Setanta Records

THE HARVEST MINISTERS TAKE DUNDALK

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Brian

Via Ken Sweeney

 

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THE SWINGING SWINE / THE GLEE CLUB

 

Guest post by Hugh O’Carroll… 

In late 1980s Dublin, having played a bit part in The Babysnakes’ story and a bigger part in The Stormcrows’ story, I was called on by Mr. Eamonn Dowd to guest with, and then join, The Swinging Swine. They had formed in Galway and had already gone through some line-up changes but the core of the band was Eamonn on guitar, vocals and some fiddle, Joanne Loughman on vocals, Doug Steen on lead guitar and John Lalor on bass. They were using the drummer from The Stars of Heaven at the time but that was a fluid situation!

The guest appearance was on a show called ‘Borderline’ on RTÉ and it all went well, though a cameraman pulled out my jack plug, but the vibes were good and I joined for full-time fiddling.

 

Swinging Swine

The Swinging Swine. Picture courtesy of Hugh O’Carroll

 

The Swine had been playing in and around Galway for a couple of years in the same circles as The Stunning and the infant Sawdoctors and all three were garnering interest. We added Billy Geraghty to the line-up as our most permanent drummer. In Dublin we started a residency in a nightspot called The Speakeasy and this became legendary. The band thrived and started creating some really energetic folk, country, and rock music to the delight of an ever-colourful audience. Besides the highly engaging activities of the Swine onstage, there was always the possibility of a guest appearance by a Waterboy or a Hothouse Flower or other luminaries of the day.
We gigged around Ireland to pretty good audiences as well and started recording a lot with help from Larry O’Toole, Donal Lunny, James Delaney, Paul Thomas and other Dublin-based legends.

Eventually we released an EP with the lead track being ‘Them Ghosts Do Come’, which sneaked into the Irish charts for quite a few weeks and thus we got quite a bit of radio play.


RTÉ were good to us and we were constantly on TV, on shows like Nighthawks, Check It Out, Púiríní and other shows of the day along with other bands of the day, like Interference, The Dixons, The Stunning, The Golden Horde and the like, who were all good buddies of ours.


We switched our main Dublin residency to Walters in Dun Laoghaire and, if anything, this became even more exciting than The Speakeasy. We also played other big gigs, including a few Trinity Balls and a couple of Olympia gigs etc, aided by an array of management characters including Horslips legend, journalist Eamonn Carr and Robbie Foy.

We were on the verge of various different record deals and bigger gigs and tours when the years of constant gigging and partying and general rowing over wee things started to take its toll.

We’d been like a family for a few years but concentrated familiarity can breed a little friction and even though there’d been no lack of encouragement from our supporters, the band fell apart. The whole folk rock frenzy of the Swine was highly enjoyable though and certainly had some serious highs!

From the time I first joined The Swinging Swine I’d always got on really well, musically and personally, with Joanne. I gelled musically with all the Swine but particularly with Joanne. When the group broke up I joined Niall Toner’s Hank Halfhead, which was a country-rock band which had at times been home to many a famous individual! While gigging away with the boys I was writing and recording with Joanne. We were heading down a more left of field indie alley.

Kevin Boyle, a mate of mine from Hank Halfhead, was a wiz with a fancy four track and a nifty guitar and bass player. We recorded demos with Joanne on vocals, myself on guitar and fiddle and Kevin on guitar, bass and programming.

We tried some other mates in the band but the three gelled recording wise and we decided to do some recording with our old mate, Larry O’Toole, in Temple Lane studios.


We decided to call the band The Glee Club, which was a suggestion from a friend of ours inspired by the Cork band, Five Go Down To The Sea.

We mixed up the recordings and made a wee demo and sent out about 3 or 4 and got a quick response from Keith Cullen from Setanta Records, home to The Frank And Walters and The Divine Comedy, to name but two. Keith signed us up pretty quick and in a flash we were going to London for a spell.

It was agreed that we’d record a mini LP with Angelo Bruschini from The Blue Aeroplanes producing.

We went to Bristol to start and got some backing tracks together before heading down to Dave Stewart’s Church studio to do the tracking. It all came together pretty quick and the album was released in 1993 to reasonable critical acclaim. We gigged as a 3 with backing tracks and played a little around London with Radiohead, Slowdive and The Gang of Four to name a few !

We also gigged a bit in France and were getting good feedback from Europe in general.
Melody Maker then gave us a great review and we got more positive feedback from press in Ireland, U.K. and Europe.

Around this time it was decided we should fully move to London.

Kevin had a new baby and this was not practical for him so we were down to a core of two members, but we were joined by Magnus Box on bass and an auld buddy of mine from Dublin, Justin Healy, on drums. This line up played another few gigs and around this time there was interest developing from Ivo from 4AD records, home to bands we loved like The Cocteau Twins, Pixies and Dead Can Dance etc.

Ivo had spotted Joanne previously and loved the voice and was interested in working with The Glee Club but thought the mini album was a bit ‘rock’.

We recorded a pared down version of Need, with Ivo and 4AD’s opinion in mind.
The recording took place in The Drugstore, which was The Jesus And Mary Chain’s studio, with engineer Dick Meaney and both Setanta and 4AD were impressed. Plus, we were loving it too!

It was decided that we’d record some tracks in Eden Studios with Hugh Jones of Echo And The Bunnymen fame, with Dick and others engineering. This resulted in 4 new tracks which we were all thrilled with.

The end result of this period was an agreement that we’d add re-recorded versions of songs from the mini-album to the new tracks recorded with Hugh and release a full length album on Setanta in Europe and on 4AD in the U.S..

We spent most of 1993 recording the rest of the album in The Drugstore with Dick Meaney in London, where we now were living full-time. Magnus was still playing bass and a friend of his, Adrian Meehan, was playing drums as they had on the tracks with Hugh Jones.

Everyone was happy with the album when finished and it was decided that we would go to the CMJ festival in New York to push the album, which was called ‘Mine’. Mazzy Star and Mercury Rev, amongst others, played at the festival. We played three sets there ;- one at Sin É, which at the time was a buzzing venue having been home to some golden gigs by Jeff Buckley.

All in all the trip to New York was a success. We were featured on the excellent No Disco show in Ireland and reviews in the home country were glowing!

It was decided that we should move to the U.S as the reaction to the album was good as 4AD had pushed it with the radio stations and the band was now a long-term feature in the College Radio charts.

Setanta had a friend, Gina Orr, who was interested in managing the band Stateside and it was agreed that myself and Joanne would move to San Francisco to make the most of the fact that the 4AD push was exposing a lot of people to the band and we continued to do well in the College Radio and Alternative charts in the U.S..

We moved to San Fran and played some shows, just the two of us in S.F. and Los Angeles, and also went to play at South By South West, where other 4AD acts were on the bill and other people we admired such as Beck.

We were going down grand as a 2 piece but to get more into the shows we enlisted a bass player and drummer, Chris and Dave, to play along with us. Our record deals weren’t lucrative enough to have moved the English boys to The States for a year.

Gina got us a tour supporting the band LOW and off we went from coast to coast for a month. That was a great experience. We went down well and enjoyed their music too!
We went home to Ireland to do Féile, -The Trip to Tipp.

On the bill were lots of bands we liked, like Cypress Hill, Rage against The Machine and Blur, to name but a few.

Things seemed to be going really well but both 4AD and Setanta were losing interest in what was a slow build and, even though we were going back to America for another long tour, we kind of knew that they both mightn’t release another album for us.

It had been a great run for The Glee Club but when that tour finished and I realised that we were losing the support of our backers, I would have found it hard to go back to London and record another album and try to build momentum again. So I rang Joanne and we decided to stop things for a while.

The proceeding couple of years had been intense. Constant touring, recording and schmoozing is both living the dream and not so much!! Either way we went our separate ways for a brief 20 years and then, having meandered around the world and around Ireland playing all kinds of gigs, I started releasing some original material again ,singing a bit and collaborating with various people.

I got to thinking that I might collaborate again with Joanne and rang her up and
we re-gelled well over a single, ‘Platitudes’.

We decided, while doing some promotional work for the single, that we might as well do an album together, and this is how the new album ‘HIVE’ has arrived!
It’s been a long and winding tale but I’ve enjoyed recording this album as much as the earlier stuff.

The album will be released in July, 2017 and The Glee Club are about to announce a couple of gigs in Dublin, where it all started!

SONGS FOR THE WALKING WOUNDED

 

The evolution has been gradual and not without its difficulties and now, you’d think, it’s complete. It’s been almost twenty-five years from ‘this is not a song about politics’ to ‘this is a song for all the broken and the walking wounded, for all the isolated and secluded’ and, in the decades since, The Frank And Walters have slowly gravitated in from the margins and the grassy verges. And, along the way, they’ve put one of their most potent weapons beyond use.

As Ken Sweeney – a former label-mate of theirs at Setanta Records – pointed out recently on Tom Dunne’s radio show on Newstalk, there was a time when every big Frank And Walters statement ended with an inevitable assault. When, in the best traditions of the Irish showbands and the kids in The Bowery, they sent every listener home in a sweat ;- it wasn’t a real show or a proper album if it didn’t climax in a torrent of the loud and the furious. Or if Paul Linehan didn’t stretch his voice to far beyond the point of breaking.

I’ve remarked before how, during the band’s first flushes, Niall Linehan the group’s original guitarist – often played his instrument as if he was attacking it with a breeze-block. Yes, he had plenty of finesse coursing through his fingers too but, when the going got hard and heavy, he could match the best of them for speed and squall. But the familiar frenzies that have consistently hall-marked many of The Franks’ staples are missing from ‘Songs For The Walking Wounded’, the band’s recently released seventh studio album, it’s most sombre and easily it’s best and most full-bodied since ‘The Grand Parade’.

I’ve been unable to view The Franks from any sort of critical distance for years now, and I’ve dealt with that in a couple of previous posts, which are available to read here and here. But I still get the same thrill about every new Franks song now as I did when our paths first crossed in Cork over a quarter of a century ago and, I suspect, I always will. Over that time I’ve watched them – from exile, for the most part – become far more confident in their own ability and far more self-sufficient in how they realise the ambitions they’ve set since. And so ‘Songs For The Walking Wounded’ is exactly that, with the band in introspective and reflective form on what is clearly their most considered and mature record to date. A curious tension runs through it from the get-go and, in every sense – and in every key scene – it’s a revelation.

Rather than move out of the parish entirely, The Franks have used the three years since ‘Greenwich Mean Time’ to finish a considerable home renovation instead. The glass and chrome surround is new but, inside it, the old structures are as sound as they’ve ever been. In keeping more with the make-over spirit of ‘Room To Improve’ than the [funda]mental engineering challenge of ‘Grand Designs’, they’ve carefully replaced the plumbing and the electrics but have resisted the urge to dismantle the kitchen sink. Indeed restraint, in multiple forms, is a recurring theme here ;- and for all of the marvellous string arrangements and the smart production twists, this is still a record in check. And no more so than on the gorgeous guitar break on the lead single, ‘We Are The Young Men’, which owes far more to Depeche Mode’s ‘Music For The Masses’ than it does to ‘Kennedy’ or ‘Brassneck’. Indeed guitarist Rory Murphy’s influence on this record is enormous ;- nimble, sharp and comfortable across a huge span of styles, he is, alongside Conor Lehane, Midleton’s greatest ever gift to Cork’s broader cause.

There was a time when, in times of doubt, The Franks reached for what they trusted most and when they rarely ventured beyond the constraints and conventions of that which made them ;- indie guitars. This time around, the influences and the shadows stretch far wider ;- two of the more dominant references on ‘Songs For The Walking Wounded’ are the layered American FM sound of The Cars and the fragile sensibility of ‘Heartworm’, the exceptional 1995 album by Dublin band, Whipping Boy. But while the album magpies liberally, it is still as identifiably a Franks record as any and the soft references to an assortment of characters – Jodie, Brice, Tinkerbelle and Rosie – are among the more familiar tricks from their bag. But it’s Paul Linehan’s imperious vocal form throughout that really brings the record back home.

The grenades go off early and often. Cillian Murphy’s spoken passage on the excellent ‘Stages’ sees the Cork-born actor channel Whipping Boy’s Fearghal McKee over a riff that borrows from Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’ and, placed immediately on the track-listing after the boisterous lead, ‘We Are The Young Men’, opens the order with real heft. ‘Circumstance’ also nods to Whipping Boy, and particularly to ‘Personality’ and ‘Users’, two of the lesser-referenced tracks on  ‘Heartworm’. But there’s plenty more to occupy the anoraks ;- the hall-mark keyboard sounds of A-ha and Joy Division primary among them. Credit here to producer and engineer Cormac O’Connor, who alicadoos will remember as one of the principals behind Benny’s Head, a Cork-based outfit who rarely chanced their velveteen pop sounds outside of the security of the studio walls.

There’s even a trippy Beatles/Pink Floyd diversion towards the end of the disconcerting ‘Father’ – a possible companion piece to Little Green Cars’ ‘Brother’ ? – and, when you think you’ve heard it all, The Franks evoke the ghost of Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ on ‘Riviera’, replete with cutesy, Parisienne-style female vocals. Set up by a terrific, rumbling arrangement, the wordless chorus comes out of the curve :- it’s one of their least obvious songs ever, as good as anything they’ve committed to tape.

And after ten sharp, snappy pop songs, The Franks are gone ;- no hanging around, no filler. Like Cork’s hurlers, they’ll always be there and, irrespective of how they’re viewed outside of the county, their history alone means they’re always capable of an upset. At their most lethal when the chips are down and when they’re in the long grass, come the All-Stars awards at the end of the year, The Franks will be there or thereabouts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EPIC SOUNDTRACKS, KEVIN JUNIOR and NIKKI SUDDEN

 

You may not recognise all of the characters but you’ll almost certainly recognise the story, or at least the darker parts of it. At its core are three men with a love of the same kind of music in common, liberated from time to time, I suppose, by the magic they heard around them, some of which they produced on their own, other times with one another. All three of them are dead now and none of them saw the age of fifty.

All three tended almost always towards the hard shoulder and never really threatened the popular market, like many of the artists and lots of the music we’re drawn to here. But I’ve tried not to be too pious in the telling and I’m not being wilful or deliberately obscure ;- if the story strikes a chord, then I’ve listed some records below that you might like to check out. The complicated, fractured lives of Epic, Kevin and Nikki – and the music they made – only really make sense that way. And so …

Kevin Junior’s death earlier this year went relatively unmarked over here, and understandably enough. The American singer, guitarist and producer died five days after David Bowie, on January 15th last and, outside of his circle of friends, family and those who had loyally supported his bands, The Rosehips and  The Chamber Strings, and his various other side-projects over the years, his name will be unfamiliar. I spent the guts of fifteen years talking him up to anyone I met and, from a distance and with the benefit of the internet, followed his moves, wished him on, watched him vagabonding in several guises, car-crashing his way sidewards and downwards.

As is the case with Epic Soundtracks, with whom he wrote, toured, recorded and performed, Kevin is rarely cited as widely as his talent, flawed as it was, maybe deserves ? But he leaves behind him a decent canon of work that, uneven as it is, captures a restless spirit at work, hinting at what could have been and that, on occasion, is up there with the best of them. When Kevin had his head straight and his body clean, he was capable of real alchemy ;- like many before him, his songs were maybe all he really ever had but, in the end, not even those were enough to save him.

Folk of a certain age and of a particular leaning will remember Epic and his brother, Nikki Sudden ;- they buttressed Swell Maps, an urgent punk-art outfit that flourished briefly during the late 1970s. Born in Solihull, near Birmingham, in the English midlands, and raised as Kevin and Adrian Godfrey respectively, they recorded a pair of opaque albums with Swell Maps who, years after they folded, were name-checked fondly by the likes of R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr. Indeed R.E.M. backed Nikki on his 1991 single, ‘I Belong To You’, which was recorded at John Keane’s famous studio in Athens, Georgia and which derived from a three-month period the previous year during which Nikki had moved into Peter Buck’s house.

Epic Soundtracks passed away in 1997 and Nikki Sudden died in New York city seven years later ;- Kevin’s death last January completes that circle and, on one level, wraps up a little known side-story in the modern history of alternative American and British pop music. Kevin spent many years soldiering long and hard with both Epic and Nikki, lurching from place to place, song to song, crisis to crisis, barely keeping on. When he re-located to Berlin to accompany Nikki during the 1990s, he fell quickly into a period of chronic drug use ;- it had been the same story earlier in Los Angeles. And in New York. And back home in Akron, Ohio.

Epic Soundtracks and Kevin Junior wrote and played from the heart and the records they’ve left behind are, almost without exception, simply executed and remarkably personal. Kevin believed that Epic actually died of a broken heart ;- he’d struggled with depression for years and an intense relationship had ended in the months before he passed away. In Kevin’s case it seems as if, after thirty odd years spent clinging to the ledge, his own heart simply gave out too. Nikki Sudden died in a hotel room in New York in 2004 and, while the cause of his death has never been clearly determined, he too was defined for years as much by his drug use as by his music. If it was their hearts that first bound them and bonded them, it was their hearts that failed them all in the end too.

Akron, Ohio features prominently in the colourful and often bizarre history of Stiff Records and the story – and spirit – of the label that boasts among it’s leading players the likes of Dave Robinson, Jake Riviera, Madness, Ian Dury And The Blockheads, Nick Lowe, The Damned, Devo, Rachel Sweet and numerous others, is captured in detail in Richard Balls’s terrific book, ‘Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story’ [Soundcheck Books]. It was in Akron that Kevin was born Kevin Gerber in 1969 to a pair of music loving, free-thinking parents ;- as a child he was baby-sat by Chrissie Hynde and, as Bob Mehr mentions in a fine profile for The Chicago Reader in 2007, ‘he attended Firestone High School, which produced such future stars as Hynde, Rachel Sweet and members of Devo’.

Kevin moved to Chicago in his mid-teens and cut a skeletal shape from the get-go in his trademark Johnny Thunders do and sharp jackets, almost always stylishly adorned with a silk scarf and a pair of decent winkle-pickers. Like Nikki and Epic, Kevin was an advocate of the old school, long influenced by T-Rex, The New York Dolls, The Beach Boys, quality R and B and The Monkees. From where Kevin looked, in order to sound good it was vital to look good first and he covers this ground in detail on an efficient, low-budget documentary, ‘Chamber Strings – For A Happy Ending’, made for the Glorious Noise website.

It was Keith Cullen at Setanta Records who first turned me onto Epic soundtracks, back when we worked together in London in the early 1990s and during which time I would often kip down in a hammock strung across his kitchen in a squat in Camberwell. I was trying as best I could to make a positive contribution to an emerging independent record label, while free-lancing for a couple of music magazines to turn a coin. With the Setanta roster developing nicely, Keith needed dependable, day-to-day office help ;- most of the time I just got in the way.

I’d often put myself to sleep with a primitive Walkman clung to my ears and, for a while, Epic’s music was what I’d hear last thing at night. Himself and Freedy Johnston, another favourite during that time at the Setanta office, were affiliated to a vibey New York-based label called Bar None, run by a Limerick man called Tom Prendergast. Tom’s apartment in Hoboken often hosted Setanta’s bureau chief and Bar None and Setanta shared a philosophical and business arrangement, on and off, for years.

Bar None’s substantial and varied catalogue also boasts releases by the likes of They Might Be Giants, Peter Holsapple, Carlow’s David Donoghue/The Floors and a host of others but it was Epic Soundtracks’ 1994 album, ‘Sleeping Star’ for the label that remains, to these ears, one of the most affecting records of the decade. It was because of Tom Prendergast’s relationship with Setanta – and the regular exchange of stories and music between the labels – that I first started to tease back through Epic’s lineage and, for a while, I became obsessed with his story. Tom Prendergast’s own history, it should also be said, is one of the great, largely untold stories from the fringes of Irish alternative music history from the early-1980s onwards.

Kevin Junior recorded two excellent albums with his band, The Chamber Strings – ‘Gospel Morning’ [1997] and ‘Month of Sundays’ [2001] – both of which betray his long infatuation with the likes of The Beach Boys, T Rex and the more tender aspects of The New York Dolls. But despite consistently good notices, the band found it difficult to generate any forward momentum ;- Kevin’s short life was largely spent on the hoof and he led a temporal existence, moving onwards and sideways until, as was often the case, drugs just moved him out. And he alludes to this on the remarkable liner notes he wrote for ‘Good Things’, the posthumous Epic Soundtracks album released in 2005, eight years after Epic was found dead, alone, in his ground floor flat in West Hampstead, London.

Plaintively written, Kevin vividly paints a number of key scenes from an incredible few months in his long friendship with Epic and transports his reader and listener back into the belly of the small flat in which the pair of them recorded that record between November 21st and 27th, 1996. It was a record – like much else in their lives at the time – that they hadn’t planned. Indeed both men found themselves together in London by accident and only after a tour of Europe, on which Kevin was due to lead Epic’s backing band, had been cancelled at the last minute. Rather than put his plane ticket to waste, Kevin fetched up in West London with his then girlfriend, some primitive pieces of kit and not a whole lot else. He found Epic living from hand to mouth and struggling badly ;- it had been years since he’d released new material, his personal life had come asunder, he’d had difficulties gaining entry into the U.S. and his long-standing label had gone cold on him. And yet Epic’s love of music was undiminished ;- Kevin recalled that he would rather survive on cereal [‘his beloved Sugar Puffs’] if it meant he could afford to purchase records and CDs from London’s second hand stores. [One of the many photographs that adorn the inside of ‘Good Things’ captures Epic in a white towelling robe, vinyl in hand and posing, in his flat, in front of a vast library of elpees and compact discs].

And still, between them, they knocked out a series of rough demos of a host of new Epic material, using the most basic techniques to tape onto Kevin’s Tascam Porta Two four-track recorder that he ‘bought in the 1980’s for $150’. As Kevin writes ;- ‘Instruments included Epic’s W.H. Barnes upright piano, a Fender Twin amp and the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever played, my $75 Mitchel, a nameless organ, some half broken pieces of percussion, a digital delay pedal and a few guitars on loan from friends.

‘We had to constantly deal with the problem of low batteries that we couldn’t afford to replace and the blasts of train whistles that pierced through the garden window and into the floor. There was no way to punch in or overdub parts that didn’t feel like the musical equivalent to a game of Twister’.

And ‘Good Things’ bears all of those hallmarks. It’s far from Epic’s best record ;- it’s a series of brittle, lo-fi recordings, some of which are barely clinging to life. And yet, as tends to often be the case, some of it is truly enchanting. But Kevin wasn’t merely Epic’s co-writer and co-producer ;- over the course of the recording, and a subsequent two-handed tour of Europe, he’d become his primary carer too. Epic had few friends and no real supports to summon in London ;- he was, Kevin reckoned, in an awful state.

Once the recordings had been complete, and once Epic and Kevin – and Kevin’s girlfriend, Karen Kiska – had completed a short, acoustic and hastily-arranged series of live shows around Austria and Germany primarily, travelling light, cheaply and often simply booking dates as they went, the party went it’s separate ways.

‘Epic phoned the day after we arrived back in Chicago’, Kevin’s liner notes reveal. ‘He said some nice things about our friendship and then said that what would really make him happy at that moment would be for the three of us to go see a film’. Two weeks later, Epic Soundtracks was found dead in his flat. ‘It’s been said that a man can die if he simply loses the will to live’, Kevin writes. ‘I don’t care what anyone else says, I believe Epic died of a broken heart …’. He was 38 years old.

‘Good Things’ finally saw the light of day in 2005 and, featuring the songs recorded in Sumatra Road in West Hampstead years previously, mixed and finished by Nikki Sudden and Kevin’s evocative notes, is the final farewell from one of the most beguiling and genuinely fascinating British songwriters of the 1990s. It’s a record I go back to time and again because, often, the saddest things are also the most beautiful things. And, if you get the opportunity …

For more about Epic, Kevin and Nikki :-

Jane From Occupied Europe’ by Swell Maps [Rough Trade Records, 1980]

Sleeping Star’ by Epic Soundtracks [Rough Trade Records/Bar None, 1994]

Red Brocadeby Nikki Sudden, backed by The Chamber Strings [Chatterbox Records, 1999]

Gospel Morning’ by The Chamber Strings [Bobsleigh Records, 2000]

Good Things’ by Epic Soundtracks [DBK Works, 2006]

THE CRANBERRIES :- THE FIRST REVIEW

Cranberries - pre signed - first Henrys gig

Picture Courtesy of Siobhan O Mahony

Strange as it sounds now but there was a time when The Cranberries were easily the most remarkable young band in Ireland having emerged, quite literally, from out of nowhere. Theirs is of course a well-worn and hoary old story, albeit one pock-marked with crudely-formed testimonials and urban myths. And this is something I’ll return to in a future post.

One of the early driving forces behind the band was, I think, Pearse Gilmore who, among other things, fronted his own group, Private World, and also ran Xeric, a studio and rehearsal complex located on Edward Street in Limerick city. A curious sampler album, ‘The Reindeer Age’, released in early 1990, showcased a mixed bag of Limerick bands, all of them captured on tape in Xeric by Gilmore. The likes of They Do It With Mirrors, Tuesday Blue, Toucandance, The Hitchers and Private World themselves were notables among the large cast. Something was clearly afoot.

The Cranberries didn’t feature on ‘The Reindeer Age’ and yet, within six months, had over-taken their peers on every level.I was on a watching brief at this time :- apart from [over] enthusing about them in a variety of different outlets, I was also scouting them for Setanta Records. Our attention had been drawn the previous year to a slipshod demo that featured an early version of ‘Linger’ and that had been circulated under the name The Cranberry Saw Us.  Indeed there was a point when Keith Cullen at Setanta felt he’d finally snared them. In the end, after a year-long harry-and-chase, the band signed with Island Records instead.

Myself and another young writer, Jim Carroll, reviewed them frequently and with no little zest around this time, often travelling together to shows in Limerick. The fact that The Cranberries were from outside of Dublin – well protected from the scene that celebrated itself– only made them more alluring. By the summer of 1991, a handful of emerging bands based in Ireland’s regions were cutting ferocious shapes. And the strength of that scene was reflected in the line-up at that year’s Cork Rock event in Sir Henry’s, which featured The Frank And Walters, The Sultans of Ping, Therapy, Toasted Heretic and The I.R.S. among others. It was The Cranberries, who also played, who went on to dominate them all.

I first met them for an early Hot Press interview one warm Saturday afternoon in Limerick and I couldn’t get over how naïve they were. They told me that they had very few, if any influences, didn’t listen to many records and that their songs ‘just came out’. Noel Hogan was gilding the lily, without question, but Dolores was genuinely clueless.

Cranberries - number 2

Picture courtesy of Siobhan O Mahony

Live they were fragile and very, very basic. Gilmore had given them a stylish spit-and-polish in studio, something they struggled to replicate when they played live. Noel and Mike were struggling with their instruments [guitar and bass respectively] and the drummer, Fergal Lawlor, was the band’s pivot. But even then it was Dolores who dominated. In a flicked page-boy cut, standard indie duds and fresh Doc Marten boots, she cut a familiar but magnetic presence :- after gigs she’d routinely change into a multi-coloured tracksuit and couldn’t really give a flying one.

This review, for Melody Maker magazine, is an earnest and awkward attempt to capture the band’s charm and their incredible promise, while alluding also to their gormlessness.I was struggling with my craft as manfully as The Cranberries were struggling with their instruments, resorting to An Emotional Fish for my sign-off.

The show in question took place in the confined spaces of the College Bar in University College Cork in October, 1991, to a small but very keen audience. Pearse Gilmore – a tall, lean and most distinctive man – was very prominent around the venue on the night, and especially around the sound-desk. The venue was a well-known sound-trap and quality audio there was often a difficult ask. Not that it mattered.

The Cranberries, in their own mild way, blew the place asunder.

This review appeared originally in Melody Maker magazine on October 19th, 1991. I’ve made some minor edits to the original copy.

The Cranberries

College Bar, U.C.C., October, 1991

The Cranberries are probably too tender for all of this but, right now, they have all of our hopes to weigh them down. They’re charming little innocents, so untouched, so perfect, so astoundingly pure. They’ve come from a city that isn’t Dublin, from a county where politics are conservative and where Gaelic games and rugby offer some small social hope. They think small, embarrassed by what they’ve suddenly become. By what we’ve painted them up to be.

To singer Dolores, pop songs have no truck with video and make-up, nothing to do with fanciful clothes. She’s stopped reading her band’s press because she doesn’t need us to tell her who she is. And when she stands still, saying little, in place like this, it’s because she’s unsure about all of the fuss. The Cranberries, understand, are charmingly naïve ;- its their single greatest attribute. They have no idea how good they are, of how important they might yet become.

The Cranberries had never heard of The Sundays or The Throwing Muses nine months ago – their songs just happened, ‘they just came out’, and we believe that. They’re too frail to be contrived. And while lines like ‘I was just 16 years old when I married you, and now its just a stupid mess, I don’t know what to do’ seem trite, then you should understand that Dolores is eighteen years old and coming from what is essentially a very narrow rural tradition. And she writes nothing like The Saw Doctors.

Tonight is all very full ; lots of songs, gorgeous songs. ‘Put Me Down’ with its spine-shrill, jangle-and-hum, ‘Linger’ with its spellbound simplicity, ‘Dreams’ with its curious drum thud. Dolores even plays some acoustic guitar but it just looks all wrong, all too cumbersome for her. It still sounds very fine, of course, and ‘Reason’ and ‘Pathetic Senses’ become the huge, simmering pop songs that Johnny Marr, for instance, would collect and play. ‘Liar’ owes to Pixies’ ‘Is She Weird’ but we’re not here to look for clues.

We’re here to love a band wholly. To hug and kiss. Beauty does what beauty does best. Be beautiful.