Setanta

THE FRANK AND WALTERS #1

A version of this post originally appeared at Sir Henrys 2014. 

I first met The Frank And Walters in Cork in the summer of 1990, back when I was rapt and ready to roll into the breach on their behalf, whatever the job. The years since have taken all of us to places we’d probably dreamt of but hardly expected to see in the flesh. And while I no longer see them as often as I should, this doesn’t mean I consider them any less than I used. These days I‘m their eternal shadow, a ghost who stalks.

Morty McCarthy was the dealer. Morty and I were first introduced by a school-friend and I was quickly taken by his breath of reference. He was as comfortable talking about The Primitives and The Fall as he was about Junior B Hurling in Ballinlough ;- he was a genuine one-off and there was no side to him. Morty was also the youngest person I knew who held a legitimate driver’s licence. He drove a delivery van for a living, spending his days on the roads with a bagful of cassettes and a cargo of cash and carry for company.

In another of his guises – as editor and writer-at-large on a fanzine he ran, Sunny Days – he’d mention gigs he’d seen in places like Myrtleville, Youghal and Kinsale. And it was at one of those shambolic shows that he’d snagged a copy of an early Frank And Walters demo tape. Which, true to form, he’d copied and passed on.

I was into my twenties, gormless and arsing around, looking for any sort of summer distraction as long as it involved music and sport. The song of the season was ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’, sound-tracking Ireland’s first ever World Cup Finals campaign in Italy. But fans of Cork GAA – Morty very prominent among them – were revelling during a heady couple of months in exploits far closer to home.

It was live music that kept us hydrated. A Derry band, The Carrellines – fronted by Paul McLoone – won the Carling/Hot Press Band Of The Year in Sir Henry’s. During the June Bank Holiday weekend, Meat Loaf headlined the first of a new three-day event in Thurles called Féile, supported by an undercard that also featured Dublin’s Into Paradise and Thee Amazing Colosssal Men [with Garrett ‘Jacknife’ Lee on guitar]. Back in Henry’s, meanwhile, the yearly Cork Rock bash attracted the usual coven of record company executives, lured by the prospect of landing An Emotional Fish.

Prince played Pairc Ui Chaoimh and featured a king-sized bed as part of his stage show, although fears that he’d blaspheme the sacred ground with his tarty pop proved unfounded, sadly. As I reported at the time in The Cork Examiner, the most shocking thing about the Prince show was how unshocking it was. Those expecting a non-stop erotic cabaret were left disappointed and, on the long walk back up The Marina, some Pairc Ui Chaoimh regulars remarked how monthly County Board meetings were usually far more explicit.

An independent music retailer, Comet Records, had opened on Oliver Plunkett Street the previous year and quickly became a focal point for local anoraks. That small shop often resembled an AA meeting room for pale young indie addicts seeking peer support from those with similar problems. In the best traditions of ‘the exotic local record shop’, the in-house soundtracks were varied and mixed, veering from the extremes of the underground to the erratic sounds of Cork’s suburbs. In part an outlet, refuge and primary source, the shop had already became yet another tentacle of what was now a burgeoning local scene. Into which came The Frank And Walters.

By the end of September, Cork’s hurlers and Gaelic footballers had delivered a memorable All-Ireland double and the three-piece from Bishopstown had started to move through the gears.

It was on the wall of Joe Mac’s coffee shop in The Queen’s Old Castle arcade that I first clocked the name :- The Frank And Walters. The Queens was a real magnet for posers, wannabes and goms [with myself prominent among them] and its insides were lined with posters advertising live gigs of every hue. All sorts of sub-species – Goths, Mods, Cureheads and decrepit old punks, primarily – would congregate around the Patrick Street entrance, some of them often bearing instruments and amps. Out front, Daunt Square was one of Cork’s most exotic pitches, where the ghosts of early Microdisney hung in the air around their old rehearsal room, down by what was once Woodford Bourne’s wine-shop. And, when the Square wasn’t hosting left-wing political discourse and intellectual loitering it was, maybe more importantly, leading the way into Mandy’s, then Cork’s stellar fast food restaurant.

It was around The Queens Old Castle that you’d catch mention of the likes of Takapuna, Burning Embers, Jinx, Expresso Mambo, Without The, Cypress, Mine !, No Sangoma, The How And Why Insects, Porcelyn Tears, Shimpu Zig Zag, Scarlet Page, Blunt, The Electric Hedgehogs, De Confidence, Serengeti Longwalk, Censored Vision, The Outside and a host of other local acts, all of them rehearsing loud and thinking big all over the county. None moreso than The Franks.

I met them for the first time in The Enterprise Bar at the end of Barrack Street on the night that England played West Germany in a famous World Cup semi-final :- July 4th, 1990. They’d recently recorded three songs in Studio Fiona in Fermoy with Brian O’Reilly from Loudest Whisper working the desk and were seeking a kind ear and good advices. And I gave them some of what they were looking for.

Within minutes of our first session together in their rehearsal space in Brother Cusack’s room in Sullivan’s Quay school, I was already behind their eyes and under their skin. They were electric and clueless, loud and ambitious and, twenty-five years later, I don’t think I’ve ever loved them or obsessed about them more.

Once we’d plugged up, it was obvious enough how exceptional Paul was. Apart entirely from his song-writing, his incredible voice was a real boon. He’d struggle manfully with the higher end of his register, but that rarely stopped him from pushing and pushing, often to the point of fracture.

But he knew how to mind himself too. Proudly tee-total, hot water with honey and lemon was often his twist after rehearsals. And the years have been kind to him ;- he looks younger now than he did back then and his voice hasn’t diminished with the years either. So much so that his vocal performance at the band’s show in The Opera House last October was among the finest I’ve heard from him.

In the other corner, Paul’s brother, Niall, played guitar loudly and aggressively, as if he had his axe in a headlock and was frenzily mashing it with a breeze-block. You’d often have to roar at him to get a response and he’d invariably lash right back at you. He kept a store of old riffs on a cassette tape and, whenever the occasion demanded, would reach in and pull a pre-made guitar line from the stash.

Behind the traps, Ashley pulled the whole thing together. He was the spiritual leader of the band, its heartbeat and heart-throb in equal measure and a man for whom league positions [Cork City and Chelsea, strictly] meant as much as chart positions did. He was a fine, sinewy drummer to boot, always nice and busy around the kit.

Outwardly at least, The Franks cut an absurd dash with their loons and big hair but, beyond that, they took their music very, very seriously. Ashley had even run off a stock of gammy business cards that bore the words ‘Frank And Walters, Indie band’, his home address in Bishopstown and a contact number. And those cards captured every contradiction about them :- they were a serious lot, clever young men playing the fool only never at the expense of the music.

The first year disappeared in a blur. Paul had a heap of material ready to go and, within monhs, we’d knocked out another pair of decent demos, one in Caroline Studios in Blackpool and another back in Brian O’Reilly’s in Fermoy. During rehearsals in the school we’d look at how the songs started and ended, always mindful of how they’d detonate when played live. Several of the early songs – ‘The Never Ending Staircase’ and ‘Davy Chase’ especially – sped up as they developed, ending in a blur of guitars and drums. And we always kept a close eye on the clock, editing savagely, and very few of the songs now exceeded three minutes in length.

Often we’d just pull the songs asunder and re-position the various bits, noting the new structures in chalk on the broad blackboard that dominated the room. Niall would regularly locate suitable middle-eights and bridges from his collection of pre-made riffs and we’d routinely transplant bits in and out.

The band had already flirted with one record company, Revolver Records, the London-based label that issued the first Stone Roses releases, and had been encouraged down a particular path as a result. ‘Indie dance’, they answered once when I asked them to describe the band’s sound.

But I heard in them, rather, an out-and-out pop band with a mischievous indie streak and a lot of tradition in the backbone. To me they were nodding to bands as diverse as The Wedding Present, The Beatles, The Monkees and that other incendiary three-piece, The Jam. There are other clues too, especially in the songs they’ve covered over the years and ‘I’m a Believer’, ‘Funky Cold Medina’, ‘The Model’, Julian Cope’s ‘Elegant Chaos’ and ‘Pop Muzik’ by M suggest a far broader breath of reference than you’d think.

But they drew too from the Irish showband traditions and, with their stage uniforms and the slaggy banter led from behind the drum-kit, were far more Dixies than they were Pixies.

The straight Franks And Walters narrative is well worn by now and, as a no-frills biog, ‘Irish’ Jack Lyons’ 2007 book, ‘A Renewed Interest In Reading’ is the last word and won’t be bettered. But on the back of last October’s twenty-fifth anniversary performance at The Opera House in Cork, its maybe worth re-tracing the band’s steps and establishing some sort of retrospective context.

My own bottom line is clear enough :- The Frank And Walters are one of the great contemporary Irish popular music stories but seldom get the respect they deserve for that. A moot point, perhaps, but the band’s first ever Late Late Show appearance, for example, occurred in 2011, twenty years after the release of their first EP. Notwithstanding the vagaries of television and the demands of producers and bookers, just how do we square that ?

But The Franks are a resilient lot who have an unshakable belief in their own ability, matched only by Paul’s devotion to the healing power of the song. To that end, hes easily one of the most consistent and fluid song-writers the country has ever produced, and with a pretty serious body of work behind him at this stage too. But is anyone really listening ?

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dublin was routinely billed as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’. Which would have been a fine marketing tag-line were not most of those thousand bands unfit for purpose. Jim Carroll and myself wrote at length around this time about how the most pressing, urgent new music in Ireland was emerging in the regions and, between us, cited The Cranberries, Therapy?, The IRS, Engine Alley, Toasted Heretic, The Sultans and The Franks. We coined a counter-slogan – ‘Dublin Is Dead’ – more out of a sense of stubborn devilment than anything else and proselytized widely, keen to present a growing nationwide scene as more than just a regional curio. Notwithstanding the gifts bestowed on Stephen Ryan, Dave Couse and a smattering of others, most of the Dublin guitar bands operating at this time usually boasted two songs – one fast, one slow – that leant heavily on REM’s magnificent 1985 album, ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’.

The Franks, of course, sounded nothing like REM and, more importantly to me, didn’t want to sound like REM either. A point not lost on Keith Cullen, who heard in them the kind of recklessness that was already hallmarking his emerging Setanta imprint. And so they fled to a hostel in South East London and instead took their chances in England.

Run from a squat in Camberwell, Setanta had already developed a niche as a launch-pad label – sussed, connected and regarded – if not so much in Ireland then certainly with the London-based music press. But before The Franks left Cork, there was one last piece of business.

pic courtesy Siobhan O'Mahony

pic courtesy Siobhan O’Mahony

On the sunny afternoon in June, 1991, when the Cork Rock event opened in Sir Henrys, we’d arranged a private rehearsal back in Sullivan’s Quay School for one of the visiting major labels, out of sight and away from the numbers. The band laid into a cracking short set, debuting a belting new song, ‘Fashion Crisis Hits New York’, alongside regular set features like ‘Walter’s Trip’, ‘Angela Cray’ and ‘Davy Chase’ and, five feet away, the magic was lost on The Man, who sat impassively throughout. Later that weekend, The Frank And Walters levelled Cork Rock with more or less the same set and the word was out in earnest. They were recording for Setanta before Halloween.

I followed them to England during the early weeks of 1992, ostensibly to help out at Setanta while earning a crust working as a freelancer with Melody Maker magazine. The Franks had a head-start on me and, settled in Wimbledon, were receiving good notices for their first EP releases, which were produced by Dave Couse of A House. Pretty soon the band was playing the industry and even dining out on it. Within a year The Frank And Walters were on the pay-roll at Go Discs and I was headed back home, putting together a new music television series for RTÉ Two called No Disco.

I worked with them – formally, for the last time – on the songs that formed the spine of their debut album, pushing them hard in an echoey rehearsal room in a small industrial unit in Camberwell. We shaped the edges of many of the songs that would back-bone ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’ and, of the newer songs, ‘Time’, ‘John And Sue’ and ‘Transpotters’ were well basted before they left the room.

And I was there too in the band’s house in Morden in South East London when Paul played me a spartan version of ‘After All’ for the first time on an acoustic guitar. It was one of the last songs written for the album and, over the course of an hour in the kitchen, we’d re-worked it, harmonised it and, if memory serves, written a middle eight for it.

There have been far better Frank And Walters albums since and there will be many more again, but none have attracted anything near the same level of attention as the eleven-track debut. But in the year when the band releases its seventh studio album, the omens are good :- when they’re playing the seldom heard ‘Russian Ship’, you know there’s something going off in the cauldron.

Following the highly-charged triumph at The Opera House show last October, I recalled two events from around the release of the band’s fourth album, ‘Glass’, back towards the end of 2000. The first was a review of that record on an Irish music website called Cluas that savaged them as brutally as they’d ever been savaged anywhere. The other was a bizarre appearance on an afternoon television programme on RTE where they mimed their way listlessly through the lead single on that album, ‘Underground’. While they weren’t necessarily being counted out on the canvas, the band that once shared a dressing room at Top Of The Pops with Paul McCartney were now holding court on Live At Three with Marty Whelan.

I hooked up with Paul and Ashley that afternoon and we had a decent chat about the record and about how things were, laughed in all the right places and I lauded them about the album. But it was hollow enough stuff on both sides of the table and I couldn’t get over just how lethargic and miserable they seemed. Maybe I’d caught them on a bad day – or maybe I just amplified the lethargy out in them – but the joy that once so clearly defined them was missing.

The Frank And Walters may not have appreciated it at the time, but ‘Glass’ is now one of the primary defining moments in their history. Produced by Flood and engineered by Rob Kirwan, it’s the band’s most difficult album by an ocean and, Paul’s vocals aside, sounds nothing like what went before it. They’d dropped a couple of hints on the previous album, ‘Beauty Becomes More Than Life’, which featured more keyboard sounds and samples than previously. And they’d also added a fourth member, Sarah De Courcy, to fill out the live sound.

But the bleeps, tinny synths and workmanlike beats couldn’t mask the fact that ‘Glass’ was the very difficult sound of a band coming apart at the seams. And so it proved :- it was their last record for Setanta and the last to feature Niall as part of the band. And yet, beneath the sound of implosion, a pulse was still audible. ‘New York’ [revived in The Opera House and starring the well-known Cork soprano Mary Hegarty performing the female vocals originally taken by Marlene Buck], the magnificent ‘Talking About You’ and ‘Isn’t It Time’ and the cracking, old school sing-along ‘Forgiveness’ were all defiant and proud. As was the aforementioned ‘Underground’ which, I am convinced to this day, was magpied the following year and re-versioned as ‘The Sound Of The Underground’, eventually a debut hit for Girls Aloud. But against that, a distinctly average record closed with two of the worst Franks songs ever committed to tape, ‘I Will Be King’ and ‘Looking For America’, studio-doodles both.

During the period immediately following the release of ‘Glass’, the band couldn’t get arrested and, despite sporadic appearances here and there, the thrill had gone. It took them ages to re-group and re-calibrate and, with Niall no longer in the picture, it was six years before their next album. And a pretty striking return to form it was too, with the title revealing the mood in the camp :- ‘A Renewed Interest In Happiness’.

The Franks had every opportunity and every good reason to check out for good after ‘Glass’. That they choose instead to go back to first principles and re-appraise where they were most comfortable only confirms the view that I’ve held since those early days back in 1990 :- that the Keating-Linehan axis is simply unbreakable.

The band has now outlived most of those magazines that slapped them on their front covers way back, the label that issued its first records, the website that gave them their most aggressive pasting and most of the bands they shared the stage with back in Sir Henry’s at Cork Rock in 1991. Friends, family and fellow travellers have been lost along the way too. But as they prepare to release yet another album, haven’t The Franks finally put the last remaining stereotypes to the sword ? And doesn’t such a rich and expansive catalogue stretching back so long warrant some sort of sound critical footing ?

I’ve seen The Frank And Walters play live more than any other band and I honestly couldn’t believe how fresh and optimistic they sounded at The Opera House, belting through a long set that featured no new material.. On the trip home I drafted an alternative set-list of songs they didn’t perform on the night but that would have knocked the socks off of any audience in the country. I gripped my fist tight on the walk across Emmet Place, clenched my teeth and prayed a silent ‘Yesssssssss’.

Little did I suspect, back in the summer of 1990, that we’d still be here, years later, picking over The Frank And Walters. In one way, we should have all moved on years since but very often its only by looking back that can we truly comfort ourselves in the present and the future. All the more so when there’s so much history in the can and water under the bridge.

Its to The Franks’ credit that they’ve stayed the distance, lapped the flashier pace-makers and are still running personal bests. The last twenty-five years are pock-marked with many, many highlights and just as many surprises and land-mines. I can’t really recall a record collection of mine they weren’t in and can’t forsee one where they won’t hold centre-stage. With the band’s best work still to come, God knows what they’ll sound like in 2040.

A HOUSE: THE GREATEST

 

I am the greatest

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ROS] COMMON PEOPLE

It was Eamonn Crudden of the Dead Elvis label – among numerous other  things – who first turned me onto the Wednesday Works imprint, a small mail-order project that was run by a young dairy farmer from his front-room in Curraghmore, outside of Elphin, Co. Roscommon.

 

At the time – the summer of 1996 – the label was in it’s infancy and had released a mere handful of records. But, working with the likes of  Paranoid Visions and The Screech Owls, Wednesday Works had a  positive outlook and no shortage of ambition or vision.

 

I first spoke to Anthony Brennan for a Sunday Tribune piece that ran on August 25th of that year. I later took an RTÉ camera crew up there to  record a film insert on the label for a teen-targetted music series I  devised and produced called Popscene, which debuted on RTÉ Two later  that Autumn.

 

I absolutely loved that series – hosted by Suzanne Duffy, Pearse Lehane  and Róisín Saxe – and I also loved the cut of Anthony’s jib. In his long  over-coat, sweeping mullet and serious side-burns, he cut a pretty formidable figure. The Tribune dispatched a local photographer, John Heaney, to capture Anthony at work on the farm, and an absolutely ace photograph accompanied my piece.

 

Myself and Pearse Lehane spent a wonderful day in Anthony’s company in Curraghmore – and a frankly bizarre evening with some local punks in a pub in Tulsk – for the Popscene insert, during which we also captured  a local power-punk trio, Spacehead, going hell for leather in their  rehearsal space in the drummer’s family’s shed, somewhere up the  town.

 

I was anxious with both the print and the television pieces not to  patronise or unintentionally insult Wednesday Works and, I hope, succeeded in staying on the right side of the line while capturing what  was, and still is, just a really great story. Which we have re-produced in  full below, under it’s original Sunday Tribune title – ‘Until The Cows  Come Home’.

 

U n t i l  T h e    C o w s   C o m e   H o m e

 

 

There’s this theory that record company bosses, like disc jockeys and  music writers, are frustrated and failed musicians. This, of course, is  completely true although Anthony Brennan, a twenty-something vinyl  junkie from three miles due south of nowhere, may be the exception.  He’s never been in a band, he travels to Dublin once every month to buy records and to collect demo tapes and holds his ego very much in check.

 

Curraghmore, near Elphin, County Roscommon exists very much in name only. This is where Brennan farms a herd of sixty dairy cattle on a family farm that stretches over one hundred and ten acres. It’s also where, on Wednesday evenings, he runs a fledgling record label of peculiar all-sorts.

 

Wednesday Works is an independent pop voice founded on a whim in a public house in Tulsk, County Roscommon, almost two years ago by  Brennan and three best school-friends and funded, directly and indirectly, by the dairy industry. The label has so far released four cracking pop records and already Anthony Brennan’s head is spinning with all manner of schemes, dreams and songs. ‘I’m essentially addicted to records, particularly to vinyl, and to good songs. I’m a compulsive listener, whether that’s listening to Dave Fanning while I’m doing the milking or whether it’s on my Walkman when I’m out working the bog-seam’.

 

And while geographics and penury have never gotten in the way of great tunes and killer pop songs, Wednesday Works has more primary problems than most. ‘There are no record shops in Roscommon’, they claim. ‘Well, apart from some souvenir shops up near where Percy French was born where they sell country and western cassettes down the back. That’s one of the main reasons why we’ve opted to do mail-order singles’.

 

But then the whole notion of mail-order releases, one imagines, fits easily with indie-pop’s purest traditions. It was a mail-order cartel, after all, that largely bound many of Britain’s most formative independent record labels in the early eighties and Anthony Brennan is well versed in pop history. ‘The best albums always seem to have no more than ten or eleven tracks on them. Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground always got out before their records got boring. And most of the greatest pop songs always run to about three minutes, although ‘Curtain Call’ by The Damned is an honourable exception’, states Brennan.

 

 

Like Setanta’s Keith Cullen, Creation’s Alan McGee and One Little Indian’s Derek Birkett, Anthony Brennan’s past is steeped in punk and industrial pout. ‘I went to boarding school in Ballaghadereen, which is where I picked up on bands like The Damned, The Fall, The Cramps, Television, Magazine and Joy Division. Back then you just loved everything and you never questioned why. There were no scenes, there were no mods and no rockers and music was your life’.

 

All of which sounds dead dreamy and romantic of course but then passion and faith in words and music are at the core of Wednesday Works’ whole ethos. Lifting from Andy Warhol, they favour ‘music from the life factory’ and, to date, they’ve put out a tiny stream of pop-stuffed records as if to prove their point. ‘The most frustrating thing for us’, they admit, ‘is that we have to pay-off on one record before we get to release another. When we started out we had no idea about the actual process of getting records out. We knew nothing about pressing, distribution, artwork and cutting and, to be honest, we’re still learning as we go. But as long as we keep our sanity we’ll do alright. I’d rather have a huge discography than to make lots of money and as it is I have enough to put petrol in the car and to enjoy myself at weekends. That said, it would be great to get someone in to do the milking and things while we got on with getting records out’.

 

Immediate label plans do not include mass production and strike-force chart-sales but revolve instead around bands like Spacehead, whose ‘Swamp Gas Fiasco’ single is a heady throb of industrial techno punk bravado that, luck permitting, will catapult Wednesday Works even half-way skywards.

 

Wednesday Works Discography

Serious Women           38SCR [album]                   WED1 CD album

ATC                              Stick It In [single]               WORK1 CD single

Paranoid Visions           Triangular EP                     DAY1 7” single

The Screech Owls        Pray For Rain [single]         DAY2 7” single

THE DIVINE COMEDY

As I recently re-watched The Divine Comedy’s terrific 2004 show, recorded live at London’s Palladium Theatre, my mind was cast way back to another far more intimate but no less powerful encounter with Neil Hannon.

I had been aware of The Divine Comedy from the get go. My friend, Keith Cullen, had issued their 1990 mini-album, ‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’, on his fledgling Setanta imprint and, as part of that affair, had moved the then three-piece from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh to a flat in North London. That apartment was owned by John O’Neill of The Undertones who had produced the seven-tracker and who was also recording for Setanta under the band name, Rare.

Written by Neil Hannon, who sang and played all of the guitars, the record also featured John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor on bass and drums respectively. The Divine Comedy had first been recommended to Setanta by Louise Trehy, a Dublin musician who later recorded for 4AD as half of the band, Swallow .

‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’ captures a clever young songwriter with no little ambition, borrowing from a standard frame of indie reference, most notably the British shoe-gaze scene led by Ride. The Divine Comedy were thinking big – the title of the record being a case in point – and notwithstanding the band’s circumstances in their hovel in Tottenham – Neil had set the bar high.

Initially at least, the band struggled to generate any real interest in London and went largely un-noticed by the music press who, instead, rowed in behind their Setanta label-mates, Dublin’s Into Paradise. To provide the band with more heft, The Divine Comedy briefly expanded it’s ranks by adding a friend of Neil’s, John Allen, as lead vocalist, allowing the song-writer more scope to drive the band on from behind his guitar. I saw them give a workmanlike performance at The Borderline in London at this time, opening for Toasted Heretic who, by then, were commanding plenty of interest themselves, particularly from the inkies.

But The Divine Comedy set was all very shapeless and dour and, while the excellent ‘Europop’ E.P. [1992] was certainly a meatier and more focussed affair, the band imploded in North London shortly afterwards. Neil opted to go it alone and de-camped back to his parents’ house in County Fermanagh.

It was during the late Autumn of 1992 that Setanta started to receive the first flashes of what was to subsequently become the popular Divine Comedy sound. Neil had been busy back in Northern Ireland and had delivered us a suite of pretty ace but crudely formed songs on tape , all of which he’d written, played and produced himself on a small portable studio. Even at this stage, there was a real magic about some of that material.

Most of those songs would, of course, provide the spine to, ‘Liberation’, the aptly-titled, first full Divine Comedy album, released by Setanta in August, 1993, and the sound of a songwriter finally finding his voice after a false start. Recorded with the engineer Darren Allison, who also contributed drums, the record revealed a serious change in mood and tone. The original rhythm section had been replaced by a number of string players and Neil had swapped his indie-fringe for a tighter cut and a smart collar-and-tie finish. The whole thing had been recorded on a typical Setanta shoestring.

Immediately prior to the release of ‘Liberation’, I too had changed direction and was now busy back in Cork, working on a national television series I’d devised. No Disco’ was pitched as a late-night alternative music show for RTÉ Two, the first thrust of a central RTÉ strategy to produce more content from outside of  Dublin. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d actually based the series on the founding principles of Setanta Records ;- no money, no facilities, no embarrassment and plenty of neck. The origins and early days of the ‘No Disco’ series have never really been properly documented and I’ll return to this in a more substantial future post.

‘No Disco’ was cheap and cheerful television, a simple cut-and-paste of mildly left-field music videos with the odd interview [some of them very odd] and pulled together by the weekly proselytising of it’s presenter, Dónal Dineen. The first episode aired in September, 1993, to the sound of huge indifference and to the astonishment of those who had worked on it. But as soon as we found our feet and established ourselves in the margins of the RTÉ Two schedules, we’d started to get cockier and more ambitious.

To that end, we’d occasionally wander out from our bunkered existence at the studios in Father Mathew Street to tape, randomly enough, live acoustic performances from certain acts. The criteria were simple enough :- the music had to sit easily with Dónal and myself and the bands had to be prepared to deal with some of the vagaries of our existence as a television series by stealth, operating with minimal amounts of everything. It was rough and it was ready and we were based in Cork.

Keith Cullen had mailed me a pre-release of ‘Liberation’ on cassette and I couldn’t believe how good it was. Neither could I believe how far Neil had developed – and how quickly ? – since he’d left London. Yes, his songs had always had grand designs but he’d now re-drawn his foundations and the sound was far more rounded, mature and compelling as a result. Consequently, The Divine Comedy became an obvious early target for ‘No Disco’ and we were anxious to feature them as part of the brainwash.

In the absence of any video material – Setanta Records was run from a squat in Camberwell and barely had enough money to record its bands – we decided to tape a two-song Divine Comedy acoustic performance instead. And Neil’s gorgeous renditions of ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘Lucy’ – both among the many stellar songs on ‘Liberation’ – featured regularly on the ‘No Disco’ playlists throughout.

That session took us about two hours to record and involved around six hours work in all. It was shot on the spartan, curtained stage at The Firkin Crane building on the Northside of Cork city, a beautiful dance studio and theatre in the shadow of Shandon, the iconic landmark. As well as the two songs, we also knocked out a long-ish interview with Neil in which all of us were effusive in our praise for ‘Liberation’.

Tony McCarthy was the cameraman who captured the performance on standard Betacam tape, Paul O’Flynn was the sound recordist and, on this occasion, we’d hired the added help of Tony Healy, a local musician who provided the heavy duty sound equipment we used on all of these sessions.

Because we were working on the cheap, I’d also hired an acoustic guitar locally so that Neil didn’t incur additional flight charges. He played this guitar for the first time as we were setting up in the venue.

We’d put him up in my family’s house in Blackpool the previous night, where he charmed my mother, who loves her music and who remains a staunch supporter of Neil’s to this day. So whenever I hear The Divine Comedy’s ‘Mother Dear’ [from the ‘Victory For The Comic Muse’ album], I think that the song could easily be about my own mother’s absolute regard for her young guest all of those years previously. It isn’t, but hey …

‘No Disco’ never had the budget  to employ a production runner, to order taxis or to deal with the day-to-day practicalities of running sessions like these. And so I’d routinely be on hand to lug sound gear into venues, do a run for lunchtime sandwiches and, when required, bum lifts off of my father, who regularly spun musicians around Cork city and got them back on the train home. It was, of course, no way to run a television programme but then, in our heads at least, ’No Disco’ wasn’t a television programme at all. It was, to borrow popular current vernacular, a weekly Ted Talk :- an address of genuine inspiration to the nation.

On the day of the Firkin Crane session, Neil performed both songs at least three times each. Once we had captured the master sound recording – and once Neil was happy with what he had heard – we did a couple of other takes on the song from alternative angles. When we got into the edit with Antóin O’Callaghan [no relation] we decided, where possible, to keep the performances on one single shot. This was out of character with much of what was going on more widely in music television at the time. Indeed, it’s very rare these days to see any sort of pans, zooms and tilts on location-based television output. But again, in the hands of a skilled operator, the old ways can often be the only ways. And we went for it.

The only real concession we made in the edit was in removing all of the colour from the clip, for no other reason than we wanted those sessions to have a different look and feel to the rest of the programme. Among some of the other acoustic room performances we shot during the first year of the programme were a handful of ace tracks by The Harvest Ministers recorded in The Triskel Arts Centre, a cracking set by The Revenants in The CAT Club and a pretty special two-song show by Edwyn Collins, put to tape upstairs in The Old Oak, during which he performed ‘Low Expectations’ and ‘Gorgeous George’ from the Setanta album of the same name.

The Divine Comedy remained one of the staples of the ‘No Disco’ play-lists for many years thereafter. Over the following twelve months we also cobbled together a pretty woeful time-lapse video for ‘Tonight We Fly’ [from the band’s 1994 album, ‘Promenade’] salvaged from footage of a sun-down that one of Neil’s friends had sent us from London. And, one memorable Sunday afternoon, the directors Eamonn Crudden and Eamonn Doyle hired an old-school bicycle from a shop in Dillon’s Cross and shot a handful of Super 8 reels of my late friend, Philip  Kennedy, as he peddled around Cork. The personal highlight of that shoot occurred when we were asked to leave the grounds of The Cork Cricket Club by some local toff after we’d arrived, un-announced, up the avenue, on foot and on wheels, wielding a funny looking camera.

We used that footage to accompany ‘The Summerhouse’, another track from ‘Promenade’, which myself and Donal really liked and which, again, we just felt needed to be heard.

It was the pair of us, I guess, just taking care of business.