Stars of Heaven

PUBLIC ENEMY 30 YEARS ON

Thirty years ago this weekend, Public Enemy played Trinity College, Dublin. Kieran Cunningham, Chief Sports Writer with the Irish Daily Star, and someone who once had musical notions of his own, has written this excellent guest post for us. 

Joe Brolly was lying on his back on the cobblestones. Staring at the stars, wired to the moon.

Tuxedo, white shirt, polished shoes, proper bowtie. A walkie-talkie as big as his big, big head pressed to his ear.

Dungiven’s finest was trying to get in touch with the Starship Enterprise.

“There seems to be no sign of intelligent life anywhere, Captain, but the air…the air is tight and closing in. You’ve got to beam me up!”

Joe, a first year law student, was ‘working’ as security at the Trinity Ball.

This was one of the great cover stories. A gig on security meant a free pass to the show and it was easy to hide. It was a time before mobile phones so walkie-talkies were supplied. Large and unwieldy, they were a mass of crackles and static. Unpredictable and untrustworthy. Unlike Joe, of course.

So the temptation to go AWOL was huge. Joe didn’t resist…

The date was May 20, 1988, and the 30th anniversary this week is significant. It marks three decades since Public Enemy first played in Ireland. Open to correction, but I believe it was the first major hip-hop gig in Ireland.

I had a small part to play in them coming here, but will come to that anon. First, some context. Colm has written wonderfully well in this space on so many aspects of Irish music in the 1980s and 1990s, but I’ve read little over the years on the impact of the Ents circuit in colleges.

I’m more than a little wary of getting into the nostalgia business, as the danger of dressing up often bleak times in sentimental colours is always there.

Leeches on their arms and legs. Stomach purges, live burials, and ”warm hypnotic emulsions”, whatever on earth they are. These were just some of the cures used for nostalgia in different centuries.

You see, from the 17th to 19th century, it was actually classed as a disease. Things got so bad in Switzerland that the playing of a milking song, Khue-Reyen, was punishable by death. This was due to the supposed fact that Swiss soldiers were overcome with nostalgia and useless for battle if they heard it.

So I’ve always been wary of nostalgia about student days. Truth to tell, I stumbled into college. In the months before, I was giving serious consideration to giving it a miss. At the time, I was singing in a band called The Hour After, with three Gallagher brothers. The original of the species.

They were, like many in west Donegal, Glasgow born and bred before moving across the water with their parents. We bumped into each other through a mutual friend and found a shared obsession with Echo and the Bunnymen.

Only problem was they lived in The Rosses, 45 miles away from me in Glencolmcille, so we could only practise at weekends, and it was hardcore. Seven hours on a Saturday, seven hours on a Sunday.

Nobody had any money in the 1980s so, to cut petrol costs, I’d get a lift on the back of the drummer’s Vespa for one leg of the journey on the Saturday morning, staying in their house, and returning in a battered Hiace van on the Sunday night.

Our set-list was a diet of Bunnymen, Velvets, Iggy Pop and Doors covers, but we had notions. They were keen for me to commit full-time and give up on college, and I thought seriously about doing so. Luckily, I got sense.

Arrived into Trinity to study English and Sociology in September, 1985, wide-eyed and clueless. It was Fresher’s Week, so Front Square was lined with various stalls trying to entice the gullible to join everything from debating societies to sports clubs to the wonderfully named ‘Rock Nostalgia Society’.

By chance, I got talking to a tall Dubliner with a mohican and 12 hole Docs. His name was Barry Henry, and he was involved with Ents. We ended up as close friends, sharing a flat in London in the mid-1990s.

There were free lunchtime gigs in the Junior Common Room (JCR) above Front Gate that week, with A House among those playing. Bands I’d grown fond of from listening to Dave Fanning and now they were playing a couple of feet in front of me. This was mind-blowing. In that first term, among those to play in Trinity were the kick-ass Green On Red, part of the Paisley Underground movement – if you could call it a movement – in the US.

But the band that blew me away early on were The Triffids. Australian outlaws with a troubled and charismatic singer in David McComb, who tragically died at just 36 in 1999.

Dublin was a pretty grim place, in many aspects, back then. So many miserable cold bedsits. So much frustration and pent-up rage. Gigs were often violent affairs. Then there was the suffocating smog in the winter. Nothing to look forward to but a plane ticket to London or New York in search of work.

Things were so bad we used to drink Furstenberg.

But there were up-sides too. There was a remarkable energy to the place. Temple Bar was a very different place, and it rang to the sounds of dozens of bands rehearsing, the murmur of planning and plotting and scheming.

In places like the Coffee Inn, Well Red Cafe and Marks Brothers, plans for world domination were put in place. Often over steaming mugs of Nicaraguan coffee. It was a time of AIDs benefits and a constant hum of debate about abortion. Some things never change.

It was a time too when Trinity had a serious Gaelic football team, one that would have won a Sigerson Cup in different eras.

They did win the league but, in Sigerson, had the misfortune to come up against a genius called Maurice Fitzgerald in the red and black of UCC.

Joe Brolly was one of the star turns up front, but there were other fine players. Paddy O’Donoghue took the frees and went on to win the man of the match award when Kilmacud Crokes took the All-Ireland club crown in 1995. He was a selector with Pat Gilroy, another Trinity footballer, when Dublin won the 2011 All-Ireland and is now alongside Gilroy with the capital’s hurlers.

Ciaran Murray of Monaghan, Wicklow’s Conan Daye, Sean Kelly of Meath, Cavan’s Cian Murtagh … it was a fine team.

Of that side, I was particularly friendly with Terry Jennings, who I usually see these days at reunion gigs by The Blades. Terry is now heavily involved in coaching with Kilmacud Crokes, having made the sacrilegious leap across the river from his beloved St Vincent’s.

He had a spell with the Dubs under Pat O’Neill, coming up with one of the great lines to describe life as an inter-county fringe player. “I spent 10 years trying to get on the Dublin panel and six months trying to get off it.”

Terry is one of the most significant figures in the history of Dublin football, though, making a seismic impact when he was just seven years old.

In the 1974 Championship, the Dubs had struggled to an underwhelming victory away to Wexford first time out. Kevin Heffernan headed home in despair and, in the car with him were his wife, Mary, his wife’s friend Lily Jennings and her son, Terry.

Heffo was lamenting his fruitless search for a free-taker which caused young Terry to pipe up: “I’ve never seen Jimmy Keaveney miss one.” That planted a seed in Heffo’s mind. He persuaded Keaveney to come out of retirement, got him fit and his fellow Vincent’s man played a huge role in Dublin’s most glorious era.

Trinity might seem like an unlikely GAA hotspot, and it was Heffo who was the trailblazer. One of his early great days was playing for Trinity in the Duke Cup final in 1955. UCD ran riot in the first half, leading by 14 points at the break.

Trinity needed a strong second half and won a penalty almost from the throw-in. Heffo blasted it wide. The Kerry poet Brendan Kennelly was a Trinity teammate that day and later recalled his reaction.

“Having missed the penalty, the man went mad, and inside 10 minutes, he had the ball three times in the UCD net, and then added a several points,” he said:

“Heffo was a great full-forward because he was an efficient and stylish savage of a player, who was at his best when he was slightly humiliated. If he had scored the penalty, we would have lost. He might have relaxed. He might have lost his demon energy. But he didn’t, and we won, because he was suddenly humiliated into greatness.”

Humiliated into greatness. What a line.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, I’d inveigled myself on to the Ents crew. This involved many things. Putting up posters, humping PA systems around, the bonus of DJing in The Buttery on a Wednesday night with payment being five free pints.

In the pre-internet, pre-selfie, pre-smartphone world, things were simpler. One night, a band led by Neil McCormick, Shook Up!, were playing in The Buttery. McCormick went on to carve out a very successful career as a music journalist in the UK but one of his claims to fame back then was that he’d gone to Mount Temple with U2.

Sure enough, Bono was at the gig with his wife, Ali. With the innocence and bravado of youth – I went up and started chatting. Bono yapped happily away, bought his rounds and then dragged me to Hothouse Flowers, who were playing a late night gig in the Arts Block. That led to those on the door later asking ‘How do you know Bono? ‘I don’t’. But things were simpler, there wasn’t the same kind of distance then. We’d get to know The Stars of Heaven and Something Happens through Ents gigs and would play football with them in Herbert Park.

Colm has written here before about The Stars, a special band, and it brings to mind the influence of Eamon Carr – the only Irish journalist who should write an autobiography.

Eamon has had an extraordinary life, from a start in advertising to drumming with Horslips, to setting up Hotwire Records. Guru Weirdbrain was Eamon’s alter-ego, and he put together a fine compilation – Weird Weird World of Guru Weirdbrain on Hotwire in 1985. If featured everybody from The Stars of Heaven to The Golden Horde to The Real Wild West to Paranoid Visions and The Baby Snakes.

Modern journalism is in thrall to third-level colleges, with most recruits coming straight from media courses and with little life experience outside of that. It could do with more who have taken the road not taken. Like Eamon. Not many journalists these days have written poems and plays, or completed a PhD in History of Art.

I’ll always remember a press junket to New York a decade ago for a fight between Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones Jr in Madison Square Garden. It was the week of Barack Obama’s elevation to the US Presidency so Gotham was buzzing.

After the Calzaghe/Jones fight, we headed to the press conference room, waiting for the two boxers to come in. I was sitting beside Eamon and he recognised a chap in the row in front of us. It was Richard Williams, then the chief sports writer of The Guardian. Eamon tapped him on the shoulder and introduced himself. “Remember me? I was on with Horslips when you were presenting The Old Grey Whistle Test.”

Public 2

The Go-Betweens, live at TCD. Courtesy of the author.

Many of Eamon’s buddies on Hotwire were Trinity regulars, and the Ball at the end of my first year was special. Dr and the Medics, who’d just been at number one in the UK with a cover of ‘Spirit in the Sky’. The Pogues, That Petrol Emotion, The Go-Betweens.

Remarkably, the latter played one of the free lunchtime gigs in Trinity week, with a stage facing the cricket pitch. Robert Forster recalled that day in his autobiography ‘Grant and I’:

We played on a makeshift outdoor stage in a corner of Trinity College. It had rained most of the morning, and the crowd were as amazed as the appearance of the sun as they were at the sight and sound of the group. Our final note bringing a downpour, and a rubbed-eye, did-that-really-happen? experience that was pure Go-Betweens.

A few months back, Jessica Moss uploaded a photo of that lunchtime gig to Twitter. Was taken aback by being able to spot myself to the left of the stage.

My friend, Barry Henry, had been elected Ents officer for my second year and I gave more and more energy to that side of college life. The plan to go for the job myself at some stage was hatching. It had considerable perks. A year out of studies with a modest wage but a free apartment on campus was part of the deal.

Another friend, Paul Gavin, ran for Ents in second year and got the gig. That turned out to be quite a year. I’d spent the summer of 1987 in London and returned to Dublin for the new term, hooking up with Paul to catch up on his plans. He was buzzing over having booked Bad Manners to play the Freshers Ball.

“Remember the big fat bald lad? They’ll be a great laugh.” “You do know they have a huge skinhead following, Paul?” “No…”

At the time, gangs of skinheads caused regular trouble at gigs, so we had the extraordinary experience of arranging a meeting between ourselves, the college authorities and a chap known only as ‘King Skin’. He promised to make sure that peace was kept, but Paul called in a few of the Trinity rugby team as extra security on the night to make sure. We all linked arms around the stage, facing the crowd. Hordes of skins surged forward again and again, storming on to the stage, with Buster Bloodvessel showing surprisingly nifty footwork to get out of the way.

Public 3

Poster for Showaddywaddy gig, courtesy of the author.

We’d do our best to haul them off, link arms, and go again. It was quite an adrenaline rush. A few months on, Paul had another brainwave. Showaddywaddy – rock ‘n’ roll revivalists who’d been huge a decade earlier – to headline the Valentine’s Ball with The Golden Horde as support. To make them feel at home, Paul had gone to a theatrical costume shop and hired a full Teddy Boy outfit – drape jacket, brocade waistcoat, bolo tie, drainpipe trousers, brothel creeper shoes. The works.

Paul and I went to meet Showaddywaddy beforehand and these middle-aged blokes from Leicester – dressed like middle-aged blokes from Leicester – looked at Paul’s outfit and just shook their heads. They did get in costume by the time the gig came around…

I had taken the plunge and ran for Ents officer in the annual Students Union elections but was the worst candidate in the world. Poor Barry was my campaign manager nad he must have been tearing his hair out. Terminally shy, having to stand in front of classes in lecture halls to give a stump speech was torture. I lost out to Edwina Forkin by about a hundred votes, and she became the first woman to hold the office. She did a great job too, memorably bringing The La’s over the following year, shortly after they released one of the great debut albums.

As part of his cunning plan to get me elected, Barry had found a way to get me on to the organising committee for the 1988 Trinity Ball. Around 30 bands play on the night, but the big headache was finding a headliner. There was one sleepy afternoon in the Ents office in Front Square when Paul and I were going through possibles, and we hit paydirt.

Paul was firing names at me. Band of Susans? Nah. The Shop Assistants? Nah. Voice of the Beehive? Meh. Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts? Oh, God. Napalm Death? No, no, no. Public Enemy? No…er, what, did you say Public Enemy? Yeah, they’re down to do a UK tour and might be on for coming over. Go for it, Paul, you have to go for it.

Hip-hop really came on our radar thanks to Chris Heaney, later the drummer with Stephen Ryan’s post-Stars outfit, The Revenants. Chris had spent a year studying in the States and augmented his collection of US hardcore punk with a few choice cuts from Def-Jam Records as well as NWA.

A few months earlier, Public Enemy’s ‘Yo, Bum Rush the Show’ had been voted as NME’s Album of the Year. At the end of 1988, they’d make it a double whammy, topping the NME poll with ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’. They were becoming the hottest act in the world.

Paul talked to the promoters and, unbelievably, their price was within our budget. Chancing my arm, I told Paul to ask them if they’d do one of the free lunchtime gigs as well. Incredibly, they agreed. But then things hit a snag.

Chuck D was Public Enemy’s voice, leader and guiding intelligence. He shared the vocal duties with Flavor Flav, a crown prince with an outsized clock hung around his neck.

Professor Griff was the self-styled Minister for Information with Terminator X the DJ who supplied the block-rocking beats.

What was causing trouble was the two dancers, if you could call them that, who went by the name of Security of the First World. They wore paramilitary uniforms and waved fake Uzi submachine guns around.

This was only a couple of months after one of the most volatile periods in Northern Ireland history. In the space of a fortnight in March, 1988, things got particularly toxic. The killing by the SAS of three IRA members in Gibraltar had led to a gun and grenade attack on their funeral in Belfast by loyalist Michael Stone, killing three. In turn, the subsquent funerals led to an horrific incident where two British Army coroporals drove into the cortege, and were then abducted and killed.

Somehow, in a time before Google, the college authorities got wind of Public Enemy’s paramilitary trappings. Mindful of the optics of such a show so soon after events in the north, a crisis meeting with the Senior Dean. Contracts had been signed so it was decided to push ahead, but the Trinity authorities weren’t happy.

As things turned out, the lunchtime gig was a damp squib. Public Enemy clearly didn’t want to know, blasting out a half-hearted ‘Bring the Noise’, before leaving the stage. It was a public appearance, rather than a show.

But they made up for it later that night at the Trinity Ball with a coruscating, fire-cracking show. Playing on the main stage in New Square, it was a strange sight. The sons and daughters of the Dublin middle classes in tuxedos and ball gowns, roaring ‘Fight the Power!’ with clenched fists aloft. And Chuck D didn’t endear himself to the powers-that-be with a speech from the stage about the north and British imperialism. Joe might have even got up off the cobblestones to check it out.

The following night, Public Enemy played another Dublin gig – rocking McGonagle’s to the rafters. I slept it out.

Public 1

The Author in 1988. Courtesy of the author, 2018.

THE STARS, THE THRILLS AND THE CLOCKS

One of the more attractive and visceral away trips for many of those involved in Gaelic games in Dublin is the winding drive up to Johnny Fox’s pub in Glengullen, the short walk across the wild mountainside and over to Stars Of Erin, one of the smallest clubs in the county and one of the most unique.

I’ve made my way up there regularly over the years with my daughters: they play for a neighbouring club and so matches and local blitzes at The Stars are a regular fixture for us. And if the games aren’t going well, the furze, the thin air and the views will invariably break the fall. So when your pocket-sized, eight year-old goalkeeper is having hassle with her air hurling, or if her ear-muffs aren’t fitting as comfortably as they might beneath her out-sized helmet, you’re still close enough and high enough to touch the face of God.

And then there’s the trip back down: the sort of journey that can easily lead off-track. Often the four miles or so across county bounds and into the new-age village of Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, where the artisan coffee and ice cream will quickly deaden a fella’s wallet. The essence of The Stars Of Erin is captured here in a terrific, re-assuring Irish Times profile by Ian O’Riordan that should be required reading for anyone swamped in the existential quagmire that goes with volunteering in the country’s largest sports organisation.

But while the bigger, more populated local clubs that surround them – Ballyboden St. Endas, Kilmacud Crokes, Cuala and even our own up in Ballinteer Saint Johns – have the numbers, scale, sponsors and profile to keep them trucking on another plane altogether, none of them have the rare beauty you get up at The Stars.

Which might explain how and why, every time I set foot up there, my mind is distracted towards another, off-road local wonder, The Stars Of Heaven, the one-time Dublin guitar band who, every bit as rarefied as their cosmic brothers and sisters in the mountains, still have an enigma of their own. Matched only, over many years, by the extent of their legend to a small but fiercely loyal band of anoraks and collectors.

If positive critical notices and unquestioning, die-hard fanaticism could be harvested, measured and sold, The Stars would have been one of the best-selling Irish acts of the last millennium. But they were never designed for that in the first place and their billing in contemporary Irish music history – honourable mentions alongside some of the city’s bigger beasts, references in the index and the odd footnote in broader pieces about guitars and the side-influence of country music – is fitting.

To this end they’re still name-dropped frequently by men – and its practically always men – of a certain shape, age and short-sightedness – who invariably remember them more for what they weren’t and not for what they were.

The Stars might not have appreciated it at the time, but the rolling uncertainty that seemed to dog them throughout their six year existence may actually have conspired to bring the best from them. And they consistently did it their own way, regardless of how cack-handed that way sometimes looked and felt.

Sound-wise, they stood tall as an imperious guitar band with a wide frame of reference that went far beyond the obvious indie tropes of the period. Even if it was R.E.M., in the first instance, who enabled The Stars Of Heaven with whom, on many levels, they had plenty of common ground. Their bloodline went back to classic Americana, from Gram Parsons and The Byrds to The Band, with a flush Velvets finish and, often, a country swagger.

In the great traditions of the Australian band, The Go-Betweens – to whom they weren’t entirely dissimilar either – the writing duties were shared between the band’s primary pointmen, Stephen Ryan and Stan Erraught and, in their pomp, their material was as terrific as any and, generally, better and more tentacled than most. And yet The Stars could often be a frustrating and inconsistent live ticket – understandable enough given how fragile they often sounded on record – conveying a regular sense they might simply disintegrate mid-number and have to be carried off of a sound-stage somewhere. All of which only added to their lustre, of course, as regulars at what was once The Underground Bar on Dame Street will attest.

The Stars were on the fringes of a cluster of emerging, guitar-driven Dublin groups that built up their earliest stock at that small downstairs venue operated by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, during the mid- 1980s. Among them Something Happens, A House, Rex And Dino, Backwards Into Paradise, Guernica, The Slowest Clock and, later, Power Of Dreams and Whipping Boy. As such, The Underground is rightly remembered as a vital and doggedly free-thinking stepping stone in the development of many of the country’s best and most interesting bands and performers during this time.

I’ve referred to Jeff, Noel and the venue on several occasions previously but easily the most perceptive and adroit piece on what is still one of Dublin’s most fondly-recalled dives is this first-person essay, written by one of the venue’s best-known graduates and a man who saw the place from every angle, including the tiny stage and what passed for the toilets.

The spirit of that bar and it’s small but obscenely colourful cohort of staff, patrons and various hangers-on – you’d go there as quickly for the nightly floorshow as you would for the music or the beer – is also captured, with contributions from some of its other alumni, on a short album, ‘Live At The Underground’, that was recorded there over consecutive nights in September, 1985. Released on Jeff’s own, strictly one-off label, Fear And Loathing Records, the record was primarily sold – or in many cases just given away – from behind the bar. On it, early warning notices were served by Something Happens and A House, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, who contributed ‘Hey Little Child’ to the short, sharp six-tracker.

The history of Irish rock music during the 1980s is defined to a huge degree by U2’s global breakthrough and, in its slipstream, the industry’s determination, doomed and reckless as it was, to locate others like them around Ireland. But unlike Something Happens and A House, their contemporaries on ‘Live At The Underground’ and in whose company they’re frequently referenced, The Stars Of Heaven never got away on a major label. They fetched up, instead, on Rough Trade Records, whose revered founder, Geoff Travis, in keeping with much of the band’s narrative, just didn’t like their first and only fully-formed studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’.

So while, in their broken frame, The Stars were the absolute antithesis of U2’s stadium-sized ballast, they stayed outside many of the left-field conventions of the day too. Even if, in one of those unlikely codas so typical of the cracked looking glass of Irish popular music history, they briefly consorted with U2’s label, Mother Records, towards the end of their career. For whom they recorded, with the one-time R.E.M. producer, Mitch Easter, but never actually released any material.

I first came across The Stars on Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on what was then RTÉ Radio 2FM – where else ? – during that period in 1985 when they’d released their debut single, ‘Clothes Of Pride/’All About You’, on Eamonn Carr’s Hotwire label and were making regular cameos at The Underground. After which they seemed to stay resident on the edge of everything, perhaps too tender and lyrically delicate for the general mood of the period, which could all be a bit rushed, loud and frantic and into which many of their peers slipped seamlessly.

And I should say that, to my mind, Stephen Ryan is easily the best Irish lyricist I’ve come across in my years spent hunting and collecting and, as recently as his 2015 album with The Drays, ‘Look Away Down Collins Avenue’, was still at it, working both ‘antihistamine’ and ‘Roger from Supertramp’ into one of the many magnificent songs on that elpee. His ability to knit words and sentiment so easily and convincingly would be worth a long-read of its own if one didn’t feel so consistently inadequate by comparison just looking at his work laid out.

It’s no surprise that The Stars seemed to keep their best work for the small hours. They recorded a number of mesmerising late night radio sessions over the years, initially for Fanning’s ‘Rock Show’ and then more notably for John Peel’s BBC One show where, in the dead of night, they sounded for once like they were perfectly in synch with time and space. Those recordings were made available on the Rough Trade mini-albums, ‘Sacred Heart Hotel’ and ‘Rain On The Sea’, which were both released in 1987. [The latter is actually the former, with an additional four track E.P. attached].

The Stars had everything and nothing in common with their peers back at The Underground. In their suede jackets, plaid shirts and smart boots – the uniform of the time, the clothes of pride – even at their loudest they still kept their guitars in check, in open defiance of many of the core conventions of the time. Like several of those who came after them – Hinterland, Brian, Villagers and Jubilee Allstars, particularly – it was the quiet and the space between the bars that determined them and set them apart. The Stars really did come alive in the dark.

Which is why I always found it funny that the front cover of The Stars’1988 studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’, featured a close-up shot of a solid steel wheel on one of C.I.É.’s rolling stock of trains. Carefully assembled and crafted in the old school, The Stars’ own casters often moved very slowly too and they were also just as liable to break down without warning.

Which isn’t to say that The Stars lacked sturdy engineering and heft: they could wig out with the best and indeed the worst of them but they were often far too delicate for their own bodies and in this respect, had far more in common with the likes of another local band, Hey Paulette, than they did with the more forceful, psychotic characters in The Underground. Apart, perhaps, from The Slowest Clock, with whom they shared a kindred philosophy far more than they ever did a sound.

The Slowest Clock were another of the Dublin bands of that period who were far too interesting, and all too frequently bored, for their own good. Powered by a furious guitar sound that regularly filled the premium spaces left by angled, full-bodied bass runs, they were an American underground outfit in all but birth-certificate – classic Velvets, Television, Husker Du – that set Sir Henry’s in Cork alight once or twice over the years. They sounded nothing at all like The Stars, and yet shared far more of their characteristics than one might imagine.

But I don’t think that The Stars’ influence has been heard as obviously or as overtly on any Irish band as it was in the early 2000s when the South Dublin pop band, The Thrills, were making hay, front covers and commercially successful, sun-blushed records. The Thrills were ardent students, and fawning fans, of Whipping Boy, the Dublin/Kildare outfit that first cut a memorable dash as noisy, sneering young men at The Underground.

They released three terrific albums on Virgin Records that, to my mind, just got better and more interesting – and less commercially popular – as they went. And from the get-go, I detected a real Stars influence at work in them. Apart, entirely, from the shared set of influences and the incorrigible, horizontal feel to much of their output, Conor Deasy’s breathy vocal delivery – and that perennial struggle to scale the top of his register – was instantly redolent of Stephen Ryan’s most attractive vocal feature.

The Thrills were enthusiastic collectors in their own right and were well plugged into the history of contemporary Irish music. In this respect, they’d have been more than familiar with The Stars and their fine back catalogue.

Much of which, in one form or another, is compiled on ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, a substantial compendium of the band’s material that was eventually released in 1999 after a painstaking gestation of many years on the small Dublin label, Independent Records. And lovingly curated by David O’Grady, who I first encountered around the fringes of the Dublin left-field scene thirty years ago and who has evidently defied science in the decades since by looking younger now than when he was first clocking me into venues on Engine Alley’s guestlists.

On one of the versions of ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, The Stars are snapped on the front sleeve, outside of someone’s sash window, looking in as forlornly as usual, at an ornately decorated front room. As self-aware and as self-deprecating until the end, they’re still speaking to us from beyond the tomb.

CODA :– All four members of the band stayed involved in music to Varying extents. Stephen Ryan went on to lead the rowdy Revenants and then subsequently, and currently, The Drays, while Stan fetched up as a member of The Sewing Room, who laid the extent of their ambition bare on their debut album, ‘And Nico’. Peter O’Sullivan, the bass player, went on to play with a good-time, loosely-formed Tex-Mex collective, The Wilf Brothers. And I last encountered the band’s drummer, Bernard Walsh, when he sat in as a member of one of the regular backing bands we used to use on The Late Late Show, although eagle-eyed Stars- watchers will frequently see him credited as a stills photographer on numerous Irish-produced dramas and feature films. His name often cited alongside Ray Harman, the Something Happens guitarist and now an award-winning composer for the big screen.

R4wnhdiD

© Colm O’Callaghan

A HOUSE: LOCAL HOUSING AUTHORITY

There were a few of them, back in the dark ages, that you’d think twice about looking crooked at. Declan Jones from Blue In Heaven, all seven foot odd of him in his leather keks and his Chelsea boots, was one. Half of Whipping Boy, a couple of The Gorehounds, Dave Lavelle from The Honey Thieves. And maybe the gruffest of all of them, Dave Couse of A House, who’d skewer you with a look or a one-liner if you tried to blackguard him. Or even if you didn’t.

The first time I met Couse in person was on the concourse at Kent Station in Cork as he’d stepped off of an incoming train from Dublin. ‘So’, he asks. ‘What have you done for A House today ?’. He was never one who hung around to get his eye in.

And in truth, I’d done little for A House that day and I’d done little most other days too for the band that Couse formed with Fergal Bunbury, Martin Healy and Dermot Wylie in West Dublin in the early 1980s. But  then they never struck me as either needing support or actively seeking assistance ;- from a remove, they looked like one of the most self-sufficient, durable and intense bands in the country and, to that end, were probably best left alone. And anyway, there were others, mostly on my own door-step in Cork, who were far more deserving of my first aid or, as history might record it, the hemlock kiss.

Maybe, alighted from a train ride from Dublin to Cork, Couse was just hungry and cranky ;- as one of those who regularly experienced the inter-city dining options during the 1980s and 1990s, its easy to appreciate how that may have been the case. Eitherway, once I’d fed and watered him, and after we’d completed a spiky exchange for an RTÉ youth television strand called ‘Scratch Saturday’, he certainly softened up a bit and I saw a hint of light beyond the blanket.

Over several subsequent years, I had a decent sideline view of A House while I worked with Keith Cullen at Setanta Records and, for a time, was close enough to see the meat on the bone. I never knew them particularly well  – nor they I – to go anywhere deeper than a clean cut on the finger but I was still privy enough to see just how driven and determined they were on so many levels. They rarely let up or let go and Couse was at the heart of it all, setting the tempo, consistency in a world slowly gazing at its shoes.

In his pomp he was a restless and forceful writer who saw merit in the malevolent vignette. Fronting a group whose considerable achievement  was often taken for granted and who were never entirely a common currency, one aspect often fuelled the other. A House, like many others before them and after them, were at their best when Couse was at his most tart. They consistently demanded the final word and, with Couse on the mic, it was often a bitter one ;- when the good times came, they were forever fleeting.

A House issued five studio albums for three different labels, most of which are among the finest Irish releases of their generation and, all things considered, the band endured for far longer than many of its peers. But their recorded output apart, it was the line they walked – and often deliberately played with – between charm, arrogance, resilience and bloody-mindedness that tended to define them.

In as much as the parameters of their original, four-square guitar-fused  line-up would allow, A House were as unique as any and better than most. And later, after they re-shuffled their pack in the aftermath of their second album – after which they were promptly dropped by their label – bolstering their line-up and adding finesse and steel in equal part, they refined their game and went for it again, baldly. But in both their iterations they were as difficult to pin down as their cover was difficult to penetrate ;- in an Irish context, the biggest issue many seemed to have with A House was that they weren’t Something Happens, with whom they were long associated and with whom they were consistently locked in a competitive, often truculent side-show.

Tony O’Donoghue, now RTÉ’s football correspondent, once pounded the  footpaths around Cork city to the point of fracture. In the days before mobile phones, you could always locate him if you wandered Patrick Street long enough and, in his leather jacket and pointy suedes, he certainly looked the part of a hip, young gunslinger. In the best and worst traditions of the freelancing hack, he held down a slew of wide-ranging jobs, one of the most interesting of which was a short, weekly slot on Cork Local Radio, where he’d play snippets of a couple of new releases, draw our attention to upcoming concerts and live events around town and jolt the RTÉ sound recordists from their torpor, however briefly.

As a clueless fresher still navigating his way around most things, I’d often still be at home during lunchtimes and would regularly catch Tony’s finely-tuned political broadcasts on behalf of quality independent Irish music. During a period in which emerging, indigenous rock music was in rude good health, and when the standard of its recorded output was mirrored by the development of a regular, sustainable national live circuit, Tony was rarely short of decent material. Broadcasting in short form long before the term was hi-jacked by digital marketing consultants and social media influencers, and while the regions were often starved of relevant music media, his weekly sermons cherried the cake for many of us, putting a partisan frosting on the national proselytising of the likes of Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on Radio 2FM.

And it was during one of Tony’s local homilies in 1987 that I heard the first shimmer of ‘Snowball Down’, A House’s second single and, for me, one of the most pressing, urgent cuts in the history of Irish alternative music. Produced by Chris O’Brien and released on the band’s own, self-funded imprint, RIP Records, it clocked in at just over 150 seconds, with its shades of The Bunnymen, The Blue Aeroplanes and some of the more subtle aspects – prominent, nimble bass, prominent acoustic strum – of the paisley underground. As opening statements go, both ‘Snowball Down’ and the band’s debut issue that preceded it months earlier, ‘Kick Me Again, Jesus’, punched far beyond the national qualifying standard.

To a handful of local anoraks, hangers-on and indie spotters, though, this was just another rung on a curve steeping progressively upwards.

The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street was a much-loved dive and, for a number of years, a small and important cog in the local machine, very strictly off-Broadway. [The site on which it stood is now occupied by a racy shop called ‘Condom Power’, an irony not lost on former regulars who fondly remember the old bar’s sardonic drayman, Big Johnny]. Run by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, the downstairs parlour was where, to my mind, the first and last great domestic music movement really took root hosting, as it did, frenetic and often chaotic early shows by the likes of Rex And Dino, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, Power Of Dreams, The Slowest Clock, [Backwards] Into Paradise, Whipping Boy, The Dixons and A House themselves.

The careless spirit of that period and the claustrophobic aspect of the tiny venue is captured naked on a short, six-song album, ‘Live At The  Underground’, that was recorded there over two nights in 1985 and issued by Jeff on his own, one-off label, ‘Fear And Loathing Records’. Four years earlier, Elvera Butler’s ‘Kaught At The Kampus’ also cuffed six live tracks onto tape during shows recorded at the famed, UCC-hosted shows at The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork and, even if neither album was ever intended to trouble the chart compilers, both records served real purpose nonetheless. Over thirty years later, what were clearly just calling cards for two highly-regarded live venues have become, absolutely by default, curios that capture some of the more unique sights, sounds and perhaps even smells of the time, for posterity.

a house setlist

Setlist Limelight Belfast, 1993 / 1994.  © Gary White

And A House are there on ‘Live At The Underground’, callow but recognisable, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, Something Happens and Hughie Purcell – contributing the shambling ‘On Your Bike, Wench, And Let’s Have The Back Of You’ to the party, before quickly moving on.

Indeed the band’s re-birth on the Setanta label between 1990 and 1992, during which they recorded and released the bridging [and aptly-titled, in my view] ‘Doodle’ EP and then the magnificent ‘I Am The Greatest’, is worth a long read in its own right. For a band down on it’s luck and back on the labour, the title of that record reflects A House’s constant, inerrant belief in it’s own ability. But then all five of their album titles can be read as sarcastic, sly references to the way the band saw itself, and especially it’s evolving relationship – good, mixed and mostly bad – with the music industry. From the shadowy optimism of the debut on a major label, ‘On Our Big Fat Merry Go-Round’ to the damning reality of a slow degeneration on it’s stubborn follow-up, ‘I Want Too Much’ through the life-affirming ‘I Am The Greatest’, the return to a major ‘Wide Eyed And Ignorant’ and the closing, sardonic chapter, ‘No More Apologies’, these were clear, political punch-lines that mashed a snotty face on the bay window of the industry that begot them. ‘The music business ?’, A House might have mused, summoning another doleful street philosopher, Norm Peterson . ‘Can’t live with it. Pass the beer-nuts’.

The band played it’s last ever show on February 28th, 1997, in Dublin’s  Olympia Theatre, a stone’s throw from The Underground Bar, aloof and diffident to the end. But although A House boasted a noisy and loyal support base all around the country, I long suspected they were far more comfortable outside of Ireland where, arguably, they were more critically valued and where they consistently had one up on Something Happens. But they were also clued in enough to know when to call time and, when the curtain fell, it was on the band’s own terms :- they scripted their own funeral in detail and organised the buffet afterwards.

In 2002, five years after A House packed up their tent, ‘Here Come The Good Times’, by a distance the band’s most contagious pop song, was selected as Ireland’s official World Cup anthem as the country’s international football team headed off to compete in that summer’s competition in Japan and Korea. Its beefed-up glam rock production and shiny pop veneer notwithstanding, the song is actually about a lifetime of personal disappointment [where good times occur ‘for a change’]  and, in hindsight, seemed like a perfectly prescient selection, given how Ireland’s World Cup campaign unfolded.

Remembered less for the team’s unfortunate and maybe unlucky exit from the tournament and far more for Roy Keane’s strop, after which he tore out of the team’s training camp on the island of Saipan and returned home, it was appropriate that the ghosts of A House were on hand to faithfully soundtrack the misfortunes of a nation.

Eight years and two World Cups previously, Parlophone Records, their second major label, had failed to crack ‘Here Come The Good Times’ into the mainstream. This achievement was at once so scarcely unbelievable and yet perfectly in keeping with the band’s long experiences in the middle ground ;- the writing was on the wall for that relationship and, one suspects, A House itself, thereafter.

A salvo from that stomping pop song had also featured briefly as part of a spectacular opening montage shot around Ireland for the opening of the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Mary Kennedy and broadcast live from The Point Depot in Dublin. And however fleetingly, it seemed as if A House had finally recovered some of the face they’d lost when Gay Byrne patronised them to within inches of their lives as he introduced them on The Late Late Show before they performed their excellent ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’ single back on the floor of Studio One on October 14th, 1988.

The last time I saw Dave Couse was from a distance after a Frank And Walters show in Dublin city many years ago. I hear him, from time to time, on his infrequent radio show where, from his song selections alone, I suspect he still holds many of those same beliefs he did when, a quarter of a century ago, we first locked horns in Cork. His band remain one of the real enigmas – and genuine successes – of contemporary Irish rock music and while, in the twenty years since that last curtain call, you’d expect all parties to have moved on, you’d suspect that no one felt the band’s lack of a broader breakthrough more keenly than Couse himself.

And whenever I hear him on the radio now – and he’s still as captivatingas he’s ever been – it just hardens my view that all disc jockeys, like television producers and music writers – are, at heart, just frustrated musicians who, because of events and an absence of good fortune, are doing the next best and closest things instead.

And then there’s the standing Couse enjoys in the recent history of Cork popular music. In the long traditions of keeping the best secrets on the inside, he produced the first Frank And Walters E.P. for the Setanta label and, in hindsight, should have gone on and finished the job by doing the band’s debut album as well. By the time he was back behind the bench with them, far too late, on their second – and still easily their best album, ‘Grand Parade’, the moment, you’d think, was lost, the spirit having flown. But Couse’s whipsmart production only highlights how under-cooked ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, The Franks’ nervous-sounding debut, was ;- in no way does the sound of that record do justice to many of it’s terrific cuts. ‘Trains’ has aged poorly and, twenty-five years on, sounds emaciated and tinny :- given the steroids Couse also infused into The Franks’ ‘Beauty Becomes More Than Life’ elpee in 2006, it’s difficult not to think now of what he could have done, years previously, with the debut.  And where that might have taken both parties.

Years later, several worlds collided and I was among the team tasked with producing RTÉ’s Late Late Show, immediately after Gay Byrne had stepped down as host and Pat Kenny moved up onto the crease. I felt it was only right, for several reasons, to move away from the show’s long-standing signature tune, an instrumental passage taken from Chris Andrews’ 1965 hit, ‘To Whom It Concerns’ and so I invited Dave, and a handful of others, to pitch any alternative suggestions they may have had. In my own mind, rightly or wrongly, I felt it was an opportunity to commission a contemporary Irish writer and to maybe sub-contract the work out to someone who may have had a fresh perspective on such matters. Which is what we did :- and it was Ray Harman of Something Happens who eventually composed a new theme for the programme. In the years since he’s carved out a terrific career for himself providing similar services to the feature film and documentary markets.

Dave Couse has stayed nicely busy too and, his radio work apart, has released a handful of records on several labels and under a variety of different band-names, in the years since. Among which the  ‘Batman And Robin’ single, released in September, 2005 under the band name Couse And The Impossible, is still easily the best of his solo material, some of which, his debut solo album ‘Genes’, in particular, is far more introspective and difficult than one might have expected.

For the last ten years or so I’ve spent far too much time in the shopping centre in Nutgrove, close to where I now life on the southside of Dublin. Where once I used it to do a regular family grocery shop and maybe pick  up an over-priced, over-caloried coffee on the hoof, its now one of my primary social outlets, somewhere to kill an hour during the insanity or whenever I want to lose my children. There’s a Credit Union office on the complex, an excellent off-licence and a couple of decent take-aways ;- a trip to Nutgrove is everything that a casual wander into the heart of Soho used to be.

The music piped into the centre and out over the tannoys must be among the most interesting and diverse anywhere in the country. Buried in among the sterile old standards you’ll hear, on a routine basis, selections from The Icicle Works, early New Order, The Lotus Eaters and The Fountains Of Wayne. And on a couple of occasions recently, I’ve heard ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’, still one of A House’s most distinctive cuts, as I’ve dallied in the aisles among the detergents and the toilet rolls.

But while I know that Dave Couse lives on that side of the city, I don’t remember him being invited down to cut the ribbon when they opened the re-furbished Argos branch there a few years back.

HINTERLAND

Hinterland [noun] :- The back of beyond, the middle of nowhere, the backwoods, the wilds, the bush, remote areas, a backwater.

If nothing else, they certainly choose the name well. Twenty-six years after the release of their excellent album, ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, you’ll struggle to find Hinterland mentioned in even the grass verges of contemporary Irish music history. Apart from their only long-player and the singles cut from it – the brooding ‘Dark Hill’ and ‘Desert Boots’, the breezy and most out-of-character chart hit – and one or two other minor issues, they’ve left little behind by way of prints and hard evidence. The usual on-line outlets are pretty scant on supporting detail and even the Hot Press digital archive which, to its credit, is usually a deep resource is, in this instance, practically empty.

And I suppose in many ways it’s always been thus. Hinterland never really ran with the pack and, even while signed to Island Records during the peak of the post-U2 insanity around Dublin, were generally regarded as an oddity. While lesser outfits made great welcomes for themselves, Hinterland were rarely seen and seldom heard ;- little was really known of them and they tended to give nothing away.

David Bowie’s death brought Gerry Leonard out from the shadows again and, once more, onto the national airwaves. The Dublin-born guitarist, now trading as Spooky Ghost had, for the previous fifteen years, been at Bowie’s elbow as a member of his backing band and as a sometime collaborator. Thirty years back, he was Donal Coghlan’s other half in Hinterland, a two-man operation that, according to Coghlan’s notes on a long-neglected website, formed in Denmark on January 7th, 1987.

Both Coghlan and Leonard had served their time on the Dublin circuit during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leonard most notably with Above The Thunderclouds [who, for genealogists, also featured Joey Barry, later of Thee Amazing Colossal Men and Compulsion] and The Spies. Coghlan had featured in The Departure – alongside a former RTÉ colleague of mine, Declan Lucas – but, beyond that, had tended to keep his distance.

Hinterland fell out of nowhere, more or less. By 1988, Dublin was often characterised as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ and, in the aftermath of U2’s breakthrough in America, was certainly a city caught in the footlights. We’ve dealt with this in a couple of previous posts, and those are available here and here. If Dublin was defined then by any dominant sound, it was the sound of crudely lashed guitars. And if it had a defining career path, that path started on the live stages in the dive bars and venues around the borough. Dublin’s best known bands of the period – U2 themselves, Aslan, Something Happens, The Slowest Clock, The Stars Of Heaven, Blue In Heaven, A House, Guernica – were all compelling live draws who’d cut their teeth in the dens. Reputations were hard earned – and as easily lost – on the unsteady stages in The Underground, The Baggot Inn, McGonagles, The White Horse, The New Inn and elsewhere. And many’s the callow, impressionable four or five piece that was simply swallowed whole and spat back out into the spray, finished.

In the decades before smart technology so drastically re-wrote the rules of the process, most local recordings were made in the various studios that had sprung up around the city. Even the cutting of demo material was often newsworthy stuff to anoraks and alickadoos and word was quick to get around about who was doing what, with whom and where. Like another of their peers, Swim, Hinterland were far more comfortable within the confined parameters of the studio and, having returned to Dublin, both Coghlan and Leonard were working out of a small recording facility on Aungier Street. The two-man line-up gave Hinterland a real cohesion but, like Steve Belton and Pat O’Donnell before them [and maybe We Cut Corners after them ?], restricted their impact as a live act. Where, despite the many sequenced sounds, loops and tapes brought into play, the subtleties at the core of their material ran the risk of being lost in unreliable live mixes and unwelcoming venues.

Like Belton and O’Donnell – who eventually augmented their ranks and re-positioned themselves as The Fountainhead – Hinterland were managed by Kieran Owens, a canny operator with excellent ears who, like many of the acts he worked with, is often under-appreciated in the history of that period. It was Owens who over-saw the band’s deal with Island Records – signed on the strength of strong demo tapes alone – and who brokered Hinterland’s relationship with the young Newbridge-raised producer and engineer, Chris O’Brien with whom, on April 27th, 1989, Donal Coghlan and Gerry Leonard began work on what was to be the band’s first and only album.

Like many before and after them, Hinterland’s career was pockmarked by a series of unfortunate events, many of them outside of their control and, in essence, they never really left the starting gate. Which, in many respects, only adds to their lustre. ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ is a brave, difficult record ;- it resides, for the sake of reference, in a drawer alongside ‘Til Tuesday, later-period Blue Nile and early-period Big Dish and it divided opinion on delivery. It’s a tender, gentle and unflinchingly personal collection of songs that, as well as piling on layers of nuanced sounds, doesn’t fear the space either. The record is at it’s most beautiful when it pauses for breath and crawls.

Chris remembers the record and the sessions that produced it fondly and was a real help to me as I sought to put flesh on some of my more crudely formed views on one of my favourite records. I owe him a real debt for dusting down his old diaries and for helping to join the dots.

‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ was put down over a fourteen week period in Ropewalk Studios in Ringsend in Dublin, even if much of it arrived pre-packed. Deep, ornate foundations had been laid by Leonard and Coghlan in their own small studio, where the vocals, guitars and keyboards were supported by ‘an Atari sequencer running Pro24 software’. That the band opted to record the album locally was typical ;- common practice at the time was to take long-form recording projects abroad, usually to the U.K.. But Hinterland were happier around the familiar ;- Ringsend was practically in their own back-yard.

Ropewalk was Dublin’s first fully digital studio and, once the band and studio crew fetched up, the primary objectives were to create a live drum sound and to layer-up and polish the general soundscape. Chris remembers the whole process in detail ;- he particularly recalls Gerry Leonard’s guitar sound [‘one of the three most recognisable players in Dublin, along with Ray Harman and The Edge, especially in his use of finger-picking and when he played slide’] and Donal’s lyrics, most of which were rooted in the darkly personal. The sessions were intensive and the working days were long ;- the core crew worked from 11 every morning until after midnight and the only concession to type was the catering that was provided daily on site. At one stage, Island’s flamboyant owner, Chris Blackwell, dropped by – replete in sunglasses and shorts – to listen to the work in progress and to cast an ear on the material.

The band was augmented during the recording – and later when they toured – by Wayne Sheehy, one of the country’s most physical and capable drummers and who, in a past life, had played with Cactus World News, among others. And yet on several tracks, his role was pared right back, often confined to complicated rhythms and rolls :- it was as if Coghlan and Leonard were challenging him, testing the cut of his gib.

 

 

But the playing throughout is magnificent and the record boasts many special moments. ‘Dark Hill’ apart, a soft magic runs through ‘Handle Me’ which, in my view, is the record’s heart. An unsettlingly personal song, it looks into the future and pictures the physical disintegration of a loyal lover’s spirit and body. Elsewhere, ‘Stanley’s Minutes’ records the death of ‘a down-and out from the The Iveagh Hostel’ in the shadows of the Pro Cathedral in Dublin and, over a trade-mark guitar entry concludes with a real cut ;- ‘Thanks be to God it wasn’t suicide. There’s no such thing as suicide’.

And there are others too ;- ‘Senior Romantics’, with it’s breathy backing vocals by Leslie Mooney, the airy ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Dive The Deepest’ among the diadem. And although ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s rattle and pluck, is out of character with both the rest of the record and with the band’s song-book generally, the warm, Mumford-esque gallivant name-checks St. Anne’s Park in Raheny, The Dandelion Market and The Burrow Beach in Sutton on it’s breezy journey through Dublin city. It is, in its own way, as poignant a local snapshot of youth as Whipping Boy’s ‘When We Were Young’.

I can remember the first time I clapped eyes on Hinterland. ‘Jo Maxi’ was a popular youth series that dominated the tea-time schedules on what was then Network 2 during the late 1980s and that, to it’s credit, consistently supported all manner of new music, much of it Irish. Sat there one evening on a small studio rostrum in his fresh black denims, stacked-sole shoes and fisherman’s hat, Donal Coghlan looked typically disconcerted, humble. Gerry and himself gave a basic synopsis of Hinterland’s story, mentioned their deal with a major label and then one of the presenters cued a short clip of the ‘Dark Hill’ video.

Apart from a subsequent Late Late Show appearance in support of ‘Desert Boots’, a couple of minor jousts with myself on another youth series, ‘Scratch Saturday’ and an afternoon encounter with Ray D’Arcy and Zig and Zag on ‘The Den’, not a whole lot more remains in the video archive. The album came and went and the band headed out into the open in support of it, playing one particular blinder in De Lacy House in Cork and opening for Prefab Sprout [with whom, philosophically, the band was very aligned] on the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ tour in The Point Depot in Dublin. ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s cutesy video and wide-screen notions, generated an amount of popular traction and airplay but, even then, you suspected that Hinterland were just a band out of time, destined to forever play catch-up.

In a terraced house in Ealing, West London, in 1991, myself and my landlord, Ken Sweeney, would marvel at them. Ken, who was recording for Setanta Records as Brian, had rescued me from a deranged set-up in a squat in Peckham and now, safe and warm and far away across town, we’d swap war stories in the evenings and talk long into the nights about Miracle Legion, Into Paradise and The Go-Betweens. Hinterland too were de-constructed at length in Ealing ;- I’d been sent a copy of ‘Resurrect’, a four-track E.P containing three new songs and also ‘Love Quarantine’, the magnificent ‘Desert Boots’ B-side that the band felt didn’t quite fit onto ‘Kissing The Roof of Heaven’, and we gorged on it. Donal and Gerry were looking ahead to a second album and were flouting their prowess with a handful of optimistic and ambitious songs, ‘Born Again [Excuse The Pun]’ most memorably among them.

But the ship failed to find port and, by 1994, Hinterland more or less ceased to be ;- the band’s efforts to crack the American market were unsuccessful and, eventually, they were let go by their record company. Hinterland exited the stage just as they’d entered onto it ;- quietly and without fanfare and to the sound of a loyal few clapping. When, years later, Donal Coghlan made a cameo appearance on Brian’s second Setanta album, 1999’s ‘Bring Trouble’, it completed a circle of sorts and also reminded a handful of us of what could, should and might have been.

By that stage, Gerry Leonard had already left Ireland for New York and, as he did so, Donal Coghlan repaired closer to home, coming to grips, literally, with the M.S., diagnosed years previously, that was impacting on his mobility, if not his spirit. It was only after the band had released ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ that he revealed his long struggle with the degenerative illness and, by so doing, maybe cast another light into some of the more personal songs on that album.

I last met Donal in 2000 in his apartment in Dublin city. He was in chipper form, confined increasingly to a wheelchair and was a proud father to a young son, Zac. The previous year he’d directed his first short film, ‘The Spa’, and had written another short, ‘Handy Andy’, both of which were made through the Lights, Disability, Action initiative and had been screened at The Galway Film Festival. He was, as always, terrific company, clear in his own mind that he’d left able-bodied society and wasn’t returning, already busy as a campaigner and advocate for disability issues.

I think about Donal Coghlan quite a bit and regularly return to ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ and, when I heard Gerry Leonard on radio paying tribute to David Bowie recently, he sprung across my mind once again. Donal Coghlan’s writing may not have re-defined popular music and the way we listened to it but, in his own way, has left it’s own kind of under-stated, under-regarded magic as a legacy.

Hinterland clearly mean little in the recent history of Irish popular music and, understandable as that is, they’re in good company. Into Paradise, Jubilee Allstars, Pony Club and Ten Speed Racer are among the notable others who, outside of the blind sadism of die-hards and anoraks, rarely command the acknowledgement they’re due. But ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, with it’s stories and it’s screams, is always worth re-visiting and, knowing more now than we ever did back then, deserves an all-over re-appraisal.

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE ROCK GARDEN

 

I worked for a couple of years with my friend, Jeff Brennan, in The Rock Garden, the live music venue and sometime restaurant that opened in Crown Alley, in Temple Bar, Dublin, almost 25 years ago. It was the late Aiden Lambert, Blink’s manager, who brokered that job for me and I’ve written about our relationship here. Officially, I was charged with publicising the wide disparity of acts booked into the old cellar but, in reality, I was hired to play a straight bat to Jeff’s jokes and routines. And there were many.

 

He’d moved the short distance to The Rock Garden from The Underground Bar on Dame Street where, working with his father, Noel and Johnny, the weary drayman, he held court and booked bands for most of the 1980s, during a period of terrific optimism and no little quality for alternative Irish music. Bands like A House, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, The Slowest Clock, Rex And Dino, Power Of Dreams and [Backwards] Into Paradise took root in The Underground and, for years, were regulars on the tiny stage that often defied the laws of, if not physics, then certainly health and safety. Paul Page, Whipping Boy’s guitarist, was also one of that number – onstage and off – during The Underground’s heyday and has written about the peculiar sense of purpose that characterised the place in an excellent post on his own blog. That piece is available here

 

live at the underground

IrishRock.org

 

The Underground Bar features prominently in any credible history of the live music circus that pitched up around Dublin in the wake of U2’s initial breakthroughs in Europe and America. The venue hosted many fine emerging bands between 1984 and 1989, helping several of them to add muscle, over time, to what were often callow bodies at source. And to this end, Jeff’s role in the real affairs of state shouldn’t be under-estimated. Although he took his music very seriously, and while he was a generous support to any number of dreamers who landed in on top of him from all sides, he treated the more helium-filled aspects of ‘the industry’ with a healthy suspicion.

 

From behind the small bar, he traduced many reputations over the years while running a decent and honest shop founded on the principles of fair play and good spirits. What was once The Underground – ‘don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore’ – is now a lap dancing club and, tellingly, the old venue isn’t commemorated by either a plaque on the wall or by Jeff’s hand-prints on the pavement outside.

 

During his first couple of years at The Rock Garden, Jeff certainly had the place fizzing. The step up in scale, size and budget – if not necessarily class – gave him a bit more leeway and he snagged memorable live shows from the likes of The Frames, Radiohead, The Afghan Whigs, Pavement, Swervedriver, The Young Gods, The Sultans, The Frank And Walters, The Senseless Things, Adorable and countless others, all of whom lugged their back-lines in around the back of Crown Alley and down the concrete and iron stairs to set up.

 

New Year’s Eve was always a real highlight at The Rock Garden and I’d make sure I was back up from Cork in good time to see out the old and to ring in the new there. Maintaining a long-standing tradition started back in The Underground, Jeff would opt for heft, clout and loud guitars to headline the last night of the year. Sack, Blink and The Brilliant Trees in their pomp regularly stuffed the place and, playing to fans, friends and families, they’d always blister through mighty sets. And then, as the night wore on, Tony St. James and The Las Vegas Sound would take the late-shift and carry us over the threshold and out into the open promise of the twelve months ahead.

 

Along one whole side of the venue, meanwhile, the bar staff would be royally lashed and the punters at the taps would often stand six, seven or eight deep, all of them roaring for porter. Jeff and myself would mingle readily around the place, annoying the door-staff, insulting the easily insulted and roll out what was a well-honed double act. And, once the doors were eventually locked behind us, well into the tiny hours, we’d kick back with a handful of regulars, stretch the New Year out in front of us and begin to unpick the world and many of those – saps, twits and dibbicks among them – who sailed in her.

 

I formed some wonderful friendships down in The Rock Garden and I fell out with as many people there again. But never once did I feel like I was actually working. In the early evenings I’d often drop whatever I was doing and slip down into the belly of the beast to eavesdrop during a sound-check. From deep in the shadows I heard Sack repeatedly do ‘What Did The Christians Ever Do For Us’, ‘How The Stars Became Stars’ and ‘Omnilust’ one afternoon as they were fine-tuning their shapes. And those, indeed, were the days.

 

We answered to a bearded, heavy-set American boss called Mark Furst, who fronted the venue. Jeff was tasked with booking decent live music into the place on a nightly basis and, given the vagaries of live music, we had some right old disasters over time, some of which defied all odds. Pulp and The Cranberries both died spectacularly in The Rock Garden ;- The Cranberries attracted eighteen paying punters and, at one point, the band and it’s handlers out-numbered the crowd.

 

Pulp pulled into Crown Alley one lazy Saturday afternoon and, although the band was on the cusp of a real commercial cross-over in Britain, they attracted less than one hundred die-hards on the night. Half of the band’s backline had been stolen after a show in London the previous evening and, compounding their humour, Pulp’s dowdy tour manager wasn’t overly pleased to find that Jeff had billeted them in what was then proudly slugged as ‘Dublin’s cheapest hotel’ – a ten-buck-a-night bed-and-breakfast up on Gardiner Street. ‘Sorry to hear about the gear’, Jeff told the group. ‘But I’m sure the rest of it will be robbed on ye tonight’.

 

I had a real soft spot for The Dadas, a Northside combo led by Andy Fitzpatrick, who later went on to buttress William Merriman’s excellent Harvest Ministers ;- I honestly thought that The Dadas’ honey-coated canon had a real sparkle to it. After they attracted less than a score of paying punters into what could often be an unforgiving old cavern, Fursty took off on one in the offices upstairs. Like Brian Blessed in leather biker’s keks, he upped the ante and the volume ;- ‘The Dodos [sic]’, he drawled, ‘will never be booked here again’. An arrangement that, I suspect, suited the band as much as it suited the venue.

 

But we had our nights of glory too. The Rock Garden was accessible, available and well-equipped and, during the time I spent there, we hosted a wide range of artistes, musos, pissheads, chancers, thieves and poets – the full travelling circus. Indeed one of the most memorable performances there was actually by  a circus ;- The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow fetched up with bearded ladies and a bloke who hung breeze blocks off of his nipples and his penis. The queue outside wasn’t the only thing that stretched far and long around The Rock Garden that night.

 

We’ve lost a fair few of our own stellar performers in the years since and, when Jeff and myself meet each other these days, it’s more likely to be at a removal or a funeral than it is at a venue. We met twice last year ;- at our friend Aiden Lambert’s funeral last month and back last April when we waved off George Byrne, the writer and collector. I always doubted whether George actually liked The Rock Garden, and he certainly didn’t like it as much as he did The Underground where, over the years, he saw frenetic live sets from a host of his local fancies.

 

One Easter Saturday night, during a Something Happens/Cypress, Mine ! double-bill – and after a hard few days of it with both bands in Cork – he fell down the end of the stairs and onto the stage. This trick was far more difficult to complete in The Rock Garden although, to be fair, George manfully attempted it on several occasions. I wrote a longer piece about George after his funeral in April, 2015, and that piece is available here.

 

It was in The Rock Garden that I first met Uaneen Fitzsimons. She’d been a college-mate of the two Dónals – Dineen and Scannell – and, like the rest of us, was standing-by, waiting for a break. And it was in The Rock Garden, with the Dónals, Des Fahy, Jeanne McDonagh, Jim Carroll, Ritchie Flynn and Eamonn Crudden and many others that the basic idea for the No Disco music television series started to form. When Uaneen took No Disco’s reins from Dónal Dineen, it just felt like we’d completed another circle and made good on a conversation that may, or may not have been had years previously in Wild, one of the many clubs run upstairs at The Rock Garden.

 

Martin Egan was another gentle soul who’d turn up unannounced in Crown Alley every now and again and he’d leave with a handy support ;- Jeff would always make sure that he was looked after and sorted. Martin is one of that number of decent scouts we lost in the trenches during the last twelve months.

 

It’ll be ten years next April since I stood under my friend Philip’s box up in The North Cathedral in Cork and, with his brother and a handful of others, lifted him out and on his way. I think about Phil a lot ;- we lived in each other’s pockets as we dreamt our way through our teens and into our twenties and yet I often wonder if I ever really knew him at all ? But when The Trash Can Sinatras unveil their upcoming album later this year, I’ll instinctively ponder how he would have rated it ? He once ended up backstage with them after a sparsely-attended show in Nancy Spains in Cork and spooked the band by knowing their back catalogue more intimately than they did themselves.

 

I moved out of Cork twenty-five years ago and, for the most part, tend to keep a respectful distance now. I love the streets and the lanes around the Northside but I’m not one of those exiles who consistently yearn to get back there ;- I left for a reason. But for an important few days every Christmas, I’d make my way back home from Dublin and, before I’d even get to my family, I’d have already dropped in on Phil at the shop on Patrick Street where he worked.

 

And, from the door of the premises, we’d determine the year’s best releases and consider the previous twelve months, just rabbiting on. He’d make sure I knew just how great everything was and it would never dawn on me to probe a bit deeper ;- it just wasn’t how we rolled. Music and records brought us together in the first place and it was music and records that we last spoke meaningfully of. Indeed in truth, music and records were all we really ever spoke of meaningfully, more’s the pity.

 

That journey home becomes harder and more important by the year. Three weeks ago I hit the road South straight after Aiden Lambert’s funeral and I couldn’t wait to leave Dublin behind me. I made several other car trips over Christmas and ran up a fair few miles and, every now and again, from behind the wheel, my mind would drift off a bit. And I’d think about Aiden. And George Byrne, Tony Fenton, Mick Lynch and Martin Egan. In the low light I’d picture Uaneen and Pat Neville and Eugene Moloney and Brendan Butler ;- some of whom I knew well, some of whom I barely knew and yet all of whom, back the road somewhere, were there with us during the bright nights and the dark nights down in The Rock Garden and The Underground and Sir Henry’s and wherever else.

 

But I’d keep driving on. Because we’re always just driving on.

RockGarden

Courtesy of Nessa Carter