hotel’ – a ten-buck-a-night bed-and-breakfast up on Gardiner Street. ‘Sorry to hear about the gear’, Jeff told the group. ‘But I’m sure the rest of it will be robbed on ye tonight’.

 

I had a real soft spot for The Dadas, a Northside combo led by Andy Fitzpatrick, who later went on to buttress William Merriman’s excellent Harvest Ministers ;- I honestly thought that The Dadas’ honey-coated canon had a real sparkle to it. After they attracted less than a score of paying punters into what could often be an unforgiving old cavern, Fursty took off on one in the offices upstairs. Like Brian Blessed in leather biker’s keks, he upped the ante and the volume ;- ‘The Dodos [sic]’, he drawled, ‘will never be booked here again’. An arrangement that, I suspect, suited the band as much as it suited the venue.

 

But we had our nights of glory too. The Rock Garden was accessible, available and well-equipped and, during the time I spent there, we hosted a wide range of artistes, musos, pissheads, chancers, thieves and poets – the full travelling circus. Indeed one of the most memorable performances there was actually by  a circus ;- The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow fetched up with bearded ladies and a bloke who hung breeze blocks off of his nipples and his penis. The queue outside wasn’t the only thing that stretched far and long around The Rock Garden that night.

 

We’ve lost a fair few of our own stellar performers in the years since and, when Jeff and myself meet each other these days, it’s more likely to be at a removal or a funeral than it is at a venue. We met twice last year ;- at our friend Aiden Lambert’s funeral last month and back last April when we waved off George Byrne, the writer and collector. I always doubted whether George actually liked The Rock Garden, and he certainly didn’t like it as much as he did The Underground where, over the years, he saw frenetic live sets from a host of his local fancies.

 

One Easter Saturday night, during a Something Happens/Cypress, Mine ! double-bill – and after a hard few days of it with both bands in Cork – he fell down the end of the stairs and onto the stage. This trick was far more difficult to complete in The Rock Garden although, to be fair, George manfully attempted it on several occasions. I wrote a longer piece about George after his funeral in April, 2015, and that piece is available here.

 

It was in The Rock Garden that I first met Uaneen Fitzsimons. She’d been a college-mate of the two Dónals – Dineen and Scannell – and, like the rest of us, was standing-by, waiting for a break. And it was in The Rock Garden, with the Dónals, Des Fahy, Jeanne McDonagh, Jim Carroll, Ritchie Flynn and Eamonn Crudden and many others that the basic idea for the No Disco music television series started to form. When Uaneen took No Disco’s reins from Dónal Dineen, it just felt like we’d completed another circle and made good on a conversation that may, or may not have been had years previously in Wild, one of the many clubs run upstairs at The Rock Garden.

 

Martin Egan was another gentle soul who’d turn up unannounced in Crown Alley every now and again and he’d leave with a handy support ;- Jeff would always make sure that he was looked after and sorted. Martin is one of that number of decent scouts we lost in the trenches during the last twelve months.

 

It’ll be ten years next April since I stood under my friend Philip’s box up in The North Cathedral in Cork and, with his brother and a handful of others, lifted him out and on his way. I think about Phil a lot ;- we lived in each other’s pockets as we dreamt our way through our teens and into our twenties and yet I often wonder if I ever really knew him at all ? But when The Trash Can Sinatras unveil their upcoming album later this year, I’ll instinctively ponder how he would have rated it ? He once ended up backstage with them after a sparsely-attended show in Nancy Spains in Cork and spooked the band by knowing their back catalogue more intimately than they did themselves.

 

I moved out of Cork twenty-five years ago and, for the most part, tend to keep a respectful distance now. I love the streets and the lanes around the Northside but I’m not one of those exiles who consistently yearn to get back there ;- I left for a reason. But for an important few days every Christmas, I’d make my way back home from Dublin and, before I’d even get to my family, I’d have already dropped in on Phil at the shop on Patrick Street where he worked.

 

And, from the door of the premises, we’d determine the year’s best releases and consider the previous twelve months, just rabbiting on. He’d make sure I knew just how great everything was and it would never dawn on me to probe a bit deeper ;- it just wasn’t how we rolled. Music and records brought us together in the first place and it was music and records that we last spoke meaningfully of. Indeed in truth, music and records were all we really ever spoke of meaningfully, more’s the pity.

 

That journey home becomes harder and more important by the year. Three weeks ago I hit the road South straight after Aiden Lambert’s funeral and I couldn’t wait to leave Dublin behind me. I made several other car trips over Christmas and ran up a fair few miles and, every now and again, from behind the wheel, my mind would drift off a bit. And I’d think about Aiden. And George Byrne, Tony Fenton, Mick Lynch and Martin Egan. In the low light I’d picture Uaneen and Pat Neville and Eugene Moloney and Brendan Butler ;- some of whom I knew well, some of whom I barely knew and yet all of whom, back the road somewhere, were there with us during the bright nights and the dark nights down in The Rock Garden and The Underground and Sir Henry’s and wherever else.

 

But I’d keep driving on. Because we’re always just driving on.

RockGarden

Courtesy of Nessa Carter