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