Sisters of Mercy

WOULD YOU LOOK AT THE STATE OF US ? MUSIC IN CORK, 1992.

As a college student in Cork between 1985 and 1989, The Triskel Arts Centre was where I believed some of the more off-beat cultural stuff in the city was going down. Located in an alleyway off of the junction of Washington Street and The Grand Parade, it was a bespoke venue that was certainly on my radar, albeit one that I visited sparingly. Over the years I saw a handful of excellent theatre performances there, as well as a couple of smashing live music shows. I can especially remember seeing Anthony And De Confidence do a ‘multi-media show’ there in 1988 and I also helped to promote a live Serengeti Long Walk gig at The Triskel, which was recorded by Ray O’Callaghan [no relation] of Poles Apart.

de-Confidence-Feb-14-742x745

De Confidence via http://www.ansanctoir.ie

Later, as producer of the No Disco television series, I returned to film some acoustic sessions there, most notably with The Harvest Ministers, Martin Stephenson of The Daintees and the wonderful Kerry singer-songwriter, John Hegarty. My most recent visit to Triskel was in 2001 when, in another guise, we hired the theatre to premiere a documentary film a bout the footballer, Denis Irwin.

I’d always considered Triskel to be just a little bit beyond me, even if this had more to do with my own ignorance than anything else. That said, I recall very vividly the venue’s former Administrator, Robbie McDonald, making many an impassioned and literate contribution in the media on behalf of arts life in Cork city.

So I was genuinely taken aback when, in the Autumn of 1992, I was asked by Triskel to make a contribution to The Cork Review, a yearly over-view of cultural life in the city published by the Centre. My task was to offer a breezy snap-shot of how Cork was faring in the worlds of rock and pop music.

At the time I was free-lancing, writing largely about music but also working on a short-lived television series for RTE 2 called ‘Rant’. It was put to me that my piece could counterpoint some of the other, more formal pieces that had been commissioned for that issue of The Cork Review and it’s clear now that I followed that instruction very literally. And then some.

The best that can be said for my piece is that it’s enthusiastic and passionate :- I clearly had a bee in my bonnet about how incestuous and trite the local scene was but didn’t have the ability to articulate it properly. I’d started to believe that regional bands – and Cork bands, particularly – simply didn’t generate the national recognition some of them deserved. I also felt that some bands didn’t do themselves any favours when it came to making the most of what they had :- frustratingly, some really great young Cork bands just didn’t want to push on and were content to lord it over their peers in The College Bar or The Liberty Bar and no further. And of course this was – and is – absolutely fine too :- it’s just that I didn’t appreciate that back in 1992.

And then there were those bands who just refused or were unable to accept any form of criticism, however well-intentioned. This sensitivity was heightened in Cork :- a friend of mine says that no-one does ‘indignant’ like Cork people, and she’s right.

But 1991 and 1992 were real breakthrough years and so, with no little relish, I polished off my crystal ball, lowered the blades, and set to work.

Up   Your   Arts

All right then, so where do I begin ? I’m not really sure. It’s just that there have been so many bands, so many songs, so many singers in funny haircuts. Some have been great and some could have been great and some have been just plain horrible, but then that was never an issue. I mean, really ?

We laughed then and we still laugh now and at least we’ve got lots of little stories for when we’re walking home late at night and it’s raining heavily and we haven’t brought our umbrellas. But right now ? Well … Cork pop is in more eyes than ever before. And this time it’s in other people’s eyes too. And that makes for some change.

You see, Cork pop, just like Cork folk or Cork theatre or Cork classical, well, it’s horribly self-contained. It’s too bloody close and too bloody narrow-minded for its own good. We are wary of opinions and we hold lots of petty little grudges. And we’re still, like it or not, as vulnerable as we ever were. We’re paranoid as hell too, too slow to let go. Too many of us just don’t want to share our bands. We want to know all of the details all of the time. There should be room for talk, sure, but not for theft and lies and vendettas. But at least most of us understand that now. After all, hey, it’s only songs.

But Cork is cooler than most right now. Both The Frank And Walters and The Sultans of Ping FC have become big and notorious and have made great records and, for once, well, we’re not fooling ourselves. And sure, we’re had bands before but we’ve never had bands quite like these. These bands aren’t just big pop kids in their own underpants. Others have taken the message and bought the records. These bands don’t just exist in the pages of the music papers. They play to loads of people in loads of places. We’re not exactly sure where all of this is going, of course, but then neither are they. But at least they are going. And at least they’re thinking big. Narrow streets, you know, breed too many narrow minds. And this is a great big world.

But I’m not here to bitch and gripe, I guess. No. Cork is where I come from and it’s where I saw my first shows and it’s where I bought my first records and it’s where I wrote my first reviews and stuff. But for me, well, for me The Frank And Walters kind of say it all, you know. It’s no big secret, but I know them and I work with them and I’ve helped them from time to time and I still get all chilled-up when they bring around some new songs on a noisy cassette.

But The Frank And Walters are, quite probably, pop’s most unaffected band. And the more that I live and the more that I see, well, the more I’m impressed and the more I want to hear some more. Alright, so maybe they’re ‘essentially Cork’ or maybe they’re ‘whacky’ or maybe they’re ‘quaint’ ? I don’t know and, in all honesty, I’m way past caring. But they’ve got a barrowload of great songs and a free and easy talent. They just write the songs :- some of the best songs that I’ve heard and that’s for sure. And I know that they’ll sell tankerloads of records. And I know that they’ll be on bedroom walls. I just know. Believe me.

But The Frank And Walters, unlike too many bands, know that all of this is just one big rotten game. At least they’ve got songs, which is more than most. But they’ve also got a manager with a tight haircut and some wits, they’ve got luck because they make their own and they’ve got marketing and press and they’ve played every toilet from Dudley to Buckley and back. But it helps too when you’ve got parents who don’t gripe when you’re making yet another cross-channel call ; when you’ve got parents who help to put your posters up and who take out subscriptions to Spiral Scratch and who know Verve’s mid-week chart position. It all adds up.

But looking back is kind of fun too, you know. I mean, did we really try to record once in a studio which had no reel-to-reel recording tape ? Did we really wrangle a live show in U.C.C. just so that we could review ourselves in Hot Press ? Did singer Paul pose with his bass-guitar on the front of The Cork Examiner ? In colour ? Ah, the ways in which we were raised.

Five go down to the sea

Five go Down to the Sea via  https://www.youtube.com

But there were others too. And there were other songs : and other times. Did Five Go Down To Sea really have songs called ‘What Happened Your Leg?’ and ‘Kelly From Killeen’ and ‘Carrots From Clonmel’ ? Did Sindikat really break a bass-guitar string during a City Carnival show in The Ivernia car-park ? And did singer Pat really drop his tartan punk trousers during a show in The Underground ? Were Censored Vision really serious ? Did Without The really have a song called ‘Sit on my face, Elaine’. Were there really fifty-three record company pigs in Sir Henry’s to see An Emotional Fish play at Cork Rock ? And did we really  spend an endless weekend at Euro Rock two years ago, where we saw fifteen bands back-to-back ? And then The Sisters of Mercy ?

And then That Petrol Emotion ? And did Scarlet Page splay their legs and thank people during a song called ‘In The City’ in front of seventeen people ? In The Opera House ? And did Serengeti Long Walk really have a band logo that had a little man in a trilby hat ?

But there are little frustrations too, of course. Like that Cypress, Mine ! broke Up and that they never got to put ‘Last Night I Met The Man For Me’ out. Or that Lift aren’t huge. And that we still sneer and gripe and complain about everything and see things through parochial glasses and that. But hey, that’s pop and that’s life and we’re never quite sure what’s around the next corner anyway. I’m just glad that I’ve been and seen.

I like to think that the best is yet to come. One day I may even get to have a real job. But just not yet.

This piece was originally printed in The Cork Review, 1992. Published by Triskel Arts Centre.

‘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.