Sultans of Ping

THE SAWDOCTORS: ACTING THE SHAM

Ah, revisionism and nostalgia: you’d want to be careful when that pair collide. Last Monday, the Irish Times newspaper carried a fine, first person memoir by Conor Pope to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the release of The Sawdoctors’ second single, ‘I Useta Lover’, one of the more distinctive Irish pop songs of the 1990s and one of the country’s biggest-selling singles ever. As such, it’s an anniversary worth noting: there was a time when there was no escaping The Sawdoctors who, in the great traditions of popular music, captured a moment and legged it until they ran out of puff and were lapped by fresher legs. 

‘I Useta Lover’ used a series of lyrical flourishes and tropes that would quickly come to characterise the band and that were more in keeping with the thematic heart of the first wave of Irish showbands than the 1980s indie set. And punters of all hues lapped them up with gusto.   

Conor Pope tells us of his own loose connection to The Sawdoctors and self-deprecatingly plays down his stint in a rival Galway-based rock outfit, describing the pain he felt – and many others of us, I can assure him – as The Sawdoctors defied the odds and took flight. Thirty years older, the writer has now changed his tune: ‘Never would I have guessed back then that the song would be as timeless as it has turned out … or that I would still be able to sing it [‘I Useta Lover’] without missing a word or a beat’. 

I never gave The Sawdoctors the time of day back then and don’t intend to revise my views on them now. I’m wary of the seductive pull of nostalgia, and all the more so on a blog like this that seldom, if ever, looks forward. But in accurately assessing the group’s legacy, an additional pass may be no harm.    

The Sawdoctors gave a voice, as the Irish Times piece rightfully claims, to ‘what it was like to live in the west of Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s’. On a most basic level, several of the band’s more powerful songs are located there, and as many again are scattered with local slang, situations and parochial soap operas. But The Sawdoctors didn’t have exclusive editorial ownership on the vagaries of life for those then living outside of Dublin, especially in small towns. Plenty of other groups were also at it but just chose to reflect those lives in different ways. 

Indeed, as The Sawdoctors were first coming to national prominence, so too was a cohort of other ambitious young bands from cities and towns all over Ireland. Conor refers to one of them, another Galway group, Toasted Heretic, in his piece, but there were many more in the same boat too. Therapy?, The Frank and Walters, The Sultans of Ping, The Cranberries, The Would-Bes, Engine Alley, The Divine Comedy and Cuckoo are among the best known: it would be wrong to think they weren’t dipping into their own experiences in Larne, Cork, Limerick, Kingscourt, Kilkenny, Enniskillen and Derry to inform their material. 

What set The Sawdoctors apart was how they presented. They were horny young bucks sniggering in the pews at mass while, in Therapy?’s orbit, James Joyce was fucking someone’s sister. Like The Frank and Walters, they enjoyed pranks and practical jokes but, while the Cork band captured the spirit of The Monkees, The Sawdoctors looked to the home-made, cardboard comedy of ‘Tops of The Towns’ instead, nudging-and-winking away while others were having it off goodo and happy to tell the world as much. ‘The sun goes down on Galway Bay’, sang Toasted Heretic’s Julian Gough. ‘The daughter goes down on me’.  

The Sawdoctors divided opinion with an intensity I hadn’t seen before on the domestic beat. In hindsight, this was rooted far less in the music – more perspiration than inspiration, in my view – and way more in a broader cultural conversation. In their donkey jackets and everyman duds, and with their call-and-response choruses and colloquial language, The Sawdoctors were at the heart of a debate about identity.  

‘Designer bogmen’, was how the late Dublin-born music journalist, George Byrne, once described The Sawdoctors and, his provocative choice of language notwithstanding, he had a point. I always thought that the ordinariness that was fundamental to their appeal was as carefully studied in it’s own right as any of U2’s various guises, before them or after them. In Ollie Jennings, their manager, they had as formidable an operator in the cockpit as Paul McGuinness himself in his pomp. A founder of the Galway Arts Festival, which took place for the first time in 1978, Jennings was an experienced and wily hand who could read the mood in a room better than most. And he was fiercely protective of his charges, too: The Sawdoctors took plenty of flack but were well able to defend their territory. Like those doughty corner backs they immortalised in song, they knew how to pull hard and late.  

They boasted no outward pretensions and only struck poses and shapes when they were sending themselves up, which was often. The cover of the band’s debut album, ‘If This is Rock ‘N’ Roll I Want My Old Job Back’, features the fathers of the various band members, legs akimbo, replete in leather jackets and with guitars cocked: it was the closest the band got to cool. Instead, like the comedian Pat Shortt, they reported for duty as they were: decent, everyday shams dealing with everyday situations in simple, uncomplicated language. And so when many of those who found comfort in the band’s live shows – particularly in the Irish enclaves in London, Glasgow, New York and Boston – looked stage wards, they often saw themselves, and their values, reflected back at them. 

There they were, perennial underdogs from the sticks, battling the  music industry, the media and the pomp and ceremony of the big city. Ultimately, channelling the influential Catholic sociologists, Father Harry Bohan and Father Micheál Mac Gréil, The Sawdoctors were fighting to protect the soul of rural Ireland in words, deeds and big choruses.

To be fair, someone had to. During the late 1980s and early 90s, a lot of the conversation about identity, particularly from the Dublin-based commentariat, was woefully one-dimensional. The Sawdoctors, to their credit, saw a gap in the hedge, provided an alternative frame of reference and set out their stall. In this respect, they followed a road also travelled by the Reid brothers from Leith, in Scotland who, as The Proclaimers, proudly told similar tales in thick accents. On that road, where Hot Press magazine saw ‘stick-fighters’ and ‘bog-ballers’, The Sawdoctors instead saw legends, heroes and feats of valour. So much so that, like The Smiths, with whom they have far more in common than one might imagine, they brought swathes of the voiceless in with them from the margins.

It’s a pity, then, that the music itself was so spectacularly lumpy and devoid of imagination. Dress it up all you like, but there isn’t really a lot of distance between ‘Clare Island’ and, say, Liam Reilly’s emigration dirge, ‘The Flight of Earls’. And although ‘To Win Just Once’ might indeed sound visionary and prescient after a feed of porter on the night of an unexpected Intermediate championship victory, it sounds much more mundane in the cold light of morning. 

In the wake of Conor’s piece, I saw a reference on-line to the ‘unique genius’ of The Sawdoctors. Early morning over-enthusiasm aside, the reality is that The Sawdoctors weren’t half as unique as we think. And genius ? Hardly. What is indisputable, though, is that, for many years, they were very, very popular and, perhaps, inside the warm wrap of nostalgia and revisionism, it’s just too easy to get carried away ?

To my mind, the band had a far greater impact off the stage than on it or on record. Like the great Irish showbands, The Royal before them and Westlife after them, their popularity facilitated the mass congregation of young men and women and, in the best traditions of popular entertainment, made them feel, if not always better, then certainly as if they were a part of something special, however fleetingly. Their songs – who among you can name five or more ? – just sound-tracked that communion. 

They were at the peak of their powers, I think, during the first three Féile festivals that took place in Semple Stadium, Thurles, between 1990 and 1992, and over the course of which they made their way from the bottom of the bill to the top. Those Féile events are as much the story of The Sawdoctors as anyone else and, in Thurles, they found a perfect platform. A small town in the middle of Ireland, the closure of the sugar factory in Thurles in the late eighties deprived it of a primary source of  local employment. On Liberty Square, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded at a meeting in Hayes’ Hotel, in November, 1884, and Semple Stadium itself has long witnessed acts of spectacular skill and heroism performed by the best hurlers and footballers in the history of the national games. Féile was where The Sawdoctors walked into one of their own songs.  

Alongside ‘Celebrate’ by An Emotional Fish, ‘Parachute’ by Something Happens, The Stunning’s ‘Brewing Up A Storm’ and The Sultans of Ping FC’s ‘Where’s Me Jumper ?’, ‘I Useta Lover’ was one of a number of alternative national anthems played during The Trip to Tipp. To which hordes of giddy youngsters shot to attention, paid their respects and then afterwards ate the faces off of one another.

And maybe there’s a genius in there somewhere ? Or maybe, like Brendan Bowyer before them and Hozier long after, The Sawdoctors were just a popular turn who, deliberately or otherwise, found a moment when they were in synch with the mood of the nation. In the Pantheon of Irish popular music, however, The Sawdoctors – and ‘I Useta Lover’ – are queuing on the outside, well down the stand-by list.   

GIDDY-UP

Photo : Greg Canty

Within the distinctive history of popular music in Cork, it’s far too easy – and maybe even stipulated by order of The Knights Of Cool – to over-look the achievements of the most outwardly successful of all those local bands who entered the fray during the 1990s: Rubyhorse. An easy-to-read, un-fussy pop band who blazed a trail far from home and did what all of their more decorated predecessors and peers couldn’t: make a splash in America, the final frontier.

The wide, unyielding American freeways are central to the upward aspects of their story – and there are several of those – but that vast expanse of tarmac is also at the heart of the band’s implosion. Which, as can often be the case with this sort of carry-on, was maybe more interesting to the gawkers back at home who were taken by surprise by their success in the first place.

Numerous volumes have been completed and documented about the insatiable demands of the American entertainment industry, a market in which numerous Irish hopefuls have been physically destroyed and emotionally splintered since the 1970s. The circuit there just doesn’t do love on the cheap.

It’s against this curtain that the remarkable achievements of both U2 and The Cranberries – and, who knows, perhaps eventually Hozier too ? – will ultimately be best determined, irrespective of how one might critically evaluate their recorded output. That U2 can continue to function as they do and appear, on the surface at least, to still possibly enjoy their own company after so many years spent hawking themselves on the inter-state highway system, might well be the band’s most powerful ever statement. History will recall that, beyond everything else, U2 survived America reasonably intact.

Incredulous as it sounds, Rubyhorse too were themselves driving it on apace in the American mainstream and, for several years, took a considerable swing at the most volatile and expansive market of all, battered to bits for their troubles. Despite their successes, not a whole lot is known about them.

That Rubyhorse took their name from a song by The Wonder Stuff is maybe the most obvious concession the group ever made towards the more traditional indie aesthetic. And it’s around the thorny issue of identity that the band’s issues begin: to my mind at least, they were perennially conflicted. Instinctively a well-upholstered, global-facing pop band with natural writing sensibilities, they found themselves, by dint of birth, at odds with much of what was going down on their own door-step. Most notably that distinctive racket, performed in often impenetrable Corkese, by the likes of The Frank And Walters and The Sultans Of Ping and by many of those who boldly went before and came after them.

Without the sort of jagged weird that has long characterized the Cork food-chain from Nun Attax and Microdisney via the class of 1990 and onwards to The Rulers Of The Planet and even Cyclefly, Ruby Horse were just far too clean for many of the local alickadoos. For a band that could play so smartly, Rubyhorse were consistently out of time.

It’s not like they were the first either, and indeed much of the story of new music in Cork post-1980 can be read as a philosophical struggle with clear lines. The Franks and The Sultans were terrific pop bands by any measure and yet, despite the strength of their writing, were still rooted in the faintly absurd and tended to defer there as a default. That colloquial edge gave them both an early leg-up and de-coupled them from the over-earnestness that characterized much of the emerging music across the country. But it was also key to their critical undoing: that sort of stuff just doesn’t travel well and tends to grate after a while.

Popular music in Cork has long tended towards the margins. Having had one of the more remarkable aspects of its social history, The Arcadia Ballroom years, hi-jacked by the success of U2 – the ultimate colonial outsiders who not only own that entire period now but also pillaged it for staff – the city has made a defiant, post-trauma statement ever since. One where wider mainstream ambitions – notions, you might say – can go and whistle for it.

Among the best pop songs out of Cork over the last forty years are Kooky’s ‘The Good Old Days’, ‘The Darkness’ by Flex And The Fastweather, ‘Scorch Avenue’ by The Chapter House, ‘Backwater’ by Benny’s Head and ‘Sparkle’ by Rubyhorse. But it’s not as if any of them spring instinctively to mind or feature in the more considered overviews of music in the county. Instead they’ve been lost in a blizzard of loud guitars, standard indie shapes and what the guitarist Giordhai Ui Laoghaire has described as ‘spadgy rhythms’.

It was against this backdrop that Rubyhorse – good-looking, bright boys from Bishopstown and a world removed from their noisy neighbours, The Frank And Walters – took their first tentative steps, thinking big from the moment they could stand unaided. They looked like the male cast of The Breakfast Club and didn’t sound like The Wedding Present: they were studied, sharp, under-age and had their hands full.

I first came across them after they’d just about started secondary school and when, as B.F.G., they performed a couple of lunchtime shows in an halla mór at Coláiste An Spioraid Naoimh. After which Tony O’Donoghue, then working with one of the bigger national promoters, snared them a couple of decent support slots in city venues they weren’t legally allowed to enter. And even then they were a band apart: callow kids on a serious growth kick, their sturdy sound – more Genesis than Genesis P. Orridge. – built on layers of guitars and keyboards. I couldn’t believe how determined and driven they were.

But yet, like practically everyone else who encountered them during the early 1990s – apart from maybe their parents – I was gob-smacked by the scale of what they went on to achieve. Delighted, for sure, but genuinely taken aback because ultimately, all they ever really presented was a rock-solid body of work, a decent ethic, a couple of key personal connections and a pretty pointed desire to get on.

They checked out, years later, with four albums to their name – including one for Island Records – a slew of high-profile American television appearances and years of non-stop live shows. Indeed decades before the emerging Dublin band, Fontaines DC, performed for Jimmy Fallon, Rubyhorse were regulars on that same circuit. It’s seldom that young Irish upstarts are invited into the mainstream American chat circle but, back in the pre-internet era, they did the Letterman and Conan O’Brien shows with no fanfare or fuss. And when Rubyhorse fetched up on those sets, they were doing so because, for a time, they were simply too big a noise to ignore.

They were also zippy enough to briefly entice George Harrison out of exile and into their match-day squad in what might well one of the most high-profile cameos in the entire history of contemporary Irish music. Harrison contributed slide guitar to ‘Punchdrunk’, one of the stand-out cuts on the band’s second album, ‘Rise’, released in 2002, and although that back-story is well worn by now, it still bears repeating here if only to remind folk of the level at which the band, approaching its pomp, was batting.

In May, 1997, Ireland staged The Eurovision Song Contest at Dublin’s Point Depot for the seventh time: it was the fourth occasion in five years that the country had hosted the event. The show was presented by a television presenter, actress and singer from Waterford called Carrie Crowley and by Ronan Keating, then the lead vocalist and de facto frontman with a local male vocal group called Boyzone. Keating also wrote and, on the night, performed one of the most dismal interval pieces in the long and bizarre history of the competition and I’ve previously dealt with this in more detail in a piece here.

Boyzone’s story is as fascinating as anyone’s but it’s never been definitively told: the group has been the subject of numerous management-endorsed biographies that, sadly, never leave the surface. In essence, they were a knock-off and talent-free Take That who were routinely snapped in the tabloids leading champagne lifestyles on the back of Mi-Wadi-level ability. And all under the direction of Louis Walsh, a local booker in the best and worst traditions of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose and whose nose for an opening and a quick-win was matched only by his devotion to those acts he represented. Which was often commendably fever-pitched, myopic and obsessive.

That same year, 1997, also marked the end of the line for The Sultans Of Ping, who were packing up their latex trousers for the last time just as The Frank And Walters were finally releasing their second – and still, to my mind, best – album, ‘The Grand Parade’. It had been an over-long and over-complicated gestation, at the end of which the air had well and truly been sucked from the balloons that populate the front sleeve of that record.

Universes removed, U2 were also releasing a new album. ‘Pop’ was easily their most ambitious and difficult record to date and the tour that accompanied it, ‘Popmart’, reflected the scale of that aspiration as clearly as it marked a saucy crossing of a Rubicon. U2 had earned the right to do whatever it was they wanted and ‘Pop’, dripping in irony and self-deprecation, was an almighty and unexpected undertaking.

Boyzone, The Frank And Walters, The Sultans Of Ping and U2 are, now as then, the unlikeliest of bedfellows and yet, when Ruby Horse looked into their hearts in 1997, these were the dominant local and national influences they might have seen. Two years after the release of a patchy, self-financed debut album, ‘A Lifetime In One Day’, they moved their operation to Boston and took their chances.

Boyzone’s commercial breakthrough across Europe, particularly in Britain, was a landmark achievement, the first time a home-grown, centrally-cast Irish pop act had achieved such cut-through. To their credit, they gave hope to the hopeless: unlike many of the country’s more critically-vaunted outfits, a generation of guitar-wielding indie bands primary among them, Boyzone had a real go at the markets. In which their blandness was irrelevant because, hitting landfall at the same time as The Celtic Tiger, they were simply a crass entertainment embodiment of that period in the country’s history: a pop group laced with Pyrite.

So against a background where U2 were radically re-defining themselves with subversive pop tropes, with Boyzone giving a fluoride sheen to clean, family-friendly entertainment and fetching up routinely on Top Of The Pops and with the optimism after Cork Rock ’91 well and truly withered on the vine, Rubyhorse found themselves at an interesting turn in the road. Out on a limb in every respect, they put their heads down and just followed their hearts, sight unseen, until they eventually found their moment. They may never have reached the right place at exactly the right time but they defiantly made the most of wherever it was they found themselves. But the fact that they did so in America – in Boston, initially – in an era before social media, means that tracts of their story remain, if not entirely unreported then certainly under-represented.

Rubyhorse had just cracked the Billboard Top Twenty with the lusty single, ‘Sparkle’, before an almost inevitable outbreak of bad luck infected their camp and up-turned their curve. The premature death of their booking agent and the usual record company re-structuring – with the attendant mess this almost invariably leaves in its wake – only amplified the distance back to Cork. Rubyhorse and Boyzone may have had little ever in common but both groups know only too well the sort of fracture that can develop between even the closest of friends after years intensely spent as jobbing entertainers at close quarters.

I’ve written previously about the magic that can often occur whenever like minds get together, however implausibly or infrequently, and take on the not insignificant business of making music. And, in so doing, find emotional connections and important conversation starters that might otherwise be beyond them. So when I bumped into Joe Philpott after many years at a friend’s wedding in West Cork – what else and where else ? – where he was doing his thing as part of a terrific local guitar ensemble, the conversation was only ever going in one direction.

Joe is one of the three remaining original members of Rubyhorse alongside the band’s bass player, Declan Lucey, and its formidable frontman, Dave Farrell. Drummer Gordon Ashe, who previously bashed the biscuit tins with Burning Embers, lives these days in Newport, Massachusetts while Owen Fegan, the band’s original keyboard player, also stayed behind in America, where he’s done stints as a graphic designer for the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin magazines.

And I found it quietly uplifting to hear that the band is still thrashing away, working on new material, dropping the odd new track and even venturing out to play live the odd time. But that, far more importantly given the insanity of much of what Rubyhorse encountered in those ten years to 2007, they’re still touch-tight. Helped, no doubt, by a lack of deadlines and an absence of itineraries.

The roads that surround them might have changed beyond recognition in the years since they first took flight as callow teens but now, holding down jobs, working their own businesses and rearing families, it might be that they’ve been belatedly liberated by the routine of the real world and the spectre of responsibility. In which case that next album could well be their most thoughtful and relevant yet.

JONNY REP and BALLINCOLLIG

jonny-rep-turned-around

The suburb of Ballincollig, to the west of Cork city, is known to many because of John Spillane, the gentle Cork songwriter with a delicate hand who, on his 1996 album, ‘The Wells Of The World’, commemorated the village with two chords and a sting. ‘Johnny Don’t Go To Ballincollig’, he warned on that record’s very first line. ‘Where you always get disappointed’.

I’ve been making the ten-mile trip out from Cork city to Ballincollig, on and off, for the guts of forty years and I can’t say I’ve ever been really disappointed by it ;- not even during the frenzied New Year’s Eve I spent there fifteen years ago. But growing up in the middle of the city during the 1970s, Ballincollig may as well have been in Donegal ;- in the days long before ring roads and over-passes, it was simply out there somewhere, in the country. And yet that never stopped my mother from loyally making the journey once every season to visit her hairdresser – trading, with typical Cork notions as a ‘hair coiffeur’ – whose box-room premises were very definitely at odds with the outward ambition of the business and which were located towards the Ovens end of the main drag.

And when we’d be outside in the car, impatient and restless, waiting for her perm to fully set, my father would turn to me and suggest that Ovens, a truly mad place down the road, was the most appropriate spot in Cork in which to locate a crematorium, if anyone were clued-in or daring enough.

The Cork-based promoter Denis Desmond –not to be confused with his more high-profile, hirsute and alpha namesake – launched a nationwide competition for school bands in 1989 and I regularly fetched up all over Munster to help out with the judging. It was a laudable and naïve under-taking, and certainly not something from which a coin was turned easily but, for me, it was a cost-effective way to catch the best and worst of what was going on inside some of Ireland’s most addled adolescent minds. And it was on this beat one Saturday afternoon that, in a musty old hall on The Crescent in Limerick city, that I first heard, and was quickly captivated by, the competition’s eventual winners :- The Hitchers. Their first single, ‘There’s A Bomb In That Basket Of Fruit’, was recorded as part of their prize for taking the spoils on a memorable final night in Connolly Hall in Cork in March, 1990.

During one of the competition’s earlier heats out in Ballincollig Community School the previous winter, the premises was put under siege by a group of tooled-up young toughs half-way through. After a couple of local goth bands struggled through their sets, the building was put into lockdown and the production crew was sped out of the village under Garda escort. I was back in The Long Valley on Winthrop Street in good time for last orders and had, for a change, a genuine story to impart to those in the upstairs bar. And in that story, the bands I toiled through earlier that evening were way less memorable than the cider-fuelled carry-on around the school grounds.

It was Denis Desmond who first turned me onto The Outside, a reluctant five-piece from Ballincollig with smart, poppy fingers and a keen touch who quickly became one of my favourite local bands during the late 1980s. The name captured them perfectly :- Francis Ford Copolla’s 1983 teen film, ‘The Outsiders’, betrayed their references while, in the same breath, summed up how they saw themselves, cut adrift in what was still a developing suburb away from the thrust and noise ten miles back along the road. I made a point of seeing The Outside whenever I could, most memorably in The Cork Opera House as part of a three-night showcase for new bands that Denis also ran, and where they were as good as they’d ever become. They picked up a couple of handy supports along the way too and I really thought they had genuine potential. They were a work in progress, of course, but their canny pop songs displayed a real grasp of the fundamentals and hinted at a frame of reference broad enough to keep them interesting and arresting. And I was sorry to see them pack it in so shortly afterwards ;- another band poisoned forever by the public shift of death I’d given them.

Some of their number fetched-up thereafter in a handful of other, more boisterous guitar bands – Semi, Fred -before eventually putting down roots as LMNO Pelican, who deviated from the family line and were a dirtier, slightly more skewed indie concern. The Pelicans became a prominent adjunct on the comet ridden by both The Frank And Walters and The Sultans Of Ping during the stellar period between 1990 and 1995 but may have been unfairly lost in the supervoid that briefly surrounded it. I’ve written previously about the band’s spiritual leader and pulse, it’s late drummer, Brendan Butler, and it was because of him– and his overwhelmingly positive view of life and music – that myself and Mick Finnegan, one of the many unheralded figures at the heart of Cork’s music scene from post-punk onwards – ended up together on the producer’s settee when LMNO Pelican entered Elm Tree Studios on Cork’s Mardyke in 1993 to record their second E.P.


They’d already made a considerable dent with their debut, the excellent four-tracker, ‘Boutros Boutros’, from which ‘Call Yossarian’ – in the spirit of the feistier Dublin guitar bands from a decade previously, The Slowest Clock in particular – was a particular stand-out and a signal of real intent.

For years afterwards I wondered if Mick and myself just made a proper hames of the follow-up and that, far from enhancing the band’s sound, had actually sucked the spirit from them ? But ‘Red Dot’ E.P. still means the world to me :- I certainly knew what we wanted to do on those four songs even if, to this day, I’m still not entirely sure where most of the bottom end went during the mixdown ? There are some terrific flicks, hooks and licks on that record, many of them provided by Fergus [Gus] Keane, the Pelican’s ace guitarist who, even then, was already an honours graduate of the Tom Verlaine/Graham Coxon school of icing. And I’ll still pull that record from the racks the odd time and get a rare thrill from ‘Wangley Dan’ and ‘Chalkey Gods’, recalling a terrific couple of weeks during which we panel-beat the record into shape and laid it down, plotting the harmony lines, adding cello parts and working up the shapes as we went.


The core of that band – Pats, Fergus and Derry – can be found these days scaffolding Jonny Rep, the best constituent parts of The Outside, Semi and The Pelicans compounded, basically, and then lacquered with an urgent, riffy finish. These days they’re joined in the vanguard by a pair of strays from two other prominent Cork outfits, Niall Lynch from The Shanks and Dave Senior from Rulers of The Planet and, dragging it all together from behind the mixing desk, Ciaran O’Shea who, with his brother, Declan, founded and led the ambitious [and very noisy] Cyclefly who, for a spell, briefly threatened a serious international breakthrough fifteen or so years back. From his Whitewell Studio, outside of Cloyne in East Cork, Ciaran certainly knows how to create a formidable wall of guitar sound [and where to locate the bottom end] and Jonny Rep’s records sound absolutely vast. For the sake of easy reference, they’re like an indie Traveling Wilburys trading Ride-style blows on every single line.

I hadn’t heard from them for years until, out of the blue, they posted up Jonny Rep’s excellent and frightfully under-rated debut album, which was released back in 2010. And the tidy hand-written note that accompanied it – not begging favours, just bearing best wishes – is typical of how they’ve always conducted themselves. I was delighted to hear from them and even more excited to hear that they were all still at it, decades later, and with the same sort of zest they had back when they were younger, leaner and dreamier. Maybe it’s just another aspect of the cycle of life manifesting itself but there’s something keenly reassuring about friends sticking the distance through the decades, refuelling at various points in the road, driving on, with music to keep them in good spirits and to occupy their conversations.


These days, they tell me, they might get together in the rehearsal room whenever the mood takes them, no pressure, and riff it out until they’ve made a forward stride or two. They may make another record down the line or they may not. They may play an odd live show, they may undertake a short tour, who knows ? But what’s clear is that the twin spectres of disappointment and failure that overhang all bands of a certain age have, in this case, long given way to perspective and priority. It’s a freedom that’s evident in the music :- Jonny Rep have never sounded stronger, more cohesive or better.

Today, the band formally releases it’s second album, ‘Cold Sunbeam’, even if none of us are entirely sure what a formal release actually means anymore beyond, one suggests, a line in a Google group calendar. Yes, there’ve been a couple of positive notices, a steady increase in airplay, the odd radio appearance and a couple of soft pieces in the local papers but beyond that, one suspects, it’s more about a quiet, singular satisfaction at just squaring something special away, boxed off. And, once again it’s a very physical, confident record that, over the course of it’s nine formidable tracks, flouts it’s influences like it
detonates it’s riffs ;- early, often and to real effect. Added marks to, of course, to any band that references one of Blackpool’s most historic industrial landmarks in it’s album title.

Maintaining a long link – especially strong in Cork circles – between the indie set and football, the band is named to within a missing letter ‘h’ after the mercurial Dutch winger [is there any other kind ?] who played in – and lost – two World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978. Johnny Rep is another in that far-reaching line of footballers who played as fast and loose off the pitch as he did on it even if he is still, to his credit, one of the few players to have admitted to taking amphetamines during a career that was also pock-marked by a battle with booze.

In a curious reversal of stereotype, I can’t imagine Jonny Rep breaking out the whizz in the rehearsal room anytime soon in order to gain a sly competitive edge on an unsuspecting opposition. And they’ve also come far enough and through enough to know that ‘Cold Sunbeam’ won’t get them gold-plated status at Mar-A-Lago. But there comes a point when gentle genius lies in the most obvious and simple things :- like respecting life in the slow lane. And Jonny Rep have that in spades.

‘Cold Sunbeam’ is released today, February 24th, 2017, on Jonny Rep’s own label, Wangley Dan Records, and comes highly recommended.

BRILLIANT TREES LIVE IN DUBLIN, 2016

 

Twenty years ago, when Brilliant Trees were hot to trot, good to go and had just released their formidable debut album, ‘Friday Night’, Dublin were reigning All-Ireland senior football champions and Charlie Redmond, of Erin’s Isle and East Finglas, finally had his just reward. If Jason Sherlock had taken the sport by the throat with a drop of his callow shoulder, a tearaway’s slalom and a poacher’s eye to become Gaelic football’s most sellable asset, Redmond was Dublin’s battle-worn pillager, a rounded foil to the swagger of youth, the static in the flow.

 

They celebrated that 1995 All-Ireland win long and hard out in West Dublin. The Erin’s Isle club, located in deepest Finglas, also provided Mick Deegan and Keith Barr to the spine of that side ;- like Redmond, they were, as you’d expect, cut from durable stuff, seldom beaten. And so it’s apt that, on a night when the city centre is as vibrant as I’ve ever seen it on the eve of an All-Ireland final – and during another period marked by the dominance of a Dublin side playing cavalier football  – that Brilliant Trees have re-marshalled their forces and, as they used to do routinely over the years, taken over a small part of town. Theirs has always been a loud and partisan travelling support and, years since they last assembled so formally anywhere, they’re in from the suburbs and out once again in numbers tonight.

 

I’ve written previously about Brilliant Trees and about how, never too showy or overly complicated, they were such a consistent, classy and, in their own way, unusual presence around a scene that burst into life in Ireland’s regions after the World Cup in 1990 and that soon caught fire elsewhere. Physically lean, politically sussed and as principled as would allow, Brilliant Trees weren’t at all out of place on the Cork Rock bill at Sir Henry’s in 1991 where they shared a standing with the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Therapy?, Toasted Heretic, The I.R.S., Lir and The Sultans of Ping. And while it possibly took them longer to find their sea-legs and to realise the full range of their gift, their two albums, 1996’s ‘Friday Night’ and 2000’s ‘Wake Up And Dream’, rank as two of the purest – if slow-burning – Irish pop records of the period. Even if, in keeping with much of the rest of their story, they rarely feature in histories and lists, even those compiled in – and about – their own backyards.

 

Throughout their various exiles, I always felt that The Trees had plenty of business left unfinished and much left unsaid. In direct knock-out, the scoring systems just didn’t suit their style which, casually and at times naively, blended orthodox with southpaw. Many other, far lesser contenders from that period seemed to just glide the canvas a bit easier, skipping in and out of trouble, cross-punching a bit more readily. And there’s only so far and so wide a positive outward face will stretch when it dawns that the music industry is far more about the vagaries and the unreliability of the industry and far less about the regular detonation of the music. So little wonder then that, after one pointless blow-to- the- head too many, Brilliant Trees, however reluctantly, heeded the pleading from their corner and, heads bowed, walked away from the ring.

 

 

On the not inconsiderable matter of winning and winners, you’ll often hear sports psychologists mention how some of the most remarkable victors from across all walks of life are often utterly unknown. About how, away from the numbers and the footlights, personal victories are routinely achieved in all sorts of conditions and against all manner of difficulty, often determined by exceptional individual circumstance. And so, simply by walking on and out in front of a sold-out Grand Social crowd, comprised largely of the familiar faces of long-time friends, acquaintances and ultras, Brilliant Trees have already nailed it. With a meaty set pulled largely from the two albums and popped at the turn by a track or two from a new, forthcoming record, they sound as familiar, welcome and warm as they did during their first flush. Augmented by a steel rod in their backbone – Dave Morrissey on keys, Tony Brerton on drums and, for a magical fifteen minutes in the middle order, Ciarán Kavanagh on guitar – it’s re-assuring to see them with real weight on. While Alan, Tony and Sid look as lean and as fit as they did in their early publicity shots from decades ago, their sound, as you’d maybe expect, has wintered well, way more full-bodied.  Musically, they’re packing a middle-aged spread and they’re looking terrific on it.

 

From the reluctant shuffle of the opener, ‘Like You A Lot, Love You A Little’ to the down-beat closer, ‘Home’, and in around the familiar, powerful verges of a canon in which  ‘Take Me Away’, ‘Talent’, ‘Let It All Go’, ‘Heartstrings’, ‘Who Hurts Most’ and ‘In Your Dreams’ sound Especially ageless, The Trees know that now, definitively, they can park their anxieties. There was a time tonight when, with Ciarán adding a third guitar, they replicated the current Trash Can Sinatras line-up in tone and style as well as in physical heft. And while the more direct, less subtle end of the catalogue nods to far more familiar influences – The Smiths, Ride, Blur – the current single, ‘I Know, I Know’ is in far less of a hurry and, smooth and unforced, suggests that, what’s coming down the line could yet be the most beguiling phase of of what’s been a long and colourful journey.

 

 

And so, more confidently on their own terms than ever previously, Brilliant Trees are back. But for how long and for how far, who knows ? And does it matter ? No. The forthcoming record will maintain their momentum and give them a fresh wind, for sure. But tonight its enough to simply see them go for it so instinctively, taking the first, nervy step back out onto the dancefloor. Re-born, renewed.

 

 

TEENAGE PUNKS FROM PLANET SEXY LOVE

 

Guest post from Mick O’Dwyer,  a former Teenage Punk, who now works as a librarian in the European Parliamentary Research Service in Brussels, and is one of the dedicated team behind the Forgotten Zine Archive in Dublin

Certain bands are inevitably linked with certain times of your life, and for me the noughties were knotted with the Sultans of Ping FC. While I would love to describe seeing singer Niall O’Flaherty get punched in the face in that infamous Limerick gig (“Good evening stab city”), or the time an unknown band called Radiohead supported the Sultans in ‘92, I cannot. I wasn’t there in Cork in the early days, never saw them in Sir Henry’s or had to make a ‘Blur or Oasis’ choice between them and the Frank and Walters.

So then, why the Sultans of Ping? Sure don’t they only sing about jumpers and Japanese girls?

Well, Galway has been responsible for many a strange life choice and it was there my obsession with the Sultans began. Like any Irish person I’ve always loved ‘Where’s me Jumper’. It’s a classic. Even your granny probably likes it! But my gateway drug into the Sultans was their second album “Teenage Drug”. I moved to Galway in 2004, and lived in a share house with four friends from Naas. None of us were doing much at the time; I was working in an Ice rink, getting paid to ice skate around and pick people up when they fell over. It was in this atmosphere of apathy that my friend Paul handed me a copy of Teenage Drug on tape. The punchy drum beat! The punky guitars! Niall shrieking “all the teenage punks come from planet-sexy-love”! It was ridiculous, and cool, and from the first blast of ‘Teenage Punks’ I was hooked. Listening to it now it’s not the greatest album of all time. The band had dropped the FC from their name, and tried to be a bit more serious. But it had something about it that kept making me hit the rewind button on my Walkman. If Teenage Drug was the gateway, it was not until I heard their debut album, Casual Sex in the Cineplex, that I was hooked.

Casual Sex in the Cineplex is a masterpiece. With the exception of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, or Van Morrisson’s Astral Weeks, I don’t think there’s a better Irish album. Cast in the same mould as the first three Ramones albums, every song on it could be a single. Equal measures sneering and insulting, hilarious and fun, it’s effortlessly catchy. No matter where I am in the world if I see a record store I immediately go to the second hand “S” section, and search for a copy on vinyl. I’ve looked for it in Berlin and Bangkok, in Wellington and Reykjavik and have yet to find it (I was given a copy as a Christmas present last year by a cheat who went online).

I think it’s often overlooked what good songwriters the Sultans were. Somehow they managed to write lyrics that were really intelligent in a really juvenile way. It’s because of the humour in their songs that they are often dismissed as a novelty act, or lumped in with the likes of Neds Atomic Dustbin. This is a travesty. They wrote perfect, pop-punk songs, without sounding like Blink 182!   Their lyrics could be funny;

“When we were young we would go pill popping dear, we’d be pill popping thought there was no stopping dear, we’d be pill popping thought there was no stopping dear, but right now I think I’d rather go shopping dear” (Let’s go shopping)

touching ;

“Saturday afternoon and I’m drinking with the guys, thinking of the day’s results and your lovely eyes”; (Two pints of Raza)

Insulting;

“And now I know you better well I’ve come to one conclusion, eight out of ten of your best friends deserve electrocution”. (Michiko)

They even had a song made of quotes Brian Clough said about his son Nigel;

He’s a nice young man, he has a lovely smile”! (Give him a ball and a yard of grass)

My current favourite lyric of theirs is when they evoke the spirit of the Reverend Martin Luther King to rally against the scourge of modern society – football being played on astro-turf pitches;

“It’s living in peace in harmony, it’s a holiday for referees, cause I’ve got a dream. Society without a class, where all of football’s played on grass, cause I’ve got a dream” (No More Plastic Pitches)

The Sultans reformed in 2005 and needless to say I was excited about seeing them. They announced a show at a festival in Berlin and myself and 3 friends headed over specifically to see them. The whole trip was a disaster! We missed our flight, we lost our wallets, and fell asleep in some of the dingiest ditches in Berlin! It was one of the greatest holiday’s I’ve ever had.

They played at a really weird, hokey little festival, located on a farm a half an hour outside the city. The whole festival seemed like something from the mind of David Lynch! There was a petting zoo beside the main stage, and every now and again, mid song, you would hear a peacock screeching. At night, the dance tent turned into a spontaneous football match, with points being scored for who could hit the DJ in the head with a football. In a line-up filled with tripe like the Klaxons, the Sultans arrived on stage like a whirlwind! Personified by Niall O’Flaherty’s Iggy Pop/Lux Interior like berating of the crowd, he seemed to glee in provoking the audience into some sort of a reaction. The predominately German audience looked like it had been slapped in the face, and they loved it! Or at least I did.

After the gig the we ended up chatting with the band, who seemed a bit shocked that four twenty something year olds would travel all the way to Berlin to see them, when they were already well past their peak. My friend Paul piped up told them we only went “cause we heard the Sultan’s of Ping were really shit and we wanted to see for ourselves”. Niall O’ Flaherty then put his arm around Paul, looked at me and said “Look after your friend… he’s a bit weird isn’t he?”

I still laugh about that today!

Following that show being a Sultan’s fan became like supporting a football club, we went to home and away games. I saw them in Whelan’s, lying on a beer stained, broken glass covered floor, kicking my legs in the air for Turnip Fish, and at the Mantua festival in Roscommon, when a member of the crowed drove a tractor into the dance tent. I was at their return gig in Limerick “it’s good to be back in stab city”; when they supported Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine in Brixton Academy, and when they played a squat in Amsterdam.

I kept hoping they would play Tokyo.

We joined the online Sultans fan forum – Shimmy Shammey Sultans, a melting pot of Sultans nerds (like myself) who would go to all their gigs. It was populated by people with unusual monikers like ‘Hairy Vince’, ‘Gary Coleman’ and ‘Deirdre Barlow’. At gigs you might sheepishly ask the person beside you “so, umm, what’s your shimmy shammy sultan’s name?”. I downloaded all their early B-sides (which are incredible), and listened to them to death, even giving a copy of them to a bemused Noel Fielding. At one stage I was working as an extra on the TV series the Tudors. On a break between takes I spotted Maria Doyle Kennedy and made a b-line for her. As she was pouring herself a cup of coffee I clumsily saddled up beside her and blurted out “hi Hi Maria… emm… you’re a big Sultans of Ping fan aren’t you?”. She almost choked on her coffee before gasping “How.Do.You… know that?”

After a few years the reunion seemed to be fizzling out. Much like their albums, the initial burst of excitement had passed, and the band seemed to be enjoying it less and less. They released a new single “Girl Watching” in 2007. While it’s fun to hear live, it paled in comparison to any of their early stuff. In 2010 I saw them play a gig in London. There were rumours in the crowd that the end was nigh, and they really didn’t seem that interested to be there. In a way I was kind of glad. I needed a break too.

I moved to Australia shortly after the gig and it would be four years before I saw them again. I sometimes went weeks without listening to Casual Sex.

Though the band didn’t split up, they did start to play fewer and fewer gigs. In 2014 The Sultans announced they were playing in Cypress Avenue in Cork, the same week I had tickets to see a reformed Jesus and Mary Chain in Dublin. The JAMC played one of the worst gigs I ever attended. They fought onstage, songs broke down mid song, and they looked like they could care less. After that debacle I was a little apprehensive about seeing the Sultans. I’d seen one over the hill reformed act, I really didn’t want to go to Cork to see another. But I did go, and my fears were unfounded. The Sultans were incredible, and I was transported back to when I lived on Dyke Road in Galway, listening to Teenage Drug on tape in heavy rotation.

I don’t know what the future holds for the Sultans. They will probably never have their picture on the Button Factory’s Irish ‘Rock N’Roll’ wall of fame, or top the Irish Times greatest Irish albums of all-time list. They will probably pack it in soon, but I don’t care. Some of the best nights of my life have been spent listening to the Sultans of Ping. Now, let’s all lie on the ground, kick our feet in the air and sing …

“I’m the kind of fish who likes to do my own thing,

I like to rock and roll with the Sultans of Ping,

All the other fish don’t understand,

The Sultans of Ping are my favourite band”