RTE

CITIZENS OF BOOMTOWN: THE RATS v IRELAND’S SHOWBANDS

Billy McGrath’s excellent film about The Boomtown Rats, ‘Citizens Of Boomtown’, premiered recently at the Dublin International Film Festival and was broadcast subsequently on RTÉ Television in two parts. Its dedicated to the memory of Nigel Grainge, the London-born A and R man with the golden touch who, in 1977, signed the South Dublin outfit to Ensign Records, the label he founded and ran with his long-time side-kick, Chris Hill. Grainge, who died in 2017, is a recurring footnote in the history of modern Irish music: he also signed Sineád O’Connor and the Churchtown four-piece, Into Paradise, to Ensign and, during a previous posting at Phonogram Records, Thin Lizzy. In the directory of great music industry executives, he can be found in the section about good ears.  

When Nigel Grainge signed The Boomtown Rats in 1977, he wasn’t signing a punk rock band. The group was certainly pulled into a broader punk rock maelstrom once they’d left Dublin for London, but the notion that The Boomtown Rats were a punk band, or were rooted in any sort of punk rock sensibility, is wide of the mark. They were, rather, a filthy r and b outfit who took their cues from the backroom, pub-rock tropes of Doctor Feelgood, among others. The closest they came to punk rock was singer Bob Geldof’s potty mouth and his bad aim: he routinely plugged himself in the foot while shooting from the hip.

The Boomtown Rats recorded six albums, among them a couple of fine, uncompromising and intelligent pop records, 1978’s ‘A Tonic for The Troops’ and ‘The Fine Art of Surfacing’, released the following year, both of them produced by Mutt Lange. In Bob Geldof, the band boasted a smart, handsome and irascible frontman and, in Britain at least, audiences gave his coarseness a free pass. The Rats were quickly into their stride, scoring a string of Top Ten hit records.

Their transition from pub rock to pop music can be traced easily across their first three albums: they were restless, ambitious and evolved ahead of schedule. David Fricke, the long-time Rolling Stone writer and former Melody Maker correspondent – and a man who, like Geldof, obviously has a mirror in the attic – saw them play live for the first time in the summer of 1978. ‘They were not a punk band. They were a rock and roll band’, he tells ‘Citizens of Boomtown’. As such, they had far more in common with Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Blondie and XTC than The Plasmatics. And of course they could all play their instruments and saw the value in tuning up: keyboard player, Johnny ‘Fingers’ Moylett, guitarists Gerry Cott and Gary Roberts, bass player Pete Briquette and especially the band’s drummer, Simon Crowe, were all serious operators. 

Music documentary for television is a platform where contributors are expected to routinely talk through their holes. I know this only too well, having made music television programmes for way too long. In this regard, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ doesn’t disappoint, and some of the claims made on camera about The Boomtown Rats and the country that begot them are far-fetched beyond words. Far too many of the film’s contributors just mail in theory that collapses under the weight of the facts.

The idea that The Boomtown Rats – or any Irish group of the period, for that matter – were responsible for substantive change in Ireland is as mis-placed as the Rats’ representation as a punk outfit. ‘A unit for change’, says the U2 singer, Bono of the group. ‘A revolutionary council’. Exactly what that change or revolution is, or what it entailed, he doesn’t say.

Neil McCormick, an author, journalist, musician and a former school-friend of Bono, goes further and boldly claims that ‘the Rats changed this country’. In the same breath, he takes a sneery dig at Big Tom McBride, an Irish country singer who first came to national prominence on the showband circuit towards the end of the 1950s, a scene that was anathema to Geldof and many of his peers. As The Boomtown Rats were issuing their first singles, Big Tom was one of the biggest draws in the country, much to Neil McCormick’s amusement: ‘It’s a Weary, Weary World’ was clearly lost on the cooler set at both Mount Temple Comprehensive and Blackrock College. 

The Irish showband circuit – on which Big Tom and the Travellers were one of the most prolific outputters – was at its commercial and social apex towards the late 1960s, after which it’s bottom slowly came apart. In his book, ‘The Transformation of Ireland’, the historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, claims that, at its peak, the showband scene ‘became an industry employing 10,000 people, including 4,000 singers and musicians’. The circuit was eventually over-taken by the passage of time: the growth in the number of nightclubs and late licences around Ireland, in which disc jockeys instead of unwieldly groups of live musicians played the hits of the day, saw many of the showbands off. 

The glib dismissal of the showbands has long been a standard line of Irish critical patter. Geldof himself was one of the most virulent of the showband critics and, in his excellent 1986 biography, ‘Is That It ?’, describes them as ‘one of the most anodyne creations in the history of pop’. He goes on to claim that ‘the showband system has wasted an enormous number of talented musicians who are fed into the machine for a pittance of a wage’ and, in the same passage, talks about his desire to establish an alternative performance circuit around Ireland. To do this, he enlisted the help of the then Entertainment Officer at University College Dublin: Billy McGrath himself.

In response to the breadth of the showband influence – the circuit had its own television and radio programmes and a couple of high-profile magazines, for instance – Niall Stokes and a number of other young graduates founded Hot Press magazine in Dublin in 1977. ‘Keeping Ireland safe for rock and roll’, Stokes has been the editor of the magazine ever since and is another of the usual suspects who turn up on ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ to sing the praise. 

In an interview with Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone for their book, ‘Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before and After U2’ [2012], Stokes claims that some of the showbands ‘operated business practices that were reprehensible’, that ‘corruption was endemic’ and that ‘business practices were sloppy at best, dishonest at worst’. Is there an implication from him – long-regarded as an imposing businessman and shrewd operator – that the entertainment industry has cleaned up its nest in the years since the showbands ? Or that the showband circuit was an outlier in this regard ?

Most of the showbands performed faithful cover versions of the hits of the day, traditional Irish ballads and come-all-ye dirges: it was woejus stuff for the most part that bears no comparison with anything that followed it. But in terms of social and cultural impact, the showbands left far more of an impression on the country than The Boomtown Rats. By bringing live music to all corners of Ireland, seven nights a week, every week, with the exception of Lent – and by bringing with them the trappings that follow this kind of carry-on – they were far greater agents of change than any Irish band ever. Maybe even a revolutionary council.

The claim that, with Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh’s shrewd management, The Boomtown Rats created a circuit for subsequent acts to launch from may well indeed be the case. But twenty years previously, the likes of Albert and Jim Reynolds, Murt Lucey, Con Hynes, Oliver Barry and others also created a robust domestic entertainment industry from scratch, and then exploited it, much to Niall Stokes’s chagrin, for decades thereafter. They planted ballrooms all over rural Ireland, routinely filled them and booked widely. Albert Reynolds, for instance, put Roy Orbison into one of his own venues in the midlands to almost two thousand punters on a Tuesday night during the early 1960s. The showbands, and the industry that sprung up around them, facilitated congregation on a wide-scale and were central to the development of youth culture in Ireland during the 1960s.

The more interesting aspects of the showband story have long been obscured in a hail of convenient clichés and white-washing: for years, and with good reason, what went on on the road tended to stay on the road. While many of the bands were shagging and boozing for Ireland, managers, bookers and promoters kept the tills ringing out, often cynically and with scant regard for musicians and punters. But it’s not as if this was ever spoken about outside of the inner circle. What was presented as ‘the showband story’ was delivered with gusto from behind the pulpit by the likes of Jimmy Magee, Larry Gogan and Father Brian D’Arcy, a Passionist priest from County Fermanagh who, after contributing regular pieces to Spotlight magazine, became an unofficial Chaplin to the national entertainment industry and one of Ireland’s best-known celebrity clerics. 

To be fair, Vincent Power’s fine book, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’’, published in 1990, at least touches on some of the darker aspects of life for many showband musicians, some of whom were signed to scandalous personal contracts, many more of whom succumbed to alcoholism and other addictions. In a profile on the 2009 RTÉ series, ‘A Little Bit Showband’, Derek Dean, the lead singer with The Freshmen, a Beach Boys-inspired outfit from Ballymena, claimed that ‘the way the showbands are portrayed now, it’s as if Father Brian attended every gig and said a decade of the rosary’. Dean, who recounts his own long battle with chronic alcoholism in his 2007 book, ‘The Freshmen Unzipped’, tellingly remembers his band-mate, Billy Brown, as someone who, having earned a considerable amount of money as a jobbing musician, was eventually dragged down to a ‘determinedly dissolute life dominated by swift cars and fast women’. 

Another insightful read from the maverick corps of the circuit, the late Gerry Anderson’s ‘Heads’ [2006], paints a similar picture that’s clearly more faithful to the showband story than the raw nostalgia that has traditionally distorted its history. Given how two of Ireland’s most eminent historians, Diarmaid Ferriter and Roy Foster, both feature among the large cast of contributors to ‘Citizens of Boomtown’, it’s a pity that the film chose not to chase down some of the lazier social analysis just thrown up there and left hanging. 

The Boomtown Rats endured, more or less, for the ten years between 1975 and 1985, during which they enjoyed considerable commercial success in Britain and Europe. The country they left behind had joined the European Economic Union [the E.E.C.] in 1973 and, as the group was holding its first rehearsals, Fine Gael, a right-leaning political party was in power under its then leader, Liam Cosgrave. Under Garret FitzGerald, Fine Gael were in power when the band called it a day a decade later. The unemployment rate here doubled while the band was active, while thousands followed Geldof and his band and fled Ireland: emigration out of the country increased significantly during the 1980s.

It can be realistically argued that Ireland was as socially conservative in 1985 as it was in 1975 and, perhaps, even more so. In September, 1983, for instance, the country voted two to one in favour of The Eighth Amendment, to constitutionally prohibit abortion. In effect it gave equal rights to pregnant mothers and their unborn children. Remind me again of how The Boomtown Rats changed the country ?

What the Rats may have actually done, with the support of key actors like Ó Ceallaigh and Billy Magrath, was to establish a runway for those Irish rock bands who came after them, U2 in particular. The Rats were the first Irish group to enjoy a Number One single in Britain – 1978’s ‘Rat Trap’ – and the scale of this achievement, given the extent of the competition at the time, cannot be under-estimated. As the musicologists Gerry Smyth and Seán Campbell argue in ‘Beautiful Day: Forty Years of Irish Rock’, The Boomtown Rats ‘are amongst the most important names in Irish rock history, not only for the quality of the music they produced but also because they expanded the boundaries of what Irish popular music could be about’. 

To its credit, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ routinely reminds us of this, and of just how magnificent The Rats were at the peak of their powers. It reminds us too of Geldof’s absolute ridiness. Of Paula and Bob. The quiet magic of the band itself, the players. But beyond all of that, it reminds us that there is no one history of Irish popular music and that all history is contestable anyway.

PAT FITZPATRICK

The death was announced earlier today, after an illness, of the Belfast-born musician, arranger and producer, Pat ‘Fitzy’ Fitzpatrick who, although he never enjoyed a profile as a solo performer in his own right, was a highly-regarded musician and a much-loved figure on the Irish music scene since the late 1970s.

 

Having studied at the Royal College of Music in London, he first came to prominence as the keyboard player in Katmandu, the Belfast five-piece whose Roxy-inspired pop-art ambitions saw them move their operation down the road to Dublin, where they briefly captivated the locals. Also featuring Marty Lundy, Peter McKinney and Trevor Hutchinson, Katmandu issued one single, ‘I Can Make The Future’ and, although broader success eluded them, their smart, new-wave sound – of which Pat was a chief architect – certainly put them at a remove from many of their more direct, full-force contemporaries.

 

 

But it was as an adjunct live member of many established Irish rock bands – like Something Happens, Aslan and The Blades – that Pat was most frequently seen and heard. Apart from his humour and his general affability, he had a serenity and a beautiful touch – that he deployed in both regular conversation and in his music – that endeared him to all of those he encountered. And he was helped too, of course, by his magnificent ability as a player, a fact not lost on the late Beatles producer, George Martin, who name-checked him as his favourite Irish musician. And lost neither on the array of Irish and international artists, across numerous genres – from Van Morrison to Mary Coughlan to Colm Wilkinson – who routinely availed of his services as a session player, arranger and producer and who invariably reaped the benefits.

 

It was through my numerous postings as a producer in RTÉ television that I worked directly with Pat over many years. Because throughout his colourful, varied and ultimately all-too-short career, he was a frequent visitor to the national broadcaster’s television and radio studios. He led the house band during the early years of the Saturday night entertainment strand, ‘Kenny Live’, and later worked as a musical director on the Brian Kennedy light entertainment series, ‘One To Remember’, most notably.

 

But the tape archive in RTÉ is flush with his numerous performances alongside a host of visiting artists and musicians, primarily on the high-profile chat shows, bookings that often took us into all manner of bizarre territory. My friend, Caroline Henry, diaried many of those acts – local, national and international – over the years and, when the going got heavy, as it frequently did, and when we’d worry about some act or other’s capacity – or, often, lack of ability – to deliver a decent turn during a live television broadcast in front of an audience, Pat was our regular fall-back. When the going got weird, we’d turn to a pro.

 

And he’d fetch up in standard rock attire replete, more often than not, in a leather jacket and snazzy, well-kept shoes and calmly take control of any situation, over-seeing the storms as they passed and then, quietly and without fuss, pull his kit together and make his way home. He was a vital comfort to us.

 

It was as the fifth member of Something Happens, during that phase in their career – between 1990 and 1994 especially – when they more or less owned contemporary Irish music, were a constant television and radio presence and were as good a live act as any, that Pat’s face – and the magic in his hands – will have maybe registered most. Buttressing their formidable live shows from around ‘Stuck Together With God’s Glue’ onwards, he routinely belted out the opening bars of ‘Parachute’, still the band’s signature piece, while decorating the body of their sets unfussily and with no little brio. He was an imposing musician and player, a real stylist, but he knew too how to play as part of a team.

 

 

Outside of his regular session work in studio, in theatre and on the road, Pat latterly featured as a member of The Blades’ live retinue, the socially-sussed, mod-infused outfit that, earlier this year, released it’s second album in thirty years. In July, 2014 and, I guess, for no other reason than we just couldn’t see why not, we booked them to perform a live version of one of their best known numbers, ‘The Last Man In Europe’ on ‘Saturday Night With Miriam, a prime-time RTÉ television chat and entertainment show I’d been assigned to. And, as always, Pat was in studio early for the afternoon rehearsals, ready to go before anyone else. But once The Blades had closed out the show later that evening, he politely conducted his constituency work in the green room afterwards, carefully assembled his kit and then quietly made for home.

 

Three weeks ago, knowing he was unwell, he played live one last time with The Blades, this time in Whelan’s in Dublin where, as he’d routinely done all throughout his career with numerous others, he punctuated their songs, old and new, with his usual finesse and discerning hands. He brought to that band what he long brought to all those who were lucky enough to have worked with him or known him :- style, substance, spirit and savvy.

 

He leaves a long and mighty legacy. And he is already sorely missed.

 

THE MANY GHOSTS OF PHILIP LYNOTT

 

 

For decades it was in childrens and youth programmes that many good young television producers and ambitious directors began their careers and where the more difficult, often older ones ended theirs when, deemed too unmanageable for the requirements of the prime-time schedules, they were consigned back to work with the glove puppets. In RTÉ – up until recently at least – youth programmes was where time and space were always more readily available than budgets and where, on a daily basis, those who wanted to turn things on their heads were encouraged to do so. And usually for no other reason than because they could.

 

Where, off-Broadway and away from the focus of senior managers, bean counters, agents and the usual spoofers, some of the best, most creative, curious and often just mad television in the history of the state was consistently committed to tape and outputted to the young. On most of whom the content was largely wasted. And I say this from a position of knowledge and experience :- I spent ten years of my working life making children’s television, where every day brought a different opportunity to turn a lens – or a presenter – upside down and back to front.

 

This approach was nowhere more manifest or obvious than on ‘Anything Goes’, in several senses a long-running Saturday morning series that played live on the RTÉ schedules for six years from October, 1980 and that, over the course of its colourful history, covered a multitude. In gunge, for the most part. But the last thirty minutes of what was a four hour, live weekly show, was where many of us encountered new and exciting music for the first time on television, a compliment to some of the late night, non-mainstream radio we’d maybe stumbled on, putting pictures to the sounds, often with mesmerising effect.

 

David Heffernan, who presented the ‘Anything Goes’ music segments and determined much of it’s editorial line, has long played a significant role in supporting nascent Irish music, from in front of and behind the camera and also on radio. It was on David’s watch that I witnessed many memorable ‘Anything Goes’ appearances ;- from a live number and raspy interview by a young Billy Bragg to a high-end exchange with Martin Fry of ABC and a drive-by with Loudon Wainwright. And maybe most vividly of all, an unforgettable broadcast of Prefab Sprout’s ‘Don’t Sing’ video in a slot that would also feature regular, imported live concert performances on film from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac.

 

And woven into that mix – sometimes seamlessly, other times not so much – live performances almost every week from some of the country’s most engaging new acts. The Blades, for instance, appeared as regularly on ‘Anything Goes’ as some of the presenters and, from their base in Ringsend, were within easy reach in the event that a hole in the running order needed filling. Which would have been often on a show of such length and ambition.

 

Clashing as it frequently did with hurling and football fixtures involving my club, Glen Rovers, ‘Anything Goes’ was probably the single greatest factor in my decision to retire prematurely from an active career on the playing fields. That, I guess, and the fact that, with a hurley in my hand, I posed a genuine health and safety risk to many, myself and my team- mates primarily.

 

 

You’d see and hear almost anything during the tail-end of ‘Anything Goes’, some of it just as bizarre as much of what you’d find frequently around the pitches in The Tank Field or The Old Mon Field, and the RTÉ archives are stocked with more of this material than you’d expect. One of my own favourites from that period is a full-frontal, Bil Keating- directed mime by Cork band Nun Attax – a loosely-defined post-punk outfit with distinctly local Captain Beefheart cravings – who made it past the security gate in Montrose unchallenged and recorded two numbers, ‘White Cortina’ and ‘Reekus Sunfare’, during studio downtime in May, 1981, in what obviously sounded like a great idea at the time it was advanced. Shot in front of a basic set and against a white cyclorama curtain, and with a battered old beater as a dominant stage prop, you’d wonder if the band and the production crew had shared the same cache of hallucinagenics over lunch in the RTÉ canteen before taking their opening positions on the floor of Studio 2 ?

 

 

Under the leadership of the late producer and director Bob Collins [who shouldn’t be confused with the former RTÉ Director General of the same name], ‘Anything Goes’ also blazed a trail in that it infrequently recorded a series of video vignettes for Irish and local artists at a time when the form was still largely unheralded and often outrageously expensive. I’ve written previously about ‘The Bride Wore White’, a beautiful trailer directed by Collins himself for an early Blades track, but arguably the best-known and most fondly-remembered video clip made for the programme is ‘Old Town’, one of the stand-out cuts from ‘The Philip Lynott Album’ and which was first transmitted on ‘Anything Goes’ on Saturday, October 30th, 1982.

 

Lynott’s debut solo album two years previously, ‘Solo In Soho’, found the Thin Lizzy frontman in considered and expansive form, clearly delivered from what had become an overly familiar routine determined by his band’s considerable cut-through. And it’s follow-up is more wide-ranging again in its ambition even if it’s a far weaker and more distracted listen that, particularly over the closing tracks, just sounds as if it’s running on empty.

 

‘The Philip Lynott Album’ dabbles deeper and further with digital technology and basic sampling at the expense of Lynott’s more commonplace rock tropes, and with mixed results. ‘Yellow Pearl’, for instance, co-written with Midge Ure, was originally one of the stand-outs on ‘Solo In Soho’ and, re-arranged, re-recorded and re-booted here, eventually became the explosive, pop-du-jour theme music to Top Of The Pops. Elsewhere, much of ‘The Philip Lynott Album’ is just raw fumbling and riffing, scantily clad sketches in search of body and form.

 

Written by Lynott and Jimmy Bain, the bass-player with Rainbow who’d become part of Thin Lizzy’s wider orbit, ‘Old Town’ is easily the centre-piece on ‘The Philip Lynott Album’, a lyrically simple, up-beat pop song about a relationship that’s come to an end. And, as such, it sits snugly within a cluster of songs that are intensely personal, several of them hung on themes of broken connection, emotional uncertainty and intimacy.

 

‘Cathleen’, a soft ballad about Lynott’s second daughter, segues into ‘Growing Up’, an unsettling but sadly beautiful song about an inappropriate relationship between a child and an adult while ‘Together’, another song about a broken relationship, clumsily captures all of the album’s primary lyrical motifs within its half-baked chorus.

 

‘Old Town’ begins with a spoken introduction ;- ‘The Old Covent Garden, I  remember it well’, even if that line has been long lost to all but Lynott completists and anoraks. And musically, the song marks a real line in the sand, the graduation, in one respect from Philo [The Rocker] to Philip [The softer-edged pop star] ;- the recognisable guitar licks and familiar solos have been largely decommissioned and it’s primary hooks come from elsewhere. So while ‘Old Town’ is quickly and efficiently out of the traps [‘The girl’s a fool, she broke the rule, she hurt him hard’], it gathers real momentum with a frenetic piano solo just over a minute in by Darren Wharton, a young, Manchester-born player who’d recently been added to the Thin Lizzy line-up.

 

The ultimate pay-off derives from an unlikely source :- a mighty solo performed on piccolo trumpet by John Wilbraham who, at the time, was a principal player in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

 

Conceived by Lynott as a tribute to The Beatles, he had originally hoped that David Mason, who performed the trumpet solo on ’Penny Lane’, would reprise the feat on ‘Old Town’. But when Mason was unable to commit to the recording, the Louth-born arranger and composer, Fiachra Trench, cast his net elsewhere.

 

Although much of ‘The Philip Lynott Album’ is under-laid with keyboard and sampled sounds – and is very much in keeping with many of the cadences of the period – several of the tracks are also scored with subtle orchestrations, arranged by Trench and recorded independently at the fabled Advision Studios in Fitzgrovia in central London. The core of the album, produced by Lynott and Kit Woolven, another long-time Thin Lizzy wingman, was recorded in multiple locations in London, Nassau and Dublin and it certainly feels like a record searching for consistency ;- often it just meanders. Indeed Fiachra Trench told Alan Byrne during the research phase for his excellent 2012 book, ‘Philip Lynott :- Renegade of Thin Lizzy’, that the main man may not even have attended some of the heavy-duty sessions where the string were laid down.

 

 

It was Lynott himself who suggested an ‘Anything Goes’ video for ‘Old Town’, making a personal phone call into the production office with word of a new, fresh song about which he was feeling very confident. He’d enjoyed a good working relationship with David Heffernan and had made several previous live appearances on the show, culminating in a 1982 RTÉ documentary, ‘Renegade :- The Philip Lynott Story’, filmed and transmitted at a period when the band was reversing awkwardly into a critical siding.

 

The album of the same name had stiffed badly and the tour that accompanied it was a largely chaotic one, even by Thin Lizzy’s standards. But if the ‘Renegade’ project had one positive aspect, it was that RTÉ had finally gotten in under Lynott’s bonnet ;- the documentary features, among terrific live concert footage and a couple of moderately revealing interviews with the singer, a series of curious contributions from Brush Shiels and an insight into the extent of Lynott’s status and fame.

 

 

Opening with shots of him leaving his mother’s corporation house in Crumlin, the film ends with him far removed from Dublin 12, emotionally and in every other respect, as he shows Heffernan around his home studio in Kew, outside of London and reveals, among other things, that he was already a share-holder in his favourite football club, Manchester United. But ‘Renegade’ is also important in that it was made, unlike much of the  underwhelming material on him over the last thirty years, while Lynott was still alive, and with his participation and full involvement.

 

Record company marketing support for Lynott’s second solo album was always likely to be a problem ;- by broadening the scope of his ambition, he’d started to slowly pull away from the core of his long-standing fan-base. And while Lynott’s writing had never been more adventurous and his many collaborations never more critically fruitful, there was a real sense afoot that, commercially, he was treading water and that his audiences, in the worst traditions, had started to become more selective.

 

Of course the real backdrop was the uncertainty around the future of Thin Lizzy and the more that Lynott mixed in other circles and with other influences, the greater that uncertainty became.

 

Which is how and why the ‘Old Town’ clip happened. Given that Lynott’s record company had no plans to issue the song as a single, and that the album wasn’t a marketing priority for them, RTÉ stepped in – or was willingly stepped in – as a surrogate promotional arm. Within weeks of an advance copy of the song landing into the ‘Anything Goes’ office on cassette during the late summer of 1982, researcher Frank Murphy, working with David Heffernan and director Gerry Gregg, set up a two-day  shooting schedule at interior and exterior locations around Dublin city centre. And the game was on.

 

Gregg was a young history graduate who’d been recruited into RTÉ as part of a fresh band of new television producers during the late 1970s and, born and raised in Ringsend, immediately saw an opportunity to capture Lynott distinctively on film, at play in and around some of the old town’s landmarks. The shoot was afforded a two-day production ‘recce’, where the core crew, also featuring art director Brigid Timmons, scouted locations all over the middle of Dublin in advance of production. The material was captured on 16mm film by an RTÉ staff cameraman, Ken Murphy and a three-and-a-half minute clip was later edited over a two week period by J. Patrick Duffner in a small studio off of Baggot Street ;- the completed cut was first shown on ‘Anything Goes’ on Saturday, October 30th, 1982.

 

Frank Murphy felt that the proposed shooting script required a second central character and it was his idea to cast Fiona McKenna, then a young actress at The Abbey Theatre, as Lynott’s female foil. A daughter of Tomás MacAnna, a former Artistic Director at Ireland’s National Theatre, her brother, Ferdia MacAnna, had previously fronted his own energetic young band, Rocky de Valera And The Gravediggers. Both Murphy and Gregg were agreed that the shoot required an actress when it may well have been easier and quicker to cast a model [‘she broke his heart and that is rough’] and McKenna appears throughout in colourful contemporary garb, opening the video by breaking away from Lynott’s grasp on The Halfpenny Bridge, the fabled footbridge that spans The River Liffey from Aston Quay to Bachelor’s Walk.

 

In strong pastels, big hair and high-waisted pantaloons, she is styled in the likeness of Krystle Carrington, then one of the female leads in the popular American television drama series, ‘Dynasty’. In one scene, she swivels towards camera to pick up a ringing telephone call [‘she plays it hard, she plays it tough’] in an office at the top of Liberty Hall, looking back down the River Liffey. And Duffner and Gregg also include another short but gorgeous shot of her corpsing directly to camera during that office scene where the actress perhaps senses, within touching distance of The Abbey Theatre, just how frankly bizarre her day’s work had just become.

 

 

Lynott, meanwhile, is in regulation, skin-tight black jeans, Chelsea boots, crisp white shirt and skinny-tie throughout, his preferred look during this part of his career. And although staying back home with his wife and daughters in Howth during the filming, he wasn’t in the best of form during the two days and yet looks as fetching and stunning as he peacocks through Grafton Street as he did at any point in his career.

 

This scene, featuring many unsuspecting young men and women out and about on one of Dublin’s main shopping drags, captures Lynott back home among his own ;- barely one minute into the film and he’s already taking the adulation and the odd askew glance from his public. Tellingly, every single face featured during this sequence is a white one, bar Lynott’s. In his tailored black jacket and jeans, he is caught on film yet again as both a definitive and yet very distinctive Dubliner.

 

‘Much of the credit for ‘Old Town’ – and for the music on ‘Anything Goes’ generally, should go to Bob Collins’, Gerry Gregg now recalls, ‘because he gave the team the licence and the freedom to be as cinematic as they wanted to be’. But this was often easier said than done ;- from the off Lynott was late onto set and was only delivered to the various locations because of the intercessions of his long-time side-kick and driver, Gus Curtis.

 

And while it was originally hoped, in the years long before drone technology, to use aerial photography to capture the breadth of Lynott’s Bloom-style gallivants through Dublin city, the budget just wouldn’t allow it. Instead the video closes with Lynott wandering out alone along The Bull Wall in Ringsend, ‘wondering where exactly he’s off to and where he’ll end up’, according to Gerry Gregg.

 

Ken Murphy wouldn’t have been known for his interest in or knowledge of contemporary popular music. Tee-total, he was an old school film cameraman who took a studied cinematic approach to everything he ever shot and had just finished a long stint as director of photography on the respected RTÉ drama series, ‘Strumpet City’. That kind of sensibility is obvious throughout the ‘Old Town’ clip ;- every single shot is composed with a cinematographer’s keen eye, beautifully framed, lit and perfectly exposed.

 

Away from RTÉ, Ken Murphy collected model trains and raced toy aeroplanes and he fetched up for the ‘Old Town’ shoot with scant knowledge of, and little interest in, Lynott or his background. David Heffernan suggests, half-jokingly, that Lynott’s presence on set ‘may just have devalued what Ken saw as just a lovely short drama’.

 

 

All of ‘Old Town’’s scenes are located in the middle of Dublin, opening on The Halfpenny Bridge and venturing out as far as the bandstand in Herbert Park in Ballsbridge, down into the docks and onto Ringsend Pier where, at one point, Lynott symbolically crosses the city back onto the Northside by boat. One of the most memorable scenes finds him alone, propping up the beautiful Victorian bar in The Long Hall on George’s Street where, shot from behind the taps and with a double brandy at his elbow, Lynott confesses wistfully how he’s been ‘spending my money in the old town’.

 

The Long Hall is a listed bar whose history is bound up in the long traditions of whiskey distillation in Dublin city and, latterly, it’s become a preferred stop-off for Bruce Springsteen during his increasingly more frequent visits to Dublin. And yet, maybe surprisingly and also maybe to its credit, there’s still no overt recognition inside The Long Hall that Philip Lynott ever set foot there.

 

Gerry Gregg directed two different hand-held sequences in Herbert Park and acknowledges that, in 1982, these sort of long passages shot off of the tripod using such heavy equipment would have taken a toll on any camera operator. But Ken Murphy carried them off with his usual élan. And Gregg credits Patrick Duffner with the idea to intercut the two takes – where Lynott mimes the trumpet part – even if, as Fiachra Trench again pointed out to Alan Byrne, he uses a flugelhorn trumpet in the video and not a piccolo trumpet on which John Wilbraham originally committed the solo to tape.

 

Duffner went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career as a film editor and is a much decorated and highly-respected character within the Irish and international industries. He subsequently cut several major Irish feature films, ‘The Field’, ‘My Left Foot’ and ‘Michael Collins’ among them. His partner in the cutting room on the ‘Old Town’ job, Gerry Gregg, also went on to enjoy many high-profile accolades at home and abroad and remains one of the best known and consistently thought-provoking independent producers in the country.

 

He left RTÉ in 1989 and, from within and outside of the national broadcaster, has a string of formidable credits to his name. In 1998, he won an Emmy for his investigative documentary, ‘Witness To Murder’, produced as part of the Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ series in which reporter John Sweeney revealed the appalling story of the massacre of 112 Kosovar Albanian men and boys by Serb forces during the Kosovo war.

 

I’ve worked closely with Gerry over the last number of years and, in 2015, he completed the multi-award winning documentary ‘Close To Evil’ for my commissioning slate in RTÉ, a film in which Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental makes an unsuccessful attempt to meet with a Nazi jailor who had worked at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp during his imprisonment there as a young boy. Gerry and Tomi have recently completed a feature documentary sequel to ‘Close To Evil’ and this will have a formal cinematic release later this year.

 

David Heffernan is still involved in the television and radio industry and works mostly these days as a freelance producer. With his twin brother, Gerald, he devised and produced the finest live music television series ever seen in this country, ‘The Session’ which, first shot and recorded in RTÉ in 1987, set a new bar for the form. And with his company, ‘Frontier Films’, he also produced and directed several episodes in the MTV ‘Classic Albums’ series, notably documentaries on the making of ‘Rumours’ by Fleetwood Mac and ‘Songs In The Key of Life’ by Stevie Wonder.

 

Ken Murphy retired from RTÉ ten years ago after a long career during which he served time in every division in Montrose, from Young People’s to Drama, Sport to Current Affairs. During his many years in Montrose, he would have worked closely with Bob Collins, the producer and director who died in Dublin in 2000 after a year-long illness, at the age of 54. Collins left RTÉ in the mid 1980s and went on work extensively in Britain, directing ‘Top Of The Pops’ for the BBC and ‘Network 7’, the ground-breaking youth series for Channel 4. Among his many music-based productions are RTÉ documentaries on The Boomtown Rats in America and the last ever Thin Lizzy live show in Dublin ;- he was also involved with Frontier Films and was a central player in the production of ‘The Session’.

 

John Wilbraham died in April, 1996 at the age of 53. He was one of the most acclaimed classical musicians of his generation and played on a host of recordings over the course of his career. In this respect, he shares space on one fondly-remembered free-lance job with Darren Wharton, who was still in his teens and playing in a covers band when Lynott first recruited him into the ranks of Thin Lizzy. He was barely 21 years old when he contributed the enduring piano solo to ‘Old Town’ and collaborated regularly with Lynott during the later stages of his career. And he’s still at it, performing and writing with his own band, Dare.

 

 

Several aspects of Philip Lynott’s complicated story are well worn by now and ‘Old Town’ is but a footnote in what was ultimately a scarcely believable and far-ranging life, albeit one that was far too short. He died at the age of 36 in January, 1986. By the time that ‘Old Town’ and ‘The Philip Lynott Album’ formally saw the light of day, he was already exploring several other avenues and styles and it came as no surprise when, in 1983, he consigned Thin Lizzy to the freezer.

 

Over the final furlongs of his life he fronted another hard-edged rock outfit called Grand Slam while also writing with the London-born R and B artist, Junior Giscombe and making cameos with Irish bands as diverse as the flaky electro-pop duo, Auto Da Fe and the Howth-based traditional-folk outfit, Clann Éadair, with whom he sang and produced their magical 1984 single, ‘A Tribute To Sandy Denny’.

 

 

Lynott’s associations with David Heffernan and Bob Collins particularly, and with RTÉ more broadly, means that his career and his music have been well documented by the national broadcaster, on television for the most part. And the archives are generously stocked in this regard, even if much of the content, the music apart, is mixed at best. A definitive career retrospective and sturdy appraisal of Phil Lynott – as with Rory Gallagher – has yet, to my mind, to be made.

 

In the meantime, that void has been filled by two fine but very different books issued over the last five years, Alan Byrne’s ‘Philip Lynott : The Renegade of Thin Lizzy’ [2012] and last year’s ‘Cowboy Song :- The Authorised Biography of Phil Lynott’ by Graeme Thomson. Byrne’s book is an unashamedly partisan but excellently compiled fan’s-eye view of Lynott’s work outside of Thin Lizzy while Thomson’s is as exhaustive a biography as it is an uncomfortable read that cuts past much of the soft-focus schmaltz and the crudely-formed stereotyping long associated with its central character. As with Thomson’s 2004 book, ‘Complicated Shadows :- The Life And Music of Elvis Costello’, ‘Cowboy Song’ presents – in no little detail – a fascinating but deeply flawed subject who, often from paragraph to paragraph, swings from genius to objectionable.

 

And which sets it apart, like much of Philip Lynott’s recorded work, as fiercely compelling.

 

I WAS GEORGE MARTIN’S PRODUCER

george martin

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

NANCI GRIFFITH and THE FLOORS, LIVE.


David Heffernan, through that terrific music television series, ‘The Session’, introduced me to the music of Nanci Griffith. David Donohue remains one of my favourite acts from the Setanta back catalogue and the records he made as the heart and soul of The Floors shouldn’t be under-estimated. I saw both The Floors and Nanci play live in Dublin within a couple of days of one another during the early part of 1999 and saw fit to knock out an opinion piece for Muse, an on-line music and arts magazine edited by Jim Carroll.

Those performances have dated better than my cranky piece, I think. This one goes out to the two Davids.


This piece appeared originally in the on-line music and arts magazine, Muse, in February, 1999. We’ve made some minor edits to the original copy.

Last week a strange surge gripped me and, for the first time in ages, I got out and about to see two live shows within the space of four days. Nothing strange or novel there, you might think, but in the last two years I’ve developed an almost mildly paranoid fear of bad venues, cynical audiences and irrelevant bands playing with poor sound to sad bastards – and this from someone who was once a regular three times a night man, as it were. Last week, then, was monumental by recent standards.

Now before I begin in earnest, allow me to put another petty hang-up to bed. Namely that I have always hated the term ‘gig’ and, more often than not, refuse to use it when referring to live music, particularly live music played by those I admire and respect. It is a term that in it’s spelling, tone and construction is tailor-built for disc jockeys, general sycophants and the likes of Lorraine Keane and, as such, has become remarkably appropriate, given most of the shows I have endured over the last eighteen months. Hate to be so pedantic and all that, but its good that you know.

Anyway, the remarkable Donal Dineen, who has graced these pages on occasion, has a couple of great theories on the anointing powers of popular music. Indeed there have been times when I’ve sat back myself and swooned silly during those [very rare] kind of uplifting and invigorating shows one comes across usually in rock biographies. But sad to say that moments like this have become all too infrequent the older, wiser and more difficult I have grown.

It would be fair to say that, in the last two years or thereabouts, I have sat or stood through far more ‘gigs’ than I have done live shows. This I very seriously regret and hence my cynicism. But twice last week I ran the gauntlet and returned wittingly to the fray and to active live duty. And its not been so much the start of a rehabilitation for me as a minor relief.

I’ve been a fan of Nanci Griffith for years now, ever since I first came across her on the best music show RTÉ has ever involved itself with, Frontier Films’ excellent The Session. And while I know that her voice isn’t always to everyone’s liking and that her first instincts can invariably fall well short, there is a balm and a mystique to her that I find way too difficult to ignore.

In truth, I’m blindly devoted to her and when Nanci arches back, steels her hands, opens her soul and sings – be it Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’ or Tom Russell’s ‘Outbound Plane’ or Richard Thompson’s ‘Wall Of Death’ or any one of a myriad of songs in between – then she’s absolutely up there with Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Paul Simon. Up where there ain’t no higher mountain.

So much so that I can forgive her her various kinships and collaborations with some of the most outrageous chancers ever to grace this country’s stages – stand up Sharon Shannon, Mary Custy and, particularly, Philip Donnelly – and her juvenile on-stage guff. Because live music, when it’s on the boil, is first and foremost about the power of song and Nanci is always worth the venture.

Similarly so Carlow collective The Floors, who have been knocking around in several guises for far longer than David Donoghue, their choice-cut singer and leader, would care to admit. Thankfully their progress hasn’t been stunted unduly. In fact their third elpee ‘Morphine Watch’ [Tongued ‘n’ Grooved Records] is a tribute to their own surreal sense of destiny and to Donoghue’s spectacular belief in himself and in his songs.

Their launch show last week at Dublin’s Funnel was only ever going to get better as it dragged on – shows like this are, by their nature, all about disconcertion and distraction and nerves, all of which clearly affected both the band and their following on the night. But good bands playing extravagently good songs and competing full-on with the standard elements – cramped venue, too many drunks and not enough desk boost – are a sight to behold, particularly when they move seamlessly into full throttle.

So when Donoghue moves The Floors up one last notch and rips into a sinewy ‘Slowly When She Moves’ close to the end, they’re impossible to stop. Once again, and for the second time in days, its all about the power of song. Against all of my first instincts and largely in spite of myself, I’m swaying awkwardly. A sure sign in itself.

There was a time when all I wanted from live music was a sense of validation and a suggestion that, however temporarily, I had escaped. But there really is only so much running anyone can do [especially when you’re running from nothing really in particular] and there are only so many bad bands any man can tolerate at a sitting.

It’s a cliche I know but the really great live shows are always about the connection between stage and stall. When, for those indefinible and indespensible moments, song touches heart and soul and spirit and head and feet. When everything Donal Dineen has ever preached about the sanctity of the art meets deep within a chorus or a leading bridge.

Even allowing for my own hang-ups and for the emotional baggage I still insist on carrying around with me, last week was far less awkward than it could have been. But then strangely, at both Nanci Griffith and The Floors, there were no disc jockeys I recognised. No empty platitudes, no recognisible liggers and no sell-out. It could have been my birthday.