Sindikat

THE SMITHS IN CORK, 1984

 

It was shortly after midnight, early on Wednesday morning, July 29th, 1987, and it was Mark Cagney, host of ‘The Night Train’ on RTÉ Radio 2FM who, as serenely as ever, broke the news.

Home alone, and with the rest of my family off on holidays, I’d been in the habit of keeping the radio on longer and louder than usual ;- long enough, as it happened, to hear Cagney tell the nation’s more urbane taxi drivers, shift workers and anoraks that Johnny Marr had left The Smiths. And he more or less left it at that, light on detail, didn’t cite his sources and segued as seamlessly as he always did into his next track, which was more than likely a moderately left field, highly styled album cut, to which he was forever drawn. And, if I slept at all that night, I slept with my mouth open and my jaw hanging.

Cagney had one up on us. He’d either heard soundings of or had sight of that week’s issue of the London-based music magazine, New Musical Express, in which one of its senior writers, Danny Kelly, citing reliable sources in Manchester, revealed that Morrissey, The Smiths’ singer and Marr, the group’s guitarist and co-writer, had fallen out and hadn’t spoken in months. But while it was a terrific flyer, the story was vague enough on the future of the band and Kelly later admitted he may have ‘augmented’ his story with lines pulled from the back of his own head. The gut of the scoop was clear, though :- on the cusp of the release of their fifth album, all was not well with The Smiths. And this time it was serious.

Although the influential British music weeklies – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – all regularly hit the streets around central London by lunchtime on Tuesdays, it was usually Thursday morning or later before those titles were available on the shelves in Easons, on Patrick Street in Cork, where I routinely picked up mine. And so I had an anxious wait before I finally got my hands on NME’s speculative exclusive, headlined ‘Smiths to split’.

History – and Johnny Rogan, the band’s forensic biographer – now tells us that, although The Smiths weren’t formally taken off of life-support by Morrissey until mid-September, 1987, Marr confirmed directly to Kelly within days of his initial splash that yes, he’d left the group he founded in Manchester barely five years previously. And so, in its issue dated August 8th, 1987, Kelly had his second back-to-back Smiths scoop, this time flush with quotes from inside the band.

For six weeks that summer, my first as a university student, would-be music writer, part-time laundry worker and full-time dreamer, there was really only one story. One which, under sustained scrutiny, was scarcely believable in the first instance and which was always likely to end badly ;- few groups have, I think, fallen asunder as carelessly and as needlessly as The Smiths, undone in the end by the lack of clear decision-making and delegation that had, since the group’s inception, characterised much of its off-stage activity.

I’ve written at length about The Smiths over the years, with varying degrees of success but with no little confidence, simply because they were the first band I so obsessively lived through and the first band I ever felt like I had shares in. I certainly spent enough on them and, because I’d invested so heavily in them in other respects as well, I  tended to defer to Max Boyce’s stock punchline when it came to analysing them :- I know because I was there.

And I certainly was there, if not at the very start, then certainly close enough to it, having had my head turned as soon as I heard The Smiths on both Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on RTÉ Radio 2, John Peel’s BBC equivalent and, bizarrely, having caught sight of them on late night television performing ‘This Charming Man’ on a one-off European music initiative featuring emerging music from across the continent. Captured alongside a feeble, long-lost British outfit, The Immaculate Fools, and a number of freakish cross-continental acts trying, as can often be the case, just a tad too hard, The Smiths stood out as a distinctive star turn simply because, in the abject normality that defined every single aspect of them, they were clearly anything but normal.

I was there too in the old Savoy on Patrick Street when The Smiths played in Cork twice, on May 20th and November 18th, 1984 and when, within actual touching distance of them, they sealed the deal, almost face-to-face, as the most important and influential band of my generation.

Both of those shows took place as I was gearing up to leave secondary school and, with half an eye and two working ears on what was around the corner, fancied myself as a veteran of the local music circuit, having already been to all of one indoor live show and a couple of random outdoor events. But although I’d been squirreling and collecting for a number of years, back-filling the gaps in my developing ELO library, acquiring and swapping new material as regularly as I could and rowing in squarely behind Sindikat, a band from our school who’d done the unthinkable and formed under our noses, The Smiths were the first group whose releases, always flagged well in advance in the music press, I regarded as genuine events and to which I counted down.

And in this respect, the radio was another vital spoke :- Peel, and his long-time producer, John Walters, memorably hosted four separate Smiths radio sessions between 1983 and 1986 and, like Fanning, would play all of the group’s releases well in advance of their availability in the shops. For which you’d have a second or third-hand cassette on eternal stand-by in the old three-in-one in case either of them dropped an unexpected pre-issue, without warning.

 

 

It was Fanning, of course, who alerted us to those first Smiths shows in Ireland – I still consider this sort of carry-on to define the term ‘public service broadcasting’ – when he announced that they were on their way to play dates in Belfast, Dublin and Cork in support of their debut album. And yet for all of the urgency that under-pinned the band’s recorded material, myself and my friend, Philip, didn’t really know what to expect when we fetched up outside The Savoy on a Sunday evening in May, 1984, in our long rain-coats, tickets in hand and mad for road.

But from early – and we were there very, very early – it was clear that The Smiths were much more than a little-known secret shared by a handful of us up on the northside. One of the more interesting aspects of the band’s history was how, throughout its career, it attracted fans from right across the social strata, much of it male-skewing and with a prominent contingent of hard shams in among the more introspective, centrally-cast indie-kids. Among whom was another friend of mine, Marc Buckley, another acolyte who arrived at The Savoy, as did numerous others, clutching a bunch of freshly cut flowers and wearing a considerable quiff.

Philip and myself soon found ourselves chatting to a pair of friendly girls we’d met on the tiled stairs and, for whatever reason, we told them we were supporting The Smiths a little later. And there were, of course, numerous similarities between ourselves and The Frank Chickens, the gobby Japanese lesbians who were actually due to open proceedings.

The Chickens, as with many of Peel’s more random curios over the decades, sounded far better in theory that they did in practice and, with their unsteady backing tracks, loops and high-octane, skittish twin vocals, failed to convince the locals, who’d started to assemble in numbers by the time they’d finished a quite bizarre set. They left the stage to the usual heckles and, responding to a not unreasonable suggestion from half-way back that they were, perhaps, not up to championship standard, replied – ‘We think you’re shit too’ – before beating a hasty retreat under a hail of gob, never to be seen in Cork again. A scene we’d witness again, in the same venue and in much the same circumstances, before the year was out.

But once The Smiths took the stage to the jagged, slash-cut opening bars of ‘Still Ill’, and Morrissey emerged from the shadows, his outsized shirt already opened to the navel, The Frank Chickens had been consigned to the footnotes of what was to become a spectacular history. Over the course of a sharp, frenetic and powerful sixteen song set, The Smiths just burned the house down :- in the long and diverse history of live shows in Cork, it is easily among one of the most lethal.

Because while that show has remained vivid in the memories of most of those who attended it, many of them left there that night intent on starting their own bands immediately afterwards, boldly going for it and  just taking their chances. And those among the audience that were already involved in fledging groups around the city, and there were many, left with plenty of food for thought :- if this was where the bar was now set, then what, really, was the point ?

The set-list for that first Cork show is widely available on all of the usual on-line resources and, of course, Johnny Rogan’s exhaustive ‘The Severed Alliance’ is incomparable in terms of context and background. But although Morrissey so physically dominated that Cork show – and I couldn’t believe how imposing he was, and how he so used his body for emphasis – neither could I get my head around how small and slight Johnny Marr was. And, of course, how his nimble hands made one guitar sound like three.

The songs were already well-known to anyone who’d bought the band’s unconvincing debut album, ‘The Smiths’, and who was familiar with the terrific additional content on their singles. But they also introduced one new number, a protracted, funked-up, bass-prominent beauty called ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’, during which Morrissey baited the audience with flowers throughout the long instrumental passages and Andy Rourke stepped into the spotlight to reveal just how important his industry and frame of reference was to the band’s sound. And we were just learning all of the time.

 

 

The Smiths returned to The Savoy six months later, during which time they’d been sucked slowly in from the margins. But although the group would go on to regularly feature at the business end of the album charts, they never really enjoyed the consistent successes they craved with the shorter form, which was one of Morrissey and Marr’s primary ambitions for their group from the get-go.

Even so, the singer had already been rumbled by the tabloids who, picking up on the platinum-plated copy he routinely provided in interviews, had become as regular a freak feature in The Sun as he was on the hit parade, portrayed variously as a dangerous, anti-royal traitor, a sexual deviant and a macabre, terrorist-loving, tree-hugging weirdo. Or, if you like, the Jeremy Corbyn of his time.

The Denis Desmond/MCD-promoted, nine-date, eight-town tour of Ireland during November, 1984, took place less than one month after the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the British Conservative Party was holding its annual conference, and during a particularly dark period in modern Irish history when loyalist and republican terrorism across the island routinely dominated the news agenda. And at a time too when many formidable contemporary bands just simply wouldn’t – or were advised not to – play in the north of Ireland.

With The Smiths on the road in support of their stop-gap, compilation album, ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, Morrissey gave the London press a series of typically headline-grabbing quotes during the media campaign to promote it, one of the most notable of which referred to Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s Prime Minister, and who had survived the Brighton bombing, which killed three people and injured thirty more.

‘The sorrow of the Brighton bombing’, Morrissey claimed, ‘is that Thatcher escaped unscathed. I think that, for once, the IRA were accurate in selecting their targets’.

And it was against this backdrop, six weeks after U2 released ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ and five months after Bob Dylan’s show at Slane Castle was marred by riots around the County Meath town, that The Smiths returned to Ireland. During which they played shows in Letterkenny, Belfast and Coleraine, as well as the usual stop-offs, fetching up in Cork for the second and last time on Sunday, November 18th, 1984, one week before Midge Ure and Bob Geldof recorded the Band Aid single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and a week after Madonna released her remarkable breakthrough album, ‘Like A Virgin’.

The mood inside The Savoy, second time around, was just as frenzied and excitable as it had been earlier that year, and maybe overly-so. The crowd itself was far bigger, as you’d expect, and the promoters had put an extra 50p on the price of the tickets [from memory, and I stand corrected on this, up from £6 to £6.50]. And, once again, myself and Philip were there, close enough to see the magicians work the stage, far enough away to avoid the on-going bash-ball inside the moshing zone. The support this time was provided by James, yet another fledgling and already highly regarded Manchester band [is there ever any other kind ?], who’d released a fine first record, the ‘Jimone’ EP, on the Factory label and who, during their formative years, enjoyed Morrissey’s very public patronage. For better and, possibly, for worse.

The Smiths’ set had changed quite drastically in the interim. And although they were ostensibly promoting ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, the band was also road-testing several of the tracks that would buttress its second studio album, ‘Meat Is Murder’. Taking their opening positions to the foreboding sounds of Prokofiev’s dramatic overture, ‘Romeo And Juliet’, they opened bravely with one of their more introspective cuts, ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’, which had featured as a quality b-side on their ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single earlier that summer, and into which they quickly segued.

Foremost among the clatter of new material was a frantic take on ‘What She Said’ and, close to the end, a bionic, souped-up ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’, by which time the atmosphere inside the hall had turned sharply. Marr had become the unwitting target of a hail of spit half-way through, an unfortunate knuckle-walker’s pastime that many of us suspected, wrongly, had died after The Sex Pistols signed to a major label.

 

 

And after two audible warnings – at one point he arched his callow body back and looked like he was going to lash out – he eventually walked off just shy of the hour mark, taking the rest of the band with him. The Smiths returned, reluctantly enough it seemed to me, to do a two song encore, finishing on a high with ‘What Difference Does It Make’, but Marr had the last word :- he leaned into a vocal mic on the way off and told the crowd, not incongruously, how he’d ‘come to play and not to be spat at’, before leaving again, this time for good.

As the house lights came up around The Savoy, a section of the crowd, some checking their watches, began to vent, boo-ing initially – more, I suspect, in the direction of those who’d caused the walk-off than at the band itself – and then, once it was obvious that the show was over and that The Smiths weren’t returning, broke into a ridiculous chorus of ‘We want James’.

So while the Cork crowd was given an early flavour of some of the more sinewy cuts from ‘Meat Is Murder’, it also experienced the shortest Smiths set, by at least three songs, of that leg of the tour. But not before Morrissey, as the band set up for its encore, returned to the stage with a small sapling, which he wielded like a bicycle chain during ‘Hand In Glove’, and then deposited with gusto into the audience.

The Smiths certainly knew how to make an exit like they knew how to make an entrance. And they never returned to Cork again.

 

 

 

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‘IF YOU COULDN’T PERSUADE HENRY’S, YOU DIDN’T MATTER WHERE IT MATTERED’

Sign

Image courtesy of Theresa Lucey

 

This post first appeared last year on the blog for the Sir Henrys 2014 Exhibition held at Boole Library, University College Cork. It is reproduced here in full.

 

I can’t remember the first time I set foot inside Sir Henrys and I can’t remember the last time either but I remember clearly where the rose was sown.

 

I was a weedy teenager during the summer of 1982 [and for several other summers thereafter] when my father arranged a part-time job for me, my first. For eight weeks I stacked shelves and packed shopping bags, without any great distinction, in Roches Stores on Patrick Street. On my first day I was assigned to the biscuit aisle ;- on my second, to stack sanitary towels in the female toiletries section. I was asked by one of my co-workers – an older man whose hands were pock-marked with Indian ink – if I’d ever been ‘inside’. I was a teenage boy from Blackpool and, even thirty years ago, it was an obvious question.

 

Before the end of the summer I’d struck up with another pair of part-timers who made like they knew their music. One was obsessed with a nascent Dublin group called U2 and appeared to have form. He wore a bouffant centre parting in his hair, managed regularly by twin combs, clearly in honour of the band’s drummer. The other seemed to know quite a bit about Ireland’s darker underbelly. Dave Fanning, Hot Press, hash. Such things.

 

There was loose banter in the store-room one day about Sir Henry’s, with which both of my colleagues were familiar. There was a framed U2 poster to one side of the venue, apparently. Signed by the band. U2 liked Cork and someone’s relation helped them to set up their drums. I’d regularly seen Sir Henry’s from the outside. Hadden’s Bakery on North Main Street was on my family’s regular beat and, in the days long before paid parking, we’d frequently pull the car up outside. The place looked like a right toilet, but I never imagined that it would look even worse on the inside.

 

Myself and my friends were regulars at Sir Henry’s from around 1987 until 1994, when I left Cork for good. It was somewhere we went to hear live music and see bands, good, bad and often un-naturally ugly. Back then, when we knew nothing and cared less, music meant the world. And Sir Henry’s was one of the foundation blocks.

 

The place hosted some truly memorable nights and some remarkable live shows and, even at a distance of twenty five years I can clearly recall the most minor moments of some of the better ones.

 

In terms of Irish bands, it was in Sir Henry’s that Power of Dreams, The Sultans, The Franks, Engine Alley, The Subterraneans and Therapy? flowered in their pomp. It was in Henry’s too that arguably the finest and most perpetually ignored of them all, Into Paradise, played like their necks were on the line to a meagre scattering of, maybe, fifty people at a push. If anything captured their career in a snapshot, it was the continued indifference of Cork audiences. If you couldn’t persuade Henry’s, you didn’t matter where it mattered. Sir Henry’s could be cold and unforgiving and, while many were called, only the few were eventually annointed.

 

The Blue Angels being a particular case in point. Blue In Heaven were contemporaries and peers of Into Paradise from Churchtown, a suburb in South Dublin. A dirty and easily detonated live act, they found particular favour in Cork, and amongst the Sir Henry’s frontline especially.

 

Most of Blue In Heaven eventually evolved into a more considered and mildly diverting sub-species, The Blue Angels. But the Sir Henry’s crowd were having none of it and more or less refused to acknowledge they existed. The Blue Angels were famously sent packing for Dublin to the sound of one man clapping. They were a fickle crowd, the Henry’s lot.

 

But they adored their own too and I can still feel the fuzzy urgency with which my favourite Cork bands went about their thing on the live stage at Sir Henry’s [although plenty of other business was conducted off-stage too]. LMNO Pelican – who I later had the pleasure of producing – were restless, busy and catchy. I remember encountering a nervous and sensibly sober Brendan Butler for the first time, the Pelican’s drummer and heartbeat. ‘Alright player’, he opened, before heading straight to the gut of the matter :- he was chasing a critical view on a new Guadalcanal Diary compilation. We lost Brendan at a desperately young age in February, 2013 and its only right and proper that, in any potted history of Cork music, he is appropriately remembered and acknowledged. Rest easily, champ.

 

I concede now, as I did very openly then, to a soft-spot for local bands like The Bedroom Convention, Lift, Benny’s Head, Treehouse, Real Mayonnaise and The How And Why Insects, who later became Starchild and Crystal. These were the names that stood out then like they still do so now, a rangey peleton of domestiques in support of the prestige riders, lead by Cypress, Mine !, Burning Embers and The Belsonic Sound.

 

Of the blow-ins, my strongest recollections include live shows by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, The Wedding Present, Babes In Toyland, The Sisters Of Mercy and That Petrol Emotion. It still rankles that I never saw either Microdisney or The Fatima Mansions live in Sir Henry’s :- in the great traditions of Cork politics, The Fatima Mansions tended to favour De Lacy House while Microdisney [although I first saw them support Depeche Mode in The City Hall in 1982] and me just didn’t have our clocks in sync and they’d fled Ireland years before I’d ventured out of Blackpool.

 

But while Sir Henry’s could destroy even the most vaunted of visitors, the inverse could be true too. Transvision Vamp played there once and, to my mind, blew the place limb from limb. ‘I wanna be your dog’ roared a leery drunk from the front row at the lead singer. ‘Woof woof’, responded Wendy James, as she sank a prozzie’s heel into his snout.

 

To my mind, Sir Henry’s rightful reputation as the country’s best live music venue bar-none was franked and sealed over three consecutive nights during the Summer of 1991. Facilitated through the offices of Ian Wilson and his team at Radio 2FM, Cork Rock was an annual shindig that assembled fifteen of the country’s best, aspiring and unsigned bands and flashed them in short-set form to sussed audiences speckled with talent spotters flown in – on generous expenses – from Britain and elsewhere.

 

The line-up in 1991 tells its own story and, among those bucks who faced the starter’s gun were The Frank And Walters, The Sultans Of Ping F.C., The Cranberries, Therapy?, The Brilliant Trees and Toasted Heretic.

 

It was, without question, the single most exhilirating weekend I can recall in my short, personal relationship with Sir Henry’s. And I still meet friends and acquaintances, now well into their forties and beyond, who legitimately lay claim to having been there before the finest generation of young Irish bands ever took flight with The Man.

 

Work subsequently took me to many more live venues all over Britain and Europe throughout the 1990s. And with a fresh perspective it was clear to me that, whatever we thought back then, Sir Henry’s was in many ways less artifice and more franchise. Every city that assumes a love of new music and a fostering of new acts has venues that sound, look and smell like Henry’s used to do at its peak. London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Paris, New York.

 

In hindsight, Sir Henry’s was where the more intense kids went after they’d outgrown the secondary school disco and re-calibrated their ambitions. To me, one of the venue’s primary attractions was that it was on our doorstep [and not in Dublin] and, to those of us who, by 1986 and 1987 had grown into angry young men and women, this was of no little import.

 

My fellow traveller at this time was a friend I’d met in school, Philip Kennedy. During the summers from 1982 onwards, we’d started another, far more attractive form of rote learning and, in so doing, developed a love of Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, REM and, memorably, the frenetic political jangle of McCarthy [Morty McCarthy [no relation], was the key dealer here].

 

We spent our evenings swapping albums, battered cassettes, taped radio programmes, bootlegs and even demos. It was through Philip [and his regular dealer, Morty] that I first heard the famous first Frank And Walters demo, a tape that genuinely blew me away and which kick-started a long-standing connection that endures to this day.

 

It was Philip who, while I was away in America in 1988, harrassed Ciaran O’Tuama, then manning Comet Records with Jim O’Mahony, on a regular basis about a likely release date for the second Cypress, Mine ! album. That record, which is magnificent, has still to see the light of day, although I remain hopelessly optimistic, as I always did for that band.

 

Phil and myself hung out into the long summer nights on the railings outside his house on Saint Mary’s Road, by Neptune Stadium, talking the big music. Or just talking big about music. In our heads we cut an artsy dash along Redemption Road as we ferried our albums, always under-arm, for everyone to see. In reality, our parents may have hoped this was all just a fad, a passing thing. Sir Henrys became a natural extension of those nights, but it wasn’t the only one. My own favourite Cork venue was Mojos. Or De Lacy House. Or The Shelter. Or, briefly, The Underground, down a side alley around the back of Roches Stores. It was there that I once saw Sindikat, one of my favourite ever Cork bands, comprised mostly of past pupils of our old school. I may even have seen The Stars of Heaven there, a band who, had their store of stellar notices converted to sales, could have retired to stud after the release of their first album, ‘Speak Slowly’. Philip passed away on April 28th, 2006. He hadn’t yet turned 40 years of age and I never hear a cracking new album or see a storming new live band without thinking of how he’d so forensically de-construct them. And he was sharp and funny with it too.

 

One night we encountered Margaret Dorgan on Parnell Bridge ;- she was off to see a local band, The Pretty Persuasions, in The Phoenix. Margaret shared her concerns for the band’s well-being, worried that there might be were too many ‘posers’ in the audience.

 

‘The only posers there’, Philip told her, ‘will be on the stage’.

 

He was there at my elbow for years, through the good times and the even better times. He saw Sir Henry’s claim its many trophies and also bury a hell of a lot of bands who simply couldn’t cut muster. From wherever he is now, he knows where the bodies lie and, more importantly, why Sir Henry’s took shovels to their crowns.